1.4.1

ARC 4: BLACK HOLE

Home Run crouches on the top of the roof of the last Dresden hideout, listening in on the meeting unfolding beneath him. It is the day of the meeting that Kitsune and I found in the hidden journal. I suspected it was a trap at first, but Home Run did not want to wait, and charged ahead.

You see, I am a ghost, I am not here.

The voices coming from the hideout are frightened, they are cowed, they are weak and small. They are the last of Dresden’s crew, including Dresden himself. Dresden sounds assured, optimistic in the face of his utter defeat. “I think that Home Run creates an opportunity for us to come back.”

A doubter speaks his mind: “Come back? From what? Half the gang left Houston, our strongest are dead, and one of them is even informing with the FIS now!”

A muffled explosion follows his rant, which is then followed by gasps and one shout.

Home Run listens and waits.

Dresden continues, despite the grumblings of his companions. “There’s talk of the United States leaving the UWC, now, thanks to Home Run. That will create a rash of opportunity, the likes of which we haven’t seen in thirty years. Not since the Anarchy. Borders are good for us. Everyone knows the central countries rely on northern dollars, and when those are gone, we wait for it to fall apart and pick up the pieces.”

There’s a pause between his grand speech and the next person, but the reply is not a standing ovation. “What the fuck, Dresden?” someone else shouts. “We’re not in a position to just throw lives like that! We’ve lost everything!”

Another explosion. The man is unhinged. Another, another.

Home Run can wait no longer.

The inside of the house is as we left it a month ago; dusty, old, and forgotten, but now littered with smoking bodies that Dresden has so casually discarded. Dresden, a man of roughly my stature, older than I am, and wearing a half-face gas mask and an old school infantryman’s helmet. His eyes dance and smile at me.

“Home Run! What a pleasant surprise.” Dresden leans against the wall, crossing his arms as if he’s relaxed and comfortable.

Home Run only stares at the carnage, the evidence of Dresden’s power — controlled explosions at any point on a ten foot radius around him. Dresden admires his own handiwork along with Home Run. “They were weak. Couldn’t see the future.”

“They were all you had left.” Home Run turns to Dresden. “How do you expect to start the crew again if you’ve killed all your last members?”

“I’ll get new ones.” Dresden shrugs and chuckles, and points at Home Run. “Perhaps I can start with you? Are you interested in a job?”

Home Run warps through the space between him and Dresden with a blast of kinetic energy. The air stirs and shimmers as heat flows from his body to his surroundings, and he seizes Dresden by his stupid gas mask. He rips the damn thing off, revealing Dresden’s soul patch and thin mustache, and a wild smile. Nervous laughter drips from Dresden’s lips like a leaky faucet.

“The only thing I’m interested in is kicking your ass until you tell me what I want to know.” Home Run slams Drseden against the wall and presses against his chest with a kinetically charged hand, just enough that Dresden would start to feel it.

A popping sensation fills Home Run’s lungs, a directed explosion right into his chest, but Home Run absorbs the energy and belches out some smoke.

“Nice try.”

Dresden’s crazy smile widens. “Are you actually a Youxia?”

Home Run pauses. He smiles under his mask. “Yes. Yes. I am your bogeyman. I am everything they’ve said and more. And if you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will never have the opportunities you dream of, Dresden.”

Dresden laughs and sighs, clearly out of his mind. “Not as if I haven’t already lost everything else in my life. Fine! Fine, I’ll give you what you want. Though I’ll have to know what it is, first.”

“Who hired you to kill Pandahead?” Home Run asks.

“You still don’t know that? Not even with one of my leaders singing songs in jail?” Dresden cackles. “Wow. You must feel like a bull in a china shop.”

“Yes, all the time. And in my hands, you’re the fine china.” Home Run pushes just a little harder, causing Dresden to wheeze and cough.

“Fine! Yes! FIS hired us. I know because I had someone tail the guy after he purchased our services.” Dresden groans and grabs Home Run’s arms, trying to push the unrelenting force back. “Please, I can’t breathe.”

Home Run does not relent.

“I can’t tell you what you want if I die!”

Home Run pushes a little harder.

Dresden squeaks, a rib cracks inside his chest. “I- I can give you Panda, on a platter, just please.”

Home Run eases up, our mutual interest piqued by Dresden’s offer. “Tell me.”

“Pandahead has worked for FIS for a long time. At least, that’s what I think. That’s what everyone thinks.” Dresden coughs. He slumps against the wall.

“How does that give me his head on a platter?” Home Run asks.

“It doesn’t, not quite the way you want, but it means that if you can get his real identity and prove it, then FIS would crucify him for you rather than letting it be known they worked for him.”

“How do I prove it, then? I don’t even know where he is.”

“That’s the second part. I can give you the address of one of his Parlor.” Dresden stands up. “But you have to let me walk out of here alive, and you have to turn your head the other from my crew from now on. No more burning my gang out, no more attacking my people. We don’t diddle kids, we do hit jobs. It’s honest work.”

Home Run wraps his hand around Dresden’s throat and wills heat into his hand, he lets it get nice and warm so that Dresden feels it. “I’ll do some honest work for free if you don’t give me that address right this god damn second.”

“Taylor Jade! Taylor Jade’s estate!” Dresden screams like a child, clawing at Home Run’s jacket. “Please!”

For a fraction of a second, Home Run debates ending this man’s life. He should, he absolutely should. That man is a murderer for hire. He just killed all of his own lackeys without a second thought. And yet, there’s a small part of him — me — that doesn’t want that.

I resurface, filling out my arms and legs, taking over from Home Run. Just long enough to let the insane Dresden run for his life. I don’t promise him that I won’t come after him, but I can’t see myself mustering the energy anymore.

It’s not like a Bruce Banner and Hulk situation, in that Home Run doesn’t seethe under the surface like a raging fire barely held back by my skin. Rather, it feels like I just put on a mask named Gabe. Home Run is beneath that.

Or maybe he’s the mask. I don’t know anymore and the split is killing me.

Instead of dwelling on how I feel, I focus on what I just found out. FIS was sponsoring Pandahead, at least, that’s what the gangs around town thought. Dresden just handed me his location. I could explode through those walls and save the kids myself.

And then have every cape in Houston busting down the door trying to capture me, and FIS chomping at the bit to pull me in.

I take off my mask. Surrender myself and likely die for those kids. I could do that. What’s my life compared to theirs? I expect to die every time I go into a fight. As one should, that is the fate of the warrior. Rarely do we die in our beds, old and happy.

I’m twenty three years old, marking the moment I came out of the vat. What’s the chances I even hit double that, let alone a full and healthy lifespan? So giving that up to save those children. I would do it.

I could do it, right now.

My phone rings. Doc. I answer.

“You’ve got a guest.”

I return home and find that my guest is Maisa. She sits and waits with Doc in the living room, watching one of his K-dramas with him. But when I return, she jumps out of her seat and dashes over to me, and hugs me. “Gabe, are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” I am lying. Still, I manage to wrap my arms around her in return. “How’s things? Are you okay?”

“Yes. The Underground hasn’t done much. Flashfire can’t get a hold of Iso even though he told Iso that he kicked you out of the Underground. And he won’t go out with all of the attention you’ve gotten.”

I frown and take off my mask, and put my glasses on. “I’ve been trying to take the attention away from him. I went out tonight.”

Maisa pulls back. She studies me with the practiced gaze of a jeweler. “You found something.”

“I did. But I don’t know what to do with it,” I say.

“What do you mean?” Maisa asks.

“I know where he is. If I go there and start a fight, it’s likely I’ll get captured. Which means that I’ll probably be dead within the week, if I don’t die in that fight.” Even though I stare down that particular barrel, with everything that’s happened, it feels like a bargain to me. Perhaps I am suicidal, but couldn’t the same be said of every martyr? I don’t want to die for nothing. I want to die for a reason. Like saving the world.

That is suicidal, I realize. No one can save the world alone and the very notion of saving the world is stupid. Save it from what? Itself?

“What are you thinking?” Maisa asks.

“That I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

Doc barks a laugh from the living room. “You’re starting to sound like a regular Socrates.”

Normally I’d tell him to eat shit, but that actually draws a grim chuckle from me. “Next they’ll be making me drink hemlock.”

Maisa does not join in our laughter. “If you know where he is, why don’t you go? You stopped the greatest hero in this city, Remise said. Surely a gang and a few more capes aren’t going to stop you.”

“Not a few. Every cape. I’m a cloak, now.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Maisa says. “Is that a bad thing?”

“There’s capes, there’s masks, and then there’s cloaks. Cloaks are the scary monsters, the things that go bump in the night. The supervillains and the creatures that could never get along in society.” I rest my elbows on the counter and ponder that description. Not too far off from how I really feel.

“Then go bump in the night,” Maisa says. “Make Pandahead so afraid he never harms another child again. Make this city so afraid they won’t ever let someone like Pandahead exist.”

“I’ve already made them afraid, and it only made Pandahead stronger. They’re afraid of me more than they are of him. I can’t use fear if it’s being used against me.”

“Reach, dream, strive, become,” Doc says. “That’s how you fight the fear.”

Megajoule’s slogan. His words come pouring back to me. A dam breaks in my mind and thoughts start to flood my brain. Black hole, the fear. He meant the same thing. Fear destroys everything around it, pulls people in and stretches them out until they die. It’s what’s happening to me, to Bedevil, to the Underground, and Pandahead’s the only one who’s benefiting because that’s his power. He’s like someone orbiting around a black hole and pushing people inside.

One by one, molecules ripped apart.

“We’re not going to beat him by making the city more afraid. We’re going to beat him by exposing what he does and who he is. We only fear the unknown, right? If we expose him, we remove his power, and we free those kids.” I can see the path to victory. We don’t try to fight him as masks, as one gang versus another. We fight him like capes would, by forcing him into the light of the public’s eye. The public fears him as a nebulous entity associated with trafficking and gangs, but they wouldn’t fear him if they knew who he was and what he’d done exactly.

They’d crucify him, like Dresden said.

“We need to take this to Flashfire. The Underground is the only way to do it,” I say. “And I need to talk to Iso.”

“Only problem is, neither of those people want to talk to you,” Doc says.

“Yeah, I know. But they’ll want to hear what we’ve got to say, won’t they, Maisa?” I ask.

Maisa grins. “Yeah. They will. But I have to see him go. I have to be there.”

I kneel down in front of her and put my hand on her shoulder. “I give you my word. You’ll get to see it happening. Let me call Flashfire and we’ll work out a meeting.”
Maisa shakes her head and hands me a flip phone. “They bought it for me. They won’t hang up on you if you call from there.”

“They might be mad at you,” I tell her, taking the offered phone.

Maisa’s answering smile is wolfish. “I’ve had worse.”

I dial Flashfire’s number and hold my breath. My heart bottoms out, collapses, and restarts all while my stomach squeezes tighter and tighter as I wait for him to answer. The dialing cuts off mid-ring.

“Hello?” Flashfire asks.

I sigh out. “Please don’t hang up.”

Flashfire falls silent on the other end. After a moment, he says, “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“I’m glad you are, too,” I say. “Listen, I’ve been really bullheaded, and I’m sorry. You were absolutely right about what you said. All I could think about was Home Run. I’m not going to try and justify that. Just… I was trying to be like him, you know? Megajoule.” A lump forms in my throat. “You were right. He was the last good cape.”

Flashfire doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. When he does finally speak, his words are slow, and I can tell that he’s fighting to stay calm. “That wasn’t fair of me. You’ve been fighting so hard and I spat on it. I shouldn’t have used him like that against you.”

“It’s fine. I deserved it.”

“Nah. You didn’t.”

“I deserved it.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Are you really fighting about him forgiving you?” Maisa asks.

I cough. “Sorry.”

“Sorry,” Flashfire echoes. “Do you want to come over? I don’t want to kick you out of the Underground. I didn’t mean that.”

“I actually called for a reason beyond apologizing. I actually found Dresden tonight, and I got him to talk.”

“The Dresden?” Flashfire asks.

“The same. He was off his rocker. Killed his own guys. But he told me where Pandahead’s base is, called it Parlor. Has Iso ever talked about Parlor?” I’m a little worried that he made it up.

“Yeah. He has. Said it was a brothel for rich perverts. Nobody goes for it because some powerful people are behind it, apparently. Is that all he said?”

Good, so it’s real. “He said it was on Taylor Jade’s estate. The software guy. He also said that FIS ordered the Dresden hit on Pandahead, and that they were looking to tie up loose ends. He said a lot of people believe FIS worked with Pandahead.”

“I don’t doubt it. What do you want to do with this?” Flashfire’s question is vulnerable. He knows I could go there by myself.

I’ve already decided against it by telling him. “We meet up. Drone has her Hummingbirds, still. We can use those to get footage of Pandahead, get his mask off, and get FIS to nail him to a wall.”

“Yes!” Flashfire sounds ecstatic. “That’s a good plan. Drag him out into the light.”

“But we need to make sure those kids get out of there. Is there anyway to force him out of Parlor and get the footage at the same time? I’m worried if he goes to ground his stock disappears.” I tap my chin while I form some semblance of an idea. “How about we meet up at the brunch spot? You call Iso, tell him what I told you, and tell him we want to work with him.” I pause. “Tell him you know who Home Run is, and if Iso wants that scoop, he better show.”

Flashfire stammers. “Are you sure?”

“Home Run can still be useful, I think. Even though he messed a lot of stuff up.” I can feel him below the surface, ready to take over.

“Okay. Tomorrow night. We’ll meet there.” Flashfire laughs. “Thanks, Gabe. I love you, brother.”

The words are somewhat painful, thanks to Bedevil, but I manage to choke through them.“I… I love you, too.” He hangs up.

“That went well,” Maisa says, smiling.

I hand her the phone back. “Yeah. Just one more thing.” I pull my own phone out and thumb through my contact info, and find Saw Off’s number, still filed under BABY <3.

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