Immerse yourself again in blood with me. Are you there? Can you feel dead fingers grazing your skin in the red water? Good.
I kneel over the one survivor I’ve found, a Latino kid covered in gore. He stammers, his body seizing.
“Kid, you okay?” I ask.
“P-p-p-p-p-p-” the boy starts while his body shakes and writhes, his eyes locked on a point past my head. His gaze is so wide that his eyes might fall out of his skull if he wasn’t on his back. “Pan-panda-head of panda-thermos-everyone-thing-dark-evil-black-monster-kill-kill-kill-ki-ki-k-k-k-k…”
The babbling devolves into monosyllable nonsense.
“Pandahead? Is that the name of someone?”
The kid only clicks his tongue in response. He’s catatonic.
I sigh and extend my power to search for other survivors. There are none. There’s only me and this boy. I put my mask and goggles back on before turning my attention to the bodies. I search through the gore, hoping I’ve missed someone.
“Told you,” Megajoule says, staring at me from one of the corpse mounds. His face is wedged between a bleeding arm and… I’m not sure what the other thing is, but some mass of flesh. “Shouldn’t have come.”
I shake my head. “Do you know what this is? These Affect impressions are wild.”
“I know as much as you, I’m afraid. You’re right, though. These are unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Megajoule says. “Wait… do you hear that?”
I hear the click of a camera, but it’s too late to get out of the way. A Foundation surveillance drone. The drone resembles a silver dragonfly with four rotors, each as sharp as a knife. Bright, disorienting light floods into the warehouse from its eyes. Its camera is surely capturing me and the unconscious kid.
The drone sneaks in silently through the door, its engines dead cool by Affected technology I don’t understand. It’s completely hidden from my thermal sense, but I still should’ve sensed the motion. I was too focused on this tomfuckery.
I dash over with a burst of heat and slice the drone with burning fingers. The drone splits apart and falls into the mound of guts. The molten scraps scald the decay, causing wisps of smoke to rise.
I consider my situation. I look massively guilty standing in a massive grave.
And capes are sure to follow the drone. Could be minutes at most.
I hoist the kid over my shoulder and leave through the truck entrance. I leap to a nearby building and hide with the kid on the rooftop, waiting for someone to show up.
My someone arrives with the sound of an exploding rocket. A streak of fire lights up the sky, echoing like a gong in my thermal sense. He hammers the concrete on the street below, nearly breaking the asphalt into pieces as he lands.
Danger Close is his name. One of the Houston Heroes and one of the most famous capes in the city. On the triangle diagram that all capes sit on between celebrity, officer, and god, Danger Close sits squarely on “officer.” His camouflaged armor gives him the stature of a giant. The armor’s visor glows red, and the shoulders and gauntlets glint with bullet and blade promises of death.
“Look at Mr. Fancy Tin Can,” Megajoule whispers in my ear.
“Why do you suppose he showed up?” Megajoule asks me.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. He’s the first responder, that’s all.”
“He’s one of the Houston Heroes. They are never the first responders.”
I had to grant that. There’s an army of capes in Houston beneath the Houston Heroes ready to do the grunt work. Capes like Danger Close tend to be picky about what they tackle.
I watch as Danger Close surveys the street and the Marskin warehouse, but with emotion I can’t decipher. He holds up his fist, and nothing appears to happen, but with my kinetic sense I hear the whistling of a miniature drone. I track the whistling as the drone follows a perimeter around the warehouse. Its eyes shine light through the windows. My leg muscles tighten in anticipation.
The drone enters the warehouse through one of the open windows.
“What are you after, Mr. Fancy Tin Can?” I whisper, echoing Megajoule’s name for him.
More drones whisper at the edge of my thermokinetic sense, each one headed toward the warehouse. I curse beneath my breath. My spying venture has come to an end.
The drones haven’t spotted me yet, thanks to my ability to match my heat (and the kid’s) to the air and avoid coming up on thermal imaging, but if they get close enough they’ll detect my Affect.
I throw the kid over my shoulder, make him weightless with my power, and flee across the rooftops.
I rise on warm currents of air into the city bramble of Houston, bouncing between buildings to create distance from the drones. With the boy over my shoulder, I flit through the urban jungle. For an instant, I am suspended in the bright amber of car lights beneath and the skyscraper lights above. All I smell is asphalt and burning rubber. All I hear is the summer night on my skin and the energy pooled inside me.
Say what you will of Houston. Say it is a cesspool of business, oil, and crime. Say it is a dead end and that the land it sits on is a bog.
But also say at night that the city shines like a galaxy. Say you can look into the swirling colors of blazing projections on the sides of skyscrapers and find something pristine. The skyline pierces the dark of night like radiant spears. When the morning comes and all you’re left with is grimy steel, all you have to do is remember the night before when Houston was beautiful.
Orange street lights and the occasional burst of color from downtown Houston slice apart the shadows, so that one street is near pitch darkness and the next is neon daylight. I glide and leap over alleys until I come to my hiding place: An abandoned Soterist chapel wedged in between the Shells and the Third Ward to the west.
Inside, the chapel reveals the source of its abandonment: A former battleground. A blackened scar runs down the left wall. Stone faces and hands sprout out from the wound. They are strong Affect imprints, the kind left by a Heavyweight using their power. Yet compared to the warehouse these are minuscule.
Ashes from long ago litter the floor. I kick them up as I creep into the main worship hall.
I set the kid down on one of the few remaining pews. I listen to his body with my power. To me, they all have distinct patterns—a fingerprint of sorts. I’ve developed an appreciation for how people’s blood moves through their veins the way one enjoys a violinist bowing the strings.
His blood flows normally. His heartbeat drums on rhythm. No fever or temperature abnormality in him. As far as I can tell, he’s physically fine.
He must be around thirteen or fourteen years old. He smells sour. Rank, even. Beneath the stench of his sweat there’s a vague hint of oil. His black hair is greasy, his face pocked with acne and scar tissue.
I guess the scars on his hands have nothing to do with his pubescence.
I notice a metal bracelet on his wrist, inscribed with hundreds of tiny markings that look like circuits, each one a different color of the rainbow. A Winsley power cuff dampening his emotions. No emotions. No powers.
“What the hell happened to you?” I ask.
“What are you doing, Gabe?” Megajoule sneers.
“I’m checking him out.”
“Are you actually thinking you’ll play detective?” Megajoule chuckles. I weather it, trying not to feel embarrassed. “Face it, that’s like a bull trying to reassemble a Ming vase. All you’re gonna do is break more things.”
“So, what? I head back to Thanh, tell him the gang’s gone? What do I do with this kid?”
“You tell me, champ.”
I should just drop him off outside a station house. I’m not equipped to handle this kind of thing. But when I close my eyes and turn away from the kid, I see my brothers sitting in cells and grasping at the bars. Faces in agony. My face. Megajoule’s face.
All of them are part of a rat king of clones, and I can’t help but watch them drown together.
No. I can’t abandon the kid, not yet. Need to know what happened in that warehouse. But since he isn’t waking up any time soon, I feel safe leaving him. I grab a zip-tie from my pocket and bind him to the leg of one of the pews. While I do, I glance at his sleeping face. There is sorrow and pain carved into the shape of his eyes and the curve of his frown. I can only wonder at what he dreams.