…. EPISODE 41…..
….. Posted by uc beverly…..
For long seconds, silence hangs eerily around us as everyone tries to absorb the bombshell I just dropped.
It’s kind of a big deal. Actually, more than kind of. Mind control is the most dangerous and feared power in the books. Supers with that power—with any mental power, really—are carefully watched and regulated and taught from an early age that abusing their ability is tantamount to terrorism. The idea that someone with such a power is willingly using it to bring others under Rex’s complete authority, is…well, it’s unthinkable.
No wonder the team is so utterly stunned by the revelation.
They seem to snap out of it all at the same time though, because suddenly the table explodes with everyone talking at the same time.
“How would we not know…”
“They’d be using it on villains then…”
“It doesn’t make sense…”
No one seems to be able to finish a sentence, as if they’re only half able to process their thoughts. Their expressions are a mixture of revulsion, rage, and terror. “Actually,” Deacon says after the others quiet down, “it makes perfect sense.” He keeps his eyes focused on the table. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s lost in thought or if he’s trying to avoid our gazes. Maybe both.
“When they were torturing me…it always felt like it was about more than just causing pain, you know. More than simply getting information from me.” “What do you mean?” V asks, very interested. “What did they do to you?”
I feel Draven’s hand beneath my palm, and across the table I see Dante have the same reaction.
“At first, they asked a lot of questions,” he explains, his gaze getting even more distant. “Where was villain headquarters? What kind of attacks were we planning? Did we have undercover operatives working inside the League?” Dante pounds his fist on the table. “Typical hero paranoia bullshit.”
“Then the questions stopped, but they kept doing things to hurt me. They’d burn me or waterboard me or shock me or whatever, then when they were done, they’d tell me to do something. Give me a command. An order. Over and over again.” He raises his head a little. “It always felt like they expected me to comply.”
feel sick at what Deacon is saying—and the matter-of-fact way he’s saying it. Like, it wasn’t a big deal that he was tortured.
A quick glance around the table tells me everyone else feels the same way. Riley looks as if he might actually throw up. Nitro’s eyes are glossy as if he’s fighting back tears, and Draven… Draven looks like he wants to kill Rex with his bare hands. At this point though, he’s going to have to get in line. I’ve never been one to wish bad things on anyone—even bad people—but that philosophy doesn’t extend to Rex. I want that man to hurt like no one has ever hurt before. Repeatedly.
“Did it work?” V asks into the murderous silence that engulfs us all. “Did you ever do what they wanted?”
“Not even to get the pain to stop?” Jeremy asks. “No one would blame you—” “You think I can’t take pain?” Deacon asks with a mocking emphasis on the last word. “When you grow up a villain, hero boy, pain is a way of life.”
I want to believe he’s exaggerating because of his own recent experience, but none of the other villains contradict him. They all nod like they know exactly what he’s talking about.
My body pulses with rage. That an entire group of people should be raised to expect a life full of pain? It’s horrifying. Especially when I think about my mom. She grew up a villain, then spent her adult life hiding among heroes…only to end up dying at their hands anyway. If what Deacon says is true, her whole life was ruled by heroes in one way or another. She suffered her whole life because of them.
Torture is too good for Rex Malone.
“They must have been trying to control you too,” V says, breaking me out of my thoughts. “Using pain to make you vulnerable, to force you to lower your defenses.”
“What defenses?” Deacon lifts his hands in a helpless gesture. “I wasn’t actively trying to block them. I didn’t even know what they were trying to do.”
“You don’t have power-suppression ability anyway,” I tell him. “Only a super like my mom could have actually blocked a mind controller. And only if she knew what they were going to do before they started.” “Maybe you have a natural defense,” Rebel suggests.
“That’s possible,” I say, turning the puzzle around in my mind. “Like V said, they were trying to break down your defenses so the mind control could take hold. That must be why they told you to do things. They wanted to see if it worked.”
“It didn’t. I never did anything they told me to.” Dante pats his brother on the back. “That’s my boy.”
He shook his head. “Usually, I did the exact opposite just to spite them.” “They must have loved that,” Draven says.
“Rex’s face would turn a really ugly shade of purple,” Deacon says with a smile, “and then he’d mutter a bunch of garbage about Arizona.” “Arizona?” Draven and I repeat at the same time.
The waitress chooses that moment to come to take our order. I want to tell her to forget about it, that we aren’t hungry. But we need to eat. After the stress of what happened at the cabin and the exertion it took to get away, our bodies will be severely depleted. We need to replenish.
Besides, we can’t sit here all day talking or someone is bound to notice us. And if they notice us, that increases the odds that they’ll recognize us. We need to eat and get out before more customers start piling into the diner.
We may be halfway to Kansas, but Rex is going to spread his net wide looking for us.
I wait impatiently as everyone gives their order, then panic-order an omelet when it’s my turn because I haven’t even bothered to open the menu. Once she walks
away, which feels like it takes forever, I lean forward to grab Deacon’s attention again.
“He mentioned Arizona specifically?” I look at Riley. “Is there a secret base there or something?”
He shrugs. “Not that I ever heard about.”
“Arizona,” I repeat, trying to think if my mom ever mentioned anything about it to me. “Arizona, Arizona. What’s in Arizona…?”
“Well, they didn’t say Arizona, exactly,” Deacon says. “But Phoenix. He talked a lot about Phoenix, which is in Arizona.”
My thoughts slam back to Dr. Harwood and his message for my mother before everything went to hell. I never got the chance to give her the message though, because she died before I could ask her anything.
“He talked about Phoenix?” Riley says suddenly. “Or the scarlet phoenix?” “Is there a difference?” Rebel demands.
He gives his sister a duh look. “Phoenix is a city in Arizona. But the scarlet phoenix protocol is something else entirely.”
“The scarlet phoenix flies at dawn.” The words tumble out before I even know I’m going to say them.
Everyone turns to look at me.
“How do you know about the scarlet phoenix protocol?” Riley asks, genuinely confused.
“What is it, Riley?” I demand. “What is the scarlet phoenix protocol?” His cheeks flame a bright red. “Oh God.” “What?”
“I-I-I never thought about it before now.” Now he really looks like he wants to throw up. “I mean, it never occurred to me that Dad would ever use it, let alone against Rebel.”
“Tell us,” Draven demands. “And I swear to God, Riley, if you’ve been holding out on us—”
“Chill out!” Nitro tells him, slapping him on the shoulder hard enough to get everybody’s attention. “He’s not holding out on us. You don’t need to jump down the hero’s throat every time something goes wrong, you know. Give the guy a second and I’m sure he’ll tell us all about it.”
“Since when do you defend heroes?” V asks, incredulous. “Since he fell for one,” Dante answers her. “Obviously.” “Takes one to know one,” Nitro shoots back. Dante just grins. “Exactly.”
“Whatever.” Nitro tries to play it cool, but suddenly he’s looking anywhere and everywhere but at Riley.
Riley looks a little dazed himself, but I’m not sure if that’s because of the Nitro falling-for-him thing or the scarlet phoenix thing. It had better be the latter because we don’t exactly have time to worry about his love life at the moment.
Apparently V and I are on the same page.
“Can we focus, please?” she demands, snapping her fingers in front of Riley’s face. “Start talking, HB1, or your ass is going to get really well acquainted with my foot.”
“It-it’s been a goal of Dad’s for a long time,” Riley says. “But it was just talk. A pie-in-the-sky dream. He never said anything to make me think he actually got it off the ground. But-but, he must have.”
“What exactly is it, Riley?” Rebel demands, sounding close to tears. “What did Dad do to me?”
Dante wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her against him. She relaxes into his side, but her face all but screams that she’s still upset. Not that I blame her. Rex is a bastard, no doubt, but still…mind-controlling his daughter? Using a weapon on her he meant to use on the villains? If I didn’t know him so well—if he hadn’t killed my mom and just blown up a cabin that he thought contained all of his children—it’d be unthinkable.
“A psychic weapon,” Riley says softly. “Dad’s been talking about it for ages. Ever since I was a little. I remember hearing the name for the first time at least ten years ago—”
“How would you know that?” V interrupts. “You were just a kid.”
“It was right after James Swift was killed.” Riley looks at me. “Or a least right
after we thought he was killed.”
“My dad?” I ask.
I didn’t know the Malones then, but my dad was a big deal in the hero world. It’s not surprising that Rex would have talked about my dad’s death, that Riley would remember that.
“Even I remember that,” Draven says, “and I didn’t know the guy.” “Thirteen,” I say. “It was thirteen years ago.”
“I was in the room during a Collective meeting,” Riley continues, “sitting in the corner, reading a comic book. Dad was going on and on about what a shame your father’s death was, and how much he would be missed. But then he said that it didn’t have to be in vain. That your dad had left behind something that could change the nature of hero-villain relations forever. Something that would make
villains bow to the will of the League and bring peace to everyone. He called it scarlet phoenix, in honor of your dad, who—”
“The tattoo,” I say breathlessly as a memory surfaces. “My dad had a huge red phoenix tattooed across his back.”
My stomach twists, and for a second I’m convinced it’s going to heave up the cup and a half of coffee I’ve sucked down while sitting here. Rex did this to honor my father? Decided to try mind control on villains because they’d killed my dad and he wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again? I don’t remember much about my dad, but he was a good man. A great man. I’m sure this mess—this torture and violence—isn’t what he would have wanted.
Especially considering he was married to a villain and father to another.
And the fact that, according to my mom, he wasn’t really killed.
“So Dad’s been trying to mind-control people for years?” Rebel demands. “And he finally found the formula when he mind-controlled me?”
“I don’t know.” Riley shrugs. “Like I said, I thought it was all talk. A hero-world urban legend. I’ve heard it mentioned over the years, but never anything more that rumors.”
“It doesn’t seem like a very effective program,” Jeremy says.
Every last one of us turns to glare at him.
“What?” he says with a defensive shrug. “I just meant that it’s awfully difficult to implement, if it takes torturing a super to make it work. That’s a lot of effort.” Awfully is right. What Rex and the heroes did to Deacon was one-hundred-percent awful.
“But he didn’t torture me,” Rebel says.
“You sure?” Nitro asks. “Maybe it was so traumatic you blocked it—” “No! My memory was foggy at first, but now I remember everything that happened after his troops caught me in that alley and brought me to him.” She shudders. “Everything. We talked. He told me how disappointed he was in me. I told him he could bite me, which didn’t go over well. Then he put me in a powers-neutralizing helmet and locked me in my room, with guards at every possible exit. “I remember lying on my bed all night, worrying about you guys and trying to figure out what to do. How to get away from him so I could help you. I didn’t sleep a wink. Sometime in the middle of the night he knocked on my door, saying he wanted to talk more.
“He left the door unlocked, with no guards in sight, and I remember thinking that it was my best chance for escape. The moment he took off the helmet, I started to
use my power on him, but he ordered me to stop. Ordered me to get the clothes out of the bag he’d brought with him, take them into the bathroom, and put them on. “And I did. I did exactly what he wanted me to until you gave me the immunity serum.”
She is shaking with rage and tears by the time she finishes.
Draven curses and so does Dante, who looks as close to murder as I’ve ever seen him. Deacon just looks sick, not that I blame him. If he’d been a little less resistant, a little harder to break, Rex could have mind-controlled him too. Rex could have sent him back to his family—back to Draven and Dante and Anton—and used Deacon to do whatever he wanted to them. He would have been the perfect weapon.
“How do we stop him?” I ask. “We can’t let him use this on anyone else. What if he finds villains who aren’t as resistant as Deacon? He could cause all kinds of problems.”
“What if he’s already using it?” Jeremy asks. “I mean, he must be, or he wouldn’t
have used mind control on Rebel. He wouldn’t have been so sure it would work on
the first try. So who else is he mind-controlling? Who else is a walking, talking,
powers-wielding Rex Malone robot?”
“You mean villains?” Nitro asks.
“Villains,” Jeremy says with a nod, “and heroes.” “Heroes?” Riley chokes out.
“Yes, heroes,” Jeremy repeats, as if Riley is a child. “The good guys with the white capes and the black hearts.”
“No way,” Riley says, shaking his head. “No way my dad is mind-controlling heroes.”
Jeremy shakes his head. “It’s a powerful weapon, dude, and Rex is nothing if not power-hungry. He used the thing on his own daughter. What makes you think he wouldn’t use it on the Collective or anyone else in the League who got in his way?”
The implications are positively mind-blowing.
“You don’t know that,” V says, trying—and failing—to sound calm. “Maybe Rebel was the first hero—” She breaks off as the waitress brings our food.
We all wait in tense silence as she doles out the plates, then makes a trip back to the kitchen for a second round. It probably looks suspicious for us all to stop talking and just stare at her, but for the life of me I can’t think of any small talk right now. Not when the whole world feels like it’s collapsing.
As soon as the waitress walks away, Jeremy asks, “Do we really want to chance it? Do we really want to risk the possibility that Rebel isn’t the only hero Rex has used the power on? Think about all the weird and terrible things that have happened recently and then tell me again we shouldn’t assume.”
When none of us immediately jump in to refute him, he nods to himself in satisfaction before popping a bite of pancake in his mouth.
“The first rule of conspiracy theories,” he says after swallowing, “is that the more implausible something sounds, the more likely it’s true.”
For the next couple of minutes, we all eat in silence as we try to absorb the idea that Rex might be controlling heroes to forward his own agenda. I have to admit, horrible as it sounds, it would be classic Rex. What he did to Rebel is a perfect example. He got her to toe the line and show the whole hero community that he has his own house in order.
I stare at my omelet, which is pretty much untouched. All I’ve managed to choke down is half a piece of toast. “We need to find Dr. Harwood.”
“Dr. Harwood?” Draven asks. “He’s the one who gave you that message for your mom?”
“What message?” Deacon asks.
“About the scarlet phoenix protocol,” I tell him.
Riley gives me a weak smile. “So that’s how you knew.”
“Sounds like he’s involved in the project,” V says. “Why would we want to find him?”
Nitro rubs his hands together gleefully—and for once, a stray fireball doesn’t shoot out from his palms. “Torture him for information, of course. I’m sure I can cook up something worthy of a hero who—”
“No torture,” I interrupt before he can head too far down that road. “Besides, I don’t think he’s actually part of the project. My mom told me to find him. She said he could help us bring down Rex.”
They were among the last words she said to me.
I don’t say that part out loud. I don’t have to. Not here with my team, who know how devastated I am by her loss. And most of whom know as much about loss as I do.
I reach for Draven’s hand, and it’s already open. Already waiting for mine as if he was doing all he could not to reach for me first. I appreciate that more than I can say. The fact that Draven respects me enough to let me handle what I can even when he wants to handle it for me.
I give his hand a squeeze to let him know I’m okay.
“So where do we find this Dr. Harwood?” V asks. “Assuming I let you go after him.”
“Let us?” Dante asks. “I’d like to see you try to stop us.”
She lifts a brow at him, then looks him up and down. She doesn’t say anything, just lets her look—and her well-known ass-kicking skills—speak for her. None of us have any doubt she could stop anyone she set her mind to.
“We are going after him, V. With or without your help.” This time Deacon makes the pronouncement.
I expect her to treat him dismissively, the same way she does Dante, like he’s a child, a responsibility instead of a teammate. But she just looks at him for a second before nodding her head.
Maybe it’s because Deacon seems so much older, even though he’s the oldest by mere minutes. Then again, surviving torture probably does a lot to mature a guy. Whatever the reason, she’s not inclined to argue with him, which I’ll take as a win. Because we are going after Dr. Harwood and I’m just as glad I don’t have to fight her to do it.
“I’ve got his known addresses right here,” Jeremy says, and I have to admit I’m impressed with what that boy can do with a smartphone.
I mean he’s a genius with a computer, obviously. But I wouldn’t take odds against him hacking into the NSA mainframe with just that phone. He can do everything else.
“Let me see.” I take his phone, prepared to program the addresses into the maps app. But it turns out Jeremy has already done that—of course he has—and they’re splayed out in front of me. There are three red pins on the map, two yellow ones, and a green one. “What are all of these?”
“The red ones,” Jeremy explains, “are former addresses. The yellow ones are current.”
“And the green one?” I ask.
Jeremy’s eyes twinkle. “That’s the one he owns through a complex series of false names and dummy corporations. The one that’s listed on property documentation as a private lab.”
“You found all that playing with your smartphone for five minutes?” V looks reluctantly impressed.
“It’s a gift,” he says, puffing out his chest.
“What do you think the odds are he’s there right now?” I ask, not really expecting anyone to answer.
“Pretty good,” Jeremy answers, “considering his car is parked out front.” Jeremy reaches over and punches a couple of buttons, and the map switches to a satellite view. As I zoom in on the driveway, I can see a nondescript white pickup truck parked there.
“Is this live?” I can’t keep the awe out of my voice. “How?”
Jeremy pretends to pull a zipper across his lips. “Technopath trade secrets.” I ignore him and tilt the phone so Draven can see it.
“How far away is it?” Dante asks, trying to get a look.
“About an hour from here, in the foothills south of Castle Rock. So eat up and then let’s get going.” Draven slides the phone back across the table to Jeremy. “What am I supposed to tell Anton?” V asks as she takes a bite of her gravy-soaked biscuit. “You know he won’t be okay with this.”
“Tell him whatever you want. Or don’t tell him anything at all,” Draven answers. “He’s not going to change our minds, so why does he have to know?” “Because I’m your bodyguard. I’ve been hired to guard your bodies.”
“So guard us then,” Dante says with a shrug. “Just do it at this Harwood guy’s lab.”
“And if I can’t?” she asks. “What then?”
It’s Draven’s turn to shrug. “Then you’ve got a much bigger problem than Uncle Anton.”