The flames of atmospheric reentry envelop me.
I’m not sure why, but that sparks a memory cascade. A bundle of missing events that Oracle left deep within my psyche opens up and spills its contents across my mind.
— they are whispering to each other, watching me in the training room as jets of flame cover me. “And he’s not… activating the power?” Oracle asks.
Doc shakes his head. “No. He’s completely immune to heat and combustion. Regardless of whether his power is on or not. Not only heat, either. Highly resistant to physical force, as well.”
“Without his power on,” Oracle says. “It’s different. He’s different.”
“Yes. He’s unlike the other clones or Megajoule.”
“Why is he different?”
“I don’t know—
—you mean, he’s different?” Cynic asks Doc. “He’s a clone. Aside from the glasses, he’s identical to the others.”
“His Affect,” Doc says. “It’s different from the others. The others match Megajoule’s Affect coloration perfectly. This one is different. He’s bronze, where the others are gold.”
“This one is different,” she repeats. “Why?”
“If it’s really an expression of his identity, it would mean that somehow, he views himself as different—
—kid, come here,” Doc says to Thirty-One. “What’s wrong?”
Thirty-One, maybe ten years old at this point, approaches Doc like he can’t see where he’s going. He makes sure of each step by prodding the tile ahead with his toes. Doc notices this. “You can’t see?”
Thirty-One frowned and bowed his head in shame. “Are you going to take me away?”
Doc, who had spent years walling up his heart to this business, who had overcome his night terrors with alcohol and constantly checking his bank account, was moved to help the boy. “Hang on.” He brought the boy to the medical facilities in the lab and tested his eye-sight with one of the technicians there.
“You need glasses,” Doc said. “I’ll put an order in for some.”
Thirty-One hesitated. “Glasses?”
“Yeah, like the one he’s wearing.” Doc pointed at the technician. “Just like them.”
“Not like Megajoule?” Thirty-One asked.
“No. He… well… he didn’t, at your age—”
If I’m not like Megajoule, who am I like?
The ground swells up beneath me. The world stretches until it takes up half my universe like the event horizon of a black hole, stretches until—
ARC 14: COLOR ENTWINING
When I open my eyes again, it is night time, and I am resting at the bottom of a crater fifteen feet deep. Bark and branches litter the earth around me, drifts of dust cover part of my legs. I cradle Archimedes’ suit to my chest. I rise to my knees, get oriented. I climb.
I am deep within a forest. I can’t see worth a damn, since I lost my glasses. When the Fear possessed me, it didn’t bother to grab my goggles with the suit.
I flex my fingers at the edge of the crater and stretch my neck. It’s really under my control again
Whispering skitters out of the thick forest surrounding me. These are not the mutterings of animals, they are the voices at the end of the universe. My brothers hiss into my ear: “You are alive and we are dead.” Bedevil moans from the trees.
A chorus of madness: “MEEEEEEEGGGGGAAAAAAA!”
Five feet out, the trees crack. They shift and groan as if an immense creature pushes at them from behind, barely contained by their trunks. Megajoule’s face snarls in pain, stretched over the inky black behind him like an ill fitting mask. The skin sags, the eye-holes don’t align right with the eyes underneath. Only at certain angles do they line up.
His voice warbles as he screams at me. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” It presses against the trees, as if they mimic the prison inside my mind.
I grin. Flex my fingers again just to be sure. I wasn’t confident that would work. “My girlfriend gave me the idea. And you can thank Tim Prince for that, too.”
“It… will not HOLD!” Megajoule shrieks.
I ignore him in favor of my surroundings. I’ll be honest, I’m not feeling much of anything. I think I pulled a move similar to Epione, where she put armor around her heart. I didn’t want to be like that forever, but it was good to know for an emergency.
Now that I’ve restrained the Fear by my Affect, I can find a way to link up with the others. First things first, finding out where I am. Nothing in the immediate vicinity has any clues. I can’t even tell what hemisphere I’m in, not without my thermal sense. I can’t feel the ambient temperature.
Without eyesight, my best sense would be my thermal sense. I close my eyes to let my power guide me.
My thermal sense shows me hundreds of people surrounding me.
I start; open my eyes. Nothing.
Weird. I try again.
Hundreds and hundreds of people. They scream out. “You buried us! You forgot!” My own voice chanting at me in chorus. Hundreds of my brothers. They charge at me.
I trip backward, rolling into the impact crater. Megajoule howls out: “GAAAAAYYYYEEEEEBBBAAAA!” and the trees holding him crack apart. He bounds down the pit, an enormous cold spot within my thermal sense.
I open my eyes. There’s nothing there, but his voice gibbers and grows louder as he rushes toward me.
I let go of my power.
A single figure rushes down the pit at me. Instead of a monster, there is only a regular sized Megajoule woven out of black coils and ink. He tackles me. We fall. He rolls with my arm snared in his legs. He dislocates my shoulder. Agony spreads across my arm, almost knocking me out again.
I can’t let the Fear take control. I grit my teeth and kick his jaw hard. He flops backward, flailing wildly, the lower part of his head ruptured by my decisive blow. I don’t let up. I stomp him into a puddle. I stomp until I squish his body into the dirt.
Once he’s gone, I sit back in the crater, my heart racing and my lungs burning. My arm is on fire.
Except, when I test it, it’s not dislocated. The pain is there, sure, but it’s not out of place at all. Then, I notice my fingers squabbling at the dirt without my permission. A chill runs down my spine. I try to force them to stop but they do not listen to me. They scratch and scratch at the dirt, at the black spot that Megajoule became.
“So, I can’t… use my power…” I grimace at my out-of-control hand.. That makes all of this much harder. That wasn’t necessarily the answer but I wasn’t about to test it.
I can live without my power for a bit. I just need to reach Bedevil and the others.
Despite my blurry vision, I can see that the night sky is full of stars. Which means I am far from any city. Another hitch in the plan. The Fear lurks in my head, looking for another opportunity to attack me. It says nothing to me, and I imagine it won’t.
I get up. I need to vacate the area and get my bearings. I notice that I have a cut on my arm from when I tumbled into the pit. Drops of blood fall into the dirt. My power isn’t protecting me.
I still have Archimedes’ suit, though, and that will at least provide some protection. I put the suit on and feel the mesh vibrate into life. Good. It still works, which means it can absorb some damage.
Without any clue of where I am, the worst thing I can do is just start meandering with no goal. If my aim is to link back up with Bedevil, then I should try to find some civilization. At the same time, I’m a wanted fugitive in OPI territory.
I need water and food, too. Might be tough but I’m not Superman, and right now I’m no better than a regular person in a suit of armor. If capes come after me, that’s basically useless.
I close my eyes and listen for something to go on. Some kind of clue.
Thunder in the distance. The chattering of night birds and insects. The soft sigh of wind.
Okay. Water, first. I can last much longer without food, but without water I’ll be dead in a few days. I can collect rainwater, maybe. First, I need some distance between me and this crater.
I hike away for about thirty minutes, trying not to leave too many tracks, when the thunder I heard earlier materializes into a storm. Rain falls in torrents on the forest canopy, which filters it into a heavy drizzle. I drink up what I can. How to collect it, though?
Worst case, I rip some leaves free of trees and try to collect some.
That goes about as well as holding a leaf up to rainfall would be expected to go. I’m left with a wet leaf the size of my hand. Crap. I’m going to need to get better at this. While I stand there and soak in the rain, I realize how out of my depth I am. This is really rock bottom. Wandering through the forest with no glasses, stuck in a rainstorm, and far from any help.
The Fear rumbles in my head like the thunder in the sky. If I let up for just a second, it’s going to take over.
Being stripped of all resources has its advantages. I don’t have much time to sit and think, and wallow in where I am. Right now, all I can do is focus on surviving. I don’t really need shelter or fire. My suit will protect me and I seem to still be immune to temperature even with my power bound to the Fear.
With the storm, it’s now too dark for me to move forward. I find a tree and rest up against it.
I close my eyes and let the rain drown out the sounds of
There is an uncountable infinity between the number zero and the number one. This infinity exists between the closing of your eyes and dawn. In the void between one and zero it waits, expanding further and further the more zeros you add behind the decimal point. Each zero represents more emptiness. Each zero is another step away from home.
Each zero is another inch further that you sink.
EACH ZERO IS MY HAND AROUND YOUR ANKLE, DRAGGING YOU INTO THE DEPTHS—
I CAN TURN ONE NIGHT INTO AN ENTIRE YEAR OF TORMENT, HUMAN
I WILL STRING YOUR GUTS ACROSS THE BRANCHES AND I WILL REND YOUR BONES AND I WILL FIND THE WOMAN YOU LOVE AND I WILL VIOLATE HER IN YOUR BODY AND KILL HER AND
No. This is my Affect. You’re trapped in here with me.
Our battle occurs at the speed of neurons firing. Bronze fire dawns across the dreamscape. I rise on a surging wave of colors on a collision course with the black hole of the Fear inside.
The Fear’s first volley is panic and anxiety, it is a tidal wave of my worst memories. I wade through them. I struggle against their overwhelming pain.
I sift through the memories and follow Bedevil’s advice. Don’t focus on whether those memories are true. Don’t focus on making them positive. Remember how each one made me feel.
Doc tells me the truth of his involvement with Megajoule. He’s not arrogant. He’s not uncaring. He weeps.
Flashfire kicks me out of the Underground. There is no disdain, only grief and anger at my lie. He didn’t relish kicking me out.
Bedevil calls out Megajoule’s name the first time we had sex. She recoils from me in horror at her sin. She knows it was wrong. No leering, no sadism. She cut me down to my core, true, but not on purpose. I remember not only the pain but her sorrow, her regret.
None of the memories seem to help me, at first. They only give me more sorrow. But sorrow is not fear. I find that in confronting the truth of those memories, that the onslaught weakens.
I pierce through the tidal wave. I strike against the event horizon like a hammer against iron.
I want to beat it here and now but there’s just something missing. I take all the fire shining from me and weave it into a shining prison of bronze. There are too many gaps, but for now it holds the black hole in place, and the dream collapses.
I smell smoke. The scent draws me out of sleep, from the longest nightmare I’ve ever endured.
My hand squabbles in the dirt, still out of my control.
I have always thought this hand belonged to someone else. I’ve thought that my entire body belongs to someone else. But who the hell else would it belong to? Megajoule is dead. This is my body. The Fear preyed upon my insecurities.
The only way to stop it is to somehow take those insecurities back. To find the flaws in my mind that it exploits, and to patch them up.
Bedevil told me I disdain everyone around me. Her statement chafes against me. I don’t want it to be true.
I sigh out. Which means it probably is true. And Bedevil said it was my Fear. Maybe these things take the shape of their hosts’ flaws? Their shadows. This Fear is my shadow. “That’s a good name for you, you stupid parasite,” I say. “Shadow.” The Hedgehog? Now, that’s just dumb.
I chuckle. At least I’ve got my humor still. Wouldn’t trade that back for the world.
Did I get my humor from Megajoule? Or somewhere else?
Like Doc, telling me that I needed glasses like the lab technician. I didn’t get that from Megajoule. That’s uniquely me. Or did it come from that technician?
I’ve never really decided who I am. Maybe, I thought that wasn’t mine to decide. Who else would decide that for me, though? No one. No one but myself.
Unfortunately, I’ve got other things to worry about than sitting down with a pencil and deciding who I am. The tree propping my back up is ablaze. The grass beneath me is charred. The fire spreads out from me, already catching from the intense heat shimmering in the air. I have to move. They’ll track the fire to me.
I rise to my feet and trudge on, determined to find my friends.