I’ve got no clue what a Pandahead is. I spoon some egg rice into my mouth.
Seeing both Maisa and I are confused, Flashfire continues: “He’s a criminal warlord. His name gets tossed around a bunch of gangs and drug circles.” Flashfire stands up and comes close to me. “I’ve been digging on this guy. He’s bad news. F.I.S. has a ‘do not pursue’ on him.”
“What the fuck?”
Flashfire nods. “I know. They won’t brand him a supervillain, but all the stories are that he’s got some kind of power that stimulates fear. But if Maisa saw him, we have a lead. I bet we could dismantle his trafficking rings if we got him. Behead the snake, and the body dies.”
“Okay,” I say. “So, we get her to take us to the dock, and we dig around until… what?”
“It’s better than nothing. You wanted to go after this child sex trade stuff. Pandahead’s the biggest supplier of vice in Houston.”
“When do you want to go?” I ask.
“Maisa, if we drove around Port Houston for a bit, could you recognize the docks they brought you in on?” I ask.
Maisa hesitates. “Maybe.”
“Better than nothing,” Flashfire repeats.
“You’re the boss,” I say. “What are we doing with the girls after this? We can’t keep them forever.”
“We take them to F.I.S. Your Mr. Gold would probably remember them, right?”
I nod. “So we take Maisa with us, then after we get our lead, we’ll send them to Mr. Gold. F.I.S. will help you get back to your home,” I say to Maisa.
“I do not want to go back home,” Maisa says.
I’m stunned. Flashfire gives her a funny look. “Why?”
“I have no home to go back to.” She doesn’t look like she’s gonna talk more about it.
“Okay, we’ll figure that out later,” Flashfire says. “But we’ll take the other girls to F.I.S. for sure. But before that, mission time! Remise!” He runs back to the living room. “Remise, we’re going on a mission tomorrow!”
“Why don’t you want to go home?”
“Because I was sold,” she says.
Oh. “I’m… so sorry.” That’s fucked. As fucked as my life.
“You did not sell me.”
“Yeah, but your family did, and they aren’t going to apologize.”
She shakes her head. “They sold me because they found a boy kissing me. It’s my fault. But I can’t go back, or they will kill me.”
I set my bowl down. “Hey, hey, hey, no, no, that’s not your fault at all.” I kneel down in front of her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Lots of girls your age kiss boys, I think, and don’t get… you know, sold.” I stop.
“Not where I come from.”
I sigh. I don’t know a lot about the world. I just know that it’s pooched everywhere, in different ways. Sometimes I wonder how people can stand it. How they can look at everything that’s shitty and not want to give up. “Well, you’re here now. We’ll figure something out for you.” Maybe I can ask Doc if we can take her in. Not like any of us in our apartment are legal, anyway. What’s one more undocumented refugee?
Maisa plays with her hair and looks down. “I am very tired.”
“How about you go back to sleep? Epione will take care of you for now. She’ll make sure you’re comfy until we find something permanent.”
She nods, and I see her back up to the room the other girls are sleeping in. I thought she’d take the couch since I’m no longer sleeping on it, but she instead picks the littlest girls from the three and carries them to the cushions. She returns to her pallet on the floor, and passes out almost instantly. I stay at the door for a minute before heading back downstairs. Sometimes, other people make me feel like shit. Sometimes, other people amaze me. Maisa is the latter.
I head downstairs, back to where Flashfire and Remise are already planning up tomorrow night’s adventure, and Epione and Drone are still playing their game. They beat a level, and a bright message says: “You are so very smart, congratulations,” in a sarcastic tone that makes me feel bad about myself.
But Epione, God bless her heart, says, “Aw.”
“Hey, I’m headed back to Doc,” I say. “He’s probably worried sick about me.”
“Are you gonna have him fix your hand?” Remise asks.
I look at my broken right hand. It will definitely hinder me with the mission. But I can still do throws without it, and fight with my left hand and my legs. Flashfire has us run drills all the time as if our limbs are disabled. “No. I can manage. He doesn’t need the pain right now.”
“We’ll meet up tomorrow, at the pick-up spot,” Flashfire says. “Midnight.”
I salute to him and head out the door.
I’m gonna smooth things over with Doc the best way I know how: stuffing delicious food down his hatch.
Thien is a friendly dude I’ve bought ramen from ever since I moved to Houston. I’m probably his most frequent regular. I must get food here every couple of days. Doc loves it when I come here. Ramen’s his favorite, too, so I’m gonna grab us both a to-go bowl.
“Hey, Gabe, good to see you!” Thien raises a hand from his ramen stall on my way home. “You coming to buy?”
Thien’s stall is a ramshackle piece of junk built into the side of an old bus, and assembled like a bad piece of IKEA furniture out of sheet metal, rotten wood, and a buzzing neon light that says, “YOU’LL SAY, “THANK YOU GOD, R-AMEN!”” On the internet, he has a lot of one-star reviews from offended Christians. But his ramen is the best in Houston. He’s packed in with a shit-ton other shops, mostly taquerias but a few other things, and all built like his: poorly. They sprawl under the unceasing purple-white eyes of Houston’s skyline, just on the edge of the Third Ward. A sea of shacks crawling with people trying to make ends meet.
“Of course I’m coming to buy,” I say. “You think I’m gonna smell your food and not buy it? What kind of friend do you take me for?”
“I take you for a sucker,” Thien says. He’s wearing a big, toothy grin. “What can I get you?”
“Two tonkotsu’s. To-go.”
Thien grins his way to the back. I check my phone while I’m waiting. No missed calls. Doc never calls me. He hates phones.
The news feed, however, is not boring. The top article for Houston’s daily feed reads, “VIGILANTE INTERVENTION IN F.I.S. SEX TRAFFICKING BUST ENDS WITH FOUR DEAD.”
Of course they spin it like that. F.I.S. probably sent them a thinly veiled threat if they didn’t. The article has a small, blurry clip of Mr. Gold dragging me across the street. The clip ends as I hurl the manhole cover into him. Great. Luckily, they don’t have a clear picture of me. The article gives a short description of my costume. Black jacket, black ski-mask, bronze goggles.
We got off lucky.
The comments are the usual drivel and fear-mongering:
“THIS IS WHY WE NEED THE LIBERTY PARTY, THEY’LL CLEAN UP THE CRIME IN THE USA.” – Concit
“We haven’t been the US in a long time, Concit, come on. Besides, Lib will bomb us to oblivion. Hope you like radiation poisoning if you vote for them.” – Greener
“DAE miss Megajoule? You didn’t have vigies running around when he was around. You didn’t have criminals either.” – Itpelio
“Itpelio – no, no one else misses Megajoule, just you. You’re the only one to ever think that, ever.” – Greener.
“I BET THE VIG WAS BLACK.” – Concit. (Of course)
I close my phone in disgust. Everyone’s afraid, and when people get scared, they get stupid.
Thien returns with my ramen. I pay him, and head back to my apartment.
The Third Ward’s a mess of concrete, fluorescence, and poverty. Shells of apartment buildings crowd around the streets like homeless folk gathered around a fire. In the cracks between those there are more stalls like Thien’s, slapped together out of scraps to make less than a hundred bucks a day slinging food at people. Liquor shops and other vices fill decaying strip centers with lit up signs that should come with an epilepsy warning. The ambient noise of cars, sky-trains, and hundreds of thousands of poor people bored out of their mind fills the air. I’m supposed to be used to the smell by now, they say.
Our apartment complex is no different than the others: sad, old, about twenty stories high, sheer concrete covered in signs advertising who knows what. I climb the stairs to the third floor, find apartment 387, and let myself in. “Hey, I got your favorite!”
Doc was an old man when I first met him, so very long ago in the facility I called home, so by now he’s basically hugging his tombstone. His eyes have bags, his hair is thin and white, and his mouth is capable of nothing more than a scowl. Each year of his life put a deep wrinkle somewhere in his saggy face, so he’s like some sort of angry Droopy Dog. “What do you think my favorite is?”
Our living room’s way more cozy than the outside lets on. Warm, orange light mixes with the gentle hum of our TV, we have soft, leather couches that you sink into, and Doc knows his way around decor. He scrounged everything here from online listings, garage sales, and thrift stores. The only truly fancy item we have is our oak coffee table. Doc’s always had it, so I assume it’s from his life before.
I put the to-go bowl in front of him, and he pops the lid. Steam pours out of the soup.
He stares at the bowl. “I hate ramen.”
I tap my chin. “Now, I could of sworn you loved it.”
“Could have. And no, I believe you’re conveniently forgetting anything I’ve said on the matter because you love it. Either way, thanks for the food.” He scratches his neck and grimaces at the bowl. “I saw you on TV.”
“Oh, cool,” I say.
“What happened to your hand?” Doc asks. “Is it broken?”
“No,” I lie. “Just a cut.”
“You’ve got a splint.”
“Epione said the cut hit a little bone. She wants to splint it for a few days. It’s nothing to trouble yourself over.” I’m not letting him take all my injuries. He’s done it before, and I feel bad watching him hobble around with my mistakes.
We both fall silent.
He puts the bowl to his lips and starts to drink the broth without even touching his noodles.
“Savage,” I mutter, and get to work on my own bowl. I’m fairly hungry.
Doc reclines into the couch and fumbles with the TV remote to unmute his late-night Korean drama. I wish I knew what to say to him, some times. He’s basically my uncle and we can barely talk to each other. I just feel like a leech living in his spare bedroom.
“You could just date somebody. Or get a hobby,” Doc says.
“Yes, because girls are just tripping over themselves to be with the social black hole of a guy who came out of a vat and learned his ABC’s from people with seven PhD’s and got most of his culture education in the form of Time Magazine’s greatest hits.” I stir my ramen. Not that I haven’t wanted that, but I’m pretty crippled when it comes to friends, or girls, or anything related to having a normal life.
“What about that cute girl from your old job? The one who came by with Christmas presents?”
“She’s got a boyfriend, and I think she just pitied me.”
Doc grumbled into his bowl of soup. “Then she fooled me.”
“What do you know about it, anyway?” I ask, more sternly than I mean. “Where’s your wife, where’s your family?”
Doc doesn’t say anything to that. He just stares at his ramen.
“I- I’m sorry. That was bad.” I shake my head. “I’m sorry. I’m just- I- I-”
“You’re stuttering, stop it.”
I close my mouth. My cheeks flush. I don’t always understand what all I’m feeling, whether that’s guilt, or shame, or what.
“She was making eyes at you. Just thought you should know what that looks like next time it happens.”
“Yeah, well, she’s got a boyfriend.” Her name was Stacia and she was really nice, and it had definitely crossed my mind when I worked at the burger joint, but I wasn’t one to step in on that kind of thing.
Doc snorts. “You think that means jack-shit these days? You know you’re copied from the greatest superhero ever, right? Genetically, you’ve won the lottery. You could just ask her to dinner, for my sake. Instead of going out and getting your ass busted up by FIS and pedophiles. I wish you could stay out of trouble, but that’s clearly not the case.”
He doesn’t say anything after that, content to watch his drama. There’s a gulf between us I don’t know how to cross.
So instead, I retreat to my room. It’s not anything amazing. A bed, a desk, a laptop. About all I can afford. All of them bought used with cash in hand, because I can’t sign up for credit cards or social accounts or anything like that. Doc spends a long time making sure we leave no trails.
I turn on my laptop. I’m not even sure what I want to do. I consider cat videos. I wish Doc would let me get a cat. Or a dog. Or even a hamster.
I trawl through my documents out of boredom. Saturday night, and I’m just looking through my old…
There’s a folder at the very bottom. The first files on the laptop. Megajoule Vlogs.
Last opened: over a year ago.
I got my ass kicked last night. Some of these videos are about my powers. I’ve watched some of them but lost the drive to finish. He talked about something random every video. Nothing that really helped me.
I open the folder and find the videos I haven’t seen yet. I click on the first one, hesitate, and then start the vlog.
There’s an empty table with a light blue backdrop, the same as all his other videos. The camera shakes as Megajoule himself walks out from behind it and shuffles back to his seat at the table. “Hey, Gabe, this is video 14, I think. I hope you’re doing okay. Let’s go ahead and dive in. I want to talk about the Titan Tower incident.” He points at the blue backdrop behind him, and a video screen pops up.
Megajoule looks… well, he looks like me. Except he’s got blonde hair (I dye my hair a sandy brown), he’s got a clean shave, and he doesn’t wear glasses. He also looks way older, because he was way older than me. Doc told me Megajoule recorded this less than a year before his death.
Sometimes I wonder if he knew it was coming. I don’t even know how he died. Not many people do. Maybe the President of the United Western Continent, and the directors of FIS and OPI. Some of their high level staff. I couldn’t imagine the actual details of his death. As long as he flicked the switch of his power fast enough, he’d absorb any energy that came his way. The kinetic energy of a super strong enemy’s fist? A massive explosion from a missile? The radiation from a broken reactor? He turned his power on and sucked the energy away. Then he put it to good use.
I wish I could control it as well as him.
The same clip as from that poster screen near the warehouse plays. Newscasters freak out as he catches the Titan Tower. His outfit’s nothing like mine: it looks military, like a jet fighter’s flight suit, with white armor around his chest and head, and a huge face visor that shows off his features. We couldn’t be further apart in our styles, or our power levels.
Megajoule narrates the clip for me. “You see, every object in motion exerts a force on any object it encounters. It’s a simple trick, really. I absorb the energy of the force the building exerts on me, and I redirect that energy into an equal and opposite force on the building. Anyone else who tried to interfere would find the building… well, immovable, because I’m only negating the energy the building’s gravitational pull exerts on me, and putting it back into the building the opposite way to hold it up. It’s a simple way of breaking simple physics. It’s an elastic collision. But instead of the energy staying in the system, I diffuse it elsewhere.” He taps his chin. “Doc should have you brush up on physics and calculus, it will help you understand your power more.”
I swallow broth guiltily. Doc’s tried for the last five years to get me to college math and science, but I’m stuck in high school algebra, still. It’s just not my thing.
“And who knows what the metaphysics of it is. I mean, superpowers are a ridiculous concept in and of themselves. Magical abilities bestowed on roughly 98% of the population.” Megajoule fumbles under the table and pulls out a diagram. “I’d meant to save this for another video. But! Might as well get it out now. I don’t know if those eggs or fish showed you the bell curve of superpowers, but this is it. 98% of all living people have the Sword gene.” He runs a finger along the middle portion. “90% of those with the Sword gene have… well, let’s be generous and call their powers ‘mundane.’ Things like slightly increased buoyancy, or the immunity to caffeine, etcetera. People who are welterweight powered and below.” He stops, and pauses.
“Maybe that’s enough for today. I don’t really know you, Gabriel. You and I may have the same DNA, you may be a carbon copy. But genetics aren’t the only thing that makes a person. You don’t have to be me. You can be whoever you want.” He scratches his cheek and looks right into the camera. “You must have a lot of questions, and I’ll always regret not being able to answer them. But, if you are anything like me, you’re probably feeling inadequate. Useless. Unworthy. Even the best struggle with that, Gabe. You know what the plaque said on the stone that Terrence Lilac pulled the sword from?”
“If they are worthy, pull the sword from the stone,” I say, our voices combing into one freaky echo.
“Who the fuck knows what that means, Gabe. Were we worthy? I don’t know. I still don’t know.” The video ends.
Were we worthy? That question echoes in my mind. I put my costume on and grab my mask. I crank my space heater as high as it can go and grab the coil. I sit there for a couple of minutes, absorbing as much heat as I can before I leave. I check the thermometer, watching it slowly rise to 2600 °C. That’s the most I’ve ever held. It hurts, like carrying a heavy weight. But that’s how you get stronger. Progressive overload.
I walk out of my room, mask in hand.
“Where are you headed?” Doc asks, turning his attention briefly from his drama.
“Out,” I say.
Doc grunts, and I leave.
I’m not quite sure where I’m headed. I just want to help, somehow. There’s a piece of me that wants to be like Megajoule; to take flight into the sky and set people’s fears at ease. Another part of me wants nothing to do with him. I don’t want to be defined by who he was. I want to be myself. But lately I wonder if I’m even a good person. Maisa called OPI’s purpose for me blasphemous. Is that what I am? A blasphemy?
I’m scared, too, I guess. As scared as the internet arm-chair commentators. As scared as this city. As scared as the world.
So I go looking for something to distract from the fear. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and if I keep my head down and my schedule full, I don’t have time to wonder if I have a soul or not. I only have time to help other people.
I get some distance between my apartment and head by a crowded bar. There I flip the little button on Drone’s watch that scrambles nearby CCTV feeds. Since she regularly projects her mind into them, she learned all the frequencies they operate on, and developed a little function in my watch that temporarily takes eyes off me. Even better, the feeds don’t show static or anything incriminating. Just a simple loop of the previous minute. Even if someone’s watching the feeds like a hawk or goes back over them, you’d have to be picking the footage apart with a fine tooth comb. I slip into the alley behind the bar and put my mask on, and vault up to the top of the building. From there, I vault to the next highest apartment complex, climbing roof after roof until I’ve got a great view of the city.
Say what you will of Houston. Say it is a cesspool of business, oil, and crime. Say that it is a dead end and that the land it sits on is a bog.
But also say that at night, it shines like a galaxy. You can look into the swirling color of blazing projections on the sides of skyscrapers and see something pristine. The skyline pierces the dark of night like radiant spears. When the morning comes, and you’re left with grimy steel, all you have to do is remember the night before when Houston was beautiful.
I want to take another look at the warehouse from last night. I know that F.I.S. is probably watching it closely, but I’ve got some binoculars and I want to see if their investigation is going anywhere. Maybe I can get some license numbers from the trucks.
Jumping over tall buildings in single bounds!
Ahaha, not really. I do have moments where I soar between the gaps of roofs, thought, and I could probably jump a skyscraper if I really tried, but I’d have no heat for the return journey. Landing would be fatal. And I haven’t figured out how Megajoule flew, if that’s even in my skill set. For all I know, his flight was powered by some sort of energy I can’t manipulate, like radiation or magnetic fields or something.
The warehouse is quiet. I fumble with my binoculars, struggling with my broken hand. The trucks are being looked at by an FIS crew. But nothing that leads me to believe there’s a significant lead to follow there. The detectives bumble around, chat, and smoke. They wouldn’t be so laid back if they had major info. I can’t get any closer than this unless I want another fight with fish.
I start to head back. A clang and a shout from the alley below draws my attention. I dash over to the edge of the roof and peek down.
There’s three men surrounding a smaller figure by a big dumpster. I can’t tell too much about the mystery person from here, other than they’re wearing a red jacket and a mask of some kind. A vigilante? Or a villain?
Or hell, maybe a hero! But heroes don’t wear masks.
Two behind the vigilante, one in front. The two rush to grab the vigilante’s arms while the first rushes. I jump off the roof and kick off the far building down into the alley with a kinetic burst.
My landing surprises everyone, the three thugs and the vigilante. The vigilante wears a strange, red mask that’s like a fox and a demon in one. (Epione has one… I think it’s called a kabuki mask?) From their frame, it’s obvious they are a girl.
The thugs behind the girl take advantage of the chaos and grab her arms. I vault forward and spin a hard kick into the dude between me and the girl. He cries out and hits the ground.
The girl lifts off into the air, dragging the two men with her. They scream as their legs flail with no firm ground below.
Both men gasp and claw at their necks. They float off the girl’s body, suspended in air with her. She’s telekinetic! That’s a heavyweight power.
The thug below me starts to stir, so I give him a kinetic tap on the back of his head, knocking him out again. The girl seems pretty intent on choking these two guys out. “Hey! Don’t… don’t kill them!”
I’m not sure why I don’t want her to kill them. I mean, they looked pretty set against her. And it’s not like I have a lot of quibbles about killing, either. Sometimes… sometimes it’s about surviving. Like World War 2, you know?
Yet, these two thugs look like fish on the end of a hook. “Stop!”
“Stay out of this-” Her voice wavers like she’s drunk. She’s drunk. Oh my God, she’s totally drunk.
I’m not sure why I know it’s wrong, but these thugs shouldn’t die like this. So, I do the only thing I can think of. I gather up an extra burst of heat and launch myself into her. She snarls like a wolf and I feel telekinetic force slam into me, but I cling to her as tight as I can. The two dudes drop out of her grasp as we fly up. They look like they broke their legs falling, but they’re alive.
We change course as we clear the roofs above the alley, shooting into the roof I came from. We break apart, rolling out of the crash landing. My right hand throbs.
I scramble to my feet. She floats up, lifted by her power. She sets herself on her feet and raises a hand towards me. I brace for the telekinesis.
Kabuki girl sways back and forth suddenly. She bends over, lifts up her mask a little, and vomits onto the roof.
Woah. I didn’t think she was that drunk. “Uh… are you okay?” I run up to her.
She holds her hand out, and an invisible tendril wraps me up tight, squeezing my arms and legs together, and lifts me into the air. “donchu fuckin tush me-” she says, and then she’s back down, throwing up more.
I gag. I’m amazed she has the stomach space for all that.
“Who-” she says, standing up straight. I can only see her chine from up here.
I recover from my gag reflex. “Me?”
“Yes-” she coughs, and spits out a little more bile. Ugh, gross. “You.”
“Just a guy in a mask. Like you.”
Her mask thing makes it so I’m not sure if she’s glaring, laughing, or what. “I’m a girl.”
“Well, yeah. I could tell.”
I squirm in her telekinetic grasp. Whoever she is, even drunk, she’s very strong with her power. “You’re heavyweight, huh?”
She doesn’t say anything to that.
“Can you let me go?”
“Why shouldn’t I kill you?” she asks.
“Cause I’m not a criminal?”
“You’re a vigilante.”
I’m sure she can tell I’m making a face at her under my mask. “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
“An outdated perv. Interesting.” She raises her hand and tightens her fist. The invisible tendril squeezes me a little more. It’s starting to hurt.
“Who were those guys?” I ask.
“Gangbangers trying to recruit kids by an apartment on my walk home,” she says. “But they aren’t your concern, anymore.”
The roof access doors burst open. A baker’s dozen of thugs come running out, armed with machetes, crowbars, pipes, and chains.
“Ah, fuck,” the girl says. “Maybe I spoke too soon.”
“What the fuck is happening?” I demand.
“Kicked a hornet’s nest, apparently.” Kabuki girl sets me down, gently, while the violent looking dudes wrap around us in a horseshoe formation. “How many do you think you can take?” With that, she sighs loudly, passes out, and falls over.