The last words I said to Doc were cruel. We never fixed the brokenness between us and now I have to carry that with me until I die. Which might not be long, mercifully, but I’d prefer not to die in here.
My cheeks are covered in frozen tears and I dare not take anything from the air or from gravity. The sensors are wired to kill my friends if I do. They have the perfect leverage on me. I recognize that I could win if I didn’t care about the Underground, but I do. I’m not capable of turning myself into a sociopath just to win.
Which might be why I’ll lose, I think.
I still have 48 hours to think this over, though, and maybe I’ll find a grip somewhere.
“You look hard at work,” Nero says over the comm.
I can’t muster anything besides a weak: “Fuck you.”
Nero’s voice is full of glee. “What are you cooking up in there?”
“Fuck you,” I say. I wrap the pillow around my head.
Unfortunately it’s not enough to block his bullying out. “Tough day, huh?”
My head pounds, I see red, and I scream and throw the pillow at the door.
“Glad to let that out?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I shout. “Are you really gonna spend the next two days bothering the shit out of me? Was killing my friend not enough for you?”
“Ah, sorry. Wasn’t aware that Doc was your friend. Considering what he did.” Nero takes on a tone of genuine regret. I get the feeling he might be insane.
“You were part of that same group,” I say.
“And we’re not friends, are we?”
I flip off the ceiling, just in case there’s a camera up there.
Nero laughs over the speaker. “Well, if you could be friends with Doc, maybe you can be friends with me.”
“You’re a monster.”
“Yes. I’m the monster that fights other monsters.”
I shake my head. I guess I can see why he’d be off his door hinges if he can only regenerate from death. “Your power.”
“Equal parts awesome and terrifying,” Nero says. “Can’t imagine what it’s like on the other end.”
“How did you even find out?”
“I was mugged in college. Talking a walk with a sweetheart, things were headed back to my place. We’re walking, grabbing, kissing, you know. Four dudes armed with pistols come up and one of them was apparently itching or blood, because he plugged me right between the eyes.” Nero snickers. “You should have seen the look on their faces when I got up, steaming and screaming.”
I don’t want to, but I end up imaging a ghoulish Nero rising with fire licking off his body as he scares the shit out of a few common thieves. “Do you really die every time?”
“Yes,” Nero says.
I shudder. “How do you get to that point? Where your own armor kills you?”
“You get to that point when the world needs you to keep your power turned on all the time. Not all of us can be so lucky as Megajoule, who could just turn it on when he wanted to.”
“Is that why you killed him?”
Nero doesn’t reply immediately, but when he does, I can practically hear his smile. “I killed him for a couple of reasons. I got to the point where I craved death. Where I craved something that could really kill me. Like scratching an itch.”
I can’t resist a barb. “I’m happy to scratch it for you.”
“Trust me, nothing would make me happier. I’m dying for round two. Jules was a scientist but you’re a fighter. I’m not gonna count round one since you had a pretty big handicap.” Nero huffs. “We won’t get a round two if you agree to her demands, though.”
I grunt and roll over, turning my face out to window overlooking Houston.
“What’s your favorite music?” Nero asks.
“Fuck you, we’re not doing this,” I say. “We’re not friends. We’re not pals. You killed Doc, you helped capture my friends, and you just told me you’d love a second chance to beat the shit out of me.”
“Presumably you would also beat me up,” Nero says. “Just a couple of guys beating the shit out of each other.”
“We’re not doing this.”
Nero sighs. “Look, I have to watch you for the next 48 hours or until you agree. From the looks of things, I’ve got at least a day sitting here watching you waffle back and forth until you finally surrender to reason. I’m bored.”
“Be bored,” I say.
“You’re no fun.”
“You’re an evil despot that kidnaps kids.”
“For Queen and Country.”
God damn it. I turn back around. “Really, you’re taking the patriot angle?”
“No, that was a joke. I know what I am. This is where I can be the most useful without ending up like Carnality. It was either serve Cynic or get locked in a tiny concrete box and put on ice until they figured out how to take my powers from me. Instead, I eat the finest food and fuck models, and I have a guinea pig named Jeffery.”
“I took you for a sociopath that killed pets for fun,” I say.
“How dare you? We can’t be friends anymore.” The speaker dies out with a high pitched whine.
I snort. I roll onto my back and put my arm over my eyes, and doze off.
I drift in and out of sleep until Nero buzzes back in on the speaker comm. “You’ve got a guest.”
The door shifts open and I make out a tall dude stooping just to be seen through the glass on the other side. When I get closer I see that he has a beard that desperately needs his attention and he’s built like a linebacker beneath his blue polo and gray slacks. As I approach, he pulls out what looks like a little notepad and starts scribbling stuff down.
“Okay,” I say.
“Archimedes,” he says, his voice almost as flat as Epione’s when her mask is off.
I know that name. Archimedes is the tech guy behind most of the major OPI gear. I read that he designed Danger Close’s suits and the ceramic armor that most OPI front-line heroes wear, as well as the Swordfish. From weapons to aircraft, he’s made it all.
“Gabe,” I reply.
“I know. Would you mind turning around?”
I comply. “What’s this for?”
“Taking measurements for your suit,” he says.
“I haven’t agreed.”
His pen scratches on the paper. “You will.”
I cough and stand there, feeling like a wallflower at a party.
“So, you and Bedevil.”
What the fuck? “Um.”
“Cynic told me.”
Right, mind-reading. She’d know that Bedevil and I knocked boots. “I don’t really want to talk about that.”
“Sure. You haven’t asked about her, though. Do you not care about her?”
Is everyone here just trying to piss me off? It’s like they want me to say no out of spite! I whirl around and jab my finger at the glass. “Listen, I don’t care what you want from me, fuck off.”
Archimedes clicks his pen and puts the pad back in his pocket. “I got what I needed.” He turns to someone I can’t see and nods his head. The door closes.
I stand there, unable to move. Tremors of rage radiate out from my chest until my vision is white hot. I scream and pound the door in anger.
“Take a step back from the door, or I’ll trigger the kill-switch on your friends,” Nero orders.
I retreat and slump to my knees. “Is she okay?”
“Bedevil? Sedated, missing a few fingers, but she’s okay. Waiting like a sleeping beauty for someone to kiss her awake. If you don’t hurry, I just might.” I can hear Nero leering at me in his stupid smug voice alone.
I realize that he’s trying to needle me closer to agreeing to Cynic. He’s just here to give me someone to rail against, someone to take the heat off Cynic and make her offer seem reasonable. Another manipulation. None of what she’s asking is reasonable, though.
To recap: she made me and a large batch of my brothers just to research Megajoule’s weakness. To do this, she killed all of my fellow clones except for me. The only reason I’m still alive is because my superpower turned out slightly different, so now she wants to keep me on a leash so she can research superpowers and how to take them away. All on the promise that she’ll keep my friends safe. For the rest of my life I do Cynic’s bidding, a hound the same as Nero, and let her shape the world to her will.
For a brief second, I consider drawing all of the energy I can and rupturing this tower, and letting the wreckage kill me. A suicide of the grandest order.
However, if I do that, what happens to Maisa, Bedevil, Epione, all of my friends? Cynic could kill them. Make their lives a living hell. At the very least I’d indirectly endanger Maisa just by proximity. Nero would be on me faster than I could finish the job. And even if I do manage to off myself, would Epione be able to, as well? That plan hinges not on one suicide but two, and I couldn’t ask Ep to do that.
I’m not done here, yet. There has to be another way. I’ll find it.
I trudge over to the porthole Maisa spoke to me through. “Maisa?”
“She can’t hear you, not if I don’t want her to,” Nero says over the speaker.
“Can I talk to her?”
“Nope.” Nero sounds pleased as punch.
“Why not?” I ask.
“You’ll get to talk to her when you agree to Cynic’s offer.” Nero pauses. “Wow, look at you, being all popular. You’ve got another guest.”
I almost ask who it is when I realize it doesn’t matter. They’ll make me talk to them anyway, they’ll make me dance on the end of their strings.
Templar is my new guest. I can’t read her expression without my glasses, and when she speaks, her voice is monotone. She rides her vocal fry hard. “Gabe. How are you feeling?”
I stare at her, unable to muster any quips or responses.
“You should agree to Cynic’s offer,” Templar says.
“Right out the gate, huh?” I tap my chin. “They did say you weren’t a very good face for the Inheritors.”
Templar doesn’t reply to my barb. Instead, she lifts her hand and taps her chin, too. “He used to do that a lot. I picked it up as well. It’s difficult to think about the mark he left on the world and all the people around him.”
My body is so heavy I’m going to fall on my ass. I place my hand on the glass to support my weight.
“Hands off,” Nero growls over the speaker.
“Let him,” Templar says. “I still outrank you, Nero.”
“You know that doesn’t mean anything,” Nero replies, but he shuts up after that.
Templar puts her hand on the glass against mine. I can’t make out the detail of her face but I can see that she’s frowning. “I’m not a very good face. For OPI, for Inheritors, for anything. I do my job. That’s it. But they keep wanting me to represent this golden age that’s gone by. I can’t.” Her hands falls away from the glass. “But you can. They already love you. The news is a constant cycle of your deeds.”
“I only saved a man from a burning building,” I say.
“No, I mean, all of them. As Home Run, too. And from before. FIS dug through the Underground’s history. Do you know what they’re saying?” Templar’s shoulders lift, her whole body swells up just a bit, I suppose with something like pride. “Gabe saves children. Gabe protects the poor. Gabe is a hero.”
I am moved. The black hole closes. A hero. They think I’m a hero.
“It could be another manipulation,” Megajoule whispers in my ear, the first he’s said since I woke up. I ignore him for now.
I clear my throat. “Do they know I’m here?”
Templar shakes her head.
“So, what happens if I agree? In your opinion,” I say.
“I don’t know all of Cynic’s plans for you. I believe she’d let you do good work. Bust up trafficking organizations. Fight villains using their powers to profit on oppression. Very visible hero work.”
“That’s not what I’m after.” That sounds like an endless parade of chores.
“What are you after?” Templar asks.
“A world where we don’t have to do very visible hero work.”
Templar stands silent for a second or two. She coughs, and says, “I don’t disagree. We should work for that. I think that you could do what you want by becoming OPI’s new face. The world needs you.” She pauses again, taps her chin. “I wouldn’t dare let Cynic harm you. I wouldn’t let her lock you up. You’re too important, now.”
“How could you prevent her from doing anything to me?” I ask.
“Cynic may be a proud woman. But I am also a proud woman.”
“Fair enough.” I stick my hands in my pockets, unsure of what else to do with them.
Templar opens her mouth to say something, but doesn’t.
“What?” I ask.
I can imagine what she’s going to ask me about. “Bedevil?”
“Is she happy?”
I don’t really know how to answer that question. I stammer, struggling to put the words together.
Templar also doesn’t reply, also stammers, and so we stand here, two awkward goons stuttering for words.
Finally, I muster some response. “Right before you raided our hideout, she celebrated a week of sobriety by watching her favorite movie, eating a jar of jelly beans, and falling asleep against my chest.”
Templar turns her face away.
“She was happy. I was happy.”
“I’ll make sure that Cynic lets you two work together, then.” Templar takes another glance at me and bows her head slightly. “I’m sure you know about her past with Wind Rider.”
I nod. A vein throbs in my forehead.
Templar stammers some more. She composes herself, and says, “You know her favorite movie.”
“I’m making a guess, actually. She wept through the whole thing. But if I hadn’t watched Les Mis with her I’d have guessed a shark documentary was her favorite movie.” I miss her. I want her back. That’s almost enough to get me to surrender right now, if every cell in my body didn’t cry out to reject Cynic.
“You’re a better partner than Jamie, then,” Templar says. “And you’re a better friend than I was.”
“Templar. You still have a chance to be that friend. You’re talking like it’s over, like she’ll never accept that from you.”
Templar shudders. “She never forgave me for how I told the team about Megajoule’s death. I had no idea how to face them. So I sent a text message.”
“I know,” I say. “I don’t blame you. That was hard.”
“Please, take Cynic’s offer. We need you.”
I hear it in her voice:
I need you.
And I think about that night I fought Sledge in the Second Ward, trapped between Sledge’s horrible power and the people that needed me. I think about chasing after Maisa and wrenching her from the Fear’s clutches.
And I realize that Templar may have just convinced me to agree to Cynic’s offer.