Amar sat down at the cleanest and most polished picnic table he had ever seen.
On one level, he was slowly eating a reasonably bland bologna sandwich. On another, he was telepathically reaching out for signs of people. He had been enlisted to use his telepathic senses to find people who might be inside any theoretical maintenance shafts. The effort was exhausting, wearing down the entire body and causing a sensation not unlike standing on top of one’s head for too long.
What kept him going was anger. Anger at being cheated once again at a chance at a quiet life. Anger at having been drugged for he didn’t even know how long. And even anger at how Jon rejected him, as soon as they were safe.
However, just beneath the anger there was a kind of hopefulness. Not much, just the slightest of touches. However, it was enough to protect him from falling into the old indigo rage that colored the old days.
“Do you sense anything?” a woman’s voice demanded from the back of his head. It was the voice of one of the two people who had given him a reason to hope, Julia DeMatteis, a.k.a. the Spider. “We have ten minutes before the Archons will show up to make sure you’re not up to something.”
“Nothing yet,” Amar said, his exhaustion beginning to overcome his willpower. “I can usually sense something even if someone is trying to hide their thoughts. I’m not even getting that.”
“Damn. At least Mr. Query thinks there could be at least five more.”
While she was speaking, Amar made one final push. It was faint, but there was a mind, far under the ground of a suburban house near the edge of the park. His anger forgotten, Amar grinned.
One week ago, Amar was sprawled out on his couch, trying to wrestle with the nausea that seemed to be killing him. The Spider leaned against his living room wall, absent-mindedly playing with a set of keys in her left hand. She wore a dark blue blouse in a way that revealed more of her statuesque figure than the other women in this place. Mr. Query never told his real name to Amar, and Amar didn’t care enough to extract the information from his brain. He was a tall, thin, and sickly man, perched on the edge of the recliner.
“I hope you are finished vomiting,” Mr. Query said.
“I hope I’m dead,” Amar whined.
The Spider stopped jangling her keys. “I’m really sorry. The medication doesn’t wear off without a fight.”
“So you saw who took you, and it was someone in a Silver Scorpion costume, right?”, she asked Amar, abruptly changing the subject.
“Yeah. Two of them, actually.”
“We were regulars of the Silver Scorpion,” the Spider explained with no small hint of pride. “The original, real one, I mean.”
Mr. Query chuckled. “We were the best regulars any so-called superhero could hope for. I trust you heard of us?”
Amar was too sick to politely lie and shook his head. Mr. Query grunted his displeasure.
“We can worry about our legacy when we get out of this hellhole,” the Spider said.
Amar sat up, trying to get his bearings. “Didn’t the Silver Scorpion die years ago?”
Mr. Query and the Spider exchanged glances. “We actually do not know how many years we have been here,” Mr. Query explained. “We attempted to keep that knowledge, but even I lost count. However… yes, he died.”
“How do you know?” Amar asked. “He could have gone into hiding or something.”
An indecipherable look overtook the Spider’s face as she signed. “No, he’s definitely dead. I would know.”
“I just do.” Amar could tell from her tone it was in his best interest not to pursue the answer.
Mr. Query cleared his throat. “It may be useful for you to know that it turned out that the Silver Scorpion’s civilian identity was the heir to an electronics and automobile fortune, Christian Scott. He retired the identity of the Silver Scorpion and died two years later. After all the death traps, serial killers, and international shadow organizations he survived, it was leukemia that finally claimed him.”
“He quit the game because…well, there was an incident,” the Spider added.
A gloom descended upon both of the former supercriminals. Mr. Query, whose eyes had been watching Amar, now wandered the room. The Spider took off and began absent-mindedly to play with a silver ring on her finger.
“He called himself Zoltaro the Magnificent,” Mr. Query said. “His entire modus operandi was based on acting like a stage magician from a century ago.”
“I hate saying it, but he was brilliant. No prison could hold him, and it looked like nothing could keep him out either,” the Spider added. “Some people thought he actually did have supernatural powers.”
“He certainly may have been a literal demon,” Mr. Query said, more to himself than anyone else.
The Spider could not help but nod in agreement. “The first few years he was active, he wasn’t that dangerous. I mean, he stole millions and took people hostage, and a security guard or a cop would get hurt once in a while, but then, well…”
“He started killing people. At first, it was just…occasional collateral damage from his plans, but then he just killed. It became murder as performance. Even the less…stable among us not only stopped working with him, we shunned him.”
Amar suddenly remembered something through the fog of sickness. “Wait…Zoltaro? I think I saw a documentary about him. They called him one of the worst serial killers in history.”
“’Serial killer’ doesn’t quite cover it, but yeah,” the Spider answered. “At the end, it got really awful. This elementary school was supposed to have career day, but instead the teachers and students went to the cafeteria and instead found an unscheduled, impromptu performance of Zoltaro the Magnificent. I don’t even remember how many survivors there were, anymore.”
“18 out of 353,” Mr. Query said without hesitation.
“Anyway, after that, the wife of one of the teachers who died gunned Zolatro down. The day after that happened, there was a message sent to all the major local news networks around the city declaring that the Silver Scorpion would never show up anywhere again. I never knew why he did that; if he thought he inspired people to become vigilantes or if he blamed himself for not stopping Zoltaro sooner. But, anyway, the Silver Scorpion never walked the streets of New York again. Not the real Silver Scorpion.”
“Before you ask, we have no idea who could have taken up the Silver Scorpion’s mantle,” Mr. Query added.
“Whoever it is, the real Silver Scorpion would have hated what they’re doing,” the Spider added. Mr. Query solemnly nodded his agreement.
“Well, that does me a lot of good, doesn’t it?” Amar said. “So why stick your necks out to recruit me?”
“Quite simply, you are a bigshot,” Mr. Query explained.
“No, I’m not,” Amar protested.
“That’s not what he means,” the Spider said in a manner that sounded like a teacher elaborating on a lesson to a slow student. “That’s what we used to call supercriminals with powers. Damn, how long have we been gone?”
“We hacked the database of new arrivals. Well, I should say, I hacked it, along with parts of the surveillance system so that it won’t register me and the Spider,” Mr. Query said, not bothering to hide his pride. “Unfortunately, the system is highly decentralized and encrypted, so there’s only so much we can do. We haven’t even been able to access a map of the entire facility or whatever this damned Tartarus is, and it took me literally years to accomplish what we have done.”
“That’s where we’re hoping you come in,” the Spider said. “The Archons are all remotely controlled, but there must be actual human beings working on an operation this massive somewhere. We’re hoping you can use your telepathy to find them, and through them find a maintenance shaft, a tunnel, anything, so we can go straight for it and not get caught looking.”
“All of that is assuming we are not off-world or in another dimension,” Mr. Query said. The Spider glared at him, and he mumbled an apology.
“We do have to consider that kind of thing, like it or not. We have no idea what kind of resources are at work here,” Amar said while getting up. Already the nausea was passing, but he still felt wobbly. “Let me rest for a day, and we’ll see what I can do.” Then, suddenly, the obvious question leaped from Amar’s mind. “Um, so, how close have you all come to escaping before?”
The Spider’s expression at least showed Amar that she was hoping he would not breach the subject. “Yes. Starting two years after the original Silver Scorpion died, his regulars began disappearing, one by one, including us.”
“All of us ended up down here, even the minor league ones like Death Fly, the Patchwork Girl, and Were-Scorpion,” Mr. Query interjected. “Most of us tried working together to find a way to escape. Azalea, the Reaper, Professor Volt, Saint-or-Sinner…all of them are gone now.”
“Gone?” Amar felt a chill. “Where?”
“We don’t know,” the Spider said after a lengthy pause. “But we call it the Box anyway. Whatever it is, they never came back.”
Whatever the Box was, a week later, Amar found he could not banish it from his mind. The three of them had snuck into the house at the edge of the park. It was identical, the Spider explained, to every other cookie-cutter, one-story house in the town – except for the small matter of the large, perfectly round pit with a gleaming silver ladder attached to one side of it where the bathroom should be.
The Spider couldn’t help but do a little dance. Mr. Query smiled for the first time since Amar met him. Amar wanted to shout for joy. Having to pretend to remain under the power of the drugs whenever he went to work or encountered the Archons was as taxing as it was nerve-wracking.
“Be sure to keep a couple of feet behind me. I’ll keep scanning for minds ahead,” Amar thought at them.
The tunnel was made of pale concrete and was given a dim, ugly glow by a series of green florescent lights lining the top of the tunnel. The ambiance was unnerving, giving Amar nothing less than the impression than the tunnel his people said led to the Underworld. He could sense the fear even in the Spider, who Amar knew had the steeliest nerves of all three of them.
As they silently dived deeper into the tunnel, though, their anxiety gave way to relief when they saw a light ahead. Even though Amar knew for a fact there was no one ahead, he moved as cautiously as a cat in a dog kennel. Amar could not help but exhale with relief when he saw the end of the tunnel led into a cozy little breakroom, complete with a cutting-edge coffee maker and a snack vending machine. Amar had the nearly overwhelming urge to sneak a cup of coffee.
Besides the tunnel, there was a nondescript metal green door. The Spider carefully tried to open it. “It’s locked,” she thought. “But it seems to be a pretty standard lock. I guess they don’t think anybody would get this far.”
As she pulled out a makeshift lockpick she made out of a paperclip, Mr. Query rested on a cheap, plastic chair and Amar leaned against the wall, his eyes closed. The initial presence he sensed was apparently gone, but he still scanned the tunnel ahead for thoughts. Suddenly, without warning, he felt an aura that was too familiar.
“We need to get out of here!” Amar shouted.
Before any of the others could say a complete sentence, the green door was flung open. Behind it was a young man in faded jeans and wearing a vintage Silver Scorpion t-shirt that looked ancient. He was flanked by two Archons with smiling faces.
“We are very sorry you are dissatisfied with the conditions of your rehabilitation center, but I am afraid you must be reprimanded for attempting to escape,” one of the Archons said blandly.
“Rehabilitation?!” The Spider screamed. “You psychos were planning to keep us drugged up here until we die!”
“But even you have to admit, this facility is an improvement over Oxrun or St. Helena,” the man said, his eyes fixed on Amar.
“Having trouble violating my mental privacy? Or trying to do something even worse?” The man scoffed and tapped his own head. “A nifty little device, surgically inserted right into the tegmentum. It generates an electromagnetic field that interferes with the connections that make telepathy work. I know how it sounds, but we ran plenty of tests and it’s quite safe. Please don’t worry about me.”
“I know you,” Amar said, quietly. The man smiled.
The Spider made as if she was quietly going to place herself into the custody of the Archons. Instead, she leapt for one of the Archons, launching a kick mid-air. Effortlessly, it grabbed her from the air. With the other hand, it stabbed her in the neck with a needle that was protruding from the ring finger. The Spider passed out in a matter of seconds. The man looked down at the Spider’s unconscious body with no interest. “The usual,” he told one of the Archons. The other one walked toward Mr. Query, who meekly accompanied the Archon. Before he disappeared into the doorway, he smiled weakly at Amar. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“I’ve played this moment over and over in my head for years,” the man said. “And now, I’m forgetting all my lines.”
“Hello, Galaxy Knight,” Amar said. It felt as if he was talking in a dream.
“It’s just Jeremy now,” he replied, sneering. “You of all people know that.” Before Amar could react, Jeremy punched him. Amar fell over to the ground.
“Can’t do anything without your telepathy, huh?” With that, he began kicking Amar in his stomach. Through the pain, Amar was thinking how this was very much not how he wanted to die. “Sir!” a worried voice shouted. Amar looked up to see that one of the Archons had placed a calming hand on Jeremy’s shoulder.
“Right,” Jeremy mumbled, panting. “I’m not a thug. Or a monster, like he is.”
Jeremy leaned over and looked down at Amar. “Besides, we can finally put him to good use.”