I wake in sips, not gulps, drifting between sedation and awareness. I regain my sense of touch first, which tells me that the room around me is deathly cold, so cold a normal human would die in seconds. Abrasive bedsheets scrape on my skin as I shift. Then comes smell: and I only smell a sterile lab, and taste bleach in the air.
I can taste. My mouth is open. I wiggle my right hand and my fingers move freely. A bad dream? Is Bedevil still slumbering on me?
I manage to open my eyes, struggling against their heavy weight. My blood feels like molasses in my body and my muscles lag behind my commands.
Bedevil’s not asleep on my chest and I’m not in that lovely cabin. I’m in a cavern of a room tiled by metal plates and walled by dull steel. There’s an iron-clad door locked down to my right and to my left is a swirl of color I can’t quite make out. I blink and realize it’s because I’m not wearing glasses. I fumble around the bed searching for them but they’re nowhere to be found.
My legs are asleep but I need to figure out where I am and where the others went, so I force myself through the pins and needles prickling my muscles and get to my feet. I half-limp on soles cramping and burning as nerves waken. I make it to the window and peer out, trying to get a sense of where I am.
The colors sharpen as I squint just enough to make out skyscrapers and neon signs many stories tall on the sides of towers. Flashing imagery of products, of heroes, of heroes endorsing those products. I can tell that I’m very high up myself from the size of blobs that must be cars driving around the roads below.
I’m in Downtown Houston. If I had to guess, it’s close to midnight and I’m in the OPI Heroics Tower, judging both by the other skyscrapers looming over me — the Tower is not the tallest building in Houston — and by the way that battle went.
I shouldn’t dwell on that. I check my surroundings, looking for some kind of out. Fluorescent lights buzz behind thin glass panels that are wrapped by metal bars.
Maybe I can get some heat.
I absorb some of the scant temperature in the air, and a pale blue liquid develops on my arms out of nowhere. I gasp and return the degrees I stole, and the liquid vanishes near as quick as it forms.
“Gabe, please don’t do that.”
Maisa. I frantically search for the source of her voice, and find her staring at me through a small porthole on the opposite side of the room. “Maisa! Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she whimpers. I can’t make out her expression. She’s not okay at all. “You need to listen to me. They told me to tell you this so you won’t hurt yourself now that you’re awake.”
I press my hand against the glass of the porthole. Maisa copies me. The glass separating our hands is inches think, almost half a foot. “Okay. Just tell me if they’ve hurt you.”
Maisa shakes her head. “They hurt you.”
I nod. “Seem to be in one piece.”
“They said not to try absorbing heat because the air is very close to the temperature it… it liquefies. Sorry, the words were very technical.” Maisa swallows. “They said that if you try to absorb anything, they have sensors that will detect… flux… and will… kill our friends.”
I bump my head against the glass and close my eyes. My face scrunches of its own accord and tears freeze on my cheeks. “Damn.”
“She said that she will speak to you when you wake up,” Maisa says.
“She.” Cynic, fairly certain.
My powers of intuition are rewarded when the reinforced door on the other side of the room slides open. I glance over and see a short blurry woman shrouded in shadow and outlined by the door frame. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
I approach the door and find that there’s another thick barrier of glass separating me from the woman I really want to kill. Since I can’t do that and since she can read my mind, I think that from where I’m standing she looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy in her white pantsuit. I can’t make out her expression either but I do see her eyebrows raise as I’m sure she sees that thought.
Still, she doesn’t say anything, so I ask, “How did you find us?”
“I cast a very expensive net,” Cynic replies. Her voice buzzes in on a comm above the door. “You helped triangulate your position, too. Shouldn’t have gone out on the town.”
I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to let her guide me by the nose to her narrative. “I know what triangulate means. You saw me twice and nowhere near where I was staying.”
“Take or leave the explanation I gave you.” Cynic crosses her arms, draws her own height up from 4’8 to 4’10 maybe, and from the furrow of her brow, glares at me.
“Can I at least have my glasses?” I ask.
“Cool,” I reply. “Eat shit and die.” I turn around to go back to Maisa, knowing that she’s not gonna let this conversation end here. If she wanted me dead, I’d already be. The fact that my friends’ lives hang on what I do means she wants me alive and she wants to control my next actions.
Cynic’s voice is chilly as she calls out. “Gabe. We’re not done. I don’t have to explain that refusing to cooperate endangers the Underground.”
“Should’ve opened with that.” I turn back around to face her. “What exactly am I supposed to be cooperating with?” God, I still haven’t even got my bearings. I don’t know how the fight ended, I don’t even know if she’s being truthful about capturing the Underground. I’ve got no ground to stand on and she likely knows it, judging by the blurry smirk that just crossed her face.
“The same offer as before. Take up the mantle of Megajoule. Submit yourself to studies that could save the world.”
“How does turning me into a lab rat slash dog on a presumably tight leash save the world?” I ask.
“We control powers,” Cynic says. “You would appreciate that some people do not deserve their powers or use them to the benefit of others around them. Unlike yourself, some people are quite selfish with their powers.”
“Case in point.” I turn my nose up at her.
“Everything I do is for others,” Cynic says.
“How does threatening an innocent kid from another country fit into that?” I ask.
“Maisa is under no threat,” Cynic says. “Only the Underground.”
“Oh, only them. Okay. Got it.”
Cynic’s sigh is weapons-grade bitchy. She rubs her temples. “Gabe. Grow up.”
“Excuse me?” I ask.
“I said, Grow. Up. Do you think the world we live in is pretty, or perfect?”
I scoff at her. Sledge said much the same thing.
“No, not even like that. Sledge was a fanatic. I’m a realist. We share a world with the Youxia. Do you know what that’s like? I know of at least three hundred threats in the East that are more powerful than you, on the same level as Carnality, Megajoule, and Nero. Not even considering the threat of the Fear, our own world has enough monsters that controlling superpowers is not just a good idea, it’s necessary. Through you and Epione, we can control the realm of the Fear, and we can control superpowers. We can bestow powers on only the worthy.”
The worthy. “What does that mean, Cynic? Who’s worthy?”
“You are.” Cynic slides one of her dress heels across the floor outside, resulting in a scratchy rasp over the comms. She paces across the glass separating us.
“My brothers weren’t?” I ask. “The ones you killed?”
“Megajoule was a threat, Gabe. He believed OPI was his enemy.”
“Maybe it is,” I say.
“If you actually believed that, this conversation would end, and I’d flood the room with neuro-toxins. You don’t, though, and so there’s still a deal on the table. Because you want to save the world, Gabe, and I think you know you can’t do it alone.” Cynic stops pacing and looks down at the floor. “No one can do life alone.”
My vision goes red. Those were some of Doc’s last words to me. She’s dredging up my old memories to play with me. “You killed him.”
“Blame Nero, not me. I didn’t give that order,” Cynic says. “You’re right, I am trying to manipulate you, though. How about we lay our cards on the table, as few as yours might be. I’ll admit that my life would be much easier if you agreed. Your friends will be released and returned to you, to act as your team if you wish. They’ll be free to go if not. Of course, I’ll monitor them, but they’ll be able to live normal lives if they wish. Bedevil and Maisa are free to accompany you. No manipulation about it, those are the terms. If you refuse, well, your friends will die, Bedevil will go to rehab in more ways than one, and you’ll live out your days in a sedated haze until we have what we need.”
I stammer. That’s one hell of a royal flush.
“Yes,” Cynic says. “The cards are stacked in my favor. I spent a very long time ensuring they would be.”
I don’t have a response to that. I want to ask her about… about Megajoule… something about him, something on the tip of my tongue that I can’t remember… Finally, I manage to ask, “How did you kill him? Why did you kill him?” That’s not quite what I wanted to ask.
Cynic pauses. She waits a few seconds before speaking, and her words are like she’s tiptoeing around a bear. “To the first question, I can’t answer that. To the second, he threatened OPI.”
“That’s the only reason?” I ask.
“Yes. OPI must be protected. We coordinate the UWC’s most powerful heroes and we’re all that stands between the world and chaos. Between the world and the Fear.”
This is as good a time as any to get my honest questions in. “Why keep the Fear a secret?”
“The world wasn’t ready.”
“They seem to be handling it fine right now.”
Cynic clicks her tongue like a disapproving schoolmaster. “Until last week, we had no idea one of them could be killed. Megajoule never killed one. Each incident had death tolls that Carnality would envy, that if they’d ever been able to coordinate would have put the time of anarchy to shame. The world wasn’t ready for an enemy that ate their emotions, stole their powers, and couldn’t be killed. When you scratched that last one off the list, telling the world became a non-issue. The Fear’s just another monster, now.”
“Hence why you need me,” I say.
“And Epione. She’ll fold if you do,” Cynic says.
“Why all this secrecy and manipulation?” OPI is a supposed to be an organization of superheroes. They were founded out of Foundation, the world’s closest thing to the Justice League, for God’s sake.
“Do you honestly believe Foundation didn’t do the same thing? Do you think that any government ever has clean hands?” Cynic asks. She shakes her head. “You know, this is a waste of time. You and I won’t see eye to eye on matters of governance. That doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ll give you time to mull my offer over.”
“You wouldn’t ask if you weren’t sure I’d say yes,” I say.
“You aren’t sure. But there’s a chance. That’s enough.” The door slides shut, cutting me off from Cynic. Her voice sounds on the speaker one last time before she leaves. “You have 48 hours.”
I retreat from the door, back to Maisa, but the porthole’s covered up, too. I guess they don’t want me to talk to her right now, not while I have this offer to consider. How the fuck do I even know that was her?
The weird thing is, I believe Cynic. She strikes me as a very targeted liar. All she’d need is one specific lie amid all the truth. I don’t even know if she needs to lie at all, so much as not tell the whole truth. Which leads me to wonder what she might be leaving out.
I wonder how a deal with the devil would cost me my soul.
I sit down on the bed they’ve provided. Everything about my quarters looks stripped down, and I can see scuff marks on the floor from furniture being moved. Normal rooms can’t hit the temperature just above where air turns to liquid, so I’m guessing this was some kind of research facility.
I hug my knees. I remembered what I wanted to ask her, about Oracle putting Megajoule inside my head. “Megajoule, are you there?”
Only the buzzing lights and quiet groans of the building answer me.
“I got Doc killed,” I say. “If you’re listening.”
A black hole rips open inside my chest. Tears freeze under my eyes.
“All my friends. Maisa. Bedevil. My fault.” I bury my head in my arms as sobs take me. “It’s… my… fault…”
No reply from Megajoule.
“Are you mad at me?”
Not a word.
“I’m a disappointment.”
Not a peep.
“Why don’t you ever talk to me when I need you to?” I ask.
I wipe my eyes and lie down. I don’t know how to begin making up for what I did wrong, and I don’t know how to get out of this. I’m well and truly fucked.
The speaker buzzes to life. “You know, maybe if you dance a little bit, he might crawl out of your brain.”
I restrain my anger, knowing it won’t help me at all. “What the fuck do you want?”
“Nothing,” Nero says. “I’m your personal jailer.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, as if that will help keep this hell from me. As if I can ignore the monster prowling outside my cell.
I am well and truly fucked.