“The Affect made the ideal into the material. Rage, love, and hatred are all physical and can be measured. Moreover, they can be controlled. But what does that mean for the people who feel them?”
Terrence Lilac, Affect Research Division
All the Universe’s Violent Music
As far as I know, I’m twenty-one.
To be honest, though, my age could be entirely fabricated. I could be five years old or thirty-nine. I just don’t know.
But having an age is a helpful lie. I’ve got a lot of those. A name (Gabe Wayland), a favorite cereal (Captain Crunch), and a favorite kind of dog (a golden retriever, like my Pawpaw). Little things that make me feel like me.
No matter how many little helpful lies I weave around myself, there’s a truth that cuts through it all. A knife that finds me on my lonely nights.
His name is Megajoule. He was the greatest superhero of Foundation. He died four years ago.
See me—Gabe, the lie and liar in one—a small speck traveling through the larger shadows of the Shells beneath the summer night rain. I creep through broken husks cobbled together out of rusted, corrugated steel and rotting wood, before finding my way through a camp where people hide from the drizzle beneath plastic tarps. These soulless bodies sit by squeaky fans, so vain in their attempt to beat Houston’s sweltering night I can see sweat glistening off their arms and faces from the street.
I pay them no mind: I’m on the job. Paid three hundred American dollars to muscle out an Affected gang extorting my friend Thanh’s family. These kinds of things—scaring some folk, flexing my power—are how I make a living.
At an intersection where the pavement has been pulled from the street like taffy, I sense the whistling of a drone overhead. Much closer than I’d like. It can’t sense my Affect until it’s spitting distance from me, but it could spy my movement or heat if I’m not careful. As for avoiding living things, my mask and goggles will have to do.
Wearing a mask is a crime-enhancer. A crime-spice, if you will. It is by itself only a misdemeanor, but it makes every other crime you do about ten times more illegal in Foundation’s eyes.
Since I’m wearing one, capes will swarm this area within two minutes if that drone sees me. I duck inside an abandoned candy shop and sneak through the broken shelves. I wait, listening, a tense spring ready to release if it follows.
The drone passes by on its nightly errands, floating on to bother someone else with the long arm of the law.
Megajoule finds me there as I make my exit.
A low murmur of voices fills the room. My hackles rise, my fight-or-flight response kicks in. Having done this dance before, I just manage to keep my calm.
Within the darkness at the corner of the shop there seeps a deeper black, a shadow within shadows creeping its way towards the meager light beaming in through the windows. I freeze up, wanting to stop it. I mutter a sacred mantra Paul taught me: “G for Good, A for Able, B for Beautiful, E for Enough…”
My whispered chant doesn’t hinder the creature approaching.
Two hands materialize on the window with their fingers pressing against the glass. From their wrists tendons emerge and intertwine and skin, silvery-white as if a ghost, chases after, until two whole arms from finger to shoulder appear. A nervous system tangles together as thin blue veins spin into existence. A beating heart forms from pale wires and sheets of flesh.
Muscles are the next step, painted in broad, powerful strokes before marbled skin snakes past to hide the tissue. A head sprouts up from the newly finished chest. Shadows grow out of the darkness to clothe the body with hair.
The half-formed head turns to face me. Glowing coals of green light burn where the eyes belong, and a grin cuts itself into the blank face.
Megajoule in the spirit.
To my admittedly small knowledge, this phantom that visits me is nothing like the hero himself, or at least the public image he projected. As far as Foundation is concerned, he was the greatest cape ever to live: An exemplar of what it even means to be a cape.
I know this thing is not a hallucination. He’s a memory construct. They put him in my head in the lab, I suppose to see if Megajoule could overwrite my personality. Instead this jeering version of him stops in from time to time.
He wears the cape uniform of his latter days—black with accents of silver and green throughout—but despite its connection to superheroics, the outfit makes him seem like an ancient necromancer. His grin amplifies this impression, impish and gleeful.
He turns away from me, to the rain and broken street. “Nice night,” he says.
I scowl at him. “I was doing so well,” I say.
The phantom Megajoule approaches me, giving me the devil’s smile. A smile of possession, a smile of death. “You thought you had gotten rid of me just because you started keeping yourself busy?”
“Paul said getting my head out of my ass would help,” I say. “What do you want? I’m working.”
“Doesn’t this job give you a bad feeling?” Megajoule asks.
“It’s a simple scare-job for Thanh,” I say.
“If you don’t have a bad feeling about it, why else would I be here?” Megajoule asks.
“To make my day worse?” I say.
“You know I’m only ever trying to look out for you. Keep you on the straight and narrow. Or have you given up on finding the doctors of the lab?” Megajoule’s grin fades. “Have you given up on Sledge? Are you content with these streets?”
“I’m biding my time,” I tell him. “I’ve got other things to worry about. I need to pay rent and buy Paul medicine.”
“So you say,” Megajoule says. He melts, vanishing into air, but I feel his presence still. “Lead the way, little wolf. Let’s pay bills.”
I sigh and leave the candy shop, the devil hero sitting on my shoulder.
I inherited everything I am from Megajoule. I inherited half of his power: My version of it is called dynathermokinesis. A long, unique word. A word up its own ass.
With a simple manipulation of forces I can fly, though more like a bullet than a plane. I bounce from building to building on my way to the warehouse hideout.
The air sings with night-heat for me to absorb. I drink it in: The stockpile of energy inside me rises in volume. Heat, motion, sound at my command, flowing in and out of me as I will. I hear it everywhere around me: In heartbeats pumping hot blood through veins, in tires squealing as they exchange heat with the cement beneath them.
The universe is a symphony of energy, heat, sound, and force, and I’ve got a baton. Every degree of heat and every joule of kinetics are notes in the symphony. I pluck the notes and move them, replace them, transform them. It is a violent music.
It’s not long before I arrive at the warehouse. It’s older but in good condition. Faded red lettering on the side reads “MARSKIN DELIVERIES.” There’s a single roll-up door for trucks and cars, and an office entrance on the side of the building.
I take up a spot on a broken roof across the street from the roll up doors leading into the joint. I reach out with my thermoception to study the inside. This is a common procedure for me: I can sort out how many people there are from here, their positions, and any special source of heat or force. From this far across the road human heartbeats are pianissimo, but I’ll still be able to hear them.
Thanh told me to expect six or seven.
I don’t hear any heartbeats.
I hear the faint woosh of heat filtering out of flesh and cloth.
I sense the sharp edges of hundreds of bodies, freshly murdered.
I reach out with my thermoception again. I pray I’m wrong, that I misheard. But no. I’m right. I’m dreadfully right. I’m listening to the flesh-heat of corpses trickle toward thermal equilibrium with the air.
“Holy fuck,” I say.
“We need to leave, now,” Megajoule says. “This is not worth three hundred dollars.”
I sit up on my knees, feeling the awful weight of terror. I blink. I’m not often scared, as there’s very few things on this planet that could threaten me physically. But whatever this is, whatever happened to the people in that warehouse, I feel it could hurt me. Call it the predator’s instinct of knowing there’s something tougher than you lurking out there.
My instincts scream at me to flee. Megajoule breathes down my neck to do the same.
It surprises me that I find myself alighting on the street and taking trembling steps toward the warehouse, guided by an almost magnetic energy strong enough to overcome my fear.
“What are you doing, Gabe?” Megajoule’s voice has a note of jeer in it. “You’re getting involved. Paul needs your help. You can’t get caught up in someone’s mess.”
“I’m not,” I say.
“Yet you’re still walking up to the rolling door.”
“Yes,” I agree, even as I grasp the chain that opens the truck entrance. As I feel the cold metal in my hand, my fear almost triumphs in sending me running back to Thanh to tell him what I found.
But what if there’s someone alive in there? Buried in this mess, their heartbeat so faint and light that I can’t hear it through the fresh bodies.
I grip the chain and open the door.
It’s one thing to hear the dead, but it’s another to see them in a chaotic mass.
I wade knee-deep into the gore. I turn round and round. I stare at hands outstretched for salvation that never came and limbs twisted in agony, faces either collapsed in like sinkholes or frozen in terror.
My senses tell me the dead are just beginning algor mortis. One to two hours at most. But despite the freshness of the bodies, they smell like they’ve decayed for weeks under the sun. Boils and rashes cover the walls like they’re made of skin, like no other Affect impression I’ve ever seen.
The rot invades my nose despite my mask. My stomach churns. I pull my mask down, lift my goggles up. I fight with my dinner but keep it down, just barely. I blink tears away from my eyes.
A hand pushes out of the ocean of bodies. I hear a voice curse in Spanish as the body shoves its way up. I fill my fist with kinetic energy instinctively. My curled hand glows like steel pulled from a furnace. I reel back in fear.
But past the paste of guts, all I see is a kid. He stares at me, stammering. His eyes grow wide before rolling back into his head. He convulses and falls down into his pillow of corpses.
I stand down. My fist stops shining as the heat returns back into my heart.
Megajoule whispers in my ear. “He saw your face.”