The airport calms under the eye of Cynic. The dust settles fully, the plane engines quiet, and the faint cheering dies out. The late morning sun casts her shadow to my feet. She’s traded out the soccer mom haircut for a bleached buzz, and her politician’s pantsuit is tailored perfectly to her wide frame. Cynic studies my face for a moment, and in a voice subtle, calm, and flat, she says, “Hello, Gabe.”
Two people in white-black ceramic armor flank her, a man and a woman. Red and blue stars decorate their pauldrons, and they have short, white, translucent capes that glow like Tachikaze’s. The other van doors open, and two teams of four FIS agents a piece step out in full assault gear, guns aimed to the ground, fingers off the trigger in practiced grips. There is tension in their legs, feet not quite flattened all the way out; As if we’re in the first steps of a dance, and they’ll spring into ballet in a breath.
Cynic is barely five foot, even with her back lifted and her polished posture. Even so, her air seems to lift her taller than all of us, and I find myself bowed by the weight of her presence. She narrows her eyes at me, and I detect the tiniest sneer beneath her composed expression, one that says, “I’ve got you where I want you.”
She wastes no time. “Let’s discuss you returning to OPI custody.”
I lift my head and square my shoulders. “Why would I go back with you?”
Cynic changes out the smug air for a genuine, if small, frown. “Because we need you. We’ll pay you an incredibly handsome salary to take up the mantle of Megajoule. Bedevil, too, as your sidekick. Your friends at the Underground as your team. Hell, Empyreal and Krater, if you’d like. Any hero you wish to serve at your side.”
Bedevil scowls at the mention of being my sidekick. Krater and Empyreal both shift, looking to me, unsettled by the offer.
“She’s not my sidekick. No one here is my servant,” I say. “Why do you need me?”
“The world needs its savior back. They need someone to trust in again.”
“And you want that guy on your side.”
“Of course I do,” Cynic says. “You would, as well. No one trusts the government; they trust a hero. OPI needs a hero like you again.”
“It’s got heroes.” I fold my hands behind my back.
Cynic nods. “We do. No one who makes people feel safe just by existing, though. Do you think people trust Wind Rider after he had an affair? Or Templar, who can’t manage to smile ever? Bedevil, all due respect, who can’t stay sober more than a day?”
Why do I feel strange? I have the feeling she’s using a power on me, but I don’t know what it is. If it were something obvious, it would be public record somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything. Yet she’s at the top of the official hero world, she has to have some edge that got her there.
Wait. Wait. The last Megajoule video, Nero asked her what Megajoule was thinking.
Cynic picks up her little sneer again. “Already figured it out? You’re as smart as he was. That’s good. It means you’ll do very well in his place.”
“Figured what out?” Bedevil asks.
“She can read minds.”
Bedevil stares at Cynic. “You-”
How powerful is she? Does she already know where I live, where I’m going? Every place I’ve ever visited in Houston?
I can’t take any chances. But I can take her attention off reading my mind. I’m hoping she has to concentrate to do that. “Even if I wanted to do that, you’re lying.”
Cynic doesn’t respond.
“You want me back so you can study why my power’s different from his, so you can control superpowers. I’m guessing that’s why you want my friend, too.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Cynic says.
“And you killed all my fellow clones trying to find a weakness in Megajoule. You killed him, too.”
“What?” Bedevil’s eyes widen, and she turns her frantic gaze to me. “What do you mean?”
“That doesn’t matter now. You can bring all your friends, and I guarantee your safety. The world needs Megajoule. Of course we’ll study you, we study every single hero in OPI. I don’t know what the doctor told you-”
“Doc saved me from what you had planned for me!” I shout.
“Did he tell you he was instrumental in discovering Megajoule’s weakness?” Cynic asks.
“He did.” I can’t look at Bedevil right now. God, this isn’t how I wanted her to find this out. “He told me you never found it.”
“It didn’t matter in the end.” Cynic shakes her head. “What matters now is saving the world from the Fear. Will you come, peaceably, so we can? If we have Megajoule, and we learn how to truly control these powers, we can stop them from wiping us out.”
If I go with her, I have no guarantee my friends are safe, and no guarantee she won’t just strap me and Epione to tables to see how our powers work. All to “save the world,” if that’s even her goal. On the other hand, what if we do save the world? What if going with her is the right move, so we can help everyone?
Quick litmus test: “What if I said no?”
The FIS agents ready their guns, their stances strong for battle.
Cynic sighs. “I have no other options, Gabe. I’ve spent too long looking for you.”
“So, you won’t let me walk away.” I clench my fist. Bedevil shakes next to me. Epione puts her mask on.
“I wouldn’t even if I didn’t need you, even if you weren’t his clone. You’re still a wanted man.”
Shit. I still don’t have a definite answer, but the moment I even think it, she’ll act. I don’t want my friends to get hurt, but I don’t want to go with her, either, and risk everything Doc and Megajoule sacrificed to get me here.
I don’t have to think of an answer. Krater steps forward as a huge wall of muscle and stone between Cynic and me. He rolls his shoulder, and says, “Get outta here, little man.”
I stammer. The fish aim their guns at him.
“Don’t be a fool, Krater,” Cynic says. “Stand down.”
“I said, get outta here!” Krater looks back at me.
“Why?” He hates me. “You-”
“I got posters of you on my wall, little man, that’s why!” Krater roars.
Empyreal takes Krater’s side, raising his guard. His fists ignite with silver fire. “You heard him.”
Cynic backs up into the van, and the two armored heroes cover her retreat. “All agents and heroes, capture the assets!”
The fish open fire, and Danger Close rockets into the air.
Bedevil flings her arms, wrenching the guns from the FIS agents’ hands with her telekinesis, and throws the fish into their vans. Krater lunges for Cynic, but the woman in armor lifts her hands in time to meet Krater’s fist with an impenetrable shield of blue light, and other pops a baton from his belt, and smashes the weapon into Krater’s knee. The baton rings like a gong, and debris travels up and down Krater’s leg. Krater slams the man into Cynic’s van, crumpling the backside of the car.
Empyreal charges in behind Krater, jabbing at the agents with his glowing fists.
I feel stuck in place. I should help Krater and Empyreal, but the agents without their guns dash in, all producing pistols.
Bedevil wraps me in tendrils, and pulls me into her arms with Epione. She huffs and swings us all toward one of the FIS vans, and slingshots us off the car toward the edge of the airstrip. Remise’s van is already gunning it to meet us halfway.
Danger Close rockets by us, launching rockets from his wrists. Bedevil slaps them out of the air, but her telekinesis can’t protect us from the heat if they make a direct hit. I’ll be fine, but neither Epione or Bedevil can handle that.
I press against Bedevil’s stomach with my hands so I can push off. “Let me go!”
Bedevil nods, and her tendrils unwrap from me. I push with kinetic energy, giving them a little assist toward Remise’s van. I whip around and shift my momentum with my power, aimed for Danger Close.
We collide. I suck in all the heat I can, hoping to fritz his suit by freezing it like at Parlor.
“You won’t catch me like that again. Made a few upgrades.” Danger Close kicks free of me and launches rockets my way.
Light and fire overwhelms me, but I absorb all of the energy and push through the explosions, reconnecting with Danger Close in the air. Fine, if temperature won’t work, let’s see if I can’t knock him out. I grab his helmet and freeze the air molecules in a bubble around him.
Danger Close realizes immediately that he can’t breathe. He kicks and punches, even shoots his wrist rifles into my stomach, but I absorb it all.
He shoves his fist into my side, and I gasp as white fire floods my torso. Taser! He didn’t get a good connection, though, so the current only arcs a bit into my side. I kick his hand off me before the electricity does any permanent damage, and maintain the bubble around his head.
We turn in the air and I hang on with all my might. He’s still not passing out! How long does it take to knock somebody out like this?
I can’t waste anymore time. I smash my fist into his helmet, flooding it with kinetic energy. The glass visor cracks, and a streak of blood escapes Danger Close’s nose. His face is exposed.
Killing him is the wrong move here. People will care what I do in this fight, and Flashfire was right about one thing: killing heroes and agents makes me look like a villain. I’m not even sure that’s morally good reasoning, but I need to finish this fight without killing anyone.
I superheat the tips of my fingers. “Super sorry about this, dude.”
I jab them into his eyes.
Danger Close screams as I sear his eyelids. I pull my fingers back as fast as I can, and guide our fall with kinetic bursts so I crash into the pavement back first.
Danger Close groans and falls off me. I jump to my feet, see Remise’s van turning its broadside to me, and book it there with kinetic energy. The door opens, and I blast in. Bedevil slams the door.
Remise whoops and peels out. “Fuck yeah!”
Maisa jumps up from the back seat and hugs me from behind. “Gabe!”
I pat her hands and smile. “Maisa. Hang on, we’re not out of the clear yet!” I look out the window at the fight still underway.
The woman that can create those blue energy shields has Krater wrapped in a blue field, floating a few feet off the ground. Empyreal’s on the ground, his hands cuffed behind his back. One of the vans is already after us, one is still parked right by the crater, but the van Cynic arrived in is gone already.
“Someone’s on us,” I say.
Epione pops open the back window. “Let them catch up. I still haven’t given Jettison back his power.”
The van releases flying drones to chase us down. Bullets ping into the van and destroy one of the windows, but before they can do more damage, Bedevil slaps the drones out of the air.
We drive right off the airport pavement, to the grassy field beyond the airport. We jump and bounce, and I grab hold of Maisa so she doesn’t fly everywhere. Epione shouts, we lurch forward, and end up on the same street we came in before. I look back, and the FIS van is flipped onto its side. Epione closes the back window.
Remise cheers. “We did it!”
“Keep driving! They can still chase us down,” I say.
Even still, I can’t help my grin. We saved Maisa, we beat the Fear, and we escaped OPI.
At the cost of Krater and Empyreal getting captured on our behalf. Tachikaze lost a leg. Snow Owl.
Those innocent bystanders the Fear killed before I could save them.
The taste of victory turns bitter in my mouth, and I look down at my knees. It wasn’t flawless, it wasn’t pretty, and I have no idea what the consequences are for what just happened. I’m still not done, either. I pull my phone out and dial Saw Off. “Remise, call your mate. Call the Devils. Call them all, and tell them to get out.”
“Wha’ happened?” Remise asks.
“Baaaaaabe!” Saw Off says. “You’re all over the news! You even took off your mask!”
“Saw Off, get out of the apartment! There was a mind reader, and they may know all our hotspots from me, Bedevil, or Epione. Go somewhere the three of us haven’t been yet, okay? We’ll call you when we have a secure place to meet up.”
“Got it, Gabe Babe. Good luck.” Saw Off hangs up.
“Remise, take us somewhere. Not the warehouse, not any other place we’ve trained before.”
Remise nods. “I know where to go. It ain’t pretty, and I’ll need to make a call.”
“Do what you have to.” I sit back into my chair and pause. Adrenaline courses in me, turning me to a jittery mess.
Bedevil crawls up from the back seat to sit next to me. She lands on her back with a cute, “Oof.” She rights herself and straightens her gold hair out of her face.
I bite my tongue, trying not to laugh. Thanks, Bedevs. I lean back in my seat to check on Maisa, but as I do, I notice Epione frowning at the back of Bedevil’s head. Something’s up, because she doesn’t frown of her own volition, usually. “Ep?”
The frown disappears, and Epione smiles the usual smile. “Yes?” She sees that I look concerned, and her nose wrinkles. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Okay.” I look at Maisa. “Are you okay? You’re not hurt?”
“I am unhurt,” Maisa says. She wipes small tears from her eyes. “I am glad to be free.”
Remise gets off the phone. “We’ve got a place.”
Bedevil grabs my hand and holds it while I chat with Maisa.
“I’m so sorry I let you get taken,” I say.
“You didn’t let that happen,” Maisa says. “I do not blame you.”
“Still nothing,” Maisa says. “I am safe because of you, twice over.”
I chuckle, though I can’t look up from my knees. “Okay.”
My jacket pocket buzzes. The burner phone Mr. Gold gave me. I answer.
Mr. Gold says, “You’re being followed.”