A storm sewer isn’t an ideal place for a meal. Given the circumstances, it’ll have to do. We’re not far from one of my usual haunts, but I didn’t want to drag Mateo there in case we get followed again. My plan now is to see who else might chase us, or if we’re really in the clear. If I give it an hour and no one’s found us, then the Winsley dampener was how DC tracked the kid.
Mateo and I sit next to each other, our feet just out of the tiny sliver of standing water. Lucky for us, it hasn’t rained in a few days. The sour smell of the pipes is muted compared to our bowls of ramen.
Mateo stirs at his bowl on his knees with a spoon, hiding his injured hand from me. I haven’t even opened my ramen. The bat I took from the statue rests against my shoulder, the awful weight of it as light as a feather to me. There is a small blood stain near the tip of the bat. Blood from Danger Close.
“Do you like it?” I ask, referring to the ramen.
“It’s good,” he says, but he keeps stirring instead of eating.
We’ve got to do something about his hand. I’m sure by now the city is in a frenzy. You don’t kick a hornet’s nest and expect silence. You don’t beat the biggest, meanest hornet’s head in and expect the rest of the hornets to leave you alone.
“Where were you born?” I ask.
“My pa,” he says.
Mateo gives me a broken look, one that tells me I know the answer. His father is somewhere in that mound, that soup of death. Gone, far gone.
We sit in silence as I process that.
“You have to be fifty something by now,” Mateo says.
“I’m twenty-one,” I say, mentally adding the “as far as I know” bit. “I’m not Megajoule.”
“I saw your face. I know you.”
“Kid, you don’t know me,” I say.
“I grew up with posters of you.”
“That doesn’t mean you know me.”
Mateo furrows his acne pocked brow in anger. “But I recognize you! I know who you are!” One of his black curls breaks free of the grease layer in his scalp, causing it to dangle over his face.
“Okay, let’s follow this delusion to its natural end.” I wave my finger in the air like some shitty gentleman detective. “Suppose that I’m Megajoule. If you saw my face you’d know that I can’t be a day older than twenty-two. How did I get so young?”
“Anti-aging cream,” Mateo offers, almost too fast. Shooting from the hip never wins duels.
“Anti-aging cream.” I let the words hang in the air so that the stink of the phrase will shame him. “I, Megajoule, the greatest hero in all of Foundation—no, the world—have been liberally applying anti-aging cream in the years since my supposed death and have moved to Houston to wear a mask and live in the Shells?”
Mateo frowns at me. “Wow, you’re an asshole.”
I shake my head. I always believed that one day I’d reveal myself to the world, or at least one person. This shitty kid calling me an asshole because I won’t own up to where I got my face wasn’t a part of that fantasy. “I’m not your Megajoule, kid. He’s dead. I just happen to have one of those faces, which you won’t be seeing again anyway.” I reassure myself that my mask is still there with a gentle tug at the bottom.
The truth is much more disappointing, kid. It’s not a secret weapon or the cure for the world’s ills. It’s a flaming bag of dog shit on your porch.
You didn’t stumble onto the greatest hero, Mateo, you stumbled onto his shadow.
“Why did you save me?” Mateo asks.
“I don’t know. Wasn’t right to just leave you.”
“Is it right to lie to me, too?” He sets his ramen to the side and glares at me. “I don’t know why you’re trying to lie but it’s not even working. You look like him, you talk like him, you’re invincible like him. You’re Megajoule and you’re doing a shitty job of convincing me you’re not.”
“My, the bracelet coming off has done wonders for his attitude,” Megajoule whispers. I try to ignore him, but his thoughts dig deep. “Maybe it’s time we give up the ghost.”
Would if I could, Mega. I lean my head against the wall of the sewer pipe and look up into the cement. I look past it, into my thoughts, into the void. There’s no easy way around this. So many years concealing my identity and I slip my mask off once, and this kid can already tell who I am.
“Time to eat this gift horse,” Megajoule says. “And explain the unexplainable.”
I suppose I should start with the easy part. I pull back the hood of my jacket, pull down my mask, and take off my goggles. No need for my glasses right now, not with Mateo sitting ten feet from me. If he was trying to get me to read something I’d need them. Farsightedness is such a strange condition.
Mateo studies my face carefully. He doesn’t stand up or move in any way. He just takes in my features.
“My name’s Gabe,” I say. “I’m a clone of Megajoule.”
“Clone?” Mateo tilts his head.
“They made me and my brothers to take over for Megajoule in case he ever died.”
Mateo doesn’t seem to absorb all this right away. He wrinkles his brow, confused. “You mean, they just made a bunch of copies of Megajoule so they could replace him?”
“He was very important,” I say. “Too important to let die. But he did and no one was there to replace him when the time came.”
“That’s why things are the way they are,” Megajoule says. “All because you wouldn’t step up. That’s why everyone’s scared out of their minds. The foundation can’t hold the world together without me.”
I ignore Megajoule. “I wish there was more to it than that, kid, but now you know. I’m not even as strong as he was.”
“You said you had brothers,” Mateo says. “What happened to them?”
I return the look he gave me earlier, the one that says, ‘you know the answer.’ Gone, far gone.
Mateo nods. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise, Gabe.”
That’s reassuring, at least. I nod. I try moving the conversation away from myself: “What happened at the warehouse? What did Pandahead do to you?”
“He…” Mateo gives me this horrid look, this look that pleads with me not to think he’s insane. A look I know so well it hits me like a bullet. “He had a thermos.”
“When he opened it, I saw my mother’s face. She was whispering things about how she killed our dog and how it was my fault. My ma’s been dead for years, but when he opened that thermos, she came back to life somehow. She was in my head. She told me to kill her like she killed the dog. She told me to fight. I hid from her instead. I couldn’t see anything until you.”
“Yikes,” Megajoule comments.
“I don’t know what he did, but that thermos, it filled my head with horrible things.”
“Why your mom?” I ask. “Did she really…”
“A few years back, my mom went mental. She killed the dog. Tried to fucking off me too. Said she was my guardian angel or some cryptic bullshit.” Mateo shrugs. “Pa got me out of there. Told me ma died.”
There’s nowhere to go back to for him. No one in Colombia can help him. Even getting back there would be hell: He’d be going through an active war zone trying to squirm past the battlegrounds of deity warlords. “The one thing harder than getting into Foundation is getting out,” Megajoule says. “That’s why you can’t leave either.”
“One day some men broke into our apartment and went absolutely brutal on my pa and me,” Mateo continues. “Put the bracelets on us and brought us to—”
“The Marskin warehouse?”
“No. Brought us to a labor camp somewhere outside Houston. They forced us to work the fields, growing shit for some wheatie company. Pa and I were there for a few months.” Mateo shrugs the same way he did with his mom. Killing dogs, a few months of slavery, what’s the difference? Who am I to judge healthy processing techniques? King of them, I am not.
“One day the guy arrives. Pandahead. I’d heard his name before but I’d expected this big strange dude, maybe a heavyweight with crazy powers. I dunno. You hear a name like that and you think of someone huge, but he was small, almost tiny. I could look over his head if he weren’t wearing his helmet.”
I cross my legs. Tiny. That’s a significant physical descriptor to go by. “What’d he do?” I ask.
Mateo is lost in the memory, frowning at whatever Pandahead did to them that day. “He said we were changing locations. Said anyone who fought would die. His men crammed us into trucks and brought us to the warehouse. We thought if enough of us fought back, even wearing our bracelets…” His frown breaks into a grimace. “That’s when he did the thing. I think in the aftermath my dampener got turned up way too high.”
“Do you know why?” I ask.
“Why what? Why he used his power on us?”
“No, why he was changing locations.”
“Nope, never said a word. We thought maybe we were moving because capes were coming or something, but one of the others said they’d seen Pandahead meet with capes before. Some lady from Brazil who’d been with him a half a year longer than anyone else.” Mateo sniffles. “I don’t know anything else.”
One hell of a story. Slavers put down a revolt. “Was there a gang?”
“I dunno,” Mateo says. “Pandahead had guys come and go all the time.”
Sounds like he hired out. But then how is that connected to Thanh? He said he didn’t know, but who knows what connections anyone has these days.
“What about this Marskin delivery company? The one that owned the warehouse? You know anything about them? You don’t know what he was planning on doing with you? At all?” I ask.
Mateo shakes his head and shrugs in that borderline mocking way only young teens can manage. “I just told you. I don’t.”
It’s not the bombshell I was hoping for to get me out of this mess, but it’s a start.
“You’re not injured,” Mateo says.
That’s not a question. Mateo’s a sharp kid. “You’re right. I’m not,” I answer.
“Dude, you said you were weaker than Megajoule. That guy shot you so much. He threw you across a church. It just made you stronger, didn’t it?” His eyes fill with fervor.
“Okay, kid. Yeah, it made me stronger. Every hit I take just fuels me. But you know what happens if I get too much? I set everything around me on fire.”
To sell my point, I manipulate heat from its hidden place in my heart, drawing it into my hand. My palm glows like tungsten filaments. Bronze tongues of fire lick my fingertips. “If I don’t keep it under control, I could kill everyone around me.”
Mateo looks at my hand, but instead of fear there is inspiration in his eyes.
“Maybe you’re not like him, but you’re still invincible,” Mateo says.
“Sure, I guess,” I say, even though I don’t think I am. “Are you done eating? We need to get you some help.”
“My uncle Paul can help us,” I say. “I just have to convince him not to kill you.”
Mateo grimaces. “Then I guess I’m doomed, because you’re not very convincing, dude.”
After an hour passes and I think we’re safe from being tracked with Affected tech, we leave the storm sewer and escape to the rooftops. The drones are out in swarms tonight. After what I did, I’m not surprised. Even more, I sense humans moving in greater numbers through the Shells. The neighborhood capes must have gotten the alert. Lucky for me I know these streets better than they do. With Mateo on my back I dart through the blind spots.
We cross three miles in as little as ten minutes.
My apartment is how I left it: A giant cement box draped with neon signs, pieces of metal, scraps of paper, and the trash of the lives filling it. Windows don’t cast warm light, but instead shine austerely with fluorescent bulbs and halogen lamps.
I vault up to the balcony on the third floor where Pawpaw, my elderly golden retriever, is wagging his tail. He doesn’t bark when he catches sight of me. He’s a good boy.
I let Mateo off my back, making sure to keep his arm stable as he gets his bearings after riding a human bullet. Mateo rubs Pawpaw’s head with one finger, hesitating to use his full hand, but Pawpaw wags his tail and smiles the way only golden retrievers can.
“When we go in, let me do the talking,” I say.
Mateo zips his mouth shut with his good hand and then throws away an invisible key.
I chuckle. “Sure, that works.”
I open the balcony door.
“Gabe! What in the brazen fuck did you do tonight?” Paul storms out of the kitchen. “Did you really…”
He trails off as he sees Mateo standing behind me. Paul always looks like a ghoul, but the instant he sees the kid, it feels as though he dies right in front of me. His eyes widen and his cheeks turn pale. “Gabe, what have you done?”
“This is Mateo,” I whisper, knowing a name won’t stop Paul from killing him if he has to. “I saved him from the Marskin warehouse job. The gang, Pandahead, they imprisoned him and almost killed him, but I—”
Paul slaps the counter. He twists toward me, his eyes wild. “I don’t care who he is! There’s only one fucking rule I gave you and that’s to never bring anyone here!”
“He was in danger.”
Paul’s jaw clenches. Veins bulge underneath his temples. He transforms from friendly grandpa to gargoyle. “Has he seen your face?”
“It was an accident.”
Mateo shakes his head. “I won’t tell no one! I promised Gabe.”
“You. Me. Other room,” Paul says to me, snapping his fingers.
I join him in my bedroom. Even after all these years I barely have any furnishings: Just a bunch of books and a bed for Pawpaw that he never sleeps in.
“What the fuck, Gabe?” Paul jumps into one of his tirades, pointing his finger at me and stomping his feet. His eyes widen as if he’s possessed. “What the fucking fuck? Are you kidding me? You’ve put us into serious shit!”
“He was enslaved, Paul. What did you want me to do, leave him in the warehouse? Danger Close would’ve killed him.”
“And so you went and killed Danger Close instead? You bring that kid into our home? Do you even know if he’s being tracked?”
“He was. Through a Winsley bracelet. I got it off of him.”
Paul scowls before retreating to the other side of the room. “But you killed a cape. Not just anyone, but a Houston Hero. We’re not going to be able to show our masks ever again. You’ll need to change your outfit, your whole M.O.! Fuck, we’ll be lucky if Thanh hires us again. Did you even think of that?”
“He was enslaved!” I shout. “I found him in a pit of bodies! You’re saying I should have abandoned him? Fuck you, old man. I wasn’t gonna do that. But you, you knew about Pandahead, and you steered clear instead of protecting our neighbors!”
“It’s not my fucking job to protect our neighbors! It’s my job to keep you safe!”
“Well the capes sure as hell aren’t protecting them! Danger Close told me he was working with Pandahead!”
“So fucking what?” Paul crosses his arms and stares at me, curling his upper lip.
I can’t look him in the eye when he gets like this. I stutter and lower my head, but I don’t back down. “You’re telling me that after getting me out of the lab, after everything you sacrificed, you’re pissed at me for doing the same for someone else?”
Paul stammers. “I—You—That’s not—” He starts and stops a few times, but falls silent.
“You’re not angry enough about this,” I say.
Paul’s face softens at that. He sighs and turns away from me, putting a hand on the wall. “Now you get righteously angry, huh?”
I don’t say anything.
“You’re so angry all the time, kid, that some of it’s righteous is entirely by accident.”
“That’s rich,” I snap. “Coming from you.”
Paul shakes his head. “Fine. I can’t stop you, Gabe. I can only warn you. In the meantime, we got a kid out there that you dumped on our doorstep, so let’s go see what we can do to help him.”
We return to the living room, where Mateo pretends he wasn’t listening in on our epic shouting match. I watch as he pets Pawpaw with his good hand. Paul places his hand on the boy’s shoulder. I retreat to the kitchen, my anger pressing on my skull like a vise.
“Cruiserweight,” Paul says simply. He always rattles off his usual list whenever he touches someone. “Hardlight manipulation. Shattered trapezium. Dislocated thumb. From the bracelet?”
“Had to pry it off,” I say.
“Alright Mateo, grit your teeth. This one’s gonna be a doozy.”
Mateo looks at me, unsure. I nod, so he settles back down and waits for whatever Paul is going to do. Paul rolls up the sleeves of his shirt and the sleeve of Mateo’s broken hand. “Shit, these clothes are disgusting.”
“Sorry,” Mateo says.
“Don’t apologize to me,” Paul replies. He gently grasps Mateo’s broken hand. “You ready?”
Mateo winces at Paul’s touch. He doesn’t say anything I can hear.
Paul sighs and closes his eyes. He always looks old, but never so worn as when he’s about to take someone’s injury. The wrinkles on his face seem to deepen, his hair thins and whitens one shade more.
Mateo gasps. His hand cracks audibly. The swelling disappears and the redness fades. Paul snarls while his left hand breaks in turn.
“What was that?” Mateo asks. He flexes his now healed hand.
I grab some whiskey from our cabinet and pour a glass. “Paul transfers Affects.”
“My hand was broken,” Mateo says.
“And now it isn’t.” I bring the whiskey to Paul and force him to sip some down. He grits his teeth but accepts the whisky all the same. Some of the liquor dribbles down his chin.
“We’ll figure the rest of this out in the morning,” Paul says. The old gargoyle rises to find his bed and perhaps some pain-killers.
“What if your thing flares up?” I ask him. It’s been a long time since he took an injury this severe. The last time he spent the day shuffling around the apartment, wondering about the cats we don’t have, and asking me about one of Thanh’s jobs five or six times after I’d explained it to him. It’s some kind of advanced dementia that fades after a few days.
“Then it’ll flare up.” He drags his feet to his bedroom and slams the door.
I let Mateo have my bed for what’s left of the night. Pawpaw happily snuggles up against him. “You’ll be okay in here?” I ask.
Mateo does nothing but give me a quiet look. How young he looks. He’s a tiny child in a dark bedroom too bare for someone his age. Or hell, for me too.
I sit down at the edge of the bed.
Mateo is on the verge of tears. His lip quivers.
“It’s okay to cry,” I tell him.
And he cries. He sits up, grabs my arm, and buries his face into my shoulder. He clings to me. I wrap one arm around his back and let him.
It’s not just Gabe here, or Mateo. It’s larger than the sum of its parts. It’s Megajoule and my brothers. A solace between two kids that stretches beyond the moment.
“What would make you feel safe?” I ask
Mateo sits up and wipes his eyes. He furrows his brow and thinks for a moment. After a heartbeat or two, he says, “We get Pandahead back. We get my pa justice.” He locks his eyes with me.
There’s a part of me that’s absolutely on board. A little piece of me that is screaming in my mind to say yes.
“It is what you do best,” Megajoule agrees. “Detective, no. Avenger? Why, that’s practically why they made you, Gabe. You’re a weapon and you’re letting yourself rust on these streets.”
Mateo waits for my answer. I can hear every part of him trembling, how fast his heart is beating, how the blood races through his veins. The creaking of our apartment, the inexorable pull of gravity on the rotting wood and the broken stone of the buildings around us. If I strain hard enough, I can even hear the white noise of the Earth’s momentum through space.
It is a preordained symphony, marching to its logical conclusion. All the universe’s violent music has always been leading up to this moment, where I agree to hunt a murdering slaver.