Category Archives: Arc 1: Dark Hallways

EPISODE TWELVE

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.

“Thanks.”

“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 weeping.

“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.

Tim smirks.

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.
“Nothing matters.”
I don’t even know who’s speaking anymore.
“You’re afraid that nothing matters.”
That’s true.
“Spaghettification.”
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
I don’t
DON’T
DoN’T
Don’T
Don’t
Don’t
don’t
don
do
d
.

 

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EPISODE ELEVEN

The 2nd Amendment’s crappy old beater of a sedan waits by the dirt road at the edge of Taylor Jade’s property. When they see us pull up, they drive a bit into the woods, off the road. We follow for a few hundred feet until they stop. Saw Off practically bursts from the passenger side, Mil-dot steps calmly out from the driver’s seat, and Lugs and Vaquero emerge from the back. Remise leaves our van running, and everyone but Drone gets out. A stiff breeze shakes the trees, and the forest dances like spirits move the bark and branches. The wind sighs and the leaves whisper. The woods are alive on the Jade estate, snickering at our approach.

Saw Off stretches and yawns. “God, you took forever, I was about to doze off. Can I go ahead and load up?”

“Yeah, it’s time,” Flashfire says.

She pulls a handful of shotgun shells from her pocket, tilts her head back, and swallows them, one after another. One, two, three, four, five. She cocks her head to the side, fiddles with her ear, and says, “All good.” Vaquero chuckles and shakes his head, still as non-plussed as ever.

“How in the world did you ever figure out that was your power?” I ask Saw Off.

“Well you know how kids swallow shit a lot, right?”

“Never mind.”

Saw Off reaches into her jacket and pulls her middle finger out of her pocket at me. When she does this, an old school grenade falls out of a hidden pouch.

“Is that…?” Flashfire asks.

“Tha’s a fookin’ grenade!” Remise says.

Saw Off holds her hands up. “It might come in handy! Lugs gave it to me for my birthday.”

I face palm. “Fine, fine, whatever. Don’t you dare use it inside the house, though.”

“Spoilsports.” Saw Off sticks her tongue out at all of us.

Drone sets her Hummingbirds free out of the passenger window. The little black cameras fly up above us, but one hangs around our group. “I’ll watch and record. Let me know when to make the call to EMS. Follow this one to the estate.”

“Run over the plan one more time,” Lugs says to Flashfire.

“Wait for the EMS. When they show up, throw the car. You guys distract the guards, we’ll take care of Pandahead and secure the kids.”

While the others make their last preparations, I check my phone. I’ve still got Bedevil’s contact info open. Or, rather, Ruby.

We’re going into something really dangerous. She said to call her if I need help. This morning humiliated me, but having a powerful telekinetic on our side would really even the odds. So, I decide to call her.

My stomach turns while the ring tone plays out, until the phone goes to an automated voicemail. The recorder beeps, I stammer a few syllables, and then close the phone.

Figures she wouldn’t answer. I’m relieved she didn’t, actually.

The 2nd Amendment piles into their car. Saw Off waves at us. “We’ll start the party when we see that EMS crew.”

“Stay on the comms, and wait for my signal,” Flashfire tells her.

Saw Off throws a peace sign and rolls up the window, and their little clunker bumps off into the woods to their position. Drone follows them with one of the Hummingbird cameras.

We hike it through the woods in silence. My brain is on a million different trains chugging out into unknown Gabe-land. Bedevil is on my mind, Maisa, Megajoule. I need to be clearheaded but my head is full of the dust of a thousand thoughts.

Drone’s Hummingbird guides us to the edge of the lawn, where we wait behind trees. The house sits on a slight slope up from the woods, the field behind the house is cleared of forest, and there’s no fence. The house puts Epione’s McMansion to shame, a legit rich person’s estate. Warm light radiates from the windows, a pool splashes, and laughter creeps over bushes obscuring the men laughing. I can’t see inside very well, but there are two armed guards on the balcony above the pool.

Saw Off’s voice comes in over the comms. “We’re where we’re supposed to be.”

“In position,” Mil-dot says. “I count about twenty something kids all over the place. I’ve got clean shots on the balcony men.”

Twenty kids. They’re the reason we’re here. I have to stay focused on that. Get them out.

“Hummingbirds ready,” Drone says.

“We’re ready, too,” Flashfire says.

My heart is pounding, my chest is squeezing me alive. Deep breaths.

“Making the call.” Drone’s voice drops off the comms. We wait in tense silence. My heart won’t settle down until a hand touches my back, and a calm fills my mind. Epione.

“Sorry, I could hear how stressed you were from here.”

I shake my head. “You’re right. I’m letting emotions get the better of me.”

Sirens pierce the sounds of the forest. An ambulance rips down the road through the property. It pulls up to the front of the mansion, out of my line of sight. Drone keeps us updated: “Paramedics are getting out, I told them someone was having a heart attack. They’re at the door. Someone’s answering. They’re shaking their heads? I think the guy’s turning them away.”

“Phase two, put that car in the lawn,” Flashfire says.

“On it,” Lugs says over the comms.

Drone laughs. That’s a very scary sound: I don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh before. “Here it comes!”

Trees crunch and the paramedics scream.

“What the fuck, did you set it on fire?” Drone asks.

“Yep!” Saw Off says. “Thought it would get more attention.”

“Yeah, the EMTs are freaking out. One’s going to investigate,” Drone tells us. “The other is going back to the van.”

“We need to make sure they call the police,” I say.

“I can take out one of the guys on the balcony,” Mil-dot says. “The people inside are a little confused, everyone seems to have stopped moving. I think… wait, the armed guys are moving. Guys on balcony holding.”

“Take the shot,” Flashfire says.

A single clear shot rings out over the lawn.

Mil-dot hisses over the comms. “Fuck!” She takes another shot. “Got him. Missed that first one. The other one is retreating into the house.”

“Oh, that got them,” Drone says. “EMS scrambling back to their car. They’re shouting to call the police.”

“Fantastic,” I say. “What’s the situation inside?”

“Guys moving all around,” Mil-dot says. “They’re gathering in the middle of the building, looks like on some stairs. The kids… they’re moving them, herding them toward the second level, front of the building. Into one room. They’re turning off the lights in the house.”

“He’s turtling,” Flashfire says.

“Time to make our move,” I say. “We’ve got to get him out when the police arrive. They aren’t equipped to handle this kind of thing. We need to wrap him up with a neat bow before FIS gets here.”

“Let’s go then!” Remise charges forward, sprinting up the lawn. Flashfire runs after her.

“Epione, mount up!” I shout.

Epione piggy backs on my shoulders and I vault us forward out of the woods.

“They’re watching the back like hawks,” Mil-dot says.

“Your best way in is toward the front, there’s another balcony. Only one guard posted there now,” Drone says. “He’s watching for you.”

“One of the guards is coming out of the back balcony!” Mil-dot says.

Sure enough, one of the guards steps out of the house. We’re headed right into his range of fire.

Another sniper bullet pops his helmet open, and he crumbles to the ground before he can get a shot off. “He’s done,” Mil-dot says. “The kids are in the front right of the building. Pandahead is giving spare guns to some of the clients.”

He’s smart. He’s responding to an uncertain enemy by hunkering down in a strong position and arming as many bodies as he can. That’s good strategy.

“Jaysus,” Remise says. “Fookin’ bastard.”

“They’ll fold if we throw a flash grenade in there,” Flashfire says. “You said they’re on the second floor?”

“Two hanging out on the stairs, watching the back,” Mil-dot says. “If you go in that way, you’ve got two trained on you.”

“We’ll take their attention off you,” Lugs says. “Hang on!”

Metal groans and shrieks. Wood and glass crack, shatter, scream out of the lawn. “What the fuck!” Drone shouts. “He put the car through the dining room!”

“Well, those two guys aren’t watching the back anymore,” Mil-dot says.

The tell-tale sound of Saw Off’s shotgun sneeze blares over the comms. “We’ll keep them off you!” There’s another shotgun blast, deeper, and the pkew of a small revolver.

Mil-dot growls. “2nd Amendment’s distracted the guys in the front, you’ve got an opening. Pandahead’s wrapped himself with about six dudes up top, though, plus the clients. Using civilians. Disgusting.”

“We’ll go around the side,” I say. “Hold on, Epione!”

Epione wraps her arms around my neck and chest.

“If my girlfriend dies,” Flashfire says, “I’m killing you myself.”

No time for chuckles. I vault up using kinetic energy, kicking off the side of the mansion. The tip of the guard’s gun is pointed out over the balcony, he’s waiting for something to shoot at. I’ll give him something to shoot at, all right.

I blast in front of him and use heat to change direction mid-air. My stomach turns as I shift, Epione squeals, and the guard freaks. He gets a few rounds off but his gun’s aimed low. I sail past him, meaning to kick him, but he ducks out of the way.

Epione reaches out and grabs his head as we pass. He screams in agony.

“Remise! Look out!” Mil-dot shouts.

“That’s Beckett! Remise!” Drone says. “He’s got the napalm!”

“Ah got him! Keep goin’ Flash!”

“Kick his ass!” Drone cheers.

The guard in front of Epione and me reaches for his gun. I blast over and rip his helmet off. Epione grabs his cheek.

The guard, a gruff dude in his early thirties, the very epitome of military lumberjack man, shrieks at the top of his lungs. He screams, recoils from Epione, and performs a tactical retreat. By tactical retreat, I mean that he clambers over the balcony railing and jumps off into the bushes below.

Epione titters. I’ve never been on the receiving end of her power over agony, and I never want to be.

“Remind me never to cross you,” I say. Below us, the EMS wails its sirens, a desperate plea for help. I can hear police cars in the way distance. The balcony has two windows looking into dark rooms, and a single door in between them.

“The right room is clear,” Drone says. “The kids are in the left.”

I don’t want to go in through the room the kids are hiding in, and endanger them. “Come on. In through this window here.” I wait for another burst of gunfire downstairs, and I punch my arm through the window to the right room. My leather jacket guards my arm from the broken edges. I pull the latch.

“Remise!” Drone shouts. Remise screams in agony.

There’s more gunfire below us, and another one of Saw Off’s shotgun sneezes.

Shit. Stay on task. No plan survives contact with the enemy, so the only thing I can do right now is concentrate. Epione grips my arm. I open the window.

“Wait! Gabe!” Epione shouts.

A steel man rips through the window, slamming a metal fist into my chest. I absorb so much energy my hands glow through my gloves. Epione and I roll apart from the blow, and I slam into the other end of the balcony.

Man made of metal. Aspect. He’s missing a leg, replaced with a plastic prosthetic. He limps hard on that leg. The prosthetic is cheap and unbalances him. Advantage.

Epione is closer to him. He pulls a pistol and aims it at her head.

“No!” I splurge on kinetic energy and warp through the space between us. I reach out to put my hand in front of Epione’s head. I have no idea how to absorb a bullet’s kinetic energy. It’s different from heat.

Doc’s stupid physics book comes back to me. Kinetic energy isn’t different from heat. Heat is kinetic energy. They’re the same thing!

Take the heat!

Aspect pulls the trigger.

The bullet hits my hand. My fingers shine and the light shoots up into my arm.

I open my hand, and the bullet drops out of my palm, iced over. Aspect’s metallic eyes widen.

I don’t give him time to react. I kick him in the stomach with the energy he just gave me from the bullet. He tumbles back into the room with the open window, shredding through the busted wood and insulation, and I chase him in.

He’s not bad, he’s already on his feet again. He’s not a brawler like Krater, he’s a trained fighter. He jabs around my guard. His punches aren’t as fast as mine, nor does he use his legs and knees, but he’s hard to move and his hits are so strong it strains my ability to absorb the force from each blow.

“Fookin’ bastard!” Remise sounds like Joshua Beckett’s giving her trouble.

Time to use some old school judo on this fool. Hane Goshi. I grab his arm, hook my leg under his prosthetic, and hurl him back out onto the balcony.

A bullet clips my shoulder from behind. The guards inside the house are coming into the room. Shit! I blast out after Aspect. He raises his pistol to put a few in my chest. I repeat my heat absorption to take the bullets. They rip through my jacket, and I wince as I feel them sink into my skin. They don’t go through, they just stick like the bullet Vaquero took for me last night.

I knock the pistol out of his hand and grab his arm. I wonder what will happen if I throw a bunch of heat into him? I push all the heat into my hands. Well over three times what it takes to melt steel.

Aspect’s arm sloughs and bends. He screams. The guards rushing toward us take a few shots, but I twist Aspect in front of me, using him as cover. I twist his melted arm and throw him into the mooks, back where they came from. I slam the door shut behind them, lock it, and freeze the knob over by taking all the heat I can.

A sniper rifle cracks. “Beckett’s down,” Mil-dot says.

“Thanks for tha’,” Remise says. “He got me good.”

“I’m in the house, but the fighting’s too thick to get close to the stairs,” Flashfire says. The guards shoot assault rifles, and I pick up Vaquero’s revolver going off.

“Are the kids okay?” I ask.

“Seem to be fine,” Mil-dot says. “They’re the next window down from you on the balcony.”

“Epione, come on.” I crawl over to the window.

Two bullets ping through the door. How the hell? Neither of us are hit, though. Maybe that was just random.

Epione and I make it to the kids’ window. Mil-dot was right. Twenty something kids are packed into this room like sardines in a tin can, cowering in the dark. Behind them a handful of Parlor clients press against the walls, staring at me in terror. Bastards. They’re older men. They look like politicians, high powered executives, the wealthy elite.

I can’t risk bashing this open, I might freak the kids and the clients, and alert Pandahead. Who knows what he’ll do if the kids are at risk.

“I can’t get close enough to throw a flash bang,” Flashfire says. “He’s got the clients watching the downstairs. I’ll let you know when I have an opening, and when I do, I’ll throw a flash bomb in. You get Pandahead.”

“How about this for an opening!” Saw Off shouts.

A huge blast goes off in the house. The kids screech, the men inside the house shout.

“Was tha’ the fookin’ birthday grenade?” Remise shouts.

“Now!” Saw Off screams. There’s a hail of bullets inside.

“Gabe, get ready, you can get Pandahead,” Flashfire says. “Three! Two! One!”

A bright light fills the house. Epione hops onto my back, and I open the door.

There’s two guards there, guns aimed right down the hall. They open fire. I blast out of the way, but one of the bullets nicks my arm. The ambush catches me by surprise, so I don’t absorb the energy.

“Saw Off’s been hit!” Lugs shouts.

I slam the door closed. “They were ready. I can’t get to him!”

“There’s somebody listenin’ in on us,” Remise says. She hisses in pain. “There’s another mic open.”

A chill runs down my spine. Through our comms I can hear sirens wailing and Remise’s pained gasps. I listen close, and there’s another sound. Someone breathing heavy through a voice modulator. “I want to speak to Home Run. I’m assuming one of you is him. This is Pandahead.”

Epione and I look at each other in disbelief. The gunfire halts, leaving the siren to wail by its lonesome.

“Hello? Are you there? The least you could do after interrupting my game is tell my why.”

“Er… this is Home Run,” I say. A game? What game? “Why what?”

“Why are you here? You’ve upset my stock, you interrupted my speed run, and you’ve probably cost me around two million in refunds.”

That is a hefty sentence to unpack. What the hell is a speed run? “I’m here to stop you.”

“Stop me from what? Completing the legendary campaign of Halo 2?”

I’ve got no clue what to say.

“Actually, I know why you’re here. Maybe a better question would be, what are you hoping to accomplish?”

“To save these kids.”

“Do you think that saving these kids will make a difference in the long run?”

“Oh, fuck you, we’re not doing this.” I’m not going to eat that shit, not for breakfast, not for dinner, not for any meal.

“Don’t be an asshole. I could have my men swarm the balcony, but I’m willing to talk to you for a moment.”

I shake my head. “You know I’ll beat them, that’s why you’re talking.”

His modulated laughter sounds like a car engine misfiring. “Fair point. But trying to force your way in will get you killed, you know that, too. So, perhaps we can talk our way around this impasse.”

The police are on their way. I look at Epione and tap my watch, make a twisting motion like I’m turning a dial. Epione nods. She twists some knobs and huddles away from me, whispering into her watch on another frequency to Drone. “Fine. I’ve got time. Let’s talk.”

“Less than you think,” he says.

“You’re counting on your friends from FIS?” I ask.

“Ah, I see. You’re privy to how this works, then. Then, may I ask, what makes you think you can stop it? You’re one man. Well, a small group. You get rid of me, someone else takes my place, and they won’t be friendly to the UWC. Worse things happen to Houston. More gang crime, more drug and human trafficking. So, I ask again, why do you think this will make a difference?”

Make a difference, Maisa said. It has to. It doesn’t matter if there are millions, trillions of starfish. I’ll make a difference here and now, to these kids. “You’re not going to talk me down.”

“Augh, bleeding hearts are the worst,” Pandahead moans. “You’ve done more damage than good. You know that, right?”

“Shut up. You’re talking out your ass.”

“On the contrary. I know exactly what I’m talking about. You found out where I am, you know a lot about Parlor, FIS, and me, it seems. So, you know that I perform a necessary service to this city. I want to emphasize this again: if I go down, others take my place. People will always pay for sin. It doesn’t matter if I profit off of it, so long as I minimize the risk to this city. To the UWC itself.”

“You can rationalize this all you want, but I’m looking at a room full of children you’ve pimped out to rich assholes. Dress it up however you want, I’m going to stop you from ever doing it again.”

“Tell you what. If it means that much to you to rescue them, I will let you take five of my stock, five of your choice. Walk in, point them out, and then get the fuck out. My men will not fire, you will not attack me. Everyone wins.”

Stock. He means the kids. “You want to give me five children.” My vision is slowly shifting into red. Pure, blood, rage inducing, red.

“It’s not like I have to worry about losing them. They do keep making more. Don’t take the ones from China, though, they cost one of my suppliers an arm and a leg.”

Epione puts a hand on mine. The rage I should feel slips out of me like helium out of a balloon. I can think again. “I’m not going to do that.”

The police cars pull into sight down the lane. They’re here. Finally. We just have to keep Pandahead here long enough for them to make their arrests.

I can’t help my smile. “I don’t have to, anyway. The police are almost here. Your clients, the men in here, you and your guards, you’re all getting exposed.”

“If you think I’m going to be done in by Conroe PD, you are mistaken. My friends will take care of them.”

I really want to say some things, but not until he’s safely cuffed, or until we have the kids. Epione’s taps on the window, trying to coax one of them into opening the latch from the inside, but they slink back from us. There are older men cowering behind the children, hunkering against the wall.

“Do you have an appetite for experiences?” Pandahead asks.

I look at Epione. She tilts her head, gives me a confused look. “Not the kind you like.”

“What do you think I like?”

I grit my teeth. “Molesting kids.”

The grating giggle comes back over our comms. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. That’s a taste I simply don’t understand.”

“But you’re willing to cater to it.”

“Of course. It makes money. No, by experiences, I mean jumping out of a plane with a parachute, I mean running down the side of a mountain buck fucking naked. Taking LSD, or making love to a world class model on a boat off the coast of Italy. I mean… I mean strapping yourself to the top of a rocket and hitting orbit. Experiences. Things that change your whole life. Things that pull you out of the monotony of a nine to five existence. Things that fucking underage girls or drugs can’t touch.”

Police sirens wail down the lane. They’re so close. Just a little longer.

“A fight to the death,” Pandahead continues.

I get a bad feeling. I tap Epione, cover my watch comm. “I have to get in there, but he’s surrounded by his goons. We have to stop him before he uses his power.”

Something in the air shifts, like gravity lurches inward toward the house as if I’m on the edge of a cliff, leaning over into the abyss. A hint of sulfur accompanies the twisting feeling. A finger scratches the back of my head. I look over my shoulder, but nothing’s there.

“Scratch that,” I say. “We have to stop him from continuing to use it, because I think he just did.”

Epione nods. “I felt that, too.”

Screams inside the house. Throaty, deep, men. Not children, not yet.

Pandahead’s voice seems to come from the very air around us. “Actually, you know what. How about you stay right there, and I’ll come meet you on the balcony.”

Remise shrieks over the comms. “We have to get out!”

“What the fuck is that?” Mil-dot shouts. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, please, oh god, what is that?”

The screaming inside reaches a crescendo, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. There’s gunfire inside. “The clients and the guards…” Drone says. “They’re shooting each other!”

An aircraft roars over the trees, FIS enameled in white on the side of the cockpit.

Newsletter
Discord

EPISODE TEN

I stand on the sidewalk in front of Epione’s house, staring at her red-oak door. I am trying to work up the courage to knock. After last night, I’m sure Flashfire’s still pissed at me and the others are upset. Plus, only a few hours ago, Bedevil humiliated me in bed.

There’s a lot of things gluing my feet to the concrete. The other McMansions stare at me, a stiff breeze pushes against me. I clutch the Snickers in my pocket as if it’s a charm against evil.

A tiny drone zooms past my head, and orbits me faster than I can follow. Am I looking at a snitch here? What the hell is this thing? It makes no sound as it flies, no buzzing or humming at all. Totally silent.

The drone stops right in front of me. It resembles a mini black helicopter.

My watch lights up. “Hey Gabe,” Drone says.

“What is this thing?” I ask.

“A camera. I call it the Hummingbird.”

“Planning on taking creep shots?” I ask.

“Planning?”

The camera drone flies back toward the house. Flashfire walks out, closing the door behind him. “Hey, Gabe.”

“Hey, Flash.”

Neither of us says anything after that. I’m not sure what to say, actually.

He stammers.

I try to get the ball rolling. “Hey, uh, so, last night, I’m sorry.”

Flashfire sighs. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I shouldn’t have punched you. You’re right. I did a lot of thinking last night, and I realized you’re right.”

“Huh, I was about to say the same.”

Flashfire chuckles.

“I don’t want to kill people, Flash.”

“I know. I shouldn’t have acted like you did.” He shakes his head. “So, I’m sorry for treating you that way.”

I rub the back of my neck. “I still killed people. If I had better control of my power, maybe they wouldn’t have died.”

“But you were right about Epione. After you asked that, I realized I absolutely would kill someone who threatened her life, if I had no choice. I wouldn’t jeopardize her over my line in the sand. Just like I won’t jeopardize you, or Drone, Remise, or even Maisa.”

“I shouldn’t be so careless about our enemies, though. My intention has to be clear before I go into a fight. And I don’t want to go into every fight ready to take someone’s life.”

Flashfire laughs a little. “I’ve never thought of you as Megajoule, you know? I idolized him. I watched every interview. I read every article. I knew him forward and backward. He was a scientist. He always wanted to talk about that. He was real big on solar energy. You’re not like that at all. You’re a warrior.”

I… I’ve got no words. One thing is true, he’s never treated me like Megajoule. Not once. Maybe when he first saw my face, back when I took the mask off in front of him. That was a huge leap for me. From the beginning, he never acted like I was different than him.

And I guess that’s why I love him. He’s the closest thing to a best friend I’ve ever had.

“I need you back,” he says. “Not just because we’re about to go to Parlor. The Underground isn’t the Underground without you.”

I clear my throat. “You had me at ‘You were right.’”

He laughs. We walk into the house together.

“You found Parlor?” I ask.

“No,” Flashfire says. “Saw Off and the 2nd Amendment did.”

“Well, where is it?”

“Currently?” Flashfire asks.

I gasp. Of fucking course! Why would it be in one place? “It moves!”

“That’s not all of it, but yes. It moves. Parlor is currently on the estates of software guru Taylor Jade. Drone’s already scouted the place with her cameras, so we’ve got a good idea of what to expect. But I’ll let Saw Off tell you the rest.” He opens the door and lets me in.

“Oh, boy, Epione can not be happy about Saw-”

Epione slams into me and throws her arms around me. “Gabe! You’re okay!” She pulls back with a giggle. “Sorry about all the drunk texts. And sorry about that.”

She’s wearing a flour covered apron that just imprinted flour all over my shirt. I laugh and dust what I can off. “It’s okay. It’s all okay.”

Epione frowns. “Are you okay? You look… well… awful.”

Ah, guess I’m not doing a very good job hiding what happened this morning with Bedevil. “Yeah… just a long night.”

“As for Saw Off, I can tolerate her. In short bursts.” Epione’s smile is wire thin, and I realize that she is clutching a knife in her left hand.

Advantages: Fairly sure Epione’s never been in a fight before. Disadvantages: Her power to stimulate pure agony, and she’s my friend.

Wow, she just sent me into battle mode.

I recover from that, and ask, “Where’s Maisa?”

“Locked up in her room.” Flashfire grumbles. “She hasn’t come out all day.”

I clutch the Snickers I brought to smooth things over. “I’ll talk to her. What about Remise?”

“She’s getting our van back, with a brand new paint job.” Flashfire pumps his fist. “Right. Let’s go. The others are in the kitchen, planning.”

Drone is in the kitchen, jiggering with her little Hummingbird, joined by Saw Off, Vaquero, and a few others I don’t know. One is a tall guy, taller than me, with a giant metal arm, silver-blond hair, and a mean-ass grimace. The girl next to him is just as tall, and judging by her silver-blond hair and scowl, I’d say she’s his sister. The final person stands next to Drone, a slight man, shorter than Flashfire, way out of shape, but hiding it behind a trench coat and newscaster’s fedora. His face is haggard, jowls drooping like he stole them from a basset hound. He fiddles with a camera.

Flashfire points them out and names them: Lugs is the man with the metal arm. Mil-dot is the mean mugging girl next to Lugs. Iso is the man in the trench coat with a camera. “Lugs and Mil-dot are 2nd Amendment. Iso is freelance, he’s worked with a lot of the vigilantes in Houston. He’s known about you for a while.”

I glare at Flash. “Really, now.”

Flashfire holds his hands up. “Can’t exactly help it, he reads minds. But your secret is safe with him.”

Iso nods.

“Hello,” I say. I wave to the motley crew assembled before me. “I’m Gabe.”

“Gabe Babe!” Saw Off says, trotting up like a school girl with a big fat crush. “A real life super villain!” Oh, boy, outing me as Home Run in front of everyone. Thanks. She leans into me and leers. “You know the next step, right? They turn you into a rock star. Nothing’s hotter than a rock star.” All I can think about is Bedevil pressed against me, kissing my neck and whispering Megajoule’s name into my ear.

Iso lifts his hat and takes a picture of me. He looks at the picture, and says, “Saw Off, maybe you should actually go after people you have a chance with.”

Saw Off flips Iso a middle finger. “What do you know?”

“More than you.” Iso gives a faint smile that spreads his wrinkles apart. He taps his camera with his pointer finger. “I can read the surface thoughts of anyone I take a picture of. But only at the moment I take the picture.”

I swallow. “So… uh…”

Iso nods.

“Oh.”

He shakes his head. “It’s cool, I see stuff like that all the time.”

“What did you see?” Saw Off asks, though it’s more of a demand. She tries to take the camera from Iso.

Lugs comes up to me. “So you’re Home Run, huh? Don’t look so tough.” Man, he’s intimidating.

“Oh my God,” Mil-dot says. “The guy hasn’t even been in the room for a minute and you’re already trying to out-macho him. You know that says way more about you than it does him.”

“Can it!” Lugs says, pointing at her.

“Pleased to meet you, too,” I say. “I’m guessing you’re the half of 2nd Amendment not at the Port?” Flashfire mentioned their names.

Lugs nods. “We were digging into another lead with Iso.”

“What was it?” I ask.

Saw Off butts into the conversation. “You know that with every business there’s costs, right? The cost of running it. Overhang.”

“Overhead,” Mil-Dot corrects her.

“Dumb ass,” Lugs adds in.

Saw Off shoots them a glare that could very well be followed by a bullet sneeze. “Overhead. Right. Anyway, lots of places have overhead. Gotta pay managers, Gotta pay the UWC citizen employees, gotta buy supplies, gotta pay rent and electric, you know the drill. In your abundant wisdom, what do you think they do to cut corners, Gabe Babe?”

I can put two and two together. “You guys take on labor trafficking.”

“Right you are,” Saw Off says. “And in the last few months, guess who’s the only trafficker in town for labor? The only one from Baytown to Katy to Conroe to Galveston.” She holds a finger up. “If you thought anyone other than Pandahead, you’re wrong. I’ve seen a dozen trafficking groups come and go in Houston since we started the 2nd Amendment. I’ve seen them all get muscled out over the last year or two. We had the worst, too. Houston’s a major port, and we had groups from Latin American secessionists, we had interest groups from the Emirates, we had Russian and Pacific groups, all of them rolling through Houston to get access to our highways into the rest of the old States. Pandahead took away the foothold. It’s his city, now.”

Lugs plays with a coin, tosses it up into the air, and twists his arm. The coin stops mid-air. The buttons on my jacket push against my chest. Woah. “So, there we were, me, Iso, Mil-dot. Mil-dot hung back to keep an eye on the situation, while Iso and I investigated a warehouse meet up. We heard some Sanctified Remnant dudes were trying to move some product through the Mexican border, but they weren’t going to get past Panda. Iso heard they set up a meet. We went in, hoping to capture someone, or get some info.”

Iso walks over to me and shows me his camera screen. He scrolls through pictures of a desolate warehouse, filled with men writhing against the concrete. Blood paints the floor and walls, and flecks of gore cover the ground.

I exhale, looking at the damage. “This is what Pandahead did to them?”

Iso chews his lip and gives the tiniest nod. He sighs, and says, “The ones I could get surface thoughts from couldn’t even tell me what happened. They were just terrified, I kept seeing flashes of black ink and bug parts. I’m guessing Pandahead used that power of his and then had his henchmen clean up the ones that tried to fight. There were bullet shells and holes, so guns were used.”

So, Pandahead really does have some great power over fear. “How’d you find out where Parlor was?”

“One of the men left behind was his own. He’d been shot.” Iso scrolled through the photos until he came across one guy, hands held over his chest. Blood pools behind him in the photo, stains his chin and neck. “But, he was still alive when I took the photo. I asked him where Parlor was. He didn’t have to say anything, human minds tend to leap to the answer even if they plan on lying to you.”

“You found out that it moves,” I say.

Iso nods.

“Not just that,” Lugs says. “But we learned it’s current location, too.”

“Stop taking credit for everything Iso did,” Mil-dot says. Lugs scowls at her, and she scowls right back.

Drone opens her laptop and places it on the kitchen island. Everyone gathers around. “I’ve got pictures and footage. I sent my Hummingbirds over there to take a look. Lots of acreage up in Conroe. An estate owned by Taylor Jade. He’s a software guru.”

“Is he Pandahead?” I ask.

Drone shakes her head. Her laptop scrolls through pictures until it arrives at a photo of a man in a white-black helmet, leather jacket, and combat boots easing into a chair, while an elderly man in a bathrobe holds a yellow mug with a smiley face on it. Drone points at the bathrobe man. “That’s Taylor Jade.”

I look at Pandahead. He’s got his feet kicked up on a billiard table in the picture. He looks… like a teenager. He’s wearing the same kind of jacket I wear but he doesn’t come close to filling it out. His combat boots are way too big for his feet.

He’s a kid. Or a very tiny man.

“I’ve got a good layout of the estate.” Drone pulls out a piece of paper with a printout of the mansion and surrounding yard. A winding road pulls up to the front porch and circles back to itself. There’s a lawn behind the house where the forest is cleared and the grass is cut, maybe about half an acre. The rest is unkempt wood.

“Do you know how long they’ll stay?” I ask.

Flashfire shakes his head. “They could leave tonight for all we know.”

“So we have to hit them now,” I say.

Saw Off grins. “Hell yeah we do. But we can’t walk in without a plan.”

“You’re right.” I think I’ve got a little bit of an idea. “You say that he’s been muscling other traffickers out of Houston, right?”

“He’s taken out at least five other groups I’m aware of,” Iso says. “We’ve been trying to find Parlor for nearly a year, now. The other vigs won’t touch this. No hero team will touch this. FIS-”

Light bulb, exploding in brain. I thought about this last night. “FIS! Right! FIS has a do not pursue on him. Mr. Gold, Krater, none of them knew about him. Krater even said to leave it alone. I doubt Bedevil knew about it, she didn’t seem to think much of it. What if… what if FIS is using him? What if he’s the guy they use to keep other traffickers out of Houston?”

“That’s what I thought, too,” Iso says. “There’s no way to prove it, though.”

Drone pipes up. “Not unless we get footage of it happening. Or if we can get him to take that helmet off, or admit while I record, or something.”

“Normally, we call FIS,” I say. “That’s always worked on the small time pimps, since FIS takes care of the people they rescue. Especially trafficked workers. But, if Pandahead is their man, which might be the case, we can’t trust them.”

“Couldn’t trust ‘em before,” Lugs says.

“We could trust them to do their jobs. For whatever reason, we can’t trust them here. They came running when we tripped the motion sensor in the boat. They have a do not pursue. Mr. Gold, a field agent, had no idea we were at the port to look into a trafficking ring, and finally, right after I took on Krater, they had a story ready to go about me being a super villain. They’re protecting their assets. Or, I mean, I did kick Krater’s ass, so I probably earned it.” Can’t discount every possibility, even if one makes a lot of sense.

“Yeah you fucking did,” Saw Off says, grinning at me.

“Even with all that, it costs us nothing to operate on the assumption that FIS is protecting Pandahead.”

Flashfire raps the island with his fingers. “It means we have to change our approach.”

“We’d have to change that, anyway,” Iso says. “You aren’t gonna roll in the Underground or 2nd Amendment way. You’ll get killed.”

Drone nods. “Yeah. Which brings me to this.” Her laptop flashes images of men patrolling on the balconies around the mansion, dressed in heavy SWAT gear and carrying assault rifles. “He’s got about eight of these guys. Plus, two heavyweight powered peeps.” An image of two men leaning on the railing pops up. One’s a young buck with a buzz cut, the other a grizzled bear with a prosthetic leg. “Guy on the right is Aspect, ex-hero. Operated before Megajoule died. He lost a leg in a super powered battle, and retired. He served over in China, too. He’s bounced from job to job since, even working as a froyo joint manager. He can adapt his molecular structure to any kind of solid he touches. If he touches steel, he becomes steel. If he touches rubber, so on and so forth.”

“I love froyo,” Epione says.

“I know you do, love,” Flashfire says, patting her on the shoulder. Saw Off makes a gagging face at this public display of affection.

Drone points at buzz cut. “And the other guy is Joshua Beckett. Centurion class hero, served in the Syrian Supers conflict. He can shoot globs of napalm from his hand. Like Flashfire, but better.”

Flashfire snaps her a glare. Huh, I can see why he dated Saw Off, they both snap a lot of glares.

“Okay, so two heavyweight supers that he’s hired to help. Eight guys armed with assault rifles.” I tap my chin. “We need a distraction, maybe we can draw them out of the house while someone gets the kids, and someone else gets close to Pandahead.”

“We need to get footage of him taking the helmet off,” Drone says. “You’ll be able to nail him then. I’ve got enough video and pictures here to ruin Taylor Jade. Plenty of stuff you don’t want to see. Speaking of which, there are twenty something kids on the estate. Mostly girls, a few boys. The clients come and go all day, but on average there’s about thirty of them. I’ve got enough evidence to ruin every single one of them, too.”

“We just need Panda, then,” I say. “What if I got close, and captured him before he could use his power? Flash and Remise could get the kids.”

Lugs smiles. “I’m tailor made to fight this Aspect guy. He turns himself metal, and I’ll send him flying. We could fight your heavy guys, Mil-dot can snipe the soldiers.”

“What is your power?” I ask. “Actually, you, too, Mil-dot. We need to know where everyone will be most useful.” I like planning battles. Tactics takes my mind off Bedevil and the black hole.

Lugs taps his metal arm.“My arm can repulse or attract metal. Mostly I collect bullets with it. I like to flick ‘em back, since they take a few seconds to cool down. If I get a good anchor I can shove cars around.”

“I already know where I’m useful,” Mil-dot says. “Sniper support.”

I look at Flashfire and arch an eyebrow to ask him if that’s cool. He nods at me. “Like I said, you were right. These guys are carrying rifles, and hurting kids. We need to win this fight.”

“My eyes are military binoculars,” Mil-dot continues. “I have scope-vision, x-ray vision, and infrared. I’ll be able to give you good intel.”

“I’ll keep my Hummingbirds above the battle so we have info coming from that, too,” Drone says.

“Plus we have Remise, who will be able to hear inside that whole house. We have the advantage there,” Flashfire says. “But we still need a good distraction.”

Lugs said he could throw a car. We can’t call FIS, but what if we call regular police? “Drone, could you fake a call to an ambulance or something? Get emergency services on scene?”

Drone nods.

“What if we called an ambulance, and when they show up, Lugs, you do something flashy like throw a car into their lawn. We’ll make Pandahead think we’re going to blow the mansion apart, feint a strong powered attack, and see how he scrambles his guys. Then we take him apart based on what he does then, wrap him up nice and neat for the inevitable cop squadron that shows up.”

Saw Off cheers. “We could even blow the car up!”

“No blowing it up,” I say. “That could hurt someone with shrapnel.”

“Shit sticks, babe,” Saw Off says. “We brought C4 and everything.”

“No. You draw them out, and 2nd Amendment takes care of the guards and the heavyweight duo,” I say. “I’ll go for Pandahead. Flashfire and Remise can go for the kids.”

“He’s still got that power over fear,” Flashfire says. “He could use it on you.”

Epione clears her throat. “What if I went with Gabe?”

Flashfire furrows his brow and frowns. He gives tiny shake of his head. “That’d be really dangerous.”

“I can keep him calm with my power, and fear doesn’t really affect me,” Epione says. “Even better, I could stop him from using his power. You know that, Jason.”

That’s a really good idea, actually. Better than me trying to kick his ass before he uses the power. “I think it works.”

Flashfire shakes his head more. His fist balls on the counter. “Epione’s never gone on a mission like this before. They’re heavily armed.”

“I’ll be okay,” Epione says.

It’s true she’s never been on a mission like this before, only the really small fry stuff, but that’s only because she’s more focused on school. She’s calm, level-headed, and I trust her with my life. I grab Flash’s shoulder. “I promise you, I will die before she does.”

Flashfire frowns at me, but after a moment, he relinquishes and nods.

Drone closes her laptop. “Where are we getting this car you’re gonna throw into the lawn?”

“Saw Off has an old rust bucket I’m gonna throw,” Lugs says.

Saw Off grins. “I’ve been wanting to blow it up for a while.”

“But you’re not blowing it up,” I say.

“Right,” Saw Off grumbles.

“The plan, from top to bottom, then,” Drone says. “I call an EMS. I’ll tell them… one of the patrons had a heart attack. When they arrive, Lugs tosses a car into the lawn. If this draws the guards out, Mil-dot, Vaquero, and Saw Off will engage them, and Lugs will at least engage Aspect. What if they don’t come out?”

“Even better,” I say. “Mil-dot, I’m guessing you can snipe into a building? Or, hell, you don’t even have to. Any kind of gunfire with EMS present will get them calling the police. The police show up, they investigate. If Pandahead tries to run, we intercept.”

“If they do come out,” Drone says. “Flashfire and Remise will rescue the kids. You and Epione will get close to Pandahead, and I’ll get footage of the helmet coming off. Once police arrive and he’s secured, we retreat.”

“It’s a good plan,” Flashfire says. “I vote for it.” He nods to me.

Epione smiles. “Me too.”

“As long as I get to blow shit up,” Saw Off says.

“No,” I correct.

Lugs, Mil-dot, Drone, Iso, they all agree. We’re all in on this. We’re going to take on Pandahead tonight.

The group breaks apart from the kitchen island to prepare. Drone turns to Epione, and says, “You need a real mask.” She opens up one of the cabinets and lugs a 3D printer up onto the counter, huffing like she’s at a weight lifting contest. She plugs her laptop into the printer, opens a design program, and performs sorcery I can’t comprehend. I can’t look away, either. Her tech witchery transfixes me. A minute or so later, the printer whirs and starts to construct a mask. Epione bobs happily while the timer counts down from three minutes.

The printer beeps at 0:00, and Drone pops a sleek, plastic mask out of the 3D printer, throws some gadgetry from one of the cabinets behind the eye holes, and hands it to Epione. The eyes light up with neon-pink rings.

Epione squeals. “That’s so cool!” She tries it on, bobbing her head back and forth. In a sing-song voice, she says, “I’m a hero, now, I’m a hero, now!”

“Why did you never make me a mask like that?” I ask.

Drone looks at me like that’s the first time she’s ever seen me. “I just assumed you liked running around in a gimp mask.”

Well, that just cracks Saw Off’s ass up. “Oh my god, a gimp mask.”

“Laugh it up,” I snarl at her.

Saw Off stops laughing and purrs at me. “You gonna growl like that tonight?”

“No.” I shake my head. I turn to Epione and Drone. “I’m going to talk to Maisa.”

“Good luck with that,” Drone says. “She punched Flashfire in the stomach.”

Out of my pocket, I pull the Snickers bar I bought for the occasion. “I think I’ll be okay.” I head upstairs to the room Maisa’s been staying in, the one she’s used since we rescued her the other night. I try to open it, but the door is locked.

“Go away,” Maisa says.

“If you insist.” I pretend to walk away.

Maisa scrambles for the door. “Gabe!” She throws it open. “You came back! I thought you would leave forever!”

“Nah,” I say. “Heard you punched Flashfire in the stomach.” I grin. “Nice.”

Maisa doesn’t return my smile. She furrows her brow. “He deserved it.”

“Maybe a little. He’s still a good guy, though.” I look at her room. Even despite that she’s locked herself in here all day, the room is well kept and clean. Her bed is made, the clothes Epione and Drone loaned her are neatly folded on the small couch. “Can I come in?”

Maisa nods and lets me in. I move her folded clothes to her bed and sit down on the couch. She stands.

“Heard you locked yourself in here.”

Maisa doesn’t say anything. Her eyes glisten.

“Do you want this Snickers?” I offer her the candy. “You’re probably hungry.”

Maisa sniffs, but doesn’t take my offering.

I hold it in my palm for her to take. I murmur, unsure of audience of this joke, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

Not laughing, she takes the candy, unwraps it, and bites into the chocolate. Her eyes widen. “So sweet!”

I chuckle. “There we go.”

She sits down next to me. “I worried you wouldn’t come back.”

“Nah, we just had a fight. I have them with my uncle all the time, and I still stay with him.”

She scratches her cheek, and I see that Drone’s given her one of the Underground watches. “Why?”

“Well, he does pay for me, and he did rescue me from that lab-”

“Not that.” Maisa hard stares at me. “Why did you come back, after your friend hurt you?”

“He’s my friend. He apologized, anyway.” I thrum my fingers on my thighs. “I’ve been wondering something. Why didn’t you go with the other girls? I know you said you didn’t want to go back to Khanpur, but FIS would’ve probably placed you somewhere in the UWC since you’re so old already.”

Maisa shakes her head, holding the candy bar. “I like your house.”

I smile. “Epione does have a nice place.”

“Even with that fight, I feel peace here. I don’t want to leave that. I have not had peace in a long time.”

I understand that completely. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. We’ll take care of you. I have to go now, but I’ll be back tonight. We can celebrate bringing down Parlor with some movies, or something.”

Maisa grabs my jacket as I stand. “Gabe.”

“What is it?”

“Why do you do this? Why don’t you take off the mask and be Megajoule? You could.”

I get a mental flashback to Bedevil, wanting me to be someone I’m not. I kneel down to look Maisa in the eyes. I don’t know how to explain that I can’t surrender, other than just to joke about how it’s in my DNA. Why can’t I surrender? Why don’t I take off my mask? Why don’t I just live a normal life? Is it the kids? Maisa? Being like Megajoule?

Am I just a sum of questions waiting to be answered? When I answer them, will I disappear?

A while back, Doc told me this story about starfish that I really liked. So, I tell it to Maisa:

“So… there’s this story. There’s this guy, and he’s walking down a beach shore, and there are hundreds and hundreds of starfish washed up by the waves. And a young boy goes around throwing them back into the sea, one by one. The man asks him what he’s doing. The boy tells him, ‘I’m saving these starfish.’ The man says, ‘You won’t make a difference. There are too many.’ And the boy says, picking one up and throwing it into the water, ‘I made a difference to that one.’”

Maisa stares at the candy bar.

“I don’t know who I am in the story.” I struggle to find the right words. “I- I want to save them. At the same time… I know there are too many.”

“Am I the starfish?” Maisa asks.

“Yeah,” I say, through a laugh.

“You made a difference to me. Go make a difference to as many as you can.” Maisa’s gaze has a blade’s edge. “And make him pay.”

“I will. He’s going to pay for what he’s done.”

“Gabe!” Flashfire calls. “Remise is here with the van! It’s time to go!”

Maisa nods to me. I leave her with the half-eaten Snickers.

Downstairs, the crew is assembled, dressed in their gear. The afternoon is dying outside: evening is stepping into place, casting everything in red-orange tint. Epione’s wearing black armor with pink accents to go with her swanky mask. Lugs wears mostly the same outfit I’ve already seen him in, but he’s got a mask covering his mouth that resembles a demon’s maw. Mil-dot wears a little more military flair, and she’s carrying a sniper rifle that has no scope. Everyone else is dressed in their usual gear.

“Ready?” Flashfire asks. He carries his mask under the crook of his arm.

I pull my mask out from my pocket. Make a difference.

“I’m ready.”

Newsletter
Discord

BONUS: BEDEVIL: 2076

She rode the elevator up Titan Tower to Megajoule’s office. Nineteen years old, and she was being recruited onto the greatest ever superhero’s team. Bedevil! Megajoule’s Spunky Crimson Sidekick!

Er, she scratched her arm. Maybe not that. She still had time to decide on a theme. Or OPI would decide for her. Or Megajoule, even! Maybe he’d have her wear a costume like his.

The elevator walls were glass, so she could see the city on her ride up. New York sprawled out before Titan Tower in all its glory. No other city like it in the world. Not Sao Paulo, not Toronto, not Beijing. Not even London or Houston could compare to New York. The Titan Tower was the tallest in the world. But the next twenty tallest skyscrapers? They all shared the same road in New York. A threaded network of sky rails draped over everything, entangling New York in a web of fast-moving shuttles; the highways cut through the heart of the city before heading out into the country. She thought of them like tendrils spreading out to the rest of the UWC. Like her power. Everything was connected.

The elevator took over a minute to get from the lobby to Megajoule’s office. Her heart pounded as the floors approached 136, the floor dedicated to Megajoule’s team. She’d never seen him in person. Only on the posters in her room, the screensaver on her computer, the background of her phone.

Oh, shit. She needed to change the background of her phone.

She scrambled through her photos for a picture of her mom, and changed the wallpaper just in time. The elevator beeped, and the doors opened to her destination.

She swallowed, held the phone to her chest, and stepped out into a lime green lobby. Cool air conditioning washed away the stagnant smell of the elevator. A secretary lady sat behind a desk.

He was already there, walking up to her with a big smile on his face. Just like his posters. He was older, just over forty, but he’d aged like her mom’s wines (her mom used that phrase a lot about attractive older men.) “Ms. Dawson?” He held his hand out. His arm was super muscled.

Deep breath. Smile, like mom showed her. “Yes! That’s me.” She took his hand. His grip was firm, but his hands were softer than she thought they’d be. “I came as soon as I got your call.” The wording of that was… oh. Uh. She tried to stop her cheeks from flushing.

Megajoule grinned at her. “Oh, no need to be so bashful. Every one of my teammates was like you when they first showed up, until they figured out I’d work them to the bone.”

‘Please work me to the bone,’ she thought. Good grief. He was twice her age.

“Come on, let’s go talk,” he said. He whipped around like a man on a mission and led her into his offices.

The main room of his headquarters was a huge, open space concept, a command center and break room all rolled up in one. There were four desks slammed together, bearing monitors bigger than her dad’s wall TV. There were notes and files strewn everywhere. The smell of coffee wafted from a kitchen in the corner, beside which was a small door with a sign that said, “Bathroom Broken, go downstairs.” A plush Godzilla doll dangled from an indoor basketball set.

It was like one of those start-ups run by guys in their twenties, tweaked out on cocaine and Adderall: walls painted in vibrant colors, so you knew the company culture was whaaaacky! A TV played some old movie from the 20th century.

Three people hung around the office. A grim-faced woman Bedevil knew for Templar sat at the desks, reviewing psych evals of villains. She had the power to shape flesh. A boy about her age with wavy surfer’s hair all in his face played with the indoor basketball set, but Bedevil didn’t recognize him. He must’ve been new.

Bedevil recognized the man brewing coffee in the kitchen. Longinus, Megajoule’s right hand man for a long time. His power was technically cruiserweight, but only because he needed to be reading from a Bible to activate it. He could fly, he could shoot beams of light, and call down fire from the sky. Nearly as invincible as Megajoule himself.

“That coffee better not be decaf,” Megajoule said as he walked into the room.

Longinus turned his attention away from Megajoule. “It’s not decaf, but you don’t want any. It’s my special brew.”

Special brew? Now, what the hell did that mean?

“Let me introduce you to my merry band of rapscallions. The only one who’s actually doing her job is at the computers. Templar.” He pointed to her proudly, like a dad pointing at his first born, straight A student.

Templar saluted to Megajoule, and nodded at Bedevil. “Welcome to our office. Good luck on your interview.” She refocused on her work, ignoring them after that.

Megajoule grinned at Bedevil. “She works hard. Unlike some around here.” He led her to the young man playing basketball from the comfort of a bean bag. The boy swept his hair out of his face and rose to his feet. He extended an awkward handshake, and smiled. Bedevil took his hand.

“Wind Rider,” he said. “But, uh, you can call me Jamie, if you stick around.” He grinned. Bedevil thought he was kind of cute, in that young, adorkable “I’m not very good with girls” kind of way.

“If you end up joining, you’ll replace him as our youngest,” Megajoule said.

“Oh? How old are you, Jamie?” Bedevil asked.

“19,” he said. “But don’t be fooled. I’m gonna be as famous as boss.”

“Not playing basketball, you won’t,” Megajoule said. “Maybe go help Templar.”

Jamie smiled sheepishly and went to do just that.

“Last but not least, the man who should need no introduction,” Megajoule said, taking her to the kitchen, “Longinus.”

Longinus looked around the same age as Megajoule. He wore glasses, had a slight receding hairline, and a half-smile that seemed caught on a sad thought. He raised his coffee cup to Bedevil as a salute, and Bedevil saw there was a marijuana leaf emblazoned on the side of the cup.

Oh. Special brew.

Longinus took a sip and grinned at her. “So, you’re the telekinetic wonderkid, huh?”

Bedevil stammered and hid her hands behind her back. Ever since one reporter called her that, everyone called her that. Pure telekinesis was super rare as a power, and so everyone treated her like royalty over it. Except her mom. “I- I guess.”

“Don’t worry,” Longinus said, “I’ll only call you that every day. Wonderkid. Have you thought about that as your superhero name?”

“Actually, it’s Bedevil,” she said.

Longinus took a swig of coffee and swirled it in his mouth while he looked up at the ceiling in thought. He smiled and looked her in the eyes. “I like it. Bedevil. It fits. Much better than Wind Rider.”

Jamie, from his seat next to Templar: “I heard that.”

“You were supposed to hear it, it’s why I said it.” Longinus raised the cup at Bedevil and said, “Good luck, wonderkid.”

Megajoule smiled at her. “You ready for the interview?”

She was ready to explode, that was for sure. She settled on a polite nod, instead.

Megajoule took her up a set of stairs to a smaller room that overlooked the main space. He closed the door behind her. A horseshoe shaped desk filled this space, with one chair on either side of each prong. He gestured for her to sit at the closest chair, and took the one opposite her.

“So,” he said, pulling open a drawer. He locked eyes with her, and her heart hammered. “Why do you think I chose you to interview?”

“W-what do you mean?” she asked.

“Don’t get me wrong: your power is certainly a good fit for a Lictor class team. You’re definitely powerful, but at the heavyweight level that means little. You’re one of the youngest candidates I had. You’re also inexperienced in any real heroics. You went through Basics, like everyone, but your field training was peaceful.” His eyes… the look… it was severe. Not the kind man she’d met at the elevator. Not the man joking with his teammates. A man with the world on his shoulders.

“Uh… I’m… I’m not sure. Are you gonna tell me?” she asked.

Megajoule stared at her for another moment, and then pulled a stack of papers from his drawer. “Hollow Emirates and Brittle Continents: Comparing the assimilation efforts of the United Arabian Emirates and the United Western Continent. An Analysis of Peter Erikson’s Moral Imperative of the Tribe.”

“That’s… my senior essay from high school?”

“It is,” he said. He licked his finger and flipped open a page. “Insurgencies are present in both the Emirates and in the Mid-American countries. The fervor is based out of different places: for the Emirates it’s a holdover from the myriad of ultra-conservative religious terrorist groups created by the wars and political situation of the late 20th and early 21st century, and in Columbia and Venezuela the independence sought by drug cartels and threat of violence spur the people to resist UWC control. Both countries have used supers in their suppression efforts. Both countries have faced heat from the UN Councils and their own people over this fact.”

He flipped to a different page. “Power consolidates. Through the Imperialism in the last millennium to NAFTA which ultimately led to the foundation of the UWC, nations absorb each other as society becomes more globalist. This becomes an issue for those on the bottom: the massive structures above them bear little resemblance to their original cultures, and the tribalism reacts in violence to the threat of extermination by absorption. Insurgency is born out of that fear. Erikson argues that this is not an immoral or unethical action. In fact, he argues it’s an ethical obligation on both parties to survive. That one side wins and the other loses, to Erikson, doesn’t matter. That’s his great Moral Imperative of the Tribe.”

He turned the essay to the final page, paused for a moment while he looked over the passage. She waited for him to speak. Every word he said he examined and considered, and his thoughts had great weight, even if he quoted her. “And what of the loss as these conglomerate nations take in all around them? What are we giving up connecting everything under one government and flag? Erikson argues that the less fragmented humanity becomes, the less borders and cultures, the more innovation and profundity we’ll lose. Philosophy, religion, art, music. To Erikson, it all becomes distilled into populist swill. Mass appeal becomes the highest goal of any creative endeavor. We lose the spark to that.”

Megajoule set her paper down, and met her gaze again.

“I… Heh… I wrote that the week before it was due.” That fact embarrassed her, but she figured it was better to be honest with her future boss.

“Yet it seems you’d been thinking about the topic for a while. They let you choose what your senior thesis was about, right?”

She nodded, trying to quell the butterflies in her stomach.

“You didn’t really pick a side, in your paper. You didn’t come down hard on either the Emirates, the UWC, or the insurgents resisting their control.”

“Picking a side defeats the point,” Bedevil said. “Both have their reasons for doing what they’re doing. Erikson-”

“I don’t care what Erikson thought, I care what you think.”

He cared what she thought? “I think it’s hard to say. Nothing’s black and white. But you can’t sit on the sidelines, either.”

“So, which side would you pick?” Megajoule asked.

Bedevil could barely think about anything but his face. Chiseled jaw, five o’clock shadow, baby blue eyes. With a metric ton of discipline, she rubbed a few braincells together. “I can’t choose a side when I don’t agree with either one. Can I start a new side?”

“You’re refusing to answer the question?”

“You would,” she said.

Megajoule grinned. “Wow. You’re the first interviewee to ever accuse me of something.”

“No! I’m not accusing you of anything!” She buried her head in her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Megajoule stood up. “No! It’s fantastic. Tell me, why did you apply? I mean, I get it, so did twenty thousand other people. But what made Ruby Dawson want to come here and become Bedevil?”

‘Well, if I’m completely honest about why I applied, we’d be having a very different conversation.’ Of course, she kept that to herself. “I don’t care about money, or reputation, or a resume. I want to help you make the world a better place.” She hoped she appeared earnest. She really did believe that. Megajoule was the one hero that really had a vision for a better world.

“You’ve got a good brain, kid. Are you hungry?”

Bedevil nodded. She’d go anywhere with this man.

“Come on,” he said, grinning. “I know a great ramen place.”

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EPISODE NINE

My first kiss is smothered in Everclear and salt. Her lips are soaked in tears, yet soft and warm. Her tongue swirls in my mouth, her hands crush my face in a passionate pincer move.

Bedevil releases me with a gasp. My mind buzzes and shuts down; I can hear the neurons catching fire and exploding like transformers in a storm. Her eyes dance as she stares into mine, her mascara runs. Her chest heaves. The bottle of liquor orbits both of us.

Her eyelids flutter and her head wobbles. She’s drunk as hell.

The bottle drops out of the air, smashing onto the balcony.

Bedevil sinks, her power failing. She’s too drunk! I grab her wrists and keep her from falling to her death. I haul her over the apartment railing.

I drag her into the apartment, and for lack of a better option, I lay her on the couch. She hiccups, then curls right into the cushions, putting her hands by her chin and sighing. She snores within seconds. Okay. Okay.

I put a finger to my lips. I’ve never been kissed before. It tasted awful. My heartbeat is in my ears, and my stomach’s in knots.

I liked that.

Ugh. Okay. She’s passed out, so I don’t have to deal with this right away. I need to think about something else, so I put some corn in a bowl and put that concoction in the microwave. How’d she even follow me without anyone else seeing her? Remise shoulda detected her.

No, wait, Remise went a separate way until we met up at the house. And Bedevil can be utterly silent with her power. All she had to do was latch on to our car and wait it out. She must’ve followed me back to Epione’s place and all the way here. She’s a sharp girl: she recognized me by my power.

The microwave beeps, and the door jingles as keys turn the lock.

I swear Doc is telepathic because he comes in already rubbing his temples. Like he knows! Like he knows I done fucked up. Which I did.

“Why the hell is there a random girl face first in our couch?” Doc asks, seeing Bedevil passed out on the sofa.

“Oh, shit, is she face down?” I ask, pulling my bowl out of the microwave. “Can you turn her over?”

“Can you turn her over?” he parrots. “No! No I can’t turn her over because I’ve got groceries in my hand and you still haven’t explained who she is!”

Like I’m stepping around a land mine, I say, “Well, uh, she’s Bedevil.”

“She’s… Bedevil.” He looks down at her. He is computing this. The explosion is coming. “The telekinetic wonder kid of the west coast.”

“Yes, she is. So she can’t die on our couch, please turn her on her side.”

“WHAT-”

I shush him with a finger to my lips. I really don’t want her to wake up right now.

“WHAT the FUCK?” Doc whispers.

“She followed me home after the port fight.”

Doc rubs the bridge of his nose. “Is that… is that corn?”

“It is,” I say, spooning some into my mouth.

“May I have some?”

“Is that an avocado?” I ask, pointing at the avocado I can clearly see in his bag.

“Fuck you, you can’t have this avocado, it’s the first batch I saw in weeks, it cost nine dollars, it’s mine. And also because you put drunk Bedevil on our couch. Also because she knows who you are.” He glares at me, clutching his grocery bag to his chest.

“Then no corn for you.” I continue to eat my corn.

“Fine, you can have a quarter of the avocado. Don’t say I never did anything for you.” He sets his grocery bag on the counter. “What’s the plan for her?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll wait until she wakes up, and figure out where to go from there.” My fingers are on my lips again, out of my control. I keep doing that. “She kissed me, Doc.”

Doc looks up from unpacking his groceries. He studies Bedevil. He’s always wearing a grumpy face, so seeing him calmly appraising her is a bit strange.

After a moment, he declares, “She was in love with Megajoule.”

That’s exactly what this is. She was in love with him and now I have to deal with it. I stammer, trying to find something to say that will dispel all of this. Some words that will reset this to yesterday, before we got caught up at the Port, before I was Home Run, and before Bedevil was in love with Megajoule.

“You’re stammering. Stop it.” Doc puts his groceries in the fridge and starts to carve the avocado. “Tell you what, in the morning I’ll take off. I’ll let you figure out… this.” He waves his hand at Bedevil like she’s a fly. “I’ll be back in the evening.”

“That’s fine.” I leave Doc some of the corn in my bowl. “I’m going to sleep now. I’ve had probably the worst day.”

Doc grumbles and starts to eat my corn.

I flop onto my bed. I’ve got a world of troubles piling up around me.

The sensible thing to do? Sleep.

“Mega.”

I snap awake.

Bedevil is leaning over me, one knee on the bed. Her eyes are wide. “It really is you.” Before I have the chance to say anything, she laughs and floats into the air. Her expression has dollops of relief, mania, and adoration swirled into a smoothie that’s freaking me the hell out. “You were amazing yesterday! I mean, I should be upset about you clobbering Krater but good grief!” She mimics my pole swing mid-air. “I’ve never seen you hit anyone that hard! I noticed you haven’t been flying, has something happened to you? I like the beard by the way, it really suits you.” She floats over my desk, the words spilling out of her mouth like a leaky faucet. “What’ve you been reading? Alinsky, Machiavelli.” My copies of Rules for Radicals and The Prince float up to her. She glances over the books that were underneath those two. “Confessions? Book of Five Rings.” She wrinkles her nose at the final book in the pile, a bright yellow one with a polite little chum on the cover. “Physics… for Dummies.”

“Do you like… knock?” I ask.

“Huh?” Bedevil squeaks, turning toward me. She sees I’m not wearing a shirt. Her cheeks redden. “Oh. Um. Sorry.”

“I need to get dressed.”

She nods furiously. My books rearrange themselves in a neat row on my desk, and she floats out of my room.

Once I’m clothed, I walk out to my living room, where Bedevil sits on the couch waiting for me. The delicious scent of coffee lures me into the kitchen, where a fresh pot waits on our cheap coffee machine. “Thanks.” I pour myself a cup.

“You’re welcome.” She kneads her thighs. “Mega.”

“My name is Gabe.” I take a slug of the coffee.

“…Gabe.” She shakes her head. “Do you… What happened to you? Where have you been?” She pauses. “I don’t know if someone’s messed with your mind, or what, but I can help you. I know it’s been a long time, but I promised I would.”

“I’m not Megajoule.”

“…what? You… Your mind…”

I sigh. This isn’t gonna be easy. She’s going to think I’m insane. “I’m his clone. I’m a back up they made to take over when he died, and I escaped-”

“Let me stop you right the fuck there.” Her voice takes on a menacing growl. “Because that is the most ridiculous bullshit I’ve ever heard.”

“Gonna ask you to do a little thinking here. Why is that anymore ridiculous than Megajoule resurfacing after 6 years with nearsightedness, youthful appearance like I’ve been sitting in a vat of anti-aging cream for most of that time, and a devolution of his power set? You said it yourself, I can’t fly.”

That pissed her off. “I’m not stupid.”

“I never said you were, but I’m not who you want me to be. I can see you wish he was still alive-”

A tendril of telekinesis wraps around my mouth, effectively gagging me so I can’t talk. It tastes funky, like bad water or something. Bedevil glowers. “Shut up. Just shut up. I’ve spent six years mourning you. I’ve spent six god damn lonely years without you. And- and I was in love with you, and when you left, I had nothing. Do you know how long I wanted to tell you that? Longer than the six years I’ve spent wishing I’d got the chance. So, when I take this gag out, you’re going to explain to me exactly what you’ve been doing, how you got here, and what we should do next.”

The tendril slips away from my mouth. I cough, and take another slug of coffee. “That tasted like pennies.”

Bedevil slams her fist on the kitchen counter. “God damn it, explain, Julian!”

“My name is Gabe, and I have proof of what I’m telling you. Hang on.” I hurry back to my room and grab my laptop. I return and plug it into my TV while Bedevil watches, her arms crossed. Her breathing is agitated. She sits down on my couch.

I try to find a good video that explains the situation. The only one I can think of is the video where he showed me the power distribution curve. That’s one of the few where he directly references me by name, and he even called me a clone.

I start it up right as he’s pulling the diagram out.

Bedevil gasps, and puts her hand over her mouth.

Megajoule’s looking right at the camera. “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 any of those fish agents showed you the bell curve of superpowers, but this is it. 98% of all living people have the Sword gene.”

I skip it a bit forward, to the ending.

“-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?”

I look at Bedevil. She looks at me. With Megajoule, I say: “If they are worthy, pull the sword from the stone.”

“Who the fuck knows what that means, Gabe.”

I stop the video.

Bedevil still has her hand over her mouth. Her eyes tear up again.

I sip my coffee.

“M.. Gabe. Will you do something? Will you shave? So I can see his face one more time? I know…” she pauses, swallows. “I don’t mean to offend you. I just… I want to see.” She’s got that face on again, like a dam about to explode.

Seeing her so busted, pity takes over. What the hell, I can just grow the beard back, right? I set my coffee down, resolve myself on the way to the bathroom, and get to chopping with Doc’s clippers. I haven’t seen under my beard in awhile. My jaw surprises me.

Bedevil leans on the wall and watches as my beard comes off. If it weren’t for the incredibly strange circumstance, this would be homey and romantic. But she’s waiting for a man who’s been dead for six years.

“You’ve really been in love with him all these years?” I ask.

Bedevil stammers, scowls, and looks away. “Not… not all this time. I’ve dated.”

“Wind Rider, right?” The tabloids would not shut up about them for an entire year, I remember that. It was my first taste of hero gossip. Hollywood faded; heroes took over.

“Yeah.” Bedevil wrinkles her nose, shakes her shoulders, and crosses her arms. She’s pouting her bottom lip. “Let down.”

“Men,” I joke, finishing with the clippers and applying shaving cream to my face. I grab Doc’s cheap straight blade razor, hoping I’m not going to cut myself with it.

Bedevil chuckles. “Yeah, men.” She stares at me a little longer than she should. Like, when you’re on a bus and you glance at someone across the row, but you can’t linger too long otherwise you’re creepy? She’s doing the creepy thing. I mean, it is just us, but I get uncomfortable when someone looks at me too long. “Have… have you dated?” she asks.

I pause my shaving and shake my head. “Doc says I won the genetic lottery, what with being Megajoule’s clone and all, but it turns out all the genetics in the world don’t make you good at dating. Plus my hobby involves coming home bloody and broken on the regular, and I don’t think most girls can handle that sort of thing.”

She rubs her arm and looks away. “It must be hard.”

“Do you have a family?” I ask, washing my face off.

“A mom. In San Diego. Do you have-” She stops herself, I guess realizing that’s a stupid question.

“Doc’s the closest thing I’ve got. I guess the other Underground members, too.” I let her get a good look at my shaved face. It’s not a pretty job, but it’s good enough to show my actual jaw.

Bedevil comes close and studies me. I take the opportunity to study her, too. Her hair is exactly like Megajoule’s wife’s hair from my dreams, gold flowing around her ears. There’s a spark in her hazel eyes, a full smile dawns on her lips, and I can almost see down her shirt that’s too big for her… and what am I saying? I need a distraction. My heart’s thumping, and I can hear all the blood screaming through my veins.

“I probably look a lot younger,” I manage. My head is blazing.

“He had crow’s feet, around the eyes. And laugh lines.” Her smile. She gingerly reaches up for my glasses, and I let her take them off. “You don’t.” She traces fingers along my face. The tips of her fingers are soft and cool, they feel nice running along my cheek. My natural inclination is to just let her get her fill, but she falters. The smile dies out. “I’m sorry, I’m touching all over your face.”

This is the strangest thing, but I want that smile back. “It’s okay, I’m used to that. In the lab I grew up in they just kind of poked me whenever they felt like it.”

Bedevil frowns. “That’s horrible.”

“Well, we can’t all be from California.”

She giggles. Her eyes crinkle, sparkle, dazzle. I’ve never felt this way. She’s not backing away; in fact, I think she’s getting closer.

I put a hand on her arm. “Hey, uh…” My voice fails me.

With care and gentle touch, she reaches up and puts her hands on my cheeks. She pulls me in, and I let her. Our lips and the tips of our noses brush, then she pushes into a full kiss.

Wow. Her lips are soft. All of her is soft. She’s pressed against me, and she’s really warm. One hand grips the back of my neck hard, the other pulls my waist in. Out of instinct I stoop down to her and wrap my arm around her back. I hope I’m not terrible at kissing. I don’t even know if she’s terrible. All I know is her tongue is swirling around mine and her chest is pressed into me. And it feels like magic.

She grips my arm and pulls me back to my bedroom. I let her drag me. Her hands search under my shirt; she shivers and gasps while rubbing my chest. I raise my arms to let her take off my shirt, like every time before in the lab, where they laid me on a metal table and prod at me. She’s prodding me, tenderly, but still prodding.

“When did you get shot?” she asks, running a finger around the wound on my right hip. Her eyes search my chest, fall on the hole in my upper shoulder. “Here, too?” Her fingers are soft, gently caressing around my injuries.

“Ah- yes- and my forearm,” I say, showing her my right forearm. Except that wound is gone. I forgot Doc took the injuries in my arm.

She gives me a funny look.

I chuckle. “I heal pretty well, I guess.”

Bedevil looks at me. Her breathing is erratic, her mouth open just a bit. She strokes my hair and cheek, and slowly leans in. She’s so warm. She’s doing all the work. So, I run a hand along her back, and as a test, grab her ass. Wow, so that’s what it feels like when it’s not a dude I’m throwing down a hall. She shudders at my touch.

She gets on her tip toes. Her lips run up my jaw. “Please,” she breathes into my ear. “Please, fuck me.”

I exhale. “Okay,” I whisper back.

She kisses my chest and my door closes by itself: by her power. The buckle of my belt comes undone all on its own, but she’s working the button of my jeans with her hands. She kisses my chin all at the same time. How is she so good at multi-tasking?

She pushes me gently with her telekinesis, and I just go with it. It’s all I know how to do. I do want this. I’ve never- and well, when you’ve never, you want to. But I’m also kind of being led by the hand, here.

I lay back on my bed, and she pulls my jeans off. She studies me for a second. “You- you’re in good shape,” she says. She pulls her shirt off in one move. She’s not wearing a bra. I’ve seen porn, I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve never seen a real woman in front of me, undressing. She’s got cute, pink nipples, and she’s on the smaller side. Her hair is long and golden, framing her face perfectly. She’s gorgeous.

She takes her jeans off slower than her shirt, and she looks flustered. She’s wearing granny panties, not sexy at all. I struggle against a smile: I know enough to know embarrassing the girl you’re about to sleep with will destroy your chances. She slips those off and she’s completely naked.

As I said, never seen a real naked girl. My eyes are popping out my skull, like that stupid cartoon wolf. Bedevil puts one knee on the bed between my legs and teases my boxers off. Her breathing quickens as they come off.

She crawls on top of me, locking eyes. I am on fire. Heart slamming against the walls of my chest. I’ve never been more aware of the blood in my body, and where it’s moving. She starts to kiss my neck and her hands go wild exploring me. I respond in kind. I’m like a kid on Christmas. She’s soft and firm and warm, so warm.

She nibbles my ear and plants a kiss. She giggles and it’s all I can hear. “Touch me.”

I reach down and press my fingers on her. She gasps and squeaks. She’s already wet, grinding against my hand. She strokes me in kind.

We stay like this for awhile, feeling each other. Her heart’s beating just as fast as mine.

“I… want to…” she says.

“Yeah,” I answer.

She reaches back, straddles me, and rocks her hips so I slide into her.

Wow.

She’s hot. She’s a goddess. She moves like its a dance, throwing her head back and moaning. She steadies herself with a hand on my chest and grinds hard. She never closes her eyes. She looks right at me, throws herself forward and kisses me passionately while still bouncing. I feel like I’m melting alive. Melting into her.

Instinct takes over, and I toss her off me and onto the bed, onto her back. She squeals in delight as I pounce her, and take over. She wraps her legs around me, pulls me into a kiss.

She pushes me back, wanting to look at me. I keep the rhythm going while she drinks me in.

“Mega,” she moans.

My heart stops pounding, and drops out, instead.

“Fuck me, Mega, please, fuck me,” she moans, putting her hand on my ass and pulling with each thrust.

I am very far way, suddenly. I am not here. I am another experiment. A cheap imitation of the real thing. I’ve put on his face for someone again, and sullied his name. The poor man can’t stay dead, and poor me can’t ever live.
I don’t stop. My body keeps going without me while I sink into myself. I fall into the black hole inside me.

Her gasps shorten, her chest heaves. She stiffens and her legs fall back as she orgasms. “Oh my Goooooood…”

I thought that would be it, but she grabs my body’s waist and pulls me closer.

“Are you close?”

My voice grunts something close to a yes. This is not fun anymore.

“Finish… you can finish in me,” she says. I know that’s not a good idea.

My body pounds her until it finishes, while she snarls at my ferocity. It doesn’t feel like what I imagined finishing inside someone would feel like. It feels like masturbating.

We separate. And I am alone. I am more alone than I’ve ever been. I am not even connected to my arms or legs.

She breathes in heavy gulps. “That was… oh my God, I’ve always wanted…”

“To fuck Megajoule,” my voice says. My body sits up. It doesn’t look at her.

My words wipe the look of half-drunk ecstasy right off her face, replacing it with wide-eyed shock. She can only stammer out one word: “I.”

I wait for her to say something. I want her to say something that will save whatever we just did. I know she won’t; you can’t come back from an event horizon.

Whatever pleasure she felt is gone. “I’m… Oh my God. What did I just do?” She starts to panic. “What the fuck did I just do?”

“You got what you wanted.”

She sits on her knees and looks down. Tears spill onto her thighs. She whispers something I can’t hear.

“What?” My arms are numb.

“I’m fucking sorry!” she screams. She floats from the bed with her power. Her clothes fly up to meet her and dress her in one fluid motion. She lands on her feet and stumbles to my door. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. That’s the most fucked up thing I’ve ever done.”

I don’t know what to say. So, I say nothing, which is probably not a smart move either. My body puts on pants. My ears roar. I’m resurfacing, rebooting. I’m trying to rip down the wall between me and my skin.

She stops before leaving. “I’ll… Oh my God, I’m fucking awful.”

“No.”

“Don’t-” She holds a hand out. “Please.”

My body stops.

She balls her hand into a fist. “I’ll… what the fuck? What do I say? What do I do?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her.

She whirls around. She’s in anguish. I’ve never seen someone look so broken. No, I have seen her like this before. In the Bella Villa video. “Why did they do this? Why did they pull him from the grave just to torture me?”

“I’m not him.”

She stammers.

Emotions smash through the barrier between Megajoule and me. We reunite into Gabe. “I’m not him! They didn’t pull him from a grave, I’m my own person!” I have to be. I need to be.

Bedevil turns away and thumps her head on my wall. “This is all so fucked. That was the best sex I’ve ever had.”

And it’s not even because of me. “I’m sorry.”

“Why the fuck are you apologizing to me?

God, I feel so worthless. Rage fills me, so white-hot my arms have no choice but to move. My hand slaps the wall. “I don’t know. I’m just never fucking enough for anyone, am I? Not even his fucked up sidekick.”

Bedevil is a puppy I just kicked. She sniffs and starts to cry like a kid who just got their hand slapped. “I’m sorry,” she mutters. “I’m sorry.”

The anger passes. I step away from her and rub my temples, ‘cause Doc told me that soothes pain. “No… I’m sorry, that was too far.”

“I’ll go, I’ll go,” she says, trembling and crying. She’s crying so hard snot’s running down her lips. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I am fucked up, you’re right.”

“Bedevil,” I say.

“Ruby,” she says.

“…Ruby.”

“I’ll go, I shouldn’t have come here, I’ll leave you alone.” She shuffles out of my bedroom. I don’t have the energy to chase after her. She moves around in our kitchen, I hear a couple of drawers open, and then they close. After a minute, our door opens and closes, too.

I slump against the wall. She’s an alcoholic, depressed, self-destructive woman. What the fuck is going to happen now? I don’t even want to think about that.

But if her name popped up in articles? Superhero Bedevil found dead in Houston alley from apparent suicide.

I hop up and head outside. Maybe I can catch her.

There’s a note taped to the door.

I pull it off and read it.

Gabe-

I am very sorry. I will leave you alone. Don’t worry about me.
If you need help, ever, here is my number.

Ruby.

She’s scrawled her number beneath her name.

I wipe the water welling in my eyes. I’m tired of crying.

I take her note and grab my phone to put it in. I’ve got more unread texts. I enter Bedevil’s number in my phone, and then check the messages.

The most recent one is from Flashfire:

Come to the Underground. We found Parlor.

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EPISODE EIGHT

“Home Run?” I ask no one in particular. None of my friends answer me.

Drone flips between a few different channels. It’s all the same story.

“Who is this mysterious Home Run?” a dolled up newscaster lady asks, staring at the camera like a stern teacher. “What are his powers? We’ve got reports coming in of his exploits over this last week. We do know for sure that the FIS testimony has him working with notable members of 2nd Amendment, a vigilante terrorist group, and a few other masked individuals. What they wanted at North Port is unknown, but law enforcement is looking into the matter. We’re asking that all sightings of Home Run be reported to the FIS.”

Everyone in the room is entranced by the trainwreck we’re watching. Remise stammers, Epione’s mouth hangs open. Flashfire’s frowning, his jaw tightening with each new clip. Maisa is quiet, her head tilted. “If you happen to encounter him-” Drone flips the channel.

Spanish Grandma is on the TV. She’s stoic. “He came and killed these men in my hallway.” She’s not done talking but the clip cuts out, to a reporter.

“Four bodies were found in the apartment complex, all with multiple lacerations and concussive wounds,” the well dressed lady says.

The clip cuts back to Spanish Grandma, who continues, “We didn’t let him in. Then he killed these young men.”

There was more they aren’t showing. They cut to that reporter fast as hell.

Drone changes the channel. Three portraits of the killed FIS operatives hang on the screen for a long time while an anchorman narrates: “Luis Esconza was a father of three, a fan of football, and a lifelong soldier before serving the FIS. His widow has a message for Home Run-” Drone turns the TV off.

“So fast,” she says.

I need to think. Why is FIS ragging on me so hard, so fast?

They’ve got something to protect, maybe? FIS has a hard line stance on vigilantes, but they always let OPI make an official invitation before turning someone into a villain. They give them a chance. Not that I’d take it, but they’d still have reached out to me. Or tried to. I guess maybe Mr. Gold counts, asking me to turn myself in and register, but I don’t think so.

“I did this an hour ago and they’ve already assembled all this to make me out as a villain,” I mumble. “Why straight to villain? Why so fast and hard line? They even have a persona made up for me.” That means this is a measured, planned response. To what? Somebody beating up Krater? Krater’s taken worse hits than me.

I’m getting too close to something they’re trying to protect? I mean, Mr. Gold said they were staking out that trade off I interrupted, but maybe they were watching for vigilantes? Pandahead has government connections with Port Authority, apparently, so why not FIS, too? Maybe he’s important to them somehow.

Flashfire scowls and points at me. “It’s because you look like a villain. Because you killed those people.”

I shake my head, I don’t need this right now. I’m trying to get a handle on the situation. “I never set out to kill anyone. I didn’t mean to at all. That’s not our problem, right now. Our problem is figuring out why FIS-”

“But you did.” Flashfire turns on me. His shoulders are set against me. “They lost a father and a husband because of you.”

Damn. Train of thought lost. I’ll have to board it again later. “Can we not do this? That was a battle. A super powered one. I didn’t set out to kill anyone, but I had to fight way harder than I’m used to.”

“Then learn to fight that hard, because I don’t want you killing more people,” Flashfire says. “I don’t want you killing in the name of the Underground.”

“I’m not going to promise I’m never going to kill, we get into bad fights, it happens. I’m not the one who escalated that fight to the point that people needed to die, but when it got there I did what I had to do.” I step away from him. “I did what I had to do to save your life.”

“There was another way to save our lives that didn’t involve killing.” Flashfire’s voice is drenched with contempt. Remise, Drone, Epione, Maisa, they watch in shocked silence. Flashfire’s getting real aggressive, stepping closer and closer. He’s not as tall as I am but he’s stockier.

Fine, he wants this fight, I’ll have this fight. “Yeah, and what was it, then? Because the way I saw it, your other way ended with you dead. Do you even know what Krater was going to do to you? He was about to turn your van into a tiny metal ball with all of you still in it. You, Remise, Maisa, Saw Off, Vaquero. All of you. A fucking smoothie inside a metal can.”

Epione processes that for a second, and then gasps and puts her hand half over her mouth. “He was going to kill them?” She looks at Flashfire with new concern.

“And I quote, ‘Oh, I’m gonna.’ Those FIS agents are trained to shoot to kill, center mass. Mr. Gold, Bedevil, all of them. You want to go into that fight thinking there’s another choice?” Maybe if I could figure out my power as well as Megajoule I could fight in a way that didn’t kill anybody. Megajoule never had to, his power was so much better than mine, his control over it so much greater. It makes me feel so stupid. “I’m not going to apologize for saving your life. No matter what they paint me as, I saved you, I saved Maisa, I save people.”

Flashfire shakes his head. “You’re not proving them wrong. You may save people but the more bodies you leave in your wake the more they’ll paint you as a villain. We can do better.”

“Hey, take it easy,” Remise says.

I understand. I understand it makes him feel like he’s keeping his hands clean. That it gives him some sort of moral superiority to the other vigilantes. Yet at the end of the day, we’re warriors. We go in knowing we could die. “I’m not going to promise you something that’s impossible. It makes things too hard, and what happens when there’s no other choice?”

“You always have another choice.” We’re inches from each other now. The room buzzes. Epione reaches a hand out. Flashfire sees her sneaking up behind him. “Don’t.”

“What if Epione was in danger? What if someone was going to kill her?”

Flash hesitates, his lips thin. He looks back at Epione, then back to me. “You always have another choice,” he repeats.

“I didn’t,” I say. “I had to save you.”

Flashfire jabs his finger in my face. “They’ll never trust you like you want them to if you keep killing. Megajoule didn’t kill-”

I’m not shrinking back anymore. I square up, summon my height to tower over him. “Don’t talk to me about Megajoule.”

Flashfire socks me right in my jaw. I’m not ready for it, so I don’t absorb the energy. I fall back onto my butt.

“Jason!” Epione cries, the first time I’ve heard her say Flashfire’s real name in weeks.

Flashfire stands over me, fist curled for another. He hesitates, and then looks at his fist in shock. So I sweep his leg.

Flashfire’s hand starts to smoke and a burst of phosphorous light blinds me. He pins my right shoulder with one hand and grabs my wrist with his other. He bends hard and twists me onto my stomach.

“I’ll talk to you… about Megajoule… all I want,” Flashfire says between gulps of air, driving his knee into my back. “He was a hero. A real one. Maybe the only one.”

“Get off of him!” Maisa screams, shoving Flashfire from me.

I turn over. My brain’s ringing anxiety sirens, my heart’s accompanying on timpani. This is fucked, I’m tired of having to justify myself. I stand up, with Maisa’s help. I put my glasses back on. “I’m not a hero like Megajoule, and I don’t fucking care anymore.”

Flashfire doesn’t reply, he looks to some distant star only he can see. He leans back against the sofa.

“I’m going.” My throat’s so tight my voice cracks.

“Come on, man, I’m sorry.” Flashfire struggles to stand with me. His voice is hoarse, too.

“That’s not a good idea,” Epione says, holding a hand out to me.

I need to clear my head, not get it massaged. “Maybe not, but neither is staying here. I don’t want you stirring my mind up.” I grab my mask and get the hell out of there.

The night air lays on me like a wet blanket. I activate Drone’s scrambler on my watch.

I understand where Flashfire’s coming from. Saw Off asked me if not killing was a half measure. I’m still not sure, but the consequences are pretty bad. Even if it is easier at first, it might play out in ways I don’t expect. I need to be better at that. I need to plan, I can’t just run into something half-cocked anymore. I got lucky with Krater because I figured out how to use more of my power, but that won’t always be the case.

The Heroics Tower, rising out of the bramble of downtown, flashes a giant image of Megajoule. His slogan scrolls beneath him.

Reach. Dream. Strive. Become.

What does that mean?

I take a long walk back to my place. The scenic route. Just to make sure I’m good and clear-headed. I make it back to my apartment and open the door.

“Good evening, Home Run.”

You ever see one of those movies where the spouse or parent is waiting for the delinquent main character in the dark, and they turn on the lamp and you just know they are gonna start shit? There’s an empty plate in his hands I know is destined for my face.

“Hey, Doc. You saw the news, huh? That’s… uh…” I trail off into a nervous chuckle.

Doc looks at the plate, looks at my face, and then sets the plate down, apparently deciding the better of that. He scratches his neck. “What now, then?”

“I lay low for a little. I’ll give Flashfire a couple of days to cool off, I guess.”

“You should just lay low forever,” Doc says. “Now that the whole damn city thinks you’re a villain.”

“I can’t lay low forever.” Too many rats. Too many children being hurt. It’s not enough for me to sit back and watch it happen.

Doc snorts. “You know, you’re just like him, some times.”

The hole inside comes back. The hole that tells me I’m nothing like Megajoule, and can never be like him. The hole that says I’m just a cheap imitation of the real thing. “How?”

Doc turns the TV on. “Stubborn.” He uses his right arm.

A light bulb explodes in my head. There’s not a scratch on his arm, the one he took my wound on. How could he heal that fast? I’ve never given him an injury this bad. He usually heals back fast from the ones I gave him, but they were always so small. “Doc, what happened to your arm?”

He looks at his arm, and back at me. “Gave the injury away.”

“You can do that?”

“Wound transferal. Not just acceptance.”

Good grief, that means he could just take someone’s broken arm and… “Doc, who did you give that injury to?”

“Someone that deserved it.” His gaze glints like steel in the TV light. Don’t question.

I lean on the counter. I’m gonna question. “Are you telling me that you have a whole double life I don’t know about?”

Doc breaks his stare and turns to me, raising an eyebrow. “Kid, where do you think our money comes from?”

“I thought you were some kind of under the table doctor.”

“That’s pretty close,” Doc says. “But all I really do is move shit around. Take a broken arm, a busted leg, a concussion. Move it somewhere else. Someone asking for it.”

“You’re a vigilante.”

“Not like you, no.” Doc shakes his head. “No, I don’t start fights. I just find out who could really use a kick in the ass, and maybe, in a crowded bar, or on the street with dozens of people walking, I give him a little tap.” He pauses. “These thoughts never run through that brain a yours before? Now you gotta question it?”

“You’ve never taken an injury that bad from me before. I guess I’ve never noticed.”

“Well, notice more, for my sake.” He shakes his head.

Alright, you old coot. I retreat to my room and sit down in front of my laptop. I open Megajoule’s folder of videos and click the next one on the list.

The video starts the same way as the others. Megajoule sits behind the same table with the same blue backdrop, wearing the same polo he always wears, looking as tired as he always looks. He’s got a pencil and notepad, and he’s looking over something on the paper.

He starts to tap the pencil. Nervous tic, I guess.

“Tell me, Gabe, have you ever thought about what would happen if you fell into a black hole?”

No, no I have not, Julian.

“A black hole is an object so dense that not even light can escape from its gravity, in case you need a refresher. If you were to see one, you’d think that maybe God poked a pencil in the fabric of the universe, or something.” He taps his pencil a little more. It’s kind of rhythmic, like a beat. I never thought about Megajoule as a musical person, but why wouldn’t he have been? Almost everyone loves music. He was a very smart man. He probably played an instrument or listened to symphonies for fun, or something.

“And if you were to fall into one? Well, not into, but toward one?” He shakes his head. “All the models in the world wouldn’t prepare you for how terrifying that would be.”

Okay, Julian, what the fuck are we talking about here? What are you trying to tell me?

“Someone watching you would see your body hit the event horizon, and from there, your image would red shift into oblivion instead of continuing on. You’d keep falling, though.” The hand holding the notepad is trembling. “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.

“It might actually be calm, for a bit. Until you start to feel yourself stretching.” He stops tapping his pencil. “Spaghettification. Your molecules would get ripped apart into one string pulled down one path. 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.”

He locks eyes with me. Right at me. He taps his pencil in a weird pattern, and the video ends on an abrupt cut.

“What?” I ask. “That’s… what?”

Why did he make that an entire video? What was he trying to convey? Did he just want to scare me?

Maybe he was telling me something. Something about how he felt. This video, the last one. He was disturbed. OPI tried to make him and Bedevil out as if they were free, as if they flew together in bright skies with not a care in the world. Megajoule died, but it’s clear to me they were grinding him into dust before that. Just like they’re grinding Bedevil into dust. How long until she turns up dead, too?

I shake my head. I don’t want to watch another video right now. I thought it might help clear my head but that made everything worse.

I need a shower. I go into my bathroom and turn the water as hot as it will go and strip. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, examining my body and face until the steam fogs the mirror up. The hole inside me widens until its so big the universe compresses behind me.

A black hole. Maybe he felt it, too.

I sit under the shower for what feels like hours. The water washes away Gabe, Megajoule, Home Run, the Heroic Underground, OPI, FIS. The heat burns me down and reduces me to my base.

I am only a hole. I will swallow everything around me. String them out until they die. Doc gave up everything just to save me from the same fate as Megajoule. Flashfire watched people die because of me. Even Bedevil. I don’t know her, but I know what shattering someone looks like. I thought using Bella Villa was necessary, but was it? Or was it just convenient?

I exit the shower. When I get out, Doc’s gone. Our streaming service wants to know if he’s still there. I turn the TV off.

My phone has ten messages. Eight of these are from Epione:

(1:54 AM) Hey, Gabe, Jason is really sorry he punched you. Can you come back?

(1:57 AM) He’s really upset.

(2:10 AM) He’s pissed off at himself.

(2:11 AM) He’s really sorry.

(2:26 AM) Please, Gabe.

(2:57 AM) Please.

(3:42 AM) He said some stupid stuff, I knwo. but he didnt mean any fo it, hes just upste about the dead peopl. hge knows you saved his life and your the olny raisin hes alive and to be honest i dont knos what id do if he died.

(3:43 AM) so i owe u a ton choclate and tequila.

After that, there’s one from Drone: (3:24 AM) Heads up, Epione is super drunk

Finally, one from ‘Baby <3’: (2:34 AM) Just saw the news Gabe Babe, or should I say Home Run XP nice job.

Ugh. I don’t want to answer these. Just the thought of trying to work things out right now exhausts me. I know I should go back, talk to them, smooth things over. I’m just so tired and pissed off about all this, even seeing my friends’ names irks me. I mean, Saw Off wasn’t so bad. But still.

Naw, right now I just want to drink a beer and watch the stars. Set all this aside and relax. I grab one of Doc’s awful beers from the fridge and step outside to the walkway. I lean on the cement balcony and look down at the street below our apartment.

My train of thought from earlier pulls back into station. FIS showed up right after we tripped the motion sensor. Lickety split, too. That means it’s their sensor, or someone very close to FIS interests. Why would Pandahead be close to FIS?

Maybe he’s part of them. Does Mr. Gold know? He doesn’t seem like he does. He got angry about me pooching up his investigation. Which is another hole in that fledging theory: Mr. Gold is FIS, and was about to perform a sting on one of Pandahead’s suppliers.

Well, if I wanted people to think I was doing something about crime in Houston, wouldn’t I give my lower ranked guys a bone every now and again? Even while I trafficked people myself? FIS could possibly be doing that here. Who knows? I won’t until we get that lead from the 2nd Amendment.

I sip my beer and stare at the city. Pink and yellow neon, gray concrete. The streets are dead, the lamplights flicker, and the air’s heavy with night-heat and a thick glaze of humidity. There’s no better climate for a cold beer, even if that beer is pig shit. I drink it down and look up at the stars.

There is a girl floating above me. She yelps when I spot her.

Bedevil. She followed me.

Oh. Oh, fuck. “What?” The question can barely get lift off.

She’s not in her Inheritors outfit. She’s in street clothes, in joggers and a white t-shirt that’s a little too big. She’s holding a mostly empty bottle of Everclear. She floats down to meet me at eye level, though she’s still hovering beyond the railing.

I can’t speak, and she doesn’t. She just stares at me, wide-eyed. She clutches that bottle of Everclear like it’s a lifesaver.

“You followed me.”

She nods. Her mouth hangs open.

“How did you…?”

“The power. The same. The pole glowing, when you hit Krater.” She struggles with every word. Her voice wavers, she’s drunk. “Like before. I’ve seen you do that before. Then I remembered your voice.” She chokes, and puts a hand to her nose. Her cheeks redden, the tears spill. She looks away from me. “It’s been so long since… since I’ve heard your voice in real life, that I almost forgot.”

I’ve got no fucking clue what to say.

“Where- where have you been? Where have you been all this time?” she asks.

“I- Bedevil, listen to me, I’m not who you think I am. I know you think I’m Megajoule. But I’m n-”

Bedevil drops the bottle of Everclear and grabs my face. She pulls me in with a harsh jerk and mashes her lips against mine.

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EPISODE SEVEN

“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.”

She wavers.

“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?

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