Three years ago
“Oh, God, give me a group of shotgun-wielding terrorists any day,” Jon thought, trying to ignore the pain in his bruised ribs and his own mounting terror. Lonnie, or at least the creature bearing his name, was still moving forward in his black motorcycle helmet and leather bodysuit, holding a fire ax in his left hand. He had the bulk of a competitive weightlifter, but he still moved with the liquidity of a cat.
Instead of letting Lonnie make the first move, Jon mentally pushed the power of the Mantra gem to its limits until the entire world felt like he was in The Matrix (or, at least, a Matrix rip-off). He dodged Lonnie’s feral strikes with the agility and precision of an Olympic athlete until he found the opportunity to strike back with his machete, lopping off the hand holding the axe. Without even pausing for a microsecond, Lonnie reached out for Jon’s neck with his remaining hand. Jon fell back, but Lonnie still caught the part of his costume holding the gem. The fabric ripped and the gem fell to the dirt trail beneath them with an anti-climactic thud.
Before Jon could recover, he felt himself falling back even further than he intended and the ground giving way under his feet. He was falling down a long, steep hillside, toward a dry creek bed behind him. “Please, not like this,” he thought (just before he lost his consciousness, he also realized how sad it was that this was not the first time he had that exact thought).
He did not know how long it was until he felt someone pulling him by his armpits. He managed to get out a shout for help, convinced Lonnie had actually climbed down the crevice to finish him off.
“Stop it!” a voice that was familiar but not his own barked inside his mind. “He’s still out there. Plus I have no idea if the undead have good hearing.”
He opened his eyes, looking up into a beautiful autumn night sky that he would enjoy under very different circumstances. After a while of hearing his own body making its way through dirt and dead leaves, he heard the sound of someone forcing open a decaying wooden door with a kick. By now, he could actually get his bearings. He was in an ancient, cluttered maintenance shed, illuminated by just one naked light bulb swinging in the air and smelling vividly of dust and decay.
“You can talk to me, if you want,” the voice said helpfully.
“Hello? Is this the Exile?”
“Yes. Let me help you up. There’s a chair here.”
Jon’s ribs, which had already been injured before he fell, screamed in protest, but he let the Exile prop him up on a metal folding chair.
“What’s happening? Are people…” His brain conjured up a grim scene of his teammates mangled and dead.
Exile’s voice sounded alarmed and almost embarrassed. “No! No, I swear, I’ve been keeping tabs on everyone telepathically since everything went bad. You’re the worst off, but luckily you wound up near my hiding place.”
The Exile audibly sighed, exhausted in every sense of the word. As he barricaded the door with a push mower and a tool bench, he said in his mind, “Bill the Undying believed he knew a spell that could keep Lonnie under our control after we resurrected him. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. So, he and the White Witch are working together on something they think can reverse the resurrection ritual, but in the meantime everyone whose powers are of any use against an undead serial killer are guarding them as they figure out the counter-ritual. Everybody else is just hiding out, like us.”
Jon felt a flash of anger targeted against the Exile and the other Vandals. Even though it wasn’t expressed in words, the Exile quickly responded.
“For what its worth, we were just going to weaponize Lonnie and sell him to the Pentagon or, failing that, the Chinese or Russians or something.” A pause. “I voted against it.”
“That’s something, I guess. You do know that Lonnie’s murdered, like, what, 35 people since he originally died in the 1970s?”
“Yeah. And all teenagers and twentysomethings, for some reason.”
Jon realized that he could actually feel the Exile in his mind. He’d been a target of telepathic attacks from the Exile on more than a few occasions before, so he thought he should have felt disturbed by the whole experience. However, despite everything, it was comforting somehow, like a certain kind of familiarity, even intimacy.
“What about your telepathy?” Jon thought. “Isn’t it any good against Lonnie?”
The Exile, who remained positioned next to the door as if he was standing guard, absent-mindedly swept away some cobwebs with his foot.
“I wish. The way Bill the Undying put it, it’s like Lonnie’s been stuck right in the middle between being alive and being dead. So, it’s like there’s just this radio static where his consciousness should be. I can’t really do much with that except let us know he’s here a couple of minutes before he’s about to break the door down and kill us.”
After a few minutes that felt like hours, Jon heard Exile’s voice. “Can I ask you something?”
“I know what you think of me, especially everything that happened…after what I did to Tell. But I really don’t try to violate people’s privacy unless…unless I have to. Still, for me, it’s the same as how you see or hear stuff without meaning to. Well, once in a while, I can sense feelings and subconscious thoughts without actually looking for them, even if I’m just lightly touching a mind, sometimes if I’m not even inside a mind at all.”
“Why are you so surprised that I helped you?”
Jon, who was already struggling to get in a position in the metal chair that didn’t accentuate his pain, felt even more uncomfortable. He knew the Exile was right, even though he didn’t even actually form the thought in his own mind. But the absurdity of having this conversation with someone he violently fought with on numerous occasions was not lost on him.
“I think that’s pretty obvious.”
There was another, much deeper pause. For a second, Jon thought the Exile had withdrawn from his mind. Then his voice came, carrying a clear sense of irritation. “For starters, the Vandals and I have had plenty of opportunities to seriously injure or even kill one of you Rooks, but we never took it.
That’s something you people never seem to realize about so-called ‘super-criminals’. Would you want to piss off a whole community of hundreds of vengeful people who can stop tanks by punching them or cause the ground to literally swallow you up just by concentrating a little?”
Jon was embarrassed that he never really thought about it that way. “I guess you’re right.”
“Honestly, at least where I’m from, practically everyone is on a level playing field, as far as powers go, anyway. Here, though…” The Exile paused awkwardly as if he was having to censor himself. Then he chuckled softly. “It doesn’t really matter, sorry.”
“No, you have a point,” Jon said, without meaning to at all. That was the problem with telepathic conversations, Jon realized. There’s no filter.
“Well, there kind of can be, if you get used to it,” the Exile said, truthfully but teasingly.
“I’ll remember that for next time,” Jon replied.
“One more thing,” the Exile whispered aloud. “For Ishtar’s sake, please stop thinking of me as the Exile. We’ve been mortal enemies long enough you should think of me as Amar.”
Jon caught himself laughing aloud, and within seconds, Amar joined in.
Amar felt his rage simmer as he stared at the car that was conspiring with a concrete barrier to trap him in the drive-thru. The driver, a middle-aged man dressed in defiantly unfashionable flannel, had stopped to take trash out of the backseat of his car and throw it into a curbside trash can. What was especially galling was that he didn’t even bother with a pretense of hurrying. There wasn’t even an apology wave!
Amar blared the horn. The man promptly slowed his pace even more and gave him the finger.
“Don’t do it”, Amar mumbled under his breath. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Please don’t do it.”
As the man triumphantly got back into the car, Amar, with a resigned sigh, reached out with his mind. Within just a couple of minutes, the man slammed his foot to the accelerator and rammed right into a light pole. Amar gave a friendly wave in his direction as he drove past the scene of a dazed, confused man staring at his damaged car as his wife got out of the passenger side to yell at him.
Amar tried to let the sickly enticing smell of the greasy food in the two bags sitting next to him put him in a Zen state. “Old habits”, he said aloud, as a way of apologizing to himself.
“I got the food!”, Amar bellowed as he stepped through the front door and slipped his shoes off. Even though it had been over six months since he moved in with Yori, he still felt a little sad when he saw how much white space was on their walls. True, there was only so much they could afford to do since they were both in grad school and living on the emaciated salaries of a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Hell, they were lucky to be able to afford a townhouse at all, especially in the suburbs of Chicago.
At least they were able to afford a full-on replica of a statue and inscription portraying the Sumerian god Enki. It had become a weird little emblem of the fact that they met and fell in love working for and studying at the University of Chicago’s Cuneiform Studies department. Amar also interpreted it as an emblem of his greatest triumph—leaving behind forever his desperate, unhappy life as the Exile and embarking on a new life as Farhad Zand, scholar of ancient literature and professional translator of Sumerian and Akkadian tablets.
It had certainly not been easy. Even though the documents on which Farhad Zand based his entire life were impeccable (and were received by calling in favors from not only members of the supercriminal community but one less than scrupulous official in the United States Department of State), there were many close calls, big and small, from the tense days spent waiting on an e-mail because some bureaucrat had “concerns” regarding his application for a passport to the time a visiting professor from the University of Tehran casually remarked in front of his boss and several other faculty members that “Farhad”’s accent sounded like no accent, Iranian or otherwise, he had ever heard before. But the years spent being a “criminal” in hiding were not wasted on Amar. He had navigated around such perils masterfully, if he could say so himself, taking very few steps he would come to regret. He was even cautious every single day at work, obfuscating the fact that he did not learn Sumerian and Akkadian in an Iranian university by making mistakes in his translations (clumsy to him, understandable to his colleagues) and always taking longer than he actually needed to. Still, though, he could not help but write and publish a paper resolving once and for all a decades-old controversy about Sumerian grammar. Even in hiding, he had a hard time resisting an opportunity to show off.
Nor could he resist Yori, even though he had resolved to avoid romantic entanglements, at least until his new civilian identity had been established for many years. He was slim and tall and handsome, with glasses that mismatched his face in a rather adorable way, a well-trimmed, slight moustache and goatee, and an awkward yet somehow confident manner. Their courtship had unfolded in fits and starts, so much so that Yori seemed as surprised by his asking Amar to come live with him as Amar was. It was risky, but it was more than worth it. For the first time ever because of Yori, Amar felt as if the First World could be a true home to him. Now, when Yori talked of what they would do after he finished his PhD in a semester, Amar felt none of the old fears of being found out. The Exile was dead. So was Amar Paragisi Kadingir. Long live Farhad Zand.
“Thanks, hon”, Yori smiled and said while Amar meticulously placed the food from one of the bags on a plate. As usual, even though Yori had a plate in front of him, he was already greedily pillaging fries from his bag.
“So, did you see Professor Wheen today?” Amar said.
“Almost forgot!” Yori said with a mouthful of fries and ketchup (forgetting that Amar hated his habit of speaking with his mouth full, but Amar was in a cheerful enough mood to let it pass…for now). “They unearthed some uncategorized tablets from an archive somewhere and they want you to look at them.”
Amar hoped it would be something juicy and not just an inventory of goats and beer like last time. “Whatever it is, believe it or not, it’s easier than having to edit his articles.”
Yori rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe you, and anyway…”
The doorbell rang. Yori and Amar glared at each other over their food.
“I’ve been running errands all day,” Amar growled.
“I’ve been teaching and grading all day,” Yori solemnly said.
Amar shrugged in surrender. “Alright, you eat. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.”
Standing on their front porch was a face Amar thought—actually, hoped—he would never see again. It was Cynthia Reed, a short, red-haired woman whose friendly, generous demeanor and meticulously prepared casual-professional attire belied the fact that she was on the wanted list of every law enforcement and paranormal and superhuman affairs agency in the world.
Thinking right away of Yori, Amar shouted back to the kitchen, “It’s just a friend of mine. Don’t worry. She can’t stay”, and closed the door.
Prodigal smiled wryly. “That’s rude for someone of your upbringing and rank, Exile.”
“You know our rules, even now.”
“Fine. Prodigy. Look, if you’re getting the Vandals back together again for another heist or something, I’m seriously done for good, and please let everybody in the community know I mean it.”
Amar couldn’t help but pick up that Prodigy, while seemingly glad to see him, was also extremely nervous. But he still cared for her enough he repressed the urge to dig deep into her thoughts. “Don’t be obscene,” she hissed under her breath. “You should know me well enough that when I said I would let you go until you tell me yourself you decided otherwise, I meant it. This is…a professional courtesy, I guess.”
Amar gently but firmly led Prodigy away from the house to the parking lot. “What the hell do you mean? Professional courtesy?”
Amar noticed a flash of anger in Prodigy’s usual poker face. “You know you not only screwed yourself over with that whole Ruthenia stunt, but all of us. Getting involved with General Vosla of all people—what the hell were you thinking?!!”
“I was thinking of how I’d been there for the Vandals every single time you reached out to me, no matter how deranged the latest scheme was, but when I was hiding out in drug dens and sleeping in alleys in Cape Verde, you and the others were nowhere in sight! But here you are, talking to me about ‘professional courtesies’!”
“That wasn’t—” Prodigy started, only to trail off. Amar didn’t need to be a telepath to see that she realized any excuse she came up with, no matter how valid, would sound weak. She resumed through clenched teeth. “Just because I founded the Vandals when I was just a bored supergenius teenager doesn’t mean that none of you matter to me.”
Amar suppressed an urge to smirk. Perhaps she even meant it. “Look, just tell me what this is about before…” Amar looked back in the direction of his front door. Thankfully, Prodigy was always as good at picking up hints as she was in designing killer robots.
“The Vandals haven’t been together in two years, three months, and two weeks,” Prodigy said, speaking as if she was reciting a speech. “But the Final Guard is going through one of their rare but annoying pro-active phases and have been tracking down and detaining supercriminals with outstanding warrants, even if they haven’t done anything lately.”
Amar’s stomach sank. “That’s what you meant. Ruthenia put me and every other member of the Vandals on their radar.”
“Kid Zero has been MIA for months, but we know they got Viper Girl and Bill the Undying.
I think I’m going to go surrender at the nearest military base. They’re always in the market for a brain like mine. But you…” Suddenly, she was interrupted by an insistent beeping. From her pocket, she pulled out something that looked like a smartphone, but no doubt it was something miles ahead of anything on the market. Amar saw her mouth the words “Oh, no” before a sudden burst of energy erupted behind her and knocked her over.
Behind her, standing like gods manifesting on Earth in the parking lot of a suburban townhouse complex, four members of the Final Guard were standing. There was Athena, wearing a shining bronze helmet and a blue garment that covered her body except for her arms and holding a shield and a spear; Sans Pareil, standing in his costume, long hair bending with the wind and in a suit in the green, white, and red colors of the Algerian flag; the Technocrat, a man in a fashionable business suit with the plastic skin of his face glistening in the sun; Adu Oginyae, masked head to toe in a black and silver catsuit; and, standing behind them, was Mantra. It was the first time they saw each other since that night at Silver Creek.
“Prodigy has been secured,” the Technocrat said in his usual flat approximation of a human voice.
Sans Pareil turned to Mantra. “When you were with the Rooks, the Exile was one of your team’s regulars, right? Given your experience against him and your defenses against telepathy, you should go first.”
Mantra nodded, but still seemed oddly reluctant to move forward.
A small crowd of people armed with cell phones were already out, keeping a reasonably safe distance, but Amar’s attention was fixed elsewhere, to the door of the house he shared with Yori which had been flung open.
“Oh, my God, Farhad. What the hell is going on out there?!”
“Get back inside! It…it will be okay!” Amar shouted, without thinking. No, in this situation, he was the threat, not them. Never them.
“Who’s Farhad?” he heard Mantra say from what felt like a thousand miles away.
“He is, apparently,” Athena replied. At least the Final Guard had the decency to either stand back awkwardly or tend to the arrest of the still unconscious Prodigy.
“I can’t say how sorry I am. All of this is my fault,” Amar said in a panic, his words tripping over each other. “But I swear, all I wanted to do was leave my past behind. I used to be a supercriminal, and I have these telepathic senses. My name isn’t even Farhan. It’s Amar Paragisi Kadingir.”
Yori muttered, as if in a drunken daze. “Telepathy?”
“But I never did…” Farhad began, but Yori pushed him aside like he was nothing but a rude bystander and walked right up to Sans Pareil.
“Hey,” Yori said, looking right in Sans Pareil’s eyes. “To be honest, I don’t know much about how your group operates, but…I think I was the victim of this…this brainwasher for over a year now.”
Sans Pareil gently put an arm around Yori and led him away. “Monsieur, I’ll take you someplace safe. We do have a telepath on-call who will investigate to make sure no one was the victim of a psychic crime.”
As he watched Yori walk away without even a glance back, he kept talking, as if Yori was still never thought. “I did peek at your thoughts a few times, but that’s all. I would never…”
Yori didn’t even turn around. Amar took a deep breath, and walked over to Adu Oginvae, who was holding the Exile in place with hi-tech handcuffs.
“Let’s just get this over with,” Amar said.