Maisa takes to Epione’s McMansion in less than a day. She flits between the rooms, closing doors and opening them, exploring each bathroom and marveling that this one is red and that one has swirly tiles, and that one has the largest shower she’s ever seen. She studies carefully the games that Epione and Drone play together, and she watches Flashfire and Remise spar each other in the backyard.
Kids and teenagers always hit a soft spot in my heart. I’m happy just to watch her be a kid, considering that only days ago she was a product in the back of a box truck.
“What is this painting?” Maisa asks, pointing at a portrait of a strange woman in a blue hair-dress staring out at the viewer over Epione’s grand staircase. When I don’t have an answer for her, Maisa moves on quickly, diving down to the lounging couches in the main lobby of the house, pretend-fanning herself like some pampered noble.
“Who are you?” Maisa asks me as I descend the stairs after her.
“Gabe,” I answer.
“No, I mean…” Maisa pauses and considers her next words. “You told me your name, but you did not tell me who you are. I don’t know Gabe besides his name.”
“Me neither.” I sit next to her on the couch. “I’m not sure how to answer that.”
“Where were you born?” Maisa asks.
“In a lab. In a vat.”
“What did you do when you were a kid?”
“I read a lot of Time’s Magazine.” I remember flipping through the different covers, seeing the one they wrote about the arrival of superpowers, and the one about Foundation and how they saved the American continents from the Anarchy.
“I’ve never read Time’s Magazine,” Maisa says. “Did you have any brothers or sisters?”
The faces of my fellow clones pop into my head and I start to feel the separation between my body and myself. “Yeah. Brothers. The girls… they didn’t let them grow beyond fetuses.”
“What happened to them?” Maisa asks.
I can’t answer that question. But Maisa understands. She understands almost immediately. Maisa knows she and I are two of a kind in that regard, that we’ve both lost the only true family we had. Her brow knits and her lips purse and she shakes her head once. “I’m sorry.”
We fall silent together, not awkward, not melancholic, just… together. She’s a cool kid.
“How long have you been in the States?” I ask.
“Not long. Not long before… before Pandahead,” Maisa looks up. “What all is there, here?”
“You fled Syria, right?” I ask.
“Well, there isn’t an occupation,” I say. “There’s ice cream and Captain Crunch. Captain Crunch is amazing.”
“I don’t know why I would like a crunchy captain,” Maisa says. “But I have had ice cream before.”
“Pancakes. There are pancakes.”
“Is there only food in the UWC?” Maisa asks.
“No. There’s places to go, people to see. There’s the capes and OPI.” I think about all of the stuff I’ve seen since I got out of the lab. “There’s Doc.”
“Who’s Doc?” Maisa asks.
“Doc is… Doc is…” How do I explain my relationship with Doc? “Doc is the man that saved me from the lab. Kind of like an uncle to me.”
“I see. I like him.” Maisa grins at me, patting her knees, looking pleased.
I chuckle. “That’s because you haven’t met him.”
“Can I?” Maisa asks.
“Meet Doc? You should keep your head low,” I say. “We all should. We were on the news.”
“But I don’t think I know you yet, Gabe. You saved me and I want to know why.”
I could show her the ways I walk. I could show her the city I see at night jumping between rooftops. Those are the times I feel most alive and most myself. “How about we meet Doc and I show you who I am on the way?”
Night falls and I bring Maisa with me to the living room, where the rest of the Underground is gathered. Flashfire massages Epione’s shoulders while she plays a fighting game with Drone, and Remise sips scotch and watches on.
“Does anyone mind if I steal our informant?” I ask.
Flashfire whirls around and points finger guns at me. “What?”
“Maisa wants to meet Doc.” I neglect to mention the leaping around the city beforehand part. Maisa might give us away, though. She bounces and vibrates in excitement. It’s a very quick turnaround from the girl I found cowering in the warehouse, but she might be one of those people that processes trauma very fast, or processes by moving on to more exciting things. Not sure if that last one is healthy, but who am I to judge healthy processing techniques? King of them, I am not.
Flashfire rubs his jaw. “Yeah. Okay. Don’t let anything happen to her, okay? And try to stick to back roads.”
I nod and cross my fingers behind my back.
A few minutes later, I’m masked and jacketed again, Maisa is piggybacked on my shoulders, and we launch through the sparse woods and McMansion yards guided by my night vision. Maisa gasps as hot air shoots from my body with each bound. I’m very careful that the heat inside me does not burn her. I may be immune to temperature but I know she isn’t.
We sail past a frat party, Maisa laughs and stretches her hand out toward the partiers beneath us, and one of them grins and thumbs up as we soar by. Maisa cackles in my ear.
I launch and spin us in the air with kinetic energy, and we rise on warm currents of air into the city bramble of Houston, where I bounce around the buildings and rooftops while Maisa cheers and clings to me as tight as she can. Together we zip through the urban jungle. For an instant, I am suspended in the bright amber of car lights beneath and skyscraper lights above, all I can hear is Maisa’s laughter and the thrumming of Houston’s heart, the smell of asphalt and burning rubber, the feel of summer night on my skin and energy welled inside me.
There are few moments where I feel absolutely in tune with my body and this is one of them, ferrying this young girl through the city by kinetically bounding my way back to Doc’s apartment.
The Third Ward’s a mess of concrete, fluorescence, and poverty. Shells of apartment buildings crowd around the streets like homeless folk gathered around a fire. In the cracks between those there are stalls and food trucks, slapped together out of scraps to make less than a hundred bucks a day slinging food at people. Liquor shops and other vices fill decaying strip centers with lit-up signs that should come with an epilepsy warning. The ambient noise of cars, sky-trains, and hundreds of thousands of poor people bored out of their mind fills the air. I’m supposed to be used to the smell by now, they say.
Maisa notices the shift in mood between the bright downtown and the Third Ward. She sniffs and I can’t help my chuckle as she finds out what the city streets actually smell like when you aren’t soaring above them. Like sewers soaked in beer and piss.
Doc’s apartment complex is no different than the others: sad, old, about twenty stories high, sheer concrete covered in signs advertising who knows what. Maisa wrinkles her nose at the complex. “Doc lives here?”
“Technically, so do I,” I say. “But I bounce back and forth between here and Epione’s place.”
“I would only stay at Epione’s place.”
I snort a laugh. “Be nice. Doc’s a good guy and he’s done a lot with the place. A lot more than a place like this deserves.” We climb the stairs to the third floor, find apartment 387, and I unlock the door so we can get inside.
Our living room’s way more cozy than the outside lets on. Warm, orange light mixes with the gentle hum of our TV, we have soft, leather couches that you sink into, and Doc knows his way around decor. He scrounged everything here from online listings, garage sales, and thrift stores. The only truly fancy item we have is our oak coffee table. Doc sits alone in one of those leather couches, sinking into the cushion and watching a K-drama.
“Hey, Doc. I brought a friend.”
Doc scratches his cheek and turns to face me. Doc was an old man when I first met him, so very long ago in the facility I called home, so by now, he’s basically hugging his tombstone. His eyes have bags, his hair is thin and white, and his mouth is capable of nothing more than a scowl. Each year of his life put a deep wrinkle somewhere in his saggy face, so he’s like some sort of angry Droopy Dog.
“Saw you on the news, Home Run.” He leans into the name just like Drone did. “At least they didn’t see what you were capable of.”
“I was already burnt out,” I say. “I almost-” I shut my mouth. If I tell him about the bullet wounds he’ll try to take them. “I found this girl, Maisa. She’s helping us take down Pandahead.”
Doc studies Maisa. “Hello. Thank you for looking after my idiot.”
Maisa stifles a laugh. “He is not that dumb.”
“Only because you haven’t known him very long. He’ll get dumber.” Doc rises from his chair like an ancient mummy and shambles over to greet me. The only sharp part of him is his glare, which falls on the bandaging around my arm, and the lumps under my shirt hiding the other bandages. “How bad are they?”
I try to wave him off. “Don’t trouble yourself. They’re not bad-”
Doc cuts me off by seizing my hand. His eyes widen. “You got shot? Three times!” Doc swats at my forearm. “You stupid… fuck…”
I rip my hand free with a small burst of kinetic energy. “Hey, Doc, back off. There’s nothing to trouble yourself over. Epione already clotted the wounds.”
Maisa doesn’t look like she knows how to handle this argument.
Doc grumbles and leaves me alone, retreating to his post in the living room. “Why’d you bring her here?”
“She wanted to meet you.” I look down at her, rubbing my wrist where Doc snatched it. There’s no pain but I can’t help it. Feels like my dad just slapped me around a little.
Doc reclines into the couch and fumbles with the TV remote to unmute his late-night Korean drama. I wish I knew what to say to him, sometimes.
“I don’t like this Home Run stuff,” Doc says at last. “It could draw too much attention to you. You could stop this mask stuff altogether. Could just date somebody. Or get a hobby. For my sake.”
I struggle not to scoff and roll my eyes. “Yes, because girls are just tripping over themselves to be with the social black hole of a guy who came out of a vat and learned his ABC’s from people with seven Ph.D.’s and got most of his culture education in the form of Time Magazine’s greatest hits.”
Doc doesn’t say anything after that, content to watch his drama. There’s a gulf between us I don’t know how to cross.
I lead Maisa to my room. It’s not anything special. There’s no decorations or stuff, just a bed, a desk covered in books, and a dresser. A closet full of used clothes. Plain as can be.
Maisa eyes my books. She picks at the pile, pulls a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and skims through it before giving up and setting it back down. “He said you would draw too much attention to yourself. Did he mean because you’re Megajoule’s clone?”
I sit down on my bed and nod, and shrug. That’s about all the truth there is to it.
Maisa pauses and looks like she wants to say more.
I wave my hand. “Out with it.”
“Did you ever meet him? Did he ever say anything to you?” she asks.
“I did, once. Through a window. So, actually, no. Not really.” I shake my head. “But he did have lots to say to me. He left me videos. Vlogs, diaries, whatever. They were supposed to help me.”
“Did they?” Maisa ask.
“Not really.” I look down at my boots, notice the lace is undone, and fix that.
“Jesus, kid, you come out of the womb with a crowbar?” I ask.
Maisa snickers, which slowly dies into a sad chuckle, and her face sags into a melancholy. “Mom always said that I put my nose in too many things.” She sinks into my desk chair, her shoulders slumped, her head hanging. “He took everything from me.”
I can’t help but see my brothers in her place. Just kids with their lives stolen from them. No powers, they were liquidated. I’m the only one left. “We’ll get him. I’ll get him.” I stand up and rifle under my bed until I find my laptop, and pop that down on the desk in front of her. “Look. I’ll show you a video. One. And you’ll see why I don’t watch them anymore.”
Maisa gets a kiddish flash of excitement, but she tempers herself and gives me a solemn nod instead. I open the laptop, open the folder on my desktop that says Megajoule Vlogs, and find the video I gave up on. “This isn’t easy to watch.”
The Megajoule in this video is the antithesis to the Megajoule the world saw. The world saw a bright, composed Superman who always had it under control, who always saved the day, and who always had a smile on.
This Megajoule? Unkempt stubble, his short hair matted. Deep bags under his eyes. He scowls at the camera as the video starts.
“I… uh… Gabe…” He falls silent. Then he taps his chin and looks up, lost in thought. Maisa stares at him, but glances at me, probably to do a quick comparison. “You… they tell me you’re doing well, in the physical examinations.” He stops and looks away from the camera, his expression dour. “I don’t know how old you are now that you’re watching this… but you probably don’t have a father figure or anything like that in your life. I just want you to know that no matter what you do or what you become, whether you even master these lessons they make me give to you, I’m proud of you. ”
There’s a hole inside me. My throat tightens and tears well in my eyes, and I feel guilty that part of me despises him. I wish I’d known him. I really wish I did.
“That probably sounds masturbatory to an onlooker, considering we are the same person. But…” He looks straight at me, through the camera. “We’re not, are we? You and I are different people. I’m Julian, Megajoule. You’re Gabe. I want you to find your own path. If that’s as a hero, and I imagine it will be if you’re anything like your old man, then do it. Chase it. Whatever your heart wants, Gabe, all I want you to do is reach out and seize that. Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.” He coughs, and his cheeks glisten with tears. “I’m a very big fan of an old scientist and orator named Carl Sagan, from the 20th century.” He pulls out a little notebook from under the table. “I wrote down a few of his quotes that I’d like to share with you.”
He clears his throat and continues. “For as long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.”
Maisa tilts her head, utterly enchanted by the man on the screen.
Megajoule turns the page in his notebook. “And this quote as well: If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” He shudders and puts the book away. Clearly, these quotes moved him. “I beg you, question with courage, and plunge deep to find answers. Whatever path you walk, do so with a healthy mind. Do it with a clear heart. That is how we become worthy. That’s how you fight the fear-”
A man’s voice cuts through Megajoule’s monologue like a knife. He stops, gasps, and looks beyond the camera. He shakes his head, and the video ends.
I close my laptop. “I stopped watching his videos because I realized that he wasn’t the one calling the shots. He wasn’t the stalwart hero everyone thought he was.”
“What is the fear?” Maisa asks.
I shrug. I know very little about Megajoule’s real life. “Dunno who the guy cutting him off was, either.”
“Are there more videos?” Maisa asks.
“Will you watch them?”
I put my laptop back under the bed and cover the gap with the blanket, intent on burying the computer for as long as I can. “No.”
“I’ve seen all I need to.”
But in truth, I’m afraid of those videos.