The Swordfish aircraft resembles its namesake, long-bodied, sleek, with a pointed nose. Four VTOL engines thunder at the craft’s sides. The Swordfish touches down in front of the mansion, beyond the EMS van. Mr. Gold. Two of them are Hasuji and Tachikaze, capes on the Houston Heroes team led by Krater. An armored suit touches down near the helicopter, propelled by rockets in the boots and back. Danger Close, a third Houston Hero.

I don’t know if Mr. Gold brought them instead of FIS agents so that this wouldn’t get swept under the rug or if they came to settle the score with me, personally, for thrashing their leader.

The police pull up right after the capes disembark the Swordfish craft.

Meanwhile, that finger in the back of my brain digs harder, and whispers skitter up and down my skin. Whatever is going on inside, it’s coming this way. The cold spot encroaches further and further on my heat sense.

The children scream in their room.

“We have to get out of here!” Remise says. “Rendezvous on Mil-dot!”

Epione grabs my shoulder. “We can come back.”

I can feel him in that room, using his power over the children. The cold sphere engulfs them, washing out the heat they give off in a hollow void.

I want to save them now, but we can’t fight the Houston Heroes, FIS, and Pandahead all at once. Best thing to do is retreat and get a handle on the situation before proceeding. It kills me inside, but I have no choice right now. “We’ll come back. We’ll figure out what to do.”

Epione hops on my back, and I leap over the top of the roof, headed back toward Mil-dot’s position.

Mil-dot mumbles into the comms. “Please,” she repeats, over and over.

We meet back at the tree line at the back of Taylor Jade’s lawn. Saw Off, Lugs, and Vaquero are already there, hiding behind the brush. Saw Off’s bleeding from her gut and her chest. Two bullet holes, both center mass. She’s a tough one, she’s still standing with the help of a tree and Lugs. She wheezes, blood dribbles down her chin.

“That… doesn’t look good,” I say.

“Can’t breathe, babe,” she manages.

Epione touches Saw Off’s back, and Saw Off heaves one long breath. She stands a little more upright. Saw Off sees who helped her, scowls and looks away. “Thanks.”
“Drone, what the heck was that?” Flashfire asks.

“Pandahead opened some kind of device, and everyone around him went nuts,” Drone says. “There was… something in the dark, but I couldn’t make it out.”

“Dinnae ken,” Remise says over the comms. “Whatever it was, it sounded like somebody sticking an ice pick all the way into my spine.” She and Flashfire make it to the treeline. Remise’s jacket is burned through like she took a direct hit from a flamethrower or something, and the skin is cracked and red around her ribs.

“Woah, are you alright?” Epione asks.

“I’ll be fine, I think we have worse things to worry about.” She waves Epione off.

“Yeah, like the Houston Heroes,” Drone says. “They’re coming after you. Mr. Gold’s going into the house.”

“Krater?” I ask. I really don’t want to go up against him again.

“No, just the others. You need to hurry-”

A blast of wind shoots through the trees, and Hasuji of the Houston Heroes stands before us. He’s wearing fancy armor enhanced by servos and plates of black military grade ceramic, a helmet with a clear visor that shows his face, and a red scarf that billows with the wind he kicked up. “You’ve one opportunity to stand down.” He unsheathes a katana from his side.

Vaquero pulls his gun and fires.

I don’t even have time to blink. Hasuji blurs through the air and smashes into Vaquero. His blade bounces off Vaquero’s skin. He’s got super speed which means he’s too fast to puncture Vaquero. He starts a flurry of attacks on Vaquero, tearing apart the cowboy’s clothes but doing no real damage.

Lugs holds his arm out and a magnetic pulse whines, pulling the sword from Hasuji’s hand. Hasuji blurs again, appearing in front of Lugs and kicking so fast he breaks the sound barrier, and I try for a grab, but he blurs away from me, appearing again at his sword.

Remise tackles him and the two tussle in the brush. “Run!” she shouts. “The others will be here any-”

Danger Close skids into the forest right behind Hasuji, moving like an ice skater inside his armored suit by roaring thrusters on the feet. The armor’s strangely organic looking, interlocking plates of armor held powered by motors and hydraulics that look kind of like a muscular structure. There’s an extra pair of arms underneath the first. The last Houston Hero, Tachikaze, clings to his back. She’s in armor like Hasuji’s, but instead of a scarf, a neon, translucent cape hangs from her shoulders. She’s baring her teeth under her visor, either a grin or a snarl, not sure which.

Tachikaze vaults from Danger Close’s armor and swings her sword in a wide arc. A wave rips through the air, cutting through the trees and slicing the underbrush apart. I dive tackle Epione out of the way. I don’t have any idea how to absorb that power if I even can. I’m not going to risk it.

Danger Close hefts two Gatling guns in each pair of arms, the barrels already spinning. Lugs steps in front of Saw Off, Vaquero in front of Flashfire. I duck behind a tree.

Danger Close unloads his payload on us. His guns roar, the steady brrrt of thousands of bullets per minute overpowering everything other sound in the woods.

I leave Epione and bounce off my heels into a heat powered launch. Steam hisses out of my jacket as I rocket into Danger Close, knocking him off balance. I grab one of his four arms and flip over him, hooking him with my legs, and spin us like a merry go round using kinetic blasts and his own thrusters to propel us. I spin us so fast the blood rushes to my head and my stomach bounces around inside of me.

My plan is to throw him into a tree, maybe break the armor. The problem is, my spin is thrown off when our entire mass is ripped towards Lugs, who’s turned on his magnetic pulse. I fall off as Danger Close tumbles towards Lugs. This turns out to be a psuedo-blessing. Another super-powered slice from Tachikaze rips through the space I just occupied.

Flashfire and Epione are disappearing into the woods, Remise right behind them. Good. They can’t tank hits like the Vaquero and I can.

Danger Close recovers, aiming his guns at me. The barrels start to spin, the three-second wind-up signaling another barrage. I step off my foot into a kinetic charge, and my knee rips one of Danger Close’s mechanical arms free of the suit. The suit hisses as steam rolls out from inside. Which means it must be running hot.

I grab the other arm. Sure enough, the suit is blazing. I draw in so much power I start to glow again. Why not go to completion? I’ve frozen stuff over before. Maybe I can freeze his suit shut.

His other arms grab at my shoulders, trying to pull me free. I vacuum up the heat they’re putting off, too, and they stick to me like a tongue on an icy light pole in midwinter.

“I’ve got Mil-dot!” Lugs says over the comms. “Retreating to van!”

“We’re on our way,” Flashfire says.

The mechanical arms frost over, blacken, and crumble as I take every ounce of heat. Kinetic energy. I’m stealing the very energy from the molecules. I carefully portion it and restrain it so that I don’t light up again and set the entire forest on fire. That’s an idea, but it’s not a very good one.

Instead, I use the energy to bust his armor wide open, wrenching the plating around the chest free. Danger Close groans and slips out, struggling to move he’s shivering so much. He’s down for the count.

Saw Off moans in pain somewhere in the brush. With the attention off me, I help her to her feet.

Vaquero and Hasuji tussle, and in a whirl, Hasuji catches his blade in Vaquero’s arm. I hiss as he just ducks under Tachikaze’s sword and shoots out one of the ceramic plates in her stomach. Vaquero kicks Hasuji. He’s got this, he can do this. I’ll help him—

Blood wells on Vaquero’s sleeve. Hasuji stops, his eyes widen in his visor.

He’s just realized Vaquero’s weakness.

I bound for them, Saw Off still in my arms. “No!”

Hasuji warps up to his feet. He doesn’t start a flurry of supersonic slashes. With one precise strike, he slices through Vaquero’s neck, beheading him.

Vaquero’s body falls back, squeezing his revolver in a death grip. The gun goes off, shooting through Tachikaze’s armor in her stomach. She grunts and falls to her knees, next to Vaquero’s head. Vaquero’s body slumps over like he’s praying.

Too late. Fuck. I kick into Hasuji and bounce off of him before he can react, pushing him into the dirt and launching back the way we came.

Saw Off screams through blood and bile. “No!”

“Don’t look back!” I pull her into my chest and bound into the woods, careful to avoid the trees. Three powered katana waves slice through the bark and leaves, missing us as I shoot like an arrow to catch up with the others. “I’m sorry!”

Saw Off snarls and slaps my arm. “Let me go, let me—” she hacks up blood as we fly.

I land behind Flashfire, Epione, and Remise. “Vaquero… he’s gone.”

“We have to keep moving,” Flashfire says. “It’ll be more if we don’t get out of here.”

“Here, let me help,” Remise says, taking Saw Off from me. Saw Off screams and sobs like a feral child, tears mixing with the blood on her cheeks and neck. Poor girl. “What do we do now?”

“I’ll go back for the kids,” I say. “I’ll make sure they’re okay. If FIS and the Houston Heroes actually do their job, then we don’t have anything to worry about, but we should still make—”

Hasuji blurs in front of us, interrupting me with another blast of wind carried by his sprint. “Last chance.”

“I love you,” Flashfire says to Epione. “Close your eyes.”

Hearing that, I squeeze my eyes shut too. A bright light sears over my eyelids, and when I open them again, Hasuji’s stunned by Flashfire’s power. Flashfire tackles Hasuji and starts to grapple him. “Run! Go! Get Epione out of here!”

He’s right. He’s the slowest and he can buy the most time with his power.

Epione stumbles to her knees. She didn’t close her eyes in time. I scoop her up and bound toward the van.

“No! Jason!” she screams. “No! I can’t see!”

“I’ll come back for him. I’ll get him.”

The van is right where we left it. Lugs is carrying his sister toward the back. The side door opens and I set Epione inside. She still can’t see. She fumbles around in the seats, trying to get her bearings.

Mil-dot’s face is pale, her eyes shut tight. There’s a chip in one of her teeth, like she clenched her jaw way too tight. Blood seeps from her nostrils. “It- it- it-” Jesus.

“What happened?” I ask.

“She saw whatever Pandahead’s power is. Says there was something in the house with them.”

Mil-dot grabs my jacket. She opens her eyes wide: the white around her pupils is purple and red, like her capillaries burst. “It will devour you.”

“What did you see?” I ask.

She stammers and shakes her head. “I- I- I’ve seen men die, I- I’ve seen battles, I served in China, and Syria.” Mil-dot swallows. I can hear how dry her mouth is. “That thing was like a night ambush in your heart, sitting in a fox-hole, while the world explodes above your head.”

“Gabe!” Drone shouts, running up with Maisa at her side. “Gabe! Gabe! Oh my God! Hurry!”

“What?” I ask. I rush to the passenger side.

Drone is panicked, jabbing her finger at the laptop screen. “He’s- Panda- he’s got a gun! Mr. Gold just left the house. Pandahead’s going upstairs!”

The kids in the room.


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