Mateo and I stand at the edge of the Shells on the roof of a dilapidated apartment complex. The ruins of Houston’s university stretch before us. I listen for drones and capes. For now, we are alone.
Mateo wears a green mask that covers everything but his eyes. I made it by hand in our apartment. Originally I’d planned to wear a different outfit than my usual baseball jacket, but I can avoid drones well enough and if someone sees me, I can flee before they call the capes. In any case, Paul’s not lucid enough right now to make me new clothes that can resist my heat.
Plus, if I’m being honest, there’s a teensy part of me that wants to be recognized. That’s the only reason that explains me bringing my giant baseball bat.
Tonight’s the night we visit the farm Mateo worked at for months to search for any trace of Pandahead. Anything will do. A document, an address, hell, a ring with his fingerprints. Anything.
I’m already preparing myself for the event where we find nothing. I’m also preparing myself in case Pandahead left booby traps. None of my imagined outcomes include success—I find it’s better for my sanity to manage expectations ahead of time. Plus it means Megajoule doesn’t come out to kick me in the shins for dreaming too big.
“Alright, time to show me what you can do,” I say to Mateo.
The kid holds his hands out. Two glowing balls form between his fingers. Purple light springs from one palm, a deep orange from the other. He grins and tosses the orange one to me.
It’s warm to the touch and as solid as a baseball. It’d go well with my new bat.
Mateo flattens the purple ball into a disk and stretches it out to the size of a coffee table. He leaves it floating in the air, a table top without its legs. He steps up onto the disk. “This is what I can do,” Mateo says. He rises into the air to show me, levitating upward with the platform.
“Not bad,” I say.
“Not bad?” Mateo swoops down and snatches the orange ball from my hands. “That’s all I get?”
“Yeah. Get down, we don’t need you drawing the attention of every cape out there,” I say. “What kind of landmark am I looking for?”
“I remember there was a huge black tree nearby,” Mateo says, “and a big mouth in the earth with human teeth.”
“Like the Smiling Tower.” Lovely to see more of Carnality’s touch on the world. I hesitate to call her a woman or even a cloak—I believe she was classified as Affect Entity Ichor in the end. Whatever she was, she’s the one who put Megajoule in a grave, before the rest of Foundation brought her down with their combined might.
“Yeah,” Mateo says, “But this one is open, like it’s going to eat you.”
As far as landmarks go, that’s a good one. “You sure we won’t run into anyone?”
“No,” Mateo says. “But I worked for months near that mouth. I could hear it breathing, and we never got a visit from anyone Pandahead didn’t know about. Of course, toward the end he packed us up because he was paranoid.”
Right, and what would a crime lord slaver have to be paranoid about?
I keep my reservations to myself. Even if we do run into a trap, I’ll sense the capes long before they see us. “How fast can your board go?” I ask.
“Not very. About as fast as a bike, I guess.” Mateo hops off his purple surfboard. “But it’s cool.” He looks to me for approval.
“It’s cool,” I agree. “Can you make one big enough for both of us?”
“Yep. I can only do circle shapes, though.” Mateo shrugs. “That’s not very cool.”
“You’re right,” I agree again.
“Okay, that time you didn’t have to agree with me. You were supposed to say ‘No, it’s still very cool. One of the coolest powers I’ve seen.’”
“Unfortunately, that’s not what I said. I said ‘you’re right,’ because my power isn’t mind-reading.”
Mateo flips me the bird, but as he turns away I can see a smile on his face. When he settles down he says, “Yeah, I can make one for both of us. We won’t make the farm by dawn, though, not by a long shot.”
“Yes, we will. Make our ride.”
Mateo stretches his purple board out further, elongating it into a proper surfboard. I climb aboard and wrap my arms around Mateo.
“Um, okay,” Mateo says.
“This is for your safety. You’ll want to close your eyes and hold on tight.”
“I ain’t ever hugged a guy this hard, not even my dad.”
“I don’t fuckin’ care. Hug me.”
Mateo hesitantly embraces me with a bear hug. He protests, but the moment his arms are around me he sighs so slightly I almost don’t hear it. He sinks into my arms. I want to tell him this isn’t really a hug, but I remind myself he was enslaved, starved for human kindness.
“Okay,” I say. “Bring us up a hundred feet.”
Mateo levitates us upward. The surfboard, made of soft, purple light, is firmer than steel. It needs to be.
I close my eyes and listen to the grand symphony of all particles moving. Each particle tugged this way by the gravitational pull of the Moon, that way by the wind. Each influenced by the light yet impossibly firm touch of the Earth’s velocity around the sun and with it around the galactic center. I could not lift those fingers from me if I tried.
Do you see how little things matter on the Earth when you can feel the engine of the universe grinding forward?
The Earth is rotating. If I were to negate my momentum following the rotation by absorbing the force, I would rocket through the sky roughly four hundred and sixty meters per second toward the west.
I dig my power into the forces entangling us, making sure not to accidentally send us rocketing in the wrong direction. I protect Mateo’s body from the massive thrust we’re about to experience, and decelerate us relative to the Earth.
Wind screams over us with sudden fury. Mateo cries out, clinging to me harder and burying his face in my chest. My influence in absorbing kinetic energy only stretches a couple of feet, but it’s enough for me to negate the incredible force of the wind on Mateo and cushion his organs.
We split the atmosphere like a blade. Houston passes by in seconds. The Smiling Tower grins at us as we zip through the night.
Another smiling mouth slips into view on the horizon. A blood-stained, open-toothed smile hidden below the night sky, surrounded by dark trees. “Mateo? Is that it?” I shout.
Mateo glances over, struggling to get a word out as the wind hits his face. “Yeah, that’s it!”
“Brace yourself!” I weave us through the trees, aiming for a clearing near the mouth.
I try to make the landing easy on us. Unfortunately, this is not a simple song to master. The various forces emerge as a cacophony in my senses. I untangle them from each other: Our falling momentum, our forward velocity, the friction of the wind, and the force on our bodies as we hit the ground.
My stockpile of heat spikes as we touch down. Every inch of my skin shines as energy pours out of me. It’s too much. Little tongues of fire dance from my fingers.
“That’s hot!” Mateo scrambles from the board, from me, and falls on his back. His surfboard dissolves into thin air.
I hunch over, fighting the heat back into my body. It was too much, too fast. My muscles blaze.
“Dude, are you okay?” Mateo asks.
I grunt as light retreats from my skin. The energy rages, but the mighty storm is now safely restrained in my core. It’s tense, but not as bad as fighting it back. Maintaining is always easier than changing.
Mateo, feeling that I no longer radiate heat, offers me a hand to stand up.
I take it. “Thanks. I’m good, now.”
Mateo pats my shoulder. “Thanks for the ride.”
Once I get to my feet, I appreciate the forest we find ourselves in. We’re fifteen miles and millions of worlds away from Houston. The trees are glossy and black, almost chitinous, ending in thin mops of verdant green leaves. The trees almost seem to move from my gaze as I study them. The gigantic mouth ravine wheezes out warm, humid air. The Earth herself sighing through red lips and teeth.
Mateo points away from the ravine. “This way. We’re not far.”
We trudge through the forest, stepping over sparse, wispy undergrowth and black dirt. Vanilla and motor oil scents mingle with each other to pierce my mask. I feel a headache coming on. “How did you work out here?”
“The ground is tough,” Mateo says. “Hard to break. But things grow, grow like nothing I’d ever seen before. You ever see a corn stalk grow to its full height by the next morning, dude?”
No wonder Houston never starves. Which cape is responsible for this marvel? And when will they die, robbing the world of it?
We find the farm a short distance from the forest. One heartbeat I crunch thin grass under my shoes and the next my hands graze a wooden hut. This shack is not alone. Dozens of small buildings here, and many more wooden skeletons.
“Hm, they tore mine down,” Mateo says, pointing to one of the skeletons. “My pa and I used to sleep there.”
“We’d talk about life in Colombia, mostly. How our old home was bigger. He missed the stars.” Mateo gives his indifferent shrug again.
“I had a different impression of Colombia,” I admit.
“You think being a slave here is better than being free there?”
“I just heard the wars were bad.”
“Yeah, they are,” Mateo agrees. “But I don’t see how it’s different here.”
I guess not, kid.
I search through the ruins for any scrap of paper, any ledger, any phone, anything that I could use to track Pandahead. Unfortunately, every hut we enter has been picked clean.
“There’s nothing, Mateo.”
Mateo snaps his fingers. “I thought you could sense stuff, dude.”
“Not inert stuff. Not stuff that’s at equilibrium with the air around it.”
“I don’t know what inert means.” Mateo says. He spins around. “If there’s nothing to find here, let’s try the warden house. I bet you can sniff something good out.”
“Who’s in charge here?” I mutter, but he doesn’t hear. I start following him.
The warden house, as Mateo calls it, is a one story home that looks barely fit enough for a family of four, although it appears suburban in design. The windows are busted. The garage is laid bare. Even the garage door is missing.
I listen to the heat of the house, stopping Mateo before he charges through the door.
The walls are unnaturally cold. It’s summer outside, but the air inside is freezing, as if the whole home was refrigerated. Either someone is blasting the AC, or it’s an Affect impression of some kind. “Pandahead ever open that thermos here?”
“Probably, who knows?” Mateo shrugs again. Clearly he doesn’t want to think about it.
A blasting chord of heat enters my sense from behind us. Four different heartbeats.
We’re not alone.