I let Maisa sleep in my bed while I tell her I’ll claim the couch. I don’t plan on getting any sleep tonight, actually. I grab my back-up jacket from the closet – a letterman baseball jacket, how hilarious – and step out into the living room, where Doc still watches TV.
“Where are you headed?” Doc asks, turning his attention briefly from his drama.
“Out,” I say.
Doc grunts, and I leave.
I’m not quite sure where I’m headed. I just want to help, somehow. There’s a piece of me that wants to be like Megajoule; to take flight into the sky and set people’s fears at ease. Another part of me wants nothing to do with him. I don’t want to be defined by who he was. I want to be myself. But lately, I wonder if I’m even a good person. Maisa called OPI’s purpose for me blasphemous. Is that what I am? A blasphemy?
I’m scared, too, I guess. As scared as the internet arm-chair commentators. As scared as this city. As scared as the world.
So I go looking for something to distract from the fear. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and if I keep my head down and my schedule full, I don’t have time to wonder if I have a soul or not. I only have time to help other people.
I vault up roofs until I’m staring at the blazing, beating heart of Houston, at her veins filled with the warm glow of cars and sky-rail trains, of her cells waltzing around the streets. Downtown is a paradise. The OPI tower presides over this warm utopia, a huge glass and steel brick of a building. Heroes from the different teams appear on the side of the tower. Krater, Houston’s most famous hero, and leader of the Houston Heroes team. He’s a huge dude, with the mass of at least three bodybuilders.
Bedevil appears after him, and she looks almost stern. Recent photo op, I guess. There’s a soft sadness in her eyes and a tension in her jaw. Despite that, I imagine the people walking around downtown feel safe with her image over them.
And then they parade Megajoule’s face out on the screen, with his trademark slogan: Reach, Dream, Strive, Become. As if those words are simple branding to slap on whatever. As if they don’t mean something desperate and heroic.
Outside of the bright downtown streets, Houston is dark. The buildings rise up to meet the skyscrapers at the center of everything like a gentle slope that rolls out to the Loop trussing the entire inner city up into one package. There are no bright capes on the sides of skyscrapers there and there never will be. The dark belongs to the masks, be they vigilante or villain.
I hold my mask in hand. I turn the name Home Run over and over again in my mind. I’ve never had a mask name. I’ve never had a name that I felt like I owned. But what if I did? What if I built this Home Run person into a hero like Megajoule? What if people whispered my name and waited for the baseball jacket to show up and save them from trouble?
The line of questions fogs my mind and puts that familiar distance between my ghost and my body. Maisa’s questions turn in my brain along with the name Home Run, dirty laundry rattling around in a busted washing machine. Am I just a sum of questions? If I answer them, will I disappear?
The name and the mask give me form. I climbed these buildings as Gabe, maskless and formless, and when I descend down into the dark of outer Houston, I descend as Home Run.
“Drone? You up?” I ask.
The watch buzzes to life and Drone’s voice fills my ears. “What’s up? I thought you were watching out for Maisa.”
“She’s asleep at my apartment. I thought I’d do a little scouting out and see if I can’t put some faces to some gangs. How about that Dresden group?” I ask. “Oh, don’t tell Flashfire. I’m not planning on getting into any fights.”
Drone grumbles. “You know I should tell him.”
“Come on, between work spouses? We’re just gonna take a look.”
“Fine,” Drone says. “But only if you just take a look. If you pick up any heat, figuratively or literally, I’m going to tell them.”
“I can work with that. What do we have on Dresden?”
“A rag-tag group of masks with fire based or explosive powers,” Drone says. “And a tasteless name. They actually have a hideout near East Downtown. Flashfire and Remise were going to go scout it out tomorrow.”
“Tell them not to bother. Fire and explosions I can do.” A small map displays on the inside of my goggle, placed there by Drone’s power. She projects her mind into networks and machines, and as such, she can see through my goggles and watch.
“Lead the way,” Drone says.
I follow Drone’s map into East Downtown. It’s a small tangle of warehouses, abandoned garages, and town-homes and apartment complexes nestled just outside of the heart of Houston, and because of that, it’s almost permanently cast in painfully sharp light. How the people that live here ever get a wink of sleep, I don’t know.
Dresden’s hideout seems to be a small dive wedged between two of these warehouses. I see a dude and a lady chatting each other up by a street lamp and kissing up on each other. “Are those posted guards?” I ask Drone.
“Hang on, running facial recognition.” The watch goes dark for a moment. I watch the couple get hot and heavy, and get a little embarrassed before Drone’s voice returns. “They’ve both got rap sheets, and one of them’s definitely with Dresden. I’d bet both of them.”
“Nice act. I’m almost convinced.” I crouch down on the roof and let Drone scan the hideout. “Any heat sigs?”
“The whole place is too hot to pick anything out,” Drone says. “It’s like the house itself is on fire.”
“Hold up, there’s somebody else,” Drone says.
My goggles light up with a reticle that shows me another figure moving along the roofs. They jump across the gaps between the buildings with ease, spinning and flipping a lot like I do while I use kinetic energy. They careen off the edge of the gang’s hideout, switch direction mid-air like they’re swinging on a rope, and yo-yo down at the two lovers/gangbangers. The light betrays a red jacket and a white mask before all three disappear into the shadows again, yanked up by whatever grappling hook this mask is carrying.
Fire blossoms on the rooftop and the three combatants disappear in the flames.
“Do you recognize that mask?” I ask.
“Never seen them. I’m not even sure what kind of power they have from here,” Drone says.
“I can’t imagine two on one is gonna go well.” I prep myself for a jump. “Don’t tell Flashfire.”
“Gabe!” Drone shouts into my ear.
“They could get hurt. I’m perfect for this.” I bound toward the edge of the roof. “And call me Home Run!”
I soar across the gap with a sonic burst, landing into hell. Out of the plumes of fire roars a creature with black-iron scales and burning eyes, a maw with two fangs longer than daggers, and leathery wings like a gargoyle. The clothes they might have worn have burnt off, revealing a feminine chest and waist, though still covered in metallic skin. Smoke and lava churn from her mouth, her eyes, and holes in her back and arms, shrouding her in billowing smog so that she’s hard to see.
The gargoyle woman screeches and chases the fox mask — who’s also a girl on closer inspection — across the rooftop, but fox girl keeps her distance, retreating in floating steps and strange spins that would only work if she had some sort of force pulling her back. The soles of her shoes squeak on the pavement.
The other Dresden gang member, the male of the couple, pulls the fire from the gar-girl’s back like puppet strings and throws the flames, hissing and screaming, at the fox girl. She tumbles out of the way just in time.
As I told Drone, I’m perfect for this. The pyrokinetic’s flames only feed me energy and I don’t have to hold back as much since both of these enemies can clearly handle the heat. The only person I’m worried about hurting is fox girl and she’s across the roof. I restrain my kinetic energy and slap the dude across the jaw, followed up by a swift, human kick to his ribs.
The gar-girl is gonna be harder to take down because she’s putting off a huge smoke screen. There’s an interesting component to my power, though: I call it heat-sense. I can feel the excitement and energy from warmth, no matter the medium, and so I can feel things around me even with all my other senses disabled. My range is only about ten to fifteen feet, but that’s enough to get into the smoke screen. The differential between the smoke and the fire makes her position, but I’m still at a disadvantage in hand to hand because the difference isn’t enough for a sharp outline of her arms and legs.
I jump into the smoke and hope my heat-sense is enough to win me the fight, and hope that the fox girl isn’t already burned to death. Forgoing beating her with my fists, I drain the heat from the air as fast as I can, hoping to kill her flames by chilling the air. Fire needs heat, fuel, and air, and if you take any of those away, no fire.
The flames on her arms sputter and die and her smoke-screen dies out. As soon as it does, her head snaps to the left and right in rapid succession, spinning around like a top until it pops straight off. The body slumps to the floor, transforming back into a human body as she dies. The head sails off into the dark, flung by an invisible quarterback.
“What the fuck?” I ask. Is that part of her power? Or did I just accidentally kill her?
The fox girl mask coughs and sputters on the edge of the roof, clinging to the railing. She stumbles to her feet and falls over again.
“Hey, are you okay?” I ask.
Fox girl lifts her mask up a little and vomits onto the roof. Her puke is thin and watery, like she hasn’t eaten a solid meal in a while.
“Uh… are you okay?” I rush over to her side.
She holds her hand out, and an invisible force that feels remarkably like a tentacle wraps around me, squeezing my arms and legs together, and lifts me into the air. “donchu fuckin tush me-” and then she’s back down, throwing up more.
I gag. I’m amazed she has the stomach space for all that. I don’t quite know how to get out of this invisible prison she’s put me in.
Once she’s done puking, she investigates the other half of the couple. He groans and worms around on the ground. He’s hoisted up into the air by an invisible force. She’s telekinetic.
The man floats to the edge of the roof and falls off. I follow him with my thermal sense and feel him crunch awkwardly into a dumpster, and his heartbeat slows, and starts to fade. After a couple of seconds, it stops pumping altogether.
“He- He’s dying. You killed him.”
The chick looks over at the roof and shrugs. “Was aiming for the dumpster. Either way, took out the trash.”
“They’re violent masks that kill people for money.” Her voice wavers as if she’s drunk. Her awkward shamble calls to mind a George Romero zombie, and under the mask, I hear a quiet, constant wheezing. There’s very little heat coming from under her red hoodie or black leggings. “They’d have no issues killing you.”
Her tendrils release me and I drop to the ground. In a flash I’m at her throat, my thumbs hooked into her hoodie collar. She can’t kill me with her powers since I could absorb the pressure of her telekinesis, but she could trap me for a while, judging by her strength. “I needed them!”
Fox girl shoves me back with another telekinetic limb. “Why do you need them?”
“There’s a trafficker named Pandahead. He was supposed to meet with them a few nights ago.” I let go of her collar. “This group knows something about him. Why do you want them?”
“You’re Home Run, aren’t you?” Fox girl turns toward me, studying me from underneath her white fox mask. There are red stripes under the eyes and I notice that her Converse shoes match, red shoelaces and white canvas and white rubber soles. Both the mask and the shoes are dirtied, muddied by heavy use. “Fireproof and bulletproof from what I hear.”
I back off from her. First impressions aside, she’s a mask. Not a thug or a gang banger, but a real honest to goodness mask. We’ve got rules, too. First one is don’t attack someone that might be a friend. “You know my name. What’s yours?”
“Call me Kitsune.” Despite the drunken wobbling, her voice is lovely. Lovelier than Epione’s, even, like she must be a singer of some kind. “And the capes have ignored these dick bags long enough. They kill for money.” It’s discordant hearing that kind of talk from a sweet voice.
“Why would they want to meet with a human trafficker?” I ask.
“Either they were hired to kill him,” Kitsune says. “Or they were actually interested in his stock. Either way, as I said, trash to be taken out.”
“And you’re better?” I have to fight very hard not to kill people. God knows I wish I could let go and hit hard, but Flashfire would never forgive me. “You’re killing, too.”
Kitsune faces me but without being able to see her face underneath, I don’t know what she’s thinking. “This is pro bono work. They would have been paid.”
“Okay, fine,” I say. Some masks don’t kill, some do. That’s not one of our hard and fast rules. Neither is it for the capes, but the masks even less so when we all walk on the wrong side of the law. “Let me keep one. Their leader. Let me get him to talk.”
“This isn’t the main cell,” Kitsune says. “I wanted their leader to talk, too. We want the same thing.”
I take off my jacket. I’m not sure. “How well can you handle heat?”
“Not well,” Kitsune says. “Physically nothing can touch me. Heat is no bueno.”
I chuckle at her butchering of the Spanish language and make my way toward the rooftop entrance into the building, willing some of the heat I’ve got restrained into my hand so that my fingers shine. Kitsune gasps at my molten fist. “Okay, Kitsune. Then, I’ll be right back.”