“No, this is too…” Amar couldn’t find the word.
“Intense?” Dr. Phan replied as he looked around a bloody battlefield with a professional mild interest. The corpse of a man who couldn’t have been much older than a teenager was at his feet. “This was your first memory to surface.”
“I know, I just…” The battlefield abruptly faded into black like a show on TV. Amar was back on a steep hill that inclined down into a lush forest. The hillside was an old and happy place he knew in his childhood and was what Dr. Phan termed his “neutral place”. “Sorry if that was too…forceful,” Amar said. “I know I’ve been your patient for a while, but I’m still not used to sharing my head with another telepath.”
The body of Dr. Phan was gone. Instead he heard his voice, sounding a bit like a voice coming the other end of a landline telephone. “Just think of it as like talking, only more…visceral.”
Without consciously willing it, the grass under his feet gave way to a carpeted floor and the other side of a room was his own body, bleeding from his wrists and slumped against a wall. “Oh, Ishtar,” Amar whimpered.
“I could sense the thought of your suicide at the fringe of the consciousness when we began our session, and you said you wanted to talk about your sense of guilt and responsibility,” Dr. Phan explained. Somewhat poetically, as he talked Dr. Phan was standing on the other side of the transparent barrier of Amar’s cell. Amar wondered if it was deliberate.
“No, it isn’t,” Dr. Phan said with a smile. Now he was standing in the cell with Amar.
“Sorry,” Amar said. He was about to mutter out another line about how he was unused to dealing with another telepath again when Dr. Phan interrupted him.
“Clearly there’s some sort of connection that might be worth investigating here. Do you remember what you were thinking just before you decided to take your life?”
Amar was shocked by how little he really thought about it and how much he tried not to think about it since his little adventure with Jon. “I’m not sure. I just know, when I decided to do it, I really did feel like I had no future, that I might as well have been a corpse.”
“I don’t doubt you were thinking about the future, but it seems the past was on your mind as well.”
Unbidden, their surroundings began to shift at the speed of thought: a ritual Amar participated in to bring back an undead serial killer, giant arachnid robots marching on the streets of Miami as he grinned from a penthouse window above, a teenager screaming at Amar in rage, and Amar’s only sibling sobbing, pleading with him not to take her memories away…
“Stop,” Dr. Phan said, gently but firmly reaching further into Amar’s mind and pulling his psyche back to that lovely green hillside. A nice breeze blew under the flawlessly clear sky. Now where Amar was standing there was now a red couch and a red cushioned chair.
“Maybe for the rest of our time together it’s best to slow down and just talk the old-fashioned way in this lovely memory,” Dr. Phan said helpfully.
Amar lingered in a small café over a mediocre vanilla latte. He wasn’t there for the coffee, but for the view of the wide green spaces of a nearby college campus (the fit, shirtless guys who played touch football or frisbee were not his only motive for frequenting that cafe, but they were an added perk). Also the shop never had a solid clientele, so it was easier not to have to shut out other people’s noisy thoughts.
Amar liked Dr. Phan, but he couldn’t honestly say he liked their sessions. It had been too long since Amar lived in a place where running into and dealing with other telepaths was a routine occurrence. And where he came from, telepaths were the ones who worked as the closest thing his society had to psychologists, but then he never experienced what his people called “the treatment of the inward gaze”. He could only imagine what it would be like for people who didn’t have telepathic gifts and couldn’t even go inside themselves to construct their own mindscapes.
It was especially disconcerting because Dr. Phan wanted to talk about Amar trying to take his life far more than his past as a supercriminal. Amar hadn’t even really thought about his suicide attempt. It felt as if it had happened to someone else, after all, and he had only attempted it because Yori came to hate him and he had the new life he built ripped away. Or was that the only reason?
His thoughts were still burdensome as he realized he might as well brood at home than waste more money on not-too-good coffee. On the way home, he cut a shortcut through a narrow street, as he usually did when he didn’t feel like lingering. Halfway down the street, he sensed someone behind him who was deliberately masking his thoughts. Amar looked behind him only to see an object that looked like a spearhead, attached to an electric wire and flying right towards him. With only microseconds to spare, Amar fell backwards and caught himself against the pavement with his right arm. It wasn’t exactly graceful, but the pain from the fall was negligible at least. He shouted out, but no one answered. No doubt his assailant made sure to attack him in a place where there wasn’t a single pedestrian anywhere nearby.
The taser or whatever it was fell harmlessly near Amar as he rolled toward the closest thing to cover, a jeep parked on the curb. From there, he darted into an nearby alleyway as quickly as he could. Amar glanced over and saw a man in a silver costume that had the emblem of a scorpion on the chest and a mask with an insectile look, not far behind but just far enough.
Amar rushed over behind another row of parked vehicles, reaching out again to find any pedestrians. There. He located the mind of a group of teenagers coming back from the movies and slowly making their way down a nearby avenue. Amar was prepared to make another dart in their direction, but under a truck, he could see the silver boots of his stalker on the other side of the street.
“Time to stop playing defensive,” Amar thought. His attacker had some rudimentary psychic shields up, making it difficult for him to find a foothold. But before too long, he could feel a tingle of fear, a stray thought of worry that he had lost sight of Amar.
That was all he needed. Amar blasted his attacker’s mind with gibberish-filled, incoherent thoughts that no doubt severely disoriented him, enough to buy Amar enough time to find those teenagers or some other pedestrian. Just as Amar was emerging from cover and preparing to take a photo of his attacker with his cellphone, he heard a fire escape somewhere nearby rattle and the sound of a heavy weight dropping to the cement. Just as he was turning around to look, he felt the prick of a needle on his neck and the feeling of his muscles melting into liquid.
“You are a hard man to reach these days, you know,” Heracles said, grinning.
“Yeah, I know,” Jon said. “They haven’t quite worked out the kinks of communication between the universe and outside the space-time continuum. But I really do appreciate you letting me know.”
Heracles shrugged. “Of course! I know you…ah, care for Amar.”
Jon chose not to pursue that implications of that “ah”. “Well, yeah. I’m just surprised that you…”
Heracles gave Jon a confused look. “Do you think I shouldn’t care about his well-being?”
“No, I’m just – well, uh, are you two dating?”
Heracles’ face darkened. “Do we need to be in some sort of courtship for me to be concerned that the prince may be in danger or, may the Fates not will it, worse?”
Jon gulped. Earning the ire of someone who could break his neck with a twitch of his fingers was not on his calendar. “No, what I mean is – I’m just wondering how close you two have gotten since I went away.”
Heracles seemed to ponder that for a moment before the storm clouds apparently lifted and he laughed again. “Ah, friend Jon, I understand now. No, the two of us have only shared a bed and good conversations. And even then, our talks would too often end in him asking me to swing him around and…”
“Shh!” Jon said, noticing amused glances from the bar’s other patrons.
From what little Jon knew of Heracles, he was no doubt proud of his “lovemaking” with a rogue royal from a kingdom in another dimension. This was probably far from the only time he let certain details slip. Now this time it was Jon’s turn to feel his mood darken.
Before Jon could mull over Heracles and Amar’s relationship for too long, their food was delivered by a group of cheerful yet menacing-looking robots with sleek red metallic skin and a somewhat devilish look. When the Final Guard first established their own official café for members and associates in 1968, Club Limbo, they had used the appropriated robots of an old regular of theirs at the time, Dr. Daedelus, as staff. Since the robots had mostly kept themselves in good working order over the decades and, more importantly, lacked free will according to multiple psychological and engineering tests and actually seemed happier as servers than as a madman’s soldiers, there was no reason to replace them. It took only one robot to deliver Jon’s meal of a Reuben and fries and iced tea. It took three to deliver Heracles’ one-man feast, which includes roast lamb, figs, fried lampreys, grape leaves stuffed with rice, an entire jug of wine, and half a chocolate cake.
“Besides,” Heracles said with a smile, “you should know I take care of all my friends. In the old days, I sailed around Greece to try to save a woman I did not know that well and had only laid with once.”
“How did that turn out?”
“Oh, I not only saved her, but I went to war against the entire clan that took her and then…” Heracles stopped himself awkwardly. “But that was a very different time.
As he ripped into his banquet, Heracles happily changed the subject. “So who do you think is responsible for Amar’s disappearance? Some former ally or rival of his from his former nefarious career?”
That was Jon’s own first suspicion, but after thinking it over, he had changed his mind. “I doubt it. God knows the supercriminal community has plenty of backstabbers, but they’re generally pretty good at regulating themselves when it comes to their own just going berserk against each other. Any act of hostility without a really bad act of provocation is a sure way to get oneself quietly disappeared one day, even if the victim had gone legit. And it should have been old news long before his disappearance that Amar got his pardon because he helped me stop the reality warp, not because he ratted anybody out.”
Heracles signaled his agreement by grunting with a mouth full of lamb. “Some rogue superhero or law enforcement agency then?”
Jon sighed. “That’s my fear. Josephine Manners swears she investigated her own turf over it and I believe her, but she’s not omniscient.”
“Close to it, though,” Heracles said with no small bit of awe.
“There was a big crackdown on vigilantes sometime in the ‘90s and there hasn’t been a resurgence since, if I remember one of Liz’s impromptu lectures right,” Jon said.
“Hmm. But it wouldn’t be the first time a hero snapped or had a grudge against one of their regulars that drove them to break the law and their own supposed code of honor.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Jon said. There was a strong third possibility, though. Human trafficking of the superpowered and paranormally empowered was a lucrative international black market that sometimes involved rogue governments. And the rarity of telepaths made them particularly valuable. But Jon suspected that Heracles didn’t want to consider that hypothesis anymore than he did, at least not until they exhausted the more likely and less frightening possibilities.
“I read everything I could about Amar’s past as the Exile and there were…a few candidates,” Heracles said. He paused, clearly weighing his words, and continued. “But that said…well, the last time you saw Amar was at the anniversary party, yes?”
“Did you see your friend and former teammate, who goes by the name ‘Tell’?”
“Well, yeah,” Jon felt his heart sink. His involvement honestly did not even occur to him until now. “What are you thinking?”
“I was with Amar most of the night, and a few times I saw Tell staring at Amar from a distance. Indeed, I thought about confronting him, but he left long before the festivities were over.”
Jon shook his head. “He definitely has a grudge against Amar. But that doesn’t –“
Suddenly, Jon’s cellphone rang with its usual disappointingly generic jingle. “Um, sorry. I better answer in case it’s about Amar.”
“Of course,” Heracles said, his full attention already dedicated to his meal.
“Hello?” Jon said, rising from his seat and ducking into a quiet, empty corner of the café.
“Um, hey. Is this Jon?” A nervous teenager’s voice said.
“This is he. Who is this?”
“Hey. I’m Juan Romano. So I was walking home from the movies with my friends and, uh, I got this…message.”
“It was crazy! Like I just blanked out for five seconds and your name and number was in my head and I just knew the whole thing was from some guy named Amar.”
Jon, who was confused and increasingly convinced this was some bizarre hoax, audibly gasped. “Wait. Amar? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know, man! I just got this message and your phone number in my brain and this feeling that I better call you. And I’m crap at remembering numbers, you know? But I don’t think I can forget your phone number now even if I try.” Suddenly his voice raised with a real note of panic. “Is – is something going to be wrong with me?”
Jon choked down his impatience. “No, Juan. You’re safe.” You might remember my phone number for the rest of your life, though, Jon thought, but did not dare add. “Just tell me what the message was, please.”
“It was weird, but I swear it was all of it,” Juan said, talking as if he was sharing state secrets. “It just said, ‘It was the silver scorpions.’”