Maisa mashes buttons alongside Drone as they play a fighting game. The click-clack of her controller carries no rhythm and matches the flailing of her character as Drone unleashes a practiced, prejudiced beat down. In just thirty seconds, Maisa has lost, and scowls at the TV screen. “This is the seventh time,” she says, practically a growl.
“If it makes you feel better, it’s because she’s a no-life shut-in whose sense of worth is derived from her skill at video games,” I say.
Drone elbows me. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but they’ll break yours just as surely.”
I’ve spent the last few days settling in at Epione’s house, trying to forget my miserable month. Bedevil never replied to my voicemail, so I’m sure that whatever was between us is over. That does make her desperate cry of ‘I love you’ sound more hollow, in that she didn’t mean it and only shouted it so that I would stay. That makes me feel only slightly better, knowing it was just a bid to keep me there.
“Do you want to give it a try?” Maisa asks, offering me the controller.
I refuse. “No, that’s not a question I need answered.”
Drone gives us both a smug grin and puts her hands on her hips even as she sits between us, and so shoves her elbows into both Maisa’s and my personal space. “We both know the outcome. I will destroy all in my way.”
Maisa tilts her head. “Well, not Remise. Remise has really good reaction time. She would win.”
I bite my lip. The girl has no idea what beast she just unleashed. Remise has always refused to play Drone’s fighting games, too, and Maisa just reopened that old wound. Drone leaps to her feet and rushes off to find Remise, to challenge her anew.
Maisa grins at the controller with an evil, satisfied glare.
“Did you know that would happen?” I ask.
“She’s talked so much about how Remise won’t play, and I put two and two together.” Maisa laughs. “Is that bad?”
“It’s very evil,” I say with a smile. “You’ll be in trouble.”
Maisa shrugs. “Remise will take it out on me in training. I need the extra push.”
I grow more fond of her every day. She’s funny and charming, the little sister I never had. When I’m around her I can’t help but smile. She’s a good kid. “So what now, you Machiavellian princess?”
Maisa furrows her brow. She sounds out each syllable, unsure of what I just said. “Mach-ev-all-ian?”
“He’s a writer. He wrote the guide on how to be a ruler, and he apparently thought that meant being an asshole,” I say.
“Language in front of the child!” Flashfire says, returning from the kitchen with a bowl of queso and a bag of chips.
“She’s fuckin’ fourteen,” I say at the same time as Maisa, who says, “I’m fucking fourteen.” We glance at each other and fall into giggles.
“Hooligans, vandals, delinquents, rapscallions,” Flashfire mutters, sitting down next to us. He turns to me and says, “Hey, so, I talked to Iso and he said that Dresden cell leader you bagged gave up some of the meeting houses, and FIS is holding it close to their chest so they can wrap the crew up tight.”
“Did it take a lot of convincing for him to give you that?” I rub the back of my neck, feeling guilty.
“Yeah. Two weeks just for him to say anything.” Flashfire shakes his head. “Thanks for keeping your head down. Home Run’s getting a bit large, isn’t he?”
“He is.” My fifteen minutes have stretched into a constant cycle of my actual exploits blended in with random super violence and gang wars. Anytime there’s a flash of super strength or fire on the streets, Home Run gets trotted out as the bogeyman of the hour.
“It’ll die down and you can get back to work. We’ll nail Pandahead soon.”
“He’s still got kids now.” I frown. “I can’t let it go on like this, you know?”
“We won’t.” Flashfire meets my eyes and I see the same hunger, the same desperate need for justice as my own. “But we also can’t be stupid about it. We can’t rush in half-cocked and with all this heat on us.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” I nod my head in agreement, and yet still the disquiet does not go away in the face of his logic. I see it doesn’t in his eyes, either, but it’s all we can do to make this easier on ourselves. Waiting while the enemy hurts children, it’s hard. But we don’t have all the pieces yet.
My phone buzzes. My heart skips a beat and I check it.
From BABY <3.
I put the phone back in my pocket. I still owe her several favors, and Flashfire doesn’t know that. The disquiet suddenly overwhelms my willpower to keep my head down, and feeling like an asshole, I lie. “Doc wants to talk.”
“When will you be back?” Flashfire asks. “It’s been nice having you around.”
“It has!” Maisa agrees. She smiles at me.
“Soon. Soon. Maybe even tonight. Who knows with Doc?” I head out through the kitchen, past Epione, who smiles at me the same as she does all the time, the same as she did the other night when I told her what was on my mind.
I don’t tell her what’s on my mind now.
Once I’m in the backyard, I put some distance between me and Epione’s mansion, and find a nice alley to slip my mask on. I check the message from Saw Off.
It’s just an address.
I feel guilty for just a moment, and then, memorizing the address, I hide Drone’s watch underneath a dumpster, where she won’t be able to follow along or jump into my goggles. With that, I head out.
The address she texts me is somewhere near Cosmoworld, an abandoned theme park built upon the remnants of yet another abandoned theme park called Astroworld. Giant, shadowed coasters preside over darkness, metal hulking corpses of excess luxury long gone.
The neighborhoods surrounding are a fairly rich part of town. Towers draped in warm light and surrounded by greenery at their heels rise above shopping centers designed with classy architecture. The roofs are hard to traverse and the mood lighting they’ve thrown around means many of the alleys are brightly lit, many of the roofs are plainly visible, and escape options are few.
The 2nd Amendment is waiting for me behind one of the shopping centers, tucked in between a dumpster and a hedge wall blocking the view of that dumpster from the street. I hop down and wave as I approach. “What’s going on?”
Saw Off isn’t wearing her mask, and so I can see her grin as she salutes me. “Hey Gabe Babe. Glad to see you dumped that chick.”
I scowl and move on. “So you’re not mad at me.”
“Ain’t your fault a big cape decided to go crazy. I’m a little miffed that you wouldn’t let me shoot her.” Saw Off cozies up to me and walks her fingers up my arm, and throws me a smoldering look. “Nothing that can’t be smoothed over with a little one-on-one.”
“Then it won’t get smoothed over.” I gently push her back. “What did you call me for?”
“You know the retired cape that was supposed to be at the auction? Shortfin?” Saw Off grins. “We’re hitting up his house.”
Makes sense, mega-rich retired cape who uses his powers to make famous shark documentaries now, and he lives in a nice neighborhood near the Reliant Stadium and other convention centers. Makes me wonder if there will be another Capecon or Comicpalooza soon. It’s summer, after all. “Okay. What’s the plan?”
“We’ve got his address, we’ve got the code to his house courtesy of Ross Lorenz, and we’ve got the means to rough him up, meaning you.” Saw Off snaps her finger at me. “Plus, he’s got a crazy security system. The man’s paranoid, and his house locks down to keep people from getting out or in.”
“How’d a dead man give you a code?” I ask.
“It was before, you doofus,” Saw Off says. “He originally wanted us to go through Shortfin, said the guy had been to Pandahead’s auctions and private things before. But that was before we got that auction location through Dresden.”
Dresden really does factor into most of these events. Though I can’t help but wonder how the FIS are involved, and why? Given everything we’ve uncovered, I think the two are related, somehow. Not exactly sure yet, but I’ll figure it out. “Then let’s go.”
One short ride in a busted, stained box van later, we’re at Shortfin’s house. He lives right in the middle of a half acre of lush garden. A three-story townhome presides over the veritable Eden he’s contained inside an iron-wrought fence. Pristine and lit with mood-lighting, it fits right into the overall decor of the surrounding neighborhood.
Saw Off pulls us up to a gate and rolls her window down. She types on a pad. The gate opens and we drive into the garden.
The door is wide open. Saw Off exchanges a quiet look with Mil-dot in the front seat, and then gets out of car. We follow.
Something’s not right.
The door is wide open.
We crowd into the foyer. The droning sound of static grates and fills the house, and Saw Off climbs the stairs, Lugs at her side. Mil-dot scans the house and says, “No heat signatures.” My thermal sense agrees. We follow.
Saw Off stumbles on the second floor, a wide kitchen joined to a living room with a huge flat-screen, the source of the static. Lugs picks her up gently and rights her, and I realize they are whispering but I can’t hear it over the static. They round the corner. We follow.
An elderly man with gray, rubbery skin and gills at his ribs stares at the static, a bullet hole resting in between his eyes, staining his nose with blood.
Saw Off screams out in rage and she kicks the wall. “God damn it!”
The TV suddenly changes stations.
Pandahead jeers at us from the other end of a live feed and dances like one of those really elderly people in commercials who jab their fingers into the air and wiggle around helplessly. A scrolling text rolls across the bottom: SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA.
“Can you hear us?” I ask.
Pandahead stops his dancing. His voice comes through a filter in his helmet that completely scrambles the sound, making his words into some kind of electric saw. “I can.”
I look back. Shortfin is dead, the 2nd Amendment are struck dumb, and I’m apparently the only one that can muster any words. “You knew we were coming.”
“I knew eventually. He’s been dead for a few days, in case you haven’t noticed. He doesn’t go out a lot, so you’ll be the first ones on the scene.” Pandahead leans forward. The white and black painting on his motorcycle helmet seems to transform with the shifting angle. No longer a docile panda, but a grinning skull. “You won’t be the last ones.”
An alarm blares through the house and the windows shutter themselves, cutting out the River Oaks mood lighting. There’s a heavy chunk downstairs as the door closes.
“I interrupted a speedrun for this, so I hope you’re happy. What are you here to do, Home Run?”
That is a hefty sentence to unpack. What the hell is a speed run? “I’m here to stop you.”
“Stop me from what? Completing the legendary campaign of Halo 2?”
I’ve got no clue what to say. Halo sounds like one of those games that Drone would like, but I’ve got no idea.
“Actually, I know why you’re here. Maybe a better question would be, what are you hoping to accomplish?”
“To save the kids you’ve enslaved.”
“Do you think that saving these kids will make a difference in the long run?” Pandahead asks.
“Oh, fuck you, we’re not doing this.” I’m not going to eat that shit, not for breakfast, not for dinner, not for any meal.
“Don’t be an asshole. You’re trapped in a cage designed to hold people in, and you’ve got nothing to do but talk to me, now.”
“I can get through locked doors,” I say.
“Not this one,” Pandahead says. “All of the barriers have a current running through them. You see, I’ve been watching you. You’re very good at heat, Home Run, but you can’t do anything about electricity, can you?”
I wrench my mouth shut.
“In fact, Shortfin was so paranoid he basically turned this entire house into a god damn death trap. Guess that’s what you should expect of somebody that fucks kids.”
Pandahead’s helmet makes a strange sound like someone dropping pennies into an AC unit, and I realize that he’s laughing. The laughter dies off slowly, like a dog bleeding out. “You’re very strong, I can tell. I actually only arranged this so we could talk uninterrupted for a few minutes.”
“Listen here, you little shit,” Saw Off says. “If you think-”
Pandahead cuts her off: “Shut the fuck up you little grunge alt-right wannabe. Bet your racist ass thinks you have some kinda moral high ground trying to kill me off. You don’t, nobody does. That’s not how the world works. High grounds only exist in homework problems.” He pauses and cackles. “No, I think the 2nd Amendment dies tonight, which is why I’m only addressing Home Run.”
Saw Off snarls and rocks her head back to unload a shotgun sneeze.
I hold my hand out. “Let him talk.” Saw Off catches herself on the downswing, scowling at me. I want him to talk in the hopes he’ll do one of those evil monologues and give away his whole plan. Ain’t likely, but here’s hoping.
I should have brought my watch, Drone would be able to jump along the connection between the TV and wherever he’s broadcasting, and turn off the security system around Shortfin’s house.
“Okay, glad you can see reason. I’m a businessman, Home Run, and I hope you can appreciate that the only reason I’m upset with you is you’ve made it your business to disrupt mine. That in mind, I’d love for you to stop your crusade against me. Is there anything I can give you to make you stop? A few of my stock, perhaps? I can give you five at most.”
Stock. He means the kids. “You want to give me five children.” My vision is slowly shifting into red. Pure, blood, rage-inducing, red.
Pandahead laughs again. “It’s not like I have to worry about losing them. They do keep making more. I’ll drop them off at a location of your choosing, you can feel like a big old hero for getting five children out of the trafficking trade, and we all walk away happier. If you agree to that now, I’ll disable the security system before my friend arrives.”
“If you think on any version of earth I’d agree to that, you’re fucking delusional.” I jab my finger at the screen. “I will find you, I will break your ring apart, and I will save the children in your grasp. I’ll sear medium rare inside your fucking helmet so FIS has to take dental records just to identify you!”
Pandahead ignores my threats. His voice lowers behind the filter, turning his voice from grating electronics to dangerous buzzing. “Do you have an appetite for experiences?”
“Not the kind you like.”
“What do you think I like?”
I grit my teeth. “Molesting kids.”
His grating giggle returns. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. That’s a taste I simply don’t understand.”
“But you’re willing to cater to it.”
“Of course. It makes money. No, by experiences, I mean jumping out of a plane with a parachute, I mean running down the side of a mountain buck fucking naked. Taking LSD, or making love to a world-class model on a boat off the coast of Italy. I mean… I mean strapping yourself to the top of a rocket and hitting orbit. Experiences. Things that change your whole life. Things that pull you out of the monotony of a nine to five existence. Things that fucking underage girls or drugs can’t touch.”
“You’re a monster.” The words are weak. Now my thoughts turn to how I’ll get Saw Off and her friends out of this alive.
“A fight to the death,” Pandahead continues. “Because you’re about to get one. Best of luck, Home Run. Just remember-”
The TV explodes as Saw Off unloads her shotgun sneeze, ripping the flat screen off the wall. She kicks the busted husk and screams in rage. “Fuck that guy!”
Well, I suppose the conversation was over. “We need to get out of here. Do we have any way to disrupt the current in the walls?” Lugs is nowhere in sight, but I hear him call up from the downstairs lobby. “I’m working on it!”
“Give me all our power-sets in one sentence,” I say. “I control kinetic and thermal energy, making me really tough, strong, and fast, plus some other smaller abilities.”
“Duh,” Saw Off says, wiping gunpowder from her nose.
“My eyes,” Mil-dot says. “I have macroscopic, infrared, x-ray, and microscopic vision.”
“Bulletproof, but only above a certain velocity,” Vaquero says.
“Lugs can generate a magnetic field form his arm, either repulsive or attractive, and he can also use it to create EMP’s,” Saw Off says. “Which he’s using to get the door open now.”
“It’s open!” Lugs shouts.
Mil-dot glances downstairs and freaks out. “Lugs, watch out! Someone’s coming!”