2041. Roger Hesker put a second pillow behind his bullet-ridden back and watched a thoroughbred beauty perform. His boss, the powerful, nearly fearless leader of the Infernals, Zealot, pleased herself and moaned. Hesker watched, breathing rapidly, smiling, watching her through seven walls of the mansion. It was hotter at a distance.
He was starting to feel old. His leader was ten years his junior at thirty. He shouldn’t be watching her, but he couldn’t stop. And listening to her thoughts was even harder to resist doing for hours on end. Soaking in her dreams was like the ultimate porn. Hearing and listening to her dream was often too stimulating. He had been violently ill and shaken watching one her dreams about the Angel, Darkfire. Nothing too colourful or weird to Hesker, but imbibing another person’s dream was a bit breathtaking and intense even if the dreamer was relatively vanilla. He found watching Zealot dream while he was really high smoothest.
Hesker took a long draw from a blueberry vapor pen, blew out a cloud that mushroomed in the sunlight pouring into his south-facing bedroom. He wasn’t happy, exactly, but he sure wasn’t bored. Being hunted and infamous was fun. Interpol had a boner for him so stiff it made him laugh. Since becoming an Infernal, he had an audience. Fansites. Crazy-ass pussy coming out of every corner for him. The bad boy on a rebel superhero group.
He knew the woman hunting him for years and never getting close. Had freelanced for her. That was before his powers. He drew another puff in and held it. Felt it go to his head and felt that nice little sick feeling he got in his gut when he’d smoked too much, too fast. He loved it.
He needed a challenge. He’d killed War God a year ago today. He was depressed, he guessed. Zealot finished herself ahead of schedule this morning. She rose and would be up soon. Watcher cut the cord to her thoughts when he dispersed his visual focus on her, as he always did after she rose. He feared she could read him reading her. He didn’t want to get caught. Thought to be a pervert. Maybe that’s all he was or anyone in PowerTrip or the Infernals.
He wished the Colonel weren’t dead. He thought he wanted to be the deadliest warrior in the world. Never be forgotten. Now that he was, he ached to talk to his old opponent. She’d listened to him. Judged him. On the road to her death. He’d been in traction for two weeks. The fight had been the greatest high of his life. Now there was nothing but the world to change. When the Colonel was on the other side, it was a real war. Now, it was two supergangs fighting for public adoration. Hell would never stop recruiting Infernals and sending them out, Hesker knew, even if his boss didn’t. And PowerTrip was pumping out superheroes like a factory. It was never going to end.
“Hesker!” He started. Looked through his bedroom door at Zealot’s face. Ella Marrow. She was smiling. Three loud pounds on his door, each softer than the first. “Sorry! Learning to knock normally. Open up!”
“What?” Hesker opened the door, and she almost fell into him. He caught her.
“Fight me, Hesker! I want to know if I have a chance against Gladiator.”
Hesker raised his eyebrows. “Seriously? You’ll kill me.”
“I won’t, and you’ll probably throw me around. But it won’t hurt. You can punish away,” she said. He peeked. Yep. She was planning to fuck him. She wasn’t even seeing it herself yet.
I know you’ve been watching me. Hesker.
Who is this?
Wouldn’t the Watcher like to know?
Hesker froze like a spider once the bathroom lights come on. Are you PowerTrip?
The voice was ageless, genderless, unguessable. Afraid of me?
Oh, you poor man.
You think I won’t find you eventually?
Your powers won’t work on me anymore. I’m free of you. But you’ll never be free of me. You’re a tight package of personality, but you’ll come apart like an old dishcloth after I’m finished with you. Hesker.
Ha, ha. Chat soon.
“Hesker! You look higher than high. You okay?” Zealot said, looking at him like his shit wasn’t together. She gave him a little mock punch gently on his shoulder.
“Okay.” Totally not selling her.
“Sorry, um, I was just attacked—invaded—by an old enemy. An old enemy’s daughter.”
“It’s okay if you’re not okay, Roger. Sit down. Here,” She took him by the hand and walked him back to his messy bed. Put her soft small hands on his shoulders and pressed him down into the mattress as if he were a child.
Roger took a long pull from his pen. “Ella, I think I might finally be fucked.”
“You’re an Infernal. We’ll look after your old problems. I told Darkfire the same thing.”
“Not this old problem,” Hesker said.
Hesker was sky high and staying that way. He walked around the oval living space to fetch more Diet Coke and dark chocolate with his headphones on, ignoring everyone. Avoiding eye contact desperately. Afraid to look into another mind. Afraid it might look back.
He flitted over to Zealot before he meant too. Avoided looking at her.
“I’ll help you with Gladiator. I’ve noticed a few soft spots in her game. I’ll show you how to take her,” Hesker told Ella in the kitchen. He peeled his headphones off.
“Do you want to talk about your problem?”
“Nah, it’ll work out,” Hesker said. He put up his dukes like a mixed martial artist. “Come on, let’s hit the gym. Get your shield. I’ll be Gladiator.”
Fighting was his entire life. It was more than a passion. It was a rich language and culture he was proud to be part of. War God was cut from his cloth. The only other one alive at the same time. How many billion people on Earth did it take to breed a War God and a Watcher in the same generation? War God was never far from his thoughts, but today he couldn’t stop thinking of her. Tanelle was a monster’s lair he was avoiding. But why hadn’t he thought of it? Tanelle could become another War God. With her mental powers, she could be deadlier than he could dream of becoming. She just needed a teacher.
“Okay …” Ella said.
“Awesome. Let’s do it. Ten minutes. I’m going to get some clothes on.”
You’ll never live to teach me anything. See this girl? Her name is Dawn Nelson. Your dead wife. You’ve forgotten her. Because I made you. What else do you think I’ve made you forget?
Zealot popped him on the nose. Blood everywhere. Nose somehow unbroken.
“Oh, fuck, Roger!” Zealot shrieked. “Oh, poor Roger! I’ll get you a cloth and some ice!” His boss ran out of the gym. Hesker sat down on the floor like a little kid. Time just burned away. Zealot returned.
“I’m so sorry. You okay? Not broken?”
“No,” Hesker said.
“She hit you again, didn’t she?”
“Hesker, go get her. Stop fucking around with this bitch and put her down,” Ella told him. Ordered him.
Hesker nodded. Maybe pride was on the other side of this. He’d groom the next War God, even if he had to die to make that happen. Maybe all he had to do was fight her to bring the Colonel out of her.
“Ella told me something’s up but not what. Why would she keep something from me, Roger?” Darkfire was wearing all black, as usual. A vest over a tab-collar shirt and black dress pants. He’d gotten used to conversing with the Angel surrounded on all sides by his wings in any room except the gym.
“Always trying so hard to be the boss without wearing the hat,” Hesker said.
“Whoever it is, just tell me. I’ll make them go away. More than.” Darkfire’s eyes started to burn. Hesker felt a little daunted at the thought of this Angel making time to hunt down just one person. Not an enemy he’d pick.
“No, thanks, Angel.”
“You call me Angel like it’s this badass way to demote me, but you can’t. You’ll always be a mortal and I’ll always be me.”
“I’m not demoting you. Roth. Really. I’ll call you Roth from now on,” Hesker said.
“No, you won’t. Angel is what you call me, okay?” The Angel’s wings enfolded Hesker like a pair of claws might a mouse.
“Okay, Angel,” Hesker said. Retreating from the tickle of Darkfire’s feathers. A little scared maybe.
Ella walked into the kitchen still in her workout clothes and pushed past a swath of Darkfire’s wing.
“Thanks for telling,” Hesker told her as she fished a beer out of the fridge.
She stuck her tongue out at him and popped the cap. She turned and left. “Don’t fight, you two,” she called from the living room. The TV came on. Cooking shows at nine.
“I’ve got a bit of a problem. I’m handling it. No risk to the group. It’s completely personal.”
“If it’s PowerTrip you had better tell me now. You will be … rueful, Watcher, if I find out later that you endangered this group.” Darkfire’s eyes burned anew and his wings began to catch in places. Darkfire waited. “Okay, then. Be a fucking dick, Roger,” and he folded his wings away and slunk past Hesker. “Don’t die.”
Darkfire flew Hesker and his car to land piloting the Swan. He set down gently on a stretch of highway outside of Brooklyn. The car rolled out the back hatch. Hesker was suited up. He took a long pull from his pen. “I’m going to try that stuff when you get home,” Darkfire said. The Angel hadn’t said anything on the short flight. Hesker smiled at him, left the plane, and walked to Betty, his wheels. Darkfire pulled away in the Swan.
The car was the closest thing to a home Hesker had ever known. Except the base, maybe. He was getting to like living with people.
Watcher drove his old route to the spot where he’d been watching Tanelle Jackson, War God’s daughter, growing up for a year after he killed her mother. He hadn’t been in three days. He liked to watch from as far away as he could see her in her bachelor in Greenwich Village. But he was having to make himself keep driving to the site. He got out of his car, walked to the dumpster in the alley, took a long pull and exhaled. He was surrounded by graffiti, dumpsters, trash, and weeds. A peaceful place to watch from. And listen.
You’re back. I’ve been waiting for you to come back here. You’re terrified. Will I wipe another memory out of your mind? How would you like to forget who you are? For a while?Ha, ha.
You don’t have a range? I have to see who I—
Your little power is a stripped down version of mine. I can turn you off like a lamp. Snuff you like a candle. Maybe now?
You’re in this long-term. I don’t think you’ll kill me anytime soon. You realize this is just another fight to me now. You realize you’re making this my game—throwing it all away? Hesker waited. He feared to accidentally fasten onto Tanelle with his eyes. Engage her on her doorstep. Watcher was a distance killer; War God had been the better fighter up close.
Any more than you’ll kill me. You think you killed the last do-do bird when you offed my mom. And I’m the only chance of another War God. She was nothing! A soldier in a Halloween costume. I’ve read you like a book, Roger. It was a quick, shit read. You’ve got no surprises for me.
“Call me Watcher,” Hesker spoke aloud. “You can do anything you want with that power of yours. Change the world.”
Why would I want to? Why would you? Has it ever dawned on you that it’s the very striving for causes that ignites this world like a torch?
“Yes. Exactly. It’s a machine. Capitalism. We’re tearing it all down.”
You can’t understand. You’re all agents of capitalism. You fuel it with fear and consumerism. Darkfire hasn’t told you about Wayfarer?
“Everyone needs secrets,” Hesker said. What was Wayfarer? He keyed word into a search on his laptop. Nothing relevant. Nothing illegal. Blogs about travel and a tourism discounter by the look.
Then why are you Googling them?
“Okay, Tanelle. Who are they?”
Wayfarer is the retail division of the Infernals. They sell weapons and drugs as well as Infernals merch and a lot of other things. People.
Darkfire wouldn’t be part of something like that. No.
You know better. You know him better.
“So what if it’s true? The Infernals can still make a difference.”
Are you that naïve? All of you sell-outs in your absurd little bunker. Darkfire is playing you. And now you’re going to die. See?
Hesker felt blood stream down his face from his nose. He felt a sharp, hot sting in his head. He dropped to his knees in front of his car. He laughed. Fumbled for his pen. Took a long pull.
You’re so disgusting.
“Ha, ha. Yeah, but you like me.”
“You do. Everyone does. That’s why I’m still alive. Too charming to kill.”
Watcher fell down flat with the next pain he felt. He laughed again. Took another long pull and bled.
“I’d really rather you didn’t become a stone cold murderer, Tanelle. It’s such a lonely road. Is there any way for you walk on this, cut free? War God was a fighter, not a murderer.”
A long silence. So long Watcher got up from the asphalt and back into Betty, turned up his music.
“Yes?” Hesker asked aloud. “You want to walk away?”
Provided one thing.
“Whatever lets you move on,” Hesker said.
Kill the Infernals. Every last one.