I grab Mateo by the arm and haul him into the house through one of the broken windows, praying the four newcomers haven’t noticed us yet. Mateo starts to protest but I cover his mouth. “I thought you said he abandoned this place,” I whisper.
Mateo pulls away from my hand. “Yeah, dude, he did. He packed up literally everyone. I watched him empty the house out.”
“Maybe it was a trap?” I ask.
Mateo scoffs. “For who? He’s the one on the run, dude.”
Whatever, not gonna argue. “Just shut up and come on, let’s find a place to hide.”
The inside of the house is barren, utterly cleansed of human life and creature comforts. Not even the carpet remains, nor the cabinets or the bedroom doors. We crouch behind the kitchen counters. The air is dead and smells of bleach.
“I’ve never been in here,” Mateo whispers, staring at the empty rooms down the hall from the kitchen.
I ignore him in favor of the four hearts moving closer with each beat.
The quartet stops ten feet or so before the door.
“We know you’re in there,” a summer sweet voice shouts, but demure all the same. “It’s okay. We’re not here to hurt you, Home Run.”
“They’re friendly?” Mateo whispers.
I shush him.
“We’re not capes. My name is Epione. We’re from the Houston Egalitarian Front. We’re on your side.”
“Don’t say anything,” I whisper to Mateo. “Could be bait.”
A different woman with a slight Hispanic accent yells, “We can hear you, numb skulls. It’s not bait.”
Mateo and I glance at each other. I search for a bug, a wire, or microphone anywhere in the kitchen. Mateo shakes his head when I come up short. There’s nothing on the countertops or inside the cupboards. However they’re hearing us, it’s through the Affect.
“Okay,” I call back, unsure what else to do. “Why are you here?”
“Presumably the same reason you’re here,” Epione says. “For the traffickers. For Pandahead.”
“I thought y’all only gave a shit about the capes.”
Silence. A beat later and Epione yells, “We care about everyone.”
I glance at Mateo. He shrugs. “What do you want with me?” I ask.
“I’m here to make you an offer. We’ve a common enemy, common goals.”
“I don’t care that much about capes, if I’m bein’ honest.”
“Yeah, we just want Pandahead!” Mateo shouts.
I hush him again.
“Then why did you kill one?” Epione asks. Two hearts get closer.
“Tell your friends to back off from the porch if you want this Q&A to keep going,” I shout.
The two would-be intruders stop in their tracks.
“You have extrasensory perception. I can sense you’re heavyweight.”
She can sense I’m a heavyweight? That’s not good. Some sort of ranged Affect sense, like Paul’s? Except he has to touch you for it to work. Not like here. “What about it?”
“Why are you wasting yourself on the streets?”
“Don’t give a shit about capes or anything,” I say. “I’m just trying to make something right.” I grab Mateo’s shoulder and ready myself for a quick escape. The broken windows are still an option. They haven’t surrounded the house yet.
“We won’t be able to get Pandahead without fighting the capes. I think you’re aware of that by now. You also won’t be able to find him by yourself, now that he’s gone underground. His loose ends are tied up and he’s unlikely to show himself again since you killed Danger Close.”
Mateo pushes my hand off his shoulder. “What if they’re telling the truth?” he whispers. “We can at least find out what they know. You can beat the shit out of them if they try anything.”
The latina outside laughs, deep and throaty. “I’d like to see that.”
Enhanced hearing. That’s how they heard us. I stand up, order Mateo to stay put with a wave of my hand, and step outside.
As my thermal sense told me, there are four here. Each one wears dark clothes and a unique mask. No one says anything as I come out, so I take the opportunity to study them.
The latina woman, wearing a motorcycle helmet and a leather jacket with the word ‘piss take’ written on the sleeve, stands closest to the porch. She aims a fencing rapier directly at my chest.
Next to the fencer is a tiny girl, wearing a bandanna covering her mouth while leaving her nose and eyes exposed. She’s wearing cargo shorts and a grungy old jacket. She’s unarmed, but eyes me like she’ll bite my ear off if I get too close.
The third is a Black woman with half her face hidden behind a mask shaped like a bat. Her long dark hair is done in a braid, resting on her shoulder. She scowls at me, as if I’ve pissed her off just by existing.
Behind them all is a woman with pink hair and a black, statuesque mask with neon pink eyes. She wears the fanciest looking coat I’ve ever seen and combat boots that look designer. Her clothes are all dark colors. She stands with her hands folded behind her back.
“Which one of you is Epione?” I ask.
The woman with the pink hair takes a step forward. “I am. And you’re Home Run, dear.” Despite the sweetness of her voice, she speaks in monotone. It’s so neutral it can’t be anything but a concentrated effort to do so. It’s so off-putting it makes me chuckle.
She suddenly breaks into a laugh. Her laughter rubs me the wrong way, not because it’s awkward, but because it’s perfect, as if she rehearsed ahead of time.
“I’m not interested in your Front,” I say, scanning the forest for more heartbeats. I don’t hear anymore.
“But you are interested in Pandahead,” Epione says. She approaches slowly, holding her hands out to show she’s unarmed.
“I just wanna ask him where he got such a stupid name.” I glance at the hispanic lady’s sword. “She pulls anything and I’ll show you how I did Danger Close.”
“Oh, God, Y’all, can I just fuckin’ shoot him?” the girl in the camouflage says.
“Better be hiding a nuke if you’re gonna shoot me.” I point my finger at her and fill it with heat until it shines like a tiny star.
“I can take you.”
“You don’t know anything about that, you crumb,” I say.
My burning finger causes the fencer to retreat and the other women to stop in their tracks. Epione holds one hand at the girl in camo and one at me. “Please, let me make introductions. This doesn’t need to get violent.” She introduces her friends in order: Remise is the Hispanic woman with the sword, Saw Off the girl completely covered in camo, and Echo the Black woman with the bat mask.
Saw Off doesn’t look like she wants to back down. She glances at Epione, searching for permission.
Epione snaps her fingers at Saw Off. The fabric of her gloves dulls the snap, but the sound still shuts the girl up. Epione turns her attention back to me. “We’re not here to fight you. We’re here to make you an offer. We both want Pandahead and I believe we can work together to get him.”
“Why do you want him so bad?” I ask.
“Likely the same reason you want him. You know he’s connected to the capes but you don’t know how.”
“And you do?” I ask.
“Not yet. But what I do have are the connections to find out how. Home Run, you scared him by killing Danger Close. He’s gone to ground. He’s burned every bridge he owns and buried all his treasure, and now there’s nothing left but crumbs.”
Saw Off snorts.
“You won’t find him, not on your own,” Epione finishes. She returns her hands behind her back and resumes her straight-backed stance. “But you might with us.”
“That’s quite a sales pitch.” I cross my arms.
“I’m not a saleswoman. I’m a priestess. A true believer.”
“And how do I even know you’re the Front, and not capes in disguise?” I ask.
Echo sighs loudly. She jabs her thumb at herself and says, “I’m trans, you ass. Where do I fit into Foundation?”
Provided she isn’t lying, these people can’t be capes; you’d never catch a trans person among Foundation ranks. Foundation goes out of their way to enforce the nuclear family.
I glance back at Epione. The pink eyes of her mask shine, hiding whatever is beneath. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“You know that I can’t give you that. I can only tell you that we are being honest.”
The door rattles on its hinges behind us. The fencer aims her sword at Mateo, who steps out in front of me before I can stop him. In a loud, deep voice, he says, “Of course we accept your help!” He puts his arms akimbo and holds his head up high. “Volition and Home Run will gladly work with you to defeat Pandahead.”
Saw Off bursts into laughter. “Who the fuck is this?”
Remise chuckles and lowers her sword. Echo smiles softly. Epione, however, doesn’t make a sound.
I can’t contain my groan. I grab Mateo by the shoulder and pull him behind me. “I’m not agreeing to anything.”
Epione kneels down to look at Mateo. She studies him in utter silence for so long it makes me uncomfortable. After that long moment passes, she stands back up and offers me a card. “If you want to talk more about it, come meet with us at the chapel that isn’t a chapel.”
I snatch the card from her hands. It is a simple white note card with an address and a date. She’s giving me four days to decide if I want to meet them again. “You said I’ll have to fight capes if I want Pandahead. Is that true?”
“You’ll have to fight capes in the end no matter what.” With that she turns to go, striding into the underbrush the same way she came. Her companions leave with her.
An engine roars to life a little ways into the wood and drives off. Mateo opens his mouth to speak, but I snap my fingers the way Epione did. He pouts but stays quiet.
I wait to make sure they leave. When I’m sure they’re gone, I turn to Mateo. “Volition?”
“I’m working on it.” Mateo sighs. “Do you think they really know about Pandahead?”
“Do you know who they are?”
Mateo shakes his head.
“They’re terrorists,” I say. “The Front they talked about wants to overthrow the government. They’re on par with the 2nd Amendment for killing capes.”
Mateo frowns. “Eugh. Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted their help so fast. Oh well, nothing to do now but charge ahead.” Mateo slaps my arm and marches out in front of the house, and points at the sky. “Take us home!”
Ah, right. I chuckle. I’m not looking forward to a long trek back, but there’s no avoiding it. “Can’t.”
“Can’t? You just did. You flew us here faster than a rocket. What do you mean can’t?”
“One way trip. I follow the rotation of the Earth. It was very convenient this farm was on the west side of the city.” I pat him on the shoulder. “You’re in charge of getting us home.”
Mateo stares blankly at me and asks, “You’re joking?”
“I can help out a little,” I say. “We should be there by sun-up. Hope you can keep the light on for a few hours, though.”
My little boss whispers, “Nooooooo.”