#10 – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

On the tram, Jon swiped through a litany of bleak news articles and largely animal-focused social media posts on his phone, without stopping to truly digest any of the information. No matter how often people like the Final Guard saved the world, it still seemed like it was determined to go off the rails on its own good time. He only stirred when a pleasant ding alerted him that the tram had silently drifted to a stop.

Making his way impatiently through a crowd of costumed heroes and uniformed military officials who would have awed and intimidated him not that long ago, Jon made a beeline for the terminal W-42. Outside a glass portal looking out onto a vast hospital-white hanger was a sleek futuristic jet that resembled a giant gray plastic piece from some board game.

His only other companion at the terminal was a young man in an ill-fitting and old-fashioned suit, reading a beat-up paperback. It was some horror novel from the ‘70s whose title Jon didn’t recognize. Noticing that he caught Jon’s attention, the young man looked up with confusion, looked down again, and then, suddenly, as if some switch went off inside his head, he got up and grinned at Jon in greeting.

“Oh, hey. Jon, right?”

“Sorry I’m so late. I got held up at security.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I was told to expect that. The test to make sure you’re not a clone or whatever by itself is a pain in the butt, I know.” Jon was prepared for a handshake, but instead he got an enthusiastic nod. “I’m, ah, Morgan, by the way.”

“Hi, Morgan. Nice to finally meet you.”

After quickly putting his book away in his bag, Morgan led Jon toward the terminal gates. Suddenly, though, he abruptly stopped. “Um, you know, Dr. Bilatz—all of us, actually, are glad you agreed to join us, but the doctor wanted me to ask you—I mean, he now thinks the whole project could take as long as five months instead of just three. It kind of depends on what our backer is going to decide sometime in the next week. Is that still okay?”

Without hesitation, Jon replied, “Oh, definitely.”

***

One month and two days ago

The landscape had shifted again to a beach with black sand with a shipwreck in the distance, lodged between three foreboding jagged rocks. Astavis was holding out his sword, standing guard over Madeline. The young British woman stood still as a statue, her accusatory finger cocked like a loaded gun at Amar. However, in the back of Amar’s head was an assuring voice, Madeline’s voice.

Jon looked at Amar with concern.

“Are you alright?”

Amar nodded and patted Jon’s hand.

Astavis glared at the two men and waved his sword at their necks.

“Take one step toward her, you die.”

Amar sighed. “I really, really don’t like you, but I’m still sorry for what I’m about to do.”

Astavis sneered, but in just a quiet moment the sneer gave way to a look of unfiltered horror. He too dropped to his knees and began to sob.

“Oh, my God. I don’t—I’m some kind of character in a book? I’m not even real.”

“Look, all I did was hook your brain up to mine,” Amar said, helping Astavis to his feet. “Trust me, you’re real enough now.”

The landscape shifted again, this time to a lonely mountain valley where they were surrounded by ruined buildings still bearing the blackened scars of some long-ago fire. Jon looked around in fear.  “The shifts are happening faster. It’s becoming unstable.”

Amar led Jon, who was still clutching the plans, to Madeline, who was now standing still with her hands pressed against both sides of her face. At Amar’s prompting, Jon gave the plans to her.

“I don’t understand these!”

“It’s alright,” Amar said, afraid that trying to broadcast into her mind would only frighten her and make the situation worse. “You—well, part of you—spoke to me. It’s you. It’s all you. The engine is just a symbol, part of your brain’s way of coping with all the energy and information it’s channeling by compartmentalizing itself.”

Madeline read the plans again. Instead of gibberish and random images, she could see in a way she could never describe even if she had a thousand years to write all the possibilities in this universe blossoming in complex crystalline patterns. It was no longer just a representation of some books and all the extra tales and frustrated longing and joyous desire that they inspired in her since her aunt got her a copy at a bookstore to keep her distracted while Madeline was spending the weekend with her. It was now a universe—organic and chaotic and orderly and cruel and gorgeous and infinite and wonderful and hideous. At least, it could be, at this juncture.

“I didn’t want to live in a world where no one’s doing a thing about ecological catastrophe and crazy people who can build flying tanks keep trying to take over the world and crap like that,” Madeline said. She didn’t know how she knew everything she was saying. She simply knew it. “I wanted to live here instead so badly.”

She frowned as she continued to remember. “Something happened, though. It should have happened peacefully, naturally. There was some kind of corruption at the very root of it all. ‘And so, there appeared in paradise a flaw.’”

“Corruption?” Amar asked.

Madeline did not raise her head and instead kept staring at the plans. “It left now, just a few minutes ago. But it doesn’t matter. I know how it should all be now.”

She held out her hands and the plans lifted into the air. In a matter of seconds, the paper crumped away into nothing. It was no longer necessary, now that the mind of Madeline Finch of Cornwall finally realized that it was, in fact, the mystic engine.

“First things first…” She walked over to Astavis and gently kissed him on the lips. “Man, I used to fantasize about this so much. Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this, but we will meet again.” In an instant, he was gone as if he was never there.

“God, I’ve caused so much damage and pain. I’m so sorry. But not a bit of it has to last. I think I can do that much.” Lifting her hand, suddenly, the world around them suddenly felt less tangible, real somehow. Amar thought he saw a flash of the Cornish highway they were standing on.

Madeline stood still, as if she was having a debate in her mind. “Thank you two for giving me that push. By the time I finally woke up to what I could do, it might have been too late for the world. Now at least I have a choice…”

Madeline began to visibly concentrate intensely. Suddenly she screamed and began to fall. Jon rushed over to support her, but by the time he got near her, suddenly, they were back to reality. Instead of where they were when they entered, they were now all standing on a small patch of Cornish countryside in the middle Cops and capes standing around them began shouting. There was no trace of any hole of reality.

Although she still looked as if she was suffering from the worst of all possible migraines, Madeline smiled at Amar. He could hear her in his mind. I think I might have burned out most of my powers, but Tenedam lives.

Jon noticed that standing around were also hundreds of people, including the guards and the Grand Duke himself, all wearing business suits and dresses and casual clothes. From the confused chatter, he noticed that they must have had no memories of where they were, what had happened, and their former personalities.

Josephine Manners, flanked by three menacing looking officials, made a beeline toward them from the edge of the crowd.

“Now will someone tell me what the hell that was all about?”

Amar started, “You were right that Madeline was—”

Jon discreetly interrupted. “She was the locus of the reality warp, but it was caused by some massive energy that seems to have exploited her love of Legend of the Steam Cities. We weren’t able to find the source of it, but we were able to break her connection to it.”

After looking Jon sternly in his eyes, she nodded in Madeline’s direction. “Good. We’ll make sure to give her a full medical and telepathic examination.”

Once the authorities with their help had scuttled away most of the victims of the reality warp to their true lives, Jon and Amar were generously provided a picnic lunch of fish and chips as their reward for saving the world from turning into an eternal, perfect cosplay.

“Why didn’t you tell Josephine the truth about Madeline?” Amar asked.

Jon shrugged. “There’s an…informal international agreement that an alpha-level paranormal has to be humanely contained if possible, which means they get to spend the rest of their life in a room so sedated they never even know what day it is.  I doubt even her losing most of her power would have saved her from that fate.”

“Gods…so you were willing to lie about that?”

“With a job like mine, you have to have rules but you also have to be willing to stretch them a bit. Even a guy with the reputation of an eagle scout like Sans Pareil understands that,” Jon replied.

Amar chuckled. “So we really did save the world with no casualties, then?”

Jon reached out for his hand almost instinctively. “Our first time.”

***

On the deck of an airship called The White Sands, Elizabeth, Jon, Madeline, and Kyle, better known by his cape alias as Tell, sat at a table drinking green tea. They were all dressed in the Victorian costume appropriate to the land, which Madeline generously provided. She was understandably sensitive to the inhabitants of the world ever finding out the true origins of their existence.

It had been a couple of weeks and it turned out Madeline had indeed used up most of her power. Luckily, it was not a sacrifice in vain. She still had an affinity with the Steam Cities world that enabled her to transport herself and others there whenever she pleased and gave her some low-level influence over it and its inhabitants. She decided to spend every other weekend and holiday having adventures there or at least spending time with Astavis. With a level of maturity appropriate to someone who created an entire world from the void, she decided to wait until she graduated from college before she would choose to live full-time in Steam Cities world or stay in her home world save for the occasional jaunt.

The small party had been largely silent, gazing at the dark blues and lush greens and hillside villages of the mountainous landscape of Meneathan-Tirsel below them.

“A whole new world,” Liz remarked to no one in particular. “It’s fantastic.”

Madeline smiled. “I know. I just wish I didn’t come so close to destroying our world for its sake.”

Liz reached out and gave her a friendly pat on her hand. “You know, you’re new to what I like to call the madness. Just try to enjoy yourself and don’t get too far into it.”

They were all fans of Legends of the Steam Cities, but that was just an extremely convenient coincidence Jon was happily exploiting. Even Madeline’s presence, which might possibly help avert a disaster, was something Jon had planned on with the meticulousness of a supercriminal. In the two weeks since the reality warp was closed, Jon had kept in close contact with Amar, even though he was busy setting up a new life in Pittsburgh with the help of Josephine Manner’s agents and the local Paranormal and Superhuman Agency. So far neither of them had the guts to ask the other out, but Jon was eager to break the stalemate. However, as much as he wanted to, he could not do it without asking the only two people in the world who could ever get a say: his best friend and the one victim of Amar’s he knew well.

Jon had rehearsed how he would break the ice that morning. “So, I think I might ask Amar out. Like, on a proper date.” That was not what he had rehearsed.

“Are you asking us for permission?” Kyle said, his voice unnervingly restrained.

Jon didn’t have an answer to that. Leave it to Kyle to fire right into the core of the problem.

Kyle shrugged, but it did not belie the fact that his expression was furious. “You can do whatever you want. You’re a grown guy and you’re not even really in the community anymore, so what does it matter what you do, right?”

As Jon tried to decide in the moment if he should just let the matter drop or press further, Madeline reluctantly jumped in. “What’s the problem with him dating Amar? He seemed okay all the times I met him.”

Kyle’s tone was flat. “The problem is that he used to be a supercriminal, and not just any supercriminal. I used to be a drug addict a lifetime ago, and just because he was angry that I fired a couple of arrows that destroyed the super computer he was going to use to raise an android army to take over his homeland, he reached into my brain and made my addiction flare up all over again, just to make me pay. It took him a second to put me all the way back to square one.”

Madeline stammered an “I’m sorry” and looked away.

Jon caught himself before he could say “That was a long time ago.” Instead he just weakly muttered, “I know.”

“I know you know. Which is why…” Kyle shook his head and got up. “You know what? I’m going below deck for a while.”

“Kyle…” Jon started, but Liz put her hand on his arm to stop him.

Madeline awkwardly sprang up. “I think I’m going to go below too. I need to talk to the captain, anyway. There’s one more place I wanted to show you guys before we went home—an island with a shrine on it made of pure obsidian.”

Liz turned to Jon. “Well, at least we don’t have to have an audience.”

“That could have gone better,” Jon said.

“Maybe, but you know Kyle. He’s even more into the community than we ever were. Even if you go ahead and start dating Amar, he’ll probably remember some example of a cape dating a reformed supercriminal and talk himself into being okay with it. Just don’t expect him to be your best man.”

Jon sighed. Even if Liz was right, there probably was a long series of awkward conversations ahead of him until the two of them would finally argue it out. “Well, at least you support me dating Amar.”

Liz looked as if someone had stabbed her in the leg. “Jon, you know I love you, and even though I’m your sister from another mother I wouldn’t tell you who to date, like even when you dated that crazy fanboy who was secretly writing a blog about you…”

“But?”

But this might not be the right thing to do, at least not for right now.”

“So you agree with Kyle?”

“No. At least, not really. I mean, he has a right to be angry, but he doesn’t have a right to tell you who you should date, especially when that person’s proven he’s changed.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“What I mean is Amar’s been through hell. A guy he loved now despises him, he had a breakdown, he attempted suicide, and he got thrust into a dangerous situation just days later. Yeah, I know it was his choice, but I bet Josephine Manners did what she could to make it seem like he didn’t have much of one.”

“And it probably didn’t help that he felt like he owed me,” Jon said, showing no small hint of guilt.

“Exactly. You’ve been his rock right from the day when his life fell apart, but that’s kind of the problem, too, don’t you think? He’s building a brand-new life from scratch, and he’s got to build that life on his own.”

The thought had occurred to Jon, but he had dismissed it. With Liz saying it aloud, though, it could not be denied anymore.

“And if things really go south for us…” Jon wondered aloud.

Liz nodded. “I mean, never mind the really high recidivism rates for supercriminals. Just think of what might be best for him overall as a person, and not just a telepathic prince exiled from another dimension.”

Jon couldn’t admit aloud that he realized that Liz was right, but she knew him too well to think she didn’t say anything he was already considering.

***

“You know, I think this might be the best food I’ve had ever since I got to the First World…” Amar said, greedily but still somehow daintily slicing into a fat gyro. “It’s Greek, right?”

“Yes,” Jon replied.

“And they’re the people who took over, uh, the Mediterranean region?”

“Not really. I think you’re thinking of the Romans.”

Amar sighed. “I always get them mixed up for some reason. And that’s one of the things here I really shouldn’t ever get wrong, even around really stupid people?”

“Sorry, it kind of is.”

Amar groaned with mock annoyance. Already he spend a lot of time joyfully explaining how Josephine Manners had set him up working as a translator and teaching intro courses in Sumerian and Akkadian at University of Pittsburgh (which had no program in the study of ancient Mesopotomia until suddenly the university received a massive endowment from an anonymous donor and the program was established with a suddenness even by the sluggish standards of academia). Nor did he have to live in fear of being exposed and arrested like he did in the old days since, this time, everything was on the level.

Jon wanted to let Amar go on and leave it all unsaid. But something compelled him to say the words, “Amar, I know we talked about dating since the whole thing, but…I think it’s best if we’re just friends for now.”

Amar froze. Jon knew him well enough now that, from his expression, he was resisting the temptation to read his thoughts.

“Oh. I guess—I understand we did take things a little fast, huh?”

Jon chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah, but I don’t regret it.”

Amar looked pained for a minute. “This isn’t because of…everything I used to do?”

This was exactly what Jon was afraid of. “No, it’s just…I think you need to take some time, that’s all. I promise.”

For the rest of their lunch, Amar talked listlessly about apartment hunting and hurried away from the restaurant as soon as the bill was paid, but not before Jon was able to give Amar some news of his own: he had decided to take up a job offer. Jon had made it sound like he had made the decision weeks ago, but in reality he decided the exact second he could sense how much he had hurt Amar.

***

“Um, Morgan?” Jon asked. There were no windows on the plane. Jon didn’t complain, though. Leaving one’s dimensional plane was probably not a sight meant for even the steeliest omniversal tourist.

Morgan was no longer sit rigidly and nervously at he had for most of the trip so far, but was slumped over in his seat and playing with the wire of a set of headphones. “Do I look like Morgan to you? I’m Rob Riley, remember? God, Morgan and I don’t even look anything alike.”

Oh, right, Jon remembered. He has some form of dissociative identity disorder.

“Sorry, Rob,” Jon said sincerely.

“Whatever.” The body that had introduced itself as Morgan looked around the plane. “Were the hell’s the booze?”

“I don’t think it’s that kind of flight,” Jon said, ignoring Rob’s subsequent string of curses. At least they would arrive shortly and he would get the answer to his question. They were outside their home universe, their native space-time continuum, so, needless to say, Wi-Fi service was very bad. But Jon needed to know if he could still somehow drop a line to Amar.

Jon knew he had to do that much. Never mind the fact that Amar had avoided him for almost a month now.

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