The White Shark touched down between the corpses and the broken house. The VTOL engines spewed hurricane force winds that tossed debris and bodies alike as the plane landed. The bay door opened and Archimedes charged out, Linear right on his heels. “What the fuck happened?”
Oracle rose to meet him, waving her hand. “Archimedes, before you fire off—”
“No, there is no before! I am firing off now, God damn it, and I want to know what the fuck happened!” Archimedes’ expression frightened Bedevil. His face was red. A vein throbbed in his forehead. He raised his trembling hands to Oracle’s face, staring at her eyes, and said, “It’s gone. The one protection we had against Cynic is gone.”
“Yes, it is. It’s no one’s fault.” Oracle was the calm water opposing his raging inferno.
“Gabe was taken by the Fear. Those of us that could have seen it didn’t. It hid from me. Epione was in a coma.”
Archimedes pointed at Bedevil. “And what about her, huh? Bedevil slept next to him every God damn night and didn’t see a fucking thing wrong with him, is that what you want me to believe?” More daggers in Bedevil’s heart. More knives twisting into her gut. “Or was the dick too bomb—”
Oracle slapped Archimedes hard.
He recoiled from her, eyes wide. His hands moved in an erratic flurry, as though he didn’t know where to put them.
Bedevil couldn’t even speak. The worst part was, she did notice. “He’s right, Oracle. I ignored the little things and chalked them up to stress. Gabe always walked around with a weight on his shoulders, but I should have seen how heavy it was getting.”
“You don’t have to apologize to a man who runs his mouth far too fast for his brain,” Oracle said. “And one who doesn’t know when he’s crossed a line.”
Archimedes grimaced. “I’m…” He scowled and turned away, and walked back into the White Shark. “We need to go, now. Once we’re in the air, we can talk about what we’re going to do next.”
Bedevil sighed. “He’s right about that, too.” Her words spurred Templar, Maisa, and Oracle to start loading onto the plane. They’d already changed into different clothes and recovered what they could from the broken house. She couldn’t find Gabe’s suit, though.
Guilt upon guilt upon guilt, so much she could barely take it. Guilt for not seeing Gabe’s pain. Guilt for only thinking about how happy she was. Guilt about Megajoule. Guilt about how she’d hurt the Houston Heroes, and how the Underground paid for her and Gabe’s mission to make the world better.
Hell, she even felt guilty about threatening Archimedes all those months ago when he spoke to Gabe like a child.
But, then, wasn’t that part of the whole problem? Gabe didn’t believe in anyone. And anytime anyone mistreated him, it would be just another memory to fuel the Fear.
Her own sin wormed out from her memories. Their first night together. Called him by Mega’s name at his most vulnerable and intimate. Her throat tightened. Guilt upon guilt upon guilt.
“What’s wrong?” Epione stood next to her, watching the others embark onto the White Shark. “You look… your colors. Regret. Guilt.”
“I am guilty.” Bedevil chewed her lip. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Neither does anyone else here. You’re the only one that has any sort of plan. And it’s a good one, because Jason will know what to do.” Epione’s smile unnerved Bedevil. The emptiness behind it.
Bedevil felt guilty for yet another reason. “Gabe told me about… about what happened. Your love for him.”
Epione trailed off. She sighed. “I’m scared. I’m scared because of what the Fear cost me.”
That only reminded Bedevil of the sword hanging over her own neck, now. If Gabe died to the Fear, or if she was forced to kill him… what joy would be left for her? Templar said she was strong. But Bedevil already felt like she was breaking apart all over again.
Like falling into knives, she thought. “I get it.”
Epione frowned. She brought her hand up to her face and made about a dozen different facial expressions in a second before falling flat again. “My armor was broken. My love for Jason was burnt out of me. I’m scared that if I go to see him… I’ll either feel too much or nothing at all.”
“The armor? You mean you aren’t shielding yourself from emotions?” Bedevil asked.
“No,” Epione said.
“Are you worried? Is it… do you see them now? The colors?”
Epione’s smile in return was frightening for a different reason. Because this smile was like seeing plastic stretched over a car’s missing door on the freeway. “I’ve always seen the colors. It was my own that I couldn’t stand.”
“What… are you doing about that?”
“Nothing,” Epione said. “I died. I died. And I saw what I am. I saw that I am my colors. You are your colors. I am not a rock. I must embrace them, even if it is agony to do so, because that is the only way we’ll beat the Fear. Embracing everything about ourselves and our powers.” Epione’s smile returned to its baseline. Hiding and revealing nothing.
With nothing left to say, they boarded the White Shark, and the bay doors closed. Bedevil stood on her tip toes and watched the Carerra Lake vanish behind a steel door.
“Where are we going?” Archimedes asked from the cockpit. “I can get us a few thousand before we need to stop and charge the Shark’s solar cells.”
“Houston,” Bedevil said.
Archimedes glared at her over his shoulder. “I was talking to Oracle. Or Templar. Or Epione.”
“What about me?” Maisa asked from her seat.
“Sure, you too,” Archimedes replied. Linear chuckled.
Oracle stood up and hobbled over. “Look, Archimedes, what you’ve made an old woman do. You made her get up just to tell you the same thing Bedevil already told you. Take us to Houston. We’re going to find the Underground.”
“We’ve been to Houston,” Archimedes said.
“Not with Epione, we haven’t,” Bedevil said. “She thinks she can find them.”
“Fine. Setting course for Houston.” Archimedes typed in some gibberish on the console between him and Linear. A navigation system replaced the gibberish. “That it?”
Bedevil wanted that to be all. She knew it wasn’t, though, and what was left was going to suck. Mega always told her if there was a hard thing needed doing, better to do it than put it off. Bedevil tapped Linear’s shoulder. “Mind if I take your place for a few minutes?”
Linear studied her for a second and nodded. “Templar is supposed to co-pilot this time, anyway.” He vacated his seat and closed the cockpit door behind him, leaving Bedevil alone with Linear.
She sat in the co-pilot seat and looked out at the world zipping by underneath them.
Clouds rolled by, concealing the Earth under a white veil. Somewhere far to the east, a storm brewed under the rising sun. Bedevil wished Gabe could see this with her.
“Did you make Linear get up just to take in the view?” Archimedes did not look away from the navigation.
“No. I came to talk.”
“For what?” Archimedes asked.
Bedevil struggled to chain together what exactly she was apologizing for. She settled on: “For being a bitch.”
“You’re making that apology do a lot of work, then,” Archimedes said. “Gotta lot of bitch to cover.”
Bedevil squeezed her good hand in anger. Let him be an asshole. “I’m sorry for threatening you when you first saved us. I’m sorry I wasn’t paying enough attention to Gabe’s pain to notice it had gotten worse. I’m sorry for taking this whole thing for granted.”
Archimedes did not lash out at her again.
“I’m sorry for letting other people carry too much. I thought that I’d earned a break. I mistook this whole thing for some kind of vacation.”
“Oracle told you to rest,” Archimedes said. “And you’ve had a hell of a life, kid.”
“It doesn’t excuse me.”
“I don’t do apologies and I don’t accept them. People are abrasive. Why bother when tomorrow you’ll just say something else that’ll piss me off again, and I’ll fire back?”
“Because I don’t want that.”
“Tough tits, it’s the way we are,” Archimedes says.
Bedevil reached out with her good hand and grabbed Archimedes arm, forcing him to look at her. She realized that probably scared the shit out of him, given her earlier threat. She retreated. “Sorry.”
Archimedes did not look away from her. His gaze dissected her.
Bedevil barely believed the words coming out of her mouth, but said them anyway. “What made you like this? What made you think we’re all just… like this?”
“When you work for a woman named Cynic, you pick up a little.” Archimedes looked back out of the window and grabbed the controls, but let them go after a minute. “Don’t know why I’m pretending. We’re on auto-pilot.”
Bedevil couldn’t help but snicker at his pettiness. It made her feel like they had something in common. “You have a lot on your shoulders. You lash out when you get stressed, don’t you?”
“I never lash out. I say what’s on my mind.”
“Sure. I just noticed what’s on your mind is way meaner when you’re stressed out.”
Archimedes snorted. “Correlation is not causation.”
“You still haven’t answered my question,” she said.
“Because I’m not going to. You don’t need to know what makes me tick. You just need to know how I tick and you already know that.” Archimedes opened his mouth but failed to speak. He looked like there was more, so Bedevil just waited for him to continue. “No. No. I’m not… Look. I get asked to make a lot of things. Most of them are weapons. Almost all. When I die, that gear will fail like all the other super-powered tech. But the people that died because of those weapons I made? The families riddled with holes that I put there? Those will still be here, even when the super tech I made fails.
“Not the planes, or the things I made to help people, though. I didn’t make those with powers. I made those fair and square. I only made weapons with my power. And if our powers come from who we are, then that’s all I am. Someone who makes weapons. Someone who leaves holes in families, countries, the entire world. Can’t change that.”
Bedevil sat back in her chair. “You said our powers can change. You told Maisa they can, and she changed her power. She learned to make solid light projections.”
“Or she just became who she was meant to be,” Archimedes said.
“What if you haven’t yet?” Bedevil asked. “What if we’re always becoming that person?”
Archimedes stroked his beard. He had no reply, for once.
“Maybe if you became someone who accepts apologies, you’d make other things with your power. And maybe if I noticed the people around me more, I could become stronger. Like I used to be.” Like Gabe noticed people. Gabe noticed everyone around him.
“Maybe. We still don’t know enough about the Affect to know if these things are one for one.” Archimedes crossed his arms and swirled the chair away from her, so that she couldn’t see his face. “Apology accepted.”
Just as night fell, they arrived in Houston. Archimedes landed the White Shark. “We’re in the woods north of the town. Do you have any clue where to start, Epione?”
Epione nodded.“Yes. There was an old meet up spot they used for mask brunches. Our friend Remise owned it.”
“You’re not worried that someone will be watching?” Linear asked.
“I’ll know before we get close,” Epione replied. “Bedevil, Maisa, and I will go. We’re the three that know them best. We’ll return when we find out more.”
“Fine. Just hurry. The closer we are to large cities, the likelier it is we’ll get spotted,” Archimedes said. “Come back if you don’t find anything tonight.”
Bedevil, Maisa, and Epione slipped on their old mask costumes, one of the few things each of them had recovered from Oracle’s house. A thrill of nostalgia came with the outfit, the memories of those warm summer nights swinging and flying with Gabe.
The Kistune mask had been through hell and high water with her. She thought she’d lost it after OPI captured them, but Archimedes surprised them all with the things he’d recovered. Bedevil remembered she’d tried the costume on the same day they arrived.
Gabe laughed when he saw Kistune in their bedroom closet.
She loved his laugh. She loved him.
Every memory was infected with him now. She barely thought of Megajoule these days.
Using Maisa’s surfboard of light and Bedevil’s telekinesis, they made their way through the cold night. They flew over the dark tangle of suburbia, into the first ring of Houston where warehouses and apartment complexes mingled, and finally into the inner city, dominated by shining spires.
Maisa brought them down in front of their destination: the clubhouse that the Underground used for mask brunches. It was as they left it all those months ago. The bar below seemed quiet.
They climbed the rickety stairs out back, up into Remise’s room. Epione tried the door. “It’s locked. There’s no one inside that I can sense.”
Bedevil knelt in front of it. She conjured her tendrils and split them into tiny threads, and fed those threads into the keyhole. With a larger tendril acting as a tension wrench, she worked the lock until it opened.
“Woah, where did you learn that?” Maisa asked.
Despite herself, Bedevil managed a proud smile. “Practice. Picked it up in Basics.”
Epione opened the door and went in. Gone was her usual smile, replaced with the flat expression that Bedevil had come to recognize as her true face. She studied the room.
Everything was the same as they’d left it. Bedevil couldn’t help but stare at the table they’d shared pancakes at a lifetime ago. A half a year and a lifetime. “Someone was here. Not very long ago.”
“How do you know that?” Bedevil asked.
“People leave echoes wherever they go.” Epione closed her eyes and walked into the dining area. She stopped short of the table. She reached underneath the table, to one of the floorboards. “And I’d know Jason’s colors anywhere. He’s been here, repeatedly and recently. This board. Bedevil?”
Bedevil used her telekinesis to wrench the board free. Epione found a phone inside.
“Holy shit,” Maisa said.
“He left that here?” A weight fell off Bedevil’s shoulder. They’d found a lifeline in the storm. “You’re sure?”
Epione unlocked the phone, tapped a few buttons, and then put the phone to her ear. Bedevil heard it ring once, twice, and then the line picked up.
“Hello?” Epione asked. “Who is this?”
Bedevil could only make out some kind of excited yelling on the other end.
There was no change in Epione’s expression. Bedevil found no hint in her face to give away who was speaking. But after the yelling died down, Epione said, “Hi, Jason.”