5.19.B

Remise stepped off the White Shark and into the night, waving to Linear. Her suit made her look somewhat like a red spider disappearing into the shadows and trees. She spoke through her mask’s comms. “See you in a bit.”

Linear used his power to examine the variables of their mission: a simple observation of a deal between U.S. flags and a supposed cloak group called the Setting Suns, which they’d gotten a tip off for from an anonymous source. With Remise’s stealth capabilities and her ridiculous senses, they had a 91% chance of observing the meeting with no issue, even though they were spitting distance from U.S. Mexico border.

Idly, Linear plugged a new variable into his mind: someone with a sensory power like Remise’s, only on the side of the flags or the Setting Suns. He watched the scenarios play out, a million all at once. It wasn’t something he could describe to anyone. He closed his eyes and his mind ran away with him. Other people’s imaginations would have been so dull. One thing at a time, a single track?

A single track to Boring Town, population of Linear.

Linear saw in his mind’s eye the scenarios he wanted, saw how many Remise succeeded in and failed in them, and determined the odds of her sneaking away were 78% if someone had a sensory power. Not as low as Linear expected.

Still, he couldn’t quiet his nerves. His power could model things but it couldn’t predict the future. If there were variables he didn’t know about then his models counted for nothing. His power was wonderful for when he knew all the players involved in a situation or battle. He could effortlessly determine the chance of his desired outcome.

But when the players were unknown, the scope too large, or the Fear was involved? Harder for Linear to get a read. Much harder. The only number he’d ever gotten while trying to model scenarios regarding the Fear were whether Cynic or Gabe went to face them, and the chances were roughly zero with Cynic — not that it mattered anymore — and nonzero with Gabe. Linear had tried to model with other leaders, like Archimedes and himself, even Bedevil and Templar.

Something went wrong in the models. Linear attributed it to a lack of personal gravity to those he ran the models with. Of course Archimedes, Bedevil, and Templar wouldn’t lead humanity against the Fear. They couldn’t unite people like that.

That was Linear’s theory, anyway, and he stuck with it. He had yet to meet a leader that he thought might have the personal gravity that Gabe had in uniting people.

Idly, Linear tried Doppelganger.

He got a percentage. 4.2%.

More than zero, less than Gabe’s 5.7%.

Interesting.

Linear tried Sal Tomas against the Fear. Again, nothing, not even a percentage. Was that because Linear himself couldn’t conceive of a scenario where Sal Tomas would lead all of humanity? Linear could conceive of one where Doppelganger did: when he’d replaced every single person on earth with one of his clones.

Another important question, did the Affect somehow know all of this? Linear thought it was much like Laplace’s Demon. The Affect overlaid the entire universe. In doing so, it would know the precise location and momentum of every particle and would be able to model on the larger scale all foreseeable outcomes.

At least in theory.

On the other hand, Linear didn’t actually have a precognition power. Just a data processing one. It was very close but sometimes no cigar. He’d met actually precogs. They didn’t have to run models like him, their powers just told them when something was up.

“I’m in position,” Remise said, drawing Linear from the abyss of his mind.

“Gotcha. Do you have eyes on the targets?”

“I do.”

Linear opened the projection display from the White Shark’s console. The screen showed the view through Remise’s helmet while she looked down on a small encampment of tents nestled under a hill, hidden among the trees. A U.S. black VTOL craft hummed in a clearing, its sole pilot disembarked and marching toward the camp.

The flag wore a helmet shaped like a bird, which clashed with his olive green military fatigues.

Six people emerged from the camp, crowded together as tightly as a closed fist, save for a young woman that stood a few feet in front of the group. Linear did not recognize her; but this was the first they’d seen of any of this supposed cloak alliance. If they even were cloaks. This could be completely unrelated to the uptick in South American cloak activity.

“Take off the mask,” the woman called to the flag. Her words stopped the man in his track, though she spoke in a soft, gentle voice.

“The Setting Suns. Why have I never heard of you guys before this?” The helmet distorted the flag’s voice and Linear could not tell if she knew the man’s voice already or not. “Why should I take my helmet off for you?”

“Because otherwise we’ll kill you. The flags sent one man, which was stupid.”

“If they only sent one, shouldn’t you be worried about what that one is capable of?” Even with the layer of distortion no one would miss the glee in the flag’s voice.

Remise especially. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy. Seems like the type that’ll kill with a smile,” she whispered over the comms.

“Then you kill us. What then?” the woman asked. “No. You came out here for a reason so you’re gonna show us your face.”

The flag shrugged, and amazingly, took off his mask to reveal himself: He was Nero.

Remise hissed over the comms. “What the fuck? Nero is a flag?”

“Stay put and stay quiet,” Linear ordered. They couldn’t turn tail and run now. He ran the variables again, this time with Nero. “We need to know what this is.”

The number came back from his models: 88% with Nero added. 32% if they had someone with a sensory power. Linear gripped the White Shark’s yoke by the handles, daring not to power up the engines for fear of someone hearing. Not until they had to.

Nero grinned as the six studied his face. Only the woman who had spoken recognized him, and she did so with great alarm. “What do you want with us?”

“I have a job offer for you,” Nero said. “A very lucrative one.”

The woman growled. “We know you’ve been snapping up cloaks and masks. We’re not interested.”

“Five hundred thousand.” Nero threw the number out like a grenade.

The Setting Suns’ leader did not reply to that right away.

“Each.”

If the number was the grenade, the declaration that they would each be paid that ludicrous amount was the explosion. The fist of people loosened and approached him, each asking a flurry of questions.

“When do we get the money?” one asked.

“Half now, half later,” another person demanded.

“Will we have back up?”

“Where are the other cloaks?”

The woman called out to Nero: “Five hundred thousand isn’t much of a shield against the Inheritors.”

The other members of the Setting Suns halted their litany of questions. One or two glanced back and forth between Nero and their leader before retreating back to her.

“Money won’t save us if Aethon drops on us from the sky. It won’t save us if he brings New Foundation with him. If we catch their ire like our brother Gigantamech,or like Floodwater?”

Nero smirked, a sight that made Linear grip the yoke harder still. “We picked you because if the Inheritors came after you, you’d do pretty well against them, Hecate. You alone could make Gabe your personal whipping boy.”

“Jaysus,” Remise whispered.

Hecate crossed her arms, glaring at the other members of her group until they all slunk back to her side. Linear took note of each of them as they walked back. A large Nordic man, not as large as Krater but still impressively big; A young Hispanic woman carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows; a very short man wearing a robe with a cowl, whose features Linear couldn’t make out; a young Hispanic man, lithe and handsome with a sharp jaw; and the last a man named Appolon that Linear was already aware of, a revolutionary that regularly called for Central American independence from the UWC.

A falcon cried out in the night, a strange sound that made the Setting Suns and Nero perk up. Hecate ignored that and continued on. “You’ve worked with the Sanctified Remnant. You’re working with them now, aren’t you?”

Nero did not deny this.

“I know you. I know what your power is.” Hecate snapped her fingers. “Orion.”

The large man, presumably Orion, lunged for Nero, grabbing him by his wrist. He wrenched Nero around and whirled him up into a bear hug, his massive arms constricting Nero. From here, it seemed Nero didn’t have any power stockpiled.

Nero took this in stride. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll die eventually and I’ll come back and kill you all. Unless you take my offer. The money can go a long way.”

“It can,” Hecate agreed. “But you want us to oppose New Foundation and destabilize the region. You tempted our brothers and sisters away from our path and you work with my enemy. Now, you seek to do the same thing with us.”

For someone so small and with such a tiny voice, her words hit like bullets.

“If you die, we’ll make it painful. If you come back and kill us, we’ll make you fight for every death. You’ll die a dozen times for each one of us.” Hecate marched up to where Orion held him. Nero tried to kick her. Silver incandescent light filled her eyes. His knee cracked, his leg swung out of joint to the right.

Nero howled, which fell into broken laughter. “God… god damn it… they told me you were good.”

“I’d suggest staying still,” Hecate said. We won’t be bought out, Nero. We’re not here to do your dirty work. We’re here to protect the world and make it as good a place as possible. You work with our enemies.” Linear had to admit, he respected her candor and her zeal.

“You really are a radical.” Nero sucked air in between each breath. “Sledge worked with us. He worked with the UWC.”

Hecate slapped Nero on the cheek so loud that Linear heard it through Remise’s comms. There was poison in her gentle voice now. “You don’t get to speak their name.”

“You hate New Foundation.” Nero sounded more desperate, close to begging, even. “We have a common enemy.”

“But I won’t dirty my hands to fight them,” Hecate said. “They fucked the Americas. We’re here to unfuck it, not make it worse.”

The man in the robe spoke now. “Hecate, we should take his offer seriously. Is it more than just money?”

“You broke my fucking leg!” Nero cackled. Or maybe it was a sob. “Why would there still be a deal?”

“Is there not still a deal?” The robed man stared into Nero’s eyes. A stupor fell on Nero, making him go slack in Orion’s arms as if he’d passed out, but through Remise’s camera Linear could see his eyes were still open and his mouth moved. He said not a word, only gasping like a fish out of water.

“Is there?” the man asked again.

“Yes! Yes!” Nero cried, suddenly moving again. “God damn it!”

“Hecate, what could we do to make this work for all of us?” The robed man did not take his eyes away from Nero as he asked this, which Linear found strange. He wondered about the man’s power. Some sort of compulsion to answer his questions?

A falcon flew into the clearing, landing on the archer’s shoulders. The archer tilted her head toward the falcon and Linear remembered his prediction if they had someone with sensory powers and Nero was present.

32%.

“We’re being watched,” Hecate said. “Nero, help us and we’ll think about helping you.”

“Pull out,” Linear said. “Right now.”

The Setting Suns exploded into action. The archer woman pulled an arrow and sank it into Nero’s skull through his eye. Orion dropped him and charged up the hill toward Remise’s position.

Remise’s camera shifted as she turned and fled back. Her jets sounded and she flew up over the tree line.

A giant bird, easily the size of a helicopter, rose to meet her in the night sky. A explosion went off somewhere below. Silver light cast the trees in pale, eerie light, and the picture on the screen spun out of control. “My jets just popped!” Remise shouted. “Linear! Leave me! Leave m—”

The feed cut off, the comms went out.

Linear hissed, unsure of what to do for a second. He modeled the probability for him rescuing Remise. 7.8% if Nero didn’t destroy the White Shark immediately.

Not a chance Linear could afford. Not after what he’d just seen. He made a note of the powers he’d witnessed. Hecate seemed to have some telekinetic power. Orion seemed to be just an exceptionally large and strong man. The robed man could compel people to answer questions. The archer woman had the falcon that could apparently grow in size.

Linear powered the White Shark’s engines up. He heeded Remise’s advise and took to the night sky. The rear cameras caught sight of the huge falcon making chase, but it could not match the flight speed of the White Shark.

He made a call in to New Foundation through the White Shark, trying to stay dispassionate. His power ran the models over and over, coming up with percentage chances on potential rescue missions.

Bedevil’s face appeared on screen. “Linear! How did—”

“Remise just became a prisoner of war.”

VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS

JUNE 7th

VirtueArt by Harry Rowland

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