The Swordfish aircraft resembles its namesake, long bodied, sleek, with a pointed nose. Four VTOL engines thunder at the craft’s sides. The Swordfish touches down in front of the mansion, beyond the EMS van. Five people come out, four in advanced ceramics armor. The other is Mr. Gold. The police pull up right after the heroes disembark the Swordfish craft.
Meanwhile, that finger in the back of my brain digs harder, and whispers skitter up and down my skin.
Whatever is going on inside, it’s coming this way.
The children scream in their room.
“We have to get out of here!” Remise says. “Rendezvous on Mil-dot!”
Epione grabs my shoulder. “We can come back.”
I can feel him in that room, using his power over the children. We can’t fight the Houston Heroes, FIS, and Pandahead all at once. Best thing to do is retreat and get a handle on the situation before proceeding. It kills me inside, but I have no choice right now. “We’ll come back. We’ll figure out what to do.”
Epione hops on my back, and I leap over the top of the roof, headed back toward Mil-dot’s position.
Mil-dot mumbles into the comms. “Please,” she repeats, over and over.
We meet back at the tree line at the back of Taylor Jade’s lawn. Saw Off, Lugs, and Vaquero are already there, hiding behind the brush. Saw Off’s bleeding from her gut and her chest. Two bullet holes, both center mass. She’s a tough one, she’s still standing with the help of a tree and Lugs. She wheezes, blood dribbles down her chin.
“That… doesn’t look good,” I say.
“Can’t breath, babe,” she manages.
Epione touches Saw Off’s back, and Saw Off heaves one long breath. She stands a little more upright. Saw Off sees who helped her, scowls and looks away.
“Drone, what the heck was that?” Flashfire asks.
“Pandahead opened some kind of device, and everyone around him went nuts,” Drone says. “There was… something in the dark, but I couldn’t make it out.”
“Dinnae ken,” Remise says over the comms. “Whatever ‘twas, tha’ sounded laeke someone poochin’ twenty hellhounds up the arse.” She and Flashfire make it to the treeline. Remise’s jacket is burned through, part of her helmet smoldering and melted. Her skin is scarred underneath that.
“Woah, are you alright?” Epione asks.
“Ah’ll be fine, ah think we have worse things to worry abou’.” She waves Epione off.
“Yeah, like the Houston Heroes,” Drone says. “They’re coming after you. Mr. Gold’s going into the house.”
“Krater?” I ask. I really don’t want to go up against him again.
“No, just the others. You need to hurry-”
A blast of wind shoots through the trees, and Hasuji of the Houston Heroes stands before us. He’s wearing fancy armor enhanced by servos and plates of black military grade ceramic, a helmet with a clear visor that shows his face, and red scarf that billows with the wind he kicked up. “You’ve one opportunity to stand down.” He unsheathes a katana from his side.
Vaquero pulls his gun and fires.
I don’t even have time to blink. Hasuji blurs through the air and smashes into Vaquero. His blade bounces off Vaquero’s skin. He’s got super speed, but that means he’s too fast to puncture Vaquero. He starts a flurry of attacks on Vaquero, tearing apart the cowboy’s clothes but doing no real damage.
He stops after every swing for just a second. A breath. A heart beat.
He’s making sure of each swing before he makes his attack. He’s the opposite of Remise. He doesn’t have super senses, just the speed.
Lugs holds his arm out and a magnetic pulse whines, pulling the sword from Hasuji’s hand. Hasuji blurs again, appearing in front of Lugs and kicking so fast he breaks the sound barrier. Lugs drops the sword, screaming. Vaquero empties his gun into Hasuji’s armor, doing little damage until the final round. The last bullet shatters the military ceramic on his back.
I haven’t even had time to react, yet.
Remise tackles him and the two tussle in the brush. “Run!” she shouts. “The others will be here any-”
A mechanical suit of armor skids into the forest right behind Hasuji, moving like an ice skater by roaring thrusters on the feet. Danger Close. The armor’s strangely organic looking, interlocking plates of armor held powered by motors and hydraulics that look kind of like a muscular structure. There’s an extra pair of arms underneath the first. The last Houston Hero, Tachikaze, clings to his back. She’s in armor like Hasuji’s, but she’s got this neon, translucent cape on her shoulders. She’s baring her teeth under her visor, either a grin or a snarl, not sure which.
Tachikaze vaults from Danger Close’s armor and swings her sword in a wide arc. A wave rips through the air, cutting through the trees and slicing the underbrush apart. I dive tackle Epione out of the way. I don’t have any idea how to absorb that power, if I even can. I’m not going to risk it.
Danger Close hefts two Gatling guns in each pair of arms, the barrels already spinning. Lugs steps in front of Saw Off, Vaquero in front of Flashfire. I duck behind a tree.
Danger Close unloads his payload on us. His guns roar, the steady brrrt of thousands of bullets per minute overpowering everything other sound in the woods.
I leave Epione and bounce off my heels into a heat powered launch. Steam hisses out of my jacket as I rocket into Danger Close, knocking him off balance. I grab one of his four arms and flip over him, hooking him with my legs, and spin us like a merry go round using kinetic blasts and his own thrusters to propel us. I spin us so fast the blood rushes to my head and my stomach bounces around inside of me.
My plan is to throw him into a tree, maybe break the armor. The problem is, my spin is thrown off when our entire mass is ripped towards Lugs, who’s turned on his magnetic pulse. I fall off as Danger Close tumbles towards Lugs. This turns out to be a psuedo-blessing. Another super-powered slice from Tachikaze rips through the space I just occupied.
Flashfire and Epione are disappearing into the woods, Remise right behind them. Good. They can’t tank hits like the Vaquero and I can.
“Gabe, you get out of here,” Vaquero says. “I’ll handle the katana twins.” He narrowly misses Hasuji’s helmet with a bullet. Hasuji recovers his sword and starts slashing at Vaquero again.
“No!” Tachikaze shouts. She swings her sword at Vaquero, and another powered wave slice rips through his back. A thin red line appears on his back. That was almost too slow.
Danger Close recovers, aiming his guns at me. The barrels start to spin, the three second wind-up signaling another barrage. I step off my foot into a kinetic charge, and my knee rips one of Danger Close’s mechanical arms free of the suit. The suit hisses as steam rolls out from inside.
Hmm, this thing’s hot. Maybe I can use it to power myself.
I grab the other arm. Sure enough, the suit is blazing. I draw in so much power I start to glow again. Why not go to completion? I’ve frozen stuff over before. Maybe I can freeze his suit shut.
His other arms grab at my shoulders, trying to pull me free. I vacuum up the heat they’re putting off, too, and they stick to me like a tongue on an icy light pole in midwinter.
“I’ve got Mil-dot!” Lugs says over the comms. “Retreating to van!”
“We’re on our way,” Flashfire says.
The mechanical arms frost over, blacken, and crumble as I take every ounce of heat. Kinetic energy. I’m stealing the very energy from the molecules. There’s so much light shining from me that the woods around me look like they’re cast in sunlight again.
I bust his armor wide open, wrenching the plating around the chest free. Danger Close groans and slips out. He’s down for the count.
Saw Off moans in agony, hiding in the brush. I disperse the heat as kinetic energy into the ground below me so I don’t burn her. With the attention off me, I help her to her feet.
Vaquero and Hasuji tussle, and in a whirl, Hasuji catches his blade in Vaquero’s arm. I hiss as he just ducks under Tachikaze’s sword and shoots out one of the ceramic plates in her stomach. Vaquero kicks Hasuji. He’s got this, he can do this. I’ll help him-
Blood wells on Vaquero’s sleeve. Hasuji stops, his eyes widen in his visor.
My heart skips a beat. He’s just realized Vaquero’s weakness.
I bound for them, Saw Off still in my arms. “No!”
Hasuji warps up to his feet. He doesn’t start a flurry of super sonic slashes. With one precise strike, he slices through Vaquero’s neck, beheading him.
Vaquero’s body falls back, squeezing his revolver in a dead grip. The gun goes off, shooting through Tachikaze’s armor in her stomach. She grunts and falls to her knees, next to Vaquero’s head. Vaquero’s body slumps over like he’s praying.
Too late. Fuck. I kick into Hasuji and bounce off of him before he can react, pushing him into the dirt and launching back the way we came.
Saw Off screams through blood and bile. “No! No! Gabe!”
“Don’t look back!” I pull her into my chest and bound into the woods, careful to avoid the trees. Three powered katana waves slice through the bark and leaves, missing us as I shoot like an arrow to catch up with the others.
I land behind Flashfire, Epione, and Remise. “Vaquero… he’s gone.”
Epione gasps. Flashfire hisses.
“Here, let me help,” Remise says, taking Saw Off from me. Saw Off is sobbing, tears mixing with the blood on her cheeks and neck. Poor girl.
“Jackpot!” Drone says over our comms. “Pandahead took off his helmet!”
“Who is he?” I ask. I need to know who he is.
“He’s…” she pauses. “He’s Tim Prince.”
“The senator’s son?” Epione asks. “I’ve met him at a gala. He drank so much he threw up all over the hor d’oeuvres. He’s the same age as you, Flash.”
“What’s a twenty-four-year-old problem child doing running a human trafficking org for FIS?” Flash asks.
“I don’t think it matters anymore,” I say. “We got what we came for. Let’s hook back up with Drone and get out of here.”
“What about the kids?” Epione says.
I think I trust Mr. Gold. Maybe FIS is in on this, but I don’t think Mr. Gold is, somehow. Plus, the police already showed, which means FIS can’t hide this. Still, it would be smart for me to make sure they are safe. “I’ll make sure they’re taken care of. I’ll meet back up with you-”
Hasuji blurs in front of us. “Last chance.”
Fuck. I don’t think I’m fast enough to take him.
Remise holds her fencing blade up. “I’ll-”
“I love you,” Flashfire says to Epione. “Close your eyes.”
Hearing that, I squeeze my eyes shut too. A bright light sears over my eyelids, and when I open them again, Hasuji’s stunned by Flashfire’s power. Flashfire tackles Hasuji and starts to grapple him. “Run! Go! Get Epione out of here!”
He’s right. He’s the slowest, and he can buy the most time with his power.
Epione stumbles to her knees. She didn’t close her eyes in time. I scoop her up and bound toward the van. “I’ll come back for him. I’ll get him.”
“No! Jason!” she screams. “No! I can’t see!”
The van is right where we left it. Lugs is carrying his sister toward the back. The side door opens and I set Epione inside. She still can’t see. She fumbles around in the seats, trying to get her bearings.
Mil-dot’s face is pale, her eyes shut tight. There’s a chip in one of her teeth, like she clenched her jaw way too tight. Blood seeps from her nostrils. “It- it- it-” Jesus.
“What happened?” I ask.
“She saw whatever Pandahead’s power is. Says there was something in the house with them.”
Mil-dot grabs my jacket. She opens her eyes wide: the white around her pupils is purple and red. Her capillaries burst. “It will devour you.”
“What did you see?” I ask.
She stammers and shakes her head. “I- I- I’ve seen men die, I- I’ve seen battles, I served in China, and Syria.” Mil-dot swallows. I can hear how dry her mouth is. “That thing was like a night ambush in your heart, sitting in a fox-hole, while the world explodes above your head.”
“Gabe!” Drone shouts. “Gabe! Gabe! Oh my God! Hurry!”
“What?” I ask. I rush to the passenger side.
Drone is panicked, jabbing her finger at the laptop screen. “He’s- Tim- he’s got a gun! Mr. Gold just left the house. Tim’s going upstairs!”
The kids in the room.
The black hole opens inside me.
No. No. No. No.
I blast through the air. If I’m fast enough, If I’m strong enough, if I can fly, if I hurry.
I can stop it. I’ll save the kids, rush back and get Flashfire.
You’re not him. You can’t do everything he did. He could have done it.
I rocket over the trees, above the lawn, aimed right at the balcony. My flight is so fast the trees shake with heated gusts trailing behind me.
“GABE!” Drone shrieks over the watch comm, over the screaming wind. Over the gunfire I hear inside Taylor Jade’s mansion.
There is a black hole opening inside of me. I trail behind my body, letting it run by itself.
I know I’m too late.
I crash into the balcony, rupturing the railing and shattering the glass windows as I land.
Bodies litter the floor of the upstairs, blood seeps into the carpet, stains the walls, even marks the ceilings. Most of the corpses belong to clients, rich, older, doughy. A few of the dead are Pandahead’s men. Only some of them are dead from bullet wounds. One man has chunks of flesh stripped from him.
There’s an open stairwell in a circular domed room. Most of the bodies are here. This is where he turtled in when he knew he was under attack.
Mr. Gold stands at the end of the hallway leading out to the front balcony. He’s trained his gun into the right room. “Put the pistol down!” he orders.
“It was one of the clients!” someone shouts. The cadence is Pandahead’s. Tim Prince. The voice is unmodulated. “He went insane, started killing everyone. I had to shoot him!”
Mr. Gold steps into the room.
I know I am too late. My body walks in slow steps toward the room. My flesh crawls, my muscles tremble. My body creeps to the end of the hall, my hand presses against the bloody walls for support. My legs are jelly. My stomach revolts.
I step into the doorway.
Tim Prince is sitting at the bed, sweat glazing his forehead under his curly, black hair. He’s cradling a thermos in one hand, and holds a pistol in the other. He sees me, and says, “It’s Home Run! Arrest him!”
Mr. Gold whirls around and aims his gold gun at me.
I pay attention to neither of them.
I’ve never seen a dead child in real life. My body is cold and numb, I can’t even speak. The few that survived the immediate execution press their hands against the bullet wounds. They know they have to stop the blood, they just don’t know how. They don’t know they’re already beyond saving, barring a miracle. The clients that hid behind the children are also mostly dead, too.
“Why?” my voice squeaks.
Mr. Gold’s gun shakes. He looks back and forth between me and Tim Prince.
Tim Prince points a pistol at one of the older men. An assault rifle sits on top of the dead man’s chest, and a single bullet hole sits right in the middle of his forehead.“One of the clients-”
“No,” my voice says.
Tim Prince stops lying. He’s young. He’s younger than I am. He’s black, like his dad. He’s scrawny, his eyes are like pieces of black coal, and he wears a grin that he stole from the Devil himself under dark peach fuzz.
“Home Run.” Mr. Gold’s voice wavers. From his expression, it’s clear he’s being torn in half.
“Yes,” my voice says. “He did this. He’s the one I’ve been trying to stop. The sex trafficking ring.” I can’t speak longer than a few words. My lungs wheeze out air. My mask is wet.
“I’m going to-” I reach a hand out for Tim Prince.
Mr. Gold steadies himself. “Hold.”
Tim Prince raises his own gun at me. “Swing and a miss.”
“Put your gun down,” Mr. Gold orders, holding his hand out at Tim.
Tim Prince scoffs. “He’s threatening me.”
“No, I’m promising you.” I step forward, unable to stop my body. The chill of absolute murder overwhelms me. “I will kill you.”
“Home Run! Stand down!” Mr. Gold alternates between pointing his weapon at me and Tim Prince.
Tim Prince stands up. “You know what you have to do, Mr. Aguellar. Arrest the vigilante. Or I’ll be having a strongly worded conversation with your boss.”
Mr. Gold wavers, his gun dips.
There’s one surefire way I can get Mr. Gold to trust me.
I take off my mask.
Mr. Gold gasps. “You’re… I know you.”
Tim Prince guffaws, like he just heard the shittiest joke in the world. He puts his hands on his hips and asks, “Are you for fucking real? Fucking Megajoule?”
“You can’t be! You died!” Mr. Gold says.
Tim Prince raises the pistol. He clutches the thermos to his chest. “If he comes any closer, he will die.”
“I’ll stop the bullet,” I say.
Mr. Gold lowers his gun.
I blast forward.
Tim pops the top off the thermos.
A wave of ink shoots from the mouth of the thermos and washes over my eyes. The world tears in two around me, and I’m not in Parlor anymore. I’m in the dark hallway outside Spanish Grandma’s apartment, there are dozens of gangbangers charging me. A mass of limbs, machetes, and billy clubs swarming me in the dark. There is no floor, there is only the bodies of children, dead or dying.
“What- what- what is this?” Mr. Gold asks, his voice seeping through the rotting wood.
His voice pulls my mind back to Parlor. Tim Prince leaves the pistol on the bed, shoves his way past Mr. Gold. I flail, fighting to stay out of the grasp of the men swarming around me.
I’m in two places at once. This nightmare place and the real world. An earphone in each ear, one playing a threnody of dissonant strings, the other the sound of cars crashing into each other. The weight of mountains falls on my shoulders, but my feet can’t touch solid ground. Hands tear free of the mass of children, black, mottled, twisted like thrown in a fire. The corpse fingers grip my ankles.
Spanish Grandma’s apartment door opens just a sliver, and Bedevil stares out from the crack. Her eyes are torn out, the skin around her mouth open. A tongue torn in two hangs from the lipless mouth, and her voice cries out, “GAAAAAAYYYEeeeeeBAAAA.”
I try to ground myself in the real world. It takes all of my willpower to concentrate, but I fight to return to my mind. Mr. Gold is on his back, his hands curled into his chest. Mr. Gold stammers single syllables, sounding like a terrified baby. “W-w-w-wha-”
Tim Prince chuckles. “That’s the end game, friends. That’s what this universe is crawling toward, including our world, all the worlds. That’s the dark waiting for us at the heat death. That thing is the essence of that death. Entropy, silence, damnation.” His voice wavers. “You know, I used to be like you guys, convinced the world had a purpose. Convinced that we had a purpose. I went to marches, I went to protests. People loved that shit. A senator’s son rejecting his father’s legacy and picking up a poster? Hell yeah, fucking rock on, dude.”
Tim pauses. He’s looking into the thermos like Gollum at the ring. “Fear. That thing is fear. It feeds off of it. When I first felt it like you’re feeling it now, I knew. I knew that no protesting, no marching, no amount of fighting or superpowers would ever put that off. This thing is the apex predator of all existence.”
“It’s… a fucking… thermos…” I hiss between teeth that refuse to open. Hands grab my arms, and I can’t even use kinetic energy to free myself. It won’t flow, like the dam’s caught.
“Wow! You’re stronger than I thought. So much fear and you’re trying to fight it.”
“I’m not… going… to let you… use your power…”
Mr. Gold whimpers.
Tim Prince shakes his head. “That thing in there is not my power. That’s something else entirely. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t have a power.”
There is no way I believe that. I can’t move. That’s a power. “You…?”
“I am one of the bottom 2.5% that never developed a power. No Sword gene. Sucks, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, you, wow. You creamed Krater. We couldn’t be more different.”
I stumble, clinging to the door. I can hardly form the words: “But… you have power… over fear… I am…”
Tim walks up to me and flicks my forehead. “Silly. You don’t need a superpower to have power over fear. Fear is a fundamental part of being a human. It’s fundamental to the universe. If you don’t believe me, look behind you.”
He grabs my shoulders, and turns me around. The world goes dark as if someone threw a blanket over all the lights. I’m back in the hallway.
Bedevil opens the door to the apartment more. Her face is caved in, just a black hole. “Why did they pull him from the grave? Why? Why won’t they let him die?” Her voice comes from all around me. A scream wants to escape from me, but it’s caught on my vocal chords.
The dead gangbangers and children open their mouths to speak.
“GAAAAyyyEEEEEEBBBAAAAA,” they shriek in chorus, their voices overlapping. The finger in the back of my brain turns into a knife plunging through my heart.
“You’re afraid of the same thing I am. The same thing everyone is afraid of. We’re all afraid that nothing we do matters. And do you know the worst part?” Tim Prince leans in close. “That’s the truth. Nothing we do matters. I see your fear. You fight so hard. You fight so well. What a shame that it counts for nothing. One day they’ll forget.”
“They made you,” Megajoule says.
“They’ll bury you,” Mr. Gold continues.
Bedevil sniffles. “They’ll forget.”
“That’s god damn right,” Tim says. “We get one ride. It doesn’t mean jack shit that I profit off this stuff. Even better, I perform a valuable service to this city while I do it. All of us will be spirited into history and maybe we’ll get a foot note or if we’re very lucky, a page in some asshole kid’s history class book. Will we care? No. We’ll be dead. We’ll all die.”
I fight against the hands gripping me. Tendrils of telekinesis criss cross my chest, pulling me toward Bedevil, pulling me into the floor. I can’t move, I WANT TO MOVE.
“If you were to see one, you’d think that maybe God poked a pencil in the fabric of the universe, or something.”
Bedevil’s ruined body floats out of the apartment toward me. Her body twists and unravels; she’s a rag doll and someone’s pulling her threading out. The corpses of children swirl up around her like she’s puppeteering them with telekinesis. Arachnid legs as wide as trees rip from this mass, stringing corpses along their chitin. Blood splatters at me, and a face forms out of their flesh: Megajoule. A green-rotting tongue lolls out of his mouth. “GAAAAyEEEBA.”
That scream that’s been trying to tear out of my throat finally makes it, ripping from my mouth like a tumor. The hallway leans forward.
“GAAAAAYEEEEBAAAAA,” Megajoule shrieks. His face twists, and then it’s Bedevil screaming at me.
The insect legs pull more bodies from the writhing mass. Remise dances on the end of a spider paw. Drone hangs from a noose held aloft by a claw. The face transforms into Flashfire, and the tongue becomes Epione. He bites down, ripping her body in half. He screeches in a voice folding in on itself, a voice like a landslide.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, night after night,” I say, the words pulled from my mouth like molecules into a black hole.
I’m in three places: I’m stumbling through Parlor. I drag my red hot hand along the walls and they catch fire. The hands and tendrils bind me in the dark hallway. I fight for every inch, I scream and grunt, I push with every ounce of strength I’m in the shower in my apartment, wishing the water would burn me away.
I’m being divided. Ripped apart.
“Spaghettification,” Megajoule jeers.
Bedevil weeps, and says, “One path that you can’t get off, one path taking you into the shadow. Forever. There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe.”
I’m at the Port, I’m standing between Krater and my friends. He’s as tall and wide as Houston, wearing a bloody grin. He’s made of steel, of bedrock. “You can’t clean up the world. Too many rats.”
“Too many starfish,” Bedevil whispers into my ear. “Oh, Mega. Mega. Megaaaaaa, oh my Gooooooooooodddd.” She moans as she rides out her orgasm. Four places. No. I’ve lost count.
“The howling dark would come up at you. An infinite abyss stretching further and further out. Light would wrap around the hole, and as you passed the horizon, the universe would actually fall away behind you. It would shrink and shrink into a pinprick, until all around you is the dark,” Megajoule says.
I’m sinking into the corpse void.
“It will devour you,” Mil-dot says.
A fractal blooms out of the void, a tesseral pattern woven of dark hallways, dripping with blood, echoing with the moans of rich men raping little girls, cast over by an uncaring world, where nothing matters at all.
The world is a pinprick behind me. I’m falling. I’m falling.
One path. One path into the dark.
Say, everything’s going dark.
I’m falling into the fractal of fear. The Fear. “Julian!” I scream. “How do I fight the Fear? How do I stop it?”
“There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe,” Megajoule says, but he’s across the event horizon from me now. Red shifted into oblivion, sucked into the pinprick behind me. Dark hallways on dark hallways on dark hallways on dark hallways.
“They made you,” Pandahead says, his voice still in my head. “They’ll bury you. They’ll forget.”
I summon all the energy I can. I pull all the heat in around me. Even the energy of falling into a black hole. I have to escape. Before I cross the event horizon. Before every particle is stripped from me and spirited away into the inky night.
I rocket into the sky.
I fall into the dark.
Please, God, if you’re listening, don’t let me die here.
I don’t even know who’s speaking anymore.
“You’re afraid that nothing matters.”
Molecules, torn apart, one by one, into the dark.
“You’re afraid you’re just a sum of questions.”
When I answer them, will I disappear?
Who am I? Gabe. G for Good, A for Able, B for Beautiful, E for Enough.
What do you want? To save the world, even though that’s stupid.
Where are you going? I don’t know.
What are you afraid of? That this is all a cosmic joke.
What do you need? I need a soul.
What are you? A ghost with a stolen body.
Where? I don’t know.
What? I don’t know.
Who? I don’t know.
Why? I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know
I don’t kno
I don’t kn
I don’t k