Category Archives: Volume One: Capes and Masks

1.4.5

Home Run protects children. Home Run saves children. That’s all I wanted them to say. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I staked his name — my name — on that ideal.
I blast through the air. If I’m fast enough, If I’m strong enough, if I can fly, if I hurry.

I can stop it. I’ll save the kids, rush back and get Flashfire.

You’re not him. You can’t do everything he did. He could have done it.

I rocket over the trees, above the lawn, aimed right at the balcony. My flight is so fast the trees shake with heated gusts trailing behind me.

“GABE!” Drone shrieks over the watch comm, over the screaming wind. Over the gunfire inside Taylor Jade’s mansion.

There is a black hole opening inside of me. I trail behind my body, letting it run by itself.

I know I’m too late.

I crash into the balcony, rupturing the railing and shattering the glass windows as I land.

Bodies litter the floor of the upstairs, blood seeps into the carpet, stains the walls, even marks the ceilings. Most of the corpses belong to clients, rich, older, doughy. A few of the dead are Pandahead’s men. Only some of them are dead from bullet wounds. One man has chunks of flesh stripped from him.

There’s an open stairwell in a circular domed room. Most of the bodies are here. This is where he turtled in when he knew he was under attack.

Mr. Gold stands at the end of the hallway leading out to the front balcony. He’s trained his gun into the right room. “Put the pistol down!” he orders.

“It was one of the clients!” Pandahead shouts, his voice still running through the electronic filter of his mask. “He went insane, started killing everyone. I had to shoot him!”

Mr. Gold steps into the room.

I know I am too late. My body walks in slow steps toward the room. My flesh crawls, my muscles tremble. My body creeps to the end of the hall, my hand presses against the bloody walls for support. My legs are jelly. My stomach revolts.

I step into the doorway.

Pandahead stands by the bed, cradling his thermos in one hand, and holding a pistol in the other. He sees me, and says, “It’s Home Run! Arrest him!”

Mr. Gold whirls around and aims his gold gun at me.

I pay attention to neither of them.

I’ve never seen a dead child in real life. My body is cold and numb, I can’t even speak. The few that survived the immediate execution press their hands against the bullet wounds. They know they have to stop the blood, they just don’t know how. They don’t know they’re already beyond saving, barring a miracle. The clients that hid behind the children are also mostly dead, too.

Gabe falls into the black hole in my chest and Home Run emerges.

“Why?” Home Run’s voice is a deep well of fury rising up to the surface.

Mr. Gold’s gun shakes. He looks back and forth between me and Pandahead.

“One of the clients-” Pandahead says, pointing a pistol at one of the older men. An assault rifle sits on top of his chest, a single bullet hole in his forehead.

Home Run makes a single declaration. “No.”

“Home Run.” Mr. Gold’s voice wavers. From his expression, it’s clear he’s being torn in half.

Home Run addresses Mr. Gold. “He did this. He’s the one I’ve been trying to stop. The sex trafficking ring.” I can’t speak longer than a few words. My lungs wheeze out air. My mask is wet.

I’m weeping.

“I’m going to-” I reach a hand out for Pandahead.

Mr. Gold steadies himself. “Hold.”

Home Run is bulletproof and so does not care. He rushes forward, grips under the helmet of Pandahead, and wrenches it upwards.

I recognize his face. He’s the senator’s son, Tim Prince. He’s young. He’s younger than I am. He’s got black, disheveled hair, eyes like pieces of black coal, and a grin that he stole from the Devil himself.

He cackles, his voice no longer modulated. “Wow, you’re strong.”

“Home Run! Stand down!” Mr. Gold alternates between pointing his weapon at me and Tim Prince.

Tim Prince can’t do anything, he’s at my mercy. He doesn’t even try to get free but tosses the pistol to the bed. He grasps his thermos in both hands. “You know what you have to do, Mr. Aguellar. Arrest the mask. Or I’ll be having a strongly worded conversation with your boss.”

Mr. Gold wavers, his gun dips.

“They’re gonna nail you to a wall, now that they know who you are,” I say.

“Home Run! Let him go or I will fire!”

Tim Prince grins. “Do as he says, Home Run.”

Home Run, Home Run, Home Run. Invoking the name of a cloak that isn’t even real. Fine. I won’t do this as Home Run.

I’ll do it as Megajoule. I let go of Tim Prince and take off my mask.

Mr. Gold gasps. “You’re… I know you.”

Tim Prince guffaws. “Are you for fucking real? Fucking Megajoule?”

“You can’t be! You died!” Mr. Gold says.

Tim Prince stares up at me, his eyes dark. “He’s about to.” He pops the top off the thermos.

A wave of ink shoots from the mouth of the thermos and washes over my eyes. The world tears in two around me, and I’m not in Parlor anymore. I’m in Dresden’s hideout, surrounded by masked mercenaries. A mass of limbs, machetes, and billy clubs swarming me in the dark, fists that burn, eyes that blaze. There is no floor, there are only the bodies of children, dead or dying.

“What- what- what is this?” Mr. Gold asks, his voice seeping through the rotting wood.

His voice pulls my mind back to Parlor. Tim Prince shoves his way past Mr. Gold. I flail, fighting to stay out of the grasp of the Dresden’s crew swarming around me.
I’m in two places at once. This nightmare place and the real world. An earphone in each ear, one playing a threnody of dissonant strings, the other the sound of cars crashing into each other. The weight of mountains falls on my shoulders, but my feet can’t touch solid ground. Hands tear free of the mass of children, black, mottled, twisted like thrown in a fire. The corpse fingers grip my ankles.

The door of the hideout opens just a sliver, and Bedevil stares out from the crack. Her eyes are torn out, the skin around her mouth missing in chunks. A tongue torn in two hangs from her lipless mouth, and her voice cries out, “GAAAAAAYYYEeeeeeBAAAA.”

I try to ground myself in the real world. It takes all of my willpower to concentrate, but I fight to return to my mind. Mr. Gold is on his back, his hands curled into his chest. He stammers single syllables, sounding like a terrified baby. “W-w-w-wha-”

Tim Prince chuckles. “That’s the end game, friends. That’s what this universe is crawling toward, including our world, all the worlds. That’s the dark waiting for us at the heat death. That thing is the essence of that death. Entropy, silence, damnation.” His voice wavers. ““You know, I used to be like you guys, convinced the world had a purpose. Convinced that we had a purpose. I went to marches, I went to protests. People loved that shit. A senator’s son rejecting his father’s legacy and picking up a poster? Hell yeah, fucking rock on, dude.”

Tim pauses. He’s looking into the thermos like Gollum at the ring. “Fear. That thing is fear. It feeds off of it. When I first felt it like you’re feeling it now, I knew. I knew that no protesting, no marching, no amount of fighting or superpowers would ever put that off. This thing is the apex predator of all existence.”

“It’s… a fucking… thermos…” I hiss between teeth that refuse to open. Hands grab my arms, and I can’t even use kinetic energy to free myself. It won’t flow, like the dam’s caught.

“Wow! You’re stronger than I thought. So much fear and you’re trying to fight it.”

“I’m not… going… to let you… use your power…”

Mr. Gold whimpers.

Tim Prince shakes his head. “That thing in there is not my power. That’s something else entirely. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t have a power.”
There is no way I believe that. I can’t move. That’s a power. “You…?”

“I am one of the bottom 2.5% that never developed a power. Sucks, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, you, wow. You creamed Krater. We couldn’t be more different.”

I stumble, clinging to the door. I can hardly form the words: “But… you have power… over fear… I am…”

Tim walks up to me and flicks my forehead. “Silly. You don’t need a superpower to have power over fear. Fear is a fundamental part of being a human. It’s fundamental to the universe. If you don’t believe me, look behind you.”

He grabs my shoulders and turns me around. The world goes dark as if someone threw a blanket over all the lights. I’m back in the hallway.

Bedevil opens the door to the apartment more. Her face is caved in, just a black hole, and her voice comes from all around me. “Why did they pull him from the grave? Why? Why won’t they let him die?” A scream wants to escape from me, but it’s caught on my vocal cords.

The dead Dresden mercenaries and children open their mouths to speak. “GAAAAyyyEEEEEEBBBAAAAA,” they shriek in chorus, their voices overlapping. The finger in the back of my brain turns into a knife plunging through my core.

“You’re afraid of the same thing I am. The same thing everyone is afraid of. We’re all afraid that nothing we do matters. And do you know the worst part?” Tim Prince leans in close. “That’s the truth. Nothing we do matters. I see your fear. You fight so hard. You fight so well. What a shame that it counts for nothing. One day they’ll forget.”

“They made you,” Megajoule says.

“They’ll bury you,” Mr. Gold continues.

Bedevil sniffles. “They’ll forget.”

“That’s god damn right,” Tim says. “We get one ride. It doesn’t mean jack shit that I profit off human trafficking. Even better, I perform a valuable service to this city while I do it. All of us will be spirited into history and maybe we’ll get a footnote or if we’re very lucky, a page in some asshole kid’s history class book. Will we care? No. We’ll be dead. We’ll all die.”

I fight against the hands gripping me. Tendrils of telekinesis criss-cross my chest, pulling me toward Bedevil, pulling me into the floor. I can’t move, I WANT TO MOVE.

If you were to see one, you’d think that maybe God poked a pencil in the fabric of the universe, or something.

My thermal sense. There’s no heat around me at all. There’s nothing but cold void.

Bedevil’s ruined body floats out of the apartment toward me. Her body twists and unravels; she’s a rag doll and someone’s pulling her threading out. The corpses of children swirl up around her like she’s puppeteering them with telekinesis. Arachnid legs as wide as trees rip from this mass, stringing corpses along their tibias. Blood splatters at me, and a face forms out of their flesh: Megajoule. A green-rotting tongue lolls out of his mouth. “GAAAAyEEEBA.”

That scream that’s been trying to tear out of my throat finally makes it, ripping from my mouth like a tumor. The world tips forward.

“GAAAAAYEEEEBAAAAA,” Megajoule shrieks. His face twists, and then it’s Bedevil screaming at me.

The insect legs pull more bodies from the writhing mass. Remise dances on the end of a spider paw. Drone hangs from a noose held aloft by a claw. The face transforms into Flashfire, and the tongue becomes Epione. He bites down, ripping her body in half. He screeches in a voice folding in on itself, a voice like a landslide.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, night after night,” I say, the words pulled from my mouth like molecules into a black hole.

I’m in three places: I’m stumbling through Parlor. I drag my red hot hand along the walls and they catch fire— The hands and tendrils bind me in the ruined Dresden hideout. I fight for every inch, I scream and grunt, I push with every ounce of strength— I’m in the shower in my apartment, wishing the water would burn me away.

I’m being divided. Ripped apart.

“Spaghettification,” Megajoule jeers.

Bedevil weeps, and says, “One path that you can’t get off, one path taking you into the shadow. Forever. There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe.”

I’m at the amusement park, staring Krater down. He’s as tall and wide as Houston. He’s made of steel, of bedrock. “I protect children from you.”

Bedevil whispers into my ear. “Oh, Mega. Mega. Megaaaaaa, oh my Gooooooooooodddd.” She moans as she rides out her orgasm. Four places. No. I’ve lost count.

Megajoule takes his turn in this chorus of horror. “The howling dark would come up at you. An infinite abyss stretching further and further out. Light would wrap around the hole, and as you passed the horizon, the universe would actually fall away behind you. It would shrink and shrink into a pinprick until all around you is the dark.”

I’m sinking into the corpse void.

“It will devour you,” Mil-dot says.

A fractal blooms out of the void, a tesseral pattern woven of dark hallways, dripping with blood, echoing with the moans of rich men raping little girls, cast over by an uncaring world, where nothing matters at all.

The world is a pinprick behind me. I’m falling. I’m falling.

One path. One path into the dark.

Say, everything’s going dark.

I’m falling into the fractal of fear. The Fear. “Julian!” I scream. “How do I fight the Fear? How do I stop it?”

“There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe,” Megajoule says, but he’s across the event horizon from me now. Redshifted into oblivion, sucked into the pinprick behind me. Dark hallways on dark hallways on dark hallways on dark hallways.

“They made you,” Pandahead says, his voice still in my head. “They’ll bury you. They’ll forget.”

I summon all the energy I can. I pull all the heat in around me. Even the energy of falling into a black hole. I have to escape. Before I cross the event horizon. Before every particle is stripped from me and spirited away into the inky night.

I rocket into the sky.

I fall into the dark.

Please, God, if you’re listening, don’t let me die here.
“Nothing matters.”
I don’t even know who’s speaking anymore.
“You’re afraid that nothing matters.”
That’s true.
“Spaghettification.”
Molecules, torn apart, one by one, into the dark.
“You’re afraid you’re just a sum of questions.”
When I answer them, will I disappear?
Who am I? Gabe. G for Good, A for Able, B for Beautiful, E for Enough.
What do you want? To save the world, even though that’s stupid.
Where are you going? I don’t know.
What are you afraid of? That this is all a cosmic joke.
What do you need? I need a soul.
What are you? A ghost with a stolen body.
Where? I don’t know.
What? I don’t know.
Who? I don’t know.
Why? I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know
I don’t kno
I don’t kn
I don’t k
I don’t
DON’T
DoN’T
Don’T
Don’t
Don’t
don’t
don
do
d
.

 

 

 

 

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

1.4.4

The Swordfish aircraft resembles its namesake, long-bodied, sleek, with a pointed nose. Four VTOL engines thunder at the craft’s sides. The Swordfish touches down in front of the mansion, beyond the EMS van. Mr. Gold. Two of them are Hasuji and Tachikaze, capes on the Houston Heroes team led by Krater. An armored suit touches down near the helicopter, propelled by rockets in the boots and back. Danger Close, a third Houston Hero.

I don’t know if Mr. Gold brought them instead of FIS agents so that this wouldn’t get swept under the rug or if they came to settle the score with me, personally, for thrashing their leader.

The police pull up right after the capes disembark the Swordfish craft.

Meanwhile, that finger in the back of my brain digs harder, and whispers skitter up and down my skin. Whatever is going on inside, it’s coming this way. The cold spot encroaches further and further on my heat sense.

The children scream in their room.

“We have to get out of here!” Remise says. “Rendezvous on Mil-dot!”

Epione grabs my shoulder. “We can come back.”

I can feel him in that room, using his power over the children. The cold sphere engulfs them, washing out the heat they give off in a hollow void.

I want to save them now, but we can’t fight the Houston Heroes, FIS, and Pandahead all at once. Best thing to do is retreat and get a handle on the situation before proceeding. It kills me inside, but I have no choice right now. “We’ll come back. We’ll figure out what to do.”

Epione hops on my back, and I leap over the top of the roof, headed back toward Mil-dot’s position.

Mil-dot mumbles into the comms. “Please,” she repeats, over and over.

We meet back at the tree line at the back of Taylor Jade’s lawn. Saw Off, Lugs, and Vaquero are already there, hiding behind the brush. Saw Off’s bleeding from her gut and her chest. Two bullet holes, both center mass. She’s a tough one, she’s still standing with the help of a tree and Lugs. She wheezes, blood dribbles down her chin.

“That… doesn’t look good,” I say.

“Can’t breathe, babe,” she manages.

Epione touches Saw Off’s back, and Saw Off heaves one long breath. She stands a little more upright. Saw Off sees who helped her, scowls and looks away. “Thanks.”
“Drone, what the heck was that?” Flashfire asks.

“Pandahead opened some kind of device, and everyone around him went nuts,” Drone says. “There was… something in the dark, but I couldn’t make it out.”

“Dinnae ken,” Remise says over the comms. “Whatever it was, it sounded like somebody sticking an ice pick all the way into my spine.” She and Flashfire make it to the treeline. Remise’s jacket is burned through like she took a direct hit from a flamethrower or something, and the skin is cracked and red around her ribs.

“Woah, are you alright?” Epione asks.

“I’ll be fine, I think we have worse things to worry about.” She waves Epione off.

“Yeah, like the Houston Heroes,” Drone says. “They’re coming after you. Mr. Gold’s going into the house.”

“Krater?” I ask. I really don’t want to go up against him again.

“No, just the others. You need to hurry-”

A blast of wind shoots through the trees, and Hasuji of the Houston Heroes stands before us. He’s wearing fancy armor enhanced by servos and plates of black military grade ceramic, a helmet with a clear visor that shows his face, and a red scarf that billows with the wind he kicked up. “You’ve one opportunity to stand down.” He unsheathes a katana from his side.

Vaquero pulls his gun and fires.

I don’t even have time to blink. Hasuji blurs through the air and smashes into Vaquero. His blade bounces off Vaquero’s skin. He’s got super speed which means he’s too fast to puncture Vaquero. He starts a flurry of attacks on Vaquero, tearing apart the cowboy’s clothes but doing no real damage.

Lugs holds his arm out and a magnetic pulse whines, pulling the sword from Hasuji’s hand. Hasuji blurs again, appearing in front of Lugs and kicking so fast he breaks the sound barrier, and I try for a grab, but he blurs away from me, appearing again at his sword.

Remise tackles him and the two tussle in the brush. “Run!” she shouts. “The others will be here any-”

Danger Close skids into the forest right behind Hasuji, moving like an ice skater inside his armored suit by roaring thrusters on the feet. The armor’s strangely organic looking, interlocking plates of armor held powered by motors and hydraulics that look kind of like a muscular structure. There’s an extra pair of arms underneath the first. The last Houston Hero, Tachikaze, clings to his back. She’s in armor like Hasuji’s, but instead of a scarf, a neon, translucent cape hangs from her shoulders. She’s baring her teeth under her visor, either a grin or a snarl, not sure which.

Tachikaze vaults from Danger Close’s armor and swings her sword in a wide arc. A wave rips through the air, cutting through the trees and slicing the underbrush apart. I dive tackle Epione out of the way. I don’t have any idea how to absorb that power if I even can. I’m not going to risk it.

Danger Close hefts two Gatling guns in each pair of arms, the barrels already spinning. Lugs steps in front of Saw Off, Vaquero in front of Flashfire. I duck behind a tree.

Danger Close unloads his payload on us. His guns roar, the steady brrrt of thousands of bullets per minute overpowering everything other sound in the woods.

I leave Epione and bounce off my heels into a heat powered launch. Steam hisses out of my jacket as I rocket into Danger Close, knocking him off balance. I grab one of his four arms and flip over him, hooking him with my legs, and spin us like a merry go round using kinetic blasts and his own thrusters to propel us. I spin us so fast the blood rushes to my head and my stomach bounces around inside of me.

My plan is to throw him into a tree, maybe break the armor. The problem is, my spin is thrown off when our entire mass is ripped towards Lugs, who’s turned on his magnetic pulse. I fall off as Danger Close tumbles towards Lugs. This turns out to be a psuedo-blessing. Another super-powered slice from Tachikaze rips through the space I just occupied.

Flashfire and Epione are disappearing into the woods, Remise right behind them. Good. They can’t tank hits like the Vaquero and I can.

Danger Close recovers, aiming his guns at me. The barrels start to spin, the three-second wind-up signaling another barrage. I step off my foot into a kinetic charge, and my knee rips one of Danger Close’s mechanical arms free of the suit. The suit hisses as steam rolls out from inside. Which means it must be running hot.

I grab the other arm. Sure enough, the suit is blazing. I draw in so much power I start to glow again. Why not go to completion? I’ve frozen stuff over before. Maybe I can freeze his suit shut.

His other arms grab at my shoulders, trying to pull me free. I vacuum up the heat they’re putting off, too, and they stick to me like a tongue on an icy light pole in midwinter.

“I’ve got Mil-dot!” Lugs says over the comms. “Retreating to van!”

“We’re on our way,” Flashfire says.

The mechanical arms frost over, blacken, and crumble as I take every ounce of heat. Kinetic energy. I’m stealing the very energy from the molecules. I carefully portion it and restrain it so that I don’t light up again and set the entire forest on fire. That’s an idea, but it’s not a very good one.

Instead, I use the energy to bust his armor wide open, wrenching the plating around the chest free. Danger Close groans and slips out, struggling to move he’s shivering so much. He’s down for the count.

Saw Off moans in pain somewhere in the brush. With the attention off me, I help her to her feet.

Vaquero and Hasuji tussle, and in a whirl, Hasuji catches his blade in Vaquero’s arm. I hiss as he just ducks under Tachikaze’s sword and shoots out one of the ceramic plates in her stomach. Vaquero kicks Hasuji. He’s got this, he can do this. I’ll help him—

Blood wells on Vaquero’s sleeve. Hasuji stops, his eyes widen in his visor.

He’s just realized Vaquero’s weakness.

I bound for them, Saw Off still in my arms. “No!”

Hasuji warps up to his feet. He doesn’t start a flurry of supersonic slashes. With one precise strike, he slices through Vaquero’s neck, beheading him.

Vaquero’s body falls back, squeezing his revolver in a death grip. The gun goes off, shooting through Tachikaze’s armor in her stomach. She grunts and falls to her knees, next to Vaquero’s head. Vaquero’s body slumps over like he’s praying.

Too late. Fuck. I kick into Hasuji and bounce off of him before he can react, pushing him into the dirt and launching back the way we came.

Saw Off screams through blood and bile. “No!”

“Don’t look back!” I pull her into my chest and bound into the woods, careful to avoid the trees. Three powered katana waves slice through the bark and leaves, missing us as I shoot like an arrow to catch up with the others. “I’m sorry!”

Saw Off snarls and slaps my arm. “Let me go, let me—” she hacks up blood as we fly.

I land behind Flashfire, Epione, and Remise. “Vaquero… he’s gone.”

“We have to keep moving,” Flashfire says. “It’ll be more if we don’t get out of here.”

“Here, let me help,” Remise says, taking Saw Off from me. Saw Off screams and sobs like a feral child, tears mixing with the blood on her cheeks and neck. Poor girl. “What do we do now?”

“I’ll go back for the kids,” I say. “I’ll make sure they’re okay. If FIS and the Houston Heroes actually do their job, then we don’t have anything to worry about, but we should still make—”

Hasuji blurs in front of us, interrupting me with another blast of wind carried by his sprint. “Last chance.”

“I love you,” Flashfire says to Epione. “Close your eyes.”

Hearing that, I squeeze my eyes shut too. A bright light sears over my eyelids, and when I open them again, Hasuji’s stunned by Flashfire’s power. Flashfire tackles Hasuji and starts to grapple him. “Run! Go! Get Epione out of here!”

He’s right. He’s the slowest and he can buy the most time with his power.

Epione stumbles to her knees. She didn’t close her eyes in time. I scoop her up and bound toward the van.

“No! Jason!” she screams. “No! I can’t see!”

“I’ll come back for him. I’ll get him.”

The van is right where we left it. Lugs is carrying his sister toward the back. The side door opens and I set Epione inside. She still can’t see. She fumbles around in the seats, trying to get her bearings.

Mil-dot’s face is pale, her eyes shut tight. There’s a chip in one of her teeth, like she clenched her jaw way too tight. Blood seeps from her nostrils. “It- it- it-” Jesus.

“What happened?” I ask.

“She saw whatever Pandahead’s power is. Says there was something in the house with them.”

Mil-dot grabs my jacket. She opens her eyes wide: the white around her pupils is purple and red, like her capillaries burst. “It will devour you.”

“What did you see?” I ask.

She stammers and shakes her head. “I- I- I’ve seen men die, I- I’ve seen battles, I served in China, and Syria.” Mil-dot swallows. I can hear how dry her mouth is. “That thing was like a night ambush in your heart, sitting in a fox-hole, while the world explodes above your head.”

“Gabe!” Drone shouts, running up with Maisa at her side. “Gabe! Gabe! Oh my God! Hurry!”

“What?” I ask. I rush to the passenger side.

Drone is panicked, jabbing her finger at the laptop screen. “He’s- Panda- he’s got a gun! Mr. Gold just left the house. Pandahead’s going upstairs!”

The kids in the room.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

1.4.3

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

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

“Yeah, it’s time,” Flashfire says, the first out of the van.

I pat Maisa on the shoulder once we’re all out. “Ready?”

“I’m ready.” She is deadly serious. “I will see him burn.”

Saw Off is unnerved by Maisa’s declaration. “Easy there, Dresden.” She pulls a handful of shotgun shells from her pocket, tilts her head back, and swallows them, one after another. One, two, three, four, five. She cocks her head to the side, fiddles with her ear, and says, “All good.”

Vaquero chuckles and shakes his head, still as non-plussed as ever.

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

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

“Never mind.”

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

“Is that…?” Flashfire asks.

“Tha’s a fookin’ grenade!” Remise says, her natural accent bubbling up thanks to being flabbergasted by Saw Off’s general existence.

Saw Off shrugs. “You said we needed to make a distraction and grenades are very distracting. It might come in handy! Lugs gave it to me for my birthday.”

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

“Spoilsports.” Saw Off sticks her tongue out at all of us. The 2nd Amendment piles into their car, along with Drone and Maisa, who will accompany Mil-dot to her position. Saw Off waves at us. “We’ll start the party when we see that EMS crew.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hummingbirds ready,” Drone says.

“We’re ready, too,” Flashfire says.

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

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

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

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

Sirens pierce the sounds of the forest. An EMS car rips down the road through the property. It pulls up to the front of the mansion, out of my line of sight. Drone keeps us updated: “EMS workers are getting out, I told them someone was having a heart attack.

“They’re at the door. Someone’s answering. They’re shaking their heads? I think the guy’s turning them away.”

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

“On it,” Lugs says over the comms.

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

Trees crunch and the EMS workers scream.

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

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

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

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

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

“Take the shot,” Flashfire says.

A single clear shot rings out over the lawn.

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

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

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

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

“He’s turtling,” Flashfire says.

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

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

“Epione, mount up!” I shout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus,” Remise says. “Fuckin’ bastard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epione wraps her arms around me.

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

No time for chuckles. I vault up using kinetic energy, kicking off the side of the mansion. I still have to restrain myself so I don’t burn Epione, but after the fight with Krater, it feels like less of a strain to do so, like I was under a lot of pressure that got relieved.

The tip of the guard’s gun is pointed out over the balcony, he’s waiting for something to shoot at. I’ll give him something to shoot at, alright.

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

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

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

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

Epione titters.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait! Gabe!” Epione shouts.

Aspect rips through the window and tackles me. He aims a gun at Epione’s head, but I reach up and catch the muzzle of the gun with my palm before it fires. He shoots one off directly into my hand. I kick his knee with a huge burst of kinetic energy, but it still doesn’t break.

I wrestle him back through the window he just came out of, into an empty room with lots of sleeping bags. My heat sense tells me more men are just outside and are about to open the door.

I will my heat into my hands, well over the amount of heat it takes to melt steel, and grab Aspect’s arm. He screams as it sloughs and bends out of shape. The guards rushing toward us take a few shots, but I twist Aspect in front of me, using him as cover. I twist his melted arm and throw him into the mooks, back where they came from. I slam the door shut behind them, and melt the handle with my hands.

A sniper rifle cracks. “Another one down,” Mil-dot says.

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

“I’m in the house, but the fighting’s too thick to get close to the stairs,” Flashfire says.

“Are the kids okay?” I ask.

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

Epione and I crawl over to the kid’s room where I use my thermal sense to feel out the room inside. Mil-dot was right. Twenty plus kids are packed into this room like sardines in a tin can, cowering in the dark. My thermal sense tells me there are older men cowering behind the children, hunkering against the wall. Cowards, evil vultures. They look like politicians, high powered executives, the wealthy elite.

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

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

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

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

“Was that the fuckin’ birthday grenade?” Remise shouts.

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

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

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

There’s two guards there, guns aimed right down the hall. They open fire. I blast out of the way, but one of the bullets pings off my arm.

“Saw Off’s been hit!” Lugs shouts.

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

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

A chill runs down my spine. Through our comms, I can hear sirens wailing and Remise’s pained gasps. I listen close, and there’s another sound. Someone breathing heavy through a voice modulator. “Clever plan, calling emergency services. Capes and police will follow. Are you not worried they’re on my payroll?”

“FIS might be,” I say, hoping he’ll take the bait. He seems like one of those guys that love explaining their evil plan.

“It’s just good business. FIS helps me, I help them. We have a symbiotic relationship. Like those fish that cling to that one shark.” Pandahead laughs at his own analogy. “They’ll come now that they know I’m under attack. I’m too valuable.”
That’s exactly what I wanted. As clear as a confession we’ll ever get.

A pair of police cars emerges from the tangle of forest, booking it down the road toward the estate. “They’re not the ones coming. The police are.”

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

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

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

“What the hell is that?” Flashfire says.

A massive cold spot materializes in the house, lurking at the edge of my thermal sense. Like a hole poked into the fabric of the universe. “I think that’s his power.”

Epione nods. “I felt that, too.”

Screams echo inside the house, throaty and deep, belonging to men.

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

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

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

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

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

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

1.4.2

There are very few things I expect from Saw Off besides shooting, cursing, and flirting. Among the things I never expected from her is a heartfelt, teary-eyed hug.

“Gabe Babe!” she cries, wrapping her arms around me in the middle of the Barrel of Fish gun shop. “I thought you had died or sumthin’! You never answered my texts.”

I rub the back of my neck. The rest of the 2nd Amendment watches on as I walk into the shop. “Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t in a very good place.”

“Lugs has talked about it non-stop,” Mil-dot says.

“Mil!” Lugs protests. Finally, he chuckles. “It was pretty amazing to see Cosmoworld go up in smoke. You could hear it for miles. And thanks to you, we’re here, and not behind bars.”

I shrug. “It was nothing.”

Saw Off slaps my back just above my ass, like that’s as close as she dared go. “Nothing my butt! You fucking stomped Houston’s Hero! It was fucking awesome.” She hops up onto the counter with a sly smile and says, “Lemme guess, Jason took it as well as my last boyfriend took a Dutch Oven.”

I can’t help but bark a laugh at that, which confirms Saw Off’s suspicions. She grins.

“What are you here for?” Mil-dot asks. “You paid your debt.”

“I know, but I thought you guys might be interested in one of my missions this time. Well, really, one of the Underground’s missions.” I wince, knowing that Saw Off would immediately say no.

“Fuck no,” Saw Off says. “I don’t want to work with a bunch of wet blankets.”

“Look, you can say no, but hear me out. You want Pandahead, yeah?”

The 2nd Amendment perks up at his name. Saw Off chews her lip. “You’ve got him?”

“I have his address. Parlor.”

“Parlor?” Saw Off jumps off the counter and rushes up to me. “You have Parlor.”

“Yeah. I’ve got Parlor. And you can have a piece if you want. But you have to work with the Underground, and you have to accept Flashfire’s leadership.” I cross my arms, trying to look like that will be my final offer.

Saw Off considers that. Finally, she says, “Nope.”

“Aw, come on!” Lugs breaks circle with Mil-dot and Vaquero. “We’ve been dying for this for a year, and I’d sooner jump in the Bayou than let the Underground bag our guy.”

“I refuse to work with Jason.” Saw Off shakes her head. “He can have Pandahead and good riddance at that. It’s no skin off my back if they get him.”

“I don’t think you’ll accept it,” I say. “I think you’ll regret it for years if he swoops in to take credit for all the work you’ve done.”

Saw Off faces away from me. She leans on the counter, supported by her hands, and looks like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulder. At last, she says, “Not a chance.”

Lugs groans. Mil-dot shrugs, Vaquero still looks bemused.

I’ve got one big card left to play. “You wanted to know if the face matched the muscles, right?”

Saw Off looks over her shoulder. “You’re gonna show me your face?”

“Now that’s somethin’ I’m very interested in,” Vaquero says. “You gonna show us who Home Run really is?”

“I will. If you show up to the old brunch spot Remise runs. You’ve been there before, right?” I ask.

“Yeah.” Saw Off turns around. She chews her lip some more, looks everywhere but my face, but finally settles on meeting my eyes. “Fine. I’ll think about it.”

“Okay. Think about it for an hour, because that’s when the brunch is.” I salute to them. “And if not, well, you can watch the news. See if it feels the same as doing it yourself.”

I step outside, where Maisa waits for me. “Why didn’t you want me to go in there?” she asks.

“Didn’t know if they’d shoot me or not.” I chuckle and offer her my back for another piggyback ride. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

We bound through the city together as we did the first week Maisa lived at Epione’s McMansion. But instead of heading back to the brunch spot right away, I decide to stop off at my apartment for a moment, leave Maisa inside with Doc for a few minutes, and go up to my rooftop alone.

I call Bedevil.

The phone rings and rings, and finally she answers.

“H-hullo,” she says, clearly drunk.

“Hey.”

Bedevil squeaks on the other end. “I… I didn’t look… who was calling… I didn’t… I didn’t drunk text you, did I?”

“No. I called you.”

Bedevil starts to weep on the other end. “I… I… What… What do you want?”

“I’m going after Pandahead. Tonight. I don’t know if I’ll come back alive or not, so I wanted to talk to you. And I had a favor to ask, too.”

Bedevil sniffs on the other end. “Why do you think you’ll die?”

“If I get captured, I can’t see myself surviving very long.”

She chokes, unable to reply to that.

“But I want you to know that our rooftop dates were very nice, and they made me happy.”

“Gabe, you don’t have to… You don’t… You don’t deserve what I did.”

I really don’t have a reply to that. Instead, I ask. “Why did you tell me you love me?”

That question starts a new round of sobs from her end of the call. I let her cry without saying anything in reply. She takes a minute to compose herself, and says, “I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. I only tried to get you to stay, and I said the first thing that popped into my head.”

So, it wasn’t true. It’s both a massive relief and a huge disappointment all at once. “Okay.”

“I shouldn’t have manipulated you with that. I was hurting. It’s… not an excuse.”

“It’s a reason,” I say. “A mitigating factor.”

“Yeah,” Bedevil replies. “That.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Could you do something for me?” I ask.

“Anything,” she says.

“Could you get me the phone number of Mr. Gold? Javier Aguellar?” I ask. He was there that night at the auction and I want to know if he’s in on the corruption. If I get in touch with him, maybe I can find out.

“I can.”

“Okay. And… Ruby? I’m sorry.”

Bedevil sniffles. “I am, too.”

“Goodbye, Ruby.”

There’s no reply to that except for quiet weeping.

I move the phone away from my ear and reach my thumb to hang up. Just as I do, I hear her say, “Goodbye, Gabe.”

I fetch Maisa, give Doc a big hug, and we make our way to the brunch spot.

The Underground, and thank fucking God, Iso, wait for us at Remise’s little hideout, already chowing down on some egg sandwiches. The most surprising thing is that Epione is here, too, and wearing her own mask, a solid black face-plate with neon-pink rings where her eyes are.

Iso stares at me as I enter like I’m diseased, but he settles down as I drop Maisa off and grab a sandwich of my own.

Drone’s little flying cameras hover around the room while she plays with her laptop. The feeds show up on her screen as they zoom around, and she gives me a thumbs up as I look over her shoulder. “Glad to have you back, dear husband.”

“So, when do I get my big scoop?” Iso asks.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to swear you to secrecy,” I say. “Which, I understand if you want to walk out now because of that, but I’m not going to back off on it.”

Flashfire pats Iso on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, though. You’re gonna be the one who breaks Pandahead’s true identity, instead.”

“You dirty liar,” Iso says. He frowns and glares at me. “You know how much property damage you did? How much Houston is hurting because of what happened? There are vigils for Krater, you know.”

“I know. I can’t take it back, but I wish I could. I’m trying to do something right, now.”

“Oh, really?” Iso asks. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t involve anything crazy.”

As if on cue, there’s a knock at the door. Remise answers and groans. “God, I was hoping you’d all say no.”

Saw Off and the 2nd Amendment pile into the room. “Howdy, bitches.”

“Oh my God,” Iso says. “You called terrorists.”

Flashfire dusts his hands of crumbs. “Trust me, I’m not that happy about it either, but they’re going to help us get those kids out, while Drone gets the footage you’ll use to bring Pandahead and his clients down.”

“And how are the 2nd Amendment going to help us?” Iso asks.

“With a big distraction. Does that sound like something you can do, Saw Off?” Flashfire asks.

Saw Off grins at her ex-boyfriend and winks. “You know it, Jason Bear.”

The sound coming from under Epione’s mask is a warning growl. The pink rings transform into an angry emoji face.

“That’s awesome,” I mutter. “Why don’t I have a mask like that?”

“Oh?” Drone asks. “I always thought you liked wandering around in a gimp mask?”

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

“Laugh it up,” I growl.

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

“I believe you said you’d show us your face,” Vaquero says.

“Yes, your identity is something I’m very interested in, too,” Iso says. “Even though you’re swearing me to secrecy.”

“You all are.” I reach up for my mask. “What I’m about to show you does not leave this room.”

Saw Off crosses her fingers. “Please be hot, please be hot, please—”

The room goes silent as my mask comes off. Excepting the Underground and Maisa, every one of their jaws hits the floor. They each go through a different spectrum of emotions, but the general pattern seems to be a journey from shock to disbelief to awe.

Saw Off’s face lights up. “Gabe Babe.

“You can’t be.” Iso shakes his head. “He’s dead. You’re dead.”

“Yeah, he is dead,” I say. “I’m not Megajoule, but I do have his face and about half his power.”

“How? How did this happen?” Lugs asks. “How do you have these things?”

“I’ll give you the cliff notes version. I’m a clone. They made me in a lab to take his place if he ever died, but one of the scientists there saved me and brought me to Houston, where I’ve lived ever since. I wasn’t the only one they made, but I am the only one left.” I sigh out. I try to forget that fact as much as possible, and it always hurts when it rears its ugly head. “That’s about it.”

“No wonder you creamed Krater,” Iso says. “Damn. And you can’t be a cape, can you?”

“No. I’d get taken back. Probably liquidated.”

“Well, they’ll take you back over my dead body,” Saw Off says. “What’s the plan for the panda?”

Flashfire slaps the table. “Everybody take a seat and a sandwich.”

He details our plan, but the gist of it is Drone captures footage and uses her Hummingbirds to give us up to date intel, the 2nd Amendment gives us the biggest distraction they can while we call EMS services, and the Underground takes down Pandahead’s guards, while Epione and I take Pandahead himself. Epione’s power could stop Pandahead’s power over fear so that he doesn’t disable me before I can beat him down. Maisa will guard Drone’s position with Mil-dot, who will also be providing sniper support.

Flashfire nods once everyone has the plan. “Okay, so that’s that, team. Gear up. We move out tonight.”

“Tonight?” Saw Off grins. “Fucking awesome.”

Flashfire ignores her and continues. “Once we have the footage, we’ll bring it to you, Iso, and you can leak it wherever the hell it will do the most damage. If regular police capture Pandahead and that video gets out, FIS has no choice but to assist in bringing him down. And if we can prove they’ve worked together, who knows what’ll happen?”

“Very good. Where will we meet up?” Iso asks.

“We could meet back here,” Flashfire says.

I have a different idea. “My apartment. In case we have injured people, Doc will help us.” It’s the only place no one in the Underground has ever been, for their own safety in case I got captured. It probably doesn’t make too much sense, but it’s just a precaution I’ve taken. “I’ll give you all Doc’s number in case we get separated.”

The meeting concludes and everyone heads out to suit up at our respective hideouts. While en route to the mansion, I notice that I’ve got a text from Bedevil with a phone number. “Maisa, can I use your burner phone?”

Maisa nods and hands it to me.

“I won’t be able to give it back this time,” I tell her.

Maisa shrugs. “I only have two numbers on there anyway.”

I dial up Mr. Gold.

He answers halfway through the first ring. “Hello?”

“Mr. Gold?”

Mr. Gold pauses. He grunts and says, “Who the hell is this?”

“Home Run.”

Mr. Gold sounds like he can’t believe that. “Home Run.”

“Yeah. I just wanted you to know that I’m going to be taking care of Pandahead. If you’re really coddling him, then I expect to see you at Parlor tonight.”

“Home Run, I have no idea what Parlor is. What do you know about Pandahead?”

“That FIS wanted to use him. It ends tonight, Gold.”

“If you’re planning on attacking another civilian—”

“The only times you’ve ever seen me are fighting gangs that FIS wants gone. You can’t trust me that I’m on your side?”

Mr. Gold pauses. “Then come into an FIS center and turn yourself in, and tell me what you know.”

“How do I trust that? I can’t.”

“I can’t trust what you’re telling me either. You’re telling me my own agency is corrupted by this human trafficker. Did you think I was in on it?” he asks.

“If you are, I expect you’ll be at Parlor tonight.”

“As I said, I don’t know where that is. Why don’t you tell me?”

“How about you pay attention to your agency’s emergencies tonight, and see what they want to do about it?” I ask.

Mr. Gold doesn’t say anything to that, so I hang up.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

1.4.1

ARC 4: BLACK HOLE

Home Run crouches on the top of the roof of the last Dresden hideout, listening in on the meeting unfolding beneath him. It is the day of the meeting that Kitsune and I found in the hidden journal. I suspected it was a trap at first, but Home Run did not want to wait, and charged ahead.

You see, I am a ghost, I am not here.

The voices coming from the hideout are frightened, they are cowed, they are weak and small. They are the last of Dresden’s crew, including Dresden himself. Dresden sounds assured, optimistic in the face of his utter defeat. “I think that Home Run creates an opportunity for us to come back.”

A doubter speaks his mind: “Come back? From what? Half the gang left Houston, our strongest are dead, and one of them is even informing with the FIS now!”

A muffled explosion follows his rant, which is then followed by gasps and one shout.

Home Run listens and waits.

Dresden continues, despite the grumblings of his companions. “There’s talk of the United States leaving the UWC, now, thanks to Home Run. That will create a rash of opportunity, the likes of which we haven’t seen in thirty years. Not since the Anarchy. Borders are good for us. Everyone knows the central countries rely on northern dollars, and when those are gone, we wait for it to fall apart and pick up the pieces.”

There’s a pause between his grand speech and the next person, but the reply is not a standing ovation. “What the fuck, Dresden?” someone else shouts. “We’re not in a position to just throw lives like that! We’ve lost everything!”

Another explosion. The man is unhinged. Another, another.

Home Run can wait no longer.

The inside of the house is as we left it a month ago; dusty, old, and forgotten, but now littered with smoking bodies that Dresden has so casually discarded. Dresden, a man of roughly my stature, older than I am, and wearing a half-face gas mask and an old school infantryman’s helmet. His eyes dance and smile at me.

“Home Run! What a pleasant surprise.” Dresden leans against the wall, crossing his arms as if he’s relaxed and comfortable.

Home Run only stares at the carnage, the evidence of Dresden’s power — controlled explosions at any point on a ten foot radius around him. Dresden admires his own handiwork along with Home Run. “They were weak. Couldn’t see the future.”

“They were all you had left.” Home Run turns to Dresden. “How do you expect to start the crew again if you’ve killed all your last members?”

“I’ll get new ones.” Dresden shrugs and chuckles, and points at Home Run. “Perhaps I can start with you? Are you interested in a job?”

Home Run warps through the space between him and Dresden with a blast of kinetic energy. The air stirs and shimmers as heat flows from his body to his surroundings, and he seizes Dresden by his stupid gas mask. He rips the damn thing off, revealing Dresden’s soul patch and thin mustache, and a wild smile. Nervous laughter drips from Dresden’s lips like a leaky faucet.

“The only thing I’m interested in is kicking your ass until you tell me what I want to know.” Home Run slams Drseden against the wall and presses against his chest with a kinetically charged hand, just enough that Dresden would start to feel it.

A popping sensation fills Home Run’s lungs, a directed explosion right into his chest, but Home Run absorbs the energy and belches out some smoke.

“Nice try.”

Dresden’s crazy smile widens. “Are you actually a Youxia?”

Home Run pauses. He smiles under his mask. “Yes. Yes. I am your bogeyman. I am everything they’ve said and more. And if you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will never have the opportunities you dream of, Dresden.”

Dresden laughs and sighs, clearly out of his mind. “Not as if I haven’t already lost everything else in my life. Fine! Fine, I’ll give you what you want. Though I’ll have to know what it is, first.”

“Who hired you to kill Pandahead?” Home Run asks.

“You still don’t know that? Not even with one of my leaders singing songs in jail?” Dresden cackles. “Wow. You must feel like a bull in a china shop.”

“Yes, all the time. And in my hands, you’re the fine china.” Home Run pushes just a little harder, causing Dresden to wheeze and cough.

“Fine! Yes! FIS hired us. I know because I had someone tail the guy after he purchased our services.” Dresden groans and grabs Home Run’s arms, trying to push the unrelenting force back. “Please, I can’t breathe.”

Home Run does not relent.

“I can’t tell you what you want if I die!”

Home Run pushes a little harder.

Dresden squeaks, a rib cracks inside his chest. “I- I can give you Panda, on a platter, just please.”

Home Run eases up, our mutual interest piqued by Dresden’s offer. “Tell me.”

“Pandahead has worked for FIS for a long time. At least, that’s what I think. That’s what everyone thinks.” Dresden coughs. He slumps against the wall.

“How does that give me his head on a platter?” Home Run asks.

“It doesn’t, not quite the way you want, but it means that if you can get his real identity and prove it, then FIS would crucify him for you rather than letting it be known they worked for him.”

“How do I prove it, then? I don’t even know where he is.”

“That’s the second part. I can give you the address of one of his Parlor.” Dresden stands up. “But you have to let me walk out of here alive, and you have to turn your head the other from my crew from now on. No more burning my gang out, no more attacking my people. We don’t diddle kids, we do hit jobs. It’s honest work.”

Home Run wraps his hand around Dresden’s throat and wills heat into his hand, he lets it get nice and warm so that Dresden feels it. “I’ll do some honest work for free if you don’t give me that address right this god damn second.”

“Taylor Jade! Taylor Jade’s estate!” Dresden screams like a child, clawing at Home Run’s jacket. “Please!”

For a fraction of a second, Home Run debates ending this man’s life. He should, he absolutely should. That man is a murderer for hire. He just killed all of his own lackeys without a second thought. And yet, there’s a small part of him — me — that doesn’t want that.

I resurface, filling out my arms and legs, taking over from Home Run. Just long enough to let the insane Dresden run for his life. I don’t promise him that I won’t come after him, but I can’t see myself mustering the energy anymore.

It’s not like a Bruce Banner and Hulk situation, in that Home Run doesn’t seethe under the surface like a raging fire barely held back by my skin. Rather, it feels like I just put on a mask named Gabe. Home Run is beneath that.

Or maybe he’s the mask. I don’t know anymore and the split is killing me.

Instead of dwelling on how I feel, I focus on what I just found out. FIS was sponsoring Pandahead, at least, that’s what the gangs around town thought. Dresden just handed me his location. I could explode through those walls and save the kids myself.

And then have every cape in Houston busting down the door trying to capture me, and FIS chomping at the bit to pull me in.

I take off my mask. Surrender myself and likely die for those kids. I could do that. What’s my life compared to theirs? I expect to die every time I go into a fight. As one should, that is the fate of the warrior. Rarely do we die in our beds, old and happy.

I’m twenty three years old, marking the moment I came out of the vat. What’s the chances I even hit double that, let alone a full and healthy lifespan? So giving that up to save those children. I would do it.

I could do it, right now.

My phone rings. Doc. I answer.

“You’ve got a guest.”

I return home and find that my guest is Maisa. She sits and waits with Doc in the living room, watching one of his K-dramas with him. But when I return, she jumps out of her seat and dashes over to me, and hugs me. “Gabe, are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” I am lying. Still, I manage to wrap my arms around her in return. “How’s things? Are you okay?”

“Yes. The Underground hasn’t done much. Flashfire can’t get a hold of Iso even though he told Iso that he kicked you out of the Underground. And he won’t go out with all of the attention you’ve gotten.”

I frown and take off my mask, and put my glasses on. “I’ve been trying to take the attention away from him. I went out tonight.”

Maisa pulls back. She studies me with the practiced gaze of a jeweler. “You found something.”

“I did. But I don’t know what to do with it,” I say.

“What do you mean?” Maisa asks.

“I know where he is. If I go there and start a fight, it’s likely I’ll get captured. Which means that I’ll probably be dead within the week, if I don’t die in that fight.” Even though I stare down that particular barrel, with everything that’s happened, it feels like a bargain to me. Perhaps I am suicidal, but couldn’t the same be said of every martyr? I don’t want to die for nothing. I want to die for a reason. Like saving the world.

That is suicidal, I realize. No one can save the world alone and the very notion of saving the world is stupid. Save it from what? Itself?

“What are you thinking?” Maisa asks.

“That I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

Doc barks a laugh from the living room. “You’re starting to sound like a regular Socrates.”

Normally I’d tell him to eat shit, but that actually draws a grim chuckle from me. “Next they’ll be making me drink hemlock.”

Maisa does not join in our laughter. “If you know where he is, why don’t you go? You stopped the greatest hero in this city, Remise said. Surely a gang and a few more capes aren’t going to stop you.”

“Not a few. Every cape. I’m a cloak, now.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Maisa says. “Is that a bad thing?”

“There’s capes, there’s masks, and then there’s cloaks. Cloaks are the scary monsters, the things that go bump in the night. The supervillains and the creatures that could never get along in society.” I rest my elbows on the counter and ponder that description. Not too far off from how I really feel.

“Then go bump in the night,” Maisa says. “Make Pandahead so afraid he never harms another child again. Make this city so afraid they won’t ever let someone like Pandahead exist.”

“I’ve already made them afraid, and it only made Pandahead stronger. They’re afraid of me more than they are of him. I can’t use fear if it’s being used against me.”

“Reach, dream, strive, become,” Doc says. “That’s how you fight the fear.”

Megajoule’s slogan. His words come pouring back to me. A dam breaks in my mind and thoughts start to flood my brain. Black hole, the fear. He meant the same thing. Fear destroys everything around it, pulls people in and stretches them out until they die. It’s what’s happening to me, to Bedevil, to the Underground, and Pandahead’s the only one who’s benefiting because that’s his power. He’s like someone orbiting around a black hole and pushing people inside.

One by one, molecules ripped apart.

“We’re not going to beat him by making the city more afraid. We’re going to beat him by exposing what he does and who he is. We only fear the unknown, right? If we expose him, we remove his power, and we free those kids.” I can see the path to victory. We don’t try to fight him as masks, as one gang versus another. We fight him like capes would, by forcing him into the light of the public’s eye. The public fears him as a nebulous entity associated with trafficking and gangs, but they wouldn’t fear him if they knew who he was and what he’d done exactly.

They’d crucify him, like Dresden said.

“We need to take this to Flashfire. The Underground is the only way to do it,” I say. “And I need to talk to Iso.”

“Only problem is, neither of those people want to talk to you,” Doc says.

“Yeah, I know. But they’ll want to hear what we’ve got to say, won’t they, Maisa?” I ask.

Maisa grins. “Yeah. They will. But I have to see him go. I have to be there.”

I kneel down in front of her and put my hand on her shoulder. “I give you my word. You’ll get to see it happening. Let me call Flashfire and we’ll work out a meeting.”

Maisa shakes her head and hands me a flip phone. “They bought it for me. They won’t hang up on you if you call from there.”

“They might be mad at you,” I tell her, taking the offered phone.

Maisa’s answering smile is wolfish. “I’ve had worse.”

I dial Flashfire’s number and hold my breath. My heart bottoms out, collapses, and restarts all while my stomach squeezes tighter and tighter as I wait for him to answer. The dialing cuts off mid-ring.

“Hello?” Flashfire asks.

I sigh out. “Please don’t hang up.”

Flashfire falls silent on the other end. After a moment, he says, “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“I’m glad you are, too,” I say. “Listen, I’ve been really bullheaded, and I’m sorry. You were absolutely right about what you said. All I could think about was Home Run. I’m not going to try and justify that. Just… I was trying to be like him, you know? Megajoule.” A lump forms in my throat. “You were right. He was the last good cape.”

Flashfire doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. When he does finally speak, his words are slow, and I can tell that he’s fighting to stay calm. “That wasn’t fair of me. You’ve been fighting so hard and I spat on it. I shouldn’t have used him like that against you.”

“It’s fine. I deserved it.”

“Nah. You didn’t.”

“I deserved it.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Are you really fighting about him forgiving you?” Maisa asks.

I cough. “Sorry.”

“Sorry,” Flashfire echoes. “Do you want to come over? I don’t want to kick you out of the Underground. I didn’t mean that.”

“I actually called for a reason beyond apologizing. I actually found Dresden tonight, and I got him to talk.”

“The Dresden?” Flashfire asks.

“The same. He was off his rocker. Killed his own guys. But he told me where Pandahead’s base is, called it Parlor. Has Iso ever talked about Parlor?” I’m a little worried that he made it up.

“Yeah. He has. Said it was a brothel for rich perverts. Nobody goes for it because some powerful people are behind it, apparently. Is that all he said?”

Good, so it’s real. “He said it was on Taylor Jade’s estate. The software guy. He also said that FIS ordered the Dresden hit on Pandahead, and that they were looking to tie up loose ends. He said a lot of people believe FIS worked with Pandahead.”

“I don’t doubt it. What do you want to do with this?” Flashfire’s question is vulnerable. He knows I could go there by myself.

I’ve already decided against it by telling him. “We meet up. Drone has her Hummingbirds, still. We can use those to get footage of Pandahead, get his mask off, and get FIS to nail him to a wall.”

“Yes!” Flashfire sounds ecstatic. “That’s a good plan. Drag him out into the light.”

“But we need to make sure those kids get out of there. Is there anyway to force him out of Parlor and get the footage at the same time? I’m worried if he goes to ground his stock disappears.” I tap my chin while I form some semblance of an idea. “How about we meet up at the brunch spot? You call Iso, tell him what I told you, and tell him we want to work with him.” I pause. “Tell him you know who Home Run is, and if Iso wants that scoop, he better show.”

Flashfire stammers. “Are you sure?”

“Home Run can still be useful, I think. Even though he messed a lot of stuff up.” I can feel him below the surface, ready to take over.

“Okay. Tomorrow night. We’ll meet there.” Flashfire laughs. “Thanks, Gabe. I love you, brother.”

The words are somewhat painful, thanks to Bedevil, but I manage to choke through them.“I… I love you, too.” He hangs up.

“That went well,” Maisa says, smiling.

I hand her the phone back. “Yeah. Just one more thing.” I pull my own phone out and thumb through my contact info, and find Saw Off’s number, still filed under BABY <3.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

1.3.5

I swear Doc is telepathic because he comes in already rubbing his temples. Like he knows! Like he knows I done fucked up. Which I did. “Why the hell is there a random girl face first in our couch?”

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

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

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

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

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

“WHAT-”

I shush him with a finger to my lips.

What the FUCK,” Doc whispers.

“She followed me home after the Krater fight.” I pause and decide to tell him the truth. “She’s Kitsune, Doc.”

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

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

“May I have some?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know yet. I’ll wait until she wakes up, and figure out where to go from there.”

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

We share our corn and avocado, and then Doc leaves as promised, while I panic trying to figure out what I’m going to say to Bedevil.

I grab a shower real quick, washing the filth and dried blood from me, and the hot water relieves the pain of my nicks and bruises. I may have stood up to Krater and beaten him, but he still did a number on me. One of my ribs is definitely bruised. I dry off and absorb the heat standing in the room. The steam condenses mid-air around me, turning into a misty spray that coats the ground, cool to the touch.

I towel off and get dressed, and return outside.

Bedevil is standing in the hall, staring at me as I emerge from the shower.

The delicious scent of coffee lures me into the kitchen, where a fresh pot waits on our cheap coffee machine. Bedevil still can’t take her eyes off me. Her face betrays so many different emotions I can’t keep track of all of them, but she seems caught somewhere between grief, rage, and absolute elation.

I pour myself a cup. “Thank you.”

She stammers, shakes her head, and sighs. “You’re welcome. Do you have anything I can wear?” She gestures to her soaked clothes.

“Yeah, do you want a shower?” I ask.

She nods, so I escort her to my bathroom, and while she cleans off, I pick out a t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts, similar to what she’s already wearing. I stuff her currently soaked clothes in the dryer and start that up.

How am I going to explain who I am?

Well, how did I explain it to Maisa? I showed her the videos.

I hook my laptop up to the TV and wait for Bedevil to finish. I hear the bathroom door open and close again as she grabs the clothes I left for her, and then it opens after a few minutes, and she floats into the living room, her hair wet and dangling behind her back.

She sits next to me. We don’t speak for an eternity and I count my heartbeats, lost inside the black hole in my chest. One, two, three—

At last, she breaks our silence. “Mega.”

“It’s still Gabe. I’m not him.”

Bedevil frowns. “You… you look just like him. Your power. Your voice.” Tears fill her eyes. “I almost forgot the sound of your voice, but now that I know it, I know it’s you. It has to be you.”

“Well, I’m Gabe,” I say again. “I knew you wouldn’t get it.”

Bedevil groans in frustration. “Then help me get it. What are you? Who are you, if you’re not him?” She half slurs through her words. She’s still drunk.

“Here,” I say, clicking on the vlogs folder on my laptop, and open one of the last videos I ever watched there.

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

Bedevil gasps and puts her hand over her mouth. Her voice is muffled behind her fingers as she speaks. “He looks… he looks awful.”

He starts to tap the pencil. A nervous tic, I guess.

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

No, no I have not, Julian. Bedevil stares in horror at her hero. Tears glisten in her eyes.

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

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

“Oh, my God,” Bedevil says.

“Someone watching you would see your body hit the event horizon, and from there, your image would redshift into oblivion instead of continuing on. You’d keep falling, though.” The hand holding the notepad is trembling. “The howling dark would come up at you. An infinite abyss stretching further and further out. Light would wrap around the hole, and as you passed the horizon, the universe would actually fall away behind you. It would shrink and shrink into a pinprick until all around you is the dark.

“It might actually be calm, for a bit. Until you start to feel yourself stretching.” He stops tapping his pencil. “Spaghettification. Your molecules would get ripped apart into one string pulled down one path. One path that you can’t get off, one path taking you into the shadow. Forever. There is no escape from a black hole, Gabe.”

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

“I never knew what he was trying to tell me,” I say to Bedevil.

Bedevil doesn’t respond to me. She reaches out and scrolls the video back to where he’s first addressing me, and then pauses it so she can stare at his face.

And at last I understand.

The way she’s looking at him, the way she covers her mouth, the way she weeps for his memory. “You were in love with him.”

Bedevil squeaks. She closes her eyes. She breathes out a painful, ragged breath, and says, “Yes.”

I don’t even really know what to say to that. “Do you understand, though?”

“Yes.” Her eyes dart back and forth between him and me.

I chew on my lip, feeling that she really doesn’t.

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

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

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

“You’ve really been in love with him this long?” I ask.

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

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

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

“Men,” I joke, finishing with the clippers and applying shaving cream to my face. I grab Doc’s cheap straight blade razor, hoping I’m not going to cut myself with it.
Bedevil chuckles. “Yeah, men.” She stares at me a little longer than she should. Like, when you’re on a bus and you glance at someone across the row, but you can’t linger too long otherwise you’re creepy? She’s doing the creepy thing. I mean, it is just us, but I get uncomfortable when someone looks at me too long. “Have… have you dated?”

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

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

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

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

“Like I told you, Doc’s the closest thing I’ve got. I guess the other Underground members, too.” Only now, I’m not a part of that family anymore. That memory stings.

I let her get a good look at my shaved face. It’s not a pretty job, I didn’t use a close shave razor, just my clippers, but it’s good enough to show my actual jaw.

Bedevil comes close and studies me. It’s hard to forget that we almost had our own romance as Home Run and Kitsune. The way she looks at me, the way I look at her. There’s more than just Megajoule here.

She’s got nice hazel eyes, a full smile dawns on her lips, and I can almost see down her shirt that’s too big for her… and what am I saying? I need a distraction. My heart’s thumping, and I can hear all the blood screaming through my veins.

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

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

“No, no, it’s fine.” I place my hand on her arm. She doesn’t retreat. “Ruby, I’m sorry I ran. I didn’t know if you’d understand.”

“No, it’s okay. I get it.” She’s not backing away, in fact, I think she’s getting closer.

“Hey, uh…”

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

She’s soft, she’s so soft, her body practically melts under my energetic touch.

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

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

I can feel the blood flowing through her veins with my heat sense, pumping faster and faster. Her cheeks flush, her body blazes, her breathing is erratic. She gets on her tiptoes. Her lips run up my jaw. “Please,” she breathes into my ear. “Please, fuck me.”

I exhale. “Okay,” I whisper back.

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

She pulls her shirt off in one move. She’s got cute, pink nipples, and she’s so tiny I’d call her frail. Her hair is long and golden, framing her face perfectly. She’s gorgeous.

She takes her jeans off slower than her shirt, and she looks flustered. She’s wearing granny panties, not sexy at all. I struggle against a smile. She slips those off and she’s completely naked.

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

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

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

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

We stay like this for a while, feeling each other. Her heart’s beating just as fast as mine. My heat sense tells me that she’s on fire as much as I am.

“I… want to…” she says.

“Yeah,” I answer.

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

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

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

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

“Mega,” she moans.

My heart stops pounding, and drops out, instead.

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

I rip free of her, falling on my ass, scrambling back to the door. I am a ghost, I am not here. This isn’t happening to me, it’s happening to someone else.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Bedevil asks. It hasn’t dawned on her yet.

But it does. It dawns on her like a bad sun on the day of a death. Whatever pleasure she felt is gone. “I’m… Oh my God. What did I just do?” She starts to panic. “What the fuck did I just do?”

I can barely speak. “You got what you wanted.”

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

“What?” My arms are numb.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

My body stops.

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

“I don’t know,” I tell her.

She whirls around. She’s in anguish. I’ve never seen someone look so broken. “Why did they do this? Why did they pull him from the grave just to torture me?”

“They didn’t pull him from a grave, I’m my own person!” I have to be. I need to be.

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

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

“Why the fuck are you apologizing to me?”

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

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

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

“I’ll go, I’ll go,” she says, trembling and crying. She’s crying so hard snot’s running down her lips. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I am fucked up, you’re right. I’ll go, I shouldn’t have come here, I’ll leave you alone.” She shuffles out of my bedroom. After a minute, our door opens and closes.

My heart collapses into a black hole again. Gabe slips past the event horizon, leaving only Home Run in his place.

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1.3.4

I’ve never really believed in gods of any kind. People talk about Megajoule like he was a god. Normally, I’d shrug it off or scoff, but I only have a fraction of his same power, and when I bring it to bear, I can’t help but wonder that maybe Megajoule really was something divine.

Light shines from my skin, the heat radiating from me stirs the air into shimmering patches like mirages in a desert, and Krater’s easy smile drops off his face as he sees the full power within me. The stone squeals beneath my feet, the canvas roof of the bumper car arena catches fire behind me, and the hidden behemoths of the park are revealed by my light.

Krater holds a hand out to block his eyes from how bright I’ve become. He hesitates for a moment too long, giving me a perfect opening.

I smash into Krater like a meteor. Steam pours from my boots, the light dims but flickers back to life as I reabsorb the energy of my attack. Krater blasts back so fast he breaks the sound barrier. He smashes into the supports of one of the roller coasters. The entire frame screeches and wobbles before falling back onto the walk paths.

Huge metal spears shoot out from the plume of dirt, pieces of metal beams ripped from the roller coaster. I use my power to blast away at supersonic speeds, melting the fence around the walk paths and abandoned shacks as I warp around them.

The rods pierce the earth with thunderous might, sinking like knives into the world. Krater sends more of these deadly spears my way, just missing me as I rocket in a circle around his position, revolving closer and closer like a blinding coin swirling down a drain.

I explode through the ticketing booth for the roller coaster, kicking off one of Krater’s spears into the sky, and blast downward with a kick aimed for his chest. Krater dodges at the last second and grabs my arm. He howls in pain from my heat, he sends me flying, but I stop mid-air with my power and crash back down into the walkways.

Krater comes out with a huge chunk of the roller coaster track, swinging it like a club. The metal melts on contact, warping the tracks around me and robbing the weapon of much of its force. I drink up the rest. A riposte from my fist spins Krater around on his feet after he refuses to let go of the cub.

We meet in a furious bout, a stone skin deity against an elemental of pure fire. We shake the skeletal frames down to the earth as my aura turns the steel to slag and the forces of our blows send shock waves that they must feel across the highway. Helicopters hover over the sweltering battleground, wavering as hot gusts soar up from below. They must be as close as they can get, and that is far away, hundreds of feet above even the tallest remaining skyscraper.

Must be like astronauts staring into the sun. I’ve turned the ground beneath me into molten rock, the air around me into a deadly soup of gases and blazing radiation. Krater’s entire body is covered in stone now, though he still moves, each of his thunderous steps shedding tons of debris. We trade blows that give me thousands of degrees at a time.

I don’t believe in gods but our battle questions that belief. My heat sense is overwhelmed by the symphony of energy. The music of thermal power weaves around me.
Krater rises. He hurls chunks of earth. I shatter them. He tackles me through the field of rock, swinging haymakers that would level skyscrapers. I drink their energy. Heat overflows. Another coaster squeals out its death as it falls into slag like all the others. I don’t know my limit, but I could very well incinerate the surrounding area if I don’t put an end to it.

I weave through another barrage of spears, most of which melt before they make it halfway to me, and speed around him in a circle, searching for the angle of my final blow. I find it behind on his left, where a huge chunk of stone skin hasn’t sloughed off, built up so he can’t swing his left arm right.

The thought occurs and I barely have time to blink before I’ve thrown Krater into the cement remains of a restroom.

Krater rises.

Again my fist sings with kinetic energy.

Krater rises. And stumbles.

I seize a piece of metal that begins to melt in my hands immediately, and shout, “I call this one Heatwave Home Run!”

Hey batter batter, SWING batter!

My makeshift bat explodes into molten shards. Krater sails along the ground, disappearing into the roots of the last remaining roller coaster at Cosmoworld. The tracks rip apart. Their metal beams scream.

Krater does not rise this time.

I find him encased in solid stone amid the ruins with a metal support sticking out of his gut, slick and shiny with blood. That blood boils into steam as I approach.
Krater’s eyes follow me. He’s still alive. But he doesn’t move at all as I come close. His voice barely escapes his gravel covered mouth. “You gonna kill two capes tonight?”

“I’m not a murderer!” I jab my finger into his face. “I’m not! I’m just like you, I’m fighting to save this city!”

“If you were like me, you’d be saving people after this fight was over, and turning yourself in,” Krater says. “You’d be a cape.”

“I can’t be!” I roar. “You get your face on that fucking skyscraper, you get the interviews and the fancy life, you get the key to the city. You get to show your face.” I jab my shining finger at him. “I have to wear a mask!”

Krater has no answer to my tirade.

“I showed them, I showed them what Home Run could do, what he’s capable of. I showed them that he has the power to save this city from Pandahead, from Dresden, from anyone!” I get on my knees and stare at Krater from beneath my goggles. “I can protect it better than you can.”

Debris rumbles and dances off his chest as he chuckles. One of his arm twitches but no more than an inch. “If this was a battle about whether or not Home Run was a hero, then you lost, little man.”

For all the heat and fury inside me, I suddenly feel cold. “What?”

“You just kicked the shit outta Houston’s Hero. Do you think they’ll praise you, now?”

“I didn’t kill you.”

“Nah. Don’t know why.” He groans and fumbles at the beam sticking out of his stomach. “Might still die. That’s what it is to be a cape, though.”

“I didn’t kill you because I’m not a villain, a cloak, or whatever. I’m just a mask trying to help the city.”

Krater looks up. “Some help, Home Run. Some help.”

“The capes and the fish have turned a blind eye to Pandahead!” I shout. “What’s your face on that screen for if you can’t save those kids? What’re you the Houston Hero for if you can’t rescue them?”

Krater stares at me. “I’m always saving kids from people like you.”

“I’m not your enemy. You can’t take Home Run from me like that. You can’t make him your monster! I’m not your enemy!”

“You’re Houston’s enemy. You’re my enemy.” Krater wheezes and coughs. “Houston… I…” He grimaces and closes his eyes. “I need help.”

I fall to my knees. He’s right. Why did I think that doing this would help? I should have just used my power to get as far away as possible, but I got so caught up in the fight that I just let it happen. Who knows how much property damage I just did. Who knows how many people Krater could have helped back near Shortfin’s house if I’d just stayed put.

“God damn it.” I melt the beam off Krater’s torso and lift him, feeding energy out of my body so that the light inside dies out, transferring instead to the ground below, where I can feel it churn and join the heat deep below me.

I carry Krater out of Cosmoworld, bounding in huge launches toward the south. I drop him off in front of a random house in the middle of the suburban jungle, ding dong ditch every single person on the street, and then blast off into the night sky.

I make sure that I am not being followed by winding around the city until I’m confident that if anyone managed to follow me, they’d have already ambushed me.

Where am I going to go? I stick to the dark as much as possible, gliding my way along the rooftops until I’m back into my part of town. I debate returning to my apartment, but I don’t think I could bear to see Doc’s face right now. Not after he asked me to keep my head down.

I decide that Epione’s mansion is the best option for now. I make my way there, noticing that the streets are empty, that sirens fill the city, that the side of the OPI Tower no longer displays the faces of the heroes, but an emergency message for people to stay inside their homes. Police cars roll down the roads but I take my usual path through the McMansion backyards until I arrive at Epione’s house.

The house is dark except for the living room, which carries the faint light of Epione’s television.

I enter through the kitchen and find the Underground staring at the TV, transfixed at the apocalyptic news. The look they give me is somewhere between horror and awe, and no words pass between us as I turn to see what they’re watching.

Krater is in the ICU, there are millions of dollars in property damage, and dozens of injured people from my fight with Hellcat. I am Houston’s newest cloak. FIS has deemed me an official supervillain, the likes of which they have not seen since Carnality. My mouth dries as I see pundits accuse me of being a Youxia from China, come to the UWC and the States, specifically, to tear the country apart. I see capes accusing me of being an upstart warlord. Home Run is a monster in their eyes.

Bedevil appears on screen. The reporter tries to ask her questions but she does not reply, she only sits there with her mouth hung open. I see all of the pain I’ve inflicted on her in the last few months staring me in the eyes.

I’m a monster.

Flashfire turns the TV off, and still, we have not said a single word to each other. Remise swallows. Maisa and Drone can only watch me in fear. Epione, for her part, still wears her polite smile.

Flashfire turns slowly to me, and says, “Get out.”

I stammer.

“Get. Out.” The demon I saw that night after I raided the Dresden hideout with Bedevil returns. Flashfire’s face twists with rage and he becomes a hideous gargoyle, pointing and shrieking at me. “You have destroyed everything we worked for! You destroyed an entire god damn theme park and might have fucking killed the greatest hero in this city!” He throws the remote for the TV at my chest, which bounces off me harmlessly.

None of the others come to my defense. Remise breathes out a single, “Flashfire.”

“You did it all for that stupid name, that fucking label they just slapped onto you, and you thought you could change their fucking minds, and you did it all at our expense!” Flashfire’s fury is fervent, his face pale and his eyes wide. His voice grows even more frantic. “I have no idea if they’re coming for us, if Iso or the 2nd Amendment will throw us under the bus, and if they do I don’t know what I’ll do, I don’t know what I’ll tell them!”

“I’m sorry,” I mutter.

“It’s too fucking late for sorry, Gabe! You went on a crusade for yourself, not for the Underground and not for the kids!” Flashfire jabs his finger at me.

That last statement stokes the fire inside me, like he poured gasoline on me. “No, I almost died for those kids. I almost died trying to track Pandahead down but he tricked us—”

“He never would have gotten you if you’d listened to me! If you’d just trusted me and kept your head down, but you can’t fucking do that!” Flashfire gets into my face.

“I don’t know how you can keep your head down when Pandahead is out there letting the biggest buyer fuck whatever kid he chooses! I don’t know how you can sit by and let it happen!” I bring my full height to bear. I’ve already been kicked enough, I’m not going to take this. “You wait here for some magical piece of info to drop into your lap but all the while you wait for someone else to handle Panda, and that makes you just as bad!”

Maisa screams out, Remise jumps up to try and get between us, but Flashfire continues his tirade. “No, you want to rush in without thinking, and that’s going to get you killed! You need to be smarter! Do you think that Megajoule-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” Flashfire says.

Hours later, after wandering the alleys and avoiding police cars, I return to my apartment.

Doc stands in the kitchen, his eyes red, his face a picture of worry.

I don’t say a word. My face feels like it’s going to fall off and my heart is a black hole, and I explode into tears.

Doc embraces me and rubs the back of my head, and pulls me into his arms. I bury my head into his shoulder. I weep. My legs give out and I only stay upright because Doc presses his arm against my back and I cling to his shoulders, and even then it’s not enough. I sink to my knees and Doc does not give up his support. His warm hands stroke my hair and rest on my shoulder as I claw at his shirt.

I spend all of my tears and after Doc walks me over to the couch. He lays me down there and I pass into merciful darkness, leaving this horrible day behind.

Knocking stirs me from my sleep. Rain gently patters outside. Doc is not in the living room, nor the bathroom, nor his bedroom. He must have gone out. Maybe to help where I could not.

I answer the door.

Bedevil stands there, clutching a bottle of Everclear like it’s a lifesaver. She’s not in her Inheritors outfit. She’s in street clothes, in joggers and a white t-shirt that’s a little too big, all soaked from the rain.

I can’t speak.

Bedevil stumbles toward me, clinging to the door frame. Her voice is frail: “Where- where have you been? Where have you been all this time?”

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

Bedevil drops the bottle of Everclear and grabs my face. She pulls me in with a harsh jerk and mashes her lips against mine, and then releases me with a gasp. My mind buzzes and shuts down; I can hear the neurons catching fire and exploding like transformers in a storm. Her eyes dance as she stares into mine, her mascara runs. Her chest heaves. The bottle of liquor orbits both of us.

Her eyelids flutter and her head wobbles, and she blacks out against my chest.

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