Evan Mortice, still affixed to the wall, listened with feigned interest as Hal explained, “Every human being on the planet now has superpowers. Only, eventually we can’t turn them off. When they max out, instead of being an advantage, it’s the opposite. Strong men’s muscles can’t relax and eventually deteriorate. People with superspeed age quicker and die. Those who fly can’t come back down. They rise up until there’s no oxygen and then crash back to earth again. Each and every power has a limit to how often they can be accessed before they max. Even if unused, they’ll max out eventually. And we don’t know why.
“The Virtual Implant invented by the most exalted Milo Atkins has been studied, tweaked, disassembled, even removed. Nothing works. Without an implant to control when we access the powers, we max faster. For two hundred years, the cryo-chamber was hidden. A year ago, we finally discovered it. Half a year ago all of mankind had a glimmer of hope when our savior, the one to grant us these powers, was reanimated. And as suspected, he was power-free. We held parades in his honor. And they were heartfelt.”
Right eyebrow raised, Evan Mortice listened with a scowl that deepened with each word uttered to him. “Okay. You’re not getting it,” Evan Mortice said again, slower. “Milo. Doesn’t want. To help you idiots.”
Rather than stand with either Jhanai or Caleb, Hal took up root on the wall. At least his arms were folded, a relief as it was a common habit of his. He’d let Jhanai see him. And he’d…been like his old self.
The frequent glances she made at him weren’t acknowledged. More than once, she caught Caleb watching her and she shrunk away.
“You really do know how to pick ‘em, don’t you?” Evan Mortice asked.
Jhenai, though curious about the mocking, didn’t ask him to elaborate.
Hal demanded, “Explain why Milo won’t help us.”
When Evan Mortice didn’t answer, Caleb surprised Jhenai by saying, “How can we be listening to the blasphemy of Evan Mortice against the exalted Milo Atkins? I’m no believer but even I can acknowledge how backwards this is—”
“Will you fucking people please stop already?” Evan Mortice looked from them to Hal and back again, awed. “Are you people out of your fucking minds? Milo’s no damn hero.”
“He developed the implants,” Jhenai found herself saying as she picked up her head to defend all she’d known till now. “While you, Evan Mortice, were convicted after your cryo-sleep for crimes against humanity.”
So far, Evan Mortice had a fight with everyone. Jhenai saw disgust if not bitter amusement in his eyes.
“You’re defending him? You, of all people? Well, I guess that makes sense.” Evan Mortice asked, “And why’s everybody calling me by both names?”
Caleb, standing behind Jhenai’s chair, cursed under his breath. “Just easier to call Adolf Hitler, Adolf Hitler and not Mr. Hitler. No?”
Evan’s expression dropped. Till now, he seemed so bold and uncaring. But Jhenai could see it, the moment he realized that his infamy was nothing short of world-wide.
Jhenai entreated him, “Help us find Milo. He must be confused—”
“Fuck Milo. And fuck you.”
Hal eased off the wall. “This is a waste of time.”
“I’m the killer?” Evan demanded, turning his head to face him but pointing back to Jhenai. “You know what he did to her? Did to Theresa? Huh? You know why I had to go to sleep? Why I was even going to get arrested? Because of Milo! That’s what.”
At the dead silence, he stared at Jhenai for some time.
Finally, he said, “I met Milo in college. My father gave me money to invest. I would have kept pissing it away at parties. Because that was where I met Theresa. She had some of the best shit for sale—”
“Shit?” Jhenai asked.
Caleb explained, “Drugs.”
Evan Mortice scoffed. “And don’t get me wrong. She was smart, but talk about a chemistry student that probably should have been expelled. Her family’d travel the world living with indigenous people. Talking about having the key to the fountain of youth. Well, I don’t know what she found, but she sure as shit found Milo. And too bad for her.”
Save for the beeps and pops from the med beds, nothing else moved.
“Explain,” Hal demanded.
After letting out another sigh, Evan Mortice said, “Milo had a virtual reality system he was trying to shrink down—you know it as the Virtual Implant. The thing started giving everybody nerve damage. My father sent me to that school to keep an eye on him. He was being considered by a lot of people. He’d only gotten there on a scholarship. But with this problem, everybody pulled out. In comes Theresa who says she’s got a way to fix the nerve problem. And she does, but that wasn’t all. It got addictive.”
Jhenai gasped. “Surely, she’d made a counter agent—”
“Sure. If you could fucking find her.” Evan Mortice laughed. “I warned her about feeling sorry for him. Because before his scholarships got pulled, girls were going missing. You hear me?”
Hal eased off the wall entirely.
Jhenai’s pulse quickened. “This is Milo Atkins. He—”
“And so did Theresa.”
“I’ve heard enough.” Hal sighed. “We’ll return him to the pod—”
“I found her,” Evan Mortice said, his head turning to Hal, “in a box, under his fucking bed.”
A hush fell over them.
“Because I was trying to get his formula, or at least the stash, so my father’s company could reverse engineer the substance to soothe the nerve damage and the implant. She was naked, in a human sized box, under his g’damn bed. Do you hear me?”
They’d heard. Everyone’d heard.
This bout of panic to arise inside Jhenai, was different, familiar.
“But she wasn’t screaming. Maybe she was too weak, that’s what I’d figured but nothing. Not a peep outta her. Figured those two were just weird. I don’t know what the hell was going on between them but by the time I realized it probably wasn’t exactly ‘consensual’ he’d already signed a damn contract and it’d be bad optics.”
Hal took a step forward. “So…?”
“So? So what? So I left it.” When no one responded—no one moved—he searched the room for understanding. “There was a lot of money in play here.”
Jhenai chalked it up to a misunderstanding. “But you rescued her? Or…or was this some sort of experiment?”
Evan Mortice’s mouth fell open. He let out a strange laugh. “Bitch, are you nuts or stupid?”
Unaware of which part of his question hurt her more, she stared at him.
To her horror, he went on, hands extended. “Do you know how much money we were making from those damn implants? It was revolutionary. What did I fucking care about this weird ass couple? And then people started getting powers. It was weird, and unreal! And I couldn’t fire him then. I also couldn’t get more of the damn stuff she was using for the nerve damage—that was the stuff making the powers activate in real life. A month later, she was back but…dazed. Quiet. My guess? He didn’t want to let her out but needed her to work on the implant with him now with this unintended consequence. She was the one who figured out that once we removed the optical feature of the implant and just embedded it into the flesh, those powers got fine-tuned. But I could see it. None of it had to do with Milo. It was her substance doing all this. The implant was just making people focus. What the fuck was I supposed to do?
More than once she was in that lab on her own, it was unlocked, and she didn’t run. It wasn’t my fucking business. When she started showing up to work with deep bruises, that was when we had to step in before a scandal broke out. The only good news was that at least he wasn’t collecting bitches or something. And he wasn’t going after kids. It was just some nobody chem student party girl nobody’d even missed. I mean, nobody came looking for her. No one. And she didn’t run so what the fuck did I care?”
The more he spoke, the more numb Jhenai became.
Even Caleb had trouble responding. “You suspected abuse and—”
“Suspected? G’damn you people are dumb. Let me spell it out for you. Whatever he told her to do, she did. And I wasn’t about to interfere so long as the money kept rolling in.” His eyes darted from Caleb to Jhenai and back again. “And don’t look at me like that. If I didn’t hire him, somebody else would. At least I knew what was going on. And I was the one who paid to get her outta there when she wouldn’t even help herself. Milo freaked when he couldn’t find Theresa. And he blamed me for it—threatening to leave. My company was about to take a loss. I shouldn’t have ever helped her but because the dumb bitch wouldn’t run away on her own, all I could see was a body washing up somewhere and getting linked back to me. There was no convincing Milo to stop with this weird habit. Because he’s a psycho. So he framed me and brought me down. But I got the last laugh. Trust me.”
“By throwing the last of the solution into the water system the day you went into cryo-sleep,” Jhenai muttered to herself.
When Evan Mortice watched her, she stared at him in return, daring him to say otherwise.
“You didn’t care what it’d do to everyone. You didn’t care that it would spread, affecting anyone with the implant? Affecting every person on the planet eventually!”
“Bullshit.” Though affixed to the wall, Evan remained defiant. “I threw some weird solution down the drain and suddenly the world has it? Bull. Shit. Whatever’s happened to this place, lady, I ain’t the devil who done it. For that, you need to talk to Milo.”
“Enough.” Hal came to a stop beside him. “You left a woman in a box under someone’s bed for years…for profit’s sake?”
“Oh, get off your high horse. You’re conveniently leaving out the part where I paid for her to start a new life!”
Hal turned his head, directing his visor in Jhenai’s direction. She couldn’t return that stare. Not after hearing what her grandmother—a former legend in her eyes, had been through, and by whom. Milo Atkins. And Jhenai’d stood in the same room as that person.
Caleb said, “Assuming that’s all true, then none of this would have worked.”
Hal’s posture didn’t change.
Evan echoed Caleb’s words. “Worked? Let me tell you what happened. You morons woke him up, asking him to undo the one—the only thing he ever accomplished and not even on his own but with one of his victim’s help. And then he can’t help it, he looks for her and finds that message. And it fucked him up.”
Dread filled Jhanai so thoroughly that she could barely manage to whisper, “What exactly have we just unleashed?”
For a long minute, no one had an answer until Hal turned and called back a few numbers at some of the little drones and one flew to him, a huge needle in its grip.
Jhenai hurried to him, her bare feet padding on the floor. “What are you doing?”
“Getting him up,” Hal said, snatching the needle. “We need to find Milo immediately.”
“But shouldn’t he come around naturally? Isn’t that safest?”
Hal took off the cap of the syringe and tugged at the collar of Evan’s coat as he said, “Yeap!”