I stammer. The last video? But there are more files after this!
I stop the video.
“Wow, end a’ th’ line,” Remise says. “You ever shown tha’ t’ anyone before?”
“I’ve never seen it before.” I open the folder and look at the other videos after this. I click the next one.
A dialog box opens in the middle of the screen. ‘FILE IS NOT ACCESSIBLE. The file or index is corrupted and unreadable.’
Without other options, I click OK. I check the next file, and the same dialog box opens. I check the next three videos. Not a single one will open. Just the same box, over and over. Goosebumps spread over my arms, tandem with the dread I feel gnawing inside me.
“Gabe,” Epione says. “I don’t think they’ll open.”
I scroll down to see how many other files there are, and I’m shocked to see there are dozens of them, all with working thumbnails. That means some of the video is there, if the file can display a picture. Maybe Drone can help me recover the files.
In the meantime, I open the video we’ve been watching and play it, in the hopes that there’s some explanation that will stop me reeling.
A woman speaks off camera. Her voice is cold and monotone, but she speaks with an air of authority. Like an angry librarian. “That’s not necessary, Julian.”
“I think it is,” Megajoule says. “You see, Gabe, I wish I could tell you this in person, though I doubt I’ll ever get the chance.”
“Shut it off,” the woman says.
“Not yet.” This voice belongs to the man from the other video, where Megajoule tried to bring up the Fear. “He might tell us something.”
“He’s off script,” the woman says. “Can’t you get control of him, Oracle?”
Another woman speaks, I’m guessing Oracle. She has a West African accent. “I told you the memories would not hold. His mind is too strong, it’s rejecting them. The structure is coming down.”
“Let him,” the man says again. “We’ll just delete it. What’s he thinking?”
The first woman speaks. I think she’s in charge. “He’s muddled. Hard to tell what he wants to say thanks to Oracle’s influence.”
“That’s not my fault,” Oracle says. “I told you.”
“Gabe,” Megajoule continues. “I’m not as indispensable as I thought. I know what they made you for.”
“Ooo,” the man croons. “This just got interesting. You been talking to him, Doctor?”
“No!” another man protests.
Remise gasps behind me. “Ain’t tha’?”
I can’t feel my own heart. That was Doc’s voice. “Yeah, it was.”
“You have to… you have to…” He rubs his forehead.
“Nero, cut it!”
The first man responds. Nero. One of the top heroes of OPI. “No, no, let him get this off his chest. I bet Oracle’s memories will reassert after he gets this out.”
“That’s not how it works,” Oracle says.
“I know.” Nero chuckles. “But still, I want to hear, and I have the camera.”
Megajoule stands. “The Fear. Gabe. Our world isn’t ready for it. I can’t fight it alone, I never could. They thought they needed me for that, but now they know they don’t. OPI tried to set a broken bone but they did it wrong. Before them it was Foundation. The world. It’s limping, Gabe. On a crutch made of heroes and villains to pretend we still can walk.”
Megajoule steadies himself with one hand on the table, and rubs his nose with the other. “Thoughts aren’t coming, too many different memories in head. Not all my own. But listen. You get out, anyway you can. This video will get to you. Somehow, someway, I will make it happen. You’ll hear all my words, the words I want to say, not the ones they made me say. Not the memories they wanted me to have. I’ll show you what I really saw, someway.”
Nero chuckles off screen, almost too low to hear, but the sound is so menacing my hackles rise.
“The world needs better than that. Better than me.” He groans and drops his other hand to the table. His shoulders shake. “It needs better! People must be torn down. World torn down.” He shakes his head. He speaks through clenched teeth, each word agonized and ragged.
“Tear OPI down. Build world anew. People can’t just be heroes. They must be good.” He screams, suddenly, his skin sparking like one of those plasma ball toys. His eyes glow. He’s absorbing energy.
“Nero! Stop him!” the woman in charge cries out.
The screen goes black, the speakers buzz, and then the video ends.
Shell shocked, I put the laptop on the oak coffee table.
“Gabe?” Remise asks. “Wha’ did we jus’ see?”
“I don’t know.” I can hardly speak. My whole body feels cold.
“Here, let me,” Epione puts a hand to my shoulder.
“No. Let me process this right,” I say.
Epione’s hand retreats. “Okay. I understand.”
My first coherent thought is that I just saw the beginning of whatever ended up killing Megajoule. My second thought is that Megajoule found out I was made for a different purpose than what he initially thought. What was I made for, then? What were all the other clones made for? Who were those people behind the camera?
When Doc gets back, I can ask him.
“Remise, I’m going to look up those names in the video. You’re going to go help Iso look for Pandahead, right?”
“Right.” Remise stands. “Hope tha’ conversation goes well. I’ll see you lot in th’ morn.” She grabs her motorcycle helmet and jacket from the table, throws them on, and heads out.
I take a second to think, and close the laptop. My hands are shaking. I’m convulsing. The worst part is I’m not even sure what I’m feeling. Everything is shaking around inside me and I don’t have any solid ground to stand on.
Epione hums behind me. Her eyes are closed, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by anything. Now that I think about it, she hasn’t really looked disturbed at all this whole time, even with Flashfire missing and Megajoule’s final video. Nothing about that seems to affect her. I can’t help but wonder why.
I stand up and face her. “Epione.”
Epione looks at me, but not into my eyes, lower than that. Her expression is neutral except for her smile, the same smile she always wears. It doesn’t look sad, pained, or even faked. It’s just a normal smile.
“Are you sure you’re good? Losing Flash, it’s got to be-”
Epione laughs. “That’s not it at all, Gabe.” She grins like that’s the funniest thing she’s heard all day.
I fall silent. I feel out of my depth.
“Gabe, you need to understand something about me. My power is really strong, and I can’t turn it off. I always know what other people are feeling, all the time, even through walls. Super Empathy. Even more than that, I can influence how they feel.” She draws in a breath and lifts her posture, closing her eyes. “But, I don’t feel anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t feel anything. I have never felt anything. No love, no sad, no joy, no pain. All the things in you right this second. I understand what it is, but I’ve never felt a single bit myself.” She smiles. “I can’t feel at all. Well… I feel small things. Nothing big. ”
What can I say to that? The bundle of joy, the heart of our little group. “What… what about Flash? I’ve heard you tell him you love him.”
Epione heaves a sigh. “I do love him. I don’t really know what romantic feelings are like, but love isn’t a feeling. It’s an action I take, day after day. I never got a crush on him like you have with Bedevil.”
My heart slams pots and pans together in my stomach. “Uh.”
Epione soldiers on like she didn’t just say that. “He’s great at sex, and he’s a wonderful boyfriend. He feels so intensely I sometimes wish I could be like him.” She twirls her hair. “He’s so colorful. He really believes in what he’s doing. So yes, I love him, in the way that I can. He never lies about how he’s feeling, he never says one thing and means another. Even before he knew about my power, he was real in a way no one else was. Not even you.” She frowns. “So, I need him back.”
“Epione,” I murmur, but it’s only to put some noise out there.
“To answer your question, Gabe, I don’t know, and I’ve never known, if I am good or not.”
“How did this happen to you?”
“Mother and Father recognized early that I had two things wrong with me. I was a heavyweight powered person, and I didn’t feel the same way the other children did.” And she smiles.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.” She smiles and her eyes crinkle like anyone else’s would when they were overjoyed. “I was officially diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and Mother and Father never forgave me. My power is empathy, the absolute knowledge of what everyone around me feels, so I know they never forgave me.”
“How do you perceive it?” I ask.
“Everyone else has such color to their emotions. For example, you’re confused, which is light blue, a little angry at me and very angry at Doc, which is like vomit green, and very upset about Maisa and Megajoule. I see that as navy blue.”
She turns and shows me the trademarked Epione smile, and for the first time, I see how much she calculates her expression. The lift of her brows, the pleasant little smile that makes her look demure, the crinkle around her eyes. Her facial tics are recipes, no different than throwing together cookies and brownies.
“So… when you were worried about us after Krater,” I say. “That was an act.”
Her expression doesn’t change, she doesn’t act like I accused her of anything. “I really don’t know what I’d do without Jason. Or you, Drone, and Remise.”
“Is there anything else I can do to help?” I ask. “I’m not all that familiar with… um… this.”
“I don’t like to be touched, usually. Flash is the exception. He can touch me whenever he wants. Though sometimes, I still need a warning.”
“Lots of light and sound. Troublesome.”
“Show up on time, not too early, not too late.”
“Clothes tags are awful.”
“Not sure what I can do about that, but okay.”
“I’ve cut off every clothes tag I can. Mother never knew about the tags. I never told her. She never asked. They were the one thing I really had control over. I hate dressing rooms because I can’t bring scissors with me.”
I don’t want to negate what she’s saying, but something’s not lining up. “That sounds like you still feel, Epione.”
“I allowed myself some small things.”
Epione tilts her head and smiles. She hums for a second, and then says, “When I was very young, I would respond badly if I stubbed my toe, or my mom frustrated me, or my tutor went too fast. All very tiny things. The way the door was only open an inch. The way the blankets hung off the bed. My colors would blot out all I could see. So, I snipped them. Like a clothing tag. I learned to live without my own colors. I’m just a gray girl, my core is a rock.”
“You can do that?” I ask.
“I can and I did.”
“Could you undo it?”
Epione shakes her head, still smiling. “9 out of 10 girls that have autism are diagnosed in their late thirties or later. They don’t get diagnosed because girls are already raised to wear masks and be polite. We learn canned social responses. We stay quiet.
“For me to be diagnosed before ten… I was very low-functioning. Cutting off my colors was necessary. I can’t go back to that. I’ve allowed myself what I know I can control: small desires, and small physical sensations. Anything else is like ringing a gong in my face.
“This doesn’t make you think of me any different, does it?” Epione turns to me.
“Well, I mean, of course.” I gather my thoughts, and speak as slowly as they form. “Even so, you’re still my friend, you’ve never done anything to make me feel otherwise. Just because we experience things differently doesn’t mean we can’t understand each other.” I smile for her. “And you don’t have to pretend for me. It must be exhausting to wear that smile all the time.”
Epione’s face falls. Not into sadness, just into a blank expression. The cheery inflection she normally carries is gone, and now her voice is flat, her words dull: “Thank you, Gabe. That does mean a lot. You’re right. It is exhausting. Mother taught me proper behavior, how to read facial cues using my power, when to laugh, how to smile. She taught me everything because she needed me to be normal. Imagine being an actor on a stage, all day long.”
“That sounds like my worse nightmare.”
“… that wasn’t a real laugh, was it?”
Epione falters, stammers, and settles at last on that empty expression again. “No. It almost never is.”
I sit down next to her.
She scoots away to give me room. “Bedevil has a crush on you, too, you know.”
I squeak out, “I don’t have a…” but I trail off. She can read all my emotions. Even if I’m lying, to her or myself, she knows what I’m feeling. I nod, instead. “I don’t really know what to do about it right now. She’s… it’s not really me she’s got a crush on.”
“I know. I can see the pain you have about it, too.” Epione stands up and kneels down in front of the oak table, running her hands across it. “I’m afraid I don’t have much advice to offer you, but I could make the pain go away, if you wanted. Then you could just love her. And her you. She has pain, too. Confusion. Guilt.” She looks at me with flat expression. “I’d make it all go away, if you said so.”
My voice catches in my throat. Would it really be that easy? To just make all of the confusing things I feel about Bedevil go away and get one simple emotion in return?
Would that even be ethical? Plus, even if there is pain, and confusion, I think I’d like to sort them out myself, rather than cheating my way through it. “No. I don’t think I want that.”
“Funny. Flashfire told me the same, regarding Saw Off cheating on him.” She pats her hands on the oak wood. “I’m sorry, I usually don’t cut loose like this. You don’t mind?”
“This.” She pats her hands on the wood a little faster.
“Knock yourself out. Are you hungry?”
“You always ask if someone is hungry if you’re trying to help them but you don’t know how.” Epione stops patting the wood. She stands up, straightens her skirt, and looks me in the eye. Her dull expression lights up like a flower blooming across spring, until she’s smiling the way I’m used to. Cheerful Epione, the carefully constructed act. “You don’t need to help me. In fact, you already have.”
“But, yes, I am hungry.”
“One thing,” I say. “I’ll order you a pizza, but promise me something.”
“When Doc gets here, don’t influence our emotions.”
Epione smiles. “Of course. I have to touch you, anyway, so you’d know.”
Good to know.
I order us a pepperoni pizza while we wait for Doc or Drone to get back. Remise won’t be back until the morning with Iso, and then we can talk through trying to figure out what we’ll do next. In the meantime, I scroll through news stations. Epione reads a book on Greek Mythology.
There’s several stories on of note. Most of it is Parlor related, going through the people that died, the rich men that were there, and the Prince family. One station’s covering the fight outside the mansion, but no one’s releasing details about Epione or her family. Even the details of the fight are very vague, only mentioning that the Hawks had an encounter with Home Run while looking for Tim Prince.
“Has anyone tried to get in touch with you?” I ask.
Epione nods. “Mother called this afternoon.”
“Did you answer?”
“No.” Epione doesn’t look up from her book. “She called quite a few times. The house won’t put a dent in their finances, but they likely suspect I’m involved now. They know the full extent of my power, so any details told to them will give me away.”
I don’t like this at all. I didn’t mean for her to get entangled in this. “This isn’t the life I wanted for you and the Underground.”
“We always thought it might catch up to us someday,” Epione said. “To be quite honest, my old life was stifling.”
Not sure what to say to that.
I watch the subtitle scroll under the news stories.
Hurricane Season is here! There’s a tropical movement over the Atlantic they’re watching, but they expect Tempest to be able to stop the storm from developing further.
A hero named Time-Out is being accused of sexual assault and harassment, one in a recent string of high profile allegations.
A group of vigilantes accidentally killed a bus full of innocent people in Seattle.
The OPI department of Phoenix is under fire for their handling of a Heavyweight villain named Moss. That battle apparently ended with over 50 dead.
Megajoule was right in his video, even if he was clearly not in his right mind. The world’s broken, and pretending the heroes and villains give us some kind of structure to lean on isn’t working.
The lock turns. Doc walks into the apartment, more grocery bags in hand. “Oi.” He starts to shuffle his shoes off.
Epione nods at me from behind her book. Moment of truth. I stand up. My heart pounds against my rib cage.
I summon all my courage, even though my body is shaking again. “I saw Megajoule’s last video. You were in it.”
Doc stops mid shuffle. His face is blank. He grunts.
“You were behind the camera.”
“You weren’t supposed to see that video. It shouldn’t have been on the drive.” Doc shakes his head.
“Megajoule said he knew the real reason I was made, and Nero asked you if you spilled the beans. Why was I made?” I ask.
“Kid, you don’t want that answer. You don’t want Epione to hear this.”
“Who were you?” I shout.
Doc turns to me, his face a ghoulish mix of terror and fury. He throws his grocery bag to the floor. “Kid!” He steps toward me.
I stand at my full height, and I don’t give him any ground. “Who?!”
Doc stops just short of our living room. Tears well in his eyes. I’ve never seen him cry. He groans in agony, and says, “They asked me to kill him.”