I smash into Rorschach, driving the whole creature away from Epione and Empyreal. Fucking damn it, Snow Owl didn’t deserve that! And she failed doing exactly what I planned to do.
Rorschach slams me into the ground. I absorb energy until I’m shining. I kick free with kinetic power, pushing Rorschach back toward Danger Close, but Rorschach snatches me and whips me ragdoll style, right into Krater, and then into Tachikaze.
She goes flying again, landing on the other end of the terminal. Fuck this thing, it’s stealing my Heatwave Home Run!
I throw a bubble of kinetic energy around my body, prying myself free of Rorschach’s grip, but damn, he squeezed me good. I spit up a little blood. I bite my tongue.
“Watch out!” Krater tackles me out of the way of another of Rorschach’s slaps. “Keep moving, little man!”
Rorschach’s already killed all those people we were trying to rescue and Snow Owl. It’s showing no signs of slowing down. If he doesn’t get ripped in half like Snow Owl, Danger Close might eventually get lucky while we’re distracting it. Who might die before then? Empyreal, Epione, Tachikaze, even me or Krater? And when he does kill it, then what? New host, second verse, same as the first.
No, this needs to end now. Epione thinks if we draw it out from that other place when it searches for a new host, we can kill it. Why couldn’t Snow Owl get the Fear to take her instead? She wasn’t afraid enough?
I’ve got a few things in my favor. First off, I’m terrified of this thing. I’m terrified of losing, and dying here, and of all my friends getting killed. I saved Maisa, but that just means I have everything to lose. Second, Tim Prince didn’t trust his sister.
That Thermo tells me he’ll trust me if I try to save him.
Tachikaze slices into the heart, and blood seeps out of the wires. She must have hit Tim, but Rorschach doesn’t slow down. Instead, it grabs her leg, and explodes into the deadly razor wires to make Tachi Julienne style. I jump to help, but Krater beats me to the punch, pulling her free of Rorschach’s attack.
Her leg stays behind, and she’s left with a bloody stump at her hip.
“No!” Krater huddles over her as the wires lash into his back.
Danger Close flies around the heart, searching for Tim Prince, but a new limb bushwhacks him out of the air. He punches through the wall, into the next terminal.
“Epione, make me afraid!” I shout, warping over to her and Empyreal.
“What are you doing?” Empyreal asks.
“Giving it a reason to leave Tim. When it comes out, you can hit it with your power!” I turn to Epione. “Do you think that will work?”
“If it decides you’re worth it to take as a new host, it will expose itself.” Epione places a hand on my shoulder. “Snow Owl was afraid, but not more than Pandahead. He needs a reason to be brave, to let go of it.”
I’m hoping that Megajoule saving him gives him the courage to fight it off. “Do it.”
Terror floods into me. Epione’s face melts, her eyes turn to wells overflowing with tar, and blood boils out of her mouth. Empyreal grins wickedly at me. My heart pounds inside my chest, and adrenaline courses through my veins.
I run from them, scared out of my mind. All I can focus on is saving Tim from Rorschach.
I warp up to the heart with kinetic energy, shadow limbs striking at me the entire way. I can’t even gather myself to dodge them, so I eat several nasty blows. They give me a ton of energy to work with, though, and I speed along to find Tim bobbing inside Rorschach’s core.
“I’m here to save you, Tim! It’s me, Megajoule!” I rip threads from around him with stiffened, clumsy fingers. Sweat slicks my grip. “Come on!” I grab his cheeks. “Reach. Dream. Strive. Become. Remember?”
Tim Prince gasps, and his eyes brighten. Rorschach’s wires pull out of his mouth and eyes until he’s completely free of the Blot. He slips into the heart, and drops out behind it by a couple of yards.
The wires furl up into a sphere roughly the size of a watermelon in the time it takes me to blink. The Fear’s voice shrieks into my mind a new word: HOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSST – a sharp tap at the end of the ‘T’ like a knife cutting into my brain matter, like a hammer hitting my heart.
The wires shoot into my mouth.
A swarm of colors. They are so many.
Rorschach fills my body. The ink covers my eyes and ears.
A parade of worlds marches by me, each one as bright and populated as the Earth, sometimes even more. Strange creatures build societies, nations, and eventually populate whole planets. Some of the species even go beyond, and colonize the other worlds in their systems.
The swarm of dark strands I saw earlier when I saved Maisa enters each of these worlds. Every world in simultaneity. The same story, billions and billions of times, over billions and billions of years. The lights go out, the worlds grow cold and lifeless. The swarm moves on.
I see protesters, I see Tim waving his fist with them, chanting in a massive chorus. The capes start flying and those Wall Painter devices rupture hundreds of bodies. I see him fall into the corpse void and scoop the Fear into his thermos. How in the hell he did that, I have no idea.
The vision shifts. Tim sits at a table in an extravagant hall lit by an intricate chandelier. Blood soaks into his clothes, flecks of flesh stick to his skin. His father stalks around him, shouting: “What on Earth were you thinking?”
Tim does not look at his father. He stares at the Thermos with eyes wide open. I can hear the same voice out of the cup that he hears, the voice that drowns out even his father’s tirade.
ONNNN EEEAAAAARRRRTTTTTHHHHH, YOOOOOUUUUU THINK
“It wasn’t safe!” Senator Prince yells. “You could have been killed. What would I do then? What would we do?”
ONNN EEEEAAARRTTTTTHHHH, YOUOUUU THIIIINK SAFE?
Tim’s mouth falls open.
Senator Prince stops his ranting and studies his son. “This is a waste of time.” He stalks out of the room.
YOU. ON EARTH. A WASTE OF TIME. YOU ARE NOT SAFE. I WILL KILLED YOU. I WILL KILL YOU.
The image changes again, and I groan as my stomach flips like I’m on a loop de loop roller coaster ride.
Tim sits in a room with a few other people, dealing little baggies of drugs out to them. He grins and laughs as he snorts whatever the powder is with them. As they relax into the high, one of Tim’s friends spasms, and flips out, an apparent overdose.
FEED ME, AND I WILL GIVE YOU POWER.
Tim stares at the Thermos, high as a kite, but terror ices through his veins. He reaches out and opens the Thermos.
The world shifts again.
Tim, in his Pandahead costume, chuckles and whistles as he walks through a warehouse with the open Thermos in one hand, the lid in the other. Men cower from him in fear and Rorschach engorges itself on their pain. Another shift, and I see Pandahead riding in the boat we found at the docks, watching over his stock, letting Rorschach devour their pain as his men abuse the children.
The vision cuts abruptly as I’m wrenched backward. Invisible tendrils hook around my arms and waist, and the ink falls free from my eyes. Empyreal waves his silver-fire covered hands at a black sphere floating in front of me, and Bedevil grabs onto me from behind as she slings us away from the Fear. “You okay, hun?”
“Yeah.” I shake my head. I feel like I swallowed gasoline. Pandahead slumps into the benches, free of the Fear’s possession. “Is Maisa safe?”
“She’s with the others at the van.” Bedevil stands me up. “What happened?”
Rorschach retreats from Empyreal’s power. The real Rorschach, I think— just a small sphere of tightly wound wires of ink. Those unwind to start growing limbs, but they’re much smaller now that the creature doesn’t have a host. Once it towered over the terminal, now it’s barely the size of a van.
The Blot spider crawls across the benches, toward Krater and Tachikaze. Bedevil, and I chase after. Bedevil hooks her tendrils, spinning the Blot in the air, and I smash it with a kinetic kick. Rorschach hits the wall hard.
Danger Close flies back into the room, gun aimed at Tim Prince.
Shit. We need Pandahead alive. He’ll know more about this thing than anyone else. I jump up, getting in front of Danger Close’s gun. The bullets impact my chest, ripping through the jacket, but I absorb all their energy.
Danger Close slams into me, and we hit the ground between the benches. “He needs to die!”
“No! He’s not the host anymore!” I kick Danger Close’s legs out, and get free. “Empyreal, get Tim Prince out of here. We need him alive!”
Empyreal, with Epione’s help, has already gotten Tim to his feet and is moving him through the hole I made in the wall.
Bedevil flies through the air, landing next to me. “Krater can’t hold him!”
Rorschach smashes Krater’s back with limbs as thick as branches, spinning into each blow like some kind of toy ball. Krater fights to keep Tachikaze safe from the Blot’s assault. The worrying thing is that Rorschach is growing again.
Wait, it doesn’t attack while it’s gorging on fear. That gives me an opening.
I bound over the benches, Bedevil right on my heels. This thing has lots of limbs for me to work with. It’s time to throw some judo at its ass. I warp with kinetic energy in a circle around Rorschach, and grab the spindly arms.
I spin on my heels using my power and whip Rorschach through the air. Rorschach grows new limbs, but Bedevil’s telekinesis wraps each one behind him in a neat bundle. Before Rorschach can do anything else, I let go, launching the creature through the terminal windows. Rorschach flies out into broad daylight and crashes into the airport strip.
“Bedevil! Squeeze me!” I shout, sprinting for the broken window.
Bedevil wraps tendrils around me and clamps down, and I absorb the force, turning our little arrangement into a battery for me to draw from. I siphon the heat from the air around me.
Rorschach grows rapidly as a new swath of people see it squirm in the airstrip pavement. Limbs crack through the cement and claw toward the planes while the sphere builds to the size of a house. It doesn’t grow toward the terminal or even put a defense up; the buffet of panic distracts Rorschach perfectly.
Epione flies next to me and grabs onto my shoulder. “Be brave, Gabe! It’s like fire to it.” Adrenaline courses through me, and I gasp as bronze fire covers my arms, similar to the silver fire that Empyreal wielded. “It’s fully here. It can’t escape, so there’s no reason to be afraid.”
Bedevil slings next to me, still squeezing me for extra energy, and puts her hand on my back. “We’ll give you an opening. Hit it hard.”
“Hang on,” I warn them. I stomp down and kick off.
It’s a bird! A plane! Three screaming freaks in costume! We shoot right at the sphere like a bullet. The finger digs into the back of my brain as Rorschach shifts its attention to us from the terrified bystanders in the planes. Limbs whip at us, but Epione blasts them down with Jettison’s power on my left, and Bedevil slaps them away with her telekinesis on my right.
Rorschach’s voice lances into my ears: YOU THINK EARTH IS SAFE? I WILL KILL YOU.
I wind my fist back.
WE WILL KILL YOU.
The black hole rises up to meet us even with its limbs bound behind it. The event horizon grows and stretches to wrap around us.
I AM THE PREDATOR. YOU ARE PREY.
I smash my fist into Rorschach’s network of tightly wound threads, and bronze fire springs across the cords from my arms. I seize hold of a bundle in each hand, and plant my feet into the slimy surface. Epione and Bedevil release me to my work.
The fire lights up the black hole as it spreads from wire to wire. I pump all the heat and vibrational power I can into the body, rupturing the structures the fire weakens. “I call this one the Tsar Bomba Takedown!” I revolve our entire mass in a burst of kinetic energy, flipping forward over my head and hurl Rorschach’s bloated, disintegrating body back into the airstrip.
A cloud of cement debris, ink, and hissing hot air shoots back up at me, lifting me with the toxic updraft. Bedevil’s tendrils pull me free of this noxious blast, and we alight at the edge of the dust.
The finger in the back of my head vanishes, and that eerie, squeaking tone underlining everything silences. The tarry remains of Rorschach evaporate without the mind behind them until all that’s left is the smoking crater.
“Did you seriously name your move?” Bedevil eyes me incredulously.
“He always does that,” Epione says.
“We just killed this thing and that’s what you’re concerned about?” I stand straight.
The hairs on my neck rise. People are staring at me, and I’m not wearing my mask. I glance around at the hundreds of eyes on me from the hotel and planes, the faces pressed against the windows, and the phones taking pictures or videos.
What else do I do besides smile and wave?
I can only barely hear it, but I can see it, too. They cheer, they flip out, they jump up and down and hug each other in celebration. Bedevil laughs as she sees it too and meets my gaze. She smiles wide at me. It must feel like old times for her. She jumps into my chest, wrapping me in a bear hug. Epione follows, smiling her soft, neutral smile.
We did it. We actually killed the Fear.
One of them.
No, don’t be a defeatist.
Krater bounds from the Terminal toward us, carrying Empyreal with him. Krater sets Empyreal down, never taking his eyes off Rorschach’s grave. His awe cracks into a grin and then a chuckle. “You sure do like putting people in holes, huh.”
“That’s a bit of a heel turn from our usual conversation.” I stiffen up a bit. Just because we fought together doesn’t mean we’re friends. He was still an asshole to Bedevil and tried to kill my friends at one point. Then again, wasn’t he just doing his job? I dunno, this is all confusing.
“Yeah, it is,” Krater says. He looks down. “Guess I owe you an apology. But you owe us an explanation.”
Bedevil snakes her hand into the crook of my elbow. “He doesn’t.” She glares at Krater.
I smile at her to tell her it’s okay. “No, but I’ll give one. Short and simple, I’m a clone of Megajoule, created by someone with the power to manipulate DNA.” I stuff my hands into my pockets. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not him.”
Krater mulls that over, biting his lower lip. He nods a few times to himself, and says, “Okay. But you’re close enough. And you know they’re gonna think you’re him.” He looks at the people still celebrating inside the airplanes.
I appreciate that they’re so happy. It makes me feel happy. “Yeah. Wait. What about Tachikaze?”
“Jettison took her to the medics on standby,” Krater says. His lips pinch, and he shrugs, but his eyebrows are knitted so tight he might form new debris around his eyes. He’s worried.
“First Sledge, and now this.” Empyreal walks over to the edge of the crater and whistles at it. “Even Araphel is impressed.”
“Who?” Bedevil asks.
“The angel on his shoulder,” Epione says.
Every single one of us throws her a funny look, especially Empyreal, who asks, “You can see him?”
“The whole time. He’s very feathery.” Epione titters in her usual way.
Empyreal looks up at someone I can’t see. I get chills—the heebie jeebies. Must be his power. I wonder what she means by angel-
Danger Close rockets in from the terminal. He hovers above our group and looks at me. “Home Run.” He lands and the engines on the back of his suit cool off. He points a finger at Epione, and says, “I still have orders to take you and this girl in.”
“Like hell you’re taking them.” Bedevil resumes her defensive stance.
Danger Close turns his attention to her. “I have no such orders for you, Bedevil. You get in my way, you die.”
I feel her tendrils spread out from her. “I’d like to see you try. Once I pop you out of that can we’ll see who needs drunk goggles, you—”
Three FIS vans speed around the terminals, their wheels screeching on the airstrip concrete. They wrap around our ensemble in a ring. Bedevil keeps herself between me and them and snaps me a glare that says “run for it.”
I should run, but when the van door opens, my feet glue to the ground, because the woman that steps out is OPI International Director Cynthia Myers, otherwise known as Cynic—the woman who ordered Megajoule killed.