Ep 10: Bright Catacomb

          I just stood there, feeling the tip of the barrel against my head. I knew I should be running, should be pushing Marisol down, trying to get away, to at least survive the next few seconds, but what was I going to do, really? I couldn’t believe this woman was actually going to kill me, and if she was, well, maybe this wonky alien watch would come through with another force field, or some other way to protect me.

          “Wes, I’m sorry,” she said again, a stormy vibrato running through her voice. I knew that if I looked over at her, there would be real, regretful tears running down her face.

          I took a breath, tapping furiously at my watch, just in case it didn’t yet sense the urgency of the situation. Spectros watched me, a corpse’s smile cutting through his face. He held his hands in front of him, and for a moment, I thought he was about to lay them on his chest.

          But he didn’t.

          There was a click, and a choked exclamation from Marisol. I felt the gun leave my temple, while Marisol fell forward onto her knees, and vomited all over the floor.

          It took me a few seconds to realize that I wasn’t dead and probably wasn’t going to die in the next few seconds. It was enough to make me want to add my own vomit to Marisol’s.

          Well, that and the smell.

          Spectros just grinned at us.

          “You bastard,” I said, not sure on whose behalf I was the most outraged. “You gave her an unloaded gun?”

          “We did,” Spectros said. “We couldn’t let her kill you, of course. We may need you alive if we are ever going to unlock the secrets of the armor.”

          “So you … so this was … just a joke? What was the fucking point of this?”

          “We needed to see how far Miss Reyes was willing to go.”

          “I did what you asked!” Marisol wiped her mouth on her shirt sleeve as she got up on her feet. “It’s not my fault what you gave me. You have to take me to him now!”

          “Did I tell you that I wouldn’t? Why so angry?”

          As the wall between us and Spectros opened, Marisol turned to me and whispered, “I thought your watch would save you. I never thought you would die …”

          “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I would have done the same thing.” I’m not sure that’s true, but whatever.

          She winced as she accepted that half-hearted absolution. As soon as the wall shut once more, the light flicked off and Spectros guided Marisol out into darkness.

          Leaving me with a spreading puddle of puke that didn’t even belong to me, which just fucking figured.

          I went to one of the cell’s eight corners and sat down there, resting against the walls. Before I had been grateful for the company, but now I was glad to be alone, if only for a few minutes.

          Ok, so a little more was clear. A lot was more confusing. Spectros was definitely involved in the events of the night, which we knew already, so I wasn’t sure exactly how helpful that revelation was going to be. But he had partners as well, hence his use of the word we. He kept correcting us about that too, which was odd. He’d wanted us to know he wasn’t acting alone. And it wasn’t like he was just trying to spread the blame. I’m no expert in super-villain psychology, but it seems to me that he wouldn’t think of something like that as “blame” so much as he would as “credit.”

          So, who was he working with?

          If Alice had been here, I would have asked her who of Mysteria’s enemies were unnacounted for, and I’d have asked her to read the “mystic signature,” if that was as much of a real thing as it had seemed to be earlier.  It had obviously taken a lot of power to hang that island in the air like that.

          Had it really fallen? Had the city endured more devastation? I thought about Laura and Chloe? Were they safe? Surely the bunkers underneath Ben and Claire’s apartment building would have protected them from falling rock. I hoped. I know it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can prepare for.

          And where were Derek and Alice? If Spectros and his mysterious who-ever had grabbed Marisol and me, I had to assume they had Derek and Alice as well. Not to mention Michael. They were probably in a cell just on the other side of the darkness, having this same conversation. I don’t know what I expected them to do, but surely Derek’s disappearence would get the XDF involved, and they had resources. Someone was coming to get us. Someone, probably Laura and Michael, would lead a … well, I was going to say a charge of the Light Brigade, but decided not even I could go there.

          I tapped on my watch, which once again seemed completely dead. What use was this stupid thing? Would it really have popped out with a force field and saved me from a point-blank bullet to the head? I would have liked to think so, but I couldn’t be sure.

          I was a little afraid Marisol was being taken out and murdered. How binding was a mystic oath from someone whose powers came from death?

          Resting my head against the wall, I closed my eyes and waited. There wasn’t really anything else to do. I could have done push-ups or run in place or something, just to keep sharp like the action heroes always did in those movies, but let’s face it, I’m not one of those guys. Conserving my energy so I could stay alert and take advantage of any miniscule opportunity, that’s what I told myself I was doing.

          It was a good story. Too bad drifting off into a bored sleep after twenty minutes was the result.

          I woke up when the wall slide open again. Spectros was there, with Marisol. Startled, I hopped up to my feet and took a good look at her, searching for signs of the tell-tale glowing, green eyes. They were still dark and clouded, so I was probably safe.

          She was quiet though, and walking almost limply through the space. Without a word, Spectros shoved her into the cell and then signaled for the wall to close once more. 

          Once it was done, the darkness around us returned, leaving us alone in our bubble of light.

          Marisol leaned against the wall next to where I was sitting. I kept waiting for her to come down to my level, on the floor, but  she just rested there, as if she was unsure of what she was supposed to do next. As she did, a hand absently went to her belly and stayed there.

          “Are you ok?” I asked her? I thought about getting up, but decided not to. I wasn’t sure I even owed her the courtesy now.

          She nodded.

          “What happened? Did you see him? Is he all right?”

          She looked at me as if she was shocked I’d asked the question. I sat up a little straighter and waited for her answer.

          “He’s not good…”

          “Well … what’s wrong with him?” I was getting impatient. This wasn’t the time to get shy with me. We needed to come up with a plan on how we were getting out of here, and every little detail could matter. Especially if they were details about the condition of the last super-hero left alive in the city.

          “How much do you know about Robbie … about what he is and what he can do?”

          “I only know what the rest of the public knows. Your boyfriend hasn’t been around very long, and my brother didn’t exactly come home with a dossier on everyone in the Light Brigade. He kept everyone’s secrets pretty well.”

          “Robbie was … well, Robbie IS, a cop. When he first started out, he had a second job as a security guard at the University Science Lab.”

          “Let me guess. Some sort of weird experiment went wrong and he got himself transformed into a were-scorpion? Or whatever the weird thing he became is?”

          She nodded. “It was a nanotech experiment, body armor. It bonded with him, but he can transform back and forth.”

          “And …”  This was interesting, but I wasn’t sure of the relevance.

          “And now he’s … he’s alive, but in incredible pain. It’s almost like he’s stuck in mid-transformation. Frozen halfway between states, unable to complete the process.”

          “Did you … were you able to talk to him?”

          “I did. But I don’t know if he heard me. He didn’t respond to me.”

          “Did you tell him … you know … what you had to tell him?”

          “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know, I just wanted to know that he could know and be happy. I didn’t want his knowledge of our child to be tainted by that memory of his pain.”

          “That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” I said.

          “It’s my decision to make.”

          I looked up at her, wondering why the hell she was so mad at me. I guess she needed to be mad at someone and I was the only one around. Dan always told me that half of his job as Laura’s husband was being around for her to gripe to. He actually loved it. And even though she had just shown that she’d been willing to put a bullet in my head, I guess a part of me was grateful to be that person for Marisol. What was wrong with me?

          “So, I’m guessing there’s not much point in expecting a rescue from that direction?”

          She stared at me, appalled, so I quickly added, “which means we need to account for rescuing him?”

          “I don’t know how we’re going to do anything,” she said. “Look at us. We’re helpless here.”

          “Yeah, well … you got any better ideas?”

          Now she did sit down, her back against the wall. She pulled her legs up against her chest and rested her head on her knees. I watched her sit like that for what seemed like an hour, until I said, “It’ll be ok, Marisol. I’ve been in a lot of weird situations, and something always happens. I mean, the entire town went to hell, and we got out of that, right?”

          Her glare told me her answer to that question, but I wasn’t going to address it. Of course we’d had the Light Brigade then. Of course there’d been ancient enemies willing to help us in our fight against the demon king? But we didn’t know any of that while we were being held in the slave pens? That hadn’t been the thought in my head while they’d branded my ass,  but it had turned out to be true. Something would turn out to be true here, too. The only way we were sure to lose was if we just gave up and killed ourselves now.

          I don’t know how much time passed while we sat there in silence. We each slept again. I awoke having to pee really badly, but lacking a place to do it, had to resort to pissing in the corner. I used my tux shirt to soak up the urine so it wouldn’t spread out and left it there in the corner as a stinking, lumpy, putrid-yellow toilet. Eventually Marisol used it as well and we both moved on with out lives, trying to ignore the traumatic fact of the thing’s existence.

          Reduced now to my tux pants and t-shirt, I was grateful that I still, at least, had my shoes.

          I started to pace around the cell, careful to avoid the slowly drying puddle of puke and the makeshift latrine. Marisol did some stretching exercises on the floor. I counted to a thousand. We played word-association alphabet games.

          We got really hungry and joked about resorting to cannibalism. I actually started to hope we would see Spectros again.

          And about that time, we actually did.

          I had continued to walk around the cell, trying to ignore the gnawing sensation in my stomach, as if my internal organs had abandoned the thought of me getting them any food and decided to eat each other instead. Devoting significant mental processing power to a question that had occurred to me: how long had we been here? Judging by biological processes, it must be at least morning. But who knew how long either of us had slept?

          I’d been ignoring the dark space on the other side of the cell well, and had started to regard it as something like a black wall. But then there was Spectros’ face, and his grey-suited body, against the black like a propped-up corpse. My start almost sent me jumping into the mess in the middle of the floor.

          “Your presence has been requested,” he said, his voice piped in on those invisible speakers.

          This woke Marisol, who looked at me confusedly as she stood up.

          I stood there in the middle as the wall slid up again,  Spectros standing on the border between the light and the darkness.

          “Come with me,” he said, as if he was the maitre’d at some weird, Halloween-themed, chain restaurant.

          We followed.

          As we stepped out of the cell, I saw a series of walls slide upward in front of us, each of them opposite and slightly to the left of the one before, so that the path we walked curved in that direction. Light appeared, showing the way. We passed through at least four cells this way before we ended up in an actual corridor. This was a polished white as well, and made me feel like were were going to find ourselves in the tower from which Steve Jobs secretly ran the world. I guess I couldn’t fault the design sense of whomever had built this secret headquarters.

          I thought about commenting on the fact that Spectros hasn’t summoned any guards to help him with our transport, living or dead. Did that mean he trusted us, or that we weren’t a threat. I felt pretty confident that, had I wanted to, I could have taken him. But I wanted to find out what was going on more than I wanted that. At least that’s what I told myself.

          I had the sensation that we’d been on a gentle upslope for quite some time, and eventually were came to an arched doorway, cut with strange symbols on the ceiling around it. Symbols I was afraid that I recognized.

          Crimnorian symbols.

          Oh, shit, we couldn’t possibly be …

          Pulled through the doorway, I was in a chamber with a transparent ceiling, a dome that looked out at the sky.

          “Wes!” I heard Derek’s voice choke. He was standing in the center of this chamber, manacled, his hands together at his waist in front of him. Alice was next to him, a skin-colored film over her mouth so she couldn’t speak, her hands in the same position as Derek’s.

          An armored figure had his back to us, and next to him was a human figure, though from the deep white of his uniform and the red sigils emblazoned on the back, I knew he wasn’t human. He was something much more, and so much worse.

          I felt no motion, but the view above us changed, and I realized my suspicions were correct.  The Earth drifted into the view above us.

          And the Earth was burning.

         

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Ep 09 : Ultimatum

          Even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good, I instinctively lifted my arm up in front of my face to ward off my zombie brother’s energy blast. Instead of feeling my skin crisped off and peeled away as my clothes were turned to ash, I actually saw the crimson-yellow blast split around me as I was pushed back by a wall of warmth.

          Then I was on the ground, on top of Derek, Marisol behind us. Why hadn’t all three of us been incinerated?

          It was then that I noticed the still-shimmering wall of energy that formed a shield in front of us, emanating from my watch, which now glowed with a golden power, completely charged. I’m sure that Dan would have been surprised if he’d been feeling anything at all. But he wasn’t Dan anymore, he was just a repository for Spectros’ sick magic.

          “Release my brother, you fucking necrophiliac,” I yelled at him, resting as I was in the intimidating position of having just been knocked on my ass.

          Spectros shrugged, and put a hand on the shoulder of Dan’s golden armor.

          I felt movement under me. Derek pushed me up and off of him, and whispered in my ear, “Wes, can you drop the shield?”

          “I didn’t even raise it,” I said. “Hell if I know how to drop it.”

          Derek cursed, and called back to Alice, who’d dove down into the shadows so as not to be incinerated by the spillover from the blast that I’d diverted. I couldn’t hear their conversation.

          Marisol stayed close behind me, for obvious reasons. I was trying my best not to look at my brother’s slack face, but it was hard to avoid. He was just staring there like some sort of robot, waiting for a command. I wondered if it mattered who the command came from.

          “Dan! Fry Spectros!” I called out in what I hoped was an authoritative voice.

          Nothing happened.

          “You can’t have thought that would work,” Spectros said.

          I just shrugged. It had been worth a shot.

          “Wes, quit helping,” Derek hissed at me.

          The glow from Dan’s armor intensified, filling the darkness, but it illuminated nothing that was more than six feet away from him, forming a bubble made of bright yellow paint in an ocean of ink. If anything, that darkness seemed thicker, more substantial, with the armor’s aura for contrast. This darkness didn’t seem like anything Spectros could have caused, at least not like anything he’d done before. But he had to be involved somehow.

          “How did you do it, Spectros?” Derek called out as he rose to his feet. “How did a puissant like you manage to defeat the light brigade.”

          Alice had come forward. She and Marisol crouched down behind Derek while I knelt at his side, keeping an eye on my shimmering shield, praying that it didn’t pick exactly the wrong moment to drop. It wasn’t like I had any control over it, at least not consciously.

          Spectros gave us a thin-lipped smile. “No, Mr. Trent. You’ll hear nothing about it from me. I’m not as stupid as you hope I am.

          “It doesn’t feel like his magic,” said Alice. “ He might have prepared the ground to raise the thralls, but the rest of this … I don’t think he did it.”

          “You hear that Spectros?” Derek yelled. “We can tell you didn’t do any of this. You’re taking credit for the work of your betters.”

          “You’re a stupid man, Trent,” Spectros answered. “I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish, but you won’t bait me.”

          We felt heat, even if we weren’t incinerated, by Dan’s renewed blast. I expected it to fade after a moment, but it continued, burning around us with a ferocity and continence that defied explanation. Dan’s energy powers – not that I really understood them all that well, to be honest – allowed for short, intense blasts. This … it seemed beyond anything he’d done before. Had his – I had to get used to using this word – death unlocked the armor from some self-imposed limit? If it had, what were we going to do about it? I was pretty sure my revived watch wasn’t going to keep up with it forever.

          “You still want me to drop this shield?” I asked Derek.

          “I withdraw the request.”

          Dan’s face had totally vanished in the light and in the fire. What was happening to him, really? If he was nothing but a zombie thrall now, how was he controlling all of this power? After all, fire was one of the surefire ways to kill a zombie.

          “Wes, get behind me,” Derek said. He was still standing, shielding Marisol and Alice from a heat that had intensified from searing to full-on blistering. I could see why. Dan’s energy was breaking down the shield. Already holes had appeared, melted-glass ruptures that we had to crouch down to avoid. Did Derek plan to save us all by shielding us with his body? That would probably be about as effective as trusting in a lead-lined refrigerator to survive a nuclear explosion. Sure, his sacrifice would be heroic. But it would also be futile.

          But he stood there and brought up his weapon, bracing himself against the recoil.

          Oh my God! Was he really going to …

          The shot shattered the air around us, penetrating my weakened shield as if it were made of some translucent cardboard. Before even checking to see if his bullet made his target, Derek dropped on top of us. The shield collapsed, using what was left of its power to form a glittering dome. I didn’t see it, thank God, but I heard a sick squelch as the side of Dan’s head caved in. Energy, now released from his control, exploded out in every direction.

          I don’t know what any of this looked like from the ground, but it must have been spectacular. The stone shuddered, then was rent with great cracks that spread, allowing between them spaces that let in that fountain of wind. It blew up at us as the stone split apart, falling upward in pieces shot out at the sky.

          The roar and the noise and the fiery shockwave turned to jello every part of my insides, and it was all I could do to grab hold of the nearest thing I could. I heard Marisol scream and I screamed as the rock ripped away around us and the world dissolved in fire as I was cast upward, into the heavens.

 

          I smelled like sweat and melted polyester. Not a great way to wake up. I just lay there, not moving, having the uncharacteristic presence of mind – after an involuntary crab-like waking spasm – to realize I needed to know what was around me before I let anyone who might be around know that I was awake. I wanted to open my eyes, but I was afraid, not only of who might see me, but also of what I might see.

          Fuck it! Patience and I weren’t exactly acquainted. I let my eyes open, just a sliver. That had to be safe enough, right?

          But opening my eyes didn’t do any good. I could still see nothing but darkness, so I went ahead and opened them all the way. With my luck, I was dead and in some black purgatory while the powers-that-be decided exactly what direction the elevator was going to go when it was my turn to push the button.

          My left eye didn’t want to open at all. It felt like it was at once swollen shut and crusted over. It didn’t really hurt –yet, I should probably add—but I could tell that it was really damaged. I brought my left hand carefully to my face so I could wipe away the gunk, hoping that the longer my eyes were open the more they’d adjust to this darkness and I could get some idea of where I was.

          Dan was dead. This thought shot into the middle of all the others stacked in my brain, imploding the entire construct. My big brother was dead, no way around that. I had seen the body. It had tried to kill me.

          And I’d failed in the one task he’d given me, uniting my watch with the rest of the armor so I could get it back to the council before it fell into the wrong hands.

          It was most definitely in the wrong hands now.

          Oh, God … how was I going to tell Laura? How was I going to tell Mom and Dad? These thoughts were enough to force my eyes closed once more. Fortunately, tears helped to clear away the crusted muck.

          The floor beneath me was smooth, and felt like cold, painted concrete against the skin of my cheek.  This was the first time I’d processed the information that I was not lying in the middle of a pile of rubble. I was in a place that had been constructed.

          Where the hell was I?

          I opened my eyes again, and forced myself up on my arms. This was, apparently, enough motion that I tripped some kind of sensor, and bright white lit up the space around me. This was worse than the darkness, stabbing through my eyeballs directly into my brain.

          I was right. I’d been lying on a concrete floor, the ceiling above me a honeycomb of white octagons and latticework. Around me, space stretched out into darkness, but I could tell by the reflected white light that I was surrounded by walls made of glass or plexi or – who knows? – pure force. None of the other chambers were lit, so it was hard to see if anyone was in them.

          I thought about standing up, but as I tried to get back to my feet, all of the blood rushed out of my head and I slammed back down on me knees to keep from falling over.

          New plan. I slid backwards on my ass, until my back hit the smooth surface of my cell’s wall. I leaned against it as my vision stopped rippling and the throb in my head subsided. It was weird. I could see that this cell was octagonal, matching the pattern of the latticework above. Around this cell it seemed like there were more off in every direction.

          The light flicked on in the cell next to mine, triggered by movement as my lights had been. Marisol rose from the floor, pushing herself up as she drew her legs around her, as confused and terrified as I was. Her white shirt was streaked with soot and her hair, still thick and curly on the right side, seemed to have been singed away on the left. There were also blistered white-red welts on the left side of her face.

          We locked eyes through the transparent wall, and her mouth formed words. She was calling out to me, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. I got up and went to the wall we shared, and yelled her name into it. It was clear that she couldn’t hear me either.

          She met me there, raising her fist to pound on the wall. I heard it as the sound of a distant thunder.

          She continued to pound on the wall, and I joined my fists to hers, which did nothing but make everything louder. That was ok. Loud was good. Loud distracted us from the seriousness of our situation. After a few minutes of this, my hands were tired and sore, and I could see the skin swelling with purple and black bruises. So we stopped.         

          Would the noise we’d made rouse anyone else who happened to be in these cells? Were Derek and Alice, hell, even Michael and Peg, lying unconscious in the adjoining chambers? Either our noise hadn’t carried past our own space, or there was no one there, because no light answered us and no one else appeared.

          Tired again, I leaned my shoulder against the wall and slid down so that I was resting on the floor. Marisol did the same thing. She looked at me and brought her hand up to her left eye, visibly wincing.

          I nodded to say, “Yeah, it hurts,” and then gestured to ask about her injuries. She just shrugged and felt at her face, and then the side of her head where her hair had been burned away. She patted the area, realizing for the first time that great patches of it were gone.

          I tried to mouth that it looked fine, but that wasn’t an idea I found easy to communicate nonverbally, especially while my face was swollen up.

          Since my tux jacket was in tatters around me, I shrugged it off and was now just in my sweaty-sooty white shirt and black pants, which weren’t in much better shape. I’d lost the bow tie a long time ago. It was a good thing I’d given up on getting my deposit back.

          It was just too hard to try to talk, and neither of us were feeling well enough to sustain the effort. We just stayed there together, resting on either side of that wall. I can’t speak for Marisol, but it was actually a comfort just to know I wasn’t completely alone.

          Were they dead, Derek and Alice and Michael? I seemed pretty likely. Since I had no idea of how I’d survived and come to be wherever the hell I was, I guess thinking about that wasn’t going to be a great use of my time and attention.

          After a few minutes of quiet, I heard a noise, a rumbling overhead as some geared appliance started to work, and then, remarkably, the wall between Marisol and me started to slide upward. As soon as there was room, I crawled under it, into her cell, just in case it was going to close again.

          We sat there together in the middle of our conjoined chambers. Now that I was here, I had no idea what to say.

          She saved me. “Are you all right?”

          “Just banged up,” I replied manfully. “I’ll be ok. How about you?”

          She shrugged again. “How are we going to get out of here?”

          “I think I’m the wrong guy to ask.”

          “What about … ?” She pointed toward my watch, and let her eyes travel slowly from it to my face.

          “This thing … I don’t have any idea of what it does or how it does it. Used to be, I press down on the face and my brother comes running to get me out of whatever mess I’d gotten myself into. That’s obviously not going to work anymore.”

          “I’m sorry …”

          “Yeah, well … we’ve lost them all, haven’t we?”

          “I still haven’t seen Robbie. I’m still hoping.”

          “That’s true. That’s good.”

          “If anything’s happened to him, I need to talk to him. He can’t be dead yet … I have to tell him …”

          “Yeah,” I said as she trailed off. It felt like we were getting into some weirdly personal area. Not that I minded.

          “We’re going to have a baby,” She said. “He doesn’t know it yet. I was going to tell him tonight.”

          “Oh, wow, that’s … congratulations.”

          She accepted with a reluctant smile. “He has to know. That’s why I came with you. I have to tell him that, if nothing else.”

          “I get it,” I said. “You’re ok, right?”

          “I think everything’s fine. Of course, there’s no way to be sure, but for now I have to be careful and just behave like everything is ok. That’s all I can do, right?”

          “The good news,” came a voice from all around us, thrumming deep into our bones and bouncing off the walls, “is that, should your beloved be dead after all, I think you have a willing volunteer to be a father to your child should it ever be born. “

          I stood up and helped to pull Marisol to her feet. “Spectros!”

          “But should you decide to ensure your child will know it’s true father,” The voice came again as the cell on the other side of us lit up, revealing Spectros standing there, his right hand slipped inside the double-breasted coat of his grey suit. Slowly, the wall slid upward, and he took a few formal steps toward us.

 “A choice for you, my dear young mother,” he said, and withrew a pistol from his jacket and held it out to her. “Put a bullet through this young man’s head, and you will be reunited with your one true love.”

          She regarded him warily. “I’ve seen enough bad movies to know this. You have a trick. He’ll be a corpse, or a zombie like Solstice, or you’ll kill me and say ‘you can be together in the next world.’”

          “I will do nothing of that sort. Scorpyon is alive and will be returned to you if you do what I’ve asked. I swear a mystic oath, which is binding upon me.”

          Marisol looked at me. “Wes …?”

          I had no response.

          “You know I have no choice.”

          Panic choked me. Was she actually going to do this?”

          She took the gun Spectros offered, and he backed away as the wall slid back into place. “Please know, these walls are bulletproof. Shooting at them will do no good. I have not given you a way to escape.”

          This was the first time I’d considered throwing myself into a room alone with Spectros as a viable option, if only I’d acted in time.

          “I’m sorry, Wes,” Marisol said, and pressed the gun against my temple.

 

Ep 08: Burning Dark

I followed Derek into the elevator. He seemed grim now, ignoring the rest of the people who’d accompanied him into the well as more of his men arrive to man the station and turn it into a de facto XDF base. Alice, still silent, was with us as, and as the elevator doors were beginning to close, they were blocked by the arrival of one more: Marisol.

          She stared at Derek as if she expected to be argued with. But Derek didn’t argue; he just shrugged and beckoned her to enter fully so the doors could close.

          When we reached the top, and the little cleared space we’d used in our landing, we saw more black-suited XDF agents jumping out of a helicopter that hovered there, almost, but not quite, making a landing.

          As we moved toward the other helicopter, the one we’d arrived in and which was waiting for the other one to leave before its own blades began to whir, Derek moved off to the side and took Alice by the arm. He brought her close, in an obvious attempt at privacy, which I refused to respect. What happened next was going to affect all of us—there weren’t going to be any private conversations, at least not any that did not include me.

          He gave me an annoyed look as he asked Alice, “Are you going to be ok? Can you handle this?”

          She just looked at him and made as if to stammer out a response, which he cut off before she could get started.

          “I might need you, but I don’t know what else we’ll see, Alice. I know the magic that you and Mysteria work has a lot to do with emotion and intent … If you’re not ok, I’ll do whatever I can to help you get that way, but I need to know.”

          She scowled a bit as she said, “I don’t know how anything else we’d see could be worse than … than what we found. I’ll be ok. Anger is useful.”

          “That it is.”

          Behind us, the elevator opened again, revealing Michael and Pegasus. Derek locked eyes with Michael and nodded. Pegasus gave me what I had to assume was a look of warning.

          “Let’s get going,” Derek said, and helped Alice up into the helicopter.

          She looked at me as I climbed in after her. Something was restored now, some sense of purpose or personal strength that had melted away as she’d held Mysteria’s head in her hands. Derek’s reminder that there was still more to do seemed to have been just what she needed.

          We were facing each other, Alice and I, and as I settled down and strapped in, I watched her bring the bead-and-braid bracelet up and inspect the gentle purple orb that still glowed there.

          Marisol strapped in next to me, waving off Derek’s offered assistance at drawing the safety harness around herself and strapping it shut. I wondered why Derek wasn’t making any kind of protest at letting her come along. She wasn’t exactly dressed for any sort of action, wearing a black dress underneath an oversized men’s white, button-down shirt. She was even wearing heels, for crying out loud.

          “I know,” she said. “I didn’t exactly get home in time to change after my show.” I must not have been inspecting her apparel as surreptitiously as I’d thought.

          “Your show?” I was about to ask her if she was a stripper, but for once, I stopped myself.

          “I’m a singer-songwriter,” she said. “I play a couple of clubs downtown.”

          “Oh,” I said, at once elated and disappointed by this new information.

          Derek hopped in and gave the thumbs up signal to the pilot. After a few noisy moments, the world fell away and my stomach gave a little twist.

          The sky appeared, then the ground, Nova City, still swathed in its dark blanket, studded in places with fire.

          “You think they’re dead, don’t you?” Marisol said. I wasn’t sure why she was talking now, but I wasn’t sorry to be the person she was talking to.

          “I hope not,” I offered, partly because it was true, and partly because I didn’t know what else to say.

          “It’s your brother … Sir Solstice?” It was weird, she was having to work to be heard over the noise of the copter, but her tone was casual, almost too casual, as if the conversation was the only thing keeping her from breaking down completely.

          I nodded because I didn’t feel like yelling.

          “We were supposed to have dinner tonight,” she continued. “I was late because I stopped at the grocery store after my set. I was trapped there before Juanita found me.”

          I nodded again.

          “Our building is just … it’s gone. What was that thing?” She looked away from me then and got quite. I looked up to see Alice, smirking of all things, and thought that I should probably say something reassuring to fill the space, but I didn’t have anything to say, and the answer to her question would take too long to explain.  I watched as we turned in the air and Pegasus appeared, framed in the open doorway.

          I thought about where we were going, and wondered, was I insane? Were we all insane? What if the battle was still raging? Whatever had happened here, it had caused Lady Peace to be thrown down from the heavens. What did we think we were going to accomplish against such a force if it was still there?

          I pulled the crappy little disposable camera out of the pocket of my really the worse for wear tux jacket, and held it there in my hands. Something about doing that made me feel better, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

          We were up high enough now that the air that blew in over us was coldsnap-chill. Marisol turned her face away from the rush and unconsciously leaned toward me as her onyx curls were blown across her face. I leaned forward as far as my straps would let me, looking to see what I could of our destination.

          The stone hung in the air, under what power I could not begin to guess. From where we were now, it was just a dark spot in space. We were just a little under it and angled away so that if there had been anything large enough that it was visible from the side, we wouldn’t have been able to see it. The stone shrunk as we moved away to try to rise above it, and  the copter shook. Marisol grabbed on to her harness and I sat back and allowed myself to be held in mine.

          Outside, Peg and Michael peeled away, Peg’s great wings stretched out to their full span as she tried to rise up on the winds, Michael flat and forward, holding on to her with all his strength. She rose then, more quickly than should have been possible, and I lost sight of them until we’d risen up on the other side of the stone. She tumbled, fighting the wind, then vanished again.

          Our copter shone spotlights down on the stone, but they did not highlight anything revelatory; it still looked like nothing more than a big flat rock hanging in the sky. For Nova City, this was pretty mild stuff. I scanned its surface for a sign of anyone’s presence, and figures lying prong among pieces of shattered boulder. We weren’t close enough to be able to make anything out, and it was covered in darkness besides.

          I couldn’t even see if Michael and Pegasus had landed yet.

          Then we started shaking. Actually, that was an understatement. What we’d experienced before had been like mild airplane turbulence. Alarming, but not rising to the level of terror. What we hit now shook us like we were some kid’s toy helicopter that had been accidentally thrown in the drier. We were tossed end over end with such violence that I lost my grip on my crappy little camera. It bounced against Marisol’s temple as it made its way out the door.

          There was a fountain of air pushing up and around the stone, shooting at the sky. I suppose it was what was keeping it aloft, but the exact physics of the thing escaped me.

          There was no question. We were going to die.  I just gritted my teeth to keep from screaming, held on to my harness, and waited for it to be over. I did not close my eyes. I wanted to see.

          Alice’s eyes were shut and she moved her lips as if in prayer, but I couldn’t hear her over the roar of the wind’s roar and the copter’s drone.

          And then it was over. The wind-fountain ceased and our pilot – who was better at his job than I could ever hope to be at mine, and who deserved a thousand percent raise – got the craft righted. I couldn’t see the stone anymore, but after a second I realized that we were above it now, and must be descending.

          Where were Michael and Peg? How could they have made it through that, anyway?

          “Everybody ok?” Derek called out. We all mumbled unconvincing replies in the affirmative. Even though the visual markers around us made it difficult to actually see what was happening, I could feel our descent in my gut and in the panicked flutter of my heart. I tensed up, waiting for that thud that would let us know we had once more been safely caught by the world.

          It came, jarring, rougher than I’d expected. My chin hit my collarbone and pain flashed in my neck and shoulder. Marisol let out a high-pitched hiss.

          “You ok?” I asked her, doing Derek’s job for him.

          “Yeah,” she said.

          “I looked at Derek for some sign of what was going to happen now. Since he’d unstrapped himself, I did too, but he was out of the copter before I’d managed to extricate myself from my safety harness.  I meant to get down just after him and help Marisol (and yes, Alice too), but she was in front of me and halfway through the door before I got there. While I waited for her, I looked out at the place where we’d landed.

          From here, it just looked like were were on the flat peak of some freakishly tall mesa, like devil’s tower on Viagra. The ground immediately around us was mostly even, if rust-colored and scarred,  and had wide gashes cut through it, as if the stone had been raked by the claws of a giant wolverine.

          I wished I could get a shot of it, but all I had left was my camera phone and anything I took with it would be a muddled, blotchy mess in this light. I leaped down and found the ground solid enough beneath my feet.

          Another helicopter was over us, but on the other side of the wind. We watched as it made an attempt to get through, was pushed up and out, and ended up once again on the other side. This pilot must not be as good as ours was.

          Derek watched it, a wince frozen on his face. For a second it looked like the second copter was going to fall out of the sky, but it managed to find purchase in the air and hang there.

          It was dark, the light from out copter’s spotlights all that allowed us to see the mostly empty space around us.

          I didn’t know which would be worse, finding Dan dead up here or having the trail go cold. At this point, no information was almost worse than bad news.

          The sky around us was just as dark as the ground. Some kind of smog or smoke or clouds or other, worse thing had blacked the stars. Some lights stabbed out at us through the wall of wind, as the second helicopter circumnavigated the stone, looking for a way through. There was still ni sign of Michael or Peg.

          My arm buzzed again. Heat flashed on my wrist, the way it had back at The Well. My arm jerked upward and all I could do was stare at it, not comprehending.

          “Wes?” Derek said. Marisol watched me expectantly. The watch pulsed, and with each burst of light there was a corresponding flash of heat. It wasn’t hot enough to actually burn me, but it was getting close.

          “Move around and see if it changes,” Alice offered. At my blank look, she continued,” If it’s keyed in to your brother’s armor, it could be acting as a beacon. It has to be drawing power from somewhere, maybe that’s where.”

          “Yeah,” I said. Marisol and Derek were still just looking at me, with no other suggestions, so I took a few steps, toward the place where our light met the darkness. The bursts stayed the same fore the first few steps, but then increased in frequency by a barely perceptible degree. I kept walking and the effect continued. Alice was right.

          It didn’t take me long to enter the dark place fully. There was no gradual transition, it was like a wall of complete black that enveloped me, with my wrist casting the only glow. I looked back, toward the light, and could still see it even if it felt like none of it was actually cast on me anymore.

          Alice was still there, behind us, but Derek and Marisol were on other side of me. I could barely see them and knew them more as a sensation of movement. All I could do was keep walking, and hope like hell that I wasn’t going to stumble over the edge, or step into some sort of swiss-cheese hole that went all the way through the rock. If there was such a thing, it would be just like me to find it.

          “We’re with you, Wes,” Derek said, and I felt his hand on my shoulder, which did make me feel a little better.

          My watch was almost constantly hot and bright now. What was I supposed to do with that? I just kept going.

          Soon, I could discern there in the darkness a softly glowing, vaguely human form. Its outline, what I could see of it, was familiar.

          Worse, there was someone else there. And as the figure started to glow as my watch was brought into closer proximity, I began to be able to make out this second person’s face in the orange-yellow light from my brother’s armor.

          The face was pale, and the hair was pale too, over a dark suit. The eyes, though, the eyes glowed green with a fire I’d seen before. At the hospital, as Doctor Tanya had tried to choke me to death with her cold hands.

          But this one was no thrall.

          “Spectros,” Derek spit from behind me.

          The figure in my brother’s armor moved. My brother moved. Pushing himself up, onto his feet as Spectros moved away.

          “I knew you’d be along,” Spectros said. “I have a surprise.”

          “Dan!” I called out, and ran toward him, but Derek lunged forward to grab me. “Wes, no!” He cried out, and as my eyes locked with my brother’s and saw the green fire there, I knew why.

          Dan raised up his hands, and the world was lost in fire and light.