Everything stands still as Oracle walks right up to me. The lake in the distance seems frozen, Bedevil, Maisa, and Templar don’t even look like they’re breathing. The entire moment is silent and locked in place, except for her striding to meet me. I find myself wincing when I look right at her eyes. She’s too bright to stare head on and her general presence scrambles my thoughts.
When she speaks, her voice is so sweet and melodious her words are like a song. “I owe you an apology so large I could never finish speaking it.”
Her words break the silver glass trapping us. My friends breathe, the lake sparkles under the sun, and the wind moves again. I rub the back of my neck. “I think all I want is an explanation, really.”
“Yes, Archimedes tells me you were insistent on that,” Oracle says. Her expressions are tight and demure, so much so that they might put Epione’s composure to shame. “I will give you as much of one as you need. As for your friends, I will begin arranging for their rescue.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped the gun and pissed Archimedes off,” I say.
Oracle’s smile doesn’t fade, but her eyes give her amusement away. “I thank you for listening to Archimedes’ reason, no matter if he gives it to you like steel wool.” Oracle takes my arm in hers. “You do not mind, Bedevil?”
The question flusters Bedevil. “Ah, no. No. Go ahead.”
“I’ll return him in good condition,” Oracle says, with a wink.
We walk past Archimedes, who mean mugs me as we pass him, and down a dirt path leading toward the lake. “That’s quite a view, isn’t it? General Carrera Lake.” Her accent is practiced, almost flawless. “I think you deserve some rest, Gabe. Let me do something for you. Let me find your friends. Let me give you the space you need to grow.”
“I don’t know very much about you,” I say.
“Would you prefer I tell you, or show you?” Oracle asks.
-a vast savanna stretches out beneath my feet, overwriting the vista of Puerto Guadal and the General Carrera. A young woman with long dreadlocks and eyes shining like stars watches the horizon and listens to the distant patter of rain and gunfire, the rumble of thunder and explosives, and she is afraid-
-a warzone blossoms out of the savanna with a tangle of burning buildings and houses shelled out by bombs, and she runs through, writing new memories with each step, memories of peace, memories of love, not of war, anything but war-
-a team around a table, they call themselves Sovereign, they are saving Africa with the help of a group called Foundation that began in South America. Their leader is Ethereal, a man whose skin is emerald, whose gaze is sharp diamond, whose heart beats like an amethyst in his chest for the world to see. She sees his memories and wants to make new ones with him-
-they are married, they are in bed, they are in peace, together-
-Sovereign fights army after army, they lead the people of Africa in destroying the terrorist groups and the resistance armies that indoctrinate children, they free her from supervillains trying to carry on a history of bloodshed-
-they fight one last battle against a man known as the Dominator, the last dying gasp of the armageddon that almost destroyed their nation. Oracle rises from the ashes… but Ethereal does not-
-Oracle meets a woman named Cynthia Miller and sees a kindred spirit in the then regional director of OPI. Oracle remembers when OPI was called Foundation and feels she owes a debt-
-Oracle meets a young man named Julian. He is bright and sure, and he reminds her of her former husband-
-Accusations of Sovereign rewriting their opponents’ memories force them to disavow Oracle, who relocates to the UWC and joins her friend Cynthia, now Cynic, now the International Director of all OPI. Oracle learns of the Fear, and sees her aging face, and worries that time slips from her fingers like sand-
-The fight against the Fear consumes her mind and she agrees that OPI needs absolute control. She believes Cynic’s apocalyptic warnings and her dim view of humanity’s state. She believes that the ends justify the means and helps find the weaknesses of her fellow capes-
-the boys play in their room in the lab, growing up together as brothers, almost normal. One of them catches her eyes because he has glasses, and she makes a note that he had something the others didn’t-
-Cynic tells her of the colors, the Fear, a fourth dimension, and introduces her to the team trying to discover the real truth of powers, led by a sarcastic Archimedes and a quiet Linear-
-Megajoule grows increasingly hard to control. Oracle has to make a new memory lattice day after day but his mind is so keen and strong that he bashes through them as he finds one incongruent fact-
-She flees the lab with Doc and the boy as Megajoule begins his three-day battle with Nero, Longinus, Carnality, and a few other heroes. Oracle rewrites Cynic’s memories to make her believe that Oracle died in that fight. She vanishes from the minds of Doc and Gabe and retreats to South America, and lays the groundwork for rebellion-
I wrench my eyes shut at the torrent of memories. Oracle’s life floods over me and nearly drowns me, and still I don’t understand one key thing: “Why?”
Oracle smiles. “That’s a broad question.”
“Why help me? Why fake your death from Cynic? Why go against her now, after Megajoule?”
Oracle chuckles. The laughter fights against her creaky, wrinkled skin while her glowing eyes carry no humor. “I will start with why I oppose Cynic. She’s dangerous. I think you know that. Archimedes might have already explained that her leadership against the Fear will be disastrous, but he might not have explained why. You see, her power is maintained by fear. How could someone empowered by fear hope to lead us against an enemy made of the stuff?” Oracle guffaws like that’s the funniest thing she’s said all week.
“Nice sales pitch, lady,” I half-joke. She strikes me as a genuine person, especially since she showed me her entire life in a few seconds. On the other hand, all those memories she just fed me could be fake. How would I know? Hell, the way this view makes my heart ache, the way the snow capped mountains slice through the horizon, separating crystal blue lake from crystal blue sky, it makes me feel like I’m staring at a painting, and I wonder if Oracle can influence the way I perceive things.
“I can,” Oracle answers.
I start, caught off guard by her reading my mind. “You’re like Cynic.”
“Only while I’m touching someone,” Oracle says, patting my arm. “Only surface level thoughts. My memory influence comes while I’m looking at you. I don’t just change memories, I can change the way they’re stored as well, which means I alter your perception of a thing while it’s happening. These days I only use it to make people happy, but there was a time that I did not.” Her glowing eyes fall on a distant past and almost, for a moment, they lose their shine.
“How do I trust you?” I ask. I remove my hand from her. “How do I trust any memory I have right now?”
Oracle nods. “Memories are a fickle thing either way, Gabe. Do you think they are governed by hard code and cold logic? Memories are warm, malleable, and fluid, filtered through emotions. My power lets me change them in other people, but you have the power to change your own memories if you wish.”
We might as we be talking mumbo jumbo. I furrow my brow. “I don’t follow.”
“People can black out their traumas, misremember things that make them think badly of a person they care about, or even interpret good intentions in bad ways for people they hate.” Oracle sighs. “I’ve always seen how changeable our minds are. And Cynic did, too. We’re two sides of the same coin, her and I.”
She turns her shining gaze on me and I wince, worrying that she’ll change me as she sees fit, just like Cynic wanted to.
Oracle turns away from me. “Cynic and I walked a path together, once. She and I could both see how broken people’s minds are. I always told her not to watch the evening news. She never watched movies or TV’s because the actors’ thoughts were louder than their lines. But she loved sports. Baseball, basketball. Because she could read thousands of people’s thoughts at any time and there was no plot to distract from.
“She saw how fragile our world is, because it’s made up of people and people are fragile. Even the superhuman ones. Perhaps, especially the superhuman ones. I don’t know all that. I know they are hurting. They need love.”
I follow her down the trail. Memory-ghosts dance alongside the dirt path, scientists in coats whispering to each other about their broken homes, their rebelling children, their awful commute, the fact that the work of killing my brothers and sisters was eroding their souls. I see Doc walking beside me, muttering and mumbling. Cynic on the other side, whispering and conspiring. They speak in the language of fear and worry, their bodies give away the weight they carried.
“We all need love, Gabe.”
The trail leads to a rustic cabin lodge of two stories, surrounded by a dilapidated wood fence topped with barbed wire. Intricate stone work supports the wooden columns of the house and a huge window betrays a living room with a roaring fire. White snow graces the lawn in patches. Oracle climbs the steps up to the porch and turns her shining eyes back to me.
“I have a lot of questions about what you showed me,” I say. I don’t even know where to begin. Colors? Fourth Dimension? It’s all so much.
“I know.” Oracle opens the door to the lodge and holds the door open for me. The air comes alive with energy as I step inside. Heat churns from the old-fashioned brick fireplace, filling the huge entry way and living room with warmth. I marvel at the antler chandelier and the leather furniture. The smell of fresh coffee saps the tension from my shoulders. I sit down on one of the couches in front of the fire.
The others join in short order, Archimedes hoisting a box of things he recovered from the tower, Linear and Templar carrying Epione, and Bedevil holding hands with Maisa. Oracle studies me from the kitchen. “You look tired.”
My eyes are drooping. Even despite my nap on the White Shark, I can’t stay awake. “I am tired.”
“Then, perhaps you should rest for now. We can talk tomorrow.” Oracle smiles at me from the kitchen. “You may sleep upstairs or downstairs, there is more than enough room in this house for you.”
Yeah, that’s a good idea. I leave them and head up the stairs. I’ve always felt safer on second floors for some reason.
I’m barely aware of which door I pick before I’m trudging inside. The bedroom I’ve chosen is so luxurious it puts Epione’s house to shame. The entire damn house shamed by a single room, with its little fireplace embedded in the wall, the granite tiled bathroom with a shower and bathtub, the silky soft rug on the floor, and the most marshmellow fluff looking bed I’ve ever seen. I flop into the softness and sigh myself to sleep almost immediately.
I am falling.
I am a ghost.
I am not here.
I drift through the black, through the refracting void. Things squirm on the edge of my vision, horrible wires of ink that shred through the world around them, and I am caught in the wires, I am falling, I am a ghost, I am not here.
A tiny square of light pierces the tessellating dark. The light becomes a person becomes a girl becomes Epione. She screams: “Gabe! There’s something wrong with you!”
The dream breaks apart like a burning house, one support beam and then another cracking under the strain of fire fire FIRE
I wake up screaming. Bedevil sprints from the bathroom and rushes to my side, one hand on my head and the other clutching my arm. She’s freshly showered, half-wrapped in a towel. “Gabe? What’s going on?”
My head throbs. I feel awful.
Bedevil puts her hand to my head. “I think you legit have a fever, babe.”
“I’ve never had a fever.” I hack up junk from my lungs. A cold? When have I ever had one of those? Between the crud in my chest and the fever, I struggle to remember my dream from last night. Something… about a fire.
Maybe it was just the fever.
Bedevil puts on an actual bathrobe and brings me a mug of coffee. “There’s a coffee pot in our bathroom. It’s fucking rad.”
I chuckle and sit up in bed. Despite my illness, I’ve never felt more comfortable. I sink into the mattress, the sheets feel like magic, and the pillows sap some of the throbbing pain from my head. A much better change of pace than the cell OPI held me in. I can’t concentrate on it for long. My thoughts sink back to Drone like they’re caught in a drain. “I think I owe Archimedes an apology.”
“Mmm.” Bedevil sips her some coffee of her own. “Well, if he’s mean to you, just come and tell me, and I’ll make things right.”
“Alright, mom.” I drink some coffee. The energy flows through my chest. Maybe I can burn this crud out on my own. “I wonder what Oracle wants? I mean, she didn’t bring us here for no reason, right? Not out of the goodness of her heart.”
“Sounds like a revolution from what Archimedes and Linear said.” Bedevil fusses around in the bathroom while carrying on our conversation. After a moment, she comes out with her head wrapped in a towel. “I’ve met her once. She seemed nice. I can’t say that she’d be any better of a leader than Cynic.”
Drone. Mil-dot. All the people I’ve let down, gotten captured, or worse. I’m a god-awful leader. Fuck, I’ve never even wanted to lead a group down to the dog park, let alone into battle. The Second Ward was a disaster, and it’s my fault we got caught at Echo’s place. “Who do you think would be the best leader?”
Bedevil opens her mouth.
“Don’t say me, because we both know it’s not me.” I glance at her to read her reaction.
Bedevil chuckles. “You got me. You’re really good at knocking people around.”
“The last couple of times I’ve led people, I’ve led them to injury and death. People keep getting hurt on my decisions.” I sip on my coffee and contemplate how I ended up here, in Chile, in a lovely bed. Admittedly, one would think I’d done something right, but my friends are in a terrible spot, I’m sidelined for now, and Cynic’s still in control. “I think Oracle wants me to lead. Or at least, be her symbol.”
“People do like you,” Bedevil says. “The news still talks about you. I checked your laptop to see if we had internet.”
“Do we?” I ask.
“No duh, I just said I checked the news.” Bedevil grins. “That fever’s really knocking you down a peg, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I force myself to stand and walk over to her.
“Well, anyway, you’d make a good symbol.” Bedevil gestures at my face.
“But I’m not a leader. I’m fine being a symbol.” I chuckle. “A foundation more than a leader.”
“Every team needs one.” She gazes away, lost in thought for a moment, and then winces out of nowhere. “Megajoule was the Inheritors’ foundation. Templar handled what I’d call leadership though. The administration and decision making. Still, Mega was the leader there, too.”
She still tiptoes around his name.
“Yeah.” I grab her waist through the bathrobe. She looks up at me, her eyes widening at my touch, her mouth parting a little. “But what about you?”
“What?” Bedevil asks.
“Were you only ever going to be a sidekick? Or did you want more?” I ask.
“I’ve never wanted to be a leader.” She furrows her brow, looking pissed that I’ve even broached the subject. “No.”
“Can I tell you why I think you would be a good one?” I ask.
Bedevil chews her lip. “Gabe, I just got sober.”
“I don’t think this is happening tomorrow, Bedevs.” I grip her waist a little tighter, and she responds with a small squeak. “You’ve got time to think about it.”
“Why do you think I’d even be good at that?”
“You’ve always done the right thing since I’ve known you. You’re strong and passionate, committed, loyal. The others look up to you. You always say what you mean and you’re always so confident.” She stood up for me against Krater and Archimedes, and she also knew when I was being stupid, and told me so.
“Keep talking,” Bedevil says slyly. She runs her fingers up my chest.
“You’re Bedevil. That name means something. Just as much as my face does. I’m a good fighter and people like me. You’ve got a lot more going for you than that. You’ve led teams before, yeah?”
“Small ones.” Bedevil turns away from me. “I’ll think about it.”
“Okay.” I watch her walk back into the bathroom. There’s just something about the sway of her hips, man. Especially in a bathrobe. I still remember the way she walked away from my bed the first time we fucked. Even though that’s not a pleasant memory, even though she mocked me afterward, I still remember watching her walk away.
Someone knocks on the bedroom door, so I throw a shirt on and answer.
Templar waits for me, dressed down in a casual outfit of black jeans and a flannel shirt. She still looks imposing, even without her black armored suit.
“Oracle’s ready to talk.”