Category Archives: Volume Three: The Fight You Lost Before

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?

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

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.”

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

3.12.1

ARC 12: FACADE

After Templar and Bedevil accept each other’s presence, they sit across from each other on the benches, both making a careful study of their former friend. Maisa slumbers with her head in Bedevil’s lap and Epione is blessedly asleep herself.

I take my place next to Bedevil. She places her hand in mine.

Templar notices and arches an eyebrow at us. “When did this happen?”

“We met working as masks,” Bedevil says.

“You were a vigilante?” Templar asks.

Bedevil nods. “I am one, really.”

“How’d that happen?”

Bedevil sighs. Her grip tightens on my arm. “Just got fed up, one day. Needed to be somewhere other than my apartment, and OPI was turning a blind eye to some gang issues I’d noticed while patrolling. Ran into him while he was out hunting for Tim Prince.”

Templar doesn’t have much to say to that. We sit in quiet and I listen to the plane’s quiet hum. Maisa sleeps with her head in Bedevil’s lap.

Archimedes comes out of the cockpit. “We’re in the clear. The White Shark’s stealth is on, and once we clear Mexico we’ll dive and really be undetectable. I’m sure they’ve scrambled fighters but they don’t know where we’re going.”

No, we’re not that far south. We can’t be. “Mexico? What about Galveston? What about my friends?”

“That’s too risky,” Archimedes says.

“Bullshit it’s too risky!” I surprise myself with my shout. I don’t want to scream at the person who just saved me, but I’m not leaving my friends to die.

“Gabe, calm down,” Bedevil says. She tugs on my hand.

“Listen, I get that you want to gallop in and save the day, but right now, that prison they’re at? I had to change the signal to shut down the facility. The entire facility. It turned into a prison riot.” Archimedes shakes his head. “If we take a detour we will get caught. Cynic will take you back. This time, she’ll put a bullet in everyone here. Including you.”

“They’re my friends,” I say. “I can’t leave them.”

“If they’re smart, they’ll get out fine,” Archimedes says. “We’ll meet up with Oracle and we’ll work out how to get the Underground.”

Linear taps the wall by the cockpit door. He’s drilling a hole in the back of Archimedes’ head with his glare. “Arch.”

Archimedes snaps a glare back at his companion.

I don’t know what’s going on, but the looks they exchange are dark and terse. “What?” My voice is weak. My heart is weak. There’s an ax blade falling but I don’t know why.

Archimedes covers his mouth with his hand. He strokes his unkempt beard and looks everywhere but my face. “Gabe. There’s no easy way to say this, but not all of your friends made it into OPI custody alive.”

The invisible ax strikes me right in my skull, splitting me in half down to my toes. I am ejected from my body, a ghost adrift from time and space. “Ah.”

“Oh my God,” Bedevil says, somewhere very far away.

Archimedes shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Gabe.”

“W-who?” I’m not even sure if I said that or if the words just materialized from the void I find myself in, echoing from my corpse to Archimedes.

He lowers his head. “A woman by the name of Sarah Reyes. Mil-dot.”

Lugs, poor Lugs. His sister. But I can tell from Archimedes’ tone that there’s more than one death. “Who else?”

“Ashley Phillips.”

Work wife.

Drone.

Her name is a second ax blow across my soul. I drop to my knees. I know I am screaming but I can’t hear anything at all. Bedevil’s grabbing my arm but I can’t feel it. I am a ghost inside my body. I am a ghost.

I am not here, I am a ghost.

“Gabe,” Bedevil whispers. “I’m here. Please come back.”

There’s another person in the void with me. Bedevil cradles my body in her arms and hums into my ear. I follow the thread of her song back to my skin, slowly filling out my arms and legs.

My stomach climbs up my ribcage. I bawl, drowning in mucus and tears, drowning in sorrow. I could have saved them. Mil-dot and Drone are dead because I wasn’t strong enough.

I weep until I can’t weep anymore, until I’m sure I’m dehydrated. A water bottle floats over to me and uncaps itself. “Here,” Bedevil says. “Drink.”

“I-”

“Drink,” she says with more force.

I take the bottle and sip at it. A little water awakens my thirst and I drain the whole thing in three gulps. The bottle floats from me when I finish and Bedevil caresses my head. “C’mere.” She pulls me into her arms, pulls my head into her chest. Her heart beats a steady rhythm and warm energy flows from her skin. I cling to her shirt and breathe through a stuffed nose.

My cheek turns wet and I realize I’ve soaked her shirt. “Sorry.”

Bedevil strokes my hair and murmurs, “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“It’s my fault,” I say. “I should have died, instead.”

Bedevil lifts my head gently. She wipes tears from my eyes so she can look into them. “Gabe. I spent a lot of time thinking that, too. About you know who. It’s no way to live. The best thing you can do now is live the kind of life they’d want you to live.”

“I don’t… I can’t think that, right now,” I say.

“Okay. Don’t think. Just rest. Do you want the bench?” she asks.

I rest my head against her chest. She embraces me again and hums. Her heart vibrates and beats, her entire body is a song of comforting heat.

“I’m here,” she says again. “Sleep.”

I close my eyes.

When I open them again, I’m standing in the woods behind Echo’s property. The stars struggle against the abyss of night, barely maintaining their light. Megajoule stands in the dark, staring up at the sky. He reaches his hand up for it and the stars begin to wink out.

“I’m weak,” I say.

Megajoule’s face is unreadable in the dark. “No.”

“Drone died on my watch.”

“You fought hard, and you fought well,” Megajoule says. “Sometimes, that’s not enough.”

“I was stupid,” I say.

“You can be smarter,” Megajoule says. “Drone was smart.”

The clearing between us might as well be an entire universe. My legs push through the molasses of a dream, every step takes me farther away from him.

Megajoule’s voice bounces across the trees, echoing from the void above and the ground below. The words reach me from across the gulf between us: “You’ll do better next time. You can do better. I know you can.”

The dream lurches and shatters. I sit up out of Bedevil’s embrace, disturbing her slumber. Maisa’s, too, who had rested her head on the bench close to Bedevil’s shoulder. All three of us blink sleep from our eyes.

Templar and Linear are in the cockpit. Archimedes is sitting on the the opposite bench, one beady eye studying a tome as wide as my fist titled, “Ethical Arguments for Cannibalism,” and the other eye watching Epione hiding her face under Bedevil’s shirt like she’s a snoring tiger. Both of his eyes lock in on me as I climb to my knees. “Morning, sleeping beauty.”

I grimace at him and put my goggles back on.

“Here,” he says, pulling my glasses from his pocket. “I actually have a few of your belongings. Your laptop, some of Bedevil’s things.”

I take my glasses back with a simple nod. I really can’t manage words right now.

“What about my animals?” Bedevil asks.

Archimedes doesn’t look at her. “Sorry. There was no trace of them on the property.”

Bedevil nods, acting stoic, but I see the telltale chin wobble that will lead to full on sobbing in a few moments. Her composure’s already vanished, conquered by glistening eyes and a reddened nose. I try to comfort her like she comforted me. I pull her into an embrace. “We’ll find them, too.”

“We’re almost home free,” Archimedes says.

“When are we going to go back for my friends?” I ask.

I know I can be one-track, sometimes, but Archimedes pulls a bitchy sigh like I’m one of those students that literally never shuts up. “Listen. We’ll handle that. You need to keep your head down for a while. Until we can find a way to pull Cynic off her throne for good, at least.”

“How long will that take? Years? My friends don’t have years.” I don’t want to keep my head down for a day, let alone years. “What about the Fear? I can’t take a day off with that still out there.”

“We’re doing this because of the Fear, Gabe.” Archimedes closes his book, punctuating his statement with a mean glare.

“Explain,” I demand.

“Where do you want me to begin? Because the explanation will take days, and we land in ten minutes.”

“Give me the ten minute version, then,” I say. “The cliff notes. Not even that. You put everything on the line to save me and Epione, specifically. Give me the thesis sentence for why.”

“You’re already insufferable.” Archimedes stands up and chews his lip. “You want a fucking thesis statement, Gabe? Here’s one: 57,322.”

A number means very little without context, so I wait for him to provide some, and I try to look angry about being made to wait.

“That’s the number of people the Fear has killed across seven separate incidents. One of these things appears, and on average, it kills just over 8000 people. That is our enemy, and we have no idea how many there are, what they are capable of, or how to fight back. You and Epione both faced Rorschach head on, alone, and beat it back. More than that, the three of you killed Rorschach at the airport. We need you.”

“Then why not just let me take Cynic’s offer?” I ask.

Archimedes grows impassioned; his arms wave frantically as he continues on. “Linear foresaw our chances of defeating the Fear with Cynic at the helm of things. Without you, her chances are so infinitesimal-” he demonstrates with his thumb and forefinger pinched together- “that there are more zeroes behind a decimal point in that number than there are people in prison in the UWC. And with you on a leash? Her chances roughly double.”

My mouth is dry. With her in charge, we lose.

“But if you’re free? If Epione is free? If Cynic doesn’t get her insane way and starts wiping people’s superpowers? We stand a fighting chance. It’s not much, but it’s a hell of a lot better than a number I could safely assume as zero.” Archimedes concludes his monologue by rubbing his temples, looking every bit the part of exhausted school teacher. “So, there’s your thesis statement. You’re important enough that I need you to be well out of Cynic’s reach until we figure out what to do with her.”

I see his reasoning but I hate being sidelined. “Why can’t I help you fight her?”

“You likely will,” Archimedes says. “But that’s not a fight we start tomorrow. We’re starting a revolution, Gabe, not a single superpowered brawl.”

“You want to topple all of OPI,” Bedevil says.

“Or at least change out the king,” Archimedes says.

Bring it down, Megajoule said. “Okay.” I bow my head. “Okay. I’m good with this.”

“Good, princess, is there anything else I can get for you?” Archimedes asks.

I open my mouth to speak, but Bedevil snarls over whatever reply I was about to fire off. She floats to her feet and right up to Archimedes face. She says no words, but Archimedes’s eyes bug out of his skull, and his arms and legs snap together as she trusses him up by her power. “One more word and I break your fingers and toes, you arrogant prick.”

“Hey!” Templar barks from the cockpit. “We’re here!”

I reach my hand to Bedevil’s shoulder and tug her away from Archimedes. He falls out of her tendrils, panting and pale. Bedevil doesn’t let up from just yet. She jabs her finger at his face. “That’s a standing threat. If you ever talk to any of my friends like that while I’m around again, I’ll turn you into a cripple. Learn some god damn respect.”

Woof.

“Hey, Bedevs, ease up,” I say.

Archimedes spits. “I saved your asses.”

Bedevil’s hand finds my chest. “And from what you just said, he’s gonna save ours. Maybe you should act like it instead of treating him like a child.”

Archimedes rolls his eyes. “The tough girl routine is nice-”

His hand rips up into the air of its own accord. His little finger starts to bend back.

Bedevil wears a gargoyle’s face. “Oracle can wipe memories. Maybe she can make you forget the pain.” I couldn’t punch a hole through the tension in the air, no matter how much energy I put into my fist.

“Okay!” Archimedes shouts. “Okay!”

Shit, I have to stop this. “Ruby! Enough!”

Archimedes’ hand drops down.

The White Shark shifts as we land, and the rear doors open, mercy-killing the electric atmosphere. I heave a sigh and glance back at Maisa, who’s only got eyes for Bedevil. For a second, I take her wide-eyed stare as fear, but then I see it for what it really is: admiration. Maisa watches Bedevil like zealots watch a priest.

Gotta admit, that’s number two for hottest thing she did today, even if she almost broke our rescuer’s fingers.

Archimedes retreats outside without a glance our way. Templar and Linear emerge from the cockpit. Linear looks at Bedevil. “If you’d broken his fingers, it would have had a strong chance of breaking our new alliance.”

“I wasn’t gonna.” Bedevil crosses her arms. Strange, her scowl is becoming cute to me. I don’t want to be one of those boyfriends that thinks his girlfriend is cute when she’s angry, but that ship mighta sailed. “He just needs to learn some damn respect.”

Templar snickers. “You almost broke Lock-Stock’s fingers, too. What is it with you and fingers?”

Bedevil grins. “They’re easy to break.” The grin dies when she looks down at her right hand, to her own missing fingers. Only stumps remain at the knuckles, enough that she might be able to grip a pencil or pen between her palm if she tried, but not enough that she’ll ever use the hand normally. “Guess I know that for a fact, now.”

Templar furrows her brow. “I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would have made them recover your fingers. I could have reattached them.”

“Mighta been hard,” I say. “The house burned down.”

“I’ll live,” Bedevil says. “Not like I can’t get on without my right hand.”

I feel the need to hug her. I whisper into her ear. “Thank you.”

Bedevil’s left hand snakes behind my back and rests on my butt. She grins again. I’m not sure I’ve seen her smile so many times in a row. “Besides, I still have my left.”

Outside the White Shark, the view takes my breath away. Dusty-green hills rise around our landing zone, and to our right, a huge lake lazes beneath the sun, scintillating like a sheet of blue diamond just at the foot of mountains that rise so high their caps are crowned in white snow. The air reads quieter, the movement of energy slower and weaker.

Bedevil and Maisa start shivering as soon as they step out of the ship. We’ve traded in Houston summer for mountainous winter. I draw in gravity and let myself radiate a moderate amount of heat.

“Wow,” Templar says. “That’s very nice.”

“He’s amazing,” Bedevil says.

I barely hear their words. A woman stands at the edge of the landing zone, half immortal goddess and half frayed human. Her eyes blaze like pale stars. Long dreads flow down her shoulders, over her sweater, nearly down to her hands. Her black skin is cracked and wrinkled from age, and her mouth is twisted into a tight frown.

I would never forget her face, as if she herself had branded the memory in the deepest places of my mind. I saw her time and time again in the lab.

Her name is Oracle.

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3.11.7

Archimedes, Linear, and Maisa arrive a few seconds after I lie to Epione, finding me squatting down, my hands on my knees. Archimedes squints his eyes and stares at Nero’s corpse. “I could recommend a great therapist.”

I flip him the bird and breathe in gulps, still trying to catch my breath.

Someone shouts down the hall, beyond the edge of my goggles’ night vision capability. A huge patch of light fills the right side of my vision where I hear the elevator burning. Metal squeals and groans, and a cable snaps. “Where do we go now?” I ask.

“There’s a pavilion on both sides of the tower.” Archimedes waggles a key card. “Follow me.” We escape the soldiers stumbling around between the elevator bonfire and the dark, running down a short hallway that ends in double doors shuttered by steel guards, likely a security measure that Archimedes tripped.

“Gabe,” Epione says. “Are you sure you’re okay? I can see your colors and they’re all… dim.”

I can think of a good number of reasons why that’s the case. “I’ll be okay. Can we talk about it when we get out of here?”

Epione tilts her head. “You’ve never been this dark before.”

Linear works the door over before I can reply. We rush out onto the pavilion.

We rush right into Templar, flanked by two soldiers who instinctively raise their rifles at us. We are frozen in the amber of morning sunlight, no one dares to move, only to breathe. The balcony pavilion is large enough that I couldn’t get to her and her goons before they got a few rounds off. There’s dozens of tables and chairs in my way.

Templar gawks at us, her platinum-silver hair a shining halo, and she almost looks radiant. I catch a glimpse of the woman she must have been six years ago when she was Megajoule’s sidekick. No armor, she’s only in casual clothing.

Templar holds her hand palm out at me. Her eyebrows knit, and I see in her ice blue eyes the wish for peace.

One of us has to say something, so I call out to her. “I can’t go back in there, and I don’t know how you can, either.” Might as well go for the throat.

The two soldiers eye each other and Templar. I could take one with an air blast and be on top of the other before he had time to finish squeezing the trigger, but I don’t want to risk my friends getting caught in the crossfire.

“Nero’s gone, Templar. Just let us walk away.” I’m actually a little bit nervous about fighting her. The slightest touch of her skin would be enough to set off her power and I’ve got no defense against her.

“He’ll get back up again,” Templar says. “And he’ll hunt you down.”

“Not this time,” I say.

Templar’s eyes dart to Epione and back to me. “She only borrows powers.”

“Templar, I’m either leaving or dying,” I say. Now that I’m out, I know I can’t go back in.

“Then…” Templar falters. She closes her eyes. “Then that’s how it is.”

“If I die,” I say, “Will you send Bedevil a text, too?”

Templar’s eyes open in shock.

Just as those words leave my mouth, the railing off the balcony groans and gives way, and the pavement cracks, and a gargantuan white aircraft crests over the edge, wings as long as a house, the rear doors turned to us and opened. Bedevil stands proud with an intense look of concentration on her face. I’ve never been happier to see her, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so turned on.

“Who’s piloting…” Linear trails off. The damn aircraft isn’t even on. The VTOL engines on the wings make no sound, there’s no telltale hum of electronics or power.
She’s lifting the entire White Shark with her telekinesis.

One of the guards turns and opens fire on Bedevil. I kick off, the other guard takes shots at our group. I leap over to the one shooting at my girlfriend and conk him on the head, and whirl around, ready to dance out Templar’s grip.

Templar’s got her hands on the other soldier. His arms and legs are bent back at broken, awkward angles, and she sets him on the ground. “It’ll wear off, soldier. I apologize.”

“Ep-Epione is hit!” Maisa shouts. “She’s-”

I look up just in time to see Archimedes snatch her away from Epione’s crumpled form. Linear dives away.

An explosion scatters the expensive tables and chairs, and sends smoking pieces of cement and plastic flying at us. I form a kinetic shield and stand in front of Templar, shielding her from the lion’s share of the debris.

Before the dust settles, I rush over to Epione. She’s alive, and wherever that soldier tagged her, I can’t tell. But her face is locked in an expression of horror, and she gazes up with wide, green eyes at the morning sky, her mouth working but no sound coming out. I don’t touch her, I know she hates that. “Are you okay? Nero’s power. It must have worked.”

She’s not glowing, though. There’s no fire in her eyes, her skin isn’t glowing like his did right after he resurrected.

Templar’s words reverberate. She only borrows power.

“Armor… broken…” Epione wheezes. She locks my wrist in a death grip. “Power… back… to Nero.”

I’m not ready for another rematch with Nero. “I’m gonna carry you,” I tell her. “Arch, get that White Shark started!”

“He’s already on it,” Linear says behind me.

I scoop Epione up into my arms. A horrendous shriek tears from her lips the second I touch her. She writhes, trying to squirm out of my arm. Her composed expression and model beauty devolves into a feral snarl, and for my efforts to carry her I am rewarded with full handed slaps and a knee in my chin. Please, I think, forgive me, Ep.

I haul her over to the edge of the balcony while the White Shark’s engines roar to life. Bedevil pulls Linear and Templar into the White Shark and then her tendrils wrap around me and Epione, and lift us to the rear doors. There’s a brief moment of vertigo as I look down and see Houston’s streets a thousand feet down, and then my feet touch down on metal.

The inside of the White Shark makes me feel like I’m a bottle of beer on the inside of a cooler. There’s very little in the way of comfort, only a bench along each wall, broken only by a side door on the right side and a gun rack on the left.

The door to the cockpit hangs open, and Archimedes and Templar sit next to each other. They seem to have an uneasy camaraderie already, as if neither of them can believe the other is involved in this jailbreak, but now that they are, they’re in it together.

Bedevil floats Epione over to one of the benches and lays her down there. She’s got a look of relief, her lips tremble and her eyes glisten. Her hair dangles in her face and she reaches up with her right hand to brush it out of her face.

The fingers of her right hand are gone, along with a chunk of her thumb. The skin isn’t scarred, though, and almost looks newborn. Healing of some kind.

The pavilion explodes. Glass shrapnel pelts my back before Bedevil covers me in her tendrils.

A gaping, burning hole has replaced the doors to the balcony, and Nero emerges from the dark, awash in his unholy fire, muscles swollen with light. He roars and points his finger at the aircraft.

“Punch it!” Linear shouts.

The OPI tower shrinks rapidly as we soar into the and g-forces threaten to pull me out of the ship. If it weren’t for Bedevil’s tendrils I would have tumbled out of the White Shark. My stomach turns with the huge acceleration. The wind shrieks louder than Bedevil, shouting for me in my ear.

The balcony erupts with fire. Nero shoots at us with everything he’s got: his fire goes out and the light in his body dies like he ran out of energy, but he flies so fast that I can hear his furious roar in seconds. He reaches a hand out for the edge of the rear door.

And falls past it, missing his target by mere feet. The rear doors close, shutting off the wind’s howl and replacing it with a pleasant hum from the White Shark’s engines.

I need to make sure she’s okay, that she’s alive, and that this isn’t a trick. I rush to her and bear hug her. Bedevil sobs into my shoulder and squeezes onto me — the fingers on her right hand, is she mimicking them with telekinesis? — and we hold each other for a moment.

“Are you okay?” I don’t let her go but I stroke her hair.

Bedevil sniffs and clears her throat. “I’ll have to learn how to sign my own name again.” She rubs my back. “Nice suit.”

“They didn’t hurt you?” I ask. I step back and get a good look at her. Outside of her hand, she’s unhurt. They dressed her in a black t-shirt and some sweatpants, but she doesn’t have any shoes on.

“I don’t know. I woke up when Archimedes came for me.” Bedevil shudders as she regains herself from sobbing. “They didn’t hurt you?”

“A little, but you know me. Doesn’t stick.” I see Archimedes and Templar arguing for a second in the cockpit, Linear peering over their shoulders. “Do you trust them?”

“Isn’t it a little late for that?” Bedevil asks. “I know of them. One of them makes a lot of the OPI tech.”

“Archimedes.” The Archimedes Bullet. He’s one of the very few people who have a superpower related to technology. It’s why, even thirty years on from the Anarchy, the world isn’t some technological paradise or wasteland. So few have that gift, and what they do make, no one knows how to reverse engineer. I’ve read of tech that stops working when the person who made it dies.

“I don’t know if I trust them but I don’t know if we have a choice.”

“We could jump out the back door,” I joke. Maisa watches us. When she sees me looking, she averts her eyes. Epione — Poor Epione — is catatonic on the bench. I need to check on her.

Bedevil snorts a laugh.

“I can kinda fly, we’d probably stick the landing.” I smile. I can’t bring myself to let go of her yet; like if I do, she’ll vanish. “We could go anywhere. We could be anyone.”

Her nose wrinkles up, her eyes flood. “I could help you live a normal life. We could go camping. We could sail on a boat, you don’t even have to do anything, I can just use my power to work the rigging. I’d show you my home, you could meet my mom, we could drive up the west coast. Have you ever been?” She can hardly talk anymore, it’s slurred with tears.

I wipe a tear from her cheek. “You had this fantasy before.”

Bedevil stares past me at something distant, but whether it’s a hopeful future or a golden past, I couldn’t say.

I want to hear something good right now. “Tell me.”

Bedevil exhales. “There’s the Golden Gate Park. We could go there. We could boat on the lake, or look at the flowers.” She sniffles, smiles, and looks a thousand miles away, to sunny California. “They have trails, I love trails. We could share earbuds and listen to songs while we walked.”

“We could go bowling. Eat hot dogs and bad nachos.” She laughs. “I’d cheat with my powers. They’d kick us out.”

I smile. I see the bowling alley in my mind’s eye, I see Bedevil grinning at me as she floats a bowling ball in the air toward the pins, and wiggles it around until she gets a strike.

“And there’s this awesome ramen place near my house. We could eat there.”

“I love ramen.”

“I lo-” Bedevil catches herself. She purses her lips and glances away. “I know.”

I know better than to press her if she doesn’t want to say something. Instead, I kiss her. Her lips are soft but salty from tears, and I’m reminded of our first kiss. The only missing ingredient is Everclear.

We part. “Ep needs us.”

Bedevil nods.

Epione looks like she’s trying to recede into the bench while she stares at the ceiling of the fuselage. Her lips tremble, tears stream from eyes so wide they could pop out of her skull. I squat down next to her. “Epione?”

Epione makes a horrible sound, somewhere between a hiss and a scream.

“Is she okay?” Bedevil asks.

“She borrowed Nero’s power.” One of the soldiers actually shot her. I think she actually died. The realization strikes home, a hammer nailing an anvil. “God, she died, Bedevs.”

Epione’s eyes fix on me. Her face scrunches and she bangs her head on the bench. “G-G-G-Ga-Gabe. Hu-hu-hurts. Ev-Every…” she trails off, giving up on speech.

“I’m here. Is there a towel or cloth anywhere?” I ask.

Bedevil floats her shirt over to me. I glance back at my topless girlfriend, but I guess now’s not the time for modesty. I place the black cloth over Epione’s eyes. Bedevil starts to hum softly.

A wave of anxiety and panic washes over me. I can even feel it happen, like an actual wave, and I can tell it came from Epione. Unlike last time, the intensity of this emotion isn’t overwhelming me.

I turn to Bedevil. “She’s trying to hold it in.”

Bedevil squats down next to me. “Crap.”

“Yeah, crap.”

Maisa brings the shirt I was wearing to Bedevil. “Here.”

Bedevil smiles. “Thanks.” The shirt nearly swallows her but it does the trick.

“What now?” Maisa asks.

“That’s a good question.” Templar emerges from the cockpit. She lingers on the threshold and her hand clings to the wall. She’s not looking at me, but Bedevil. “I…” Her words die in her throat.

“Six years,” Bedevil says, rising to her feet. “Six years.”

“I know,” Templar says.

Bedevil’s voice rises. “Six. Years. You stayed right where you were, but me they swept under the rug.”

“I know.”

“Not a god damn word from you in two years, not since Bella Villa. Not a god damn card, not a god damn call, not even an email or a text.” Bedevil floats over to her ex-teammate and jabs her finger into Templar’s face. I’ve only ever seen her like this once; the night I saw those messages from the Houston Heroes after she tried to chase down Warspeed. “How fucking dare you?”

Templar raises no defense, no argument. I can only watch this unfold, watch Bedevil’s rage bubble to the surface. For a brief second, I worry that Bedevil will try to kill Templar from the darkness on her face.

“I spent years trying to drink myself to death because of what happened and you didn’t have the guts to try and stop me.”

“I know!” Templar shouts suddenly. Her face twists with fervent sorrow. “I’m sorry! I’m ashamed, is that what you want? I abandoned you and I wanted to reach out but I didn’t and that’s… that’s on me.”

Bedevil chokes on her next barb.

“That’s on me,” Templar repeats. She thunks her forehead against the door frame, sinks a little but stays standing. “It’s always been on me. I let you down, Ruby.”
Bedevil grimaces and retreats from her teammate. She speed walks into my arms and hides in my chest. I don’t know what to say, so I just wrap my arms around her, but even so, I don’t take my eyes off Templar.

“Why did you flip?” I ask.

“Really?” Templar raises her eyebrow. She’s not crying, but I don’t think she cries very often. Instead, her face just sort of sags. “You said the magic words.”

Will you send her a text, too?

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3.11.6

Archimedes and Linear sprint ahead through the grand hall of the 28th floor. I carry Maisa and bound after them using kinetic energy. The sharp footfalls of soldiers in boots echo on the metal flooring behind us. Not just soldiers. OPI capes, too. I look back and catch a glimpse of someone in white armor. Primum.

I reach for Nero’s body but bullets ping around me and Maisa, so I focus on getting her out of there.

The main hall is vaulted, practically a cathedral, except instead of confessionals and pews there are research labs and rows of computer desks. We dash through a break area with brightly colored tables, red, yellow, green, and wow, these guys even have their own kitchen with a microwave.

Linear swipes a card at a panel. “They’ll know we just used these stairs.”

“God, what all do they monitor?” I ask.

“Every single fart,” Archimedes says, holding the door open. I rush in and he slams it behind us. Linear is already halfway up the next flight of stairs.

“You said Linear’s power gives you some percentage of success?” I warp up the stairs, still holding Maisa. She squeaks as we land.

“My power is data processing,” Linear says, now behind me. “I can retain vast data sets from a quick glance, fit the data, and form conclusions on it. This also applies to real life scenarios. I get a percentage chance of an outcome based on the variables I know about any situation.”

“It’s not precognition, then.” I let Maisa down and we climb the next flight of stairs. “You okay?”

“I”m okay,” Maisa says.

“No,” Linear says. “Just really good data analysis. My power does give me way more input than normal people get, though.”

“Nifty. So, what’s our chance of success right now?” I ask.

“I never answer those kinds of questions in the middle of the event.” Linear is surprisingly fit for his build. He reaches the top without much sweat. “It can affect the outcome.”

“Fair enough.” I think about all of the variables Linear would have to consider. All of the soldiers and OPI heroes in our way, Cynic. Nero. “I shouldn’t have left Nero down there. If someone kills him, does the sedative wear off? What if he comes for us?”

“Now that I broke his suit and you have the one Archimedes made, your chances are much more even,” Linear says.

Actually, this could work out. “If he shows, Epione could steal his power. What do you think would happen if she stole it and I killed him? Would he stay dead?”

Linear shrugs. “Archimedes has been studying how powers interact like that, but I don’t think even he knows.”

Archimedes arrives a few seconds later, heaving and gulping for air. “S-sorry. Not used to running up stairs and fiddling at the same time.” He holds up his watch. “Hang on.”

I stand back as he approaches the door. Linear accesses the panel next to him while he holds his watch against the door, and both work technology above my pay grade for a few seconds. Archimedes splits his attention between the watch and me. “As for Nero, getting Epione to take his power is a good idea. He should stay down if you kill him and Epione has the power.”

“Any tips on fighting him?” I ask.

“He needs to die to recharge, so if you can exhaust his energy and restrain him without killing him, he’s a regular person.”

Linear slaps the panel and grins. “Okay, no one can open the doors below us now, and we won’t set off any alarms when we open doors.”

“There are people on this floor. About a dozen heartbeats,” Archimedes says. He waves his watch at me. “Nifty little thing, isn’t it? I modified it from your Underground watch.”

“Is this a rescue or the high school science fair?” I am perhaps a touch impatient to save Epione and get the fuck out of here.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Archimedes says.

“Sorry, just really don’t want to get captured again.”

“You have night vision on those goggles?” Linear asks. “I can knock out the lights and give you an advantage.”

I crack my knuckles. My time to shine.

“Okay, you clear them out, and we’ll come in behind you to make sure they stay down,” Archimedes says. “Epione is in room 2914. When you go in the hall will split into two, go left.”

“Left.” I drop into a runner’s stance and draw in energy from earth’s gravity.

“Go!” Linear opens the door.

I blast into the room. My night vision flips on as soon as it detects I’m in the dark, and as I soar through the hall I see armed guards and Primum running around like ants whose hill was just kicked.

I can’t deny I’m feeling slightly vengeful but I try not to take it too hard on these goons. The armed guards in black armor are probably FIS operatives or just soldiers, so I hit one of them first with a spinning kick, and pinball from him to one of the Primum in white armor. One flurry of blows and he’s down for the count. I break his leg with a kinetic jab to his knee and move on. The entire time I drain energy from gravity to keep me floating like a butterfly and stinging like a fucking rhinoceros.

A hail of bullets catches me on the shoulder and chest, giving me a small burst of energy. The soldier that shot me doesn’t seem to know what he’s aiming at. Probably tracked me by sound.

I surge the heat inside to my hand and will it through the palm of my right hand, and aim the glove at the soldier. I try to restrain myself so that I don’t obliterate him but the whole glove lights up and a beam of white, searing light slices the pitch dark in half, catching the soldier through his gun and arm. The gun clatters to the ground, half melted, and the soldier falls back, his gun arm smoking. He ain’t dead, though.

I vault over him and plant a kick into his chest to knock the wind out of him, and follow up with another, lighter kick along his jaw to keep him down.

The display gives my temperature at roughly 12,000 °C. Last time I held this much I was shining and felt like I was squatting three hundred pounds. Thanks to the suit, I’m not even glowing and I only feel lightly strained. Even more, the suit took no damage from those bullets. “This thing fucking rocks.”

Okay, to my left, 2914. These rooms look smaller and they definitely aren’t research labs. Judging by the furniture I see when I glance through a window, they’re private quarters. 2906, 2907, the numbers blur past until I charge right into two of the Primum standing outside one particular door. 2914.

I knock one out by slamming his head into the door and follow through with a fist in his gut, crashing through the door with his body. Not reinforced metal, just a regular locked door for Epione.

The other Primum snakes his arms around my torso and wrestles me down. I use my power to stay on my feet, pushing us back into the wall behind him. I wedge him between my body and the wall, but he walks his feet up the wall, his arms still hooked around me. I let off a huge burst to try and crush his ankles.

He doesn’t budge. Crap, he must have super strength or resistance.

I change tactics and grab his neck. I roll forward and shoot him off me down the hall. From there, I see him stumble around in the dark as he tries to gain his bearings.

Epione pokes her head out of her door. “Ah, Gabe. I’m excited to see you,” she says, her voice completely flat, trademark smile barely discernible in the green haze of night vision.

“How’d you know it was me?” I ask.

Epione looks at the wreckage of her door. “I know your colors.”

“For the record, I’m glad to see you, too. I’m gonna pick you up, okay?”

Epione nods, so I scoop her into my arms and vault through the hall. Through gunfire and screams we arrive back at the stairwell to find Linear looting a shotgun an unconscious guard. Archimedes and Maisa are crouched together behind the door, and Archimedes argues into his watch.

“The controls aren’t that hard, didn’t you get piloting lessons in Basics?” Archimedes asks.

Bedevil growls over the comms. “Why the fuck would I have taken piloting lessons in Basics?”

“Okay, then I’ll walk you through the start up sequence, okay?”

“Fuck that,” Bedevil says. “I’m bringing the Shark to you. Can you blow a hole in the walls anywhere?”

An explosion at the elevators rips through the darkness, shears metal and stone, and fills the hall with fire. On instinct I throw up a kinetically frozen disk of air in front of me and my allies, and energy floods in as heat and debris pummel the shield.

Nero rips through the smoke, shirtless and screaming, fire chasing him in an after trail of hell-terror. His face contorts into a gargoyle’s grin. “Gabe!” Smoke billows out of his mouth with his howling cry. Claws of roaring flame, muscles of glowing steel. “Round two!”

I can’t let him make this personal. I can’t afford mistakes. “Epione, I’ll wear him down! When you see an opening, take his power!”

The fire sheds enough light that my goggles switch to normal view as I speed toward Nero. The air pops and sizzles with his furious attack, his fists sing with every haymaker. The flames envelop me, reminding me of the burning office building I ran into. The scars on my hands ache at the memory.

I dive into Nero’s hellfire and seize his arms at the wrists. We rocket away from my friends, who would sear into well-done versions of my friends if we fought near them. Nero erupts with energy and haymakers; I do my best to eat what I can and dodge the rest. The suit’s temperature soars up, up, up, until I’m pushing 50,000 °C in my core. But I don’t set the air on fire around me thanks to the suit. We’re barely radiating at all, though I am shining like crazy.

I can barely make out Nero’s form in the crimson light cloaked with smoke, so I wait. His massive well of energy also puts off a lot of heat, scrambling my heat sense beyond use. I wait for the opportunity to hit him hard and force him to use his energy to negate my attack. I duck and warp around clumsy haymakers that would shatter concrete.

Misstep, Nero’s sound barrier breaking fist sinks into my gut. The suit vibrates as energy flows through me. The ground cracks under my feet as I channel the kinetics below. Even though I’m much more skilled at diverting energy, one of my ribs is almost certainly broken.

“This is how it ended with Megajoule, too! Fire, blood, pain! I died a hundred times!” Nero shrieks. He leers at me and leans his face forward. “How many times can you kill me before I finally get you?”

I grit my teeth and strike, my patience rewarded by Nero’s brazen stupidity. I jab across his jaw and put so much energy into it that my thermometer drops a full 10,000 degrees. Doc once told me that Megajoule chose his name because a megajoule of energy is roughly equivalent to both 500 °C of heat and a one ton car hitting a target at 160 km/h.

Twenty fucking cars. Twenty fucking tons at over a hundred miles per hour into Nero’s stupid face.

Energy rebounds up my arm but the bonfire wreathing Nero sputters and dims. I divert the energy and drive forward.

“Show me some teeth, Gabe!” Nero cries. The guards scream and run, they can’t even get close from the intense heat.He straightens his form a little, no longer indulging in reckless attacks but putting effort into controlling his strikes. “Doc put up more of a fight!”

I want to snarl, scream, and swing for the fences. I want to murder him. I want to put him down and let him get back up again so I can keep putting him down. Rip him to shreds over and over. God, I want it.

Deep breaths, Gabe. I clench my jaw and suck it up.

I bob and weave on weightless feet while Nero peppers my guard with strikes. We move through the darkness away from the burning elevators. My night vision flickers back and forth between the dim light that Nero casts from his body. I stumble from the rapid fire distractions, giving Nero the opportunity to slam me into a wall. He wrestles with me, kicks off with another explosive jump, and we fly down the hallway.

Nero kicks me hard, blasting me away from him. My back hits a metal door so hard I sink into the iron, setting off a siren behind the door. Nero is on top of me a second later, his fist shrieking through the thick iron.

His fire dies, and his body is only glowing, now. Not shining.

His grin is gone. His eyes are frantic.

I grab his collar and shove him off me. “Got you, motherfucker.” I follow my declaration by beating the everloving shit out of Nero with lightly enhanced punches, waiting for the moment I feel his energy give way. Waiting for the recoil to drop.

Nero swings but his fists don’t pop the sound barrier. He kicks but there’s only human power behind it.

I gut-check him hard, no kinetic energy, just my own muscles.

There’s no kickback this time.

Nero pulls a knife from his own boot and puts it to his neck.

I shoot it out of his hand with one of my kinetic air blasts and grapple him to the ground. “Epione! I’ve got him!”

Nero bucks and wrestles. “Let go of me!”

“Fuck you!” I shout.

Nero bites at my cheek, knees my groin, jabs his fingers under my goggles. Every dirty trick in the book. I grab him by the scruff of his neck and keep him down by kinetically enhancing my strength.

“Let. Me. Go!” Nero growls and bucks.

I keep him down.

“I’m here!” Epione shouts, running out of the dark. Nero shrieks one more time right as she grabs his face.

Epione recoils, gasping, and Nero yelps.

Without a word, I indulge on my darkest desire. I make Nero feel everything Doc felt in his last seconds. I punch three holes through his chest and twist his neck with a searing hand, I flow heat into his body until he sizzles and blackens, until the skin bubbles, boils, and pops. Nero’s scream is inhuman as he dies.

I throw his mangled body at the wall, crunching every bone I can. Like a kid throwing their doll away.

“Gabe, are you okay?” Epione asks.

I gulp air down while I stare at Nero’s body. I wait for him to regenerate and get up. I wait, every heartbeat hammering on my anxious mind.

At least half a minute passes and Nero hasn’t become anything other than a mutilated corpse.

Epione doesn’t take her eyes off me. Her expression is still almost level, but I can see the tiniest spark of uncertainty, worry. The tiniest hint of fear. “Are you okay?” she asks again.

My ribs flare where Nero nailed me. I swallow the blood and spit pooling in my mouth. There’s a wave of relief as I realize the plan worked. Satisfaction at avenging Doc.

A hint of fear at my own brutality. At what all this fighting is turning me into. And I know Epione can see all of that, and will know that I’m lying:

“… fine… I’m fine.”

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3.11.5

I catch a few hours of sleep after Templar leaves. If it’s manipulation on Cynic’s part, it’s a damn good one. The best one she’s put up. I still pocket the idea of suicide, even if I’m pretty certain I don’t have it in me. Yet I can’t imagine my spirit breaking and living with OPI’s leash.

Both ways are impossible to me. There must be a third way that I can move forward, save my friends, and oppose Cynic. I refuse to be beaten into suicide or submission.

The world needs me. It doesn’t need my corpse and it doesn’t need me cowed. I could accept Cynic’s offer, to stay alive, and then break free as soon as I saw the opportunity.

She probably knows I’m thinking that, and has plans for it. So, I have to plan that she’s planning for it.

Plans upon plans upon plans. She’d see every single one and dash them. Like being able to see through your opponent’s cards. That mind-reading is awful. You’d need some sort of power to block that. I wonder if there are any counters to her telepathy.

I gaze out the window of my prison. The tiles would freeze to my feet if I was anyone else, the glass would stick to my hand like a tongue on an ice pole. I think this place was a research lab re-purposed into a holding cell. It’s a good counter. I could draw from gravity, but I bet the slightest shift in the energy I store would set the sensors off. I wonder if I could use my power on myself? Disintegrate my body with kinetic energy? I’ve never tried.

The sun dawns over Houston and swallows the skyscraper neon signs in early morning light. This city loves me, according to Templar. The world loves me. I’m a hero in their eyes.

Flashfire once said that Megajoule was the last good hero, and maybe he was the only one. Could I ever be like that?

If Flashfire ever looked at me like that, I’d feel like a real hero.

“One thing about that,” Megajoule says, standing next to me. “You should be wary of hero worship.”

“Where have you been?” I whisper. I don’t want to draw Nero’s attention by having a full blown conversation with Mega right now. “Actually, no, how do I get out of here?”

“Have you seriously been considering suicide?” Megajoule asks. “Would you really spit on my legacy like that?”

“I… I wasn’t trying to be selfish. But Cynic could use me to take superpowers away from people.”

“She could use Epione, too. And that girl does not have the ability to kill herself, trust me,” Megajoule says. He rolls his eyes. “No, you just need to think around the problem a little harder. You’ll figure it out.”

God damn it, old man, give me something to work with. “Don’t you have any advice? Any pointers?”

“You just need to drive forward a little harder. You think Nero got to where he was by easing up on the throttle? You need that same tenacity that drives the man beyond death.”

“That’s his power,” I say. “That’s not fair.”

“Does the power shape the person or the person shape the power?” Megajoule asks me, parroting Epione’s words.

He’s right. I need to think. I sit down on the bed and find that I’m alone again.

The speaker buzzes again. “Got a bit of cabin fever, eh? Talking to yourself?” Nero asks.

“Fuck off.” I stand up and stretch, and drop to the ground to do some push-ups. Might as well stay sharp and keep my blood flowing. I’ve got to think around this. The trigger will kill my friends if Cynic is to be believed, and I don’t see what I could do to stop that. Unless there’s a way to fritz the whole system. The problem would be disrupting the signal without setting it off, first. If I could draw electromagnetic energy, I could stop that, but I can’t.

“Working out?” Nero asks.

“Fuck off.”

Nero chuckles. “You seem to be getting more defiant. That’ll get your friends killed.”

“But maybe we’ll get another go,” I say in between reps. “Isn’t that what you want?”

Nero laughs.

I move to do crunches. The exercise clears away all my doubts and negative thoughts. My sweat freezes the instant it hits my skin. Very weird effect.

The speaker buzzes after a few minutes, while I work on my handstand. “Hey, you’ve got another-” Nero cuts off, the speaker dies. The door opens with a loud hiss.

I fall to my feet. Curious, I walk over to the door. I haven’t been able to get a good look at the hallway beyond without my glasses. I press my face against the window and try to peer to the right, where I think Nero is stationed.

I see two people standing over a slumped body. They pry at the fallen one’s form but I can’t tell what they’re doing beyond that.

One of them leaves the other to their work and I recognize him as he approaches.

Archimedes. He carries a bundle in the crook of his arm and quietly passes by the door, standing just to the side. He fiddles with something I can’t see.

“What is this?” I ask.

I can barely make out Archimedes chewing on his mustache as he fiddles with a panel. “An escape attempt, doofus.”

The other person walks over, pieces of black metal in their hands. They’re much smaller than Archimedes, and as far as I can tell, are wearing the same outfit. “I broke it.”

“Ah, well, Cynic can send us the bill,” Archimedes says. “If she can find us.”

Oh shit. Oh, shit! “You’re trying to spring me?”

“Good, your eyes work,” Archimedes says. “Though probably not well without your glasses.”

I glance over at the slumped body. My heart’s pounding. A chance, a real chance. “Nero, is he-”

“Nope,” the small guy says. “I sedated him. He won’t get up for a while.”

“When we open the door, we’ll need to hurry.” Archimedes pulls a panel plate away from the wall. “Sorry to rush you.”

“How am I supposed to trust you?” I don’t want to get led by the nose into a trap.

Archimedes stops his work and stares at me, and I make out that he’s actually an expressive guy in that he’s looking at me like I’m an idiot. “I just knocked out your jailer.”

Admittedly, this would be a very weird manipulation. Even so, I’m going to look this gift horse in the mouth. “Tell me.”

“We were sent to rescue you. We’ve organized a resistance against Cynic, one that she can’t detect.” Archimedes shakes his head. “Linear, get the girl out.”

The other person, I’m assuming Linear, nods. Linear drops the pieces of Nero’s armor and trots away to Maisa’s prison.

“How can she not know about this?” I ask.

Archimedes resumes his work. “Cynic’s power extends over visual feeds and pictures. If she has a recording she can read your surface thoughts during the video. Pictures give her your thoughts at exactly the second the picture was taken, but that’s useless for the most part, since people concentrate on posing for pictures typically.” Archimedes maneuvers wires and circuitry as he talks to me. At least, I think those little blobs in his hands are wires. “There’s a limit to it, though. If she can’t see your face, she can’t read your thoughts. Ever wonder why ‘heroes don’t wear masks?’”

Holy shit. That explains all the insane CCTV stuff in the last decade and the rule. Cynic became director during all that stuff. I wouldn’t doubt she’s the source. “You’re not wearing a mask, though.” I squint at him to bring his face into more focus. “I don’t think.”

“No. The other way I know around her power is to forget what you don’t want her to know.”

“How could you just forget?” I ask.

“The leader of our little resistance has the power to make people forget,” Archimedes says. “I’m sure you’re familiar with her. Use your brain.”

There’s only one person I know who could manipulate memories. The woman who put Megajoule in my head. “Oracle? She died!” I read the articles. But that would be perfect, wouldn’t it?

“That’s what the people who were there remember, anyway,” Archimedes says. “It’s what I usually remember until certain dates where we’ve arranged to meet her. She’s very careful about masking herself from Cynic, and she’s waited this long to put her plan into motion. Step one is getting you out of here. So, are you in? Or should I even bother?”

If Oracle is behind this, I need to meet her. “I’m in. What about my friends?”

“The Underground isn’t in the tower, so there’s not a lot I can do about that,” Archimedes says. “The only reason I was able to get Bedevil away was that Cynic held her here. I hope you understand that was a considerable extra risk on my part.”

I push against the window. “Where is she? Can I talk to her?”

Archimedes taps his watch, and says, “Bedevil, could you talk to your boyfriend for a moment?”

“Gabe?” Bedevil shouts over the watch. “You’re okay!”

“Oh, thank fuck.” Relief floods through me. “How are you? Did they hurt you?”

Bedevil starts to sob over the comm. “No. I’m okay. I’m hiding in one of the White Sharks in the hangar.”

“I’ll be there soon. Which floor are we on?” I ask Archimedes.

“28th,” Archimedes says. “Once I get you out, get this suit on. I made it to help us escape and to enhance your power a little. It’s only a prototype so it won’t be perfect.” He taps the bundle in his arms.

I wait, heat gathering in my heels. I bounce and pace, just waiting for the door to open.”What about my friends? Isn’t this place wired to kill them?”

Archimedes pumps his fist. “It was, until just now. Now the signal will set them free, instead. We can change the temperature now. Cynic will still know you’ve been busted out, but hopefully, we’ll be gone before she sends anyone our way.”

“We’ll be at the hangar by then,” I say.

“No, we actually have to go up first. Epione is on the 29th floor. We absolutely can’t leave her. You’ll have to deal with her guards. Neither Linear nor I are fighters.” Archimedes taps something and the temperature around me shifts. The panel blocking me from escape slides back. “Get out, that’s dangerously cold for us.”

I jump out and the panel door slides shut. Archimedes shoves the bundle in my arm.

“Just strip down and slide into it. It will fit itself to you.” Archimedes fishes in his pocket and hands me one more thing: my goggles from my mask. “That should remedy the eyes thing.”

The suit is a gray and black leather suit. The material is sturdy and porous, but thin, almost like a second layer of skin. I strip and jump into the suit from the back, like a pair of long john pajamas. Once I pull the suit up to my shoulders, the material vibrates and shrinks to my form, almost so tight it resembles a class spandex superhero costume, except for the collar, which is thick and armored, and projects a holographic display of my current temperature. I start to absorb heat and watch that number climb.

“No need to be careful,” Archimedes says. “The suit is a thermal material that can store a good amount of heat itself, so you don’t do that thing where you light up. I based it off your clothes from when you were in the lab, made with your own power.”

The suit moves exactly like another layer of skin, so much so that I can barely tell I’m wearing anything. I draw in as much heat as I can take without lighting my skin up, and fill the suit at the same time. The material fills with energy, and the thermometer reaches the tens of thousands of degrees. “How long did this take you?”

“About six hours, but I had preliminary designs done for weeks,” Archimedes says. “I just needed your measurements.”

“While you were needling me about Bedevil?” I ask.

“That was actually on purpose, I swear I’m not just a dick.” Archimedes coughs. “I needed to know how likely you were to escape without her. According to Linear’s power, she drops our chances of escape by about 10%.”

“Still kinda sounds like you’re a dick,” I say.

“Do not be rude to your rescuers,” Archimedes replies.

Linear returns with Maisa, who cries out, “Gabe!” as she sees me.

I smile for her. “It’s going to be okay.” We still need to be careful. Archimedes handed me a key, but I’ve got to bust through the door myself.

I slide the goggles on and the world snaps into sharp focus at last. Once I have my vision back, I take stock of the people around me. Maisa is unhurt, dressed as she was right before Echo’s property was raided. She rubs tears from her eyes.

Archimedes wears an extremely unkempt beard and looks as if, once, long ago, he had an extremely enlightening realization about the average intelligence of the people around him and stuck with the expression that followed ever since. That said, he’s taller than I am and about 250 pounds, not all of which is muscle.

Linear, Arch’s diminutive counterpart, runs around Nero’s body like a chicken with its head cut off, hands knitting his shirt in worry. They both wear the same blue polo and gray slacks like they came from the same retail store or something.

Archimedes grabs my arm and fiddles with the fabric around the wrists. I noticed the gloves are padded in a circular pattern in my palm. “One last thing. These gloves are inspired by the dead man walking over there. If you channel energy through the glove, it’ll shoot off a beam.”

“How?” I ask.

“My power lets me mimic other powers in tech,” Archimedes replies. “That’s incredibly unscientific, I know, but again, that man over there can come back from the dead.” He points at the sedated Nero. “Now, come on. Let’s go extract Epione.”

Before I can reply, an elevator dings behind us.

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