Foundation HQ. The birthplace of OPI and the guiding star of the modern world. To Nero it called to mind an anvil: a huge, jutting structure that looked like it was solid metal all the way through, even despite the numerous windows being evidence to the contrary.
The building carried the full weight and aspect of its namesake, all in art deco style.
Smack dab in the middle of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the whole thing was apparently made of a super-hard carbon based material, formed by a cape’s power. One of the original Foundation members, before Foundation stopped being the Justice League and started being the Department of Justice. With all the boredom and bureaucracy that transition implied.
Nero wondered if he would have fit within Foundation like he fit inside OPI. Cynic and the board of directors had uses for him, still, but everyone spoke about Foundation like it was founded by Superman himself. Megajoule was apparently one of their last alumni before it became OPI, way back in 2032.
Nero was only nine, then, and now it was a quarter of a century later.
A huge statue stood guard in the courtyard, winged by stone steps that led up to the entrance to the HQ. Golden and tall, the statue looked almost like those movie awards they gave out, the Oscars. Nero recognized the face. Proteger, the first cape of Foundation. Nero was just glad they hadn’t already melted it down to throw another statue of Megajoule up.
“My, he strikes a handsome figure,” Carnality said, leering at the statue.
“He’s dead,” Nero said. He wasn’t in the mood for banter. Their utter loss in Puerto Guadal and Gabe’s possession by the Fear weighed on his mind.
“Just how I like them,” Carnality replied with a wink.
Nero chewed on his lip to restrain his chuckle. He soldiered on up the steps around the statue, Carnality trailing behind him. She cooed at random things; the delicate flower gardens wrapping the steps and sprinkled around the Foundation courtyard, the passersby. Meltdown and Wind Rider trudging even further back. Nothing was safe from Carnality’s lusty gaze or her adorable squawks.
The entrance to the HQ was an archway a half hundred feet tall. The words “BUSCAR A LOS ALTRUISTAS” were inscribed above the archway. Nero didn’t care what it meant.
Foundation did not have a traditional door. The archway was open air, separated from the outside by a thin, glowing membrane. Nero strode through it.
The vaulted ceiling of the lobby was gold and marble, invoking ancient beauty through the support columns with diameters greater than the span of Nero’s arms from fingertip to fingertip. A fountain babbled in the middle of the lobby. A swarm of OPI workers, capes, and Foundation employees flooded the building in their mad frenzy to unpack all of Command.
Cynic looked out over the city from the her high, lonesome office. Rather, the old central command room that she had appropriated as her office. This was the place the first capes of Foundation broke bread and discussed their missions. Nero studied the long table, made of jagged limestone and laced with gold, where they had plotted the salvation of the Americas. Where they had averted the Anarchy just three years in when the entire world struggled on for decades.
Music drew Nero’s attention to one of the rooms off central command. A strange cacophony of multiple songs overlaid each other, playing at the same time. “Phrygian’s already here?” Nero asked Cynic, while Meltdown, Wind Rider, and Carnality entered.
Cynic only murmured a single syllable in reply. She sat in a swivel chair at the end of the table.
Nero didn’t like this. Usually Cynic had a barb prepared for him and usually he would be ready to reply. But Nero could read the room. No one had the energy for banter, friendly or otherwise. “Has she heard anything?”
“Nothing certain, yet,” Cynic said at last. “You said Gabe was possessed.”
Nero clicked his tongue. “Yeah. Taken by the Fear. He’s a host, now.” He held onto the fact that Gabe seemed to be wrestling for control of his body, even though he knew Cynic would dig it out of his mind. That wasn’t important. It was important not to tell Wind Rider or Meltdown, because then they would wonder if he could be saved. He knew the type; bleeding hearts.
Cynic studied his face, her lips pursed, and said nothing.
“He killed the local capes that we met up with in Puerto Guadal. And Danger Close,” Nero said.
“I know. I saw the report Wind Rider submitted on the way over.” Cynic rapped her fingers on the stone table. “None of you could touch him. Not even Meltdown? Carnality’s blood powers?”
“Couldn’t put a scratch on him, darling,” Carnality said, still as flighty as ever..
Meltdown bowed her head in shame. “The Fear protected him from my lightning.”
“It wants his body,” Nero said.
“No.” Cynic expression wound tighter and tighter as the conversation went on. “It wants his power. It only needs his body for that.”
“The fucking monster was better at using it than he was,” Wind Rider said.
“You lost both times you went face to face with him,” Nero said. “Whether or not it was the Fear didn’t matter the first time.”
“We weren’t…” Wind Rider scowled. “You know, you can—”
Cynic snapped her finger at them. “Shut up. All of you. We are dealing with an unprecedented danger. The Fear can use Gabe to do catastrophic damage.” She paused, lost in deep thought. “There was an explosion and a fire in the Misiones Province. I want you to find Gabe and kill him. We can’t afford him as a host to the Fear.”
Nero nodded. “On it.” Now that he was keen to Gabe’s possession, he’d be ready. He’d go in his death suit, and would not be caught off guard again. “Alone?”
Cynic shook her head. “I’ll have a contingent of Primum meet you there. Standard set, flight and strength.”
As they prepared to leave, Cynic pulled Nero aside. “I saw your memory. Gabe’s still in there.”
“Yes,” Nero said. “He is. Does that matter? You ordered me to kill him even before we knew he was possessed by the Fear. You’re not feeling guilty, are you?”
Cynic choked on her response and Nero saw, in that briefest glimpse behind her stoic exterior, that she felt guilt. Not just that she felt it, not just that it occasionally disturbed her in the middle of the night with a lover’s caress. No, he saw that guilt woke her in the morning and guilt put her to bed at night. He saw guilt sit with her at the table.
Without any kind of mind reading, he saw guilt pulling her strings like a damn puppet. Nero saw weakness. And he knew that Cynic saw that he saw.
They were precariously balanced, the two of them. He, her knight, she, his queen. She had poison in his cup and he had a sword at her throat, and the mutually assured destruction meant that never delivered the final blow.
Nero couldn’t help his disgust. She was a weak little worm. “I’ll be going. You can make peace at whatever grave they bury him in.” He slowed at the door for one final barb: “If there’s anything left to bury.”
A few hours later and the White Shark dropped Nero, Carnality, Wind Rider, and Meltdown off in the middle of the jungle near a temporary OPI outpost. The white and green tents buzzed with activity as dozens of Primum scrambled in the wake of their landing. Nero smelled smoke. He marveled at the thick curtain of smoke that rose not a mile down the woods. It could have been some random forest fire.
But Nero’s skin prickled with excitement. The jungle was wet from rain. There shouldn’t have been a fire, not unless an immense source of heat suddenly dried a portion up.
One of the Primum came up to the landing pad, already in his full armor. “Sir. Cynic told us to expect you. We’re on your time.”
Nero grinned. More toys to play with.
Ah, no, not right now. Right now he wanted to get Gabe and put him six feet under. Right now he needed them to be tools, not toys. “Okay. We’ll split up to cover more ground. Wind Rider and Meltdown, you go to the impact crater they found with some of the Primum. I’ll take my own party and Carnality to the fire.”
“The fire is contained. No one was found there,” the Primum said. “Who among you can fly? Who needs to be carried?”
Once they sorted out the rides, a group of a dozen Primum carried Nero and Carnality over the jungle on fire, while Wind Rider and Meltdown went to the crater to investigate.
The two sites were walking distance from each other. Perhaps two miles. A thirty minute walk in the jungle. Nero suspected the two events were caused by Gabe. “When did the fire break out?”
“Roughly twelve hours ago according to the locals. We only arrived in the last hour,” the Primum said. “The fire is incredibly unnatural in this region. We suspect that it’s man made at this point.”
“So do I,” Nero said.
The Primum had contained the fire to a small section, an area that Nero could jog around in about a minute. One of the Primum, this one with a silver star on his armor, busied himself with containing the flames by pyrokinesis.
Much of the jungle smoldered but only a part of it was truly ablaze. Through the charred underbrush, Carnality sniffed and searched. Nero watched as she sifted through the blackened bark and leaves, transfixed by her bloodhound approach to finding their quarry. In the end, she simply stood and shook her head. “Nothing. Not a scent. If he bled, the fire cleansed it.”
“He may not be bleeding,” Nero said.
“True enough.” Carnality grinned. “Though, I hope he is. There must be some time he turns his power off.”
“He’s just like Megajoule that way.” Nero remembered the moment that exhaustion had finally taken Megajoule. The man had dueled them three days. They’d had a baker’s dozen bouts by that point, and in the end, the simplest of things had killed Mega.
Nero’s fist through his face, when he couldn’t muster the strength or skill to stop the final blow. He relished the memory of cratering the man’s head in. Nero knew that made him a monster. He just didn’t care. Megajoule was the one who couldn’t recognize what they all were. Megajoule had a power that sold well to the public. Megajoule had it all.
Nero had to admit that when he finally took everything from Megajoule, it felt a bit like justice for the gulf between them.
But even in that death, Megajoule’s legacy was an injustice. Nero was the cape who never died. And Megajoule took that from him. Took it with every single poster and screen he occupied. He took it by being the void in OPI no one knew how to fill.
Nero knew he was a green-eyed monster.
He just didn’t care.
“Darling,” Carnality said, drawing Nero out of his thoughts. “I’ve caught a scent. Toward the impact crater.”
Another thrill. He pulled Carnality close and they thrilled together, as she grinned and tittered into his ear. “It’s just like Megajoule, isn’t it? Those last days hunting him down.”
“Ah, darling, it is, it really is,” Carnality replied. “Though Argentina isn’t much like China, is it?”
“No Youxia in our way,” Nero agreed. Megajoule played that smart; he tried to flee into a war zone, hoping that the enemy would delay his hunters. For Nero, it just made the chase more interesting. “Could do with the challenge.”
“And Longinus,” Carnality said. “We need Longinus.”
“Meh.” Nero didn’t feel too strongly about Longinus. The man was there to provide them a psychological edge. If anything, Nero would rather Bedevil now, or perhaps one of the capes that Gabe got tied up with in Houston.
The Primum brought them back to the impact crater, where Wind Rider, Meltdown, and their own group of capes sifted through the dirt. The crater looked about fifteen feet deep, a hundred feet across, and scarred by fire. Again, more evidence to Gabe.
Carnality smelled the air and sighed out. “Yes. Megajoule. Gabe. It’s him. And I can smell the scent in the air.”
“How close is he?” Nero asked.
Carnality opened her eyes. She locked her gaze on Nero, still a crimson from her bloody feast yesterday. “We’ll have him by nightfall.”