Pandahead’s staring down a line of cops ready to fire, with a bystander kid in the crook of his arm. He’s got an assault rifle aimed at the cops, but no one’s taken any shots yet. I’ve got the drop on him.
“That’s Home Run!” an officer shouts.
Pandahead turns toward me.
Are you fucking kidding me, dude cop?
Pandahead turns so the kid is held to the police, and his gun is aimed at me. He shakes his head.
And vanishes in thin air, folding up into himself in the blink of an eye. Herself, I notice too late.
Not Pandahead, Warspeed!
“Get out of the way kid!” I say, running past the young boy. “You’re not safe out here!”
To their credit, the police don’t just open fire with a kid standing right beside me. I can vault out of here too fast for them to get any shots off, and even if they do, I can just absorb it.
Krater jumps over the police cars, crushing the street pavement at the end of the street, and screams, “Little man!”
Damn it all! I bounce up to the wall of the house next to me, and kick off that into the air. Krater leaps for me, and the police send a hail of bullets into the air. Two of them rip through my jacket, and I absorb the energy from them. I use that energy to double jump right over Krater, to a high school roof on the opposite side of Navigation.
My power groans and falters.
I roll into my landing, and get to my feet. Infused with kinetic energy, I dash to the other end of the roof.
The warehouse and surrounding area is a warzone. Dozens of police cars surround the building, heroes lie in wait at the giant doors, and a van full of men in black military gear rolls toward one of the squadrons, firing rifles out the windows. I’m guessing those paramilitary guys are the Sanctified Remnant.
A sky rail runs along the Buffalo Bayou, and another group of Sanctified Remnant fires rifles down from the nearby sky rail station at the other end of the warehouse, pinning a few capes down. Can’t tell who’s who from up here.
On the roof, Snow Owl and Gyrfalcon fly around another powered guy, this one dressed…
He’s wearing a copy of my outfit the night I fought Krater.
Speaking of Krater, he crashes through the edge of the roof like he mis-aimed his jump, shattering the old brick walls. His skin is partially covered in rock, but as he drops to all fours to charge me, the debris sloughs off his chest and shoulders.
Snow Owl and Gyrfalcon rush the copycat flier, and he claps his hands. A wave of thunder flows from him, throwing Snow Owl and Gyrfalcon out of the sky. Guess that’s why they call him Thunderclap.
“Home Run!” Krater shouts, just a hundred feet away from me. I really don’t want a rematch right now, I’m too banged up from Sledge.
Thunderclap zips through the air, propelled by another sonic boom. Krater leaps for me, both hands outstretched and set to mangle.
I don’t have time for this! I warp under Krater’s bear hug with kinetic energy, and from there I turn and create one of those invisible disks out of air, just in time to block Thunderclap’s super powered fist. A wave of energy washes over and around the shield, but doesn’t catch me.
I drop the shield and grab Thunderclap before he can get another blow in, then I whip him at Krater with a kinetic hurl. The two collide into each other, sparking into a storm of debris and thunder. I blast through them, fly off the roof, and with another pop of heat and energy, I shoot into the window of the warehouse.
I crash into a huge metal shelving unit. The shelves groan, their containers tumble, and the whole structure topples, starting a domino cascade with the next shelving units. I twist around to get a good look at the warehouse before I fall.
A small group of people stand below me. Pandahead, I know for sure this time because he’s holding the Thermos. He’s guarded by Aspect, and two armed thugs wearing identical white and black helmets. Maisa cowers behind them, shrieking at the collapsing steel racks.
“Maisa!” I scream as loud as I can. “I’m here!”
Maisa looks up, her eyes wide. She reaches for me. “Gabe!”
I surge down with kinetic energy, shooting at her like a bullet. If nothing else, if I do nothing else but this, I don’t care.
I windmill kick Aspect before he can change his molecular structure, and spin with the momentum into the two guards, smashing them both into the floor. I propel up with kinetic energy at Pandahead, ready to tear him to pieces.
Pandahead raises his pistol and fires, missing me.
I turn back. She’s down. Blood pools on her shirt. “No!”
“Game isn’t over, Megajoule, pay attention!” Pandahead shouts.
Aspect screams behind me. He’s got the pistol right up against my head. The gun goes off, and the bullet tears through my mask, into my cheek. I absorb the energy I can, but I’m way too late on that, and the bullet ricochets off into the warehouse, leaving the left side of my face a burning wreck.
The second after that, Aspect’s all over me, laying into me with fists of pure steel. I push against him using kinetic energy, but my head’s swimming, and blood’s slicking my mask.
Warspeed warps into the room while I fight to get Aspect off of me. “Take the girl to the car!”
Pandahead shouts. Warspeed jumps over to Maisa and gets her to her feet. She’s still alive, Tim just winged her!
Warspeed grabs Maisa’s shoulder, and they vanish into thin air.
“No!” I tuck my legs to my chest and press Aspect off of me, but he comes right back down as soon as I think I’m free.
An explosion rocks the entire warehouse. No, not one. Three, all at the same time. The warehouse doors open, triggering explosive traps Pandahead laid for the heroes trying to breach his hideout. Through the smoke I see a few heroes rush in, and I recognize Abyss, Aaron, Casanova, and Atomic Clock all storming the doors together. Abyss melts minds with his stare, Aaron is invincible, Casanova seduces with her gaze, and Atomic Clock can see the future slightly. One hell of a group coming in.
“Time to win,” Pandahead says. He twists the top of his Thermos off, and shadows dance from him in chaotic patterns.
Iso said it might be sight based, and he activated it at Parlor, but it wasn’t until I looked at it that I fell under the power. I squirm down under Aspect, hoping this works.
Aspect shouts, “No!” and then starts babbling like a baby. The two thugs scream, and someone from the heroes’ side starts crying. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and tingles cover my whole body, but I’m not hallucinating, and I’m in complete control.
I buck Aspect off me. He doesn’t even fight, he just flops to the ground, whining as he curls into a ball. The thugs are both wearing Home Run costumes, and good thing, because they’re clawing at their eyes and those goggles are the only thing keeping them from ripping them out.
I risk a glance at Pandahead, just for an instant. The finger digs into the back of my mind, and somewhere outside the warehouse, over the gunfire and the sirens, I hear, “gaaaaayyyyyeeeeebbbaaaa.” Shadows spill from the Thermos to meld with the dark corners of the warehouse. The black ink shifts into faces I know, Megajoule, Bedevil, Epione, Flashfire, all spilling bile from their mouths, spreading insectile legs across the walls. I steady my breathing, trying to ignore the visions.
Aaron, Casanova, and Atomic Clock all succumb to the Fear, but Abyss remains standing. He reaches up to remove his mask. Krater arrives right behind Abyss, and that’s my cue to go. I’ll let him handle this with the other OPI lackeys.
I run the other way, diving over the pile of shelving units and destroyed boxes, past the hero Hasuji fighting with a group of thugs dressed as Home Run and Pandahead. Clever idea, get people freaked out.
Trainwreck comes rushing at me out of the shelving units. At the same time, another guy dressed in my outfit pops up from the boxes, and lunges for me. I just dodge out of the way of his fist. His arm explodes outward with buzz-saws, shrieking as they spin fast enough to shred through iron like butter. Piledrive.
Trainwreck wraps his arms around my waist and picks me up, and Piledrive thrusts those saws at both of us. I twist out of the way but Trainwreck can’t evade while he’s carrying me. The saws shred his stomach, but thanks to the damage he’s taking, his arms balloon up to the size of tree trunks in seconds.
I absorb the energy of him squeezing me, like Bedevil taught me, and kick at Piledrive. I stimulate the air molecules into a wind blast, but he shoots a grappling hook from his other hand, hooking on to the shelving so I can’t blow him away.
Lucky for me, Trainwreck lets go as he trips on boxes behind him. I bounce over Piledrive and leave those two to play nice.
The grappling hook pinches my leg and Piledrive reels me in toward these awful blades. I reach my hand out, hoping to catch one to absorb the energy. The saw stops, but the blade still slices the top layer of my skin. Too fast.
I suck in all the heat I can, freezing the metal into a brittle piece of crap. I snap it free, and slam that shard into Piledrive’s stomach. Piledrive screams, pressing his hand against the piece of saw in his gut, and his grappling hook releases me.
I get the hell out of there.
Unfortunately, I’m staring at a ring of cop cars wrapped around the building, swarming the warehouse lot with officers dressed in full riot gear. All their guns are trained on me. I’m not sure if I can stop all of the bullets.
A black van rips through the warehouse lot, spilling suppressing fire out the windows. The police take cover. Sanctified Remnant. I take the opportunity to catapult away while everyone’s distracted with each other, landing across Navigation on a retail center rooftop.
My legs give out. Damn, that all took maybe ten minutes. I can barely breath. People scream behind me in the warehouse as they come face to face with Pandahead and his Thermos. What the hell is that thing? If OPI can’t contain it, what the hell could I even do?
Megajoule fought the Fear, but I don’t know how.
“Mil-dot, do you have eyes on Maisa?” I say, trying to catch my breath.
“No, it’s chaos,” Mil-dot says.
“We’re on our way o’er, Gabe,” Remise says. “We’ll help you find her!”
I jump from rooftop to rooftop, headed back south. I’m only guessing, but the first time I encountered Warspeed she was headed south, so maybe their fall back point is that way. “Sweep south, Mil-dot, tell me if you see two people teleporting.”
“We’re at Navigation, by the high school,” Remise says.
Dang, we just missed each other. I keep going south, rushing over a bunch of small bungalows, the residential section of the Second Ward. One of the houses is missing chunks, like some of the fighting came here, but I can’t see anyone inside. I keep going for what feels like an eternity, until I make it back to Harrisburg. No sign of any cars rushing away. Downtown looms over us, either unaware or uncaring of the war unfolding beneath the skyscrapers.
“What’s the situation elsewhere?” I ask.
“Sledge showed up again,” Drone says. “Took down an ambulance crew that responded to his crash landing. Lugs, Asperity, and Carapace split off to fight him with Bedevil and Jettison.”
I feel a flash of worry for them, and for Bedevil especially. They’re all competent heroes, though.
“A bunch of other OPI heroes dogpiled Sledge right after that,” Mil-dot says. “Not quite sure where they are, they’re in an urban area so I can’t see individual heat signatures.”
“Wait,” Epione says. “I feel something in the high school. Despair.”
“I hear heartbeats inside,” Remise says. “Mil-dot?”
“She’s there! Maisa! And Warspeed!” Mil-dot says.
“We’re going in,” Remise says.
“I’m on my way.” I launch into the air, bounding back toward the high school.
I jump over apartments, warehouses, regular houses, going as fast as I possibly can. I cross entire blocks in second, striding and jumping with all the heat I’ve got swirling inside me.
I hop onto a warehouse roof and warp to the other side, ready to jump over to the next street. I can see the high school from here.
A flurry of movement catches my eye in the alley below. Wedged between two warehouses and backed by a chainlink fence, Snow Owl, Gyrfalcon, and the heroes Empyreal and Lily are cornered by a man stripped to his waist.
The man’s shoulders and arms swell, and long black claws grow from his nails. Sledge.
Empyreal clutches his chest, pressing against a gaping hole on the right side. Snow Owl’s stammering, bleeding beneath her cracked helmet, and Gyrfalcon is out cold, down for the count. Lily doesn’t look injured, but from Iso’s dossier on her, she’s not going to fight Sledge, she has no power for that.
Empyreal stumbles, unable to stand. Sledge cracks his neck as he walks toward the wounded heroes with claws out.
This isn’t like leaving Krater and the other heroes to fight Pandahead. They’ve fought monsters, they’re tough, they can still win. I’m looking at a fight that’s already been lost.
But Remise and the others might need my help to save Maisa. I didn’t even beat Sledge earlier, I just managed to get him off me.
Too many starfish. These people would arrest me if they got a chance.
No, there’s not even a choice here. I trust Remise and Epione to do their best.
I jump into the alley.