Archimedes and Linear sprint ahead through the grand hall of the 28th floor. I carry Maisa and bound after them using kinetic energy. The sharp footfalls of soldiers in boots echo on the metal flooring behind us. Not just soldiers. OPI capes, too. I look back and catch a glimpse of someone in white armor. Primum.
I reach for Nero’s body but bullets ping around me and Maisa, so I focus on getting her out of there.
The main hall is vaulted, practically a cathedral, except instead of confessionals and pews there are research labs and rows of computer desks. We dash through a break area with brightly colored tables, red, yellow, green, and wow, these guys even have their own kitchen with a microwave.
Linear swipes a card at a panel. “They’ll know we just used these stairs.”
“God, what all do they monitor?” I ask.
“Every single fart,” Archimedes says, holding the door open. I rush in and he slams it behind us. Linear is already halfway up the next flight of stairs.
“You said Linear’s power gives you some percentage of success?” I warp up the stairs, still holding Maisa. She squeaks as we land.
“My power is data processing,” Linear says, now behind me. “I can retain vast data sets from a quick glance, fit the data, and form conclusions on it. This also applies to real life scenarios. I get a percentage chance of an outcome based on the variables I know about any situation.”
“It’s not precognition, then.” I let Maisa down and we climb the next flight of stairs. “You okay?”
“I”m okay,” Maisa says.
“No,” Linear says. “Just really good data analysis. My power does give me way more input than normal people get, though.”
“Nifty. So, what’s our chance of success right now?” I ask.
“I never answer those kinds of questions in the middle of the event.” Linear is surprisingly fit for his build. He reaches the top without much sweat. “It can affect the outcome.”
“Fair enough.” I think about all of the variables Linear would have to consider. All of the soldiers and OPI heroes in our way, Cynic. Nero. “I shouldn’t have left Nero down there. If someone kills him, does the sedative wear off? What if he comes for us?”
“Now that I broke his suit and you have the one Archimedes made, your chances are much more even,” Linear says.
Actually, this could work out. “If he shows, Epione could steal his power. What do you think would happen if she stole it and I killed him? Would he stay dead?”
Linear shrugs. “Archimedes has been studying how powers interact like that, but I don’t think even he knows.”
Archimedes arrives a few seconds later, heaving and gulping for air. “S-sorry. Not used to running up stairs and fiddling at the same time.” He holds up his watch. “Hang on.”
I stand back as he approaches the door. Linear accesses the panel next to him while he holds his watch against the door, and both work technology above my pay grade for a few seconds. Archimedes splits his attention between the watch and me. “As for Nero, getting Epione to take his power is a good idea. He should stay down if you kill him and Epione has the power.”
“Any tips on fighting him?” I ask.
“He needs to die to recharge, so if you can exhaust his energy and restrain him without killing him, he’s a regular person.”
Linear slaps the panel and grins. “Okay, no one can open the doors below us now, and we won’t set off any alarms when we open doors.”
“There are people on this floor. About a dozen heartbeats,” Archimedes says. He waves his watch at me. “Nifty little thing, isn’t it? I modified it from your Underground watch.”
“Is this a rescue or the high school science fair?” I am perhaps a touch impatient to save Epione and get the fuck out of here.
“Don’t be an asshole,” Archimedes says.
“Sorry, just really don’t want to get captured again.”
“You have night vision on those goggles?” Linear asks. “I can knock out the lights and give you an advantage.”
I crack my knuckles. My time to shine.
“Okay, you clear them out, and we’ll come in behind you to make sure they stay down,” Archimedes says. “Epione is in room 2914. When you go in the hall will split into two, go left.”
“Left.” I drop into a runner’s stance and draw in energy from earth’s gravity.
“Go!” Linear opens the door.
I blast into the room. My night vision flips on as soon as it detects I’m in the dark, and as I soar through the hall I see armed guards and Primum running around like ants whose hill was just kicked.
I can’t deny I’m feeling slightly vengeful but I try not to take it too hard on these goons. The armed guards in black armor are probably FIS operatives or just soldiers, so I hit one of them first with a spinning kick, and pinball from him to one of the Primum in white armor. One flurry of blows and he’s down for the count. I break his leg with a kinetic jab to his knee and move on. The entire time I drain energy from gravity to keep me floating like a butterfly and stinging like a fucking rhinoceros.
A hail of bullets catches me on the shoulder and chest, giving me a small burst of energy. The soldier that shot me doesn’t seem to know what he’s aiming at. Probably tracked me by sound.
I surge the heat inside to my hand and will it through the palm of my right hand, and aim the glove at the soldier. I try to restrain myself so that I don’t obliterate him but the whole glove lights up and a beam of white, searing light slices the pitch dark in half, catching the soldier through his gun and arm. The gun clatters to the ground, half melted, and the soldier falls back, his gun arm smoking. He ain’t dead, though.
I vault over him and plant a kick into his chest to knock the wind out of him, and follow up with another, lighter kick along his jaw to keep him down.
The display gives my temperature at roughly 12,000 °C. Last time I held this much I was shining and felt like I was squatting three hundred pounds. Thanks to the suit, I’m not even glowing and I only feel lightly strained. Even more, the suit took no damage from those bullets. “This thing fucking rocks.”
Okay, to my left, 2914. These rooms look smaller and they definitely aren’t research labs. Judging by the furniture I see when I glance through a window, they’re private quarters. 2906, 2907, the numbers blur past until I charge right into two of the Primum standing outside one particular door. 2914.
I knock one out by slamming his head into the door and follow through with a fist in his gut, crashing through the door with his body. Not reinforced metal, just a regular locked door for Epione.
The other Primum snakes his arms around my torso and wrestles me down. I use my power to stay on my feet, pushing us back into the wall behind him. I wedge him between my body and the wall, but he walks his feet up the wall, his arms still hooked around me. I let off a huge burst to try and crush his ankles.
He doesn’t budge. Crap, he must have super strength or resistance.
I change tactics and grab his neck. I roll forward and shoot him off me down the hall. From there, I see him stumble around in the dark as he tries to gain his bearings.
Epione pokes her head out of her door. “Ah, Gabe. I’m excited to see you,” she says, her voice completely flat, trademark smile barely discernible in the green haze of night vision.
“How’d you know it was me?” I ask.
Epione looks at the wreckage of her door. “I know your colors.”
“For the record, I’m glad to see you, too. I’m gonna pick you up, okay?”
Epione nods, so I scoop her into my arms and vault through the hall. Through gunfire and screams we arrive back at the stairwell to find Linear looting a shotgun an unconscious guard. Archimedes and Maisa are crouched together behind the door, and Archimedes argues into his watch.
“The controls aren’t that hard, didn’t you get piloting lessons in Basics?” Archimedes asks.
Bedevil growls over the comms. “Why the fuck would I have taken piloting lessons in Basics?”
“Okay, then I’ll walk you through the start up sequence, okay?”
“Fuck that,” Bedevil says. “I’m bringing the Shark to you. Can you blow a hole in the walls anywhere?”
An explosion at the elevators rips through the darkness, shears metal and stone, and fills the hall with fire. On instinct I throw up a kinetically frozen disk of air in front of me and my allies, and energy floods in as heat and debris pummel the shield.
Nero rips through the smoke, shirtless and screaming, fire chasing him in an after trail of hell-terror. His face contorts into a gargoyle’s grin. “Gabe!” Smoke billows out of his mouth with his howling cry. Claws of roaring flame, muscles of glowing steel. “Round two!”
I can’t let him make this personal. I can’t afford mistakes. “Epione, I’ll wear him down! When you see an opening, take his power!”
The fire sheds enough light that my goggles switch to normal view as I speed toward Nero. The air pops and sizzles with his furious attack, his fists sing with every haymaker. The flames envelop me, reminding me of the burning office building I ran into. The scars on my hands ache at the memory.
I dive into Nero’s hellfire and seize his arms at the wrists. We rocket away from my friends, who would sear into well-done versions of my friends if we fought near them. Nero erupts with energy and haymakers; I do my best to eat what I can and dodge the rest. The suit’s temperature soars up, up, up, until I’m pushing 50,000 °C in my core. But I don’t set the air on fire around me thanks to the suit. We’re barely radiating at all, though I am shining like crazy.
I can barely make out Nero’s form in the crimson light cloaked with smoke, so I wait. His massive well of energy also puts off a lot of heat, scrambling my heat sense beyond use. I wait for the opportunity to hit him hard and force him to use his energy to negate my attack. I duck and warp around clumsy haymakers that would shatter concrete.
Misstep, Nero’s sound barrier breaking fist sinks into my gut. The suit vibrates as energy flows through me. The ground cracks under my feet as I channel the kinetics below. Even though I’m much more skilled at diverting energy, one of my ribs is almost certainly broken.
“This is how it ended with Megajoule, too! Fire, blood, pain! I died a hundred times!” Nero shrieks. He leers at me and leans his face forward. “How many times can you kill me before I finally get you?”
I grit my teeth and strike, my patience rewarded by Nero’s brazen stupidity. I jab across his jaw and put so much energy into it that my thermometer drops a full 10,000 degrees. Doc once told me that Megajoule chose his name because a megajoule of energy is roughly equivalent to both 500 °C of heat and a one ton car hitting a target at 160 km/h.
Twenty fucking cars. Twenty fucking tons at over a hundred miles per hour into Nero’s stupid face.
Energy rebounds up my arm but the bonfire wreathing Nero sputters and dims. I divert the energy and drive forward.
“Show me some teeth, Gabe!” Nero cries. The guards scream and run, they can’t even get close from the intense heat.He straightens his form a little, no longer indulging in reckless attacks but putting effort into controlling his strikes. “Doc put up more of a fight!”
I want to snarl, scream, and swing for the fences. I want to murder him. I want to put him down and let him get back up again so I can keep putting him down. Rip him to shreds over and over. God, I want it.
Deep breaths, Gabe. I clench my jaw and suck it up.
I bob and weave on weightless feet while Nero peppers my guard with strikes. We move through the darkness away from the burning elevators. My night vision flickers back and forth between the dim light that Nero casts from his body. I stumble from the rapid fire distractions, giving Nero the opportunity to slam me into a wall. He wrestles with me, kicks off with another explosive jump, and we fly down the hallway.
Nero kicks me hard, blasting me away from him. My back hits a metal door so hard I sink into the iron, setting off a siren behind the door. Nero is on top of me a second later, his fist shrieking through the thick iron.
His fire dies, and his body is only glowing, now. Not shining.
His grin is gone. His eyes are frantic.
I grab his collar and shove him off me. “Got you, motherfucker.” I follow my declaration by beating the everloving shit out of Nero with lightly enhanced punches, waiting for the moment I feel his energy give way. Waiting for the recoil to drop.
Nero swings but his fists don’t pop the sound barrier. He kicks but there’s only human power behind it.
I gut-check him hard, no kinetic energy, just my own muscles.
There’s no kickback this time.
Nero pulls a knife from his own boot and puts it to his neck.
I shoot it out of his hand with one of my kinetic air blasts and grapple him to the ground. “Epione! I’ve got him!”
Nero bucks and wrestles. “Let go of me!”
“Fuck you!” I shout.
Nero bites at my cheek, knees my groin, jabs his fingers under my goggles. Every dirty trick in the book. I grab him by the scruff of his neck and keep him down by kinetically enhancing my strength.
“Let. Me. Go!” Nero growls and bucks.
I keep him down.
“I’m here!” Epione shouts, running out of the dark. Nero shrieks one more time right as she grabs his face.
Epione recoils, gasping, and Nero yelps.
Without a word, I indulge on my darkest desire. I make Nero feel everything Doc felt in his last seconds. I punch three holes through his chest and twist his neck with a searing hand, I flow heat into his body until he sizzles and blackens, until the skin bubbles, boils, and pops. Nero’s scream is inhuman as he dies.
I throw his mangled body at the wall, crunching every bone I can. Like a kid throwing their doll away.
“Gabe, are you okay?” Epione asks.
I gulp air down while I stare at Nero’s body. I wait for him to regenerate and get up. I wait, every heartbeat hammering on my anxious mind.
At least half a minute passes and Nero hasn’t become anything other than a mutilated corpse.
Epione doesn’t take her eyes off me. Her expression is still almost level, but I can see the tiniest spark of uncertainty, worry. The tiniest hint of fear. “Are you okay?” she asks again.
My ribs flare where Nero nailed me. I swallow the blood and spit pooling in my mouth. There’s a wave of relief as I realize the plan worked. Satisfaction at avenging Doc.
A hint of fear at my own brutality. At what all this fighting is turning me into. And I know Epione can see all of that, and will know that I’m lying:
“… fine… I’m fine.”