The Affect abhors a visionary. It gives the bronze-souled the heaviest burden and the loneliest path. It takes their ideals and their principles and weaves them a very fine noose.
Terrence Lilac, Report on Affect Hues: Bronze
Part Two: Dead Cape Domino
Five days after Danger Close’s death, Bedevil rides in a luxury SUV into the heart of Houston. She runs her finger along the rim of her water bottle, her Affect reaching into the liquid to rearrange the molecules inside. The water darkens, shifting color to a deep pink. A foul whiff hits her nose before giving way to the sweetness of alcohol. Ouila! A cherry whiskey sour, no bartender necessary.
Sitting on the other side of the passenger compartment, staring at her uneasily, is a young Black man dressed in a wrinkled dress shirt and slacks. A folder bounces in his hand with each bump on the road. “I’m sorry, Ms. Dawson,” he says, his nasally voice giving Bedevil a headache. “I would have brought you more varied refreshments if I’d known.”
Bedevil raises the bottle at him, as if to say cheers, and then gulps the drink down. The precious molecules, the ones her brain screams for, barely have time to graze her tongue before hitting her throat. Warmth blooms in her chest. She burps.
“What’d you say your name was again?” she asks.
“Tim Prince,” the assistant says. He waited for her at the airport, the only person from Houston Foundation to greet her. She’d expected at least one of the Houston Heroes themselves, if not Krater. Instead she got this meek boy, barely a hundred pounds soaking wet. “Whatever you need, ma’am, I can get.”
“Maybe just let me rest my eyes until we get there,” Bedevil says, shifting her posture to stare out the window.
Tim acquiesces with a nod. He goes back to shuffling his paperwork. Bedevil studies the coat resting at his side. The name ‘F.I.S.’ is in bright yellow letters on the navy blue material. A white inverted triangle is on his sleeve. Not just any assistant. A full fledged fish.
Her escort vehicle is an armored SUV. She doesn’t need the protection, but it does have reclining chairs that vibrate and warm her back.
Bedevil sinks into the pleasant buzz as they hurry down the streets toward Houston’s Foundation Tower. She picks it out of the skyline—easy to do, as it’s twice the height and width of the skyscrapers around it. Bedevil imagines it is the hilt of a god’s sword thrust into the earth. Black and cylindrical, fatal.
She gasps as she sees a ruined skyscraper come into view, bent over as if in prayer, a gigantic mouth of human teeth grinning at her from midway up the tower. Real human teeth and lips, yet somehow made from the same material as the building. To have left such a huge imprint—well, Bedevil knows how powerful Carnality was.
“The Smiling Tower,” Tim says without looking out the window. “Lots of impressions like that around.”
“Carnality,” Bedevil says. The woman who killed Megajoule. The term “cloak” is reserved for the worst Affected criminals, the ones that impact Foundation so massively they gain power through the sheer amount of hatred they inspire.
Carnality was the cloak of cloaks. Bedevil is sure she hates Carnality more than all of Foundation put together.
Tim nods. “I always like to say she put a smile on our city.”
The only time Megajoule came to Houston, he died. More Affected gangs and criminals here than anywhere else in Foundation. A hotbed of slave traders and drug dealers, of hitmen and mercenaries, but still at the end of the day the resting place of Megajoule.
Houston. The last stop on the way to his grave.
Enough worrying about that. Bedevil closes her eyes and pretends Julian’s fingers are combing her mane and caressing her scalp. She aches to see his easy smile and ice melt eyes in the flesh again. Of course, her adoration was unrequited. He was twice her age when he died, married, had a kid, and never saw her as anything but his ward.
She loved him all the same.
The SUV pulls into the Tower’s parking lot. Bedevil groans at the sight of the crowd forming from their arrival. Cape-arazzi reporters and fans swarm the lot, ravenous for her.
She steps out of the car and shows them the pose they love: Her arms akimbo, her golden hair wild, a confident grin on her face. She’s not wearing her uniform but even in a business dress she pulls off the plucky sidekick look.
It’s always a show. The public needs to see the symbols of heroics.
The Houston Heroes, or what’s left of them anyway, are gathered on the steps in front of the tower. Krater looms over the other two in stature. He’s bald, and his chest is bare like a wrestler. His shoulders are as wide as his city. He’s Black, which distinguishes him from the other city leaders she’s met—unfairly, Bedevil thinks, but Houston is a different beast than most of Foundation. He grins as Bedevil approaches.
Next to Krater rests Snow Owl in his shadow. She’s the second in command in Houston. Like Krater she is Black. She smiles at Bedevil, and Bedevil thinks she might be the most beautiful woman in the world. Her dark dreads spill over her ghost white armor. It’s only until Bedevil gets closer that she sees the gray detailing in Snow Owl’s suit that resembles feathers. Funny that their color schemes are so close.
The third member of the Houston Heroes—but not final unfortunately, as that one rests in the morgue—stands just to the side of the pair. Flashfire. Compared to Krater and Snow Owl he’s not quite as elegant. He looks like a scrawny white boy, even in uniform with his steel gray spandex and striking silver star on his chest. Still, Bedevil can’t help but admire his brown hair, which is tossed in a wave, and his sharp jaw. If not for the other two, he’d be the most handsome person here.
“That’s good,” Bedevil thinks. “A good looking team inspires.”
Krater is her point of contact. The leader, the Houston Hero among the Houston Heroes. She climbs the stairs and greets him, letting the public behind her melt away.
His hand is twice the size of hers, and in their shake, she feels he could pulverize her bones with little effort. But his touch is gentle.
“Pleasure to have you,” he says. “I wish you’d come in better times.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Bedevil says, pulling her hand from his.
The pomp and pageantry ends with a generous wave to the crowd. No statements, not now. They know why she’s here. They enter the building, but Tim stays with the car.
The Houston command room roars. There are far too many humans packed in with the computers and gear. Capes in all kinds of colorful uniforms run this way and that, parting for Krater as he strides through. The room smells of sweat and an unpleasant cocktail of finger foods. A note of coffee hangs in the air. Unfortunately this sweet, rich note is ruined by the rest.
Krater takes her and the other Houston Heroes to a private conference room, cut off from the rest of the sour smelling forum by a heavy metal door. There’s a pitcher of water and a set of glasses on a black table. A large computer screen rests on one wall. A giant window looks out at the command room.
Krater presses a button and the window turns opaque.
Once the door is shut and the window blocked, Krater sighs and places his massive hand against the wall. His stony confidence fades, and Bedevil is faced with a tired, exasperated man. Still a giant, yet somehow shrunk by a few inches.
Bedevil wastes no time. The faster she gets through this the faster she gets on the job. And the faster she leaves. “I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine what you’re going through as a team right now.”
But that’s a lie. She went through it all when Megajoule died, but it’s one of those things people like to hear. Capes are no different. “I’m going to find the person that did this and bring them to justice.”
“Home Run.” Flashfire snorts, shaking his head at his imagined foe. He crosses his arms, trying to look stoic or maybe incensed, but ending up like a young, scared boy. “We’re gonna kill him.”
In contrast to Flashfire, Snow Owl looks serene, as if she was the one who died instead of Danger Close. She turns to Bedevil and says, “Thank you, Ms. Dawson. We appreciate you coming down to help us.”
Bedevil nods. “You have the paperwork from Panopticon?”
“Everything’s in order,” Krater says. “You have jurisdiction here as of now.” He looks at his two teammates and nods for the door, and without a word, the two leave. Flashfire only graces them with one final snort as he follows Snow Owl out the door.
“Home Run, huh?” she asks.
“Needed a name. It had a certain grim humor that made all of it easier to digest.”
Bedevil stares at Flashfire’s back as he wades into the command room. “Is he always like that?”
“No.” Krater’s defeated demeanor becomes annoyed. “Only when help takes five days to arrive from Cynic.”
“Director Miller,” Bedevil corrects like a whip crack over his head. But Krater is not cowed by her snapping.
“I know about you, Bedevil.”
Bedevil sits down at the table and leans back into the chair, an old trick her mother showed her. “I’ve dealt with dozens like you, Krater. People that think I was just Megajoule’s little sidekick and the Director’s daughter. But I have a PhD from Lilac and a ten year career in Foundation that began when I was a teenager.”
Krater huffs and turns away. He looks out of the blinds at the members of Houston’s cape scene churning like a whirlpool.
“I know you started in Houston as a teen, too,” Bedevil says softly. “You were on the team that faced Carnality. You even volunteered to help evacuate Galveston.” A personal note, there. Personal for both of them. He was there when Megajoule died. “I know we’re late. But we’re here. Let’s get started and not lock horns right away.”
“Alright, you’ve made your point,” Krater says.
Bedevil nods. “Tell me about what happened.”
Krater scratches his massive jaw, lost in thought for a moment. He nods as if to go to sleep. “Thursday. A drone captures footage of a mask in a warehouse full of bodies. It’s only two seconds long; he destroyed the drone as soon as he was aware of it.”
“The bodies of the migrants?” Bedevil asks.
“We’ve been able to identify a few as Houstonians, but for the most part they’re from South America,” Krater says.
“Do you have a motive?”
“No. Danger Close was on the scene first. He was there for a while before Snow Owl joined him, and they split up when it seemed like things had hit a dead end. He went off.” Krater frowns. “And died.”
“What about that footage?” she asks.
Krater closes his eyes. He bows his head, rubbing his temples with his gigantic fingers. He presses them so hard his skin cracks, turning to rock from the pressure. “Next to nothing.”
Bedevil doesn’t like the sound of next to nothing. “What does that mean?”
“It means that his armor cameras were off, and his drones weren’t recording footage. The only thing we have from their confrontation is the last few seconds.” Krater looks up and sees her face before he grimaces. “I know how that looks.”
“It’s…” Bedevil shakes her head. There’s very few legitimate reasons for turning the cameras off. “It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence, no.”
“Look, he’s a by-the-book guy. Flashfire adores him… adored him, and the city thought he was a hero. The guy served in Brazil, for Chrissake. He served Foundation faithfully and he loved this city. There are hundreds of our people out there without his armor now. People whose gear he made.”
Krater stares out into the command room, his face full of concern. “That shit doesn’t work now. But it did while he was alive. Does that seem like he’s shady? Protecting all the other capes with his life?”
Bedevil is caught in a trap. Damn her mother, sending her into this mess. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll need to see where he died.”
“Show me the pathoscopic reading for Home Run.”
The computer hears her voice and pulls up one half of the only footage of him that exists. Bedevil makes a quick study of him: Tall. Lean but well built. He’s dressed like a shitty teen on the streets—the main article of his outfit is a black letterman jacket with red sleeves and buttons. The hood is pulled up over his head, and his face is hidden by a red bandanna and reflective goggles. Jeans. Red sneakers. All well-worn, as if he doesn’t have the money to replace them.
Beneath the goggles, she catches a glimpse of his eyes. The intensity of his gaze surprises her. The purpose radiating from his stare is so familiar to her... yet she can’t place where she’s seen it.
The image darkens and a bright flame spills out of Home Run’s body. “Primary color is bronze,” Bedevil says. There are splashes of smaller colors as well: Red, blue, purple. “His power will be adaptive, then. Heavyweight, but we knew that.”
“This ain’t my area,” Krater says.
“Don’t worry, it’s mine.” Bedevil throws him a smile. “I’ve written God knows how many reports on this.”
Krater leans back into his chair and scratches at his neck. “It’s just colors.”
“It’s everything we are. What it tells me is that this is an angry man with a sense of duty and compassion. He’s shocked, he’s outraged.” Bedevil tries leaning back into her chair again, not as a power move on Krater, but on her own brain. “Does that strike you like he just murdered a roomful of people?”
“Oh, so that absolves him.” Krater isn’t happy with her guess.
“No, but keep it in mind.”
“His arms are covered in blood.”
“Digging through the bodies for survivors, perhaps.”
Krater groans and stands up. “Come on, Dawson.”
Bedevil needs a drink. Another one, as soon as she can get it. “You want me to give the benefit of the doubt to Danger. I have to give it to Home Run, too. If you want me to find him, we can’t assume he’s some heavyweight serial killer on a rampage. We also have to consider that he might not be responsible for the warehouse murders.”
Krater shakes his head. He needs Home Run to be guilty.
Bedevil nods for him to sit down. The giant does, shaking his head and muttering the whole way.
“Bronze means he’s primarily driven by faith or will,” Bedevil says. “He believes in something.”
“Okay.” Krater couldn’t give her one single iota of a fuck.
“He may be… well, he might have a cause, a mission. Is there a prominent mask group in Houston?” Bedevil also needs an explanation as to where he got his power: has he just been pummeling people on Houston’s streets so long he’s got an army of people afraid of him? If that’s so, there should be far more footage of him. Or is there some other source of his massive power?
Krater nods. “We’ve got the usual gangs. We have the 2nd Amendment, too. But there’s a group called the Houston Egalitarian Front. They’re left anarchists. Believe in the abolishment of capes.”
“Great,” Bedevil says, trying not to roll her eyes. “We can start there. It does put a potential motive on this guy.”
She offers that last bit out for Krater, something to soothe his mind. Without saying a word, he takes it. His eyes flash in appreciation.
“Have you had drones over that neighborhood to look for Affect print matches?”
“We have,” Krater says, not enthused. “The Shells are big. It’ll be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s a smoke screen of Affect from what I’ve seen.”
“Get me some layouts of the area. We’re going to figure out where he came from. Can you show me the final bit of footage?”
Bedevil watches Danger Close’s final seconds of life: He zooms over a baseball field toward a smoking crater near the home plate. Yellow light shines through the plume, casting it in an eerie glow. Danger Close parts the curtains of smoke and is met with Home Run. The bat burns yellow in his hands like the fiery sun. Home Run swings—and the footage ends.
“Damn,” Bedevil whispers. “Something elemental, heat based. It’ll be hard to diagnose a power with that little footage.”
Krater turns back to the screen, having faced away for the clip. “Yeah.”
“Are there any more sightings?”
Krater shakes his head.
“Well, we’ve got a start, don’t we?” Bedevil tries on the sidekick grin again, trying to make Krater feel like she has control of the situation. He does not look convinced.
He brings her the maps for the Shells and leaves her for his own work.
Bedevil pours herself some water from the pitcher on the table, caresses the glass, and then transmutes the liquid into vodka. She drinks it down in one gulp, barely noticing the warmth growing in her chest or the way the alcohol drags on her throat.
That warmth lasts but a second. A chill chokes it in Bedevil’s stomach. Thoughts spew into her from another mind, impressions and letters assembling themselves without her direction. Her joints stiffen, her vision dims and frays at the edges in gray static. She drops the glass and pitcher, hears it shatter on the floor.
An electronic, vaguely woman-like voice fills her mind: FACE CAMERA.
Bedevil rises to her feet, knowing it is easier to comply than resist. She finds the security camera lurking over the door.
The walls and floor dissolve away, leaving her floating in a space surrounded by screens. Bedevil turns around. In one she sees a cityscape, another she sees a young man running. She turns back the way she came and sees herself—her body—staring at her through the screen.
Mother used to appear to her, before Megajoule’s death. She used to assemble an elderly apparition Bedevil could pretend to talk with. These days, she’s dispensed with the pleasantries, and the screens do the work of signaling her presence. One screen darkens, and then another, before the entire swath goes dark and the screens flicker on again. A patch of the screens surrounding Bedevil pulse on a steady rhythm, turning off and on again every half second or so.
The heart of Mother, or so Bedevil thinks.
Mother speaks without speaking, putting the words directly into her mind: Confirm arrival.
“I’m in Houston,” Bedevil says. Her voice echoes in this space, bouncing back to her a dozen times. She doesn’t need to answer Mother, but it makes things easier, and makes her feel like Mother isn’t ripping her apart. Mother’s psychic fingers probe Bedevil’s mind, pulling at her memories and thoughts like threads on a loom.
Hostilities. Krater angry. Impertinent. Disciplinary action.
“That’s not good,” Bedevil says out loud. Mother leaping straight to punishing Krater for his anger at Danger Close’s death means her temper is short lately. Not only that but she wants Bedevil to carry it out. Which she could do easily… if she wanted.
“He’s just upset,” Bedevil says. “Let him have his grief.”
The tint of the screens shifts to a deep crimson. Mother’s furious. She means to make an example of Krater. Houston has always been willful but leaping to punishment in the first hour is unusual.
Nosey child. Impertinent.
“Well, I won’t be the one to do it,” she says.
The screens fill with static and a wave of sound flows over Bedevil. It is gentle. A sigh.
Resume search. Agents will be sent. Delay due to resistance in West Coast.
The Houston command room sublimates and Bedevil is back in her body.
Her eyes water from the intense psychic energy of Mother. Silver wisps of Affect fire float around her head. On the table there is a fleeting impression of a beating heart in the wood. The organ evaporates before beating a baker’s dozen. The pitcher and all of the glasses are now bits and pieces on the floor below.
Bedevil scowls at the glass shards. She taps her toes on the floor and exerts her power. She rearranges molecules, forces life into matter, and bends reality. Tendrils grow from the ground, made from the same material as the tiles, and gather her mess into a neat pile.
She bends the air to force the pieces back into their original shape, but she adds a new detail with her power. She could make the glass whole again without a scar if she wanted, but everything she’s repaired she’s added golden lines along the cracks, to show that the piece had been broken, and was now more beautiful for it.