By the eighth day, Amar had gotten into a routine. He would wake up and eat his mildly flavorful and protein-rich breakfast , which was delivered through a vending machine-like device that fed right into the kitchen (coffee was nowhere to be had in this place, but he couldn’t remember ever minding that, just noting it). Then he stepped out of the simple, tiny one-floor house he found himself in and walked out into the street (which no cars ever drove on) with other one-floor blue-and-white houses perfectly lined up on both sides. He walked about a mile to work, an office in a lovely, colonial-style building. There he sat down at a cubicle where he sat down and proofread medical and legal transcriptions from all over the English-speaking world for four hours. He had co-workers whom he socialized with, although their conversations were brief and never went beyond petty annoyances with work or how good the meals from last night were or what was on television last night. (They would have talked about the weather too, if it wasn’t always sunny with just a few clouds; the only “rain” came down in broad daylight). Then he would go home and watch television. There was only one channel, though, and it was full of cheerful sitcoms and light dramas with just a mild infusion of conflict. His own favorites were Murder She Wrote and Three’s Company.
He dimly remembered how his rage and despair burned brightly that first day, how he felt that once again he had a normal life stolen from him. However, he felt much better by the second day. Even the fact that his telepathy was muted, to such a degree that he could barely even go inside his own mind, didn’t bother him that much anymore.
Nothing did, really.
Amar was only slightly disturbed by his supervisors. They said nothing, but his co-workers and friends called them the Archons. The men always wore black, white, and gray khakis and pollo shirts while the women dressed in colorful blouses and slacks. Where their heads would be were sleek black-mirror screens on which faces were usually shown, although occasionally they would flicker with flashes of blue dancing through the dark. The faces were always pleasant and uninspiringly attractive. And they never failed to be anything but polite.
The only breaks in the routine were picnics and sporting events and community theater and the like. He thought of auditioning for the role of Macbeth, even though the play didn’t have the scene where Macduff’s family gets killed. And Lady Macbeth goes to prison, instead of committing suicide. Still, something about the role of the Scottish king spoke to him.
What was this place called, he sometimes wondered. No one ever told him, and it never occurred to him to ask one of the Archons. It didn’t really matter, anyway. It was now the whole world to him.
The only thing that bothered him, aside from the fact that the rice and vegetable meals that were provided on Wednesdays always tasted bland, were the dreams.
He dreamed of an old-fashioned ship that sailed through the sky and the feeling a man’s beard rub against his own while they kissed and of leading an army into battle down a mountain path while drunk on hate. He also dreamed of his own blood and the feeling of a cold, metallic wall against his back as he slumped against it.
One afternoon on the weekend, he had walked down to the nearby library, a sleek, stylish building that was like being inside a state-of-the-art cell phone. All the books were works of classic literature, moral philosophy, and self-help books. It barely even occurred to him now that this was something that should be questioned.
As Amar perused the literature signature, trying to find a decent translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh and only faintly annoyed he could not find a copy with the original Sumerian, he became aware that a man had been staring at him. He was a tall, thin, middle-aged man who somehow gave him the impression that he had walked off the set of a 1950s television show. Amar could not shake the feeling he had seen the man before around his neighborhood.
It took a surprising amount of willpower, but finally, Amar asked, “Can I help you with something?”
Unfazed, the man chuckled and said, “It’s nothing. Well, a small, little thing. I just thought I would test something out.”
“My companion, whom I suspect you’ll be meeting later, asserted that this was a bad idea, but I usually prefer the direct approach. And, besides, for people in your condition, a little confusion goes a long way.”
“My…condition? But I’m perfectly fine.”
“Exactly.” With that, the man theatrically leaned closer, even though he was still a couple of feet away, and asked, “Query: Can you guess what number I’m thinking of? Your clue is that it is between the numbers 1 and 50.”
Any thoughts as to the man’s identity and what he wanted were chased out of Amar’s mind. Suddenly, he could only think of the odd question asked of him.
“I guess I could try…but why?”
The man smiled paternally. “Just a test, just a test, like I said. Please try clearing your mind.”
Amar closed his eyes. Within seconds, the answer came to him. “Um…23. No, actually, 23.5726.”
The smile grew larger. “Excellent.”
“Do you need help finding anything?” a woman’s voice spoke beside him.
Startled, Amar whirled around. An Archon stood near him, the beaming face of a young blonde woman looking down at him while taking up most of the screen. “Oh, no, but thank you. Thank you very much.”
As the Archon moved on to reshelving, Amar looked around for the bow-tied man, but he was nowhere to be seen. Even stranger was how he supposedly guessed that very specific number and supposedly got it right. The whole thing must have been some prank. Although…wasn’t he able to guess what other people were thinking accurately before, a long time ago? He couldn’t really remember.
“So first thing’s first: your number-one suspect is dead.”
Jon thought that he had misheard Liz. After all, she was just on speaker via his cheap and nearly kaput cell phone. “What was that? I’m not…”
“He’s dead. He’s been dead for 11 years now.”
Jon looked at Heracles, who was reclining majestically on his couch as if he was on a throne overseeing the inspection of plunder taken from an enemy. Also, for some reason, he was wearing a t-shirt and a blazer tailored to leave none of his muscles to the imagination. It would have been better if he had met Liz in person at her home or her office on campus, but Jon found himself surprisingly hostile to the idea of Heracles coming in contact with Liz. Having him seduce Amar was bad enough, and Liz had a thing for superhuman muscles herself.
“Are you sure?” Jon asked the phone perched on the table.
“Of course I am!” He could almost hear the eye roll. After a pause and a few audible clicks of her mouse, she continued, “There was only one Silver Scorpion, and he was apparently really well known back in the day. Are you sure you’ve never heard of him?”
“No,” Jon replied. He looked again at Heracles, who shook his head.
“Well, he was a pretty big deal in New York City history, more than even Sparrow and Viper or Cerberus. In fact, he once…”
Jon cleared his throat, his usual signal to get Liz off lecture mode.
“Okay, okay, sorry. But it might be important that he was so respected he was one of the few vigilantes in New York to ever be granted an exemption from the McIntyre-Cranston Act.”
“So he was allowed to fight street crime?”
“Yep. You really do remember what I tell you. But most of the time he was asked to deal with supercriminals. Then things with a particularly nasty supercriminal went south and he retired. He passed away not many years afterward. The producers of some documentary found out he was the heir of some electronics fortune.”
In a gesture of impatience, Heracles leaped to his feet. “I thank you for following our clue so extensively, as always, Elizabeth, but this does sound like a dead end.”
“Could be. There is one really weird thing, though, that makes me think it’s at least worth looking into.”
“What?”, Jon asked.
“You know how it’s not that unusual for supercriminals to just up and disappear, right? Either they’ve gone straight and gotten new identities or they, well, die. Or worse. Even then, it doesn’t seem likely that every single one of his surviving regulars, whether they were in jail, in a mental hospital, or reformed vanished without a trace one by one after he retired, and they kept disappearing even after he was dead.”
Relief washed over Jon. Now here was a lead. “What’s the time frame we’re talking?”
Jon definitely thought they were onto something, but suddenly he realized that Heracles had invited himself into this investigation. Reluctantly, he turned and asked, “What do you think?”
Heracles grinned. “Comrade, it seems as if we’re finally getting close to me being able to just punch someone.”
Although the incident at the library was so brief, Amar’s thoughts kept straying to it. What did that man want? And why was such an innocent little thing make him feel so unsettled? If it was a joke or whatever, why did he guess such a bizarre number to begin with?
Then, on his way home from work, he encountered a tall, athletic-looking woman who looked like she was in her 40s. Her black hair was in a tight bun, and she moved down the sidewalk with a tense grace. Unlike any other woman Amar had seen since he…relocated here, she wore her blue shirt in a way that rather complimented her breasts. It occurred to Amar then that everyone other than the Archons wore a blue shirt and gray pants. That was also what his entire wardrobe consisted of.
That didn’t sound right either.
“Amar, right? Hello. Good to see you,” she said cheerfully and aggressively, grabbing his hand and shaking it.
“Um, hi. Do I know you?”
“Oh, we haven’t met, but I’ve been keeping tabs on you.”
Amar would have normally been afraid or startled or perhaps even angered—or some combination thereof—but he wasn’t. Instead he only felt a dull curiosity. “Why?”, he asked.
She smiled. “We’ll catch you up soon, I hope, but in the meantime, you take our advice.” Suddenly, she shook his hand and then disappeared, moving fast without sprinting, down a side street. It took about a full minute to realize he had a crumpled sheet of paper in his hand.
“IT’S IN THE FOOD THEY GIVE YOU. AND DON’T LET THEM SEE OUR GIFT.” It was signed with a sketch of a spider.
Amar’s thoughts were consumed by the mystery of the note, especially that second sentence, as he made his way home. Then, almost as soon as he stepped through the door, he found that someone had somehow broken into his house only to leave boxes full of food on paper plates that were carefully wrapped in plastic.