All posts by Megajoule

into knives

 

 

 

Gabe,

who is that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I

am

that

I

quiet hours. the dissappearance of standard thoughts. the tv static drones and i hold my hand out and wriggle my fingers. i don’t know what to make of that hand. it is not my hand. don’t know what i        looking for. a birth mark? a ring? a slight discoloration at the wrist so i can blame this feeling that the hand belongs to someone else on something real? what is it when you feel like your entire body is a phantom limb? what is it when you feel like your skin will slip off from you? what is it when you’re barely there, barely anywhere, tethered by the thinnest strand to your body, a red string of fate from my finger to my soul and

I wake up. I am in a bed. The rest of the room is gray and unfurnished, and there is a window that lets in moonlight.

Bedevil is asleep next to me. She shifts and sits up once I’ve disturbed her.

She has no face.

There is no sound. There is no smell. I feel nothing under my fingertips as I drag them along the sheets. There is an immense gravity well pulling me toward the door. Vertigo stirs up my chest as I sit up and take shambling steps to the door.

Bedevil walks next to me. And there is another, and one more beside him, all with no faces.

Each step darkens the room more and more. Bedevil disappears within the shadows, a drop of ink disappearing into a vial. The other images follow. Just ghosts vanishing into the night.

I take up my post again at the threshold of the door. I am afraid. I can scarcely remember what I’m doing here or why I’m doing it, only that I must hold the door. If I don’t keep it from the door, it will take me. That is all I remember now that night falls on me.

Who haunts this room with me? Bedevil. Two others with my height and build. More I have seen wandering the hallway beyond the door I guard. Epione. Oracle. Flashfire. Many others.

They have no faces.

That is important. They have no faces. Why?

The hallway groans, the floorboards creak, and the darkness thickens so much I could reach out and drag my fingers through it, and bring back sludge. A deep chill worms under my skin. It is the only thing I have felt in this place.

A hand rips out of the darkness and seizes my wrist. A face surfaces from the shadow. Megajoule, the only face I’ve seen in all these nights. His eyes are dark, black holes that absorb the light around them, and his mouth is a cavern. Like his face is a mask stretched over a chasm. He smiles, no teeth, and says,

“Gabe, how long do you think you can keep this up?”

Memories flood my mind with images of gore and pain and blood. My friends minced into pieces, the children I failed to save a heap of corpses, the masks I’ve failed zipped up in body bags. It wouldn’t seem so dark if Megajoule wasn’t so bright, his successes planted in my brain as firmly as my failures. The weight presses against me until my muscles scream for relief.

Falling into the ocean, falling into knives. It’s a cruel joke of a fight.

You can’t look. If you look, it wins. If you look, it takes you.

God help me.

I look.

.. / .- — / – …. .- – / .. / .- —

Gabe,

what would you say is the most important thing about yourself?

I would start with the fact that I can’t breathe.

Then, I would say that I am afraid, because I am standing in this doorway while this THING lurks on the edge, prowling and waiting for me to let go, and I am not safe, I am not safe.

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Then, I am a hero, I am someone who saves children. I protect people, I save people, I fight monsters. I am fighting a monster.

Then,

!.!.!

 

Gabe,

how long do you think it will be?

I am standing in a doorway. I am blocking passage through the door. I grip the doorframe so hard I think my fingernails are going to bleed. My fingernails are bleeding. The blood drips drips drips drips drips drips

The room behind me is where it wants to be but I can’t make anything out inside. It’s too dark. Likewise, the hallway outside is too dark. I hate the dark. One of my least favorite things about the apartment complex we lived in back in Colorado was that outside the apartment, during night, it was near pitch black on a cloudy night.

The woods would choke the light out of the street lamps not fifteen feet from the lamps themselves, and walking in between those bubbles of orange light felt like you were slipping into a void. To step out of the circle was to step into it’s realm and it would follow you immediately, as soon as you’d started walking to the next lamp.

There would be no sound or smell or sight to accompany it, but you could feel it orbiting around you, behind you, like a weight tied to your shoulder, demanding that you look. Demanding. And of course you do not look. If you look, it wins. It takes you.

If you let go of the doorframe, it takes you.

There is an immense weight in the hallway, a cold spot, a supervoid couched in the dark like the inner petals of a flower. Like God poked a pencil through the fabric of the universe. It sinks toward me or do

I

sink

toward

it?

3.12.4

Epione’s voice fills my dreams. Gabe, there’s something wrong with you!

G for good a for able b for beautiful e for enough

Three months three months of this three months longer than eternity

I wake in the middle of the night, Bedevil sleeping peacefully next to me, her nose just brushing the edge of my shoulder and her wild hair tangled around her head. She is repugnant, I can’t forget the sneer she had after she fucked me and called me by his name. I can’t forget the way Doc laughed at me after I realized he killed Megajoule. I can’t forget the way Flashfire was disgusted by me and hated me for killing those people. I can’t forget the way Drone stared at me as she died.

No, I can’t know that, how would I know that?

I sit up and go to the bathroom. I retch into the toilet. My head is on fire and the toilet water turns black and hands reach up and grab my face and pinch my cheeks and probe my body. They guide me back to the bed and they will me to move the heat into my fingertips and press them against Bedevil’s chest, press them into her chest, press them through her chest until she wakes, choking because her lungs are pieces of charred meat—

For a moment, I can’t see when I wake up. I sit up into the dark and on the edge of my vision, I see something coiled around itself. I cough and crud comes out of my lungs.

My vision clears and I see Bedevil sitting right where the thing stood in the corner of my eyes, working at the desk in our room. It was her.

“Hey, you,” Bedevil says, turning to me and smiling. She puts her cheek in her hand and her eyes nearly slay me. There’s a second of deep bitterness from that dream before reality takes a hold and I remember the past three months with her have been bliss. I don’t think there’s a hill around here we haven’t hiked together — or broken in together. Every night I’ve helped her study books on leadership, management, and what not, but she’s a natural, and pretty soon I was more of a handicap than a training wheel.

Bedevil grasps a pen in her left hand and starts to write. “Hey, so, I’ve been meaning to ask. What’s your full name?”

“You mean my last name?” I ask.

Bedevil nods. “Yeah. I’m practicing my handwriting and thought I could spell it out.”

I scratch my chest and stand up out of bed while my stomach turns. I need to visit the bathroom. I feel sick again. Third time in three months I’ve been like this. “Uh, yeah, it’s Wayland. Doc liked the name.”

Bedevil looks back at me, with a newfound sadness. She reaches out with her maimed hand and grips my pants with her thumb, and pulls me into a hug. “I’m sorry, babe.”

I press her head against my stomach and stroke her hair, and I know I should feel sad but all I feel right now is sick and unsettled. “It’s okay.”

We hold each other for a minute before Bedevil returns to her work. “So, Gabriel Wayland, huh?”

“That’s what it says on my license.” I make my way into the bathroom while my gut does aerials inside me. I kneel down in front of the toilet and grip the porcelain. I don’t really want to alarm Bedevil right now, so I just wait until I’m sure I’m going to puke.

I don’t. My stomach just turns and turns like a whirlwind while I kneel, and when I don’t throw up after a few minutes, I stand and return to the bedroom. Bedevil’s gone, her work left on the table, and our bed a mess of crumpled, sweaty sheets. Since when do I sweat without working out? How can she stand to be near me right now?

I take a peek at her work. It’s a lot of chicken scratch, but there’s progression from when she first started trying to write. My heart pounds when I realize what she’s written, over and over.

Ruby Wayland Ruby Wayland Ruby Wayland Ruby Wayland

Should I feel something? There’s a glass wall between what I’m seeing and what I should be feeling.

I snap out of my daze. Maisa wanted to train today. She’s made incredible strides in her hand to hand combat.

When I turn to go leave the bedroom, Megajoule leans against the door. He saunters up to the paper and glares at it. “Getting cozy with her, aren’t you?”

“She’s my girlfriend.” I cross my arms. “I thought you said I was a man.”

“You’re a man that’s making a mistake.” Megajoule shakes his head. “What are you doing here? Why are you just holed up when your friends are out there. They could be wounded, dead, or worse. You’re pissing your days away waiting for other people to tackle your problems.”

I feel something now. Anger. I clench my fist and restrain the energy that tries to feed into it. “I can’t always be the one charging in.”

“I’m disappointed in you, Gabe. You can do so much better than hiding from your problems.” Megajoule’s expression is dark. “You need to go out and fight.”

“I’ll get killed if I do that.”

“No. You’re strong. You’ll survive.” Megajoule’s hand cuts the air as he lectures me, swishes around like sword he’s waving way too close to my face.

“Why do you always show up when I should be happy?” I ask. “Every time you appear, every single time, you show up when I’m feeling good and knock me down a peg.”

“Are you feeling good right now? Does sleeping next to the woman that humiliated you because she wished you were me make you feel good? Does living in the house of a woman that’s been manipulating your memories all this time make you feel good? Does your friends being out there without help — excuse me, with the help of an arrogant prick and his awkward calculator friend — make you feel good?”

I stammer. God. Damn. It. I’m tired of this.

“Epione is still catatonic. Do you think they’re helping her? Or do you think Oracle is just making her that way? Do you think that you’re not all being played?” Megajoule asks, his voice rising.

“You’re wrong! Oracle is a good woman, now!”

“Now.” The word rings with all the venom of a hundred snakes and spiders, it rings with the disdain of a lion tearing apart its prey. “She’s weak, now. Not good. She had the chance to kill Cynic and blew it. She had the chance to shape the world for the better and ran away, and you expect me to believe that she’s a good person?”

I hide behind my arms. He always makes me feel like a child. He makes me feel like I don’t know anything. Makes me feel like shit.

“Well, Gabe, are you gonna grow up and do what needs doing?”

“Fuck off!” I shout at last. I stand up and rush out the bedroom door, and down the stairs. I need to be anywhere but trapped in my room with him.

No one is here. Archimedes and Linear left in the White Shark yesterday, they left to try and find the Underground again. The last seven attempts have left them empty handed; the trail is cold. Maisa and Bedevil aren’t here.

Oracle comes out of Epione’s room, and Megajoule’s accusation rings in my head.

“What were you doing in there?” I ask.

Oracle turns her shining eyes on me. I don’t know if I should feel something if she tries to change my memories, but every time she has before I felt a shifting in my head. I don’t feel that now. “Feeding Epione. She’s actually shown improvement, today. She said hello when I came in.”

“That’s nice.” I stare at her.

I need to know something. I need to know why… she… put… what did she do? Why can’t I remember? “Are you using your power on me?”

Oracle frowns. “No.”

“How do I trust that?” I ask. “How do I trust that you aren’t playing us all, that you aren’t rewriting every memory that’s inconvenient for you?”

“I’m not, Gabe.” Oracle’s frown deepens, her eyes close. “Look. My eyes are closed. I can’t use my power.”

I struggle with everything I know. I was just upstairs talking to him, so why can’t I put two and two together and make a sentence?

I fight. I start to babble. The words start as a salad but as I press through: “Why Bedevil does make sneer, Drone and Doc in one grave, Nero is in all my dreams, Epione is in all my dreams, my mind feels like it’s breaking and I think you’re the one doing it, and I’m angry because you put Megajoule in my head and he makes me feel bad about myself.”

Oracle’s eyes snap open and her mouth drops in shock. “What?”

Finally. The question I’ve been dying to ask for months but could never actually voice. “Why did you put Megajoule in my head? Why did you try to overwrite me like that? He told me you made him into some kind of memory construct so he could talk to me, but he only ever makes me feel bad.”

Oracle’s puts one hand over her mouth. Her shining eyes hiss as tears spill down her cheek. From behind her fingers, she speaks, and her voice is so small I can only just make out the words.

“Gabe, I can’t do that.”

The black hole opens inside my chest. “What?”

“I can’t make a memory construct.” Oracle’s voice breaks from her usual serene tone and she starts to wail. “I can’t put someone inside someone else’s head like that. I can make you remember things from their life but I can’t give them a voice or a personality.”

I take a step back.

Oracle retreats from me. “Someone else did that to you.”

My stomach turns and I fall to my knees. My lungs inflate and press against my ribcage and I hack crud out of my lungs. I cough black mucus onto the floor.

The crud from my lungs.

It’s ink.

The world rips in half as hands pull my ghost out of my body. Megajoule screams in my ears. “You weak and impotent child! I told you! I am the predator! YOU ARE THE PREY!”

I’m in two places at once. I’m trapped in Megajoule’s iron embrace in the void of ink coils shredding through my heart, and I’m rising to my feet against my will in the living room. Heat flows into my fingertips — through the chest, very quick — and I warp toward Oracle.

I snarl and bite down on Megajoule’s arm in the void. I have no fire here, no kinetic energy. My ghost against his. We brawl and kick and punch, his hands wrap around my neck and thousands of dark tendrils wrap around my wrists and ankles, more than Bedevil could ever hope to make.

I’m frozen in place as I try to fight Megajoule — not him, the Fear — in my mind. It infected me, it survived, and it waited for months. I took this from Tim Prince. I thought we killed it. I just gave it a new home.

“Months of suppressing the empath! Months of hiding my influence from the oracle! Months that were an eternity shackled inside your meager flesh!” Megajoule’s voice vibrates on my mind and I lose my grip on my body.

The Fear marches to Oracle. The eyes first, her power is in her eyes. My white-hot thumbs thrust into Oracle’s eyes, shutting their light off forever.

“Gabe!” Bedevil screams. “What are you doing?”

Oracle sobs and retreats from my blazing hands, her eyes now ruined sockets, and my body turns to Bedevil, who stands in the door with Maisa right behind her. The Fear vibrates inside my body, ink spills out of my mouth.

Burning fingertips through the heart. Through her chest.

My body lunges while I am helpless to watch.

Bedevil’s eyes widen as my molten fingers dive for her chest. Her telekinetic tendrils smack against me but my power drinks in the kinetic energy of their attacks. She’d already taught me how to beat her, never thinking that it would be used against her. Never thinking it would be used to kill her.

“I will not kill her!” I scream. I kick free of the tendrils and shove Megajoule’s shadowed form off of me. We struggle for my body even as I rocket through the air. I try to use my power to change course but that’s not working. I’m going to hit her, I’m going to punch through her body.

It’s a matter of where I hit.

I rip Megajoule off of me and the Fear shrieks. I’m in two places at once. I will my ghost back into my body, even for an instant. Just a half-second.

I earn that half-second refusing to kill Bedevil or Maisa, or anyone else in this home, and I change my aim at the last moment.

My hand sears through the Bedevil’s side, just grazing her rib cage. My heat cauterizes her skin instantly. Bedevil opens her mouth but no scream emerges from her throat, only a single, pitiful squeak. She looks up at me, her eyes wide.

I still have control. “Bedevil! Kill me! Kill me before-”

Megajoule rips me in two again. One by one, my molecules fall into the dark. I scream and struggle the entire way, knowing that if I fail Bedevil dies, they all die. I have to get my body away from here.

But the Fear is stronger than I am. It is ancient, it is powerful, and it’s using my own worst memories as its strength. Tendrils rip me from my brain and back into the void.

The Fear throws Bedevil into the living room and then launches upward, bursting through the roof of the house with an explosion of kinetic power. Debris showers down as the house shakes and collapses, catching my friends underneath the fallen roof. The Fear drinks energy from gravity’s pull and from the air around us until my body shines brighter than the sun, and the wood begins to catch fire and the air shimmers. If I don’t get control I will boil them all to death.

White light rips through the inky coils wrapped around the void. The light becomes a girl becomes Epione. Her light pushes Megajoule off of me and I regain control of my body, and Epione descends to wrestle with the Fear.

I launch myself away from the house with all the energy the Fear gathered, flying toward the General Carrera Lake and the mountains beyond. Ink and tar spill from my mouth as I burst through the sound barrier passing above the sleepy town of Puerto Guadal below. My flight leaves a massive wake across the water, parting it with biblical power, and I strike into the opposite shore, shaking the snow from the mountains in torrential avalanches.

Epione shouts into my ear. “Gabe! Find someplace to hide! Find someplace we can lock your body until we can get control of it!”

I can feel her losing. The Fear’s weakened us, I can feel that. Now I know why I’ve felt so damn out of it these last months, why Epione’s been catatonic.

Now that I know, I can do something about it.

Before the Fear beats her down I fly into the mountains, searching for an outcrop or a cave entrance of some kind. I don’t care where, any cave will do. Anything where, if it comes down to it and I can wrest control back, I bury myself inside the rock and deny the Fear it’s prize.

I search the icy ranges while I feel Epione’s defense dropping in my soul. Memories are twisting inside my head, the dark emotions of rage, panic, and depression rise like a tide of sludge in my heart. I have to find somewhere.

Fine. If I can’t find it, I’ll make one.

I will energy into my hands and dive into the side of a mountain, slicing through the stone with flaming fists, until I carve out a small hiding hole that has enough space for me to sit down in. I can’t hear Epione anymore but I can feel her weakened will like a candle flame dying inside a hurricane. The Fear rises up.

I am the predator. You are the prey.

I’m not going down like a wimp. My mind is clear for the first time in months. I’m not going to scream and cry for it because I know that’s how it gains strength. “Do you know what a zoo is?”

The Fear splits me in two, turns me into a ghost again and imprisons me in the void. I grip my body in one hand and press against the Fear’s onslaught with the other, desperate to keep it from controlling me.

I manage to continue speaking: “It’s a place we put predators.”

You will not cage me. The Fear’s power bears down on me like it did that night at Parlor, like it did at the airport. But underneath that, as our minds duel and our spirits battle, I can see that it remembers well the thermos that it was trapped in for years. I know it’s possible, even if I don’t know how yet.

“You’re wrong, you’re wrong!” I shout into the void.

The dark morphs and shows me the billions of worlds that have fallen to its terrible march through the cosmos. You are wrong human. You forget that I am not the only one of my kind. I am but the point of the knife thrusting into your heart.

“It doesn’t matter how many there are! We will understand you, we will cage you, and we will take our fat children, cotton candy in hand, to see you in the cage we made for you. Humans will turn you into an exhibit and your long terror of the universe will end with tourists taking pictures of you from outside a glass box. They’ll pay for the privilege to feed you with their own fear and you won’t be able to do anything about it!”

I glow with bronze fire. It’s not enough to keep the Fear from surrounding me but it’s enough to lock us into a stalemate for control of my body. I summon all the will I’ve built from years of trying to control my power, for years of keeping myself from ripping people apart and burning them alive by accident, years and years of patient control that nearly killed me.

I grab the ragged hole I tore into the mountainside before the Fear can stop me, and with a burst of kinetic energy, I imprison us in stone and darkness. And in that darkness, I whisper the last defiance I have before the Fear wrenches my mouth shut.

“I promise you that, I promise you that I’ll see it happen myself. You are a predator, but humans kill predators for sport. Because it’s fun.

Those are the last words I get out before the Fear forces my silence and we begin our struggle under rock and shadow.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

3.12.3

I hope to catch a glimpse of the lake and mountains out the living room window again. Something about that view just tugged at my heart. Not very often you find a place that makes you feel at ease just be existing.

Unfortunately, the world is cast in darkness. There’s not even a moon outside, or stars, just a thick blanket of clouds. Snow taps against the window and drifts off into the night, out of sight a few feet beyond the house. Oracle brings me a piping cup of coffee and I contemplate how I’ll fix my sleep schedule so that I’m not up all hours of the night.

Everyone but Epione is gathered in the living room now. Archimedes and Linear stand next to each other, Bedevil, Maisa, and Templar occupy the couch, and Oracle sits in a reading chair. The fire casts us all in orange twilight. Coffee and tea fill the air with vibrant energy, little pockets of heat I feel swell and rise before melting into the ambient temperature.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” Oracle says. “Or rather, let me show you.”

“Not the memory thing again,” I say. “Last time made me nauseous.”

Archimedes steps into the middle of the living room, carrying a small tablet. “Not like that.” The tablet’s flashlight glows and spreads the arc of its beam until it encompasses half of the room in soft, white light. “Do you see it?”

At first, I don’t see a thing but after a minute the light changes, twists, and coils around itself, and a current of colors flows all around the room where Archimedes’ light shines. Archimedes points the light at Oracle and a silver semi-circle reflects back at him, burning with multi-colored flames. Archimedes turns the light on me and from my chest, a molten core of bronze shines back, also wreathed in rainbow fire. The colors shine out from me and spread into the air, meeting with Oracle’s colors, and mingling with Bedevil’s silver heart.

“This is how Epione sees the world. I made this from studying her,” Archimedes says. “Cynic wanted me to make a power-stealer but I did this instead.”

“The colors.” I wave my hand through the mirage. “What is this?”

“This is the Affect.” Oracle smiles. “It’s where our powers, and the Fear, come from. The fourth dimension that connects all of us.”

“Let me guess, there’s a light side and a dark side, and there’s gotta be balance,” I joke.

Oracle chuckles. “Close enough to the truth. There are positive and negative emotions.”

“These are emotions?” Bedevil reaches her left hand up and waves it through the soup of colors. She’s stunning, silver core wrapped in pink fire at the center of her chest. White and blue blossom alongside, and I watch the spectrum of colors grow from her. Change. Morph. Return. She’s a multi-faceted gem, a rose where each petal is a new wonder.

“The Affect is a realm of emotion,” Oracle says. “It overlays everything. As I said, it’s where all of our powers come from. Archimedes and Linear can explain more. Cynic tasked Archimedes with Affect research for some time.”

“Think of space as being in three dimensions.” Archimedes points his thumb up, his index finger out, and curls his middle finger into his palm. “Three axes of movement. Imagine then, that there’s another axis of movement into the Affect. That’s our best working theory, that the Affect overlays everything and we can tap into it. We’re still limited in three dimensions, but there’s a part of us that draws from the Affect.”

I’m still transfixed by Bedevil’s colors. I walk up behind her and run my fingers through the flower of her soul, and touch her shoulders, startling her. “Sorry.”

“The Fear is a fourth-dimensional being, then.” Archimedes turns off the light. The colors vanish out of the air, casting us all back into the dull orange glow of the fire. “Epione being a pure empath is the closest we’ve seen to someone who exists in that space as well. Empyreal’s angel, too. Epione actually confirmed a long-standing theory that the Affect gave us our powers. Her ability allows her to steal them and following that her power is pure Affect control, our powers are expressions of the Affect as well.”

“How do you know what her power is?” Templar asks.

Archimedes taps his left eye. “I have a scanner in my eye that I modeled off a cape that could sense what other people’s powers were. Like I said, my power recreates other powers with devices that I build. Strictly speaking, they aren’t functional technology, just something I imbue with power.” His grin splits his shaggy beard and doesn’t look friendly. “I’m not so much a scientist as a mad artist.”

“So whatever it is, it’s not genetic.” I inhale waiting for the answer. Knowing whether or not it really is the determinant of my powers… knowing whether or not I’m really just him but worse. What will I do with the answer? Will I disappear?

“Bingo.” Archimedes strokes his shaggy beard, his eyes both dark and amused all at once. Everyone is connected to the Affect.”

Tim Prince’s leering grin leaps to my mind, his declaration that he had no power at all. “What about Pandahead? Or the people that don’t have powers?”

Archimedes shrugs. “We’re still looking into it. Linear had a couple of good ideas, though.”

“If it’s based off emotions, then that means people that don’t have powers don’t have emotions. I don’t think that’s likely, considering that there’s not really any mental or personality disorder that prevents someone from experiencing all emotions. What I think is more likely that complexity or intensity plays a part.” Linear gaze is studious, turned inward for a moment, but those discerning eyes fall on me after a second. “One important discovery we made is that powers aren’t static. They develop during teenage years and can grow stronger or weaker based on that person’s emotional circumstances. For almost everyone they stay the same.”

Maisa drinks this information in with parted lips and wide eyes. She’s got the fervent look of someone who just realized that they could change everything if they wanted.

“I guessed that someone could cut themselves off from the Affect if they wished,” Linear says. “Emotional expression in the Affect comes from who we are.”

The words hang in the air and I feel something thaw inside me for the very first time. Who we are.

“For example, Gabe, you. Your power is different from Megajoule’s. Because you are different. Something knocked you off course from developing as a perfect emotional copy of Megajoule when they were cloning you, and you became you instead. Thus, a different power, a different identity.” Linear waves his hand like this is just par for course, matter of fact. Like that doesn’t completely upend everything I’ve known about myself for so very long.

Bedevil sees it, though. She grabs my hand and squeezes it tight, and in the naked light she smiles at me, and cries for me.

For me.

Oracle’s bright eyes shine. “That is the beginning. Let’s talk about where it ends.”
I breathe at last through the lump in my throat. My chest is tight but not hollow, no longer hollow, maybe never hollow again. “Where does it end?”

“With humanity defeating the Fear,” Archimedes says. “Which we know isn’t possible if Cynic leads us.”

“You want me,” I say.

Oracle looks into the open fire and frowns, her skin weighed down by the many years she’s endured. “You may not be him, but you still share your face with Megajoule. The world believes in him, still, and now because of that, and because of your noble actions, they believe in you, too. We must defeat Cynic but we won’t defeat her with arms or power. We defeat her symbolically. We depose her by giving the world hope and robbing her of the anxiety she’s created. We give them a new leader. You.”

Well, I guess this was going to come up sooner or later.

I sigh out and breathe in once, sure of my answer. “No.”

Oracle smiles. She knew. She read my memories.

Archimedes and Linear, on the other hand, look like somebody dropped one of Flashfire’s grenades in the living room. Archimedes quickly trades out his shock for anger, which chokes the amusement out of his eyes and only leaves darkness. “What the fuck do you mean, no?”

“He means no,” Oracle says. “But he’s not saying he won’t fight with us, is he?”

She’s got me figured out. “I’m not a leader. I’m a warrior. If you need me to be a symbol, I can do that, but when I lead people get hurt. I’m much better at protecting people and fighting. More like a claymore mine than someone you want to follow.”

Oracle guffaws. “Front toward enemy, indeed.”

“I want a better world for everyone.” I walk over to Oracle and kneel down in front of her chair. “I don’t trust myself to lead people into it. You know who I trust, don’t you?” I’ve only ever trusted two people’s guidance in my life. Flashfire first, and now Bedevil. Flash isn’t here.

Oracle smiles. “I do know. I knew when you came off the aircraft. I accepted it then, though the script that we’d carefully written demanded I ask you anyway. I’m glad. You may not think you’re a leader, and perhaps you aren’t one in the traditional sense. But they will follow you. They’ll see your mad pursuit toward salvation and they will clamber behind you, desperate for a taste of it themselves. Desperate to see the shining future that you see.”

I find that I have no words to reply. I worry for the nebulous they that follow behind me because I’ve only ever suffered along my path.

“The fact that you’re scared for them is good. The fact that you don’t trust yourself to decide their fates is good. If kings and queens had half the doubt you did, the world would be better for it.” Oracle looks so very far away and I wonder if her mind falls on the husband she lost.

“Oracle-” Archimedes says.

Oracle cuts him off with a blazing glare. “He’s made up his mind. He made it up before you brought him here. He doesn’t want to lead but he will fight if he believes in the person leading him.”

Archimedes scratches his beard. “And who is that?”

Oracle looks to Bedevil. “The other one he believes in is not here.”

Archimedes follows Oracle’s gaze and groans when he sees Bedevil at the end of it. “Come on. Come on.”

Bedevil, for her part, looks like a deer caught in some headlights. She gathers her hair over her shoulder and runs her left hand through it, and says, “I don’t know.”

“There’s time to think and plan,” Oracle says. “We’re well hidden. You deserve a rest, all of you. Archimedes and Linear will find the Underground.”

“What happens then?” Templar asks. “You brought us all out here to be symbols? We don’t have an army, we don’t have any gear, we barely have a plan.”

“We have an army.” The light in Oracle’s eyes grows intensely.

I see Oracle’s work over the last six years. She meets cape after cape, mask after mask, making them forget her but leaving them with the feeling that they were dissatisfied. She meets with dozens of people a day and sleeps and eats little, she works tirelessly organizing a collective of people that want Cynic gone but don’t remember why. She only turns three out of every ten she meets, but that’s enough that her army’s grown to roughly ten thousand strong.

Templar gasps and falls back. “We met. We met.”

Oracle takes a sip of her tea. “We did. Long ago.”

“We met,” Templar says, rising to her feet. She runs her hands through her platinum hair and walks away from the couch, muttering to herself.

Bedevil frowns. “You never came to me.”

“They moved you a lot,” Oracle says. “And part of me knew exactly where you would fall if I recovered Gabe.”

“I’m not someone to use.” Anger bubbles up a bit, frustration that Oracle views me similarly to Cynic. They really are two sides of the same coin.

“No. But you did just tell me you were a mine to aim at my enemies.” Oracle’s enchanting gaze falls on me.

“At her enemies.” I point at Bedevil. “If she doesn’t lead, or if Flashfire doesn’t lead, I’m out. I don’t believe in you, Oracle. I’m sorry, but with everything you’ve shown me, I don’t.”

“I know.” Oracle returns her gaze to the fire. “I know. I’ve known since I saw you.”

A question tickles at the back of my mind. Something about her influencing my memories. But I can’t voice it, I can’t put the words together. I’m not sure what it is I want to ask her about.

A headache blooms, a wave of nausea hits my gut. I cough and hack up crud from my lungs again. Damn fever.

What was I… What was I just thinking?

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3.12.2

Everything stands still as Oracle walks right up to me. The lake in the distance seems frozen, Bedevil, Maisa, and Templar don’t even look like they’re breathing. The entire moment is silent and locked in place, except for her striding to meet me. I find myself wincing when I look right at her eyes. She’s too bright to stare head on and her general presence scrambles my thoughts.

When she speaks, her voice is so sweet and melodious her words are like a song. “I owe you an apology so large I could never finish speaking it.”

Her words break the silver glass trapping us. My friends breathe, the lake sparkles under the sun, and the wind moves again. I rub the back of my neck. “I think all I want is an explanation, really.”

“Yes, Archimedes tells me you were insistent on that,” Oracle says. Her expressions are tight and demure, so much so that they might put Epione’s composure to shame. “I will give you as much of one as you need. As for your friends, I will begin arranging for their rescue.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped the gun and pissed Archimedes off,” I say.

Oracle’s smile doesn’t fade, but her eyes give her amusement away. “I thank you for listening to Archimedes’ reason, no matter if he gives it to you like steel wool.” Oracle takes my arm in hers. “You do not mind, Bedevil?”

The question flusters Bedevil. “Ah, no. No. Go ahead.”

“I’ll return him in good condition,” Oracle says, with a wink.

We walk past Archimedes, who mean mugs me as we pass him, and down a dirt path leading toward the lake. “That’s quite a view, isn’t it? General Carrera Lake.” Her accent is practiced, almost flawless. “I think you deserve some rest, Gabe. Let me do something for you. Let me find your friends. Let me give you the space you need to grow.”

“I don’t know very much about you,” I say.

“Would you prefer I tell you, or show you?” Oracle asks.

“Uh… show?”

-a vast savanna stretches out beneath my feet, overwriting the vista of Puerto Guadal and the General Carrera. A young woman with long dreadlocks and eyes shining like stars watches the horizon and listens to the distant patter of rain and gunfire, the rumble of thunder and explosives, and she is afraid-

-a warzone blossoms out of the savanna with a tangle of burning buildings and houses shelled out by bombs, and she runs through, writing new memories with each step, memories of peace, memories of love, not of war, anything but war-

-a team around a table, they call themselves Sovereign, they are saving Africa with the help of a group called Foundation that began in South America. Their leader is Ethereal, a man whose skin is emerald, whose gaze is sharp diamond, whose heart beats like an amethyst in his chest for the world to see. She sees his memories and wants to make new ones with him-

-they are married, they are in bed, they are in peace, together-

-Sovereign fights army after army, they lead the people of Africa in destroying the terrorist groups and the resistance armies that indoctrinate children, they free her from supervillains trying to carry on a history of bloodshed-

-they fight one last battle against a man known as the Dominator, the last dying gasp of the armageddon that almost destroyed their nation. Oracle rises from the ashes… but Ethereal does not-

-Oracle meets a woman named Cynthia Miller and sees a kindred spirit in the then regional director of OPI. Oracle remembers when OPI was called Foundation and feels she owes a debt-

-Oracle meets a young man named Julian. He is bright and sure, and he reminds her of her former husband-

-Accusations of Sovereign rewriting their opponents’ memories force them to disavow Oracle, who relocates to the UWC and joins her friend Cynthia, now Cynic, now the International Director of all OPI. Oracle learns of the Fear, and sees her aging face, and worries that time slips from her fingers like sand-

-The fight against the Fear consumes her mind and she agrees that OPI needs absolute control. She believes Cynic’s apocalyptic warnings and her dim view of humanity’s state. She believes that the ends justify the means and helps find the weaknesses of her fellow capes-

-the boys play in their room in the lab, growing up together as brothers, almost normal. One of them catches her eyes because he has glasses, and she makes a note that he had something the others didn’t-

-Cynic tells her of the colors, the Fear, a fourth dimension, and introduces her to the team trying to discover the real truth of powers, led by a sarcastic Archimedes and a quiet Linear-

-Megajoule grows increasingly hard to control. Oracle has to make a new memory lattice day after day but his mind is so keen and strong that he bashes through them as he finds one incongruent fact-

-She flees the lab with Doc and the boy as Megajoule begins his three-day battle with Nero, Longinus, Carnality, and a few other heroes. Oracle rewrites Cynic’s memories to make her believe that Oracle died in that fight. She vanishes from the minds of Doc and Gabe and retreats to South America, and lays the groundwork for rebellion-

I wrench my eyes shut at the torrent of memories. Oracle’s life floods over me and nearly drowns me, and still I don’t understand one key thing: “Why?”

Oracle smiles. “That’s a broad question.”

“Why help me? Why fake your death from Cynic? Why go against her now, after Megajoule?”

Oracle chuckles. The laughter fights against her creaky, wrinkled skin while her glowing eyes carry no humor. “I will start with why I oppose Cynic. She’s dangerous. I think you know that. Archimedes might have already explained that her leadership against the Fear will be disastrous, but he might not have explained why. You see, her power is maintained by fear. How could someone empowered by fear hope to lead us against an enemy made of the stuff?” Oracle guffaws like that’s the funniest thing she’s said all week.

“Nice sales pitch, lady,” I half-joke. She strikes me as a genuine person, especially since she showed me her entire life in a few seconds. On the other hand, all those memories she just fed me could be fake. How would I know? Hell, the way this view makes my heart ache, the way the snow capped mountains slice through the horizon, separating crystal blue lake from crystal blue sky, it makes me feel like I’m staring at a painting, and I wonder if Oracle can influence the way I perceive things.

“I can,” Oracle answers.

I start, caught off guard by her reading my mind. “You’re like Cynic.”

“Only while I’m touching someone,” Oracle says, patting my arm. “Only surface level thoughts. My memory influence comes while I’m looking at you. I don’t just change memories, I can change the way they’re stored as well, which means I alter your perception of a thing while it’s happening. These days I only use it to make people happy, but there was a time that I did not.” Her glowing eyes fall on a distant past and almost, for a moment, they lose their shine.

“How do I trust you?” I ask. I remove my hand from her. “How do I trust any memory I have right now?”

Oracle nods. “Memories are a fickle thing either way, Gabe. Do you think they are governed by hard code and cold logic? Memories are warm, malleable, and fluid, filtered through emotions. My power lets me change them in other people, but you have the power to change your own memories if you wish.”

We might as we be talking mumbo jumbo. I furrow my brow. “I don’t follow.”

“People can black out their traumas, misremember things that make them think badly of a person they care about, or even interpret good intentions in bad ways for people they hate.” Oracle sighs. “I’ve always seen how changeable our minds are. And Cynic did, too. We’re two sides of the same coin, her and I.”

She turns her shining gaze on me and I wince, worrying that she’ll change me as she sees fit, just like Cynic wanted to.

Oracle turns away from me. “Cynic and I walked a path together, once. She and I could both see how broken people’s minds are. I always told her not to watch the evening news. She never watched movies or TV’s because the actors’ thoughts were louder than their lines. But she loved sports. Baseball, basketball. Because she could read thousands of people’s thoughts at any time and there was no plot to distract from.

“She saw how fragile our world is, because it’s made up of people and people are fragile. Even the superhuman ones. Perhaps, especially the superhuman ones. I don’t know all that. I know they are hurting. They need love.”

I follow her down the trail. Memory-ghosts dance alongside the dirt path, scientists in coats whispering to each other about their broken homes, their rebelling children, their awful commute, the fact that the work of killing my brothers and sisters was eroding their souls. I see Doc walking beside me, muttering and mumbling. Cynic on the other side, whispering and conspiring. They speak in the language of fear and worry, their bodies give away the weight they carried.

“We all need love, Gabe.”

The trail leads to a rustic cabin lodge of two stories, surrounded by a dilapidated wood fence topped with barbed wire. Intricate stone work supports the wooden columns of the house and a huge window betrays a living room with a roaring fire. White snow graces the lawn in patches. Oracle climbs the steps up to the porch and turns her shining eyes back to me.

“I have a lot of questions about what you showed me,” I say. I don’t even know where to begin. Colors? Fourth Dimension? It’s all so much.

“I know.” Oracle opens the door to the lodge and holds the door open for me. The air comes alive with energy as I step inside. Heat churns from the old-fashioned brick fireplace, filling the huge entry way and living room with warmth. I marvel at the antler chandelier and the leather furniture. The smell of fresh coffee saps the tension from my shoulders. I sit down on one of the couches in front of the fire.

The others join in short order, Archimedes hoisting a box of things he recovered from the tower, Linear and Templar carrying Epione, and Bedevil holding hands with Maisa. Oracle studies me from the kitchen. “You look tired.”

My eyes are drooping. Even despite my nap on the White Shark, I can’t stay awake. “I am tired.”

“Then, perhaps you should rest for now. We can talk tomorrow.” Oracle smiles at me from the kitchen. “You may sleep upstairs or downstairs, there is more than enough room in this house for you.”

Yeah, that’s a good idea. I leave them and head up the stairs. I’ve always felt safer on second floors for some reason.

I’m barely aware of which door I pick before I’m trudging inside. The bedroom I’ve chosen is so luxurious it puts Epione’s house to shame. The entire damn house shamed by a single room, with its little fireplace embedded in the wall, the granite tiled bathroom with a shower and bathtub, the silky soft rug on the floor, and the most marshmellow fluff looking bed I’ve ever seen. I flop into the softness and sigh myself to sleep almost immediately.

I am falling.

I am a ghost.

I am not here.

I drift through the black, through the refracting void. Things squirm on the edge of my vision, horrible wires of ink that shred through the world around them, and I am caught in the wires, I am falling, I am a ghost, I am not here.

A tiny square of light pierces the tessellating dark. The light becomes a person becomes a girl becomes Epione. She screams: “Gabe! There’s something wrong with you!”

The dream breaks apart like a burning house, one support beam and then another cracking under the strain of fire fire FIRE

I wake up screaming. Bedevil sprints from the bathroom and rushes to my side, one hand on my head and the other clutching my arm. She’s freshly showered, half-wrapped in a towel. “Gabe? What’s going on?”

My head throbs. I feel awful.

Bedevil puts her hand to my head. “I think you legit have a fever, babe.”

“I’ve never had a fever.” I hack up junk from my lungs. A cold? When have I ever had one of those? Between the crud in my chest and the fever, I struggle to remember my dream from last night. Something… about a fire.

Maybe it was just the fever.

Bedevil puts on an actual bathrobe and brings me a mug of coffee. “There’s a coffee pot in our bathroom. It’s fucking rad.”

I chuckle and sit up in bed. Despite my illness, I’ve never felt more comfortable. I sink into the mattress, the sheets feel like magic, and the pillows sap some of the throbbing pain from my head. A much better change of pace than the cell OPI held me in. I can’t concentrate on it for long. My thoughts sink back to Drone like they’re caught in a drain. “I think I owe Archimedes an apology.”

“Mmm.” Bedevil sips her some coffee of her own. “Well, if he’s mean to you, just come and tell me, and I’ll make things right.”

“Alright, mom.” I drink some coffee. The energy flows through my chest. Maybe I can burn this crud out on my own. “I wonder what Oracle wants? I mean, she didn’t bring us here for no reason, right? Not out of the goodness of her heart.”

“Sounds like a revolution from what Archimedes and Linear said.” Bedevil fusses around in the bathroom while carrying on our conversation. After a moment, she comes out with her head wrapped in a towel. “I’ve met her once. She seemed nice. I can’t say that she’d be any better of a leader than Cynic.”

Drone. Mil-dot. All the people I’ve let down, gotten captured, or worse. I’m a god-awful leader. Fuck, I’ve never even wanted to lead a group down to the dog park, let alone into battle. The Second Ward was a disaster, and it’s my fault we got caught at Echo’s place. “Who do you think would be the best leader?”

Bedevil opens her mouth.

“Don’t say me, because we both know it’s not me.” I glance at her to read her reaction.

Bedevil chuckles. “You got me. You’re really good at knocking people around.”

“The last couple of times I’ve led people, I’ve led them to injury and death. People keep getting hurt on my decisions.” I sip on my coffee and contemplate how I ended up here, in Chile, in a lovely bed. Admittedly, one would think I’d done something right, but my friends are in a terrible spot, I’m sidelined for now, and Cynic’s still in control. “I think Oracle wants me to lead. Or at least, be her symbol.”

“People do like you,” Bedevil says. “The news still talks about you. I checked your laptop to see if we had internet.”

“Do we?” I ask.

“No duh, I just said I checked the news.” Bedevil grins. “That fever’s really knocking you down a peg, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I force myself to stand and walk over to her.

“Well, anyway, you’d make a good symbol.” Bedevil gestures at my face.

“But I’m not a leader. I’m fine being a symbol.” I chuckle. “A foundation more than a leader.”

“Every team needs one.” She gazes away, lost in thought for a moment, and then winces out of nowhere. “Megajoule was the Inheritors’ foundation. Templar handled what I’d call leadership though. The administration and decision making. Still, Mega was the leader there, too.”

She still tiptoes around his name.

“Yeah.” I grab her waist through the bathrobe. She looks up at me, her eyes widening at my touch, her mouth parting a little. “But what about you?”

“What?” Bedevil asks.

“Were you only ever going to be a sidekick? Or did you want more?” I ask.

“I’ve never wanted to be a leader.” She furrows her brow, looking pissed that I’ve even broached the subject. “No.”

“Can I tell you why I think you would be a good one?” I ask.

Bedevil chews her lip. “Gabe, I just got sober.”

“I don’t think this is happening tomorrow, Bedevs.” I grip her waist a little tighter, and she responds with a small squeak. “You’ve got time to think about it.”

“Why do you think I’d even be good at that?”

“You’ve always done the right thing since I’ve known you. You’re strong and passionate, committed, loyal. The others look up to you. You always say what you mean and you’re always so confident.” She stood up for me against Krater and Archimedes, and she also knew when I was being stupid, and told me so.

“Keep talking,” Bedevil says slyly. She runs her fingers up my chest.

“You’re Bedevil. That name means something. Just as much as my face does. I’m a good fighter and people like me. You’ve got a lot more going for you than that. You’ve led teams before, yeah?”

“Small ones.” Bedevil turns away from me. “I’ll think about it.”

“Okay.” I watch her walk back into the bathroom. There’s just something about the sway of her hips, man. Especially in a bathrobe. I still remember the way she walked away from my bed the first time we fucked. Even though that’s not a pleasant memory, even though she mocked me afterward, I still remember watching her walk away.

Someone knocks on the bedroom door, so I throw a shirt on and answer.

Templar waits for me, dressed down in a casual outfit of black jeans and a flannel shirt. She still looks imposing, even without her black armored suit.

“Oracle’s ready to talk.”

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