Category Archives: Bonus Episodes

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

5.B.2

Epione could not contain her nerves. Soft violet tendrils of Affect wafted out of her. She concentrated, pouring every ounce of her focus so the colors would not overwhelm her. The end result was like squeezing her hand around a faucet — streams of color wriggled out from her in violent sprays. She worried that those emotions would overwhelm someone, but she knew if anyone felt them it would only be a passing echo. Better that than for her to be cripple by them.

Saw Off had no such problems. She stood next to Epione, her core a bright ruby flame that cast off smaller wisps of passionate, seductive red and bright brown tufts of stability. Saw Off felt in her element and she felt horny, that Epione knew for sure.

What Epione did not know was why they were riding this elevator together down to the third basement floor of the Foundation HQ. Saw Off showed up at her apartment and demanded that she’d come along, and so Epione had.

“Um,” Epione started. “What are we doing?”

Saw Off pulled out a cigarette —  a real one — and lit it up with a lighter from her pocket. “We’re bonding.”

“Bonding?” Epione asked.

“Yeah, we’re bonding.” Saw Off took a drag and offered Epione a smoke, but Epione politely declined. “We’ve got something in common, now.”

“We do?” Epione was entirely unsure of what Saw Off and her had in common other than their gender. She searched Saw Off’s colors for some sign of what she meant, since the girl’s expression was steely, and her face turned away. The only indication she got from Saw Off was a ribbon of violet affection and light blue responsibility.

“Yeah. We both lost the same man.”

Ah, she meant Flashfire. Epione couldn’t help but be tickled at that. “I suppose that we do have something in common, then.” The thought of Flashfire cut into her heart, spilling out dark tendrils of pain, even though Saw Off’s candor amused Epione. What an odd cocktail to no longer love him but to hurt over losing him. With a sprinkle of hilarity on top.

Saw Off’s colors shifted to a darker shade. “Maybe this is stupid, trying to pretend we got something to talk about. Christ, what would we talk about? Look at you. You’re all prim and perfect. No wonder he stayed with you so long.”  Green strands drifted from Saw Off’s Affect.

Epione came to a startling realization.  “You’re jealous of me.”

Saw Off side eyed Epione, and from her colors, she was a little taken aback. “Well… yeah.”

Epione couldn’t contain her laughter. She saw that this made Saw Off angry but she couldn’t keep from laughing. She nearly doubled over and let the yellow joy flood from her.

“What’s so funny…” Understanding bloomed in Saw Off’s aspect, in bright colors. “Are you jealous of me?”

Epione could not reply, her laughter choked her. She might’ve used her power to restrain herself but why bother? Soon enough, Saw Off joined in on her laughter, and they laughed until the elevator opened on a dimly lit basement hallway.

Once she’d recovered, Epione asked, “Where are you taking me, anyway?”

“Oh, there’s a little club. We meet down here and drink and shoot the shit. Play cards. Smoke. All that jazz. I thought you might be interested.” Saw Off said all this as if it was matter of fact that she should meet anyone down here. As if it was inevitable one would form. As if dank basements were not complete until a few thugs took up positions in one of the rooms to bet on cards.

“Why did you think I would be interested?” Epione asked.

“Shit, girl, I dunno! Figured you were probably bored hanging around the lovebirds all day.” Saw Off made a gagging noise.

“You’re just mad that Bedevil snagged him before you could.” Epione admitted that she was pressing boundaries a bit with that one, but she wanted to see how Saw Off reacted to a barb.

Saw Off glowered at her, but her colors betrayed a flash of humor. She settled into a grin. “Yeah, well, can you blame me?”

Epione could not. She’d spent many months trying to convince Gabe that he was, well, handsome and muscular and charming, but the poor boy’s Affect was all dark from negative emotions for so long. It wasn’t until recently she saw how bright he’d become. That made her happy.

Saw Off slammed open a door and shouted: “‘Sup bitches!” and strode into the room. Epione trailed behind her, unsure whether the group would take that greeting well or not.

Epione was shocked at the members of this illicit poker group. First and foremost was Archimedes and Linear, a handle of whiskey between them, accompanied by Lugs and Remise who was shuffling the cards, and to Epione’s utter confusion, Mr. Gold.

Saw Off sat in the chair next to him and practically purred. She leaned into his shoulder. “Hey, daddy.”

Mr. Gold leveled a gaze that would wither plant life at Saw Off, but surprisingly, he had nothing to say to her remark.

Saw Off leaned over the chair and beckoned Epione over. “Stop being a scaredy cat!”

Epione sat down next to Saw Off and studied the people gathered in the group. Archimedes seemed a bit pissed she was even here. “You know she can read all of our emotions, right? She’ll know who has a good hand and who doesn’t!”

Linear seemed a little worried that someone was going to find out about his secret all the time, but Epione had always known, so it didn’t matter, and she wasn’t a tattletale. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, I mean, I can detect subtle changes in your expression and I know all of your tics.

Remise grinned as she always did. “And I can hear when your heartbeat changes, so I know when you’re excited.”

Lugs gave that little salute of his. “We’re only betting Monopoly money anyway.”

Mr. Gold seemed preoccupied with getting Saw Off to stop feeling his abs and so did not add to the conversation.

“Deal me in?” Epione asked.

VOLUME FIVE: COMPULSION TO MOVE

March 12th

Volume 5 Art

Artwork by Francesca Lloren – TwitterTumblr

5.B.1

Jason reclined in the beach chair, stirring his feet into the sand and watching Gabe and Bedevil play with their dogs. Pawpaw — that old, wizened looking retriever — struggled to keep up with the peppy Isabelle as she darted between Gabe’s feet. Pawpaw barked and jumped up into Gabe’s chest.

Jason let a small laugh escape, thought it felt more raw than he wanted to admit. How often had he seen Gabe with a frown, with a dour expression, or like he was pinching a turd between his cheeks? Now he felt like he wasn’t staring at the same man. This Gabe was different; he smiled and he laughed all the time. He’d always been a bit funny, a bit witty, but now he couldn’t maintain a serious conversation for longer than a few minutes without sliding a joke in somewhere. And Bedevil, she always looked so happy, and she couldn’t take her eyes off Gabe.

They ran and played together at the edge of the lapping ocean, kicking up water and muddy sand, and the dogs barked and play-fought through the seafoam.

Jason did not expect the pang in his heart. A few months without Epione and he’d thought he would have moved on by now. Seeing Gabe and Ruby, and that ring on her finger, and their dogs, and their smiles… A lump stuck itself right in his throat, choking him up. Never before had the chill of loneliness hit as hard as it did in this warm summer beach in Argentina.

He mused on Saw Off’s advances. It would be easy to fall back into step with her, but they’d broken up for a reason.

Epione would never forgive him. He knew he shouldn’t be making decisions based off her, but Epione was going to live in the same building as him and work in the same organization as him, so he had to at least consider it.

He really hadn’t had the chance to think about his romantic future. He’d been so busy integrating some of the masks around Argentina into New Foundation that he’d spent everyday working from dawn to dusk. It had taken Gabe about two weeks to convince Jason he needed a vacation.

Wild that Gabe was the one convincing him to take a break now. Things really had changed.

Footsteps crunched in the sand next to him. Jason stirred from his thoughts and looked up, shielding his eyes against the afternoon glare.

Meltdown had decided to visit him, it seemed. She’d come along because she thought the sun and sea might be good for her pregnancy, but she’d spent most of the day walking the shore by herself, or chatting with Bedevil, or sitting with Archimedes and Linear (who refused to wear a swimsuit and instead wore shorts and a polo) to talk for a while.

In the first month when Jason was working constantly to help repair the damage to Buenos Aires, she looked completely normal. Even now, looking at her straight on it was difficult to tell that she was pregnant. It wasn’t until she turned that her profile really gave her away, showing how much her belly had swollen up. She wore a two-piece swimsuit, apparently unafraid of showing the world her baby, and Jason saw the beginning signs of stretch marks along her stomach.

Meltdown did not sit down. She folded her hands to her chest and stared at Gabe and Bedevil. Jason thought he recognized the look in her eyes, the familiar ache of lost love staring at new love.

Not wishing to confront that thought for very long, Jason reached down to the cooler at his side and pulled a beer out, hoping it would blunt his angst. He acknowledged Meltdown, and said, “I’d offer you one, but something tells me that’s not a good idea.”

Meltdown gave him a strong side-eye. She smirked. “What makes you say that, Flashfire?”

“Please, call me Jason.” He felt that he was slouching and straightened up. For the first time he felt a little embarrassed about how much muscle he’d lost in captivity. “Do you need help sitting down?”

“What makes you think I was going to sit down, Jason?” Meltdown asked. Her right shoulder lifted up in a coy tilt, as if she could hide her face behind it.

“Seems like a waste to walk all the way over here and not sit down,” Jason said. “Your real name is… Ashley, right?” He didn’t know too much about her, other than she was one of the more prominent OPI capes and she used to be married to Wind Rider. That and she looked like she could have been Bedevil’s sister, outside of her eyes, which were bright blue.

Ashley lifted off the sand and floated down, using her power to ease herself into the vacant chair.

“Do you have a name in mind?” Jason asked, gesturing to her stomach. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Ashley rubbed her hand on her stomach, her expression fond but tinged with sorrow. “It’s a boy. I’m not sure. I thought… Jamie.”

“That’s a good name.”

Ashley smiled at him for a moment but she didn’t say anything. Jason smiled back, cocked his head, and wondered what she was thinking.

She gave a small squeal and gripped the chair, and leaned forward as if in great pain. Jason felt as if his heart was going to pop out of his mouth. He had no idea what to do if she was going into labor, and guiltily he thought Epione would know what to do.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t labor. Ashley breathed out and smiled again, settling back into her seat. “He’s kicking. Do you want to feel?”

Jason, surprised she’d ask him that, said, “Sure.”

Ashley took his hand and pressed it against her stomach, underneath her belly button. It seemed an intimate act, and it embarrassed Jason further than he already was, but what else was there to do when a mother wanted you to acknowledge her baby?

Jason didn’t feel anything for a moment, but then gasped as the baby kicked against his hand. Jamie was alive in there and apparently upset about something, but the experience brought a grin to Jason’s face. “That’s amazing. Hey little Jamie!”

Ashley’s smile faded a little. Perhaps the moment was over, Jason thought, and so retreated from her and sat back in his chair. He reached down for his beer, but decided to leave it where it was. He thought that he should quit drinking, as well. Everyone close to him had, and while he understood it, it only accentuated his loneliness these days.

Ashley gazed at Gabe and Bedevil. Jason had trouble telling what exactly she was thinking, now. “I’m happy for them.” Though her sentiment was happy, her expression was pinched and curt.

“I am, too. I never thought he’d be happy.” Though he was also trying to be positive, he couldn’t help feeling glum, too. “I’d never even seen him with a girl until he met Bedevil on the streets, and we didn’t even know she was Bedevil back then.”

Ashley looked very amused by that. She didn’t laugh but her eyes crinkled and her lips twisted into a little smirk. “She was a mask?”

Jason chuckled at the memory. “A really drunk mask that couldn’t stop puking everywhere.”

“It’s strange to me that she was ever engaged to my husband.” Ashley’s pinched expression returned.

“It’s strange that she’s engaged to my best friend,” Jason said. “Who is also a clone of her former boss.”

“Yes, very strange.” Ashley’s voice carried no judgement, no puritanical condemnation. How Bedevil and Gabe met was very strange and how they’d forged a relationship out of their mutual trauma was even stranger, but that didn’t make it wrong.

Jason was always one for stability and for patient moves, for long courtships and borderline chaste dates. Epione had been perfect for that, given her requirements.

“I meant to thank you,” Jason said at last, trying to dispel his thoughts. “I heard that you tried to rescue Gabe in the jungle.”

“Oh, that was nothing,” Ashley said. “He needed help.”

“He’s my brother.” Jason smiled at Gabe, though Gabe wasn’t really paying attention to anything but his dogs and his fiancée. “I’ve worried about him so long. It’s a bit weird, but after everything, I don’t feel as close to him as I used to. On the streets he needed me. Now, he doesn’t.”

Ashley looked like she was chewing on that thought. “I know what you mean. It’s weird to have someone in your life… just vanish, I guess.”

That didn’t strike Jason as entirely fair, so he couldn’t help but frown at her. “I’m not gonna pretend we’re on the same level.”

“Well, I heard about you and your girlfriend. The empath.” Ashley shook her head. “What an incredible story.”

Sure, with the new cape org, there had to be rumors slinging every which way about all of them. They were still figuring each other out, so of course he was the subject of gossip. “Yeah, I suppose. Still, I know Ep’s alive and all. It’s… I’m sorry for your loss.”

He was surprised that Ashley came to the verge of tears. Perhaps he’d just grown use to Epione, who’d never shown much emotion at all that wasn’t calculated. “I’m worried. I’m about to be a single mother, and while I’m a cape and I’m going to be an Inheritor once I’ve had my maternity leave, I’ll still have a child to worry about. And I’ll be alone.”

“We’ll all help. It takes a village, or something like that,” Jason said. He put his hand on her arm, and worried for a brief second that he’d overstepped his bounds.

Ashley wiped her eyes. She sniffled and coughed, overcome for a brief second by her emotions. Then she went back to being composed, and she smiled at him and placed her free hand on his. “I’m glad it’s this village, then.”

Jason felt a thrill in his heart. The frost of isolation thawed. “Me, too.”

3.9.B

Doc waited outside the grocery store, sitting against the driver side door of his Volkswagen, while he refreshed the newsfeed on his phone every three seconds. A bitter wind bit under his thin jacket – ill-prepared for the Colorado fall thanks to the sudden flight from Georgia. The air swam with the pine scent of woods hiding under the cover of late night, and Doc felt the weight of massive mountains looming over the city of Colorado Springs, though he couldn’t see them. Cars passed on the highway near the store single file, their engines no more than a murmur backdrop to the breezes fluttering down from on high.

Doc refreshed his phone again. A few new links, none of which he was really looking for. He waited for news of Megajoule’s fate. He hoped that the hero would conquer, that Cynic would be cast down, her dragon Nero slain, her fortress OPI thrown down and sundered brick by brick.

Another car drove up and parked next to the Volkswagen. The window rolled down, revealing an older man with a face more grizzled than Doc’s own. “You look like hell.” Doc’s brother, Paul.

Doc grunted and put his phone in his pocket. “It’s been one hell of a week.” Drove for three days just to get here, sleeping behind the wheel in back roads, and living off fast food garbage or gas station snacks. The boy Gabe hadn’t taken to it, too well.

Doc looked back into the car, at Gabe’s sleeping form curled up in the back seats, dressed in an extra large Walmart undershirt and gym shorts. Not really a boy, anymore. Seventeen years old, and already six foot two.

“How is he?” Paul asked.

“Asleep,” Doc said. “You’ve got the place set up?”

“Yeah, for a few weeks. After that you’ll have to move. Any idea where you want to take him permanently?” Paul asked.

Doc scratched his chin. “Somewhere big. Springs is too small of a city, easier for him to get noticed. I know I can’t keep him locked in a closet his whole life, but it’s got to be somewhere he can get lost in the crowd.”

“One of the mega cities is safest,” Paul said. He nodded at the grocery bag resting on the hood of Doc’s car. “What’s all that?”

“Real food, for a change.” Doc grabbed the handles of the bag, and opened the driver door.

Paul snorted the trademark family snort they shared. “Cereal ain’t real good.”

“Realer than Hostess,” Doc said. “I’ll follow you over.”

Paul nodded and the car window rolled up, and he drove ahead. Doc followed, his eyes half on the road, and half on the rear view mirror aimed at Gabe. Doc never had kids, but he couldn’t shake this strange worry that he’d look back and the boy would have run, or stopped breathing, or something, something.

Or maybe he’d disappear. Just plain old vanish, spirited away to a better world.

Doc sighed, and drove on to the apartment complex his brother owned. A run down piece of shit clinging to the roots of the trees around it, shrouded in darkness that the street lamps couldn’t banish – spaced so far away from each other their road slipped out of view for a breath before dull yellow fluorescence uncovered it again.

Paul parked by one of the buildings. Doc parked next to him. He looked back, and saw that Gabe was awake, staring at the apartments with wide eyes.

Doc didn’t smile often. He still scrounged a smile up for the boy. “Evening, kid. Sleep okay?”

Gabe, who hadn’t said a word since they’d left the lab, only nodded. He was lucky – those who knew Megajoule intimately would see that Gabe was the spitting image of him, but in a city, just walking around? Too young to make that connection.

“Come on.” Doc grabbed the grocery bag, and stepped out of the car.

The apartment Paul had for them was a 500-something square foot studio, with the only separate room being the bathroom. There was a tiny kitchen that provided low, atmospheric light as they entered, a little couch, and a single bed. Not even a table or chairs, but the kitchen cabinets hid some bowls and cutlery.

“Don’t be too hard on the place,” Paul said, making his way to the door. He left the key on the kitchen counter.

Doc set his grocery bag. He looked at the pathetic contents – a box of Captain Crunch, a half gallon carton of milk, some instant microwave mac and cheese, and bottled water. Hardly a feast, but so much better than what they’d had on the drive. Doc felt an itch in his eyes, and rubbed them. “Thanks.”

Paul snorted, and closed the door.

Gabe sat down on the couch, staring at Doc. The boy didn’t really seem to react to anything, nor did he have anything to say.

“Are you hungry?” Doc asked.

Gabe drew his knees to his chest and hugged himself into a little ball. He nodded. His mop of blond hair bobbed around his eyes.

Doc poured him a bowl of Captain Crunch, and offered it to the boy.

Gabe took a spoonful. On the first bite, his eyes widened, and he threw the spoon down to the floor, and pressed the bowl to his mouth. He tipped his head back and drank-ate his way through the entire thing. He ate it so fast that milk spilled down his chin and into his nose, and when he finished, he dropped the bowl into his lap with a choking gasp. He hadn’t even swallowed all of the cereal, but instead crunched what was left in his teeth uncertainly.

Only then did Doc notice the tears pouring down Gabe’s cheeks. His eye itched, and he rubbed it. What to say? What to say to this boy?

Gabe laid his head against the couch’s armrest, and curled up into himself again. The boy never took his eyes off Doc, even though they glistened. Doc checked his phone’s newsfeed again. Still nothing. He refreshed it for a few minutes, still hoping for some news.

When he looked back up, Gabe had fallen asleep again.

Doc picked up the bowl and the spoon. He found a towel in one of the drawers and wiped Gabe’s face with it, drying the milk and tears. Doc took the blanket from the bed, the only one they had, and covered the boy with it.

Nothing really left to do tonight, but Doc couldn’t sleep. Not even after he’d driven three days straight, not even after eight hours of sleep across those three days.

Doc stepped outside into the cold Colorado night. He still had a smoke left from his stipend at the lab, so he lit it up while he shivered in the dark.

The mountains felt like they would fall down on him any second, the stars felt like he could reach them if he stood on his tiptoes. The pitch black woods crowded him against the door to the apartment, the shadow faces in their bark appraising the guilty man smoking on his porch. His porch for a few weeks.

Doc didn’t want to go back inside, though. Even though the outside world felt so tiny, the inside of that apartment was a cavern. All five hundred square feet a dark pool that he treaded with his chin just above water, and his feet couldn’t touch solid ground. All five hundred square feet an entire god damn universe, and the only people inside it were Doc and Gabe, murderer and victim.

Doc checked his phone again, and found he had seventeen new notifications. The newsfeed had hundreds of articles that all said the same thing, more or less:

Megajoule was dead.

Doc’s eye itched. He shivered.

No, it was tears, and he was shuddering. He was only cold because the fire of the world had sputtered and died.

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2.6.B

Echo put the last touches on her make-up. She felt the fine details sold a costume, hero or vigilante, and she always made the effort to polish those details until they shone. Winged mascara, smoky eye-shadow, it all looked fine under her mask. Black-cherry lipstick put that last dash of pizazz, and Echo felt ready to conquer the day.

She kept her mask in her purse, and wore the rest under her trench-coat, which she’d had fitted by a tailor so she didn’t look like a bell walking around.

Echo texted Crane that she’d be there soon as she road the bus to the Bay hideout. Eight days and they still hadn’t found that little girl Home Run wanted to find. For a guy touted as the supervillain of Houston, he sure seemed to care about hurt kids a lot.

Course, Echo knew that was all baloney. Home Run was a vigilante, just like her. His debut just happened to be spectacular. Any guy that could knock Krater out of the park would make the city stand at attention. Echo didn’t fancy men, but if she did, she mused that she’d go for a spectacular guy like that. No settling.

Echo actually had her eyes on that Remise girl. Echo felt the vibe from her, and those arms! That butt! That accent!

Before she knew it, her bus ride of fantasies was over, and the bus driver called out her stop. Echo thanked the driver for their time and meandered to the Bay hideout. Weird, Crane hadn’t messaged her back yet.

At least the week hadn’t been a total wash. They knew that Pandahead was in the Second Ward. OPI would be making a move on him tomorrow at the latest, and even if he found out, fat chance he could leave the city now. OPI had eyes all over that part of town now, police checkpoints, drones, everything! They’d know the minute Panda poked his head out a window, and thanks to that Drone chick with the Underground, the masks would know a minute later.

The Bay Biters refurbished an old bed and breakfast as their hideout. Not much to say about it, except that it hadn’t seen a guest in over two years, even despite still advertising online. Crane tried to get the thing up and running again, got it in his head he’d stop being a mask and put his strength to good use for tenants or something.

Echo loved the way the place looked in the late evening, though. The plot of land was a few acres of dense woods just short enough so you could see the roof of the building as you approached the fence. Ivy vines tangled themselves in the white fence boards.

The lights were out, strange at this time of night. The building waited in darkness, crowded in by the short trees. Echo didn’t need light to see, thanks to her power. She clicked the roof of her mouth with her tongue to create an ultrasound. The noise bounced all around the dim woods, the house with its rickety porch, and through the open window on the second floor that Crane always left open.

Her heart stopped. Crane, Tamper, Sidestep. Pyre.

Crumpled on the first floor in the kitchen, Crane had a knife in his throat, and Tamper’s head was pulped by the wrecking ball Crane carried. Pyre’s head was twisted around, his arms broken back like he tried to fight. Sidestep’s chest had two gaping wounds at the heart. No breathing, no heartbeats she could discern.

There was another body in a bed on the top floor, no heartbeat or breath. Echo felt them out with her ultrasound.

Also… Sidestep?

Sledge. Shapeshifter.

Normal people had flight or fight mechanisms, but Echo was always calm enough to know which was the better idea. Right now, standing still was the best idea, even as her heart ripped to pieces over the other Biters. She fished past her tube of mace and grabbed her phone, started to type in Remise’s phone number.

Sledge started to breath on the second floor, and their heartbeat started to pound a faint beat. Echo cursed. Their hearing was sensitive.

Echo silently panicked, trying to dial Remise’s number.

Sledge moved down the stairs, and passed Pyre’s broken form in the living room.

The door creaked open, and Sidestep Sledge emerged from the darkness. The costume was torn at the shoulder, and blood stained the fabric all the way down to the crotch. Three holes in the abdomen.

“Stay back,” Echo barked, trying to sound threatening. She may have powers, but she was no match for this person that could kill all three of her teammates. She wasn’t the heavy hitter, that was Crane. Oh, God, he’d never get to run the bed and breakfast.

Tears blurred her vision, so she used her ultrasound to keep up with Sledge.

“When are they coming?” Sledge asked with Sidestep’s voice.

Echo shook her head. “The Underground-”

“OPI.”

Echo closed her mouth. Like she’d tell this bastard anything now.

Sledge clicked their own tongue. “Ah well.” They rolled their shoulders and stepped off the porch.

“I said stay back!” Echo knew that wouldn’t stop him, but the words tore from her all the same.

Sledge did not relent their stride. Their arms crunched like the bones were breaking underneath the skin, and swelled to triple the size.

She had seconds. Sledge had sensitive hearing. Advantage. She couldn’t wound him, but maybe she could slow him down by overloading his hearing.

Echo opened her throat and screamed using her power. The piercing sound filled her ears, and resonated off the windows of the bed and breakfast. Sledge hissed and covered their ears, too late to stop blood dribbling out of their canals.

Sledge locked predator’s eyes on her. The trickle of blood running down their ears stopped.

Next option: flight. Echo turned and sprinted for the fence.

She breathed steadily, trying to control her emotions and stay ahead of her enemy, but when she looked back, she saw that Sledge was right on her heels. She wouldn’t make it to the fence before he ripped her to pieces.

Echo ran through her last option: fight. Sledge still felt pain: they hissed when she’d used her powered scream. She could slow them down with her mace.

Her fingers nimble, Echo reached into her purse just as Sledge hooked an arm under her shoulder. Echo flicked the safety off, turned into Sledge’s murderous embrace, and sprayed the mace tube right into his eyes.

Sledge howled and punched her, sending her tumbling over the fence. Echo stumbled to her feet to run for it. Only a few hundred feet more, and she’d be at the road. Sledge couldn’t get her then.

Just as she’d articulated that thought, Sledge tackled her from behind. Echo screamed again with her power, and slammed every limb she could into every place she could on Sledge’s body. Sledge knocked her around the head, running their forearm along her jaw to control her neck. They squeezed, a vice grip that would break Echo’s neck.

What Sledge didn’t know, is that Echo had fangs.

Echo sunk her teeth into Sledge’s bicep, once, twice, thrice. Sledge snarled and smashed their elbow into her back, driving her into the dirt. She bucked free, squirmed around to face them, and planted her knee into their crotch. If they had Sidestep’s body, they’d have his weak spot.

Except, they didn’t. She met solid pubic bone. Still a meaty blow, but not quite the same as kneeing testicles.

She was out of options. All she could do now was make it hurt, and hope she got lucky.

“Oi! What the fuck is going on here?” Remise shouted.

Sledge looked up, distracted by Remise’s voice. Not keen to let him snap her neck here, Echo screamed again, and bit down into Sledge’s neck hard. Sledge threw her off, toward Remise. She rolled right into Remise’s legs.

Remise helped her to her feet. She was in full outfit, motorcycle helmet and saber at her side. “You okay?”

“Sledge, it’s Sledge, the others are dead.” Echo clung to Remise’s jacket, her legs failing her. She felt a surge of pain as she tried to step on her left foot. She looked down to see the leg was bent wrong, the ankle popped out of socket. The real pain hadn’t started yet.

“Fuckin’ hell.” Remise drew her fencing saber. “Okay. You get outta here. I’ll take care of him.”

Echo shook her head vehemently. “They’ll kill you.” She couldn’t walk, anyway.

“When is OPI coming for Pandahead?” Sledge asked again, this time directed at Remise.

Remise laughed, and stepped forward. “Let’s fuckin’ go.”

Sledge lunged, crossing the gap between them in one powerful jump. They jabbed with their right arm, and Echo noticed that arm was thin and emaciated. Remise stepped out of that blow.

A feint. Echo gasped. Their other arm was huge with muscles. Sledge followed the jab with an uppercut that would break through stone.

Remise dodged out of the combo, slicing her saber along Sledge’s ribcage.

Sledge shifted their muscle mass between limbs as they showered Remise with trained blows. Not a single one connected, Remise moved like a blur. She told Echo she didn’t have super speed, but Echo could see right in front of her, that was a lie.

Sledge did another jab-uppercut combo, a familiar pattern that Remise dodged easy. Echo squeaked when she saw Sledge’s hands had grown black talons at the finger tips, and shrieked when Sledge dug those talons into Remise’s shoulder, straight through her jacket.

Remise stepped into Sledge’s arms, instead of retreating from those claws. She kneed their chest, leveraged the talons in her shoulder to vault up onto Sledge’s shoulders, and spun her saber up over his head. With a flourish Echo couldn’t follow, she sank every bit of that steel into Sledge’s mouth, and then wrenched it to the side, ripping their jaw open in a violent jerk. Blood poured from Sledge’s face.

Remise jumped off Sledge and ran for Echo. She scooped Echo into her arms and booked it toward the road. “If they get close, scream.”

“Won’t that hurt you?” Echo asked.

“I’ll get over it,” Remise said.

Sledge pulled the sword from their face, and threw the saber into the woods. Echo felt her stomach turn as the skin on their face knitted itself back in place, even while blood leaked from their lips.

The wound hadn’t finished closing before he started a mad sprint for them. They were still too far, and Remise couldn’t go as fast with Echo in her arms.

Sledge closed the distance like a supernatural linebacker, running at breakneck speeds that must’ve breezed past 40 mph. They’d be all over Echo and Remise in seconds.

Echo screamed.

Remise slipped a small device out of her jacket. A grenade. Where the fuck did she get a grenade?!

Remise pulled the pin with her teeth, and released the lever.

White, searing light filled Echo’s vision. Echo used her ultrasounds to detect what happened to Sledge: they stumbled in the woods a few feet behind them, the distance increasing as Remise sprinted madly for the road. Sledge rubbed their eyes and cursed under their breath.

“Why the heck didn’t you use that earlier!” Echo shouted.

“Wanted to see if I could kill ‘em,” Remise said. “Now we know I can’t.”

The duo made it to the road, where a van idled. The girl Drone was at the wheel, and Iso sat in the passenger seat. Remise opened the side door and helped her in, and slammed the door behind her. “Get us out!”

Drone put pedal to the metal, and they got the hell out of there.

Echo steadied her breathing as they drove off. The adrenaline and shock would wear off any second, and then she’d feel the pain from her broken leg.

“The other Biters?” Iso asked.

Echo shook her head. She couldn’t even speak.

“I’m sorry,” Remise said.

Echo fought with a frown, swallowed the knot in her throat, but the tears got her, ruining the makeup that had taken her an hour to put on. She held her hand out to Remise, unable to respond to her in any other way.

Remise interlocked her fingers with Echo’s, and squeezed.

Echo coughed, and finally found her voice. “I wanted to hold your hand, but not like this.”

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2.5.B

Epione was aware of everything around her even while she slept. Her dreams used her power to perceive, so she knew that Jason couldn’t sleep at all, even while he stared at her sleeping. His frustration bloomed into her dreams like a vibrant rainbow, a thunderhead flashing with lightning bolts jade, yellow, crimson, navy blue.

Optimism, deep at the center of the storm. A pleasant, creamy orange color, straight from the sun. She’d call it his core, but it was smothered under the shadow of his worry.

He’d been the victim of a group mugging this morning. A Welterweight leader used his power of cohesion to stick their victims to walls while the other gang members stole their shit. One person tried to fight. That one person being God’s perfect little dumbass, Jason.

Epione decided to wake up.

Jason quickly closed his eyes, and pretended to snore. Even in the dark she could see the bruises on his face, the red abrasions on his cheek, and his split lip. The gang did a number on him. She’d soothed his pain as best she could, stitched the wounds that needed stitching, and comforted him.

“I know you’re awake,” she said.

Jason opened his eyes and sighed. “I know. I can never get away with that.”

“No.” Epione reached out and stroked his cheek. She hated touching most people except for him, and maybe Remise on occasion. As she moved to touch him, she noticed the blanket and sheets were gone. Jason lay there in the nude, his wounds and nice abs on display. “Where is the blanket?”

“You were complaining about it in your sleep, so I got rid of it,” he said.

“Thank you.” She hadn’t noticed. Physical sensations didn’t come through to her dream space.

Epione leaned forward and kissed Jason. She pulled him in close. He only moved in response to her: she’d spent five days educating him on how to approach her, how to respond to her kisses and hugs, even her sexual advances. He’d aced the course, so he was the only one allowed to touch her.

The colors swirling around her were pink and silver. The mood was right. She trailed her hands down Jason’s side and smiled for him, his favorite smile. She’d made it just for him.

A trickle of black filtered in through the color. Not from Jason. Someone else.

“Someone’s… here?” Epione said.

The bell chime went off downstairs.

“Hang on.” Jason got up and threw some pajama pants on.

Uninvited guests, this late at night, made her skin itch. Epione wrinkled her nose and stood. She put on a night gown, paused to smooth out the wrinkles, and followed Jason downstairs.

Despair. Pain. Depression. They spread like inky tentacles through Jason’s colors, through Remise’s teal dedication and purple contentment seeping from her room down the upstairs hall. The dark colors fumbled awkwardly around Epione’s gray rock state, tickled at the edge of her being. Whoever was out there was in trouble.

Epione was halfway down the stairs when Jason opened the door.

“Hello?” her boyfriend asked.

Ah, right, a stranger. Epione needed to smile. She brought out the stranger smile, lifted her back and chest, tucked her chin slightly down. Proper posture, Mother taught her that.

A young black girl stood outside in soaked pajamas and sweatpants. The rain slicked her curly hair to her face, where the locks covered her nose and part of her mouth. A single desperate eye looked out at them from the tangle. “Please, please, help.”

“Oh!” Jason said. “Uh, come in?”

“Hello?” Epione asked. “Who is this?”

“I don’t know. What’s your name? Are you okay?” Jason asked the girl, closing the door behind her.

“Ashley.” The girl walked in slow, each step unsure. Black fear still spread from her, but yellow gratitude started to melt through that, mixing with sky blue shades of hope. She eyed the lobby, the paintings, the tile floor. “Wow.”

“What’s wrong?” Jason asked.

“These guys were following me home,” Ashley said. “They followed me in a van. I didn’t have any way to fight them, so I ran, and I knocked on doors until you answered.”

Jason looked at Epione. “Are they still around?” he asked Ashley.

Ashley nodded. “They’re down the street. Waiting. They told me they wouldn’t give up until they got what they wanted.”

Epione didn’t like the colors swirling around her boyfriend. Red rage arced out from him like lightning from a thunderhead, grumbled in an orange cloud of determination above his body, and spilled out with a rainfall of golden courage. All great colors on their own, except maybe rage, but combined in Jason? That meant he was about to do something stupid and there was nothing Epione could do to stop him.

“I’ll go talk to them,” Jason said. His hand smoked, but didn’t ignite. He threw on a jacket, and stepped outside. Ashley stammered and reached a hand out to stop him, but Epione restrained her. When Jason was like that, there was no stopping him.

Epione smiled at her new guest. “Tea?”

“Um, sure?” Ashley said.

“Hang on, let me get you out of those clothes!” Epione fetched one of Jason’s shirts and a pair of gym shorts. He wouldn’t mind, and Epione was so slight she doubted the girl could fit into her night-wear. She returned and gave Ashley the change of clothes. “Bathroom’s on your right!”

Ashley nodded. Deep blue trepidation, worry like bad milk spilling around her. Epione mostly saw colors for emotions, but sometimes she heard music or smelled scents, too.

“Don’t worry! I’ll wait for you!” Epione smiled the stranger smile.

Ashley went into the bathroom and came out a moment later, dressed in Jason’s clothes. “Thanks.”

Remise came down the stairs right after, wearing a flimsy tank-top and pajama shorts. “What’s goin’ on? Who’s the lass?”

“Ah, Remise,” Epione said. “Jason stepped out. Would you go with him? This is Ashley. She’s been getting harassed.”

Remise studied Ashley, and then smirked at Epione. “Be my pleasure. Fret ye not, lass. No one’s gonna harass you after this.” She walked right out of the house, indecent as she was, cracking her knuckles the entire time.

Ashley shook her head. “Are they… capes? OPI?”

Epione smiled, the only thing she knew how to do. “Nope! Jason hates OPI.” She had a joke for such occasions. “Besides, the Japanese say they’re a bunch of boobs.”

Light blue confusion spread out from Ashley, a sickly aura that shrouded all the other colors.

“Boobs?” Epione asked again. “Oppai?”

The confusion only grew in size, spreading to the rest of the room. Ashley turned her attention to the other parts of the living room, to the TV, to Epione’s broken movie player, and to the kitchen.

Epione was sure that joke was funny. Remise had liked it! Then again, Remise was a polyglot. “Tea?” Epione asked again.

“Yes,” Ashley said.

“Hungry?”

“Yes,” Ashley said, and Epione saw that was true: pink desire flowed from Ashley’s stomach.

“Okay!” Epione went into the kitchen, boiled water in her auto-kettle, and made rice in her fun steamer pot that walked around and cheered when the rice was done. She returned to Ashley with two bowls of steaming hot rice and oolong tea.

Ashley looked at the bowl. “Thank you.” Her gratitude returned, and she took a spoonful.

Epione knew how to make friends, her mom had taught her: find something to bond over, and then talk about it! “I’d offer you a movie to watch, but my player is broken. We could watch TV, I guess.” The problem was that Epione wasn’t very good at talking to people, so she usually had a movie or a TV show ready to go, and they’d be friends afterward, when they could talk about the show.

Ashley put the bowl down. “Let me look at it.” She walked on her knees over to Epione’s entertainment stand and looked at the player. She pressed the on button. The little LED screen lit up, displaying only 000000. Ashley closed her eyes.

Her colors vanished, and Epione’s player started to give off colors, instead.

“Oh!” Epione said. “What are you doing?”

Ashley didn’t respond.

“Hmm,” Epione said. She ate some more rice and watched while the player ebbed determination and other odd flashes of emotion. Suddenly, it whirred, and the colors snapped back into Ashley.

“A bug in the code,” Ashley said. “Not a hardware issue, so I don’t have to get into it.”

“What did you do?” Epione asked.

“I can… put my mind in machines.”

Epione felt a genuine surge of admiration. She hadn’t cut admiration off from her psyche; she didn’t get that emotion very often, and it wasn’t a powerful one, so she felt safe to revel in the respect she now had for Ashley. “That’s the coolest!”

Ashley pursed her lips. “Thanks.” Behind her head, Epione felt that Ashley didn’t really mean the thanks.

“What’s wrong?” Epione asked.

Ashley’s eyebrows raised. Surprise, Epione felt. “Uh, nothing.”

“No, I can tell, you’re upset. About what I just said.” Epione knew she was pushing that. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about her powers, besides Jason. Well, she wasn’t even supposed to tell Jason but she wasn’t going to keep that from her boyfriend.

“It’s just… when people find out what I do, they just want shit from me.”

“Oh, I see!” Epione didn’t quite get that, but that was okay. She’d learned it was better to say ‘Oh, I see!’ than ‘I don’t get it.’ “Well, I don’t want anything from you!”

Ashley eyed up her house. “Yeah, you probably don’t want much, huh?”

“No,” Epione said. “I don’t want much, you’re right.”

Ashley gave Epione an interesting look. Her emotions led Epione to believe she found Epione odd.

The door opened, and Jason and Remise returned.

Remise went into the kitchen, and Jason sat on the couch next to Epione. He had a black eye, a split lip, and his knuckles were bloodied. He looked at her, his emotions expectant, and offered his hand. Epione nodded to allow him to touch her. Jason placed a hand around her shoulders.

“So, that was your brother, huh?” Jason asked.

Ashley squeaked. “H-how did you know?”

“Oh, he had plenty to say when we kicked the shit out of him and his friends. Told me anything I wanted to know!” Jason grinned and reclined on the couch. A victorious splay of gold and orange shot up from his colors. “But worry not, young lady! He won’t bother you again!”

“Too bad Gabe couldn’t be here for tha’,” Remise said, returning from the kitchen with a beer. Her knuckles were bloody, too, but she had no other marks.

“He’s on the way, he was up when I called,” Jason said. “Told him someone might need our help.”

Ashley’s face was blank, but her colors were a tempest of different emotions. Guilt, disbelief, gratitude, hope, amazement. Sadness. Anger.

“She’s powered!” Epione blurted. She put a hand over her mouth. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

Ashley shook her head. “No. It’s okay. I am.”

Jason grinned. “That’s cool. We are, too, in case you couldn’t tell.”

Ashley nodded.

“We can’t want anything from her,” Epione said, winking at Ashley.

More confusion, and a splash of amusement.

“What’s your power?” Jason asked.

“Machine telepathy,” Ashley said. “I can put my mind in machines.”

Glee bloomed from Jason’s colors like a mushroom cloud. “No way. That’s so cool.”

Ashley chuckled, the first positive movement Epione had seen her make. That gave way to a neutral expression. “So… are you vigilantes?”

Flashfire smiled. “No. We are but noble freelancers. Tell you what. I’m guessing you came here because you don’t have a home to go back to, right?” Jason asked. He looked at Epione. “How do you feel about picking up another member?”

“It’s your Underground, darling,” Epione said. She patted his hand and gave him the Jason smile, the one that was just for him.

Jason turned with excitement oozing out of his aura to hash the details out with Ashley.

While he talked with Ashley, Epione ran over her lines for Flashfire’s banter in her head. He’d call her the money, she’d joke about his true motives. They gave that one to Gabe, and it seemed to go over well. She could do jokes! That Oppai one was good.

“So, it’s settled,” Jason said. “Now, you just need a good code name. Like mine, Flashfire.”

“Um… I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

“Oh!” Jason said. “What about… Televathic!”

Epione didn’t like that. She smiled politely at Jason and shook her head.

“Yeah, I knew it as soon as I said it. Machine Mistress? Circuit?”

“Drone,” Remise said from the kitchen.

Epione nodded. “Drone.”

Ashley furrowed her brow. Her colors told Epione she was concentrating on that, considering it, warming up to it. After a handful of seconds, she said, “Yeah. Drone.”

“Welcome to the Underground, Drone,” Jason said.

“It’s gonna be so much fun to have you here!”

“Have me here?” Ashley, now Drone, asked.

“Of course! You need a place to stay, don’t you?” Epione asked.

“I didn’t…” She stopped. Her eyes welled with tears, but pure, vanilla joy radiated from her head in a beautiful halo. “You don’t have to…”

“No,” Epione said. She got up from the couch and went over to Drone. “But I’m going to.”

And, as mother taught her to do when someone did something very nice for her, Epione threw her arms around Drone in a bear hug. She swapped out the stranger smile for the Underground smile. The friend smile.

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1.3.B

She rode the elevator up Titan Tower to Megajoule’s office. Nineteen years old, and she was being recruited onto the greatest ever superhero’s team. Bedevil! Megajoule’s Spunky Crimson Sidekick!

Er, she scratched her arm. Maybe not that. She still had time to decide on a theme. Or OPI would decide for her. Or Megajoule, even! Maybe he’d have her wear a costume like his.

The elevator walls were glass, so she could see the city on her ride up. New York sprawled out before Titan Tower in all its glory. No other city like it in the world. Not Sao Paulo, not Toronto, not Beijing. Not even London or Houston could compare to New York. The Titan Tower was the tallest in the world. But the next twenty tallest skyscrapers? They all shared the same road in New York. A threaded network of sky rails draped over everything, entangling New York in a web of fast-moving shuttles; the highways cut through the heart of the city before heading out into the country. She thought of them like tendrils spreading out to the rest of the UWC. Like her power. Everything was connected.

The elevator took over a minute to get from the lobby to Megajoule’s office. Her heart pounded as the floors approached 136, the floor dedicated to Megajoule’s team. She’d never seen him in person. Only on the posters in her room, the screensaver on her computer, the background of her phone.

Oh, shit. She needed to change the background of her phone.

She scrambled through her photos for a picture of her mom, and changed the wallpaper just in time. The elevator beeped, and the doors opened to her destination.

She swallowed, held the phone to her chest, and stepped out into a lime green lobby. Cool air conditioning washed away the stagnant smell of the elevator. A secretary lady sat behind a desk.

He was already there, walking up to her with a big smile on his face. Just like his posters. He was older, just over forty, but he’d aged like her mom’s wines (her mom used that phrase a lot about attractive older men.) “Ms. Dawson?” He held his hand out. His arm was super muscled.

Deep breath. Smile, like mom showed her. “Yes! That’s me.” She took his hand. His grip was firm, but his hands were softer than she thought they’d be. “I came as soon as I got your call.” The wording of that was… oh. Uh. She tried to stop her cheeks from flushing.

Megajoule grinned at her. “Oh, no need to be so bashful. Every one of my teammates was like you when they first showed up, until they figured out I’d work them to the bone.”

‘Please work me to the bone,’ she thought. Good grief. He was twice her age.

“Come on, let’s go talk,” he said. He whipped around like a man on a mission and led her into his offices.

The main room of his headquarters was a huge, open space concept, a command center and break room all rolled up in one. There were four desks slammed together, bearing monitors bigger than her dad’s wall TV. There were notes and files strewn everywhere. The smell of coffee wafted from a kitchen in the corner, beside which was a small door with a sign that said, “Bathroom Broken, go downstairs.” A plush Godzilla doll dangled from an indoor basketball set.

It was like one of those start-ups run by guys in their twenties, tweaked out on cocaine and Adderall: walls painted in vibrant colors, so you knew the company culture was whaaaacky! A TV played some old movie from the 20th century.

Three people hung around the office. A grim-faced woman Bedevil knew for Templar sat at the desks, reviewing psych evals of villains. She had the power to shape flesh. A boy about her age with wavy surfer’s hair all in his face played with the indoor basketball set, but Bedevil didn’t recognize him. He must’ve been new.

Bedevil recognized the man brewing coffee in the kitchen. Longinus, Megajoule’s right hand man for a long time. His power was technically cruiserweight, but only because he needed to be reading from a Bible to activate it. He could fly, he could shoot beams of light, and call down fire from the sky. Nearly as invincible as Megajoule himself.

“That coffee better not be decaf,” Megajoule said as he walked into the room.

Longinus turned his attention away from Megajoule. “It’s not decaf, but you don’t want any. It’s my special brew.”

Special brew? Now, what the hell did that mean?

“Let me introduce you to my merry band of rapscallions. The only one who’s actually doing her job is at the computers. Templar.” He pointed to her proudly, like a dad pointing at his first born, straight A student.

Templar saluted to Megajoule, and nodded at Bedevil. “Welcome to our office. Good luck on your interview.” She refocused on her work, ignoring them after that.

Megajoule grinned at Bedevil. “She works hard. Unlike some around here.” He led her to the young man playing basketball from the comfort of a bean bag. The boy swept his hair out of his face and rose to his feet. He extended an awkward handshake, and smiled. Bedevil took his hand.

“Wind Rider,” he said. “But, uh, you can call me Jamie, if you stick around.” He grinned. Bedevil thought he was kind of cute, in that young, adorkable “I’m not very good with girls” kind of way.

“If you end up joining, you’ll replace him as our youngest,” Megajoule said.

“Oh? How old are you, Jamie?” Bedevil asked.

“19,” he said. “But don’t be fooled. I’m gonna be as famous as boss.”

“Not playing basketball, you won’t,” Megajoule said. “Maybe go help Templar.”

Jamie smiled sheepishly and went to do just that.

“Last but not least, the man who should need no introduction,” Megajoule said, taking her to the kitchen, “Longinus.”

Longinus looked around the same age as Megajoule. He wore glasses, had a slight receding hairline, and a half-smile that seemed caught on a sad thought. He raised his coffee cup to Bedevil as a salute, and Bedevil saw there was a marijuana leaf emblazoned on the side of the cup.

Oh. Special brew.

Longinus took a sip and grinned at her. “So, you’re the telekinetic wonderkid, huh?”

Bedevil stammered and hid her hands behind her back. Ever since one reporter called her that, everyone called her that. Pure telekinesis was super rare as a power, and so everyone treated her like royalty over it. Except her mom. “I- I guess.”

“Don’t worry,” Longinus said, “I’ll only call you that every day. Wonderkid. Have you thought about that as your superhero name?”

“Actually, it’s Bedevil,” she said.

Longinus took a swig of coffee and swirled it in his mouth while he looked up at the ceiling in thought. He smiled and looked her in the eyes. “I like it. Bedevil. It fits. Much better than Wind Rider.”

Jamie, from his seat next to Templar: “I heard that.”

“You were supposed to hear it, it’s why I said it.” Longinus raised the cup at Bedevil and said, “Good luck, wonderkid.”

Megajoule smiled at her. “You ready for the interview?”

She was ready to explode, that was for sure. She settled on a polite nod, instead.

Megajoule took her up a set of stairs to a smaller room that overlooked the main space. He closed the door behind her. A horseshoe shaped desk filled this space, with one chair on either side of each prong. He gestured for her to sit at the closest chair, and took the one opposite her.

“So,” he said, pulling open a drawer. He locked eyes with her, and her heart hammered. “Why do you think I chose you to interview?”

“W-what do you mean?” she asked.

“Don’t get me wrong: your power is certainly a good fit for a Lictor class team. You’re definitely powerful, but at the heavyweight level that means little. You’re one of the youngest candidates I had. You’re also inexperienced in any real heroics. You went through Basics, like everyone, but your field training was peaceful.” His eyes… the look… it was severe. Not the kind man she’d met at the elevator. Not the man joking with his teammates. A man with the world on his shoulders.

“Uh… I’m… I’m not sure. Are you gonna tell me?” she asked.

Megajoule stared at her for another moment, and then pulled a stack of papers from his drawer. “Hollow Emirates and Brittle Continents: Comparing the assimilation efforts of the United Arabian Emirates and the United Western Continent. An Analysis of Peter Erikson’s Moral Imperative of the Tribe.”

“That’s… my senior essay from high school?”

“It is,” he said. He licked his finger and flipped open a page. “Insurgencies are present in both the Emirates and in the Mid-American countries. The fervor is based out of different places: for the Emirates it’s a holdover from the myriad of ultra-conservative religious terrorist groups created by the wars and political situation of the late 20th and early 21st century, and in Columbia and Venezuela the independence sought by drug cartels and threat of violence spur the people to resist UWC control. Both countries have used supers in their suppression efforts. Both countries have faced heat from the UN Councils and their own people over this fact.”

He flipped to a different page. “Power consolidates. Through the Imperialism in the last millennium to NAFTA which ultimately led to the foundation of the UWC, nations absorb each other as society becomes more globalist. This becomes an issue for those on the bottom: the massive structures above them bear little resemblance to their original cultures, and the tribalism reacts in violence to the threat of extermination by absorption. Insurgency is born out of that fear. Erikson argues that this is not an immoral or unethical action. In fact, he argues it’s an ethical obligation on both parties to survive. That one side wins and the other loses, to Erikson, doesn’t matter. That’s his great Moral Imperative of the Tribe.”

He turned the essay to the final page, paused for a moment while he looked over the passage. She waited for him to speak. Every word he said he examined and considered, and his thoughts had great weight, even if he quoted her. “And what of the loss as these conglomerate nations take in all around them? What are we giving up connecting everything under one government and flag? Erikson argues that the less fragmented humanity becomes, the less borders and cultures, the more innovation and profundity we’ll lose. Philosophy, religion, art, music. To Erikson, it all becomes distilled into populist swill. Mass appeal becomes the highest goal of any creative endeavor. We lose the spark to that.”

Megajoule set her paper down, and met her gaze again.

“I… Heh… I wrote that the week before it was due.” That fact embarrassed her, but she figured it was better to be honest with her future boss.

“Yet it seems you’d been thinking about the topic for a while. They let you choose what your senior thesis was about, right?”

She nodded, trying to quell the butterflies in her stomach.

“You didn’t really pick a side, in your paper. You didn’t come down hard on either the Emirates, the UWC, or the insurgents resisting their control.”

“Picking a side defeats the point,” Bedevil said. “Both have their reasons for doing what they’re doing. Erikson-”

“I don’t care what Erikson thought, I care what you think.”

He cared what she thought? “I think it’s hard to say. Nothing’s black and white. But you can’t sit on the sidelines, either.”

“So, which side would you pick?” Megajoule asked.

Bedevil could barely think about anything but his face. Chiseled jaw, five o’clock shadow, baby blue eyes. With a metric ton of discipline, she rubbed a few braincells together. “I can’t choose a side when I don’t agree with either one. Can I start a new side?”

“You’re refusing to answer the question?”

“So would you,” she said.

Megajoule grinned. “Wow. You’re the first interviewee to ever accuse me of something.”

“No! I’m not accusing you of anything!” She buried her head in her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Megajoule stood up. “No! It’s fantastic. Tell me, why did you apply? I mean, I get it, so did twenty thousand other people. But what made Ruby Dawson want to come here and become Bedevil?”

‘Well, if I’m completely honest about why I applied, we’d be having a very different conversation.’ Of course, she kept that to herself. “I don’t care about money, or reputation, or a resume. I want to help you make the world a better place.” She hoped she appeared earnest. She really did believe that. Megajoule was the one hero that really had a vision for a better world.

“You’ve got a good brain, kid. Are you hungry?”

Bedevil nodded. She’d go anywhere with this man.

“Come on,” he said, grinning. “I know a great ramen place.”

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