I hope to catch a glimpse of the lake and mountains out the living room window again. Something about that view just tugged at my heart. Not very often you find a place that makes you feel at ease just be existing.
Unfortunately, the world is cast in darkness. There’s not even a moon outside, or stars, just a thick blanket of clouds. Snow taps against the window and drifts off into the night, out of sight a few feet beyond the house. Oracle brings me a piping cup of coffee and I contemplate how I’ll fix my sleep schedule so that I’m not up all hours of the night.
Everyone but Epione is gathered in the living room now. Archimedes and Linear stand next to each other, Bedevil, Maisa, and Templar occupy the couch, and Oracle sits in a reading chair. The fire casts us all in orange twilight. Coffee and tea fill the air with vibrant energy, little pockets of heat I feel swell and rise before melting into the ambient temperature.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” Oracle says. “Or rather, let me show you.”
“Not the memory thing again,” I say. “Last time made me nauseous.”
Archimedes steps into the middle of the living room, carrying a small tablet. “Not like that.” The tablet’s flashlight glows and spreads the arc of its beam until it encompasses half of the room in soft, white light. “Do you see it?”
At first, I don’t see a thing but after a minute the light changes, twists, and coils around itself, and a current of colors flows all around the room where Archimedes’ light shines. Archimedes points the light at Oracle and a silver semi-circle reflects back at him, burning with multi-colored flames. Archimedes turns the light on me and from my chest, a molten core of bronze shines back, also wreathed in rainbow fire. The colors shine out from me and spread into the air, meeting with Oracle’s colors, and mingling with Bedevil’s silver heart.
“This is how Epione sees the world. I made this from studying her,” Archimedes says. “Cynic wanted me to make a power-stealer but I did this instead.”
“The colors.” I wave my hand through the mirage. “What is this?”
“This is the Affect.” Oracle smiles. “It’s where our powers, and the Fear, come from. The fourth dimension that connects all of us.”
“Let me guess, there’s a light side and a dark side, and there’s gotta be balance,” I joke.
Oracle chuckles. “Close enough to the truth. There are positive and negative emotions.”
“These are emotions?” Bedevil reaches her left hand up and waves it through the soup of colors. She’s stunning, silver core wrapped in pink fire at the center of her chest. White and blue blossom alongside, and I watch the spectrum of colors grow from her. Change. Morph. Return. She’s a multi-faceted gem, a rose where each petal is a new wonder.
“The Affect is a realm of emotion,” Oracle says. “It overlays everything. As I said, it’s where all of our powers come from. Archimedes and Linear can explain more. Cynic tasked Archimedes with Affect research for some time.”
“Think of space as being in three dimensions.” Archimedes points his thumb up, his index finger out, and curls his middle finger into his palm. “Three axes of movement. Imagine then, that there’s another axis of movement into the Affect. That’s our best working theory, that the Affect overlays everything and we can tap into it. We’re still limited in three dimensions, but there’s a part of us that draws from the Affect.”
I’m still transfixed by Bedevil’s colors. I walk up behind her and run my fingers through the flower of her soul, and touch her shoulders, startling her. “Sorry.”
“The Fear is a fourth-dimensional being, then.” Archimedes turns off the light. The colors vanish out of the air, casting us all back into the dull orange glow of the fire. “Epione being a pure empath is the closest we’ve seen to someone who exists in that space as well. Empyreal’s angel, too. Epione actually confirmed a long-standing theory that the Affect gave us our powers. Her ability allows her to steal them and following that her power is pure Affect control, our powers are expressions of the Affect as well.”
“How do you know what her power is?” Templar asks.
Archimedes taps his left eye. “I have a scanner in my eye that I modeled off a cape that could sense what other people’s powers were. Like I said, my power recreates other powers with devices that I build. Strictly speaking, they aren’t functional technology, just something I imbue with power.” His grin splits his shaggy beard and doesn’t look friendly. “I’m not so much a scientist as a mad artist.”
“So the Sword Gene is… it’s a lie.” I inhale waiting for the answer. Knowing whether or not it really is the determinant of my powers… knowing whether or not I’m really just him but worse. What will I do with the answer? Will I disappear? “It’s a lie,” I repeat, begging for it to the be the truth.
“Bingo.” Archimedes strokes his shaggy beard, his eyes both dark and amused all at once. “Sort of. Sort of bingo.”
“Sort of?” Bedevil looks up at me. She knows how much this means to me.
“The gene exists. Everyone has it. It’s virtually the same among every person.” Archimedes frowns. “We believe it’s what connects us to the Affect.”
Bedevil looks like this is news to her, too. “Why lie about it?” Templar’s only somewhat lost. I imagine she’s heard part of this before, being within Cynic’s inner circle.
“You ever wonder why there aren’t a ton of supervillains?” Archimedes asks. “The Sword Gene was very convincing propaganda. Really, it was inspired on OPI’s part. When you convince everyone that there’s only 2.5% of people with heavyweight powers and then hire as many as you can, you become the kid with the big stick.”
Tim Prince’s leering grin leaps to my mind, his declaration that he had no power at all. “What about Pandahead? Or the people that don’t have powers?”
Archimedes shrugs. “We’re still looking into it. Linear had a couple of good ideas, though.”
“If it’s based off emotions, then that means people that don’t have powers don’t have emotions. I don’t think that’s likely, considering that there’s not really any mental or personality disorder that prevents someone from experiencing all emotions. What I think is more likely that complexity or intensity plays a part.” Linear gaze is studious, turned inward for a moment, but those discerning eyes fall on me after a second. “One important discovery we made is that powers aren’t static. They develop during teenage years and can grow stronger or weaker based on that person’s emotional circumstances.”
Maisa drinks this information in with parted lips and wide eyes. She’s got the fervent look of someone who just realized that they could change everything if they wanted.
“I guessed that someone could cut themselves off from the Affect if they wished,” Linear says. “The real truth is likely that there’s more than 2.5% of people that don’t express any powers, but they could. We all can. Emotional expression in the Affect comes from who we are.”
The words hang in the air and I feel something thaw inside me for the very first time. Who we are.
“For example, Gabe, you. Your power is different from Megajoule’s. Because you are different. Something knocked you off course from developing as a perfect emotional copy of Megajoule when they were cloning you, and you became you instead. Thus, a different power, a different identity.” Linear waves his hand like this is just par for course, matter of fact. Like that doesn’t completely upend everything I’ve known about myself for so very long.
Bedevil sees it, though. She grabs my hand and squeezes it tight, and in the naked light she smiles at me, and cries for me.
Oracle’s bright eyes shine. “That is the beginning. Let’s talk about where it ends.”
I breathe at last through the lump in my throat. My chest is tight but not hollow, no longer hollow, maybe never hollow again. “Where does it end?”
“With humanity defeating the Fear,” Archimedes says. “Which we know isn’t possible if Cynic leads us.”
“You want me,” I say.
Oracle looks into the open fire and frowns, her skin weighed down by the many years she’s endured. “You may not be him, but you still share your face with Megajoule. The world believes in him, still, and now because of that, and because of your noble actions, they believe in you, too. We must defeat Cynic but we won’t defeat her with arms or power. We defeat her symbolically. We depose her by giving the world hope and robbing her of the anxiety she’s created. We give them a new leader. You.”
Well, I guess this was going to come up sooner or later.
I sigh out and breathe in once, sure of my answer. “No.”
Oracle smiles. She knew. She read my memories.
Archimedes and Linear, on the other hand, look like somebody dropped one of Flashfire’s grenades in the living room. Archimedes quickly trades out his shock for anger, which chokes the amusement out of his eyes and only leaves darkness. “What the fuck do you mean, no?”
“He means no,” Oracle says. “But he’s not saying he won’t fight with us, is he?”
She’s got me figured out. “I’m not a leader. I’m a warrior. If you need me to be a symbol, I can do that, but when I lead people get hurt. I’m much better at protecting people and fighting. More like a claymore mine than someone you want to follow.”
Oracle guffaws. “Front toward enemy, indeed.”
“I want a better world for everyone.” I walk over to Oracle and kneel down in front of her chair. “I don’t trust myself to lead people into it. You know who I trust, don’t you?” I’ve only ever trusted two people’s guidance in my life. Flashfire first, and now Bedevil. Flash isn’t here.
Oracle smiles. “I do know. I knew when you came off the aircraft. I accepted it then, though the script that we’d carefully written demanded I ask you anyway. I’m glad. You may not think you’re a leader, and perhaps you aren’t one in the traditional sense. But they will follow you. They’ll see your mad pursuit toward salvation and they will clamber behind you, desperate for a taste of it themselves. Desperate to see the shining future that you see.”
I find that I have no words to reply. I worry for the nebulous they that follow behind me because I’ve only ever suffered along my path.
“The fact that you’re scared for them is good. The fact that you don’t trust yourself to decide their fates is good. If kings and queens had have the doubt you did, the world would be better for it.” Oracle looks so very far away and I wonder if her mind falls on the husband she lost.
“Oracle-” Archimedes says.
Oracle cuts him off with a blazing glare. “He’s made up his mind. He made it up before you brought him here. He doesn’t want to lead but he will fight if he believes in the person leading him.”
Archimedes scratches his beard. “And who is that?”
Oracle looks to Bedevil. “The other one he believes in is not here.”
Archimedes follows Oracle’s gaze and groans when he sees Bedevil at the end of it. “Come on. Come on.”
Bedevil, for her part, looks like a deer caught in some headlights. She gathers her hair over her shoulder and runs her left hand through it, and says, “I don’t know.”
“There’s time to think and plan,” Oracle says. “We’re well hidden. You deserve a rest, all of you. Archimedes and Linear will find the Underground.”
“What happens then?” Templar asks. “You brought us all out here to be symbols? We don’t have an army, we don’t have any gear, we barely have a plan.”
“We have an army.” The light in Oracle’s eyes grows intensely.
I see Oracle’s work over the last six years. She meets cape after cape, mask after mask, making them forget her but leaving them with the feeling that they were dissatisfied. She meets with dozens of people a day and sleeps and eats little, she works tirelessly organizing a collective of people that want Cynic gone but don’t remember why. She only turns three out of every ten she meets, but that’s enough that her army’s grown to roughly ten thousand strong.
Templar gasps and falls back. “We met. We met.”
Oracle takes a sip of her tea. “We did. Long ago.”
“We met,” Templar says, rising to her feet. She runs her hands through her platinum hair and walks away from the couch, muttering to herself.
Bedevil frowns. “You never came to me.”
“They moved you a lot,” Oracle says. “And part of me knew exactly where you would fall if I recovered Gabe.”
“I’m not someone to use.” Anger bubbles up a bit, frustration that Oracle views me similarly to Cynic. They really are two sides of the same coin.
“No. But you did just tell me you were a mine to aim at my enemies.” Oracle’s enchanting gaze falls on me.
“At her enemies.” I point at Bedevil. “If she doesn’t lead, or if Flashfire doesn’t lead, I’m out. I don’t believe in you, Oracle. I’m sorry, but with everything you’ve shown me, I don’t.”
“I know.” Oracle returns her gaze to the fire. “I know. I’ve known since I saw you.”
A question tickles at the back of my mind. Something about her influencing my memories. But I can’t voice it, I can’t put the words together. I’m not sure what it is I want to ask her about.
A headache blooms, a wave of nausea hits my gut. I cough and hack up crud from my lungs again. Damn fever.
What was I… What was I just thinking?