Power is kinda like a game of dominoes. You tip the first one, which is the thing you want to do. Let’s say… kill Danger Close. That dead cape tips over another domino, and then another, and then another, and the next thing you know all you have is a mess. That’s my take on it, at least.
Of course, there’s also the question of who set the dominoes up. I can’t see how all this is going to fall, but I know it was designed this way. Maybe it was God and these dominoes have been falling since the beginning of everything. Or maybe it was Foundation and I just messed up their careful arrangement.
That’s what power is. The ability to topple another person’s dominoes.
There’s going to be a consequence, no matter who set this up.
See me lazing around in my apartment: A spoon dangles from my mouth and a cold bowl of cereal sits on my lap. I’m lost in my early morning thoughts. The smell of burnt coffee clings to the air. The television Paul rigged drones on in the living room, the words indistinct from interference outside of a few fragments.
Pawpaw whines at my leg, begging me with his beautiful eyes and wagging tail to give him a morsel. I can’t say no. I toss a grain of cereal into his mouth. Pawpaw crunches down hard before licking his lips. That dog can’t help but bring a smile to my face.
The newscaster on the television catches my attention because she’s pretty and she’s talking about me. She looks like an angry teacher, with a stern, almost emotionless expression. “The capes are calling for the arrest of Home Run, the mask whose image circulated social boards and news channels last night.”
Home Run, huh? That’s the name they’re giving me. I turn it over in my head. Not bad.
“If you or smxrtae—” and here the world becomes garbled static that grates on my ears so badly I grimace in pain. “—you know encounters him, Foundation advises leaving the area immediately. ”
Her co-anchor, an older white man, says, “Please report all sightings to Foundation through telegram or phone, or at your local station. There will be a mild pathic disentanglement following this broadcast. If you find you still have anxiety after, Foundation advises reporting to a station for further pathic disentanglement from Home Run. If you or smwgsfe—”
Again the painful static, confirming my fears. “—watching with you suffer from epilepsy, please turn off the TV and report for in-person pathic disentanglement.”
I turn off the TV.
I could chalk up the first to interference, but not the second instance. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me.
There’s a word missing in my vocabulary. I won’t ever get it back.
My breath comes in jolts. My heart hammers. The grinding noise of heat inside my core threatens to spill out of me. I clutch my knees and whisper, “G for Good. A for Able. B for Beautiful, E for Enough…”
I repeat that mantra until my throat is hoarse.
Do you hear the gentle clack-clack-clack of dominoes falling?
Five days flow by me. I promised Paul I’d keep my head down, but at night I go knocking on doors, mostly for friends of Thanh’s and people Paul or I have helped in the past. I show them the glittering weapon: The name Pandahead. I ask them what they know. If I’m going to find the slaver, I’m going to need more than what Mateo’s told me.
Every person I try to talk to shuts me out. They make excuses. One particularly burly cousin of Thanh, sporting a tattoo of a sword on his shoulder, frowns and slams the door on me.
These are the people I can trust and they’re telling me to go fuck myself. I can’t imagine my luck would be much better trying some of the other gangs I know. Our only connection would be their fear of me. A prime motivator to go to the capes.
Over the course of five days I reduce my options to three. The first option I will save for last. The second is visiting the farm Mateo told me about, though I’m worried about walking into a trap there. The third is the Houston Egalitarian Front, a group of cape abolitionists-slash-terrorists Paul and I have avoided meeting with for the four years we’ve lived here. Paul would like it to stay that way, but I don’t much care.
So my first option: The Storm Knights, a group of neo-nazis I’ve had the displeasure of working for in the past. Not on purpose, believe me. I took a job through a friend of Paul’s because I needed money. When I found out the people the Knights were having me muscle around were just poor folk from south of the border, I fucked off and told them to eat it. My stomach growled a lot after that but I got used to cheap cereal, and I slept better knowing I wasn’t working for white nationalists.
You understand my hesitation to even show up at their door to twist their arms. However, their ideology means that if they go to the capes, they’ll get rehabilitated. Not because the capes are very friendly with poor migrants, you understand, but because they’d much rather the Knights be faithful little Soterists instead.
The Storm Knights make their base in a section of town called Skyscraper Shadows. The name is half-true. The Houston skyline stares down on Skyscraper Shadows, but instead of shadow the skyscrapers cast light down on this part of town, powerful and neon, and it blankets the neighborhoods and streets in a perpetual spectrum. The light is so oppressive it overwrites sound and smell. The normal atmosphere of the city is lost in artificial day.
I walk using slow, measured steps, careful even this late into the night not to catch the eye of a cape patrolling the area. I listen for whispering drones. There’s little in the way of darkness to act as cover, but I make do with the shadows I find, where the light from the Houston skyline fails to meet with the hidden alleyways and abandoned housing of Skyscraper Shadows.
Within Skyscraper Shadows, there are forested lots sometimes several acres large. Mostly private properties but sometimes restaurants and bars. Buried in one such lot is a bulky barnyard painted blue and brown, serving as a bar and music venue. Posters from bands long past suffocate each other in thick layers on the wall. The sweaty stink of a dive bar offends me as I stroll into the gravel lot. A few randos hanging in the lot catch sight of me, but avert their eyes as I pass by.
The bar thumps and grinds: There’s a rock show tonight. Punk rock from the sound of it, the bass cutting through the wooden walls of the barnyard.
“Nazi punks, fuck off,” I mutter to myself.
The word ‘Storm’ is emblazoned on the side of the bar in large, blue lettering. Beneath that there’s a graffiti tag that reads ‘Knights.’ Subtlety does not follow thunder, I suppose.
Two skinheads in uniform (leather jackets, tight jeans, and combat boots), wait by the doors, watching me as I approach. They leave their perch to meet me at the stairs of the club and trail behind like a pair of hyenas.
“Lookit this,” the first one says. He has a cleft lip, and one of his eyes droops lower than the other. His nose is misshapen, his ears cauliflowered from years of fighting. “I saw you on the news this week. The pretty lady told me to come get myself disentangled if I saw you.”
“They’ll probably peel the swastika from your neck while they’re at it.” I point at the tattoo peeking up through the collar of his jacket. The bit I can see looks sketchy like a home job, but there’s no mistaking the sharp crook of that symbol. “Lovely handiwork. You have to tell me who did it for you.”
The skinhead with the cleft lip grins at me. “It’d look good carved in your forehead.”
“You’re welcome to try.” I turn to the other skinhead, a scrawny pup compared to his brutish friend. “Before Master Race here does anything he regrets, will you get me Alabaster John?”
The pup scowls, flips me the bird, but retreats into the club.
“Didya really kill all them in that warehouse? Heard they were illegals.” The brute leers at me.
I consider fanning the flames of my reputation. Convincing a few racists that I was a killer would make them more malleable, but I don’t want that on my conscience. I don’t care if they hate me, either. “Nah. Fuck off.”
“Fuckin’ pussy,” the brute says. “I bet you didn’t even kill DC neither.”
Nearly buried among the posters on the walls is a cork board, covered in pictures and news stories of Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other minorities, from all walks of life. I find it hilarious the leader of the Houston Heroes, Krater, is there as well, like these idiots could do anything to him given the chance.
But I remember that stone skin is still skin, and Alabaster John could do something to him. Not without the rest of the city falling on his head, but he could try.
John swaggers out of the club with the scrawny pup and two more of his uniformed skinheads. I don’t doubt that they have some minor powers of their own. Possibly cruiserweight. But John himself is the big threat and he knows it. A single touch from his index finger and that’s the end of you.
He’s not a young man but he acts like it. He has all the energy and personality of a punk rocker combined with the smarmy arrogance and entitlement of a white nationalist. He’s bald, which is my favorite part about him. Unlike his minions he wears a suit and tie. “Gabe, what brings you to my door? Or should I call you Home Run now?”
“I don’t care what you call me,” I say.
“Did you come here for work? I know you usually work with them ratfucks in the Shells—”
“Pump the brakes. I don’t want to break your teeth before you sing for me.” I fill my fist with heat and hold it up at Alabaster’s Storm Knights.
My show of power wipes the smug look off Alabaster John’s face, but it creeps back as he continues. “Shit, Gabe, all you had to do was ask. What kinda singing did you think I’d do for you?”
The brute’s grin disappears. The scrawny pup whines. And for the first time since I’ve met him, Alabaster John frowns. He hesitates. A murmur worms through his lips before he says, “I don’t know nothing about a Pandahead.”
I grip the wooden railing of the stairs. Smoke pours from my palm. If I wanted it, this place would be cinders within the hour. “Try again, John.”
Alabaster pulls his finger out of his pocket and aims it at me. “You best think real careful, Gabe. You want this shit today?”
“I’ve been looking for an excuse.” I scowl and tighten my grip on the wooden railing. “Give it to me, nazi prick.” Of course, this is all for show. I want him to tell me something.
Alabaster John lifts his finger. The tip begins to glow a lot like mine but with a sickly green light. One touch from that and I’m gone.
I’ve got my ways around it, and I can keep my distance, but I’d still rather not tangle with him. One mistake and the Gabe train is derailed forever.
“You better not,” Megajoule warns me, whispering into my ear.
I know I should, but there’s something inside me that won’t back down. I grab the railing with both hands, letting the fire catch and spread along the old wood. Embers drift downwind, toward the club. Small, solitary fires start curling the ends of the old posters. The people in the lot have noticed. The people inside probably won’t realize until it’s too late.
“Even if you get me right now, you won’t stop the blaze,” I say. “Capes’ll show up. There will be questions.”
Alabaster John glances at me, at his boys, and then lowers his finger.
“Good,” I say. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know nothing about who’s under the helmet,” Alabaster John says. “I just know what he does. He’s got half the gangs in Houston by the balls. He’s pulled people in from fuckin’ across the border, rapists and murderers just looking for a quick buck. And he’s bringing in whores and workers by the hundreds.”
“Where’s he hanging out?”
“Fuck if I know,” Alabaster says, calmly watching the fire spread.
“You’re not one of those he grabbed by the balls?”
“Nope. He’s everything I hate. Drugs, whores. Nothing this country was founded on.”
I let him wax poetic. The fires begin to join hands along the posts, merging into one larger burn.
“You gonna put that out?” he asks, taking a step back.
“Anything else? Like where he brings them in?”
“My guess? Through the harbor.”
“Through the exclusion zone?” I can’t imagine how he’d get slaves through the no man’s land between the bay and the city proper without losing half of them, not unless he had an official cape escort.
“Where else could he bring them through?” Alabaster says, his voice growing higher pitched. “Come on, man. I told you what I know. Put that shit out.”
I gulp down the heat in the air around us, lowering the temperature to freezing in seconds, draining the energy from the fire. The growing bloom wilts into nothingness. I will the energy out of me as a burst of wind, snuffing out the dying flames. The sudden blast knocks the Storm Knights off their feet.
I leave down the stairs. “Bye bye, John. Don’t let me catch a skinhead in the Shells.”
The first of my remaining options expended, I dash out of the parking lot before the Storm Knights can regroup.