“A motion sensor?” I ask. “You’re sure? Where’s it sending data?”
Drone’s tone is deadly cold. “Dead sure, and it’s in some locked down data cloud. I couldn’t get in. No name. No credentials. But someone knows you’re here, the feed was being watched.”
I jump over the counter. “We’ve got to get out of here.” I grab Saw Off’s hand and dash for the stairs. “Flashfire, there was a motion sensor down here.”
“There was one up here, too, Drone just confirmed. Someone bugged this boat. Meet up top,” Flashfire says over the comms.
Saw Off stumbles on the steps behind me as I rush up the stairwell, so I scoop her into my arms. “Hey! Don’t!” she shouts.
“We’ve got to hurry,” I say. “Hang on.”
Saw Off growls, but wraps her arms around my neck and holds tight.
In three kinetic bounds I take us up the stairs. Saw Off howls in laughter the whole way until we burst out onto the deck. I’m a spring, I’m a spring, the ground is a ball, don’t break my legs.
I stick the landing! The energy of crashing into the deck reenters me as heat. Okay, I’m getting the hang of this.
“That was better than a roller coaster, babe!” Saw Off says. Her piranha grin is back. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“On this boat. Come on, we have to get the hell out of here.” I launch us to the loading plank. Flashfire and Vaquero are already off the boat, running back to the gate. If we hurry, we can get out of here before whoever was monitoring the place decides to send goons in.
Once we meet back up with Flashfire and Vaquero, I let Saw Off down and we keep pace together. “Remise, you’ve got the car?” Flashfire says into his watch.
“Aye, be there in a tic,” she says. “Just warmin’ it up fer ya.”
The van pulls around to the gate. We’re home free. Maisa opens the door and we rocket in, piling up in the back seat. Flashfire hops into shotgun. Remise wastes no time, she peels out and pulls down the drive. We turn onto the main road.
“Wait!” Flashfire shouts.
Bedevil touches down a few hundred feet in front of our van. She’s wearing her classic Inheritors costume: red cape, white shirt, red shorts and boots. The same one she’s worn since she side-kicked with Megajoule.
“That’s-” I start.
Her cape flutters, and the cement in front of her cracks under her power. An invisible wave of telekinesis washes towards our van, splintering the road beneath her. “Fucking drive!” Saw Off screams in my ear.
Remise twists the steering wheel and puts us in reverse. She backs us into the dock lot, keeping us out of Bedevil’s telekinetic reach. Bedevil floats toward our van, shipping containers shriek as she shoves them out of the way. Maisa hugs me tight. “We’ll be okay,” I say.
“Va te faire enculer!” Screaming in French, Remise whips our van around a shipping crate just as Bedevil hurls it in at us, trying to pin us between containers. Remise maneuvers out of the trap, drives us around Bedevil’s makeshift cage, and floors it for the gate.
“Come on! Come on!” Flashfire shouts. We’re driving, we’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!
The whole van lurches as if another car smashed into our backside, throwing us off course. Maisa screams, the glass of the back window shatters. Remise fights the wheel and regains control, but we’ve lost precious time.
“Is that fucking Krater?!” Saw Off shouts. Houston’s Hero. Giant ass bodybuilder superhero. He just punched our van. He’s grinning like Saw Off, cracking his knuckles, and ramping up for another charge. Bedevil hovers behind him.
They’re gonna catch us. I can’t let that happen. I can’t put Maisa in danger, and I can’t give up our fight yet. I take a few deep breaths. I can do this. “Keep driving!” I point at Remise. “Don’t stop for anything!”
“What are you doing?” Flashfire shouts.
I slide the van door open and step out. Maisa screams and reaches for me, but I’m gone already. Remise heeds my advice and punches it.
Krater reaches for the van, about to grab it from the exposed trunk window.
I kick him with all the kinetic force I have in me, and reabsorb the energy that would break my leg. Krater shoots back into one of the shipping containers like a bullet, crumpling the steel box with his body. The container shrieks and rolls back with the impact. I use the momentum and bound up to Bedevil.
Her eyes are wide. “You!”
“Sorry!” I give her a powered love tap. I’m making an educated guess that she’s woven herself some kind of shield, and I’m right. The kinetic blast doesn’t hit her body, just the forcefield wrapped around her. Either way, my punch hurls her through the warehouse wall.
I land, reabsorbing the energy of my fall. My legs almost buckle: I’m hurt all over. I think I’m holding way too much heat.
My thermometer reads 3051 °C. The most heat I’ve ever held before.
There’s gunfire outside the dock walls. I rush to the gate.
Two FIS vans box our car in against the wall. Four operatives armed with rifles are closing in. They haven’t fired into the van yet, thank God.
A brilliant flash blinds the four agents from Flashfire’s seat. His hand is held out of the passenger window, still smoking from his power.
I take advantage of the opening, blasting off with kinetic energy. I’m gonna plant a kick in the closest one’s chest and wind him, then get another before they recover their sight.
My kinetic burst was too strong. My aim’s off. My kick takes the agent in the head. Damn it! I need better control of my power! I bound off that kick and land behind one of the vans.
“There’s another vigilante!” one of the fish shouts, recovering their sight. “One operative down!”
I prime myself for a second launch. Another operative rounds the corner and I smash into them fist first. They scream and gurgle as their ribs crack with the force of my punch. I use their body to shield myself from the two remaining operatives opening fire on me. I launch their fellow fish into them and vault over to make sure they’re down for the count. The first operative I hit is down with a broken neck, one is shot, and the other two are busted up. Damn it. I can’t keep fighting like this.
Flashfire sits up. “Gabe! What?” He looks down. “Did you-”
“You can yell at me later!” I say. “Let’s get out of here!” I shove the FIS vans out of the way with my power. Their tires squeal from skidding the wrong way, and the smell of burning rubber fills the air. Steam rolls off my arms from the larger bursts of heat it takes to move the cars.
I open the door of the van to let myself in, sitting next to Maisa. I go to close the door and see too late the operative aiming a pistol right for my face.
Vaquero jumps in between us and takes the bullet. Saw Off dashes out behind him, snorts, and blows the operative’s head off with a shotgun sneeze.
“Jesus Christ!” Flashfire shouts. “Stop! Stop it! Stop killing them!”
“Oh, please,” Saw Off says. “We saved your life.”
“Come on, we have to go!” I shout at Remise. Vaquero helps Saw Off in and picks the bullet out of his neck, grimacing as his skin strings out with the shrapnel like putty.
“That bullet was actually kinda slow. Any slower and it woulda pooched me.”
Remise starts the van up. Thankfully the wheels still work. They’re the airless kind, so shooting them won’t stop our van.
Krater rips through the container I put him in like its aluminum foil. The metal screeches and shoots away from him like shrapnel.
“We’re pooched!” Saw Off shouts.
“No, I can fight him,” I say. “You get out of here.”
Remise nods. “Be careful.”
I step out of the van again, standing between Krater and my friends. Shit, he looks scary. He’s not angry. He’s not in pain. He’s laughing. “God, I’ve wanted a good fight for a while now. Who are you?”
“A guy in a mask,” I say. “Just trying to do the right thing.”
“You think the right thing is taking on Houston’s Hero?” he asks. He stands up. He really is an embodiment of the city: towering, massive, wearing a shady grin. Confidence bordering on arrogance. A simple but slick outfit, the crowning part a fur collared leather jacket, no shirt underneath.
Debris sloughs off his back and chest, and the skin is pale from where I hit him, like he’s suddenly developed a skin disease. He brushes dirt off and laughs. “You know how they say the black don’t crack, guy? That ain’t exactly true for me. It cracks. But it won’t break.”
I hold my hands up. “We don’t have to do this. I’m trying to stop a sex trafficking ring.”
“Leave that to the fish, little man.” Krater doesn’t slow his advance. “Don’t meddle in their shit. Too many rats.”
He flies right at me, rocketing off a powerful jump. I kinetic burst out of his haymaker and throw an energy-charged jab into his chest. The blast pushes him back from me. He’s not a trained fighter, like Flashfire or Remise. I bet he just throws his strength around like a battering ram and expects it to do all the work.
“You’re pretty tough and fast, little man.” He rebounds, and picks his assault up right where he left it, swinging more punches my way. “Been a while since I seen somebody like you.”
How can he talk while he fights?! It’s all I can do to stay out of his barrage. He throws wild punches and haymakers faster than most boxers jab!
Still wild though. He leaves an opening, and I knee him in the stomach. The blow turns his skin into rock, which cracks and falls off of him like dirt.
I duck under his follow up strike and grab his arm. It’s like grabbing a steel beam, but with my kinetic bursts I heave him over my shoulder and into the wall. He flies right through it, bringing a whole section with him.
I’ve got to make sure he stays down, but how? I don’t think I can kill him, and I don’t want to, anyway. I don’t want to be known as the guy that killed Houston’s Hero.
Krater roars out of the debris and smashes into me. I’m the spring, I’m the spring! But he’s not a tiny plastic ball, he’s a wrecking ball, and I can only take so much. The energy of his punch overwhelms me. I’ve got to do something with the force!
Stack the heat, put it in my core, put it above that, and layer it! If I can shift the heat around inside, I can pack more in. My hands glow orange-yellow, my legs radiate light through my jeans. Thanks to Doc none of my gear will melt, but if I were in normal clothes, I’d be burning them off me. As it stands, I start to shine through the cracks in my outfit.
The layering works. The energy doesn’t overwhelm me. In fact, it feels lighter. I could hold more!
“That’s a neat trick, little man,” Krater says. “You’re not just some guy in a mask.” He cracks his knuckles. “So I’m gonna take real pleasure in puttin’ you down.”
A commanding voice cuts through our fight. “Krater! Stand down!”
Mr. Gold. Mr. God Damn Pooching Gold. He’s flying over the wall, and gold chains rip through the air towards me. Shit, shit, shit. The chains try to wrap me but they melt as they touch my body. Mr. Gold lashes at me again and again, each strike sloughing off molten gold from his chains. “Go stop the van, Krater!”
“Oh, I’m gonna!” Krater’s words are filled with glee. “I’ll turn that thing into a ball!”
He’s gonna crush my friends and feel happy about it. He’s gonna crush Maisa.
“He’ll kill them!” I shout at Mr. Gold. “You can’t let him do that! There’s a child!”
Mr. Gold falters. His attacks stop. He looks torn. “There’s no way I can trust that’s true.”
“The only times you’ve ever seen me are disrupting trafficking routes. You can’t trust me that I’m on your side?”
Mr. Gold thinks. “Then stay here. Take off your mask.”
“I- I can’t do that.”
“Then I can’t stop, either.”
More molten gold splashes past me as Mr. Gold whips his chains. He’s down to half of what he had thanks to the heat roiling through my skin and the air around me, but he’s keeping me pinned here.
I close the gap between us and grab him by his arms. He tries to pull back but I hold onto the padding around his forearms. “It burns!” The padded armor catches fire. The air around me chars him. His skin reddens like a sun burn. His flight wavers.
I bring us down with kinetic energy and let him go. I suck the heat from the fire sprouting on his armor, and the flames die. He gasps like a fish out of water. He’ll be okay, just singed a little. Then again, I don’t have a good reference point for what being singed feels like.
My jacket thermometer reads WOW WHAT THE FUCK IT READS 12037 °C.
Before I can celebrate that little fact, invisible tendrils seize my arms and legs, and rip me off my feet. Bedevil floats toward me and turns me to face her. She scowls, and her tendrils squeeze me. I’m gonna fucking pop if she keeps it up. I try to move with kinetic energy, but she restrains me with more tendrils each time.
“Please!” I say. “You have to let me go!”
“You killed FIS operatives. I don’t have to do anything,” she says. She holds a hand up, turns her face away. She’s actually gonna kill me.
I squirm under her grasp. There’s gotta be some way to absorb the energy of her squeezing me, but I can’t get the right mental image. I don’t know how to manipulate it right now. So I opt for a different approach: “I know who you are. The girl from the other night.”
Bedevil clenches her jaw, starts to speak, and quiets. Then: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I killed men outside some Spanish Grandma’s apartment for you.” If that won’t work, I’m not too proud to beg. “Please, Krater’s going to kill my friends. He’s going to kill an innocent little girl.”
Bedevil holds me in place. “Why should I believe you?” Her grip tightens. The tendrils crunch me, my arms bend and press into my torso, the elbows like a pincer grip. She’ll kill me with my own body.
“Bella Villa!” I shout.
Bedevil’s eyes almost pop out of her skull. “What?”
“At Bella Villa, what was the girl’s name?”
Bedevil’s mouth drops open. Her grip on me loosens and I slip, but I don’t fall free. My arms stop crushing into my chest. She’s pale, stammering.
“The one you tried to rescue. What was her name?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes well with tears. “Why are you bringing this up?” Her voice is tiny. “Why?”
“There’s a girl in that van, and her name is Maisa, and I’m trying to save her. If Krater gets to that van, she’s dead, like the girl from Bella Villa. Please, let me go.”
“Please, Bedevil. I can’t let her die,” I say. “Krater’s gonna kill her.”
Her tendrils release me. She sets me gently on the ground, and buries her head into her hands.
Even though I doubt she’ll hear it, I say, “Thank you,” and slingshot into the sky.
Our van is not far down the road yet, and Krater’s leaping and bounding toward it, crushing the pavement with each super strong jump he takes. He jumps in front of the car and pulls his fist back to rip the van open.
One heart beat to impact.
I smash into Krater like a meteor, kicking him with every joule of energy I’ve got in me. Steam pours from my foot, the light in my hands fades. Krater blasts back so fast he breaks the sound barrier. He crashes into the pavement a hundred yards down the road, sending a plume of debris into the night sky. I land on my knees, and struggle to get to my feet. Using my power so much is wearing my body down. It’s like constantly flexing a muscle. You can only do that so long.
The dust settles and clears. Krater is not down for the count, yet. He’s struggling, trying to get out of the newly made foxhole. Stone covers most of his body save for his face. But he’s still conscious.
He’s gonna keep coming back for more.
“Go!” I turn towards Remise and point to start driving.
Remise’s eye widens and she points behind me.
Krater’s free of the hole I put him in. He’s barreling down the street at me.
You ever stare down an oncoming train? I do not recommend.
His fist swings like a wrecking ball and I duck, throwing a kick at his leg. He bear hugs me, lifts me off my feet, and slams me back like an old school wrestler.
I nearly black out, but oh ho ho he’s not done with me yet. He grabs my leg and starts rag dolling me around him, whipping me like a stuffed animal. There’s so much energy coming my way I have no idea what to do with it all, like I’m going to drown in it. I try to spend some of it softening the blows, but that just ends up with no net gain of energy at all. Just a world of hurt. I smash into the ground more times than I can count, and then he throws me. Like a pitbull tearing his meal apart.
I’m almost completely out and the van’s not away yet. I’ve got to- I’ve got to- I fight to get to my feet. I almost black out and fall over, but I manage to stay standing. Krater walks up to me, slow and threatening. I hold my fists up, but I feel stupid, and weak. Worse, I’m back to a normal body temp.
“You’re done, little man,” Krater says, pushing me aside. I’ve got no fight left to stop him. I’m tapped worse than last night, after I fought off all those thugs. “You fought hard. You fought good.”
From the clips I’ve seen, he’s an emotional guy. A pride driven guy. If I push the right button, I can buy enough time for the van to slip away. “What, are you not used to a real fight or something?”
Krater stops his advance towards our retreating van. “What’d you say to me?”
I waver and stumble. I’m pushing my power to its limits, and that’s taking a toll on my body. I’m near gassed. Still, I’ve got to keep his attention on me. “You’re soft. You don’t remember what a real fight is like. Look at you, you’re bleeding. When was the last time a fight made you bleed?”
Krater wipes his lip with his hand and looks at the drip of blood coming from his mouth. “You coulda been a Houston Hero, little man. I’ll give you that.”
“No, I couldn’t have.” I am more certain of that than anything. I don’t want to be a celebrity hero like him. I want to save people, the real people down here that need saving. “I’ve seen the clips of you fighting super villains, getting the city key, the awesome penthouse meeting room on top of the OPI tower. I’m not content with that kind of glossy shit. I want something real. You’re so used to the pageantry, the bullshit shows, and the critters that they trot out every year just to give you something to do.”
“You’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” The words wriggle out through his clenched teeth. I’ve struck a nerve. He’s looking down and away, he’s slumped his shoulders. “I keep this city safe.”
With all the venom I can muster: “From what?”
“From monsters like you that want to destroy it!” Krater rolls his shoulder and walks at me.
“Oh, yeah, fight your monsters, and then sit on your ass and wait for a pat on the head. All the while the city rots underneath you. One day the rot will catch you, Krater, and you’ll be thinking you were better than your monsters the entire time.”
Got him. Krater roars and jumps for me. He socks me hard in my chest and I absorb as much as I can. I fly back into a stop sign pole, ripping it free of its foundation. Krater launches at me. I grab the stop sign pole and use it to stand.
This isn’t going to come down to who’s a better fighter. Just whoever hits the hardest. Krater’s given me a lot of energy to work with, so much I’ve started to glow again, but I still need more. I need to hit him harder than I’ve every hit anything.
There’s energy everywhere, Gabe. All around you. Everything has energy. There’s heat in the air, in the ground.
There’s heat everywhere. I vacuum up every degree I can. The ground frosts over, the air chills and mists. Meanwhile, my hands start to glow, my jeans can’t stifle the light of the heat roiling through me.
“High time you got out of my way!” Krater shouts, making his advance.
“I’m not in your way!” I stamp one foot in the ground and heft the stop sign like a baseball bat. I pour all of my strength, the tempest of energy inside me, and every ounce of my will into the wind-up. The pole glows white hot from all the power I’m pouring into it. “You’re in mine!”
Hey batter batter, SWING batter!
The metal pole rings crystalline as it smashes into Krater’s chest. His entire body ripples as rock covers every inch of his skin, and the pole follows through, launching him into the night sky. Home run, baby. A thunderous splash echoes from the bay.
I’m spent, out of fuel. I drop the pole and sprawl out on the ground. The van got away. That’s all that matters. But I do wonder what will happen to me. FIS catches me, I get taken back into custody, OPI does what they will with me.
I’ll probably be liquidated like all the other failures.
I groan. I crawl to my knees. My heart is in my ears, playing war drums for a rock and roll band. I spit blood from my mouth, the taste of victory. I’m not a failure, am I? I’m alive, and I just kicked the shit out of Houston’s Hero.
Wheels crunch on pavement and debris. The van is backing up for me. They didn’t run away.
I rise to my feet as Remise pulls the van up. I get in. Maisa, Saw Off, Vaquero, and Flashfire all stare at me, wide-eyed.
“You know,” I wheeze. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
“Babe,” Saw Off says. “That was in-fucking-credible.”
“Yep,” I cough. “Can we stop for Taco Bell?”
We drive away, unhindered by FIS, Bedevil, Mr. Gold, and especially not Krater.
“You okay?” Flashfire asks.
“Mhm,” I say. I think I’m good. The massive pain I felt before has faded. All that’s left is the ache of pushing myself way too far during a work out.
We drive back towards town, ditching the van near a sky-rail. Saw Off and Vaquero have another car waiting for them, while Drone picks us up in the second van Flashfire had for our group. The last one, actually. She looks over us for a second. “Okay, you aren’t bugged. Let’s go home.”
“Later, babes,” Saw Off says. “Let’s do this again, some time.”
“Yeah,” Flashfire says. “You owe me information.”
“I’ll get it, I’ll get it,” Saw Off says. “I’ll text it to ya.” She winks at him.
Flashfire scowls and gets in Drone’s van.
Before she leaves, Saw Off runs up to me. “Babe, you seem like the kinda guy I’d like to work with. Lemme give you my number.”
I look back to the others, to make sure I’m not making a big mistake, but they don’t offer input one way or the other. Remise shrugs, Maisa doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on, and Flashfire’s hiding in the van. So, I give her my phone. Saw Off gleefully taps her number in, putting her name as ‘Baby <3’ while grinning at me. She dives into her car with Vaquero, and they peel out.
Remise nods to us. “I’ll take care of th’ van, one a’ my buds’ll hide it.” She gets into the near busted van and drives off.
Maisa, and I take our spots in the back seat of Drone’s car. Maisa hasn’t stopped looking at me.
“Yes?” I ask.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” she says.
Flashfire doesn’t say anything. I think he’s still pissed about the dead fish. I’m gonna let him cool off. Not like I feel any better about it.
We stop at a Taco Bell and I am very pleased. I text Doc that I’m gonna stay the night at Epione’s house with the gang, and we head back while I munch my quesadilla and Maisa experiences the delight of cheap-ass cheese on chips.
I feel guilty looking at the back of Flashfire’s head, knowing he’s sulking up there over the dead, but I haven’t felt so alive as these past few days. Like I’ve got a purpose and a meaning. I’m supposed to save people. That’s what I was made for.
We pull up to Epione’s house, and head inside. Right before I do, I get a text from Doc:
Okay, Home Run.
Weird, is that some kind of hero name he wants to stick on me? No, thanks.
Epione’s waiting in the kitchen with Remise, holding a glass of wine like one of those jilted wives on late-night soap operas. Like she’s gonna accuse one of us of murdering her husband and sleeping with him at the same time. But she takes one look at Flashfire, puts the wine on the counter, and runs into his arms. “Oh my God, I was so worried about you. Drone said the Krater attacked you.”
Before Flashfire can get a word in, she kisses him passionately.
Drone coughs and walks around the counter, grabbing Epione’s wine glass and draining it while she isn’t paying attention. “Oh, shit.” She smacks her lips. “That’s the good wine.”
Epione pulls her tongue out of Flashfire’s mouth. “I didn’t know if I’d be mourning someone!”
Flashfire’s bad mood is broken by Epione’s kiss. “No, we’re fine. Actually, I’m a little shaken, but to be honest, we’re still alive thanks to Gabe.”
Drone mutters under her breath and heads to the living room. The TV turns on.
Remise grins at me. “He fought Krater.”
“You fought Krater?” Epione looks at me, disbelieving. “How? He’s… he’s Krater!”
“He definitely is,” I say. “One hell of an arm on that guy. Got any more wine? I need to chase this quesadilla with something.”
“Oh, fuck wine,” Epione says. She reaches under her cabinet and pulls out a bottle of tequila.
“There’s a child,” Flashfire says, putting his hands over Maisa’s ears. She laughs and squirms away from him.
“Guys!” Drone calls from the living room. Her voice is usually flat, level. Now it’s frantic, like when she told us about the motion sensor. “Come here!”
We head to the living room, Epione clutching her tequila bottle.
The TV is playing a news clip, showing Krater wheeled to an ambulance on a giant stretcher by a team of paramedics. Bedevil is sitting by the ambulance, an emergency blanket over her shoulders. Mr. Gold sits next to her, while a paramedic checks his burns.
SHOWDOWN AT NORTH PORT: KRATER IN ICU, THREE FIS OPERATIVES DEAD.
One of the nearby FIS vans caught a video of me knocking Krater out of the park with my stop sign like I’m an all star baseball player. The subtitle to that reads: A New Supervillain in Houston: Who is Home Run?