I catch a few hours of sleep after Templar leaves. If it’s manipulation on Cynic’s part, it’s a damn good one. The best one she’s put up. I still pocket the idea of suicide, even if I’m pretty certain I don’t have it in me. Yet I can’t imagine my spirit breaking and living with OPI’s leash.
Both ways are impossible to me. There must be a third way that I can move forward, save my friends, and oppose Cynic. I refuse to be beaten into suicide or submission.
The world needs me. It doesn’t need my corpse and it doesn’t need me cowed. I could accept Cynic’s offer, to stay alive, and then break free as soon as I saw the opportunity.
She probably knows I’m thinking that, and has plans for it. So, I have to plan that she’s planning for it.
Plans upon plans upon plans. She’d see every single one and dash them. Like being able to see through your opponent’s cards. That mind-reading is awful. You’d need some sort of power to block that. I wonder if there are any counters to her telepathy.
I gaze out the window of my prison. The tiles would freeze to my feet if I was anyone else, the glass would stick to my hand like a tongue on an ice pole. I think this place was a research lab re-purposed into a holding cell. It’s a good counter. I could draw from gravity, but I bet the slightest shift in the energy I store would set the sensors off. I wonder if I could use my power on myself? Disintegrate my body with kinetic energy? I’ve never tried.
The sun dawns over Houston and swallows the skyscraper neon signs in early morning light. This city loves me, according to Templar. The world loves me. I’m a hero in their eyes.
Flashfire once said that Megajoule was the last good hero, and maybe he was the only one. Could I ever be like that?
If Flashfire ever looked at me like that, I’d feel like a real hero.
“One thing about that,” Megajoule says, standing next to me. “You should be wary of hero worship.”
“Where have you been?” I whisper. I don’t want to draw Nero’s attention by having a full blown conversation with Mega right now. “Actually, no, how do I get out of here?”
“Have you seriously been considering suicide?” Megajoule asks. “Would you really spit on my legacy like that?”
“I… I wasn’t trying to be selfish. But Cynic could use me to take superpowers away from people.”
“She could use Epione, too. And that girl does not have the ability to kill herself, trust me,” Megajoule says. He rolls his eyes. “No, you just need to think around the problem a little harder. You’ll figure it out.”
God damn it, old man, give me something to work with. “Don’t you have any advice? Any pointers?”
“You just need to drive forward a little harder. You think Nero got to where he was by easing up on the throttle? You need that same tenacity that drives the man beyond death.”
“That’s his power,” I say. “That’s not fair.”
“Does the power shape the person or the person shape the power?” Megajoule asks me, parroting Epione’s words.
He’s right. I need to think. I sit down on the bed and find that I’m alone again.
The speaker buzzes again. “Got a bit of cabin fever, eh? Talking to yourself?” Nero asks.
“Fuck off.” I stand up and stretch, and drop to the ground to do some push-ups. Might as well stay sharp and keep my blood flowing. I’ve got to think around this. The trigger will kill my friends if Cynic is to be believed, and I don’t see what I could do to stop that. Unless there’s a way to fritz the whole system. The problem would be disrupting the signal without setting it off, first. If I could draw electromagnetic energy, I could stop that, but I can’t.
“Working out?” Nero asks.
Nero chuckles. “You seem to be getting more defiant. That’ll get your friends killed.”
“But maybe we’ll get another go,” I say in between reps. “Isn’t that what you want?”
I move to do crunches. The exercise clears away all my doubts and negative thoughts. My sweat freezes the instant it hits my skin. Very weird effect.
The speaker buzzes after a few minutes, while I work on my handstand. “Hey, you’ve got another-” Nero cuts off, the speaker dies. The door opens with a loud hiss.
I fall to my feet. Curious, I walk over to the door. I haven’t been able to get a good look at the hallway beyond without my glasses. I press my face against the window and try to peer to the right, where I think Nero is stationed.
I see two people standing over a slumped body. They pry at the fallen one’s form but I can’t tell what they’re doing beyond that.
One of them leaves the other to their work and I recognize him as he approaches.
Archimedes. He carries a bundle in the crook of his arm and quietly passes by the door, standing just to the side. He fiddles with something I can’t see.
“What is this?” I ask.
I can barely make out Archimedes chewing on his mustache as he fiddles with a panel. “An escape attempt, doofus.”
The other person walks over, pieces of black metal in their hands. They’re much smaller than Archimedes, and as far as I can tell, are wearing the same outfit. “I broke it.”
“Ah, well, Cynic can send us the bill,” Archimedes says. “If she can find us.”
Oh shit. Oh, shit! “You’re trying to spring me?”
“Good, your eyes work,” Archimedes says. “Though probably not well without your glasses.”
I glance over at the slumped body. My heart’s pounding. A chance, a real chance. “Nero, is he-”
“Nope,” the small guy says. “I sedated him. He won’t get up for a while.”
“When we open the door, we’ll need to hurry.” Archimedes pulls a panel plate away from the wall. “Sorry to rush you.”
“How am I supposed to trust you?” I don’t want to get led by the nose into a trap.
Archimedes stops his work and stares at me, and I make out that he’s actually an expressive guy in that he’s looking at me like I’m an idiot. “I just knocked out your jailer.”
Admittedly, this would be a very weird manipulation. Even so, I’m going to look this gift horse in the mouth. “Tell me.”
“We were sent to rescue you. We’ve organized a resistance against Cynic, one that she can’t detect.” Archimedes shakes his head. “Linear, get the girl out.”
The other person, I’m assuming Linear, nods. Linear drops the pieces of Nero’s armor and trots away to Maisa’s prison.
“How can she not know about this?” I ask.
Archimedes resumes his work. “Cynic’s power extends over visual feeds and pictures. If she has a recording she can read your surface thoughts during the video. Pictures give her your thoughts at exactly the second the picture was taken, but that’s useless for the most part, since people concentrate on posing for pictures typically.” Archimedes maneuvers wires and circuitry as he talks to me. At least, I think those little blobs in his hands are wires. “There’s a limit to it, though. If she can’t see your face, she can’t read your thoughts. Ever wonder why ‘heroes don’t wear masks?’”
Holy shit. That explains all the insane CCTV stuff in the last decade and the rule. Cynic became director during all that stuff. I wouldn’t doubt she’s the source. “You’re not wearing a mask, though.” I squint at him to bring his face into more focus. “I don’t think.”
“No. The other way I know around her power is to forget what you don’t want her to know.”
“How could you just forget?” I ask.
“The leader of our little resistance has the power to make people forget,” Archimedes says. “I’m sure you’re familiar with her. Use your brain.”
There’s only one person I know who could manipulate memories. The woman who put Megajoule in my head. “Oracle? She died!” I read the articles. But that would be perfect, wouldn’t it?
“That’s what the people who were there remember, anyway,” Archimedes says. “It’s what I usually remember until certain dates where we’ve arranged to meet her. She’s very careful about masking herself from Cynic, and she’s waited this long to put her plan into motion. Step one is getting you out of here. So, are you in? Or should I even bother?”
If Oracle is behind this, I need to meet her. “I’m in. What about my friends?”
“The Underground isn’t in the tower, so there’s not a lot I can do about that,” Archimedes says. “The only reason I was able to get Bedevil away was that Cynic held her here. I hope you understand that was a considerable extra risk on my part.”
I push against the window. “Where is she? Can I talk to her?”
Archimedes taps his watch, and says, “Bedevil, could you talk to your boyfriend for a moment?”
“Gabe?” Bedevil shouts over the watch. “You’re okay!”
“Oh, thank fuck.” Relief floods through me. “How are you? Did they hurt you?”
Bedevil starts to sob over the comm. “No. I’m okay. I’m hiding in one of the White Sharks in the hangar.”
“I’ll be there soon. Which floor are we on?” I ask Archimedes.
“28th,” Archimedes says. “Once I get you out, get this suit on. I made it to help us escape and to enhance your power a little. It’s only a prototype so it won’t be perfect.” He taps the bundle in his arms.
I wait, heat gathering in my heels. I bounce and pace, just waiting for the door to open.”What about my friends? Isn’t this place wired to kill them?”
Archimedes pumps his fist. “It was, until just now. Now the signal will set them free, instead. We can change the temperature now. Cynic will still know you’ve been busted out, but hopefully, we’ll be gone before she sends anyone our way.”
“We’ll be at the hangar by then,” I say.
“No, we actually have to go up first. Epione is on the 29th floor. We absolutely can’t leave her. You’ll have to deal with her guards. Neither Linear nor I are fighters.” Archimedes taps something and the temperature around me shifts. The panel blocking me from escape slides back. “Get out, that’s dangerously cold for us.”
I jump out and the panel door slides shut. Archimedes shoves the bundle in my arm.
“Just strip down and slide into it. It will fit itself to you.” Archimedes fishes in his pocket and hands me one more thing: my goggles from my mask. “That should remedy the eyes thing.”
The suit is a gray and black leather suit. The material is sturdy and porous, but thin, almost like a second layer of skin. I strip and jump into the suit from the back, like a pair of long john pajamas. Once I pull the suit up to my shoulders, the material vibrates and shrinks to my form, almost so tight it resembles a class spandex superhero costume, except for the collar, which is thick and armored, and projects a holographic display of my current temperature. I start to absorb heat and watch that number climb.
“No need to be careful,” Archimedes says. “The suit is a thermal material that can store a good amount of heat itself, so you don’t do that thing where you light up.”
The suit moves exactly like another layer of skin, so much so that I can barely tell I’m wearing anything. I draw in as much heat as I can take without lighting my skin up, and fill the suit at the same time. The material fills with energy, and the thermometer reaches the tens of thousands of degrees. “How long did this take you?”
“About six hours, but I had preliminary designs done for weeks,” Archimedes says. “I just needed your measurements.”
“While you were needling me about Bedevil?” I ask.
“That was actually on purpose, I swear I’m not just a dick.” Archimedes coughs. “I needed to know how likely you were to escape without her. According to Linear’s power, she drops our chances of escape by about 10%.”
“Still kinda sounds like you’re a dick,” I say.
“Do not be rude to your rescuers,” Archimedes replies.
Linear returns with Maisa, who cries out, “Gabe!” as she sees me.
I smile for her. “It’s going to be okay.” We still need to be careful. Archimedes handed me a key, but I’ve got to bust through the door myself.
I slide the goggles on and the world snaps into sharp focus at last. Once I have my vision back, I take stock of the people around me. Maisa is unhurt, dressed as she was right before Echo’s property was raided. She rubs tears from her eyes.
Archimedes wears an extremely unkempt beard and looks as if, once, long ago, he had an extremely enlightening realization about the average intelligence of the people around him and stuck with the expression that followed ever since. That said, he’s taller than I am and about 250 pounds, not all of which is muscle.
Linear, Arch’s diminutive counterpart, runs around Nero’s body like a chicken with its head cut off, hands knitting his shirt in worry. They both wear the same blue polo and gray slacks like they came from the same retail store or something.
Archimedes grabs my arm and fiddles with the fabric around the wrists. I noticed the gloves are padded in a circular pattern in my palm. “One last thing. These gloves are inspired by the dead man walking over there. If you channel energy through the glove, it’ll shoot off a beam.”
“How?” I ask.
“My power lets me mimic other powers in tech,” Archimedes replies. “That’s incredibly unscientific, I know, but again, that man over there can come back from the dead.” He points at the sedated Nero. “Now, come on. Let’s go extract Epione.”
Before I can reply, an elevator dings behind us.