“MEGAJOULE, 49, DEAD.”
Three simple words that bring the world to standstill on May 13th, 2103. The wrench that built the machinery now jammed back into the gears, destroying all forward momentum.
Paul parks the car and stares, helplessly, hopelessly, at the radio. “This is the future I helped make,” he thinks. Almost says aloud, if not for the sleeping boy in the back seat.
He turns the car off and steps outside. He is parked on the feeder road of I-35, just near a major intersection north of Fort Worth. Not much traffic out tonight. Some of the other cars on the feeder road have also stopped, or pulled over.
His shaking hands worm their way to the inner pocket of his lab coat for the flask. He sips at whiskey, wrestles it down his throat, thinking how humid the air has turned. The trees sway in the hot late spring breeze, unaware that all humans have built and endured was just destroyed.
Oh, sure, organs would survive for a little while. Maybe even people would survive this.
Not all of them, of course, but some.
The experiment of Foundation just ended. The higher process that guided it ripped out of its central nervous system. Paul muses that nothing less than her soul has just died. If Foundation persists after Megajoule, it does so in an undead shamble.
He shakes his head and pockets the whiskey. He’ll need it for after Gabe wakes up.
His burner phone beeps once, then twice, then again. It continues, one solid tone followed by a softer, quicker tone, repeating this pattern every half second. How can an artificial tone sound like the swish of a guillotine? Paul stares at the UNKNOWN caller ID, dreading to answer it. The fifth time they’ve called him today.
Paul puts his head onto the executioner’s block. He’d waited until this moment, at the intersection of two major highways near three major cities.
“Howdy,” Paul says, the only hint about where he’s taking Gabe.
“Paul,” the caller says. A deep, gravelly, furious voice. “Where are you?”
“Not in Nevada, that’s for sure,” Paul replies.
“Doppelgänger is displeased. Have you been delayed?”
Paul chooses his next words very carefully. He chooses them to dissuade these people from ever trying to look for him. “No, I made it on time, Sledge. I just decided I wasn’t going to take him to Nevada.”
Sledge says nothing. The only indication of their fury is their heavy breathing. Paul knows if he stands in front of Sledge, they’ll pull his spine out through his mouth.
“I’m not letting you have him,” Paul says as he moves to hang up the phone.
“If you do this,” Sledge says, “We will hunt you. We will hunt you until we find you and then we’ll rip you into tiny little pieces.”
Paul hangs up. He tosses the burner phone into the tall grass off the road. They’ll track it to here and lose his trail. They’ll search for him in Dallas, Fort Worth, maybe even Waco, but by that time, he’ll be in Houston.
The back window of the sedan rolls down. Gabe pokes his head out. His messy dark hair curtains his glasses and hides his steely eyes. If he was a normal teen, Paul might think he’s a quarterback from some high school, fresh out of his lanky phase and into a set of muscles he doesn’t look comfortable with yet.
“He’s lucky he’s young, he doesn’t look exactly like him,” Paul thinks. To Gabe, he says, “It’s all cool. Get back in the car, kid.”
“Is he really gone?” Gabe asks.
Paul struggles not to scream, not to yell, not to sob. He pats the side of the car to reassure not just Gabe but himself, and says, “Yeah. He’s gone.”
“I didn’t think he could die.”
“Everyone can. Everyone will, eventually.”
Gabe retreats into the darkness of the back seat and so Paul returns to the steering wheel. He starts the car and begins to drive. He checks to make sure Gabe’s still there in the mirror, hoping against hope that he’s dived out the window, that he’s disappeared, that somehow he got spirited away to a better world.
But no, Gabe’s still sitting there, staring out the window at the city. His eyes are wide with wonder at the skyline looming over them.
The trees start disappearing about ten minutes north of the city proper. Paul whistles at the bare dirt, the wispy grass, the patches of yellow that remain of Houston’s plant life.
“Where are the trees?” Gabe asks.
“Houston can’t grow them anymore.”
Paul doesn’t much care for big cities beyond needing to hide this particular needle in a big haystack. He wipes his face, scratches his chin, glances at Gabe, and thinks that this is the worst outcome. The greatest superhero in the world, Megajoule, 49, DEAD.
The first marker of the battle that took his life passes by them — a skyscraper wearing a giant human grin with teeth the size of houses.
“God damn it,” Paul thinks, “what an awful world.”
The highway deposits Paul’s car to a road winding through a depressing strip of cement apartment complexes divided from each other by yellow-green grass planted into meridians and dying lots. Paul’s desire to return to the lab’s carefully curated gardens surprises him.
He snuffs this desire as his GPS guides him into a parking garage: maybe he prefers greenery to Brutalist architecture and gridded streets, but he’ll be damned before returning to that lab. He’ll live in a sewer before he set foot in that grave again.
The hiding spot Paul chose for them is a 1000-something square foot two bedroom embedded in the third floor of a concrete box, paid for under the table. A tiny kitchen provides low, atmospheric light. There isn’t even a table or chairs, but the kitchen cabinets hide bowls and cutlery. No furniture in the living room. A bare mattress in one bedroom and a naked bed frame in the other.
Gabe sits down on the mattress and stares at Paul in silence. He turns his gaze to the bedroom dispassionately. He makes a quick study of the room before laying his head down and closing his eyes.
Paul, restless, steps outside into the hot Texas night to revisit that whiskey.
The cement buildings lean in on Paul like he owes them money. The few stars he can see through the light pollution seem within his reach if he stands on his tiptoes. The heat crowds him against the door to the apartment, and shadow faces in the alleys below appraise the guilty man smoking on his porch.
Paul doesn’t want to go back inside, though. Even though the outside world feels so tiny, the inside of that apartment is a supervoid. All one thousand square feet a dark pool that he treads with his chin just above water, and his feet can’t touch solid ground. All thousand square feet an entire goddamn universe, and the only people existing in that realm are Paul and Gabe, murderer and victim.
Houston’s skyline gazes on the guilty man. He hopes the city is too large to care about them. He hopes apathy will hide them well.
“Hell of a place to raise a kid,” he thinks.
Hell of a place to hide a clone of the greatest hero in the world.