Beneath Amar was the battlefield, littered with the wounded and with corpses. It wasn’t quite that horrific in real life, was it? But he wasn’t sure. And somehow, he was staring down at this carnage from a rooftop café he really liked during the tumultuous month he spent in Barcelona as the Exile.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Amar said aloud. His voice was that of a child.
“Of course it does,” his own voice as an adult said back to him from behind. “You just need to realize what exactly is happening.”
Sitting calmly at a table with one cup of coffee in front of him and another cup across from him was Amar himself. Only this other self was an adult, dressed in the black and blue jacket-and-cape ensemble that was his supercriminal outfit as the Exile.
“This will sound dumb, but are you…me?” Amar asked.
The Exile smiled a little condescendingly. “Your guess is as good as mine. But if I recall my or your or…our Psychic Trauma and Treatment training correctly, you had a nasty shock and I am a disassociative persona generated by your subconscious in order to try to affect repairs.” The Exile gestured for Amar to sit.
“No offense, but why you? I mean, why are you taking that form?” Amar helped himself to the coffee. Of course, it was a blend he enjoyed at another time in his life, when he was hiding out in Boston.
“A time in your life when you still had a spine.”
“A time in your life when you were always scared or miserable.”
The Exile chuckled. “And look at you now.”
Before Amar could fire back a rejoinder, the entire world shook, as if there was an earthquake, yet the table and his coffee cup didn’t really shake. He got up rushed to where the battlefield. Suddenly, even though he was the same distance away, the battlefield looked blurry and even more distant. Through it all, the Exile remained drinking his coffee calmly.
“And do you know what that means?” The Exile asked, teacher-like.
Amar turned around. “Something or someone almost jolted me awake.”
“Don’t!” Jon screamed. Standing over the freshly ripped-up corpses of several of the long-needed robots, Hercules was microseconds away from ripping off the wires connecting his head to the sinister-looking cylinder device behind him. He whirled around, his face deformed by rage. “Look what they did to my prince!”
Jon flinched at Hercules’ term of affection for Amar, but still had the presence of mind to warn him. “Ripping those things off might hurt him!” Hercules jerked his meaty hand back like his fingers were just burned.
Hood had already unbound the woman in the chair. “Your friend is right. They turned him into…” She shook her head and gestured toward the man in the suit. “I don’t know what. But that thing they hooked him up to uses his powers to mess with people’s heads.”
As soon as she was free, the woman rushed over to the man in the suit and knelt down before him, looking him directly in the eyes. “Mr. Query? Are you alright?” she asked.
Mr. Query slowly shook his head, like he was relearning how to operate his body again. “I don’t know. I…I feel like a…highway has been blocked off inside my brain.”
“We have to get him out of here,” she said to no one in particular.
“And the prince,” Hercules said. Jon could tell that he was only one impulse away from ripping the machine Jon was strapped to apart, despite his earlier warning.
Jon took a deep breath. “We have to take everyone who can leave and get help. Bring back someone with the know-how to safely get Amar out of there.”
Hercules whirled around from Amar and gave Jon a look of rage that could make an army flee, and probably, at some point in the last three-thousand years, did. “What? You…how could you say we should abandon him?”
Jon knew this would happen, but still had no idea what to say. “Actually, the question is how could you be willing to risk killing him or leaving him braindead?” He realized as soon as he said that he just said the worst possible thing.
Hercules took a step toward Jon. “And we should listen to you, the man who laid with him only to abandon him as soon as you no longer needed his help?”
The tense moment that followed was shattered instantly by the Spider’s firm, loud voice. “Can we please hold off on The Real World bull*** until we’re on the surface?”
Everyone forgot their current grievances and their attention snapped in the direction of an annoyed Spider. After a moment, the Spider reluctantly asked, “Wait, what’s The Real World?”
“Something’s wrong,” Hood said. Since finding Jon, they had been trying to retrace their steps back to the surface for no one knew how long. Reluctantly, they had left Amar hooked up to the machine. Hercules and Jon had not spoken a single word to each other, and in fact unconsciously stood as far apart from each other as possible.
“What do you mean?” Spider asked, supporting an exhausted and confused Mr. Query as they slowly walked.
“Those creepy doctor robot things…they haven’t attacked us since we found the Ex…I mean, Amar.”
“Maybe they ran out. Even bad guys have budgets,” Jon offered.
“He’s right,” Mr. Query weakly commented. The Spider gently shushed him.
After another few minutes, they came across the pit Hercules dug out of the earth. Hood fired a grappling hook arrow. Hercules was the first to climb out, with Mr. Query clinging to his back, and on the surface he helped everyone else get out. Jon was the last.
With a sense of urgency heightened by the prospect of a successful escape, they carelessly rushed into the car. As soon as relief started to settle on them, however, they heard the sound of the ignition struggling as Hood tried to start the car.
“They must have known we were here and sabotaged the car,” Hood said. “We have to run.”
“Too late,” Spider said from the back seat. She was looking out the window. Behind them, a swarm of the long-fingered robots in gowns was gathering in the parking lot. At the lead was a man in a bulky silver mechanical armor: Jeremy Sanchez.
Slowly they got out of the car. With a voice that came through an amplifier, Jeremy shouted, “You have no authorization here. Julia DeMatteis, alias the Spider, and Conner Drum, alias Mr. Query, are convicted criminals and our prisoners. Surrender them peacefully and we will arrange transportation for you and not seek any further action. Otherwise, we will use force.”
Jon began walking forward and held up a hand directed to his companions. “Hold on. Let me try to handle this.”
He pulled out the badge that recognized him as a member of the Final Guard and held it forward like a shield. With his most officious tone possible, he said, “I am currently affiliated with the Final Guard. We found in our investigation that you have unlawfully detained and experimented on individuals. Let us leave and we will…” Jon stopped talking as their rental car flew over his head and landed squarely in the middle of the horde, causing the loud sound of crashing metal. “Never mind,” Jon muttered to himself.
They fought as the robots swarmed over them and Jeremy in his mechanical armor engaged Hercules one on one in a fist fight that made sounds not unlike what you might hear at an active construction site. At first, they did very well, and it even seemed they might be able to escape. Hood, who had run out of arrows and was reduced to using martial arts against the robots, was the first of fall, bellowing out an incoherent warning as the drugs in the robots’ needle-fingers overtook him and he fell to the ground.
Seeing Hood’s unconscious body disappear into the swarm, Hercules fought even harder. Yet he was next, as the former Galaxy Knight took advantage of Hercules’ fury and desperation to grab him by his arms and then give him a massive electrical shock that would have killed an elephant. For Hercules, it left him convulsing on the pavement.
Jon and the Spider continued to fight. Although the Spider had fought to protect him, Mr. Query was nowhere to be seen. But even with his heightened senses there was only so much Jon could do as more and more of the robots surrounded him. Finally, Jon felt the pinch of a needle in his back, and in only a couple of minutes Jon felt his muscles betray him. The last thing he felt before the darkness overcame him was the oddly tender way in which the robot doctors began to lift him.
Nowadays very few things truly unnerved Jeremy Sanchez. One of these things was the face of the Medical Director of Oxrun Asylum, Dr. Zedekiah Gilman. Jeremy was absolutely convinced that the face was incapable of expressing any emotion other than mild disdain.
“I had been led to believe that it would be at least two weeks until the initial experiments would be performed,” Dr. Gilman said.
Yes, well…” Jeremy said, hoping his words did not reveal his desperate hope that Dr. Gilman did not decide to call anyone in authority. “There were…several developments making it necessary to step up the timescale.”
He knew Dr. Gilman was faced with less funding and more patients. In fact, that need and Mr. Gilman’s lack of scruples in fulfilling that need were his only hope. Dr. Gilman grunted. “Very well. But if there are any…irregularities, I will not hesitate to throw you and even your friends in the government under the bus.”
“I wouldn’t have expected anything else,” Jeremy said with a smile, countering Dr. Gilman’s brimming hostility with arrogant confidence. In truth, Jeremy had risked burning his bridges with his government contacts, and that was before he had his little run-in with people affiliated with the Final Guard and was forced to subdue them. But he still knew, while there would be inevitable hiccups, even the typical bleeding hearts in the United Nations Commission on Paranormal, Extraterrestrial, and Superhuman Affairs would see the humanitarian potential behind his work. After all, what was better than using the natural talents of a man who had done great evil to unquestionably rehabilitate hundreds, if not thousands?
Once he was satisfied that Dr. Gilman had been distracted by his duties, Jeremy made his way to an old, half-abandoned operating theater that Dr. Gilman had granted him for his private use. Standing around the room, like medical interns waiting for a demonstration, were his true loyalists, all in the Silver Scorpion uniforms. He could not trust even any of the Archons with a task that had so many potential…legal complications. After the whole fiasco with the Spider, Mr. Query, and the Exile, most of them had already quit anyway. No worries; they would be redundant soon. In the middle of the room, where the surgery bed would be, was Amar, still strapped to the device Jeremy named and would trademark as the Redeemer Arc.
Bound in a titanium cuff that kept his hands bound in much the same way as a Chinese finger trap was Hercules. The superhero called Mantra, Hood, Spider, and Mr. Query all had more conventional bounds. They would after to wait until after he was done demonstrating his new device on the patients of Oxrun Asylum. But once he was finished, he would complete the rehabilitation of Spider and Mr. Query. The three so-called “heroes” would be won over or dealt with in time.
“I know you,” Jon said. Instinctively Jeremy felt his pocket where he kept the gem that made Jon “Mantra.” He felt a little guilty doing to Mantra what had been done to him in the past by stripping him of the source of his powers. But the guilt was nothing compared to his colossal sense of responsibility.
“Oh?” Jeremy said half-consciously, as he examined the monitors measuring Amar’s life signs.
“You were Galaxy Knight, right? You were going to join the Rooks.”
“And I didn’t, all because of your boyfriend,” Jeremy barked back.
“He’s not his boyfriend,” Hercules mumbled, just audibly.
“I know part of your story,” Jon continued. “Amar…he hurt you really bad, didn’t he?”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “I really should have left you people unconscious. But no, the Exile didn’t hurt me. He destroyed my life. But he also gave me…a higher purpose, I suppose. I finally realized the severity of age-old threat of super-powered criminals and psychopaths, and that having glorified vigilantes running around is at best a stop-gap measure. One of these days someone like the Exile is going to wipe out the human race. All I’m doing is providing the only possible permanent humane solution.”
The Spider scoffed. “You call brainwashing ‘humane’?” Jeremy ignored her and turned to the Silver Scorpions. “Now then, here is a basic demonstration of what the Redeemer Arc can do.” He input a command into a small keypad. Suddenly, Jon and the others lost their desire to speak or struggle except Hercules, who kept wrestling in vain against his restraints.
Jeremy gestured to the Silver Scorpions. “Take them to the sub-basement in the back, where we’re keeping the back-up equipment. We’ll work out what to do to them later.”
He hit another dial on the controls of the Redeemer Arc. Amar made a slight noise, as if in pain. Jeremy grinned. “And in the meantime, we’ll start work on our first patients.”