My legs work enough to get me home. Right as I go to unlock our door, it hits me. There’s a knife in my hand. I never took it out, I forgot it was there, I couldn’t even feel it until just now.
Shit. I stumble into our apartment. It’s dead quiet, the lights are out. Doc must be asleep. I hoped he could take this knife out of my hand. I’ll have to do it myself.
I barely make it to the bathroom sink. I pull off my mask with my good hand, and put my glasses on. I’m a mess. Hair frazzled, bruises on both cheeks and around my mouth. Scabs cover my knuckles.
Doc keeps a military grade medic kit below the sink. I fish it from its hiding spot with my good hand, shoving boxes of hair dye out of the way.
I bite down on a strip of gauze, and get the traumagel applicator ready. My arm’s already throbbing, what’s another little bit of pain? I hype myself up, grip the hilt of the knife, and pull.
Like drawing red-hot nails through my skin. Blood pours out of my hand. I grab the traumagel tube and apply it to the palm first. The cool gel fills the wound, quieting my howling nerve endings, and solidifies, becoming an opaque clot in two seconds. The bleeding stops instantly. I turn my hand over and do the same to the cut on the back side. The gel stiffens my hand out, preventing me from flexing my fingers, but within a few days it will be back to normal. Okay, time to check out the break. I take my jacket off as careful as I can.
My arm’s swollen and red. I don’t know what to do about the break, at least until Doc wakes up. I gingerly prod my forearm, and each touch sends telegraph signals to my brain, screaming: “HOLY SHIT, THIS SHIT’S BROKEN.”
I unroll the medic tape to see if bandaging the break helps, and loop it once around my arm before realizing that’s a lost cause.
Blood stains the sink. I don’t have the energy to clean it.
All that blood in that dark hallway. I killed at least four people tonight. Flashfire is going to hate me. But… I had to. I would’ve died if I hadn’t killed them. And if I hadn’t stepped in, they would’ve killed that Kabuki girl. And they were gangbangers recruiting kids into a life of violence. What did I care?
I don’t care. I don’t.
Maybe if I had better control over my powers, I could’ve stopped them without killing them.
I sigh. Fine. It’s fine. I go to my room and lie on my bed. Aches echo across every inch of me, bouncing off the walls inside my body. I close my eyes, hoping sleep will give a little relief to the agony.
I’m in a dark hallway, full of bloody men who want to kill me. I fight through them, through the fog of a nightmare, only to find another hallway at the end of this one. With more thugs, and more weapons, and more death. More and more death, until I’m choking on the blood. Their bodies pile around me and drag me down into their depths. If only I were like Megajoule, no one would’ve died. I wouldn’t have killed anyone.
Doc’s voice snaps me out of my sleep. My forearm’s still throbbing, but the cut in my hand bothers me none.
“Why is there blood all over our bathroom?”
The door to my bedroom opens, and Doc walks in. He gets a good look at my broken state. “You fucking stupid ass fucking moron stupid!”
I grimace. “Sorry.”
“And your arm is broken, fuck! What happened?”
“I got into a fight with some thugs,” I say. I don’t know if I should bring up Kabuki girl, so I don’t.
“God damn it,” Doc says, kneeling at my bed side. He examines my arm, pokes at the break with his fingers. The tiniest touch feels like razors running on the skin. “You patched up the cut already, that’s good. You’ve got other lacerations. On your butt? You’ve stained your bed sheets, you idiot.”
“What?” he snaps at me.
“I learned how to absorb kinetic energy. When these thugs were wailing on me,” I say. “I figured it out. Like your stupid spring and ball thing.”
Doc thinks about that. “So you can convert kinetic force back into heat?”
I nod. “I think. I need to train it more. But that’s a big first step, right?”
“It is,” Doc says. “Very. I’m still pissed at you.” His lips turn up in a little smile.
I’ll settle for that. It makes this night feel like less of a waste.
“I still got my ass kicked, though.” I pause, grimace, and add, “And I lied about my hand. It’s been busted since last night. Since the pedos.”
“You should’ve let me take it, you might not have gotten so busted up tonight.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
He nods. “Can’t have you running around with a broken arm. It’s fine.” He clicks his tongue. “Hold still.” He presses his hand firmly on the swelling.
I grit my teeth. This is gonna hurt.
My arm trembles and cold fire spreads from Doc’s hand. The bone slides around under my muscle and snaps. It takes everything I’ve got not to scream.
The swelling goes down, the break mends. The scratches on my knuckles vanish. My mind is a soup. Doc stands up and runs to the bathroom. I hear him hurl into the toilet. My forehead’s pouring sweat.
Doc makes me give him every injury I’ve gotten, so I’ve taken to lying to him so I don’t have to see him hobbling around. Couldn’t exactly lie about this one, though.
Doc comes back after emptying his guts. His arm is now red and swollen. His knuckles have scabs like mine did. He totters by my door like a drunk man. I get up to help him. We cling to each other, two cripples barely able to walk through their combined efforts, and I manage to lay him on my bed. He breathes heavy, his eyelids flutter. I retrieve the splint from the combat kit and brace his arm as best I can. With that done, I give him one of the anti-inflammatory pills from the kit. He calms, his breathing steadies.
Phew. I don’t think I’m getting back to sleep, though.
My stomach grumbles at me, so I trudge to the kitchen and make some Captain Crunch. I check the time on my phone while I munch on that. 7:25 AM. There’s a message from Flashfire: TONIGHT. PICK UP SPOT. MIDNIGHT.
I check the Houston news feed again. I scroll through a couple of articles.
SENATOR PRINCE RETURNS TO TOWN AFTER LATEST SESSION, DOES ROUNDS OF TOWN HALLS WITH DAUGHTER ELENA PRINCE, AND MEETS WITH OIL EXECUTIVES.
Gross, politics. I scroll on.
F.I.S. PUTS OUT FURTHER REWARD OFFER FOR REPORTS OF VIGILANTES.
Oh great, just what I need, something to make my life harder.
TIM PRINCE ARRESTED FOR POSSESSION OF COCAINE, RELEASED ON BAIL.
Ah, yeah, I heard one of the senator’s sons was a troublemaker. Doubt he’ll end up in jail, though. Probably just pay his way out or something.
GANG VIOLENCE IN EAST DOWNTOWN CLAIMS FIVE LIVES
The article has almost no info, just a little paragraph about the gangbangers I fought last night. I read it aloud to myself. “The tenants of the building refused to comment beyond that they heard a fight in the hallway, but didn’t open their doors out of fear.”
Thanks, Spanish Grandma.
Nothing else catches my attention. Lots of junk articles, meaningless links. Lifestyle stuff. I put my phone down. I wolf my cereal down and retrieve my laptop from my bedroom, careful not to wake Doc. The arm looks bad, swollen and malformed. I wince and tiptoe out.
Watching Megajoule’s videos gave me something to work with last night. It finally helped me figure out some of my power. Maybe if I watch some more, I’ll figure out something else.
I click the next video after my most recent watched one.
Megajoule is almost as ragged in this video as I am. Unkempt stubble, his short hair matted. Deep bags under his eyes. He scowls at the camera as the video starts.
“I… uh… Gabe…” He falls silent. Then he taps his chin and looks up, lost in thought. Ha, I also do that a lot. Maybe some ticks are genetic. “You… they tell me you’re doing well, in the physical examinations. I suppose I should teach you another tidbit of our power for you to practice, once you’ve mastered the tenet from the previous video. So, here. You should understand one thing, Gabe. There’s power all around you. There’s energy in everything. Heat flows through the ground, through the air, through water and stone. Sound bounces off everything, light is all around you. It’s all energy you can use.” Well, I’ve only figured out the heat part, but sure.
He stops and looks away from the camera, his expression dour. “I don’t know how old you are now that you’re watching this… but you probably don’t have a father figure, or anything like that in your life. I just want you to know that no matter what you do or what you become, whether you even master these lessons they make me give to you, I’m proud of you. ”
There’s a hole inside me. My throat tightens, and tears well in my eyes. I wish I’d known him. I really wish I did. I didn’t realize before today how scared I am of a world where’s he gone.
“That probably sounds masturbatory to an onlooker, considering we are the same person. But…” He looks straight at me, through the camera. “We’re not, are we? You and I are different people. I’m Julian, Megajoule. You’re Gabe. I want you to find your own path. If that’s as a hero, and I imagine it will be if you’re anything like your old man, then do it. Chase it. Whatever your heart wants, Gabe, all I want you to do is reach out and seize that. Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.” He coughs, and his cheeks glisten with tears. “I’m a very big fan of an old scientist and orator named Carl Sagan, from the 20th century.” He pulls out a little notebook from under the table. “I wrote down a few of his quotes that I’d like to share with you.” He clears his throat:
“For as long as there been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.”
I don’t understand some of the words, but I get the meaning. Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.
Megajoule turns the page in his notebook. “And this quote as well: If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” He shudders, and puts the book away. Clearly these quotes moved him. “I beg you, question with courage, and plunge deep to find answers. Whatever path you walk, do so with a healthy mind. Do it with a clear heart. That is how we become worthy. That’s what the sword means. That’s how you fight the Fear-”
A man’s voice cuts through Megajoule’s monologue like a knife. He stops, gasps, and looks beyond the camera. He shakes his head, and the video ends.
I stammer. I’ve never seen or heard another person in this videos, but the idea that someone was watching him make them is… it puts all of it in a different light. And that voice. It was cold. A finality. A warning. It makes me afraid. I have no idea who it belonged to, but it’s clear to me.
They were calling the shots on Megajoule, and they had him on a leash.
What the hell do I even do with this information? I’d love to sleep on it, but I don’t think I could if I tried right now.
So I head outside, looking for food. Captain Crunch couldn’t satisfy my hunger. I need a real meal. A real breakfast. I put on some jeans and a kind of smelly t-shirt, and leave Doc to rest in a quiet apartment. Pancakes. Pancakes sound good.
Pancakes sound so good. Slathered in maple syrup, with a side of bacon. I check my wallet: I’ve got twenty bucks on me, that should do it.
There’s a breakfast place called Rise’n’Shine not two minutes walk from my apartment, and I have it on my taste bud’s authority that they make the best pancakes of all time.
The Rise’n’Shine is similar to those retro diners from the 19th century, everything chrome or neon colored cushion. The floors are black and white tile, oldies play on a juke box (with a computer screen because I don’t think actual juke boxes even exist anymore), and the chef working the grill is in plain view from the kitchen window. The waitresses skate around and call everybody “Puddin’” and I love it. Few things give me such joy as a roller skating waitress calling me “Puddin’” before bringing me coffee and pancakes.
I sit down at one of the booths and pretend I don’t already know I’m going to gorge myself on banana pancakes. A waitress with curly red hair skates over to my table, and says, “What’ll it be, puddin?”
“A coffee for now,” I say.
She smiles. “One coffee, puddin.” She skates off to make good on my request.
I ponder Megajoule’s video while waiting for the coffee. Megajoule begged me to be free. To be myself. The problem is, I don’t even really know who I am. Gabe was a name Doc gave me, before that I was Thirty-One. Neither of those are my identity, they’re just labels.
An identity crisis. I’m having an identity crisis.
There’s two kids sitting in the booth next to mine. They look about thirteen, same age as Maisa, I’d say. One girl, one boy. The boy’s wearing a beanie, and he looks real tired. The girl has holes in her shirt. They’ve just finished their meal, from the looks of things. The boy looks frantic all of the sudden, running his hands over and over through his jacket and his pants.
“Wait, I can’t find the money Mom gave us,” he says.
“What? What happened to it?” the girl asks. Her voice squeaks. She’s shaking in her seat.
“I don’t know, maybe I dropped it? Maybe it’s in the bathroom!” The boy gets up from his seat suddenly and runs to the bathroom. A minute later, he comes back in defeat, shoulders slumped. “It’s not there.”
The girl doesn’t say anything.
My waitress comes back and drops my coffee off. Before I can stop myself, I lean over and whisper, “How much is their tab?” I gesture to the kids.
The waitress looks through her check book. “$15.87.”
I grimace. “And how much is a coffee?”
The waitress looks at the kids and back at me again. She looks at the checkbook, and says, “For you, hun, on the house.”
I smile, kissing the sweet hope of banana pancakes goodbye, and pull out my wallet. I hand her the $20. “Keep the change.”
The waitress nods, and heads off to close their tab out. I drain my coffee, and before the waitress returns to the table, I head out. I hope that made their day. They looked down on their luck.
I mean, so am I, probably, but I had $20 and they didn’t, and I’ve got Captain Crunch.
Or, I guess I could make my own pancakes.
Resolved to eat pancakes, I return to the apartment and fire up a pan. I search Google for a good recipe (sans banana) and try to whip something up.
A few moments later, I’m rewarded with crispy, blackened disks of sadness. I stare at my work.
I am a failure.
I groan, throw the shit out, and flop onto the couch to pass out.
I wake up to Doc lumbering out of my bedroom for a glass of water from our sink. He glares at me while he drinks it. I wipe my eyes. “What time is it?”
“Fuck you,” Doc says.
Okay. Yeah, I guess I can’t blame him for being pissed. “What time is it?”
“Late. 11 PM. ”
“Shit, I’ve got to get ready.” I grab a shower real quick, washing the filth and dried blood from me. The cut on my butt’s scabbed over. The hot water relieves the pain on my nicks and bruises. I dry off and absorb the heat standing in the room. The steam condenses mid-air around me, turning into a misty spray that coats the ground, cool to the touch.
I towel off and check my jacket. I poke my fingers in the holes in my armpit, the cuts along the arms and ribs. I shiver. I was spitting distance from my grave last night.
I get dressed and stand by the room heater by my door. I draw more energy from the coil of my space heater. The heat flows through my hands, accompanying the energy I took from the shower. I pack my mask, gloves, and leg armor in a backpack.
Something occurs to me: Megajoule said that energy flows in everything. I’ve always held the heat deep in my core. So deep that it only makes my skin a little hotter than normal.
What if I didn’t? Can I just hold the heat at my surface, instead?
I hold my hand up, and will the heat out to it like I’m turning it into kinetic energy. My hand glows like steel pulled from a forge. I yelp in surprise.
Neat! Neat as fuck! Okay! Cool! The air around my hand hazes, and I feel like I could draw more heat into my center now, too. I can use this. It would make me way more dangerous in hand to hand, I bet I could set stuff on fire. Sweet.
I pull the heat back inside, my hand returns to normal. I head out to the living room.
Doc’s watching TV. He’s adjusting well to the broken arm, maneuvering microwaved rice into his mouth with his good hand.
I don’t like seeing him with my injury. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Doc says. “Where are you off to?”
“Flashfire wants to hit the port up. We’re looking into this Pandahead guy.”
Doc snorts. “That’s a fucking stupid name.”
I shrug. After everything I’ve just seen today, I don’t really care about names, or symbols, or costumes. I just want to fix what’s broken.
Doc flips through the channels while I get ready to head out. I get another text from Flashfire: HEADED TO PICK UP NOW, T-MINUS THIRTY. Doc skips over a few news channel, and stops for a second on an interview with the Houston Heroes. I glance at the screen from my phone.
Bedevil. The Bedevil. Megajoule’s sidekick Bedevil.
Doc flips off the channel.
“Wait! Wait!” I say. “Go back!”
“What, what’s wrong?” Doc asks.
“The interview!” I grab the remote from Doc and flip back channels until I see Bedevil, sitting there next to Houston’s Heroes. She’s all dolled up, wearing a nice dress, make up applied so artfully you’d think she was just naturally that sharp looking.
Even with all that, there’s no mistake.
Bedevil was the girl in the Kabuki mask last night.