Nero sat in the Foundation meeting room, slicing an apple with a knife, and wondering how much pressure it would take to cut into his thumb while he did so. He listened along with the Argentinian president, the honorable Lucio Genz, to Cynic’s usual line of bullshit. The president sat upright and proper, his hands folded on the table. He gave Nero the impression of an ancient emperor’s marble bust; severe, stern, eyes shining with a vision.
“The threat is being handled,” Cynic said in Spanish, for what must have been the tenth time that conversation. “We’re currently searching for the Cloak right now.”
Lucio leaned back no more than an inch. Just like Nero, he wasn’t buying anything she said. “So it is a Cloak.” Christ, Nero thought, even his voice is severe. “I’ve stuck my neck out for you, Cynic.”
“I’m aware.” Every word she spoke seemed to drive her closer to a panic attack. She reached to adjust her dress coat, and Nero gleefully noted that her hands trembled. “It is OPI’s mission to protect the UWC, and every nation in it.”
“I don’t want another Houston in Buenos Aires,” Lucio said.
“There won’t be. We will protect the UWC.” Cynic’s glare could have cut through steel. “You have my assurance.”
“Here is my assurance,” Lucio said. “If you fail to keep up your end, I will not hesitate to throw you under the bus.”
Cynic’s jaw tightened so much that Nero thought she would crack a tooth. Nero could have stepped in to defend her, or add something to the conversation, but he loved to watch her squirm.
“I know you’re holding back information. If you don’t deliver a full brief to my desk by tomorrow morning, then I will follow the States’ lead and pursue withdrawal from the UWC.” Lucio stood, straightened his suit, and left with his two guards in tow.
Nero ate another slice of his apple. In English, he said, “Nice job.”
Cynic was far too exhausted to reply to Nero’s barb. “Meltdown warned us that he’s coming here.”
“Are you really going to write a report?” Nero asked.
Cynic chewed on her lip. “I… Where is Meltdown?”
“Under house arrest,” Nero said. He’d handled all that when they returned to Foundation while Cynic dealt with the president and marshaled the various resources at her command. Both Meltdown and Wind Rider were locked in their room until further notice. They’d made no attempts to escape, which he’d kind of hoped for given their powers. “Do you have any tracking on him?”
“We lost him once he exited the atmosphere. Thermal imaging tracked him until he expelled the heat.” Cynic frowned. “We know he’s coming here, though. We just don’t know when. The Primum are on standby, and the Argentinian Navy has three destroyers on standby near the port. You’ll be ready to go if we see him coming?”
“Christ, should we drop a nuke on him, too?” Nero asked.
“Do you think?” Cynic frowned. “That would be risky, and it could destroy some treaties or even prompt a nuclear exchange.”
“I was joking,” Nero said. “Did you send any capes up after him?”
“We sent a small team of Primum that can fly, but almost all of the capes with flight mechanisms can only operate in the atmosphere,” Cynic said. “He’s… he’s untouchable, Nero. With the Fear…”
Nero sighed. “Weak.” He stood up. “It’s unbecoming on you, Cynic. When he comes, we’ll handle him.” He finished off his apple, left the core on the Foundation table, and strolled out of the room. He wandered through HQ noting how pretentious the walls were, hewn in ragged patterns to resemble cave rock. The one feature he thought was nifty was the flooring; light shone inside the opaque tiling, lighting everything from below. It provided a moody atmosphere as he made his way to Carnality’s room.
“Knock, knock,” he said, entering in.
Carnality’s room was like his own; furnished about as well as a cruise ship room, and just as cramped. Carnality reclined on her bed, completely nude and still full bodied from the blood in her veins, and watched some cartoon Nero didn’t know. She grinned as he entered and closed the door behind him. “Nero, darling. What can I help you with?”
She was not weak like Meltdown or Cynic. She was a woman of steel and he wanted her. He doubted he could have made that clearer from his expression or as he stripped off his jacket. Carnality turned off her show, stretched her legs in a languish fashion.
Before he could jump her, the room shook as if an earthquake rocked the city. Carnality’s desk toppled over, one of her lamps fell, and her TV dropped off the wall from its post. Nero grabbed onto the door to keep himself upright.
The quake passed in a second.
Carnality stared at Nero, eyes wide.
“What—” Nero started.
A second quake followed, and he knew this was not natural. On the heels of the second, there was a third, and a fourth, and explosions clapping so loud that Nero knew Gabe had come for them at last.
Carnality summoned her blood armor in a flash, and wordlessly the two of them sprinted back to the Foundation command room. Sirens blared from hidden speakers. People flooded the halls. A torrent of Primum and OPI employees rushed to their positions.
The command room was already full of OPI officials and the president Lucio Genz, who’d not gotten off the property before the attack had started. Cynic, Phrygian, and a few of the assistant directors stood watching frantic reports coming in across the city. A team of responders sat at desks, one at each screen, and called out messages. “One of the destroyers suffered a direct hit!”
Cynic responded. “Send Primum out to evacuate the survivors and return them to shore. Move the other ships away from the site.”
Another responder: “There’s flooding along the shoreline!” And another: “One of the projectiles hit Mataderos!”
And again, Cynic’s orders came with a cool demeanor. Gone was the panicked, trembling woman Nero saw only minutes before. She deployed capes according to their powers and the needs of the area.
“There’s a massive heat signature holding at twenty five kilometers above the city.” With that announcement, the room fell silent. Cynic and the directors knew what that meant.
“It’s him,” Nero said.
“Mobilize the Primum to catch anymore projectiles,” Cynic commanded. “Nero, prepare your team, all of them, yes, all of them, for flight—”
One of the responders interrupted her. “We have confirmed visual on a target moving down Au Acceso Oeste.”
The command screen displayed a feed from a White Shark hovering over a highway. A lone figure sped toward it, and at the last moment, vaulted into the air with a massive explosion of black tar. There was only a second of footage before the feed cut off, but Nero saw. It was Gabe, wrapped in black coils along his entire body like some kind of armor.
The sight of Gabe turned the president pale. “That is the son of Megajoule!”
“Then what’s the heat signature?” one of the directors asked.
“Nero, take your team to Oeste.” Cynic snapped her finger. “I’ll send as many Primum and capes as I can.”
“We’ve got reports of Fear puppets following in the target’s wake,” another responder said.
“And soldiers, I’ll send soldiers,” Cynic said, her tough exterior cracking for just a second. She composed herself. “Go! Nero!”
Nero did not wait a second longer. “Carnality, get Meltdown and Wind Rider. They’re coming with us.” He ran for the armory, to don the death armor. As he sprinted away, another responder called out words that chilled him to the core:
“Visual of another target confirmed on one of the destroyers.”
Bedevil wished she’d waited to put on Archimedes’ suit for her, because Saw Off kept snickering at her and it was uncomfortable to sit in. Still, everyone else had suited up in their mask outfits, outside of Oracle, who would not be fighting in any capacity, and Krater, who did not need armor. Krater gave her a reassuring smile as her eyes fell on him. “It’s gonna be alright, little lady.”
Bedevil smiled back. “Thanks.”
“You know, I never said it while you were around, but I’m sorry about how the Houston Heroes did you. May was a bitch to you, and the others weren’t acting like proper capes, in my opinion. I shoulda said something back then, and I didn’t.” Krater covered his mouth with his hand, chewing on that regret. He shook his head.
“No sweat, Krater. I was a drunk back then,” Bedevil said.
“You got off the sauce, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Thanks to Gabe, pushing her to be better. Pushing her to fly. Not by his strength, but her own. Now that she could, he needed her to turn around and do the same.
“Proud of you,” Krater said.
Bedevil chuckled. Her amusement died out when she saw Longinus fretting over his bible. She patted Krater’s arm. “’Scuse me.”
Longinus, too, was dressed for the coming battle. His old Inheritors outfit, a tight body-suit that struggled against Longinus’ gut, had accumulated wear and tear from battles. There were dark smudges on his torso and arms. He mumbled to himself as he ran his fingers over the scriptures.
“Do you really not have your powers?” Bedevil asked.
Longinus stopped his ramblings. He closed the bible. “I know that I can still call upon the Lord’s power, but something has bothered me. The last time I used my power, it was to help… help kill Julian. I called upon my power to blind and stun him, and Nero—”
“I do not want to hear this.” Bedevil closed her eyes and counted to ten. “Tell me what the problem is.”
“How can this power be righteous if the last time I used it, I killed a good man?” Longinus asked.
Bedevil sat down next to him with just enough room that they wouldn’t bump elbows. “Aren’t you the priest? I can’t answer that.”
Longinus had no answer, either, as evidenced by his silence.
Gabe would want her to say something to Longinus, something that set his fears at ease. She needed Longinus to be on the ball, too. So: “I don’t know about God, Longinus. I haven’t believed in anything since my mom and dad got divorced, and no one made me go to church after that. But I remember enough to know that Christianity is all about forgiveness.”
Longinus thumped his fingers on his bible again. For a long time, he didn’t say anything, and Bedevil had nothing to add to her point, so she also stayed silent. After a few minutes, Longinus said, “You’re right. You’re right. He calls the broken. While we were still sinners, he died for us.”
“Okay, ease up on the preaching,” Bedevil said. “Or else I’ll kick you out of the ship.”
Longinus laughed, though it didn’t last long. A solemnity came over him, but it seemed to Bedevil that the light in his eyes had ignited once again. “That same verse… it says, ‘It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.’”
“Greater love hath no man than this,” Bedevil repeated, the Sunday School she had endured calling it to mind. “That a man lay down his life for his friends.” She’d actually had the verse on her mind, recently, when she thought of how she’d convinced Gabe to stop thinking like a martyr. Yet, that was part of why she loved him: He gave so much of himself to others.
“What is your plan for getting him out?” Longinus asked.
“Last time we freed someone from the Fear, Gabe tried to make himself the host. The Fear responded and tried to enter him, but we killed it before it completed the process. Or… well, it managed to survive as some tiny sliver, Epione said.” Bedevil had grown more and more sure of what she’d do to save Gabe. “If we can’t find someway to get it out of him, I want to take it from him.”
Longinus held a hand out to her. She shifted uncomfortably from his touch.
He retreated his hand and looked down at the bible again. “Let me, instead. You have a life to live, Bedevil. My joy is past me. Your joy — your joy with him — it is ahead of you, and I’d not allow you to throw it away when I could save it.”
Bedevil chewed on her lip. It made more sense, she had to admit. Part of her bristled at someone else taking the burden, though. Of possibly becoming this thing’s slave. “Longinus—”
“No. I won’t hear it. I will take it.” Longinus gazed into her eyes. The fire that had ignited had grown into a full flame. “I will die for him and atone for what I’ve done.”
Epione gasped awake across from them, startling Maisa and Flashfire next to her. “It’s starting! He’s lost control again!”
“How far are we?” Bedevil asked. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“We’re five minutes from Buenos Aires,” Archimedes called from the cockpit. “Linear doesn’t have any data to work with yet, so I don’t have probabilities for you. As for our exit, once we get him— HOLY SHIT!”
Bedevil scrambled to the cockpit and wedged herself between Archimedes and Linear to look out the window. Two streaks of fire sliced through the afternoon sky and struck the city, while another landed somewhere in the bay. Three warships maneuvered in the bay, one a smoking wreck. Bedevil breathed out.
A point of blinding orange light hung in the sky, way above the city.
Epione leaned in over Bedevil’s shoulder. “That’s him. He’s… he’s fighting it but it’s going to fall. And it’s going to kill a lot more people than those meteors just did.” She closed her eyes. “And there’s more… there’s… other entities. One’s coming in from the land, and one is on one of the destroyers. But Gabe’s body…” She pointed at the light. “That’s him.”
Bedevil snapped her fingers and turned back to the Underground. “Okay. Only Longinus, Maisa, and I can fly. Maisa, you can take one other person, right? Can you bring Epione?”
Epione shook her head. “Let me go down to the warships.”
“What, why?” Bedevil asked.
“I’ll only hold you back in the sky. And the people on the ground, they have no idea these other entities are just shadows of Gabe. They’ll try to kill them and find out that the real threat is up in the sky.”
“What if we need you?” Bedevil asked. “If we get the Fear out, you’ll need to kill it.”
Epione smiled at her. “Which one I go to doesn’t matter. I’ll still be able to influence it from one of the other shadows, and I won’t have to worry about falling out of the sky if I go to the ships.”
Bedevil’s next choice was easy, then. “Okay. Archimedes, get ready to drop me, Maisa, Longinus, and Flashfire.”
Flashfire looked to Epione. “I—” He chuckled. “I shouldn’t worry about you, should I?”
Epione’s smile never changed. Bedevil still saw that behind her eyes, there was a tumult of emotions she couldn’t control. “No. You don’t.”
“Okay. Then I’m with you, Bedevil.” Flashfire looked back to her — and wow, Bedevil only just now noticed how handsome he was. She’d keep that little tidbit to herself— and she saw his determination. “We’ll save Gabe.”
“The rest of you go to the warships. We’ll meet back up once,” if, she thought, “we save Gabe.”
Archimedes flew them in toward the point in the sky. “Gabe’s starting to drop. I’ll put you on a path to intercept. Once you have him, comm me. I’ve got plans for after this fight is over. We’re going to come out as the good guys this time.”
The four rescuers stood at the bay doors, waiting for them to open. Bedevil donned one of the airdrop helmets for high altitudes. The others copied her. She tested the comms, found them working.
“Doors opening in three, two, one!” Archimedes shouted.
Hydraulics hissed and wind screamed through the White Shark as the bay door dropped down. Bedevil held her breath and dived out over the burning city.
The fire hasn’t gone out yet.
I tend the flames of my Affect, trying so hard to keep them alight despite the howling wind of the Fear around me. We are woven together so that I can see what the Fear sees, hear what it hears, feel what it feels. I can sense through the doppelgangers as they cleave into Buenos Aires.
There are two smoking wounds in the city below us. I hear gunfire through one of the doppelgangers ripping its way through the metal corridors of a battleship, through dozens of men and women. Capes fall before the other doppelganger that walks along a highway, rising again as puppets to the Fear’s will.
But since we are woven together, I pull at my own threads to resist the Fear. I burn the coils wrapping around me. The Fear wants my body to drop out of the sky and start its own meteoric descent, the final blow on Foundation.
I resist with all the fire inside me.
But I am not enough.