After Templar and Bedevil accept each other’s presence, they sit across from each other on the benches, both making a careful study of their former friend. Maisa slumbers with her head in Bedevil’s lap and Epione is blessedly asleep herself.
I take my place next to Bedevil. She places her hand in mine.
Templar notices and arches an eyebrow at us. “When did this happen?”
“We met working as vigilantes,” Bedevil says.
“You were a vigilante?” Templar asks.
Bedevil nods. “I am one, really.”
“How’d that happen?”
Bedevil sighs. Her grip tightens on my arm. “Just got fed up, one day. Needed to be somewhere other than my apartment, and OPI was turning a blind eye to some gang issues I’d noticed while patrolling. Ran into him while he was out hunting for Tim Prince.”
Templar doesn’t have much to say to that. We sit in quiet and I listen to the plane’s quiet hum. Maisa sleeps with her head in Bedevil’s lap.
Archimedes comes out of the cockpit. “We’re in the clear. The White Shark’s stealth is on, and once we clear Mexico we’ll dive and really be undetectable. I’m sure they’ve scrambled fighters but they don’t know where we’re going.”
No, we’re not that far south. We can’t be. “Mexico? What about Galveston? What about my friends?”
“That’s too risky,” Archimedes says.
“Bullshit it’s too risky!” I surprise myself with my shout. I don’t want to scream at the person who just saved me, but I’m not leaving my friends to die.
“Gabe, calm down,” Bedevil says. She tugs on my hand.
“Listen, I get that you want to gallop in and save the day, but right now, that prison they’re at? I had to change the signal to shut down the facility. The entire facility. It turned into a prison riot.” Archimedes shakes his head. “If we take a detour we will get caught. Cynic will take you back. This time, she’ll put a bullet in everyone here. Including you.”
“They’re my friends,” I say. “I can’t leave them.”
“If they’re smart, they’ll get out fine,” Archimedes says. “We’ll meet up with Oracle and we’ll work out how to get the Underground.”
Linear taps the wall by the cockpit door. He’s drilling a hole in the back of Archimedes’ head with his glare. “Arch.”
Archimedes snaps a glare back at his companion.
I don’t know what’s going on, but the looks they exchange are dark and terse. “What?” My voice is weak. My heart is weak. There’s an ax blade falling but I don’t know why.
Archimedes covers his mouth with his hand. He strokes his unkempt beard and looks everywhere but my face. “Gabe. There’s no easy way to say this, but not all of your friends made it into OPI custody alive.”
The invisible ax strikes me right in my skull, splitting me in half down to my toes. I am ejected from my body, a ghost adrift from time and space. “Ah.”
“Oh my God,” Bedevil says, somewhere very far away.
Archimedes shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Gabe.”
“W-who?” I’m not even sure if I said that or if the words just materialized from the void I find myself in, echoing from my corpse to Archimedes.
He lowers his head. “A woman by the name of Sarah Reyes. Mil-dot.”
Lugs, poor Lugs. His sister. But I can tell from Archimedes’ tone that there’s more than one death. “Who else?”
Her name is a second ax blow across my soul. I drop to my knees. I know I am screaming but I can’t hear anything at all. Bedevil’s grabbing my arm but I can’t feel it. I am a ghost inside my body. I am a ghost.
I am not here, I am a ghost.
“Gabe,” Bedevil whispers. “I’m here. Please come back.”
There’s another person in the void with me. Bedevil cradles my body in her arms and hums into my ear. I follow the thread of her song back to my skin, slowly filling out my arms and legs.
My stomach climbs up my ribcage. I bawl, drowning in mucus and tears, drowning in sorrow. I could have saved them. Mil-dot and Drone are dead because I wasn’t strong enough.
I weep until I can’t weep anymore, until I’m sure I’m dehydrated. A water bottle floats over to me and uncaps itself. “Here,” Bedevil says. “Drink.”
“Drink,” she says with more force.
I take the bottle and sip at it. A little water awakens my thirst and I drain the whole thing in three gulps. The bottle floats from me when I finish and Bedevil caresses my head. “C’mere.” She pulls me into her arms, pulls my head into her chest. Her heart beats a steady rhythm and warm energy flows from her skin. I cling to her shirt and breathe through a stuffed nose.
My cheek turns wet and I realize I’ve soaked her shirt. “Sorry.”
Bedevil strokes my hair and murmurs, “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
“It’s my fault,” I say. “I should have died, instead.”
Bedevil lifts my head gently. She wipes tears from my eyes so she can look into them. “Gabe. I spent a lot of time thinking that, too. About you know who. It’s no way to live. The best thing you can do now is live the kind of life they’d want you to live.”
“I don’t… I can’t think that, right now,” I say.
“Okay. Don’t think. Just rest. Do you want the bench?” she asks.
I rest my head against her chest. She embraces me again and hums. Her heart vibrates and beats, her entire body is a song of comforting heat.
“I’m here,” she says again. “Sleep.”
I close my eyes.
When I open them again, I’m standing in the woods behind Echo’s property. The stars struggle against the abyss of night, barely maintaining their light. Megajoule stands in the dark, staring up at the sky. He reaches his hand up for it and the stars begin to wink out.
“I’m weak,” I say.
Megajoule’s face is unreadable in the dark. “No.”
“Drone died on my watch.”
“You fought hard, and you fought well,” Megajoule says. “Sometimes, that’s not enough.”
“I was stupid,” I say.
“You can be smarter,” Megajoule says. “Drone was smart.”
The clearing between us might as well be an entire universe. My legs push through the molasses of a dream, every step takes me farther away from him.
Megajoule’s voice bounces across the trees, echoing from the void above and the ground below. The words reach me from across the gulf between us: “You’ll do better next time. You can do better. I know you can.”
The dream lurches and shatters. I sit up out of Bedevil’s embrace, disturbing her slumber. Maisa’s, too, who had rested her head on the bench close to Bedevil’s shoulder. All three of us blink sleep from our eyes.
Templar and Linear are in the cockpit. Archimedes is sitting on the the opposite bench, one beady eye studying a tome as wide as my fist titled, “Ethical Arguments for Cannibalism,” and the other eye watching Epione hiding her face under Bedevil’s shirt like she’s a snoring tiger. Both of his eyes lock in on me as I climb to my knees. “Morning, sleeping beauty.”
I grimace at him and put my goggles back on.
“Here,” he says, pulling my glasses from his pocket. “I actually have a few of your belongings. Your laptop, some of Bedevil’s things.”
I take my glasses back with a simple nod. I really can’t manage words right now.
“What about my animals?” Bedevil asks.
Archimedes doesn’t look at her. “Sorry. There was no trace of them on the property.”
Bedevil nods, acting stoic, but I see the telltale chin wobble that will lead to full on sobbing in a few moments. Her composure’s already vanished, conquered by glistening eyes and a reddened nose. I try to comfort her like she comforted me. I pull her into an embrace. “We’ll find them, too.”
“We’re almost home free,” Archimedes says.
“When are we going to go back for my friends?” I ask.
I know I can be one-track, sometimes, but Archimedes pulls a bitchy sigh like I’m one of those students that literally never shuts up. “Listen. We’ll handle that. You need to keep your head down for a while. Until we can find a way to pull Cynic off her throne for good, at least.”
“How long will that take? Years? My friends don’t have years.” I don’t want to keep my head down for a day, let alone years. “What about the Fear? I can’t take a day off with that still out there.”
“We’re doing this because of the Fear, Gabe.” Archimedes closes his book, punctuating his statement with a mean glare.
“Explain,” I demand.
“Where do you want me to begin? Because the explanation will take days, and we land in ten minutes.”
“Give me the ten minute version, then,” I say. “The cliff notes. Not even that. You put everything on the line to save me and Epione, specifically. Give me the thesis sentence for why.”
“You’re already insufferable.” Archimedes stands up and chews his lip. “You want a fucking thesis statement, Gabe? Here’s one: 57,322.”
A number means very little without context, so I wait for him to provide some, and I try to look angry about being made to wait.
“That’s the number of people the Fear has killed across seven separate incidents. One of these things appears, and on average, it kills just over 8000 people. That is our enemy, and we have no idea how many there are, what they are capable of, or how to fight back. You and Epione both faced Rorschach head on, alone, and beat it back. More than that, the three of you killed Rorschach at the airport. We need you.”
“Then why not just let me take Cynic’s offer?” I ask.
Archimedes grows impassioned; his arms wave frantically as he continues on. “Linear foresaw our chances of defeating the Fear with Cynic at the helm of things. Without you, her chances are so infinitesimal-” he demonstrates with his thumb and forefinger pinched together- “that there are more zeroes behind a decimal point in that number than there are people in prison in the UWC. And with you on a leash? Her chances roughly double.”
My mouth is dry. With her in charge, we lose.
“But if you’re free? If Epione is free? If Cynic doesn’t get her insane way and starts wiping people’s superpowers? We stand a fighting chance. It’s not much, but it’s a hell of a lot better than a number I could safely assume as zero.” Archimedes concludes his monologue by rubbing his temples, looking every bit the part of exhausted school teacher. “So, there’s your thesis statement. You’re important enough that I need you to be well out of Cynic’s reach until we figure out what to do with her.”
I see his reasoning but I hate being sidelined. “Why can’t I help you fight her?”
“You likely will,” Archimedes says. “But that’s not a fight we start tomorrow. We’re starting a revolution, Gabe, not a single superpowered brawl.”
“You want to topple all of OPI,” Bedevil says.
“Or at least change out the king,” Archimedes says.
Bring it down, Megajoule said. “Okay.” I bow my head. “Okay. I’m good with this.”
“Good, princess, is there anything else I can get for you?” Archimedes asks.
I open my mouth to speak, but Bedevil snarls over whatever reply I was about to fire off. She floats to her feet and right up to Archimedes face. She says no words, but Archimedes’s eyes bug out of his skull, and his arms and legs snap together as she trusses him up by her power. “One more word and I break your fingers and toes, you arrogant prick.”
“Hey!” Templar barks from the cockpit. “We’re here!”
I reach my hand to Bedevil’s shoulder and tug her away from Archimedes. He falls out of her tendrils, panting and pale. Bedevil doesn’t let up from just yet. She jabs her finger at his face. “That’s a standing threat. If you ever talk to any of my friends like that while I’m around again, I’ll turn you into a cripple. Learn some god damn respect.”
“Hey, Bedevs, ease up,” I say.
Archimedes spits. “I saved your asses.”
Bedevil’s hand finds my chest. “And from what you just said, he’s gonna save ours. Maybe you should act like it instead of treating him like a child.”
Archimedes rolls his eyes. “The tough girl routine is nice-”
His hand rips up into the air of its own accord. His little finger starts to bend back.
Bedevil wears a gargoyle’s face. “Oracle can wipe memories. Maybe she can make you forget the pain.” I couldn’t punch a hole through the tension in the air, no matter how much energy I put into my fist.
“Okay!” Archimedes shouts. “Okay!”
Shit, I have to stop this. “Ruby! Enough!”
Archimedes’ hand drops down.
The White Shark shifts as we land, and the rear doors open, mercy-killing the electric atmosphere. I heave a sigh and glance back at Maisa, who’s only got eyes for Bedevil. For a second, I take her wide-eyed stare as fear, but then I see it for what it really is: admiration. Maisa watches Bedevil like zealots watch a priest.
Gotta admit, that’s number two for hottest thing she did today, even if she almost broke our rescuer’s fingers.
Archimedes retreats outside without a glance our way. Templar and Linear emerge from the cockpit. Linear looks at Bedevil. “If you’d broken his fingers, it would have had a strong chance of breaking our new alliance.”
“I wasn’t gonna.” Bedevil crosses her arms. Strange, her scowl is becoming cute to me. I don’t want to be one of those boyfriends that thinks his girlfriend is cute when she’s angry, but that ship mighta sailed. “He just needs to learn some damn respect.”
Templar snickers. “You almost broke Lock-Stock’s fingers, too. What is it with you and fingers?”
Bedevil grins. “They’re easy to break.” The grin dies when she looks down at her right hand, to her own missing fingers. Only stumps remain at the knuckles, enough that she might be able to grip a pencil or pen between her palm if she tried, but not enough that she’ll ever use the hand normally. “Guess I know that for a fact, now.”
Templar furrows her brow. “I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would have made them recover your fingers. I could have reattached them.”
“Mighta been hard,” I say. “The house burned down.”
“I’ll live,” Bedevil says. “Not like I can’t get on without my right hand.”
I feel the need to hug her. I whisper into her ear. “Thank you.”
Bedevil’s left hand snakes behind my back and rests on my butt. She grins again. I’m not sure I’ve seen her smile so many times in a row. “Besides, I still have my left.”
Outside the White Shark, the view takes my breath away. Dusty-green hills rise around our landing zone, and to our right, a huge lake lazes beneath the sun, scintillating like a sheet of blue diamond just at the foot of mountains that rise so high their caps are crowned in white snow. The air reads quieter, dryer, the movement of energy slower and weaker.
Bedevil and Maisa start shivering as soon as they step out of the ship. We’ve traded in Houston summer for mountainous winter. I draw in gravity and let myself radiate a moderate amount of heat.
“Wow,” Templar says. “That’s very nice.”
“He’s amazing,” Bedevil says.
I barely hear their words. A woman stands at the edge of the landing zone, half immortal goddess and half frayed human. Her eyes blaze like pale stars. Long dreads flow down her shoulders, over her sweater, nearly down to her hands. Her black skin is cracked and wrinkled from age, and her mouth is twisted into a tight frown.
I would never forget her face, as if she herself had branded the memory in the deepest places of my mind. I saw her time and time again in the lab.
Her name is Oracle.