Hitchhiker appeared in our midst a quarter of a second before a massive explosion obliterated the farmhouse in the distance. From our vantage point tucked away behind the tall grass, with a line of trees in the way, we didn’t see the structure itself shatter, but a small mushroom cloud bloomed where it had been. James already had his hand up, deflecting the shockwave, and the debris it carried, to go around us.
Hitchhiker put a hand to her chest and gulped. “Wow. Not my closest shave, but definitely in my top five.”
“I heard the click,” said Strider. “Figured that was the signal to leave.”
“Shit,” said James. “No way anything survived that explosion.”
Strider shook her head. “Everything that wasn’t just vaporized is melted.”
“I did recover them, though,” said Strider. She pointed behind us. There on the ground were the five bodies of the Force members and Chain Master. Strider looked to me. “I’m not sure how they died. Is there any chance you can revive them?”
“Total organ failure,” said Hitchhiker. “I felt it. Brain, heart, lungs, everything just clicked off when she said that phrase.”
Upon death, a superhuman’s powers appear to fade completely, meaning even a super tough body suddenly becomes vulnerable to natural forces again. However, I wasn’t about to risk reviving someone as powerful as Mother North or Razorbeam. The other two would be trouble as well. I settled on TacTech, who they said was not much of a threat without her gadgets.
I touched her face and pushed forth with my power. I was surprised to discover that much of her body was riddled with small devices. I couldn’t tell all of their functions, but her bones had been reinforced with metal plating, her skin had been reinforced with a sub-dermal fiber-weave mesh that didn’t interfere with her muscles or blood vessels or nerves, but gave her skin the durability of Kevlar. A few electronic devices set into her abdomen appeared designed to dispense certain chemicals, possibly painkillers, adrenalin, insulin, or something similar. Her right arm was actually entirely robotic, with an almost perfect artificial skin covering.
The brain was already dead, in that it had been shut off, but there was no physical trauma to the organ. The brain could survive six minutes without oxygen before being damaged, and it had been less than two minutes since Strider had said they’d collapsed. I might be able to kick start this body back up.
I forced the bio-electric energy in the brain to spark. I forced the lungs to process air again, the heart to pump, the nerves to feel. At the same time, I forced her body to eject every single device attached. I pulled off her shirt, and the others were a little surprised to see small pieces of metal, fiber-weave, and machinery popping right out of her flesh.
When her arm fell off, Max said, “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Disarming her,” I said. It took me a few seconds to even realize I’d made the pun. I didn’t find it funny, though. Instead, I grew the woman a new arm.
Her body was functioning again, and once I was done patching up the wounds left from ejecting the devices, she breathed easy. I checked her over to make sure everything was functioning again, before tweaking her nerves to wake her up.
“AH!” she cried out as she sat up. “Wh-what? What? AH! AAAAAAAHHH!!!”
I backed away, and Max knelt down, grabbing her shoulders. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. We got you. You’re going to be okay.”
“NO! NO! Millions! Billions! It ends! ALL OF IT ENDS!”
TacTech snatched up a shard of metal I’d pulled from her bones, and tried to ram it into her eye. Max caught her arm and forced body down, pressing her back to the ground. The small woman screamed.
“WE KILL THEM! WE KILL THEM!” she hollered, thrashing her head from side to side, writhing in Max’s grip. Max held her easily, but the girl twisted so hard, I saw her shoulder dislocate. She didn’t even seem to notice the pain, caught as she was in her madness.
James knelt down and grabbed her head, forcing it still. “What do you mean? We who?”
“You! Me! Us! All of us! They use us!” Tears were streaming down her face. “AAAAAAAAAAAH! WE KILL THEM! WE KILL THEM!”
“Please, get a hold of yourself!” said James.
Frenzied, she stuck her tongue between her teeth and bit down as hard as she could.
“Christ!” said James flinching back as blood spurted. “Shoggoth!”
I was already reaching down, grabbing her arm. I locked her body still and forced her wounds to heal. Her shoulder popped back into place and the nearly severed tongue grew back whole. I forced her to turn her head and spit out the blood so she wouldn’t choke.
“Jesus,” said Max. “What the fuck did the Villain Maker do to her?”
I pumped TacTech’s brain with calming chemicals, forcing her docile. It almost didn’t work. Her mind was alive with electricity, on the cusp of a grand mal seizure. I actually had to fight it down with an effort.
“Listen to me,” I said calmly. “We need answers. Who is the Villain Maker? What did she do to you? How did she install that kill switch?”
TacTech clammed up, setting her jaw and staring straight ahead, tears flowing freely.
“Please,” said James. He’d let go of her, but still leaned close. “If there is any shred of the hero you were left, you have to answer us. We cannot allow the Villain Maker to keep doing this. Whatever she’s done to you, she will do to all of us.”
TacTech just stared forward. “Let me die. For the love of God, let me die.”
Max looked to me. “Can you force her to answer?”
I shook my head. “I can force her to talk, I can’t force her to tell the truth. Her brain is on fire, like she’s trying to will herself to die by overtaxing it.”
James set his jaw and placed his hand on the small woman’s forehead. Crimson light began to glow beneath his palm. I could sense TacTech feel the heat, just a degree below what it would take for the skin to burn. His voice was eerily calm. “TacTech. I will kill you myself. You have my word. But you must answer my questions first.”
She squeezed her eyes shut to push out the tears, and snorted back a wad of snot. She looked towards James with the most haunted gaze I had ever seen, but she nodded.
“Who is the Villain Maker?”
She spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. “She is the vengeance of a dead world.”
James blinked in surprise at that. “What does that mean?”
“The Doorways take us to other worlds. Once we’re there, we destroy them.” Tears started to flow again. “There was a world I was sent to, with a species like talking mice. Their civilization was based around the maintenance of a great machine, an artificial world controlled by a super computer, and each of the mice did their part to maintain it. They were happy in their unity. A civilization devoted entirely to science and peaceful progress.”
She grit her teeth and shuddered. “I killed them. I killed them all! I hacked their machine and made it grind itself to pieces and crush every one them!”
Even under my control, she let out a heart-breaking wail. “YOU’VE ALL DONE IT! WE’VE ALL DONE IT! AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND—” She fell silent as I forced her jaw to lock and her vocal chords to stop vibrating. She heaved through her nose, glaring at us.
Max stared at her incredulously. “Oh my God.” She looked up to James. “Do you think this is real?”
James shook his head. “I have no idea. It seems insane.” He pulled his burning hand away and watched a crimson flame dance on his palm. “But so are these powers.”
“Strider?” I heard Hitch say. I looked over. Strider was hunched over, facing to the side and hugging herself, a hand over her mouth. She was looking at the ground her eyes wide with horror. Hitch hesitantly went over to her, putting a hand on her back.
“It can’t be true,” Strider said. “It can’t.”
“What if it is?” said Max. “We can’t kill her. Do you know what it means if she actually remembers?”
“Come on,” I cut in. “A computer-planet run by sapient mice? And, what, aliens kidnap some random woman and send her to kill it? Even taking our powers into account, that’s a little too ridiculous, don’t you think? That’s going into complete screwball territory.”
I looked down at TacTech, but she kept her eyes on James, specifically on his burning hand. She still wanted him to kill her. James looked back down at her and said. “Why are we sent back?”
“Come on, man, don’t encourage the delusion,” I said. “This Villain Maker clearly has mind control powers or technology or whatever. She’s probably just implanting weird false memories like that into her victims. That’s why all the Supervillains she makes act all crazy.”
“Let her speak,” said James. “Why are we sent back?”
I sighed and released TacTech’s vocal ability. She huffed and said, “I don’t know. I don’t why any of this happens. I just know we’re sent to a place and we destroy it. I don’t even know what sends us.” She swallowed hard. “But she is here to correct it. She opened our eyes, showed us that the dreams we have, they’re memories of what we’ve done. She is here to ensure that no more of us can be used for such evil.”
“Where is she now?” said James. “She mentioned India.”
“There is a village there, where the superhuman survivors of the Extinction Wave gathered. She plans to use them as she did us.”
“For what purpose?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Against my control, her face contorted and she started bawling again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! Please! That’s all I can tell you, now please, let me die!”
James frowned at the pitiful creature.
“James,” said Max. “We can’t kill her. On the off chance that what she says is real—”
“No! You gave me your word!”
“If what she says is real, we’ll have our proof soon enough,” said Max. He touched TacTech’s head, and in a flash of crimson fire, burned it to ash.
Max and I let go of her and stood. “Goddamn it,” she said. She let out a breath. “It has to be a delusion, like you said.”
“Of course,” I said.
James stepped over to Strider, bent down and whispered something to her. As he did, a slight breeze rustled the wheat around us. Hitchhiker, who’d stepped back, and Max, who was still a few feet away, didn’t hear the words, but I did.
“It’s not your fault.”