Two hours ago, I slipped into the Marskin warehouse expecting to find a gang of a dozen welterweight punks. I was paid three hundred American dollars to take care of them. Paul and I desperately needed the money to make ends meet.
Instead I found a mass tomb. The gang I was supposed to scare off was instead ripped to shreds, with pieces of their faces bitten off and chunks of flesh missing from their arms. I found more bodies in rags and Winsley bracelets turned into a sickening mash of blood and gore. And of course, I found the boy.
Where do you begin on a mystery like this?
You ask the boy who survived.
I sense no drones overhead or nearby, so I leap down to the church and sneak on in. Once I’m past the doorway, I turn around to watch the street, making sure I wasn’t followed. The only thing that way is a quiet, empty baseball field. A steel statue of a baseball player holding a bat above his head stands watch over the fake greenery. Everything is silent. No motion.
I keep watch for longer, but nothing changes. I sit next to the boy and wait for him to wake again. In the interim, I prepare two bowls of ramen by filling them each with water before slowly radiating them with my power. My stomach is too jittery for me to eat, so instead I contemplate the broken chapel and occasionally put a bit of my heat into the ramen to keep it from going cold.
On one of the walls is a faded mural of Metis, the architect of Foundation. Her skin is bronze, her hair dark and splayed above her head, which is crowned by four stars, one bronze, silver, gold, and copper. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light coming through the holes in the roof, but she almost seems alive on the wall, her stark white costume and brilliant blue cape, though faded with time, moving in the wind.
I wonder what it was like to be one of the first capes. What it’s like to be deified the way she and Megajoule have been. The Soterists call them Eidolons. What would it be like to be the focus of the world’s hope like that?
Sometimes, despite only being his clone, I have a strange feeling that I can only describe as Megajoule’s mantle. The mantle feels like I’m standing on a stage with all eyes on me. These phantoms, whoever they are, can pierce my skin and muscle with their gaze. They can tunnel through my bones right to my soul just by looking.
It’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling, though. There’s an energy that comes with it. Like there’s more of the universe around me. Everything comes alive.
The kid stirs, pulling me from my meditation. He wakes like a stuttering engine. He gasps and shakes, almost seeming like he’ll faint again before he pulls himself upright. He hyperventilates as he tugs his hand, the one still zip-tied to the bench.
“Hey!” I bark at him, hoping that will calm him down. The kid shrieks, tumbling off the pew before kicking and punching at the air. The Winsley bracelet should be dampening his emotions, but it’s not.
“Excellent,” Megajoule says. “You did want to terrify him, right?”
“Kid, take it easy! No one’s gonna hurt you!” I kneel down next to him and place a firm hand on his chest. He makes a feeble attempt at punching my forearm, but it does nothing but feed my stockpile. I don’t waste the energy. I absorb it, despite how meager it might be. “Cut it out, you turd.”
The turd does cut it out, though he’s still wild-eyed and bewildered. He glances around at the ash-laden chapel. His gaze lingers on the black scar and the stone faces, and after a solid ten seconds of staring at those, he relaxes into an expression so blank I worry he’s fallen unconscious again.
“You good?” I ask, knowing it’s a stupid question.
“No,” the kid says, and true enough the sole syllable causes his voice to crack. His throat must be dry to the bone.
“You’re in a church in Houston. I found you in the Marskin warehouse. You were the only one I found.”
There’s no change in his face. Exactly how he processes this information, I can’t tell. Idly, my eyes fall back to the Winsley bracelet. Maybe the circuits take a few minutes to kick in or maybe the shock he experienced at the warehouse was so overwhelming not even Affected tech could stop it.
“You got a name?” I ask.
“Mateo,” he says quickly.
“What were you doing in that mess?” I ask.
“…I was hiding.”
Megajoule chuckles in my ear. “Helpful little bug, isn’t he?”
I reach out with my thermal sense. His heart betrays nothing.
“Okay, and before that,” I say. “Who killed everyone in the warehouse?”
“Mostly they killed themselves,” Mateo says. His voice is flat and neutral, as if he’s reciting from memory.
“They killed themselves?” I ask. I’m not stupid. That was a massacre, not a suicide. Their bodies were brutalized.
“The person next to me plucked out his own eyes,” Mateo says. “Another had her throat torn out by the people around her.”
“Yikes,” Megajoule says. “Are you sure we should get involved?”
“Why did they do this?” I ask Mateo.
“Because they were scared,” he answers, offering nothing else.
I could spend hours with this robot trying to get him to tell me his story, but I’ve heard Winsley dampeners turn people catatonic if turned high enough. I’m lucky I’m even getting sentences out of him. I sigh, already feeling the mental exhaustion before I’ve started the real work.
Instead of mining for more words, I decide to figure out how I can remove the bracelet. “Hold out your hand,” I ask, and Mateo does automatically without even glancing my way. His gaze is locked forward as I tamper with the bracelet.
I fill my fingertips with heat from the stockpile of energy in my chest, intending to melt through the bracelet, but as I reach for the metal the heat in my hand dissipates, causing the energy to scatter harmlessly into the air. The bracelet leaves a strange chill on my fingers, a bald spot in my Affect.
I take a second to recollect the heat from the room, drawing it back to my stockpile. My power won’t help here. I’ll have to use good old physics to work this thing off. Winsley bracelets can be removed without a key, but it’ll bust his wrist if I pry it off.
“Are you sure you want to hurt him just to free him?” Megajoule asks.
“We may not have a choice,” I say. While I fiddle with the device I ask Mateo, “Who’s Pandahead?”
Mateo shudders, an emotional reaction that somehow overcomes the Winsley dampener.
“Someone bad?” I ask.
His voice remains flat and stilted. “He owned me.”
“You were his slave.”
I think that’s all I really need to know, and all I’ll get from him while the bracelet is on. I step away and sit down against a toppled pew, not sure what to do next.
“Gabe,” Megajoule calls out to me from the other end of the chapel. His green irises glow in the dark. His voice echoes on the stone. “Do you know what a black hole is?”
“No, Julian, I fucking don’t,” I say.
Megajoule reappears next to me, pacing around the pews. “A black hole is an object so dense that not even light can escape from its gravity,” he continues without acknowledging my barb. “If you were to see one, you’d think that maybe God poked a pencil in the fabric of the universe. The skin of matter and space ripped to show you what really lies beneath it: Nothing, endless nothing. Where time and space trade places and all you can do is ride the path into the dark. Do you want to know what would happen if you fell into one?”
“No, I don’t give a shit,” I say. “I’ll never fall into one.”
“You’re falling into one now,” Megajoule says. “This kid has his hand around your ankle already, I can see it. He’s getting sucked into it and if you try to pull him out you’re gonna fall in with him.”
I sigh and tap the pew with the back of my head. “So what? What happens?”
“The howling dark would come up at you. An infinite abyss stretching further and further out. Light would wrap around the hole, and as you passed the horizon, the universe would actually fall away behind you. It would shrink and shrink into a pinprick until all around you is the dark.
“It might actually be calm, for a bit. Until you start to feel yourself stretching. Spaghettification. Your molecules would get ripped apart. All the little pieces of you would slip into the event horizon, all your molecules travelling one path. One path that you can’t get off, one path taking you into the shadow. Forever. There is no escape from a black hole.”
I sit there, contemplating his vivid description. “I meant what happens in real life,” I say. “Not your weird space fiction.”
Megajoule scowls at me. “I’m only telling you what’s going to happen if you try to help him. You’re going to get caught in something you can’t escape. Then what happens to Paul? To you? You should just leave him here. Someone will come along and help him,” Megajoule says.
“I’m not going to leave him,” I reply.
“You’ll never get justice for what happened at the lab.”
The lab, the lab, always back to the lab. If there’s any true black hole in my life, it’s the lab. The scientists that performed experiments on me and my brothers. The people that authorized it and managed it.
Before I can reply I hear, both with my ears and with my thermokinetic sense, rockets bursting above the church. I reach out with my thermal sense. Drones are swarming the outside of the building. A cape lands on the roof with a loud clang, causing ashes to fall from the ceiling rafters like snow. The outline of the cape’s armor sharpens in my senses. The metal joints whir. The shoulder guns sing.
Danger Close found us.