Category Archives: Inheritors

EPISODE TWENTY-ONE

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Bedevil helps me to my feet once our laughing fit is over, and I’m surprised to see Remise trying to coax Epione out from the driver’s side of a worn down truck cab. “Come on, lass, it ain’t tha’ bad!”

“Please!” Epione says. “I can’t, I can’t!”

The hair on the back of my neck stands up. Her tone of voice tells me she’s in real danger, but I can’t see anything wrong. She’s just huddled up in the truck cab.

“What’s wrong?” Bedevil asks.

Epione cries out and puts her hand over her ears.

“She borrowed my power,” Remise said. “She started goin’ all wonky! Saying its all too much!”

Epione sobs.

A wave of sorrow washes over me, so much that tears roll down my cheeks almost instantly. I turn to Bedevil and Remise, both sobbing out of nowhere. Bedevil is mid-ugly cry, and Remise is covering her mouth, her shoulders shaking. Both of them look at me, just as overwhelmed by the surge of emotion as I am. This has to be Epione’s power.

Her eyes are glowing, but she told me she can’t use her power without touching someone.

Yesterday she said that too much light and noise bothered her, and borrowing Remise’s power must have kicked that up to overdrive. If normally, it irritates her, then right now it must be like somebody digging an icepick in her brain.

We aren’t feeling sorrow. We’re feeling what she should be feeling, how upset she should be while she’s in an incredible amount of pain. She’s putting her emotion somewhere else.

I hold my finger up to my lips at Bedevil and Remise, and hold my hand out to tell them to stand still. Remise doesn’t speak, she falls to her knees, wracked with sobs.

I speak as softly as I can, tiptoeing around Epione’s newly enhanced hearing and my own grief-laden voice. “Epione, this is probably really loud, but listen.” I choke, and shudder, trying to steady myself. “What can I do to help you relax, so you can return the power to Remise?”

Epione grimaces. She’s screwed her eyelids shut, and covered both ears with her hands. Even so, she responds to my question: “Something to cover my head. Hum a song, too. Please.”

“Okay,” I whisper. I lean over to Bedevil and whisper into her ear. “She can’t control it. She needs the towel, and can you hum something as soft as possible?”

Bedevil sniffs in my ear, but leans back and nods. The towel floats over.

“Epione, we’re gonna wrap your head in a towel, is that okay?” I ask in my low voice.

Epione nods.

The towel gently wraps around her head, covering her ears and her eyes. I just make out Bedevil humming.

A tense, silent minute passes, and Epione’s sobbing calms down. The heavy boot on my chest lifts up, and I’m back to normal. Bedevil wipes her eyes, also regaining control of herself.

Remise gasps. “My power. It’s back.”

Epione takes off the towel to reveal her fabricated smile. She gets out of the cab in measured movements, and returns the towel to me. Her eyes are red, but she’s smiling all the same. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Go take it easy for a second.”

Epione nods, and walks toward the warehouse doors, and lets herself out the building.

“What the hell was tha’?” Remise asks. “How’d you know wha’ t’ do, Gabe?”

I don’t know if Remise knows about Epione’s autism. And Bedevil definitely doesn’t. It’s not my place to tell them anything, so I opt for: “I figured if she had no idea what your enhanced senses were like, she wouldn’t be able to control them. The sadness? I’d guess she was using her power to off load the discomfort she was feeling.”

“She needs to train,” Bedevil says. “With all of our powers. And her own.”

I guess I’ll let Epione explain when the time comes. For now, I simply nod.

“We’ve got that meet soon,” Remise says. “With the Street Devils.”

“I’ll let you go to that, I don’t think Bedevil should be showing her face at a vigilante hideout,” Bedevil says. She wipes runny mascara from her cheek and flicks it on the ground. “Besides, I’m on double patrol today, to make up for the other Houston Heroes still being out.”

I think about that. The other vigilantes don’t know I’m a clone of Megajoule. “I think we need this meeting to be masks on,” I say to Remise.

“They won’t like tha’,” Remise says. “Flash always went maskless with other vigs.”

“We need to make an exception for me.” I point to my face.

“Fair enough,” Remise says. “I’ll let ‘em know. We need to get a move on soon, Iso’s already on the way with Drone.”

Bedevil hands me her apartment key. “Here. I’m guessing you’ll be back before I am. If you are, will you feed my animals?”

“I will fulfill this sacred duty,” I tell her, putting the key into my pocket.

Bedevil rolls her eyes. “I’ll see you later, then.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll see you later.”

Bedevil heads off to get ready for patrol, and Remise shuts the warehouse doors and does a walk-around to make sure everything’s locked. Epione’s squatting in front of the warehouse, hugging her knees to her chest, still smiling all the same.

“Hey, you okay?” I ask.

Epione burrows her nose into her legs. “I don’t know.”

“You used your power at a range,” I say.

“I don’t know how to control it.”

“We can figure that out.” I squat next to her. “I’d say maybe don’t take Remise’s senses, though.”

“They were too much. It felt like everything in the world was right in my face. Every sound living in my ears.” I feel a tinge of heartache at the borders of my mind. She’s still doing that, even now. “I think this is because of what I did to my feelings. Normally my power suppresses emotions, but I think if it can’t, it sends it somewhere else.”

“You know, I used to have something similar. Before I knew how to absorb kinetic energy, I’d break my own arms and legs using my power. I couldn’t jump nearly as far or high as I do now, because I had to save heat for landing.”

Epione sniffs.

“All I’m saying, there may be some way to make your power work with your emotions, instead of cutting them off or sending them elsewhere, but also in a way that doesn’t hurt you.” Pandahead’s thermos comes to mind. Clearly, he uses that to get in touch with the Fear somehow. “Like, for instance, maybe you could put them in an object? Keep your emotions close but not too close?”

Epione shrugs. “I’ve never tried, I don’t know if it’s possible to put emotions in an object.”

“Something for next time,” I say.

Remise rounds the corner. “All ri’, you losers ready t’ go?”

“Yeah.” I stand up, and offer a hand to Epione. She stands with my help.

Remise’s van has yet another new paint job, this time a dull yellow, and in this vaguely banana colored van we ride down to the Street Devils’ hideout.

Their base of operations is nestled in a neighborhood of one story houses, all painted in variations of pastel, all with the same tin can covers over their driveways, all wrapped by pavement sidewalks that have warped under years of flooding with no one to repair them.

Houston built downtown into a shining metropolis of neon skyscrapers, and left the outskirts petrified in the amber of time. These houses haven’t changed since before the dawn of superpowers. Some houses even bear the scars of that time: unnatural burn marks, strange blemishes, scars of battle. Likely some neighbors got powers and went on a spree, like everyone else did in the Anarchy.

Remise pulls us up to an auto service garage, a horseshoe building that’s half mechanic’s workspace and half a normal house. A broken sign buzzes over the entrance: Nobody’s Better Than Tom!

The building rings around a tiny lot where Tom, I’m guessing the titular mechanic, keeps a few cars waiting for repairs. Remise parks the van next to the others, and we put our masks on. I text Bedevil: (3:16 PM) I am entering a strange house, if I do not feed your pets it’s because I died here.

Remise leads us to one of the doors and knocks. A little panel slides open at eye height. A man asks: “Password?”

“Ye know very well there ain’t no fookin’ password,” Remise says.

“Remise! So good to see you!” The door opens. The guy guarding the door wears a red hockey mask with the word “Supreme” above the eyes, underneath a cowl-style black hoodie. He doesn’t wear any armor except some knee braces, which wrap around his black sweat pants. His shoes are black sneakers with reflective white laces. All in all, he looks more apt for a street fashion show than a vigilante group.

“Asperity,” Remise says. “Good t’ see ya. Ain’t hot, are ye?”

“Oh, very,” he says. “But you asked costumes on, so, costumes on. This is the Home Run, huh?” He gestures to me.

“Don’t get yer knicks twisted,” Remise says.

“Goin’ commando, anyway,” Asperity says. “Really lets me breathe, you know? So, how was it clobbering Krater? That makes you stronger than most of us here, you know?”

He’s asking me. I stammer. “Uh, felt good?”

“I bet it did.” Asperity sounds like he’s smiling under the mask. “Well, come on in. The party’s waiting for you.”

“What’s his power?” I ask Remise as he heads inside.

“He controls friction. His own. He can get all slip n’ slidey if he wants. He can climb walls all Spider-Man style, too.”

“No web slinging, though.” Asperity looks over his shoulder. “Sure wish I could.”

The hideout is about the size of my apartment, and the centerpiece is a ping pong table littered with papers, pictures, and maps. Iso stands with his back to us, next to two other vigilantes. They both wear black hoodies like Asperity, but one has red gloves, shoes, and a vibrantly crimson mask that looks like a classic demon, horns and all. The other wears tights under their hoodie, black and blue. They have a blue mask with insectoid glass eyes.

Lugs, Mil-dot, and to my shock, Saw Off all sit on a couch facing a TV. Saw Off is the only one not in a mask, but everyone else is in full costume. Mil-dot has a bandanna covering her face, much like Vaquero did, though hers is a camouflage print.

“Gabe Babe!” Saw Off shouts. She struggles to get up, but Lugs keeps her down with his metal arm.

“You ain’t supposed to be walking,” Lugs says. “Doc barely let us take you.”

Saw Off crosses her arms and pouts. “Fine. Least he’s not dragging that wanna be pastel emo anymore.”

Does she mean… Bedevil? I shake my head. “Glad you’re feeling a little better, Saw Off.”

Drone comes out of a kitchen, holding a beer in hand. She’s not wearing a mask, though I guess I can’t hold that against her. “Gabe!”

“So your name’s Gabe, huh?” Asperity asks.

“Yeah. That’s all you’re getting,” I say.

Iso waves me over. “Gabe, this is Carapace.” He points at the girl with the bug eyes mask. “And Dustdevil.” He gestures to the girl in the devil mask and red gloves.

Dustdevil makes a peace sign by her eyes. “Nice to meet you, Home Run! Heard a lot about you.”

Carapace, on the other hand, comes up to me. She takes off her mask.

“Woah!” I say.

“No, no, it’s cool, I get it,” Carapace says. Underneath the mask she’s a Hispanic girl with a short cut and a nose ring. “You can keep the mask, I just wanted to take mine off. Flashfire told us he had some paranoid friends. I don’t care much about taking my mask off.” She grins at me. “I saw that footage of you kicking Krater’s ass. Hot damn!”

“Oh, well, good?” I rub the back of my neck. “This is Epione.”

Epione’s mask shifts into a smile emoji. Carapace squeaks: “That’s the cutest thing!”

Dustdevil runs over to her, the phone out. “Can I take a picture?”

“Excitable bunch,” Iso says.

“Oh, you’ve got no idea,” Asperity says. “Last week, we took down a local burglar that had started getting violent with people. Found out he was Welterweight overall but had near Heavyweight strength. Dude could bench press a car. Left him wrapped up in steel-fiber cable in front of an FIS station. We took some tabs and partied all night long.”

“Yes, that sounds productive,” Iso says.

“Any movement on Flash or Maisa?” I ask.

Iso shakes his head. “Sorry, Gabe. It’s only been a night. We’ll keep it up. Not even OPI’s got any leads yet. Give it a few days, and we’ll get something.”

I nod. “Thank you for all your help. I don’t mean to seem pushy.”

“Flashfire’s not around right now,” Drone says. She offers me the beer. “We need pushy.”

I decline her beer. “Thanks. Thank you for everything. So, what’s our agenda?”

“We’re waiting on one more group,” Iso says. “The Bay Biters. Four of them. Crane, Echo, Tamper, and Sidestep.”

“Cool.”

Carapace and Dustdevil are in the middle of selfies with Epione, looking at her mask. I smile. Even when she’s not trying, she makes new friends. I hope we can get Flash back soon for her.

“What are their powers?” I ask.

Iso smiles. His mask only covers the upper half of his face. “Carapace can create an exoskeleton. When she’s wearing it, she’s much stronger and faster. Dustdevil can shoot high pressure blasts of winds from her hands. Asperity controls his own friction.”

There’s a knock on the door. Asperity answers. “Password?”

“Let us in, Ass, we have news,” someone says outside.

Asperity opens the door, and leads five people into the hideout. I’m guessing these are the Bay Biters, but Iso said there were only four.

“Who’s this?” Asperity asks, pointing at a guy in baggy clothes.

“Woah! You’re Home Run!” the first guy says. He’s wearing normal clothes but has a orange and black helmet on with a thin black slit to see through. I’m guessing he didn’t go full costume, just the mask. “I’m Crane, and this is my crew! Plus one.”

“Who’s the Plus One?” Asperity asks again, his voice dropping into a threatening tone.

“Sorry, sorry,” Crane says. “Go ahead and introduce yourself, Pyre.”

The guy in the baggy clothes steps forward. He looks very nervous, his brow is furrowed, his shoulders are slumped. He coughs, and says, “I’m Pyre. I’m part of a group near Laredo.” He hesitates for a second, struggling to find the right words, and finally, “We came out here to help Pandahead.”

EPISODE TWENTY

DISCORD / NEWSLETTER

Outside Bedevil’s apartment, I check the groceries I bought again: veggies, chicken, ground beef, some cheap, shredded cheese, sandwich bread, eggs, pasta, milk. All the essentials. And I even got my hands on an avocado. I reach out to knock.

I check the bags again: veggies, chicken, cheap shredded cheese, sandwich bread, eggs, pasta, milk, where did that fucking beef go, there it is.

Okay, Gabe, you can’t just stand here and check groceries a dozen times. Knock on the damn door.

I knock.

While I wait for Bedevil to answer, I check the groceries again.

The door unlocks and creaks open, an inch at a time, faltering once at the bright sun shining into the dark apartment. The door finishes its journey, revealing a Bedevil in a pink sweatshirt, gray short shorts, and giant bunny slippers. Her hair is just about everywhere it could be, she’s wearing three rings on her left hand, there’s a cut on her cheek, and she’s halfway through a melty pint of cookies and cream ice cream.

She goes from sleepy haze to alarmed in half a breath. “Gabe? You- you didn’t text me or call me! What if someone from OPI was here? What if I had a guest?”

That stings a bit. I really shouldn’t worry if she has a guy over or not. And yet my stupid mouth: “Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Have a guest?” I cough.

“N-no,” she says. She looks at my bags. “What are those?”

“Groceries. For you. For your terrible fridge.”

Bedevil brushes her hair out of her face. “Oh. Are you here just to drop off a care package?”

“No, I’m also here to train. Like you said. Can I come in?”

Bedevil steps out of the way. “Yeah, yeah. It’s way too early to train, though.” She rubs her temples while the pint floats toward her kitchen counter – and misses, splattering the ice cream all over the tiled floor. “Shit.”

Pawpaw rushes into the kitchen to clean up Bedevil’s breakfast of champions.

“It’s actually 11:30,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s too early,” Bedevil says. “I had to patrol last night.”

“Ah yes, I don’t know how anyone could get up at the butt crack of noon, either,” I say. “But, you said to train, and you don’t have to do anything besides tell me what to do. You can sit there and be hungover, just so long as you’re barking orders at me.”

Bedevil snorts. “You should put that on your dating profile.”

“I don’t know how well I’d do on those sites,” I say. “I’m not very good at describing myself. Plus, there’s the whole Megajoule thing. I think girls on dating sites would study my face extra hard. It would take all of two minutes for somebody to message me asking me if I was Megajoule.”

“Nah,” Bedevil says. “They only care if you’re hot or not.”

“Am I?” I ask. I immediately regret that question.

Bedevil stammers.

I look into my grocery bags, trying to ignore that colossally stupid string of words. “Don’t answer that. Let me just…” I go to her fridge to do my duty. “I got you stuff, carrots, corn, lettuce, broccoli.” I put the veggies in her barren veggie drawer. The roast beef from yesterday is still there, so I throw that to Pawpaw and replace it with the milk and cheese. I stock her drawers up with everything, and put the bread on her counter.

She’s been quiet for a while.

“So. Training.” I stand up to look into her living room, but she’s not there.

“Up here, bro.”

She’s plastered to the kitchen ceiling, looking down at me. Her hair dangles in a messy, golden curtain.

“Comfortable?” I ask.

She nods. “Where did you get the groceries?”

“From one of those organic sprouty market places,” I say. “I know you’re used to that stuff in California, so I tracked one down. Though, now that you’re in Texas you should probably get used to regular food.”

“Dude, I inhale dollar burgers on the daily,” she says.

“Mmm. Well, maybe let’s not do that anymore.”

“Says the guy that downs Captain Crunch like it’s water.”

“Okay, look, you’ve only known me for one weekend and I’ve been trying to eat through that box for days.” I shake my head. “You know… I came out here to better myself, not to get torn down.”

Bedevil sinks down and lands on her bunny slippers. “Well, part of training is tearing yourself down. So let’s hop to it, buddy.”

I smile. “Okay. Uh… here?”

“No, not here, ya dingus.” Bedevil trudges back to her room. “Do you have a garage or something? We can’t go back to Epione’s house. By the way, that girl has texted me like non-stop since yesterday.”

“Yeah, she’ll do that.” I laugh. Epione makes friends in the time it takes someone to string together a greeting. “Remise knows some guys with a car garage, will that do?”

Bedevil emerges from her room. I thought she’d trade out the slippers, but no. She’s still wearing them. Instead, she put a baseball cap on. The fridge opens, and one of her swill beers floats out.

I grab it out of the air.

Bedevil turns to me, her eyes cold, her face rigid. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Preventing my dojo master from drinking and teaching,” I say.

A dozen tendrils wrench my hand open. The bottle zips through the air into her clutches. Her expression frightens me, like she’d absolutely destroy me if she got the chance. “You’re right about one thing. We’ve known each other for one weekend.”

“Okay.” My face flushes. I hate looking in someone’s eyes when they’re pissed.

“Come on.” She shuffles out of the apartment.

I call Remise while we head down to my part of town.

Her usual Scottish accent lifts my mood. “Oi, Gabe, what’s crackin’?”

“I was wondering if we could use your mate’s garage to train in?” I ask. “Bedevil and I are looking for a place to train, and we talked about helping Epione, too.”

“Course! My mate’s got a lot of warehouse he dinnae use, so ah’ll let him know we’re takin’ it over. Meet ya’ there in thirty? I’ll text ye the addy.”

“Sounds good.”

Bedevil and I take the sky-rail over to my part of town again. We don’t strike up a conversation as easily as yesterday. Even so, I tell her: “I slept.”

Bedevil, groggy as hell, turns to me. She’s resting her chin in her hand, her eyes are drooping. “Hm?”

“I slept. Six hours, like you asked. Remise went and looked around for Maisa, instead.”

Bedevil straightens up and shimmies her shoulders. She nods. “Good. I’m glad.”

“You okay?”

Her eyes flutter, and she yawns. “Tired. I didn’t sleep much.”

“Erm, do you need a shoulder?”

Bedevil looks at me, purses her lips. “Are… are you cool with that?”

I nod.

“Okay. Yeah. Please.”

I slump into my seat, shifting to match her height.

Bedevil rests her head, nuzzles into my shoulder. She leans her whole body against me. She’s warm. This is not a good thing in the hot Houston climate, but temperature never bothered me anyway.

A minute passes, and I am aware of every single second that passes.

Bedevil snores, and I feel drool through my shirt. I stifle a laugh while trying to keep myself steady for her, and I also try to ignore my heart ringing a boxer’s bell, screaming, ‘LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!’ in my ears. ‘ALL BLOOD TO BELOW DECK!’

A few more minutes pass, and I rest my head on the seat, close my eyes, and drift into sleep a little. I’m woken by electronic bells dinging as we make it to our stop. I gently nudge Bedevil awake.

Bedevil nuzzles into my shoulder. “Fi’ mo’ mins.” She throws a hand around my chest like I’m a teddy bear. Her legs lean up against mine, and those sweat-shorts aren’t doing a lot to hide them. Oh NO she has really nice legs.

“Well, then we’ll miss our stop.” My stomach’s so full of butterflies I think I’m gonna hurk it.

Bedevil’s eyes flutter open, and she realizes she’s got me in a bear hug. She lets go and scoots away. “S-sorry.”

“All good.” God damn it, no reason boner. Okay, there’s definitely a reason, but now is not a good time. I stand up and face away from her, fixing my pants real quick. “Let’s get a move on.”

Bedevil follows me, and we head off the tram; me, struggling with my pants, her, yawning and clutching the paper bag that hides her beer.

We stroll down an unevenly paved sidewalk bordered by yellow-green grass that’s collapsing under the humidity, desperately in need of a mowing. Shoddy houses with sinking walls break apart overgrown fields and industrial warehouses. Office parks and parking lots full of cars complete this shitty, over-baked cement cake.

While we walk over to Remise’s mate’s warehouse, guided by my shitty GPS. It’s about a five minute walk, so I decide to broach the topic of me crashing on her couch. “Hey. So.”

“Hey is for horses,” Bedevil says, three feet behind me.

“Uh, so… my apartment is kind of crowded. Between Remise, Epione, Saw Off, the 2nd Amendment, I don’t really have a spot.” I struggle to work up the nerve, slap myself lightly on the cheek, and buck up: “And, well, could I crash on your couch?”

That wakes Bedevil right up from her stupor. She doesn’t say anything, she just stares at me with wide eyes.

Oh, no, that was too rude. “Please?”

“What about OPI?” she asks. “What if they find out?”

“Do they honestly come to your apartment all that often?”

She floats to catch up to me. “Actually, no. I haven’t had a house visit in… well… over two years. Marcy May doesn’t like me, but she’s not keeping tabs on me. As long as I show up and do my job.”

“So?”

“Are… are you sure you’re comfortable? I mean… with what happened and all…”

I sigh. “Listen, I can’t really explain right now, but something went down with Doc. Any place would be more comfortable for me right now. I’d rather not sleep in a gutter, but I’ll do it.”

“What happened?” she asks.

“I can’t go into it,” I say. I don’t think she can handle the real reason right now. I’ll tell her, once this is all over. She deserves to know the truth. Right now, we need to focus. “Is that okay?”

Bedevil nods. “Yeah, you can crash on my couch. My dog’s gonna be all over you, though.”

I turn away from her and pump my fist.

“You… dork.” Her voice goes soft as she insults me.

The address Remise gave me is right in front of us. Warehouse garages are packed together into a Tetris puzzle, wrapped with chain link fence so tightly it’s like an industrial Christmas present. Remise and Epione wait by the entrance to one of the warehouses.

“Oi!” Remise calls.

“Gabe,” Epione says, smiling at me. “Bedevil! I hope I didn’t text you too much.”

“Nah.” Bedevil waves a hand at her like it’s no big deal and she didn’t complain to me about it, and takes a swig of her beer. “I don’t respond much, sorry.”

“Most people don’t!” Epione says, a little too cheerfully.

Bedevil frowns at that.

Remise opens the warehouse door. “Voila!”

Hot air shoots out of her mate’s garage in an overwhelming blast. Bedevil gags. “Oh, good lord, is it not climate controlled?”

“Nope,” Remise says. “Puts hair on your chest.”

“Does it really?” Epione asks. She puts a hand to her chest. “I don’t want hair on my chest.”

“Figger of speech, lass,” Remise says.

The garage isn’t very wide, maybe fifty feet, but it runs several hundred feet deep. There are cars parked on each side, all in need of a mechanic’s attention and a new paint job.

“Mostly these cars jus’ sit here,” Remise says. “So, my mate lets me hang out here and there. Flashfire and Ah hae sparred here.”

“Perfect,” Bedevil says. “Except the AC, that’s not perfect.”

I hold my hand out, and start sucking the heat in to chill the place. I channel most of it out through my feet in small currents of heat and kinetic energy, so nothing gets broken. I keep a little for myself, though.

Bedevil sighs in relief. “That’s fantastic. You keep that up, I’ll set up. Epione, you brought those towels, right?”

Epione salutes Bedevil. “Aye aye, captain!” She reveals some fluffy red towels that I’m very certain came from my apartment.

A handful of minutes later and I’ve cooled the warehouse enough for us to train in.

“Good. Okay, let’s get to work.” Bedevil grins at me. “You ready, Gabe babe?” She parrots Saw Off’s voice. She’s actually really close with her impression.

Remise and Epione sit on the unfinished cars and watch Bedevil take a stance opposite me.

“So-”

Without warning, her invisible tendrils squeeze me, wrench my limbs out, and lift me into the air. “Your first goal. Escape.” Hundreds. There are hundreds of her telekinetic appendages wrapped around me.

“I can’t-” the tendrils squeeze the next words out of me.

“I don’t want to hear ‘I can’t,’ out of you.” Bedevil takes a slug of her beer. She’s not even trying. She’s gonna pop me like a fucking grape, and she’ll drink a beer while she does it. “ The only words I want to hear are ‘yes, ma’am,’ when you get free.”

“That’s hot,” Epione says. “When we get Flash back I’m going to use that.”

I struggle against the invisible webbing wrapped around me. They’re in my mouth, gagging me from speaking.

With the kinetic energy, I always think in bursts. What if I focused on it like I was drawing in heat, which is a constant process?

I try. I hold that image of a ball on a spring, but the feeling of drawing in heat.

Bedevil’s tendrils fall off one at a time as I steal the energy of pressure squeezing me. Bedevil gasps, which turns into a grin as she realizes what I’ve just done. I throw the kinetic energy I gathered into a ball around me, shoving her telekinesis fully off of me, and fall to my feet. My chest is heaving; I feel like I just did a twenty second sprint.

“Wooo! Go Gabe!” Epione shouts.

Bedevil grins at me. “Proud of yourself?”

I stand up and glare at her. “Yes ma’am.”

Her tendrils seize me again and lift me off my feet. “Good,” she says. “Again.”

I draw in what I can and push back with my power. Her tendrils shoot off of me. She takes a swig of her beer. “Again.”

More tendrils. I draw in. Like reps in the gym. I take the energy of pressure and her tendrils fall off, I throw the energy back at them to finish freeing myself, and then she grabs me again.

“Again.”

I breath in.

“Again.”

Push back.

“Again.”

Breath in.

“Again.”

Again. Again. Again.

I’m on fire. There’s a sweat puddle beneath me. I fall to my knees. “Again,” Bedevil says.

“Wait,” I say. “I can’t.”

“You’ll know when you can’t.” Bedevil sets her empty beer bottle down. “You haven’t puked yet.”

“Please, give me a minute.” I lean forward, resting my head against the cement floor.

Her telekinesis grabs my ankle and hoists me into the air.

“Hey, what the fuck, Ruby?”

Bedevil shakes her head at me. “Are you going to ask the next person you fight for a minute? When they’re walloping your ass, pooching you all over Houston, you’re gonna sit down and say, ‘I need a breather?’” She flips me upright and sets me down.

“You’re a sprinter, Gabe. You’re stronger than most people so you end your fights fast. But when you come up against someone that can go toe to toe with you for longer than a few minutes, you’re gonna buckle. Like you did with that Trainwreck guy. You jumped into something without knowing what you were facing, and you couldn’t keep pace with the battle when you realized you were in over your head. You need to learn to fight smarter, and longer. If Krater fought smarter, he would have won.”

She straightens my shirt for me, while a towel floats from Remise’s side and smacks me in the face.

I wipe my face with the towel, and set it down. She’s pissing me off, spouting all of that in my face, and worst of all she doesn’t even know how stupid and worthless I feel right now because I just found out I’m a defective clone.

God damn it, why does she have to be right?

Bedevil waits, her eyebrow cocked.

She’s right. I need to get better. I have to work ten times harder than Megajoule did. So, I will. “Again.”

Bedevil smirks. “Atta boy.”

We go again and again, over and over, until my stomach’s spinning and sweat drenches my clothes.

I scream as I push against her telekinesis. The energy I summon isn’t enough. I’m actually gassed. “I-”

“Don’t you fucking say it!” Bedevil zooms through the air, right into my face.

I flex my power and try to shoot her tendrils off me. Not enough.

Bedevil squeezes me with her telekinesis. “Escape or I’ll kill you.”

“You-” That’s all I get out. Her tendrils become a vice grip.

“Do it.”

I can’t breathe.

“Do it!”

I push. No use. Just like the fight with Trainwreck, my power doesn’t respond.

Epione’s eyes are wide open, and Remise is slack jawed in awe.

“Don’t you want to be better than Megajoule?” Bedevil asks. Her face twists into the first phase of her ugly cry, but she doesn’t go farther than that. “Don’t you want to live?”

How could I be better? I’m a defective version of him! “I can’t-”

“I said! I don’t! Want to hear the words ‘I can’t!’” The towel flings from the floor into my face and wraps around me. The tendrils pincer me. “Are you actually okay with dying in some alley?” She grinds the towel into my nose. “Are you telling me you’re happy this is all you’ll ever amount to?”

Too many starfish, but I have to try. I’m not happy. I’m not fucking happy! I scream and push as hard as I can with my power. Bedevil flies back, her tendrils rip off of me. The cars around us shift, their metal frames groaning with my power.

I fall to my knees, fighting my urge to throw up. Bedevil said I’d puke when I was done, but I’d really rather not, anyway. I get on my hands, breathing in heavy gulps, dripping sweat on the floor.

Bedevil helps me to my feet. She pats my cheek. “You’re holding yourself back.”

I can’t say anything, my lungs burn too much. I fall back over. When I can speak, I’m going to tell her to go fuck herself, and thank her.

I lie there breathing and burning for a long time, sweat drenching my hair and shirt, beading on my forehead. My glasses fog up.

Bedevil’s voice is in my ear. “Hey.”

Her head is right next to mine, but upside down from my perspective. She’s lying down opposite me.

“Thank you. For the groceries.”

I turn my head to look at her. She’s very close.

I… want…

No. No, we’ve been down that road. That road goes to Shitville, Gabetown.

“You’re welcome,” I manage. “They’re partly for me, now. I suck at cooking, by the way.”

“We’re in trouble,” Bedevil says. “I can’t cook either.”

We sit there in silence for a moment.

There’s a tickle in my throat. I chuckle, and that spark catches full fire. It’s just a little giggle at first, until it spreads through my whole chest, warming me as it goes. The fuzzy feeling carries all the way to my fingers and toes, to the top of my head. I laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and it feels like the sun thawing a frozen lake.

EPIONE: THE STRANGER SMILE

Epione was aware of everything around her even while she slept. Her dreams used her power to perceive, so she knew that Jason couldn’t sleep at all, even while he stared at her sleeping. His frustration bloomed into her dreams like a vibrant rainbow, a thunderhead flashing with lightning bolts jade, yellow, crimson, navy blue.

Hope, deep at the center of the storm. Pure, white light, straight from the sun. Smothered under the shadow of his worry.

He’d been the victim of a group mugging this morning. A Welterweight leader used his power of cohesion to stick their victims to walls while the other gang members stole their shit. One person tried to fight. That one person being God’s perfect little dumbass, Jason.

Epione decided to wake up.

Jason quickly closed his eyes, and pretended to snore. Even in the dark she could see the bruises on his face, the red abrasions on his cheek, and his split lip. The gang did a number on him. She’d soothed his pain as best she could, stitched the wounds that needed stitching, and comforted him.

“I know you’re awake,” she said.

Jason opened his eyes and sighed. “I know. I can never get away with that.”

“No.” Epione reached out and stroked his cheek. She hated touching most people except for him, and maybe Remise on occasion. As she moved to touch him, she noticed the blanket and sheets were gone. Jason lay there in the nude, his wounds and nice abs on display. “Where is the blanket?”

“You were complaining about it in your sleep, so I got rid of it,” he said.

“Thank you.” She hadn’t noticed. Physical sensations didn’t come through to her dream space.

Epione leaned forward and kissed Jason. She pulled him in close. He only moved in response to her: she’d spent five days educating him on how to approach her, how to respond to her kisses and hugs, even her sexual advances. He’d aced the course, so he was the only one allowed to touch her.

The colors swirling around her were pink and white. The mood was right. She trailed her hands down Jason’s side and smiled for him, his favorite smile. She’d made it just for him.

A trickle of black filtered in through the color. Not from Jason. Someone else.

“Someone’s… here?” Epione said.

The bell chime went off downstairs.

“Hang on.” Jason got up and threw some pajama pants on.

Uninvited guests, this late at night, made her skin itch. Epione wrinkled her nose and stood. She put on a night gown, paused to smooth out the wrinkles, and followed Jason downstairs.

Despair. Pain. Depression. They spread like inky tentacles through Jason’s colors, through Remise’s teal dedication and purple contentment seeping from her room down the upstairs hall. The dark colors fumbled awkwardly around Epione’s gray rock state, tickled at the edge of her being. Whoever was out there was in trouble.
Epione was halfway down the stairs when Jason opened the door.

“Hello?” her boyfriend asked.

Ah, right, a stranger. Epione needed to smile. She brought out the stranger smile, lifted her back and chest, tucked her chin slightly down. Proper posture, Mother taught her that.

A young black girl stood outside in soaked pajamas and sweatpants. The rain slicked her curly hair to her face, where the locks covered her nose and part of her mouth. A single desperate eye looked out at them from the tangle. “Please, please, help.”

“Oh!” Jason said. “Uh, come in?”

“Hello?” Epione asked. “Who is this?”

“I don’t know. What’s your name? Are you okay?” Jason asked the girl, closing the door behind her.

“Ashley.” The girl walked in slow, each step unsure. Black fear still spread from her, but yellow gratitude started to melt through that, mixing with sky blue shades of hope. She eyed the lobby, the paintings, the tile floor. “Wow.”

“What’s wrong?” Jason asked.

“These guys were following me home,” Ashley said. “They followed me in a van. I didn’t have any way to fight them, so I ran, and I knocked on doors until you answered.”

Jason looked at Epione. “Are they still around?” he asked Ashley.

Ashley nodded. “They’re down the street. Waiting. They told me they wouldn’t give up until they got what they wanted.”

Epione didn’t like the colors swirling around her boyfriend. Jade rage arced out from him like lightning from a thunderhead, grumbled in a crimson cloud of determination above his body, and spilled out with a rainfall of golden courage.

“I’ll go talk to them,” Jason said. His hand smoked, but didn’t ignite. He threw on a jacket, and stepped outside. Ashley stammered and reached a hand out to stop him, but Epione restrained her. When Jason was like that, there was no stopping him.

Epione smiled at her new guest. “Tea?”

“Um, sure?” Ashley said.

“Hang on, let me get you out of those clothes!” Epione fetched one of Jason’s shirts and a pair of gym shorts. He wouldn’t mind, and Epione was so slight she doubted the girl could fit into her night-wear. She returned and gave Ashley the change of clothes. “Bathroom’s on your right!”

Ashley nodded. Deep red trepidation. Worry like bad milk spilling around her.

“Don’t worry! I’ll wait for you!” Epione smiled the stranger smile.

Ashley went into the bathroom and came out a moment later, dressed in Jason’s clothes. “Thanks.”

Remise came down the stairs right after, wearing a flimsy tank-top and pajama shorts. “What’s goin’ on? Who’s the lass?”

“Ah, Remise,” Epione said. “Jason stepped out. Would you go with him? This is Ashley. She’s been getting harassed.”

Remise studied Ashley, and then smirked at Epione. “Be my pleasure. Fret ye not, lass. No one’s gonna harass you after this.” She walked right out of the house, indecent as she was, cracking her knuckles the entire time.

Ashley shook her head. “Are they… heroes? OPI?”

Epione smiled, the only thing she knew how to do. “Nope! Jason hates OPI.” She had a joke for such occasions. “Besides, the Japanese say they’re a bunch of boobs.”

Light blue confusion spread out from Ashley, a sickly aura that shrouded all the other colors.

“Boobs?” Epione asked again. “Oppai?”

The confusion only grew in size, spreading to the rest of the room. Ashley turned her attention to the other parts of the living room, to the TV, to Epione’s broken movie player, and to the kitchen.

Epione was sure that joke was funny. Remise had liked it! Then again, Remise was a polyglot. “Tea?” Epione asked again.

“Yes,” Ashley said.

“Hungry?”

“Yes,” Ashley said, and Epione saw that was true: pink desire flowed from Ashley’s tomach.

“Okay!” Epione went into the kitchen, boiled water in her auto-kettle, and made rice in her fun steamer pot that walked around and cheered when the rice was done. She returned to Ashley with two bowls of steaming hot rice and oolong tea.

Ashley looked at the bowl. “Thank you.” Her gratitude returned, and she took a spoonful.

Epione knew how to make friends, her mom had taught her: find something to bond over, and then talk about it! “I’d offer you a movie to watch, but my player is broken. We could watch TV, I guess.” The problem was that Epione wasn’t very good at talking to people, so she usually had a movie or a TV show ready to go, and they’d be friends afterward, when they could talk about the show.

Ashley put the bowl down. “Let me look at it.” She walked on her knees over to Epione’s entertainment stand and looked at the player. She pressed the on button. The little LED screen lit up, displaying only 000000. Ashley closed her eyes.

Her colors vanished, and Epione’s player started to give off colors, instead.

“Oh!” Epione said. “What are you doing?”

Ashley didn’t respond.

“Hmm,” Epione said. She ate some more rice and watched while the player ebbed determination and other odd flashes of emotion. Suddenly, it whirred, and the colors snapped back into Ashley.

“A bug in the code,” Ashley said. “Not a hardware issue, so I don’t have to get into it.”

“What did you do?” Epione asked.

“I can… put my mind in machines.”

Epione felt a genuine surge of admiration. She didn’t get that emotion very often, and it wasn’t a powerful one, so she reveled in the respect she now had for Ashley. “That’s the coolest!”

Ashley pursed her lips. “Thanks.” Behind her head, Epione felt that Ashley didn’t really mean the thanks.

“What’s wrong?” Epione asked.

Ashley’s eyebrows raised. Surprise, Epione felt. “Uh, nothing.”

“No, I can tell, you’re upset. About what I just said.” Epione knew she was pushing that. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about her powers, besides Jason. Well, she wasn’t even supposed to tell Jason but she wasn’t going to keep that from her boyfriend.

“It’s just… when people find out what I do, they just want shit from me.”

“Oh, I see!” Epione didn’t quite get that, but that was okay. She’d learned it was better to say ‘Oh, I see!’ than ‘I don’t get it.’ “Well, I don’t want anything from you!”

Ashley eyed up her house. “Yeah, you probably don’t want much, huh?”

“No,” Epione said. “I don’t want much, you’re right.”

Ashley gave Epione an interesting look. Her emotions led Epione to believe she found Epione odd.

The door opened, and Jason and Remise returned.

Remise went into the kitchen, and Jason sat on the couch next to Epione. He had a black eye, a split lip, and his knuckles were bloodied. He looked at her, his emotions expectant, and offered his hand. Epione nodded to allow him to touch her. Jason placed a hand around her shoulders.

“So, that was your brother, huh?” Jason asked.

Ashley squeaked. “H-how did you know?”

“Oh, he had plenty to say when we kicked the shit out of him and his friends. Told me anything I wanted to know!” Jason grinned and reclined on the couch. A victorious splay of gold and orange shot up from his colors. “But worry not, young lady! He won’t bother you again!”

“Too bad Gabe couldn’t be here for tha’,” Remise said, returning from the kitchen with a beer. Her knuckles were bloody, too, but she had no other marks.

“He’s on the way, he was up when I called,” Jason said. “Told him someone might need our help.”

Ashley’s face was blank, but her colors were a tempest of different emotions. Guilt, disbelief, gratitude, hope, amazement. Sadness. Anger.

“She’s powered!” Epione blurted. She put a hand over her mouth. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

Ashley shook her head. “No. It’s okay. I am.”

Jason grinned. “That’s cool. We are, too, in case you couldn’t tell.”

Ashley nodded.

“We can’t want anything from her,” Epione said, winking at Ashley.

More confusion, and a splash of amusement.

“What’s your power?” Jason asked.

“Machine telepathy,” Ashley said. “I can put my mind in machines.”

Glee bloomed from Jason’s colors like a mushroom cloud. “No way. That’s so cool.”

Ashley chuckled, the first positive movement Epione had seen her make. That gave way to a neutral expression. “So… are you vigilantes?”

Flashfire smiled. “No. We are but noble freelancers. Tell you what. I’m guessing you came here because you don’t have a home to go back to, right?” Jason asked. He looked at Epione. “How do you feel about picking up another member?”

“It’s your Underground, darling,” Epione said. She patted his hand and gave him the Jason smile, the one that was just for him.

Jason turned with excitement oozing out of his aura to hash the details out with Ashley.

While he talked with Ashley, Epione ran over her lines for Flashfire’s banter in her head. He’d call her the money, she’d joke about his true motives. They gave that one to Gabe, and it seemed to go over well. She could do jokes! That Oppai one was good.

“So, it’s settled,” Jason said. “Now, you just need a good code name. Like mine, Flashfire.”

“Um… I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

“Oh!” Jason said. “What about… Televathic!”

Epione didn’t like that. She smiled politely at Jason and shook her head.

“Yeah, I knew it as soon as I said it. Machine Mistress? Circuit?”

“Drone,” Remise said from the kitchen.

Epione nodded. “Drone.”

Ashley furrowed her brow. Her colors told Epione she was concentrating on that, considering it, warming up to it. After a handful of seconds, she said, “Yeah. Drone.”

“Welcome to the Underground, Drone,” Jason said.

“It’s gonna be so much fun to have you here!”

“Have me here?” Ashley, now Drone, asked.

“Of course! You need a place to stay, don’t you?” Epione asked.

“I didn’t…” She stopped. Her eyes welled with tears, but pure, vanilla white joy radiated from her head in a beautiful halo. “You don’t have to…”

“No,” Epione said. She got up from the couch and went over to Drone. “But I’m going to.”

And, as mother taught her to do when someone did something very nice for her, Epione threw her arms around Drone in a bear hug. She swapped out the stranger smile for the Underground smile. The friend smile.

EPISODE NINETEEN

JOIN THE DISCORD FOR DISCUSSION

I can’t even think. I just stand there, frozen in place. I almost slip out of my body, but a surge of anger anchors me down, and keeps me from dissociating.

Epione looks at me, and then her mouth drops open. “What?”

Doc nods, snorts, and picks up his grocery bag.

Words dribble out of me with no guidance. “They… who… what?”

Doc puts the grocery bag on the counter.

My mouth is dry, hanging open. I’m sure I look like a stuttering moron. “Doc.”

Doc stands there, hiding behind the counter, his face blank.

My head flushes. My heart starts hammering. I draw in energy from the air, and the living room chills, but I am burning. Droplets of condensed water form on the TV and coffee table, and my veins are catching, my brain is smoking. My body is on fire, radiating the low-red glow of heat inside me.

“G-Gabe,” Epione says. “You’re-”

I cut her off. “Doc. Explain. Right fucking now.”

Doc grimaces and looks down. “You don’t want Epione here.”

“Yeah, I can go,” Epione says. She stands up, gathering her book from the table. “I’ll just go meet up with Drone.”

I hold a shining hand out to her. “You misunderstand why she’s here.”

Doc looks up, his eyes wide, and he pales when he sees that my skin is glowing from the energy inside me.

“Explain,” I demand. I’ve never felt this angry before. This man just confessed that he helped kill my dad.

“Okay, kid, god damn! Just, settle down, please!”

“I can calm you,” Epione says.

“Yeah,” I say. I think if I keep being this angry I’m actually going to kill him. I restrain the heat inside so I don’t burn her.

Epione touches my arm, and the anger seeps out of me. Surprisingly, she doesn’t take it all away, but leaves a bit inside. I look over my shoulder at her. She nods.

“Okay, Doc. Explain. Now.”

Doc stays in the kitchen. “I don’t even know where to start.”

I don’t have anything else to say to him. I cross my arms and I wait for him to explain.

He sees that I’m not budging. “Gabe. You have to know that… that I love you, like a son. That’s why… that’s why we’re here.”

He’s not getting a response from me.

Doc chokes, coughs, and continues. “I was lead of a small team tasked with figuring out major OPI hero weaknesses, just in case any of them ever turned against OPI and the United Western. The ones that OPI classified as a class above Heavyweight. Super Heavyweight threats. There are only a few in the UWC. One of them was Megajoule.” He looks away. “We found most weaknesses within a month or so. Megajoule took over seventeen years to figure something out besides ‘Catch him when he doesn’t have his power on.’ Something that could override his power while he was using it.”

Seventeen years. “That’s…”

“That’s how old you are, yes.” Doc frowns.

Epione shudders behind me. “The color. It’s overwhelming. Guilt.”

“Megajoule was the only one we cloned, thanks to a hero named Charleston, who had a DNA replicating power. We were trying to model Megajoule’s powers in a closed environment so we could figure out the weak spots. We started tests right away, but the final tests were performed on clones around fifteen or so years old. We didn’t allow them to get older than that.”

I have to sit now. My legs won’t support me. “Then why am I alive? That’s two years before you rescued me.”

“You were different,” Doc says. “They kept you alive-” He chokes and looks down, but continues on. “They kept you alive because you were a defect.”

The black hole pulls at my chest, my ribs, my stomach. All constricted behind the Schwarzschild radius. “What?”

“You never developed the full suite of powers like the other clones-”

“The other clones had power?” I feel chills. “You told me they never had powers, that’s why they killed them, and the girls-”

“Terminated as fetuses. That part was true.” Doc shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I lied to you, Gabe. To protect you from that.”

“To protect yourself!” The little bit of anger Epione left me is blooming into full rage again. “You lied to me because you’d knew I’d never live with you if I knew the truth!”

Doc groans. “I know! I knew that. I wanted to tell you when I was ready… but I never felt ready. I never felt it was the time.”

I’m shaking. “They kept me alive because I don’t have all the powers.” I never figured out electromagnetic energy. I never will.

“Yes. They wanted to study the degeneration of your Sword gene. Your gene was an almost direct copy from Megajoule’s, but some bits were missing. They kept you alive to learn why, and to see if they could replicate it.”

This just keeps getting worse and worse. “Why would they want to replicate it?”

“To control villains, to put down threats against OPI. If we could control the Sword gene, we could control powers themselves. If we knew why they didn’t work like regular genetics, why they were randomized amongst the population, we could manipulate it.”

“Did they learn?” I ask.

“No. I took you out of there before that.”

“What happened in that last video? Before Megajoule went berserk? Was that… was that the day he died?”

“Megajoule…” His eyes widen, he shakes his head as if dispelling some horrible thought. “There were three people in that room besides Megajoule and myself. Cynic, Nero, and Oracle. Cynic is the OPI International Director, the head honcho. Oracle was a powerful woman from Africa, and Nero is probably the only person who could fight Megajoule one on one for longer than a minute.”

“Did they kill him?”

“Not right there,” Doc says. “I don’t know all what happened, because… what he said… it was like someone rung a bell inside my head. He was right. I’d doubted for a long time, thought about saving all of you. The other Gabriels.”

“Oh…” I put my head in my hands. They were all named Gabe. “Oh my God.”

“They knew he’d been trying to figure out how to dismantle OPI from the inside. I don’t know how they knew, but they knew. I guess Oracle knew. Oracle was in charge of the memory lattice that kept him from remembering that he wanted to do that. It fell apart, and everything went to hell. They asked me to help, but I refused. They tried the back up plan of Oracle rewriting your memories, but that-”

Something in the back of my mind shatters, and I remember.

I remember sitting in a room full of other me’s, around thirteen or fourteen years old. All the same person. We waited together to be called into testing, and we shared glances of dread. I remember Oracle, she was a willowy African woman with eyes that shone like blue stars. She’d turn those eyes on us, and we’d fall asleep.

Oh, God, how much did they make me forget?

I hear his wife’s voice in my ear: Julian, I love you.

“She tried to overwrite my mind,” I say.

Doc breathes out like he’s barely holding back sobs. “I got you out of there.”

Epione hasn’t said a word this entire time. She just sits there and watches me with a neutral expression. Her hand twitches, and stretches toward me, but she restrains herself.

“What was his weakness?” I ask, the only question I have left right now.

“I don’t know,” Doc says. “We never found a way to override his power. Whoever ended up killing him figured it out, but I don’t know if that was Nero, a team, or someone else.”

I grab my laptop, and stand up. “I’m going to go out. I need air, alone.” I look at Epione.

She looks like she wants to say something, but settles on a simple nod. “Be safe.”

I start for the door.

Doc comes around the kitchen counter and stands in my way. “Gabe, wait, please, I’m sorry.”

With a growl, I shove my hand against his chest, and with a tiny burst of kinetic energy, I push him against the door. “You’re a lying piece of shit!”

“Gabe!” Epione cries.

I press into him with my power. “You killed all of my brothers and sisters!”

“I know!” Doc shouts. “But please, let me make it up. I’ve done everything I can, but I’ll do more, kid! I’ll do more, I promise. Gabe, please. I promise. I love you. I fucked it up, but I’m trying to unfuck it so I can help you live a normal life.”

I let go of him, and he slumps down to the floor. Have you ever cored an apple? They make those fancy kitchen gadgets nowadays that you press into the stem, and push down in one motion. It punches the core right out. That’s how I feel right now. Like someone cored me.

My eyes well with tears. I grit my teeth so my voice won’t break. “You can’t make it up.”

Doc grimaces and curls into himself. I forget how old he is. He’s frail, brittle with age, his skin marred by liver spots, wrinkles, and scars from old wounds that he didn’t give away.

Now, I understand why he insisted I give him every wound.

My voice wavers under the burden of grief. “I’m going out.”

Doc nods, and crawls away from the door. I open it and go out. Neither of them follow me.

Where do I go? What do I do? Everything I thought I knew was a lie. Memories are flooding into my head. Not just that, but they’re flooding out of my head, too. The dreams I’ve had of being Julian, the dreams where his wife tells me she loves me, they’re leaking from me. Doc called it a memory lattice.

I sit down on a bench near my apartment and try to breathe. I remember all of my brothers. I remember Megajoule looking in through the window, but now he’s pounding a fist on the window.

I was the only one left, then.

I remember Doc, now. Every day, he’d come in, ask me how I was doing. All the while, my family of Gabes dwindled down into nothing.

I let the tears flow freely. There’s no point to stopping them, and in fact, I think it would be worse if I didn’t cry over this. I grieve for the family I’ve only just now remembered, the family stolen from my mind for years. For six years.

What am I supposed to think, now that I know the truth? Not only have I borrowed everything from Megajoule, but I’m just a shittier version of him, too. My Sword gene isn’t even the same, it’s missing parts.

I gather my wits and open my laptop. I can’t really change any of that right now, so time to do a little reconnaissance. I open the OPI page and look up Nero.

He’s a lean, mean guy with scruff and dark hair. He’s got dozens of scars pocking his face. His power is listed as Regeneration and Energy Release. Whatever the hell that means. He’s Heavyweight, and his current stationing is in China, along the Hellpact. Hunting for those evasive Youxia, I bet. He worked with the Inheritors for a brief time, but he’s mostly a solo hero.

Wow. He took down the super villain named Carnality all by himself. I think I read that she ravaged the northwest for a long time, and her death toll was in the thousands. She had some sort of blood based power.

Next up, Oracle. I have to search for her outside the OPI site, on a wiki that gathers info about heroes of the world.

She’s dead. She died six years ago, roughly around the same time as Megajoule. Her power is listed as Memory Control. Nothing new, except that I guess she died in the fight that killed Megajoule. Doc wouldn’t know, he doesn’t know how that fight went down. Unless he’s lying.

I don’t think he is, even though I shouldn’t trust him.

Next, I look up Cynic.

She doesn’t have an OPI entry, but through forums and research I find out that she’s Cynthia Myers, and she sports the worst case of May-I-Speak-To-Your-Manager haircut I’ve ever seen. You know, the kind of bob cut that has soccer mom highlights? Yikes.

There’s no info on her power, but she’s been the International Director for the last fifteen years. There’s a written interview with her. I save that, intent on checking it out later. Right now, I can’t really focus.

Houston sinks gently into evening, while the last purple hues of daylight lick the top of downtown skyscrapers. Sunset breezes dance around my bench, baked warm by Houston’s sweltering heat but with an undercurrent of fresh, cool air.

I’ve been out here for about an hour now, so I close the laptop. I’ve got to head back.

I check my phone.

There’s a text from Bedevil.

(8:27PM) Hey.

(8:28 PM) Just checking in. Wanted to make sure you’d get some sleep tonight. I better not see you out there while I’m on patrol. If you need me to get anything while I’m out, I will. Okay, that’s all.

(8:30 PM) Wait, no, tell Epione I can’t answer my phone right now, I think she’s texting me.

I hold my phone to my chest. How could I ever tell her this? She’d murder Doc. But, doesn’t she deserve to know? Doesn’t she need to know? Or would telling her the truth do more damage right now than good?

I suddenly understand Doc’s reasoning a little.

I text Bedevil back an emoji of a cat giving a thumbs up. (8:32 PM) I’ll sleep. Thanks for checking in. Stay safe.

I’m about to put my phone away when it buzzes again. Bedevil’s already replied.

She sent me a picture of a cat laughing. (8:32 PM) thank

I smile to myself.

Epione said I have a crush on her. I don’t think it’s because we fucked the other day, either. She’s smart and funny, and she’s headstrong.

I don’t think we could make it work, though. She’d see Megajoule every time she looks at me, and I can’t inflict that pain on her. After this is over, I’ll tell her it’s okay, she doesn’t owe me anything. I’ll let her have her life.

I pack it in and head back to my apartment.

Doc’s standing in the kitchen, staring down at a half-sliced avocado. He holds a knife in his hands, but he’s not cutting, he’s frozen in place instead.

“Where’s Epione?”

“Went to meet up with Drone,” Doc says.

“Is that an avocado?” I ask.

Doc stammers.

I walk by him to the fridge, where I get some frozen corn to heat up in the microwave. “I’ll trade you some of this corn for some of the avocado.”

“Fuck you, kid.” His shoulders shake. “You can’t have this avocado.”

“Then you can’t have any of my corn,” I say, putting the corn in the microwave. I set it for three minutes.

Doc turns around. His eyes are red and glistening. “Gabe, I’m sorry. I wish I could take it all back, I wish I could undo what I’ve done.”

“I know,” I say.

“Just tell me what I can do to make this right,” Doc says.

I cross my arms, lean against the fridge. “Doc… I don’t know that. I’m not the one you should be apologizing to. You can’t undo…” I think about all of my fellow clones. “You can’t undo that.”

Doc looks at his hand. “I thought that maybe… I didn’t save you because I thought it would undo what I did. He asked me to.”

“Megajoule?”

Doc nods. “Nero asked me if I told him, I said I didn’t.” He looks away. “That was a lie. I did tell him. I told him everything. He asked me to make sure the videos made it to you, and he was going to put an end to it. I… planned to show you that video when you were a bit more experienced, maybe when you’d put aside vigilantism. I synced it to a drive, and thought I’d deleted it off your laptop. When you didn’t ask me about it for six years, I forgot. Figured I’d tell you when I was ready.”

Doc trembles. I’ve never seen Doc cry, tremble, shudder, shake, or any variations of those things. He’s always been grim old Doc.

“I never was ready.”

“What about the Fear?” I ask.

Doc shakes his head. “I actually don’t remember. I believe I allowed Oracle to take that memory from me, but I’ve no way of knowing how to trigger her memory lattice breaking apart.”

I cover my mouth with my hand. It’s a bit of a relief to hear that Doc was telling the truth about that. For now, I think I need some space from all this so I can work on saving Maisa and Flashfire. “Doc, I think… I’m gonna stay somewhere else for a little. Saw Off’s in my bed anyway, and until she heals up, that means I’m on the couch.”

Doc nods. “Where you thinking? Bedevil?”

I open my mouth to tell him that’s the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but then I think about it. Where else would I realistically go? The 2nd Amendment safe house? One of the other vig groups in Houston? The only concern with her is someone from OPI coming by her apartment.

But why would they? She’s never slipped up in actual heroics work.

“Why don’t you go ask her?” Doc asks.

I look at my fridge, realizing that I’d be missing some good food. And with that, I realize the perfect way to smooth her over.

JOIN THE UNDERGROUND NEWSLETTER

EPISODE EIGHTEEN

I stammer. The last video? But there are more files after this!

I stop the video.

“Wow, end a’ th’ line,” Remise says. “You ever shown tha’ t’ anyone before?”

“I’ve never seen it before.” I open the folder and look at the other videos after this. I click the next one.

A dialog box opens in the middle of the screen. ‘FILE IS NOT ACCESSIBLE. The file or index is corrupted and unreadable.’

Without other options, I click OK. I check the next file, and the same dialog box opens. I check the next three videos. Not a single one will open. Just the same box, over and over. Goosebumps spread over my arms, tandem with the dread I feel gnawing inside me.

“Gabe,” Epione says. “I don’t think they’ll open.”

I scroll down to see how many other files there are, and I’m shocked to see there are dozens of them, all with working thumbnails. That means some of the video is there, if the file can display a picture. Maybe Drone can help me recover the files.

In the meantime, I open the video we’ve been watching and play it, in the hopes that there’s some explanation that will stop me reeling.

A woman speaks off camera. Her voice is cold and monotone, but she speaks with an air of authority. Like an angry librarian. “That’s not necessary, Julian.”

“I think it is,” Megajoule says. “You see, Gabe, I wish I could tell you this in person, though I doubt I’ll ever get the chance.”

“Shut it off,” the woman says.

“Not yet.” This voice belongs to the man from the other video, where Megajoule tried to bring up the Fear. “He might tell us something.”

“He’s off script,” the woman says. “Can’t you get control of him, Oracle?”

Another woman speaks, I’m guessing Oracle. She has a West African accent. “I told you the memories would not hold. His mind is too strong, it’s rejecting them. The structure is coming down.”

“Let him,” the man says again. “We’ll just delete it. What’s he thinking?”

The first woman speaks. I think she’s in charge. “He’s muddled. Hard to tell what he wants to say thanks to Oracle’s influence.”

“That’s not my fault,” Oracle says. “I told you.”

“Gabe,” Megajoule continues. “I’m not as indispensable as I thought. I know what they made you for.”

“Ooo,” the man croons. “This just got interesting. You been talking to him, Doctor?”

“No!” another man protests.

Remise gasps behind me. “Ain’t tha’?”

I can’t feel my own heart. That was Doc’s voice. “Yeah, it was.”

“You have to… you have to…” He rubs his forehead.

“Nero, cut it!”

The first man responds. Nero. One of the top heroes of OPI. “No, no, let him get this off his chest. I bet Oracle’s memories will reassert after he gets this out.”

“That’s not how it works,” Oracle says.

“I know.” Nero chuckles. “But still, I want to hear, and I have the camera.”

Megajoule stands. “The Fear. Gabe. Our world isn’t ready for it. I can’t fight it alone, I never could. They thought they needed me for that, but now they know they don’t. OPI tried to set a broken bone but they did it wrong. Before them it was Foundation. The world. It’s limping, Gabe. On a crutch made of heroes and villains to pretend we still can walk.”

Megajoule steadies himself with one hand on the table, and rubs his nose with the other. “Thoughts aren’t coming, too many different memories in head. Not all my own. But listen. You get out, anyway you can. This video will get to you. Somehow, someway, I will make it happen. You’ll hear all my words, the words I want to say, not the ones they made me say. Not the memories they wanted me to have. I’ll show you what I really saw, someway.”

Nero chuckles off screen, almost too low to hear, but the sound is so menacing my hackles rise.

“The world needs better than that. Better than me.” He groans and drops his other hand to the table. His shoulders shake. “It needs better! People must be torn down. World torn down.” He shakes his head. He speaks through clenched teeth, each word agonized and ragged.

“Tear OPI down. Build world anew. People can’t just be heroes. They must be good.” He screams, suddenly, his skin sparking like one of those plasma ball toys. His eyes glow. He’s absorbing energy.

“Nero! Stop him!” the woman in charge cries out.

The screen goes black, the speakers buzz, and then the video ends.

Shell shocked, I put the laptop on the oak coffee table.

“Gabe?” Remise asks. “Wha’ did we jus’ see?”

“I don’t know.” I can hardly speak. My whole body feels cold.

“Here, let me,” Epione puts a hand to my shoulder.

“No. Let me process this right,” I say.

Epione’s hand retreats. “Okay. I understand.”

My first coherent thought is that I just saw the beginning of whatever ended up killing Megajoule. My second thought is that Megajoule found out I was made for a different purpose than what he initially thought. What was I made for, then? What were all the other clones made for? Who were those people behind the camera?

When Doc gets back, I can ask him.

“Remise, I’m going to look up those names in the video. You’re going to go help Iso look for Pandahead, right?”

“Right.” Remise stands. “Hope tha’ conversation goes well. I’ll see you lot in th’ morn.” She grabs her motorcycle helmet and jacket from the table, throws them on, and heads out.

I take a second to think, and close the laptop. My hands are shaking. I’m convulsing. The worst part is I’m not even sure what I’m feeling. Everything is shaking around inside me and I don’t have any solid ground to stand on.

Epione hums behind me. Her eyes are closed, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by anything. Now that I think about it, she hasn’t really looked disturbed at all this whole time, even with Flashfire missing and Megajoule’s final video. Nothing about that seems to affect her. I can’t help but wonder why.

I stand up and face her. “Epione.”

Epione looks at me, but not into my eyes, lower than that. Her expression is neutral except for her smile, the same smile she always wears. It doesn’t look sad, pained, or even faked. It’s just a normal smile.

“Are you sure you’re good? Losing Flash, it’s got to be-”

Epione laughs. “That’s not it at all, Gabe.” She grins like that’s the funniest thing she’s heard all day.

I fall silent. I feel out of my depth.

“Gabe, you need to understand something about me. My power is really strong, and I can’t turn it off. I always know what other people are feeling, all the time, even through walls. Super Empathy. Even more than that, I can influence how they feel.” She draws in a breath and lifts her posture, closing her eyes. “But, I don’t feel anything.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t feel anything. I have never felt anything. No love, no sad, no joy, no pain. All the things in you right this second. I understand what it is, but I’ve never felt a single bit myself.” She smiles. “I can’t feel at all. Well… I feel small things. Nothing big. ”

What can I say to that? The bundle of joy, the heart of our little group. “What… what about Flash? I’ve heard you tell him you love him.”

Epione heaves a sigh. “I do love him. I don’t really know what romantic feelings are like, but love isn’t a feeling. It’s an action I take, day after day. I never got a crush on him like you have with Bedevil.”

My heart slams pots and pans together in my stomach. “Uh.”

Epione soldiers on like she didn’t just say that. “He’s great at sex, and he’s a wonderful boyfriend. He feels so intensely I sometimes wish I could be like him.” She twirls her hair. “He’s so colorful. He really believes in what he’s doing. So yes, I love him, in the way that I can. He never lies about how he’s feeling, he never says one thing and means another. Even before he knew about my power, he was real in a way no one else was. Not even you.” She frowns. “So, I need him back.”

“Epione,” I murmur, but it’s only to put some noise out there.

“To answer your question, Gabe, I don’t know, and I’ve never known, if I am good or not.”

“How did this happen to you?”

“Mother and Father recognized early that I had two things wrong with me. I was a heavyweight powered person, and I didn’t feel the same way the other children did.” And she smiles.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.” She smiles and her eyes crinkle like anyone else’s would when they were overjoyed. “I was officially diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and Mother and Father never forgave me. My power is empathy, the absolute knowledge of what everyone around me feels, so I know they never forgave me.”

“How do you perceive it?” I ask.

“Everyone else has such color to their emotions. For example, you’re confused, which is light blue, a little angry at me and very angry at Doc, which is like vomit green, and very upset about Maisa and Megajoule. I see that as navy blue.”

She turns and shows me the trademarked Epione smile, and for the first time, I see how much she calculates her expression. The lift of her brows, the pleasant little smile that makes her look demure, the crinkle around her eyes. Her facial tics are recipes, no different than throwing together cookies and brownies.

“So… when you were worried about us after Krater,” I say. “That was an act.”

Her expression doesn’t change, she doesn’t act like I accused her of anything. “I really don’t know what I’d do without Jason. Or you, Drone, and Remise.”

“Is there anything else I can do to help?” I ask. “I’m not all that familiar with… um… this.”

“I don’t like to be touched, usually. Flash is the exception. He can touch me whenever he wants. Though sometimes, I still need a warning.”

“Okay.”

“Lots of light and sound. Troublesome.”

“Okay.”

“Show up on time, not too early, not too late.”

“Okay.”

“Clothes tags are awful.”

“Not sure what I can do about that, but okay.”

“I’ve cut off every clothes tag I can. Mother never knew about the tags. I never told her. She never asked. They were the one thing I really had control over. I hate dressing rooms because I can’t bring scissors with me.”

I don’t want to negate what she’s saying, but something’s not lining up. “That sounds like you still feel, Epione.”

“I allowed myself some small things.”

“…Allowed?”

Epione tilts her head and smiles. She hums for a second, and then says, “When I was very young, I would respond badly if I stubbed my toe, or my mom frustrated me, or my tutor went too fast. All very tiny things. The way the door was only open an inch. The way the blankets hung off the bed. My colors would blot out all I could see. So, I snipped them. Like a clothing tag. I learned to live without my own colors. I’m just a gray girl, my core is a rock.”

“You can do that?” I ask.

“I can and I did.”

“Could you undo it?”

Epione shakes her head, still smiling. “9 out of 10 girls that have autism are diagnosed in their late thirties or later. They don’t get diagnosed because girls are already raised to wear masks and be polite. We learn canned social responses. We stay quiet.

“For me to be diagnosed before ten… I was very low-functioning. Cutting off my colors was necessary. I can’t go back to that. I’ve allowed myself what I know I can control: small desires, and small physical sensations. Anything else is like ringing a gong in my face.

“This doesn’t make you think of me any different, does it?” Epione turns to me.

“Well, I mean, of course.” I gather my thoughts, and speak as slowly as they form. “Even so, you’re still my friend, you’ve never done anything to make me feel otherwise. Just because we experience things differently doesn’t mean we can’t understand each other.” I smile for her. “And you don’t have to pretend for me. It must be exhausting to wear that smile all the time.”

Epione’s face falls. Not into sadness, just into a blank expression. The cheery inflection she normally carries is gone, and now her voice is flat, her words dull: “Thank you, Gabe. That does mean a lot. You’re right. It is exhausting. Mother taught me proper behavior, how to read facial cues using my power, when to laugh, how to smile. She taught me everything because she needed me to be normal. Imagine being an actor on a stage, all day long.”

“That sounds like my worse nightmare.”

Epione titters.

“… that wasn’t a real laugh, was it?”

Epione falters, stammers, and settles at last on that empty expression again. “No. It almost never is.”

I sit down next to her.

She scoots away to give me room. “Bedevil has a crush on you, too, you know.”

I squeak out, “I don’t have a…” but I trail off. She can read all my emotions. Even if I’m lying, to her or myself, she knows what I’m feeling. I nod, instead. “I don’t really know what to do about it right now. She’s… it’s not really me she’s got a crush on.”

“I know. I can see the pain you have about it, too.” Epione stands up and kneels down in front of the oak table, running her hands across it. “I’m afraid I don’t have much advice to offer you, but I could make the pain go away, if you wanted. Then you could just love her. And her you. She has pain, too. Confusion. Guilt.” She looks at me with flat expression. “I’d make it all go away, if you said so.”

My voice catches in my throat. Would it really be that easy? To just make all of the confusing things I feel about Bedevil go away and get one simple emotion in return?

Would that even be ethical? Plus, even if there is pain, and confusion, I think I’d like to sort them out myself, rather than cheating my way through it. “No. I don’t think I want that.”

“Funny. Flashfire told me the same, regarding Saw Off cheating on him.” She pats her hands on the oak wood. “I’m sorry, I usually don’t cut loose like this. You don’t mind?”

“Mind what?”

“This.” She pats her hands on the wood a little faster.

“Knock yourself out. Are you hungry?”

“You always ask if someone is hungry if you’re trying to help them but you don’t know how.” Epione stops patting the wood. She stands up, straightens her skirt, and looks me in the eye. Her dull expression lights up like a flower blooming across spring, until she’s smiling the way I’m used to. Cheerful Epione, the carefully constructed act. “You don’t need to help me. In fact, you already have.”

I smile.

“But, yes, I am hungry.”

“One thing,” I say. “I’ll order you a pizza, but promise me something.”

“Anything.”

“When Doc gets here, don’t influence our emotions.”

Epione smiles. “Of course. I have to touch you, anyway, so you’d know.”

Good to know.

I order us a pepperoni pizza while we wait for Doc or Drone to get back. Remise won’t be back until the morning with Iso, and then we can talk through trying to figure out what we’ll do next. In the meantime, I scroll through news stations. Epione reads a book on Greek Mythology.

There’s several stories on of note. Most of it is Parlor related, going through the people that died, the rich men that were there, and the Prince family. One station’s covering the fight outside the mansion, but no one’s releasing details about Epione or her family. Even the details of the fight are very vague, only mentioning that the Hawks had an encounter with Home Run while looking for Tim Prince.

“Has anyone tried to get in touch with you?” I ask.

Epione nods. “Mother called this afternoon.”

“Did you answer?”

“No.” Epione doesn’t look up from her book. “She called quite a few times. The house won’t put a dent in their finances, but they likely suspect I’m involved now. They know the full extent of my power, so any details told to them will give me away.”

I don’t like this at all. I didn’t mean for her to get entangled in this. “This isn’t the life I wanted for you and the Underground.”

“We always thought it might catch up to us someday,” Epione said. “To be quite honest, my old life was stifling.”

Not sure what to say to that.

I watch the subtitle scroll under the news stories.

Hurricane Season is here! There’s a tropical movement over the Atlantic they’re watching, but they expect Tempest to be able to stop the storm from developing further.

A hero named Time-Out is being accused of sexual assault and harassment, one in a recent string of high profile allegations.

A group of vigilantes accidentally killed a bus full of innocent people in Seattle.

The OPI department of Phoenix is under fire for their handling of a Heavyweight villain named Moss. That battle apparently ended with over 50 dead.

Megajoule was right in his video, even if he was clearly not in his right mind. The world’s broken, and pretending the heroes and villains give us some kind of structure to lean on isn’t working.

The lock turns. Doc walks into the apartment, more grocery bags in hand. “Oi.” He starts to shuffle his shoes off.

Epione nods at me from behind her book. Moment of truth. I stand up. My heart pounds against my rib cage.

I summon all my courage, even though my body is shaking again. “I saw Megajoule’s last video. You were in it.”

Doc stops mid shuffle. His face is blank. He grunts.

“You were behind the camera.”

“You weren’t supposed to see that video. It shouldn’t have been on the drive.” Doc shakes his head.

“Megajoule said he knew the real reason I was made, and Nero asked you if you spilled the beans. Why was I made?” I ask.

“Kid, you don’t want that answer. You don’t want Epione to hear this.”

“Who were you?” I shout.

Doc turns to me, his face a ghoulish mix of terror and fury. He throws his grocery bag to the floor. “Kid!” He steps toward me.

I stand at my full height, and I don’t give him any ground. “Who?!”

Doc stops just short of our living room. Tears well in his eyes. I’ve never seen him cry. He groans in agony, and says, “They asked me to kill him.”

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EPISODE SEVENTEEN

Trainwreck’s blow doesn’t shred Epione’s arm off. Instead, Epione stops him dead in his tracks.

Epione’s black mask betrays nothing. The little pink rings around her eyes shift into a friendly emoji, and she bends his arm back by his wrist. Trainwreck screams his soul out his damn mouth, and his body shrinks back to his original size.

Bedevil lifts me using telekinesis. “You didn’t tell me she was heavyweight strong.”

I can’t believe what I’m seeing. “I didn’t know.”

Epione kicks Trainwreck and he rolls away. Without a single word she runs toward Afterthought. The street cracks under each step.

“Jettison!” Afterthought shouts.

Jettison flies past Bedevil and me. A gale shoots from his hands and catches Epione in it, but she doesn’t fly away. She digs her heels into the street, and when the wind almost lifts her up, she falls to her haunches and smashes her fists into the pavement to stay put.

The jet stream passes, and Epione shoots from the pavement with a super-strength lunge. She grabs Jettison by his shoulders. A light shines through the pink rings of the mask.

Jettison drops onto the lawn and Epione flies into the air. She wavers there like she’s just figuring out how to fly. Once she’s firmly levitating, she holds a hand out at Afterthought, and a jet stream knocks him off his feet. He rolls way down MacGregor, away from us.

Trainwreck gets back to his feet. He’s Krater-sized again, full on wrecking ball mode. He charges at Epione and bear-hugs her.

Epione grabs the sides of his head, squeezing him between her grasp. The light shines from behind her mask again. In a robotic, emotionless voice, she says, “Be sad.” The words echo on the street like thunder.

Trainwreck recoils from her. He stands for a moment, his body shrinks down, and he falls to his knees. Tears pour down his face.

“Uh, Epione?” I ask.

“Oh, Gabe dear!” She turns her attention to me, like she forgot I was there. “Sorry I was late. And also that I lied to you about my power. And also that Maisa got kidnapped.”

“What… what are we doing?” I ask. She’s the only lifeline I’ve got right now.

“Getting in that van,” she says. “We already picked up Lugs and Mil-dot.”

All I can do is nod.

Bedevil stumbles behind me, so I help her to her feet and walk her to the van. Jettison’s moaning in pain by the mail box, and Trainwreck’s weeping by the geyser erupting from the broken fire hydrant. Afterthought’s rolling around on the other end of the street. What the hell did she do?

Mil-dot helps me get Bedevil into the van, and Lugs sits in the back. He’s no longer catatonic. “Hey, Gabe! You okay? You look a little beat up.”

“I’ll be okay. You’re okay! What’s going on?”

Lugs chuckles and shakes his head. “Little miss badass there picked us up a few streets over. I was way outta sorts, and she brought me back to earth.”

Epione gets in the passenger side of the van. “Let’s go!”

Remise punches it, and we take off.

“Wait, what about Maisa?” I ask.

“Gonna ha’ to let this ‘un go, Gabe,” Remise says. “We’ll find th’ lass, don’ worry.”

“I don’t want to let it go! We have to find Maisa!”

“Gabe,” Bedevil says. “You need to back up and think.”

“She’s in danger. How can I back up now?” I ask.

Epione reaches back and touches my thigh, before I can respond. Her eyes shine with pink light, her skin illuminates from within. Smoke drifts out of her mouth, carrying the dewy sweet scent of a forest in spring. “Be reasonable.”

The rage lets out of me like Epione just turned a valve to release steam. Once that goes, I realize they’re right. It’s a little shitty that Epione used her power on me, but even so, I’m being bull-headed, and that’s just going to get Maisa in trouble. Need to come up with a plan. To do that, I need to lay all of our cards on the table.

I decide to address the elephant riding shotgun in this van with us. “So… Epione? What was that?”

“That was my power.”

“I thought you could only stimulate or soothe pain,” I say.

“That’s part of it. At a touch, I can manipulate any emotion. I have telepathic empathy in that I know exactly how everyone’s feeling around me.”

“Why didn’t you tell us, Epione? Before we went to Parlor?” I ask.

“I’d actually planned to use it there, but we didn’t have the chance.” Epione looks back at me. “Jason didn’t want me to, because of my parents. They would know if news broke about my power, even if I was in a mask as a vigilante. My parents never wanted me to go to OPI, so I went to med school instead, where I could use my power to help people feel good.”

I lean back into my seat. “You can change how we feel in general. You can copy powers?” It didn’t click until now, but she used Jettison’s own power on him, while he was powerless to stop her. “No, you steal them.”

Epione nods. “I can borrow powers for a little, but only one at a time.”

“We could find Maisa and use Pandahead’s power against him!” I sit up and grab the back of Epione’s chair in excitement. We could find her tonight! “How far does your empathy extend?”

“Hundreds of yards, but I couldn’t tell you who’s feeling the emotion, just what it is.”

Bedevil sits me back down with an invisible tendril. She struggles to right herself. Her face is pale, her head beaded with sweat. “You need to train, not go on a wild goose chase. Gabe, you flew, and didn’t even know you did that. You don’t have all the power Megajoule had.” She winces and looks out the window. “So we need to train. I know your power, I can help.”

“My power failed me multiple times today.” I don’t know if it’s because I was trying to use it in ways I shouldn’t have been, or because I’m gassed from this weekend from hell. “Do you know why?”

“A power’s like a muscle,” Bedevil says. “You just need to train it more. And you, little miss badass, if you aren’t sure of everything you can do, we should figure that out.”

Epione grins over her seat. “We’re gonna train together?”

“Not today, tomorrow,” Bedevil says.

Bedevil’s phone goes off in her pocket. “I’M NOT GONNA PLAY YOUR SOOOOOOONNNNNGGGG!” The heavy metal band kicks in again. Bedevil squeaks and pulls that out of her pocket.

She reads the caller ID. “Director May.” She shushes us, and answers the phone. “Hello?”

No screaming this time, thank God. Bedevil nods. “Okay. Okay. Okay. I’ll be there in a little.”

“What’s up?” I ask.

Bedevil shakes her head. “They want me on patrol. The Hawks reported the fight.”

“Will you be okay?” I ask.

“I’ll be fine.” She puts the phone in her pocket and looks out the window. “Do you think you could use your power to make me feel okay for patrol, Epione?”

“Sure!” Epione touches Bedevil’s arm.

Bedevil sighs in relief and puts a hand to her head. “That’s amazing. I feel like I’m hugging a cold toilet.”

Vomit spills out of her mouth. Bedevil gasps and tries to cover it.

“The other problem with my power,” Epione says. “Even if someone feels good, it doesn’t mean their body is with them on that.”

I take off my mask and offer it to Bedevil. “Here.”

Bedevil frowns. “But…”

“I’ve got more at home.”

Bedevil takes the mask, and wipes her chin and pants. “Thank you.”

“Okay, Remise, we’ll go look for her tonight.”

Remise nods. “We’ll find her.”

We arrive at my apartment garage, and Remise parks the van. The six of us trudge up to my apartment. All the while I’m thinking about where Tim Prince is most likely to go. Somewhere he can hide, maybe he has more friends with properties.

If Parlor was mobile, that means he had a network of people he could trust. All those rich assholes that died, they were in on it. That’s a lot of branches to shake. I can get Iso and Drone to run names, and I’ll follow the rabbit holes.

Bedevil snaps her finger at me. “Gabe. You’re muttering. Unlock your door.”

I shake my head. “Sorry. I’m just… planning.”

The others look at me. They’re looking to me. They need me to figure this out. Right now I really don’t feel like I can. I’m gonna try though. Maisa needs me.

I unlock the door and let us back in. Doc and Drone aren’t there to greet us. Must be out. Saw Off’s still in my bed, and Lugs and Mil-dot join her in there. Epione and Remise take off their masks, help themselves to cookies, and chill out on the couch.

I retreat to the kitchen to pace like a maniac and come up with some way to save Maisa. And Flashfire. Fucking hell.

Bedevil takes her jacket and mask, and stuffs those inside her Hello Kitty backpack. She notices me watching her and walks up to the counter. She sets her backpack there and zips it up. “I’ll look for her while I’m out tonight.”

I nod.

“I’m sorry, Gabe.” Bedevil takes her backpack off the counter and slings it over her shoulder. “She’s really lucky it’s you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re already working to save her. I’d tell you to sleep tonight, but you’re not going to do that, are you?”

I chuckle. She’s got me pegged. “I mean…”

Bedevil puts a hand on the counter. An invisible tendril of telekinesis lightly taps the back of my neck. “Don’t lie.”

I shake my head. “Probably not.”

“If we’re going to train, I need you to rest. At least six hours a night. Let the others look for her. The others have powers geared toward that. Your power is for when they find her, and you need to be in top shape, okay?”

I’ve got no intentions of sleeping while Maisa’s in Pandahead’s clutches. I don’t even think I could sleep. I feel too much. “I’ll try.”

“I get it.” Bedevil comes around the counter and leans against it next to me. “Trust me, I really do.” She covers her mouth with her hand, then pulls away to look at her fingers. She moves each one individually, and runs her thumb across the three rings she’s wearing. “Do you trust me?”

I’m not actually sure. We fought together, she saved me from Trainwreck, and Epione told me she’s really determined to help me. She still hurt me the other night. Even so, I don’t have a lot of friends. “Yes.”

“Took your time answering that, but I guess I can understand. Your moment’s gonna come, Gabe. You’re gonna have her in front of you, you’re gonna save her. I promise. But you need to be ready for it.”

I nod.

Bedevil stands up. “Tomorrow, call me around noon, we’ll meet up to train. You, me, Epione, whoever else.”

I nod. “I can do that, Bedevs.”

Bedevil looks like she’s about to smack me upside the head. “Excuse me? Bedevs?”

“You said not to call you wonderkid, so… Bedevs.”

“You are absolutely not calling me Bedevs.” She makes her way to the door. “Get some sleep.”

With that she leaves.

“Well, I trust her,” Epione says. “She pretty much says what she’s feeling. Most people don’t.”

“So, yer power,” Remise says. “Do ye know how ah’m feeling, right now?”

“You’re almost always content.” Epione smiles. “Not too many strong emotions. You do love getting into fights. I’d even say aroused.”

Remise grins at Epione. “Fookin’ right.”

My laptop’s still out on the oak coffee table, from when I showed Bedevil the video. I’m feeling a little lost. Maybe Megajoule has something to guide me. I did need to scour his videos for references to the Fear, though. I sit at the foot of the couch to let Remise and Epione have the space.

“What now?” Epione asks.

“I’m gonna watch one of Mega’s vlogs. See if he’s got something for me. You can watch if you want, but they’re usually pretty boring.”

“No, I want to see this,” Epione says.

I open the laptop, click on the folder of his videos, and scroll down to where I left off. It feels like it’s been forever since I last watched one of these, even though it’s only been two days. Last night felt like an entire year in six hours.

Megajoule looks as tired as I feel. His chin is covered in stubble, there are deep bags under his eyes. He blinks and looks up at the light above him, harsh florescent buzzing so loud I can hear it on my laptop speakers. He grimaces and scratches his cheek.

He looks right at the camera.

“Gabe. This will be my last video to you.”

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EPISODE SIXTEEN

I don’t hear what Tim Prince says. I don’t even sprint to the door, I cross the distance with kinetic energy. My voice says something, Bedevil and the others start moving, but they move like they’re caught in sap.

“The car is downstairs!” Epione says.

No time. I put my mask on. Vault off the balcony. Tendrils grab me.

“Gabe!” Bedevil screams.

I drag her with me across the street, wind and blood roaring in my ears, my chest squeezing my heart like a grape. My feet touch the cement of the next building. Another burst of energy. I fly.

I wish I could fly.

“Gabe! Slow! Down!”

If I hurry, if I’m fast, there won’t be another dead child at the end of this. Rooftop after rooftop under my stride, I can’t stop. I will not stop. I must save her.

“Gabe!”

Different voice. Mil-dot.

I skid to a stop on a sun-baked rooftop, the air so hot it shimmers. An ancient AC creaks along with the babble of Houston traffic. The city stands tall. Buildings rise all around me and fence me in concrete.

Bedevil lands and falls to her knees, and dry heaves behind her mask.

Mil-dot cries over the watch comm. “Gabe, I’m sorry!”

The black hole. No. The Fear. Chilly fingers pulp my heart.

“Mil-dot,” my voice says. “Please. Please, don’t say it.”

“He’s gone, Gabe. He… he took her. I’m so sorry. He used his power and…” She growls. “I couldn’t, I’m sorry. Lugs is-”

I sprint for the edge of the roof. Bedevil’s tendrils lift me off the ground.

“Let go!” I shout.

“Gabe!” Bedevil pulls me back to her. “This is reckless.”

“I have to get Maisa. I have to. Let me go!” I flail my arms to get free of her telekinesis, but I’ve no idea how to break the bond. She’s not pressing into me, just, holding. No energy or force to work with.

Bedevil wrenches me toward her. She’s stronger than I am. “Gabe, listen, there’s got to be a smarter way to do this! You can’t just charge in!”

“You said you’d help me! He’s taking her!” I kick with kinetic energy into an aerial flip. Her tendril falls away from my ankle.

I spin in the air and drag her toward me by the tendrils wrapped around my waist and legs. Bedevil splats onto the roof, face-first, and her telekinetic grip loosens.

I launch into the air as high as I can. More of Bedevil’s tendrils grab my arms, but my momentum is too much to stop. She takes flight with me. We soar over the Third Ward, higher and higher, until I’m over the concrete fence and free. I push with all the energy I have.

The familiar line of McMansions along MacGregor peeks through the tangle of woods and urban jungle. I let up on the energy and careen toward the ground, aiming for Epione’s house.

Just before landing in the street, the telekinetic harness pulls hard, and I stop mid-air. Bedevil alights next to me, and we both touch down gently.

Bedevil falls to her hands and knees, and vomits. “You fuckin… you fuckin asshole.”

I start to run for Epione’s house. Tendrils grab me again. “Stop!” I shout. “Maisa needs us!”

Bedevil floats to her feet. “You… you flew…” She groans. “I haven’t flown like that… in years…” She lifts her mask and spits out more bile.

“I… flew?” I’ve wanted to fly since the lab, and I just did, without even knowing it? I shake my head. Maisa is in danger. “We’ll worry about that later.”

“You’re being stupid,” Bedevil says. “You can’t just charge in.”

I sprint for Epione’s house without another word. The door hangs open on the hinges, the window on her porch is shattered, and there’s pellet marks from a shotgun in the floor. I charge through the carnage, into the entryway.

Lugs and Mil-dot are on the stairs. Lugs is sprawled out, his body twitches and shakes, and he’s staring at nothing. His babbles, like Mr. Gold did.

Mil-dot has her hand on his chest, but stands when I run in. “Gabe! How did you get here so fast?”

“Where is he?” I ask.

“He got away.” Mil-dot, the soldier, the scowling girl, the stone cold sniper, hugs herself. The act of holding herself is so out of character it knocks me out of my rage. “He used the thermos, and when I saw that, I dove into the bathroom.” She grimaces. “He got away because of me.”

I grab the banister for support. “He’s gone.”

Mil-dot nods.

I fall to my knees, and plant my forehead to the floor.

A scream escapes my chest, and I channel all of the energy inside of my body into Epione’s tile floor. The tiles crack and shift, the house groans as I flow everything I’ve got into its foundation.

“Gabe! Stop!” Bedevil grabs my arms and lifts me off my head.

I fall quiet, the energy settles. “She’s gone.”

“We’ll get her, Gabe,” Bedevil says. “I promise, we’ll get her back.”

“She’s-”

A jet passes right over the house.

“What the hell was that?” Bedevil asks.

Mil-dot looks up and squints her eyes. “Four people, flying overhead. No, five, one of them’s carrying another person. They’re landing in the front yard.”

Five people land in the front yard. The Harris Hawks, led by Snow Owl. Tim called them here, or they were right on his tail.

“What do we do?” Mil-dot asks.

“You get Lugs out of here, back to my place,” I say. “He can’t fight like this, and we can’t protect him. You won’t be any good in this fight without a gun.”

Mil-dot nods. “We can try and find Pandahead.”

I rise to my feet. My fury’s back. “You’ll just put Maisa in danger, and he’ll use his power again. But Snow Owl’s his sister.” I walk toward the door. “I’ll get her to talk.”

“Gabe! You’re being reckless!” Bedevil says.

“Don’t you think I know that?” I shout. “Don’t you think I know this is all fucked? But Maisa needs me, and I’ve got to get there the fastest way possible.”

“You don’t have to kill yourself to save her!” Bedevil shouts back. She floats over and gets in my face, turning me around so she’s blocking the door. “She needs you alive more than she needs your corpse hurtling at her.”

“Get out of my way.”

“No.”

“Tim!” Snow Owl calls. “I’m giving you the chance to come out peacefully! Leave your weapons and come outside to the front lawn!”

“They’re gonna come in here if we don’t go out.” Mil-dot’s helping Lugs to his feet, but the poor guy stumbles around like a drunkard, and babbles like a toddler. “Half of 2nd Amendment and Home Run might be too much to pass up on bagging.”

Bedevil sighs. “Okay, but shift gears to diplomatic. Maybe she’ll work with us.”

“I can do that.” I make for the door.

The Harris Hawk are significantly less hawky than I was expecting. Snow Owl is familiar in her dazzling white suit, gray cape that falls to the small of her back, and helmet that looks like a snowy owl’s head. A large visor shows her grim face soften with confusion.

To her right is Gyrfalcon. Gyrfalcon was Elena’s right hand woman for years, the second in command of the Hawks. She wears a brown suit of a similar style to Snow Owl’s, though her helmet looks more like a falcon’s. A sharp beak tops her visor like a hood.

The other three that I don’t recognize are non-bird themed. A tall guy in silver-blue armor and a blue domino mask that could barely skirt by the ‘no-masks’ OPI rule, a guy in a business suit and a trilby hat, and a dude that looks like he came out of military boot camp for this, wearing only a sweat-stained tank top, camo pants, and combat boots.

“You’re Home Run. The super villain,” Snow Owl says.

“Sure. Where’s Tim?” I ask.

“I don’t know where my brother is.”

“How am I supposed to trust that?” I ask. “Maybe you’re here to cover his tracks.”

The Hawks look uneasily at Snow Owl. Maybe they aren’t all on the same page about her being back on the team.

Snow Owl takes off her helmet. Her hair is in intricate dreads that spill down her shoulders, all the way to her stomach. She’s everything her brother isn’t: tall, stately, noble. Her suit isn’t actually pure white, there are flecks of black and silver that resemble feathers. “I came here because he called me, and told me he wanted to meet. That turned out to be a lie.”

“You believed him?” I ask.

Snow Owl’s mouth drops open, and then closes tight. She sniffs, a disdainful, bourgeoisie movement. “I suppose I shouldn’t have. Still, I’d hoped he’d have the decency to meet with me.”

“Did you know about Parlor?” I scowl through my mask. “OPI and FIS like covering up their mistakes.”

“I knew he was trouble, but I didn’t know about Parlor.” Snow Owl clenches her jaw, her lips nearly disappear. “If I had, I’d have done the same thing you did.” She takes a few steps forward from her team, and offers a hand to me.

Huh. Not what I was expecting. “You don’t want to fight?”

“You’re not my priority,” Snow Owl says. “Our priority is the immediate capture of my brother. If you want to provide civilian assistance, I’m not going to turn that down.”

“That’s a funny way to say ‘crime,’ Snow,” business suit says. “But you’re not the leader here. I am.”

“There’s no reason to take him in right now,” Snow Owl says. “As far as I’m concerned, he helped us last night.”

“Twenty kids died.” Business suit looks at me. “My name is Afterthought, Home Run. And this is Trainwreck, Gyrfalcon, and Jettison.” He gestures to boot camp and silver armor in the same order. “Thought you should know who’s going to bring you in.”

“No one’s bringing anyone in,” Bedevil says. She gestures to Trainwreck. “Crew cut better think real hard about how close he wants to get to this porch.”

“Trainwreck doesn’t think,” Afterthought says. “He obeys orders.”

Trainwreck charges the porch, shoving Snow Owl to the side. Bedevil points a finger at him and he lifts off the ground, his limbs splayed out. He writhes against the invisible crucifix.

“Jettison!” Afterthought shouts.

The guy in the silver-blue armor winds up and throws a fist at us, and a jet stream rips Bedevil off her feet, smashing her through Epione’s wall. The porch tears apart under his powerful blast of wind.

Trainwreck drops to the ground and rushes at me.

I catch his charge with my arms around his waist. I wrench him down to the ground. He’s not super strong at all. What’s his power then?

“Trainwreck, stand down!” Snow Owl shouts. “And you, Afterthought!”

“You’re not thinking clearly.” Afterthought says. “Go chase after your brother! You too, Gyrfalcon. You can still catch him. We’ll take care of Home Run.”

Snow Owl looks at me. She’s torn. “This isn’t right.”

“That’s an order, Snow! Out of the way!”

Snow Owl stammers, scowls, and puts her helmet on. She lunges into the sky and flies off, over the house. Gyrfalcon follows her.

Jettison winds up again. Oh, no.

I’m not fast enough getting off Trainwreck. The jet stream catches us both, shooting us into the house. Trainwreck howls as he smashes into the stair railing, and rolls into Epione’s living room. The wind sends her TV and Drone’s game systems straight through the wall, out into her backyard.

I absorb the energy of the blast, but my power fails in the middle of the torrent, and I’m launched off my feet. I roll into the backyard, over the debris from Epione’s living room.

Trainwreck climbs out from under a couch. Some thing’s not right, though. He was lanky when I had him pinned to the ground. He looks like he got a quick pump workout in between then and now, his muscles are filling out his tank top.

“Look, I’m clearly stronger than you even without my power,” I say. “Let me go. I’ve got someone I need to save.”

Trainwreck yells, tackles me, and we roll together. “You’re not going anywhere!” He locks my arm between his legs, catching me in an arm bar. He’s stronger now, somehow.

I smash his crotch. Trainwreck howls, and I get free. I’ve got to go after Snow Owl, she needs to know about Maisa!

Jettison flies through the house, winding up for another wind blast. He stops mid-air, his arm caught behind his back. “What the-”

Bedevil slings out of the rubble of the porch, whipping to Jettison, spinning like a yoyo. They shoot into the kitchen in a ball of telekinetic power and hurricane force winds.

Trainwreck comes at me, dancing on his feet. Wait, didn’t I just punch his dick? How is he up and at them? He jabs like an experienced ring fighter, needling my side so I drop my elbows low.

I use my power to bounce above his follow up strike, and windmill kick the back his head with as much kinetic energy as I can manage.

Trainwreck rolls through Epione’s hedge wall.

I climb over Epione’s ruined furniture, through the ruins of the McMansion, and back out to MacGregor street.

Afterthought’s still out there, talking into an ear piece. He sees me coming and panics. “Oh, shit.”

“I’m guessing you’re squishy,” I say. “Otherwise you’d be fighting with them.”

Afterthought holds a hand out. “OPI and FIS are minutes away.”

“That’s not soon enough.” I warp toward him with kinetic energy, but my power fails again halfway through the super speed dash, and I fall to my knees again.

Afterthought pulls out a baton and swings it at me. I block it with my arm. My body jumps, and cold fire commands my muscles against my will. Shock baton!

Trainwreck screams behind me.

Holy shit, he’s the size of an elite bodybuilder now. Muscles of steel bulge through his tank top. Just what the fuck is this guy’s power?

He grabs my arm and tries to throw me. I absorb some of the energy of him pulling me off my feet, but he’s Cruiserweight strong. Wasn’t this guy just a whelp a minute ago, when I was beating his ass?

That’s it. He gets stronger the more he gets hurt.

My power fails, energy stops flowing, and he throws me.

I careen into a hydrant. I absorb the energy of my landing but I rip the hydrant off the bolts. A geyser of water shoots up from the ground. Trainwreck’s coming for more. He’s not as strong as Krater, but it won’t be long before he’s close to that level.

Let’s work with what we’ve got. The geyser. I could superheat it and fling it at him, and then freeze it in place.

I stab my hand into the geyser and channel the energy of the water pressure into heat, and fling the boiling mixture at Trainwreck. I try to sap the heat away fast enough to freeze the water mid-air, but it’s like lifting a weight that I’m too burnt out to lift. The water slushes and splatters all over the ground, but doesn’t freeze.

Trainwreck’s fist bursts through the geyser. I hurtle back into Epione’s yard. Trainwreck chases me, a wolf coming in for the kill, and I can’t fight back. My power won’t respond.

He pounces on me, I put my feet on his chest to squat him off, but without my kinetic energy he steamrolls me over. He nails me in the jaw, and the world starts spinning. He bashes his fists into me, each punch stronger than the one before it.

Pretty soon he’ll reach a level where he can pulp my chest and head like a Gabe shaped watermelon.

I’m sorry, Maisa. I can’t.

Trainwreck peels off me and smashes into the street near Afterthought. Bedevil floats out of the hole in the side of the house, but she bobs and weaves erratically as she flies to me. Bile drips out from behind her mask. She’s too sick. Too drunk.

I get to my feet, and Bedevil lands at my side.

Afterthought holds his baton out at us. Trainwreck climbs from the crater Bedevil made for him. Jettison steps out of the hole in Epione’s mansion.

“Surrender,” Afterthought says.

I raise my fists.

A van squeals onto MacGregor, horn blaring. Remise is at the wheel, Epione in the passenger side, both in their vigilante outfits. The van whips toward us and screeches to a stop, and Epione steps out of the passenger side.

“Yer sure about this?” Remise shouts.

Epione doesn’t look back.

What the fuck is she doing?

Afterthought points at her. “Trainwreck.”

Trainwreck’s froths at the mouth, his eyes are wild with berserker rage. He shrieks and tears toward her.

I move to run after him, but my legs are jello, and I fall forward to my hands and knees. I try to use kinetic energy to get to them, but my power won’t respond at all. “No!”

Trainwreck is ten feet from her. He pulls back for a haymaker, and swings.

Epione catches his fist.

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