Thump, thump, thump. Heavy metal boots march on the chapel roof. I stare in horror at the ceiling, waiting for the guillotine blade to fall.
“How do you think he found us so quickly?” Megajoule asks.
“I don’t know,” I mutter.
Megajoule chuckles as he circles around me like a shark. “This is why you can’t play the detective. This is why cat and mouse is not your game.” Megajoule’s smug grin fades away, and for once he no longer looks arrogant. He stares me in the eyes, and for a moment, I swear I can see his skin rotting. “Leave the boy. You’re too important to risk for his life. If you get into a fight with a high level cape you will become public enemy number one.”
This would be the opportunity to get them off my back. Give them Mateo. Something tells me he wouldn’t give me up, wouldn’t tell them an iota about me.
Unless they torture him. Unless they work him until there’s nothing of Mateo left and they’ve found me.
What waits for Mateo if I don’t intervene?
“My life isn’t more important than his,” I say to Megajoule.
My conversation with the phantom ends there. Danger Close punches through the roof and lands in the middle of the chapel. I rush to Mateo and throw him on my back. I dash to the nearest pew and put him down, hopefully out of eyeshot.
Before I step away I picture the bullets from Danger Close’s shoulder guns turning Mateo into mulch. I need some range. I’m fast, really fast, but I don’t think I’m faster than a bullet. If he pulls the trigger before I get there, the kid’s dead. I need some way to close the gap before Danger Close can fire.
“If he fires,” Megajoule says.
I don’t reply. He chased us here. I have zero doubts we’ll get out of this alive if Danger Close has his way.
Danger Close waves his hand. Drones, little triangles much smaller than the ones patrolling the city, spill from his armor and hone in on me immediately. “I know you’re there, Goggles. Come down nice and easy and the boy doesn’t get hurt.” He has a thick, Texan drawl, like the rednecks of the old States.
I pick up a small rock and rub it, making sure it doesn’t flake apart. If I use it as a bullet, it needs to stand up to the force and not burn up right away.
Danger Close is even more imposing here than fifty yards out. In his armor he’s taller than me by at least a foot. His gauntlets end in deadly sharp claws. A machine gun rests on his shoulder. The joints of his armor hum with power.
The visor of his helmet shows me his face in an ugly, red light. Fear twists his expression, but he whistles at me regardless. “You’re a tall fuckin’ dude, Goggles.”
I’m certain he’s not invulnerable, not if he needs that suit.
His shoulder mounted gun whines as it turns to face me. Mateo sits up and peeks his head above the pew, taking in the situation at hand.
“This doesn’t have to get ugly,” I say to DC.
Danger Close chuckles. “Now, Goggles, I’m a Houston Hero. I give you my solemn word that I won’t hurt him.”
I know next to nothing about Danger Close, but I do know capes lie.
The music of my power builds inside me, but something unusual prevents me from taking the first strike: I sense no other capes in the vicinity. He showed up alone, just as he did back at the warehouse. Capes always come in pairs at least.
It’s a hunch. A gut feeling. Something about this isn’t above board. He’s not trying to kill me and the kid. He’s not even trying to arrest us. He’s made no attempt to neutralize my powers—though he may know about the Winsley bracelet on Mateo’s arm.
The kid gave me a name. Pandahead. Aside from the pebble in my hand, that name is the only weapon I have. From what Paul told me, he’s an Affect slaver.
What would a cape want with someone who trades in Affect slaves? Containing threats?
“Let’s talk about Pandahead,” I say. I start up a pace, seeing if he’ll allow me the movement.
He allows it. His heart hammers in his chest.
“We have this place surrounded,” Danger Close says.
“No you don’t,” I say. I’m on the edge of a confession, but to what, I don’t know.
Danger Close studies the church, quietly reassessing me as I pace in between the pews. His shoulder mounted gun aims at Mateo. “You tell me who the fuck you are, Goggles, or I’ll put holes in both of you.”
“How very heroic.” I glance at Mateo. No matter what, I won’t let him get hurt. I just need a confession, a lead, something to work with. “Are we gonna talk about what happened in the warehouse, or are you gonna shoot me?”
Danger Close scowls, making him look like a gargoyle under his crimson visor. He clenches his fist. Da-dump, da-dump, says his heart, three times a second. The mention of the warehouse has him worked up.
“More worked up than you’d expect a Houston Hero to be,” Megajoule agrees.
He came alone, too. He didn’t bring backup. “Right,” Megajoule says.
And he found us within three hours. I know I didn’t leave a footprint, which means he tracked us some other way—a new Affected tech I don’t know about, or a tracker on Mateo.
The Winsley bracelet leaps to my mind. But the only way he’d be able to track us through Mateo…
“Is if he knew about Mateo already. If he knew about Pandahead and his human trafficking,” Megajoule finishes.
I’m right. I know I’m right. I just need to force it. There’s one more card I can play before this erupts. “Pandahead’s done with you, DC,” I say. A full on bluff.
Danger Close purses his lips. He is silent, but his heart confesses his involvement. His gun still aims at Mateo, who could do nothing if he started firing.
“We have a deal worked out,” DC replies. “He can’t be done with me.”
“Cat and mouse isn’t my game, huh?” I think at Megajoule. To Danger Close, I say, “He doesn’t like the terms anymore.”
“Yeah? We agreed I get welterweight and above. If he isn’t happy with that he should come talk to me directly instead of killing all of my shipment.”
“...Shipment?” I blurt out. Curse my fool mouth!
Danger Close stops talking. “You…” He sighs. “You’re not one of his, are you?”
Before he can shoot Mateo, I fill the rock in my fingers with all the kinetic energy of a meteor, and I throw it at Danger Close. My makeshift bullet pierces his armor, ripping through his guts until it makes a path out of the other side. He screams and falls back into the pews, his shoulder guns spilling bullets as he tips back.
I warp over to Mateo, crossing the distance by expelling heat as movement instead of running. “You okay, kid?”
The shoulder gun roars. Bullets hit my back. I snarl in pain. While the bullets don’t penetrate me, it’s not pleasant to have to absorb all of their kinetic energy. Each one feels like a punch. I hunch over Mateo to keep him safe as I wait for a reload, feeling my stockpile of energy growing louder in my chest. If it grows too loud I won’t be able to stop the heat radiating through my skin.
The pew covering us shatters into splinters from the bullets. Disturbed ash fills the room like smoke, casting a harsh haze between me and DC’s gunfire.
I hear Danger Close launch into the air and dive for us with my thermal sense, but with his guns ripping into me I can’t move, or else Mateo might get hit.
A metal claw rips into my jacket and pulls me off of Mateo. That armor is heavyweight strong, and it proves it by hurling me to the other side of the chapel. I smash through the pews, coating myself in ash as I roll. The smell of smoke and metal burns my nostrils even through my mask.
Danger Close turns his gun on Mateo.
I leap, infusing my body with my power, and tackle Danger Close.
The resulting force sends both of us through the church walls, propelled over the entrance and dry fountain. Danger Close slashes at me with his claws, but fails to even scratch my clothes as I absorb the force of his blades.
We crash through something hard and metallic. I fight his jets, trying to shift our direction with my power, and my stomach turns as we spin. A second later and we hit the ground.
A cloud of dirt and bright green grass blows up around me as I struggle to get my bearings. I follow Danger Close moving through the plume with my thermokinetic sense, listening to the thunderous drums of his jets go off.
Near me is a giant metal bat, a part of a statue. A steel hand still grasps the bat’s handle, detached from the rest of the sculpture by our landing. I realize where we are: The baseball park across the road from the church.
Danger Close’s lurches toward me. The drums build into one long, loud tone while the high staccato notes of his shoulder gun punctuate it. I sift through the noise, trying to find a way out, trying to find Mateo. I can’t. This violent music is all I hear.
“There’s one game you’re good at,” Megajoule’s voice rings in my ears.
I grab the bat and heft it over my shoulders like an all star player. Danger Close is two heartbeats from me.
“Swing, batter, swing!” Megajoule shouts.
I pour my remaining energy into the bat and swing for the fences. The metal shines like a star, creating a scythe afterimage in my eyes with its arc.
The bat takes Danger Close right on the helmet. His whole upper body crumples together like paper before he’s propelled, hitting the baseball field once, then twice, before crashing into the bare dirt field beyond.
I take a second to catch my breath. The pitcher’s mound is warped by the shockwaves of my Affect. Sculpted eyes in the dirt and grass stare up at the sky. Hand prints scar the fake grass where I moved using kinetic energy. Bronze and gold colored will-o-wisps flutter in the air like sparks before disappearing.
I can’t waste any time. I rush over to Danger Close’s body already knowing that I killed him. I can’t dwell on that right now. I can only find the key for Mateo’s bracelet.
In theory I know what one looks like, closer to a pen than an actual key, but if there was one on DC I know I’ve destroyed it.
Danger Close’s torso is a mangled wreck. His spinal column is broken from the waist down; his legs twisted and torn at each ligament. Whatever remains of his armor is scattered into pieces in the field.
Bat still in hand, I dash out of the baseball field and back to the church. “Mateo!” I cry out.
I find him lying as still as a corpse in the pew I left him behind. His breathing gently rises. I search his body with my thermokinetic sense for any device, anything besides the bracelet that they might have tracked us with.
There’s nothing. Only the bracelet remains.
There’s nothing left for me to do but pry the dampener off. It’s going to break his hand. Using my power, I cut a small piece of wood from the pews to use as a crowbar and slip it between the bracelet and his skin. I rip a piece of cloth from my undershirt. “Bite down on this. Hard.”
He does so without complaint.
I feel the tension of the piece of wood. It’ll work. I can leverage my power since I’m not touching the Winsley bracelet. I glance at Mateo. He’s not even looking at me or the bracelet, but a rock peeking through the ashes not far from his head.
“Sorry,” I mutter...
I shove the makeshift crowbar down with my enhanced strength. The Winsley bracelet shrieks and pops off his wrist. Mateo screams out in agony.
He wails as tears flood his eyes. I can sense the bones I broke. His thumb, something in his wrist. He grabs his bloodied, limp hand, but even trying to steady it causes Mateo to cry out in pain again.
I kneel next to him, and say as gently as I can, “Come on, Mateo, we have to go.”
Between his sobs, between the snot rolling down his lips, he manages to squeeze out these words: “I saw your face. You’re Megajoule.”