Lisa’s lips left mine. For a woman who can shatter a mountain to pieces with a single punch, she can give the most tender kisses. I blinked as the visions left me as quickly as they had flooded my mind. I realized that only a couple seconds had actually passed.
Lisa let go of me, letting me hover on my own. She still held the memory device. “You understand now, James?” she said. “You understand why this all must be done.”
“The Villain Maker…”
“Her name is Cero.”
“I see.” I gazed past Lisa towards the south, where our teams should be battling. “Cero, then. She’s here to avenge her world. She has come to kill us all.”
Glorifica shook her head. “That was her original plan. She did cause the Extinction Wave, but it didn’t spread far enough. Something about New Gondwana’s force field neutralized it on contact. After that, she attempted to find ways to reactivate the world-ending protocols that the Masters gave us. She experimented with superhumans over and over, only partially succeeding. That’s the reason for the Supervillain Epidemic. The civilian superhumans don’t fully remember what we did, but they remember their purpose, after a fashion. They run around destroying things and trying to take over cities because they’re following a broken protocol. And when you start to snap them out of it, their minds fragment briefly. Either they go completely insane, or they forget everything again.”
“What about you and your team?” I said. “What about me?”
“She had only just perfected the process when she used it on us. We remember now, but we don’t lose our minds. We know what we are. We know she is trying to save what Worlds she can, by taking away the Masters’ ammunition. She doesn’t know why, but there’s something about us humans that allows them to turn us into these things.”
“So she wants to kill us all,” I said.
Glorifica shook her head. She hugged me in a gentle, but unbreakable embrace. “We follow her orders, but we are not insane. We still have our reason. Tamara and I convinced her that all we need to do is seal the Doorways. With everything that has happened, most of them have been rendered unusable or are locked down. The one nation left that continues to send people through en masse is New Gondwana. We just need to stop them. That is the reason she took us, why she amassed an army from the superhumans in Reeha and the SDF unit that came to stop us.”
She let me go when I didn’t hug her back. “She knew someone was onto us, when she saw that woman had uncovered her operation. I convinced her to let us five stay behind to deal with you. I saw reports of you on the news, that you had gone to America. I knew you were investigating us. I knew you would find us, and when you did, I wanted to awaken you personally.”
“She continued the Supervillain Epidemic,” I said.
“Necessary, to keep the rest of America’s defenders occupied as we worked from the shadows.”
“She killed the five she left behind to continue it.”
Lisa gave me a sad smile. “We all deserve to die, James. Even though it was the Masters who made us do it, the blood is still on our hands. A galaxy’s worth of worlds are gone because of us. That cannot be overlooked. When our mission is complete, she will activate the kill switch the device implants in us.”
I thought of TacTech, how she had begged me to let her die. She had not done so in this calm manner Lisa had. She had screamed and fought, determined to end her life, the trauma so terrible that Shoggoth had to force her not to will herself to die.
The Villain Maker, Cero, she didn’t awaken the superhumans under her command. She restored their memory of their time under the Masters, but she did not make them sane. She instead found a way to reactivate the Masters’ protocols, but with herself in charge. Perhaps she could be swayed, to a point, but I did not believe she would stop with the Doorways and the superhumans.
And I know that, no matter how much guilt she felt for her own actions, Lisa would never have condoned the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents.
That thought made me realize, however, that I was not just blinding following Lisa’s words, that I did not find Cero’s plan acceptable. The device had restored my memories. It had not restored the Masters’ protocols.
“Lisa,” I said. “How was it for you? How did you get sent back?”
She cast her gaze to the sky for a moment. “I was on a world where enormous mechanical cities floated in the sky. The planet was like Venus, a lethally dense and hot atmosphere, but the upper layer above those clouds was strangely Earthlike. It was here these cities floated. I was smashing through them, destroying their power cores to shut down the anti-gravity engines that kept them afloat. Such amazing technologies, such a wondrous people to create such marvels, and I was knocking them out of the sky one by one.”
She gave a melancholy sigh as she looked back to me. “I don’t really know why, but after felling the hundredth city, I paused. I looked to see if there were any others left to hit. As I did, I saw a vessel escaping the one I had just disabled. Most of the cities had escape pods firing off into space, but my fellow warriors were shooting them out of the sky.
“One pod came close to me. Accidentally, I’m sure, it came within just a few feet. I gazed inside, and saw a group of aliens staring at me. They looked like humanoid spiders. A small one was being held by a larger one. It made me think of a child being held by its mother. And I just…”
She shook her head. “I was in a daze the entire rest of the mission. That scene kept playing over and over again in my mind, like a song you can’t get out of your head. When we returned to the Masters’ world, one of them grabbed me, and then I was walking out of the Doorway in New York.”
She gave me that sad smile again. “I think that’s what happens with all of us who return. We see something that jars a particularly powerful emotion, or memory, or instinct, and it maybe shakes the Masters’ control a bit. I think that’s why they send us back. We’re faulty. We’re the rejects. We don’t take to their control so well, so they send us back. I’m not really sure why they don’t just kill us.”
“Maybe they’re hoping that seeing superhumans will inspire other humans to enter the Doorways,” I said slowly. “At the same time, if they allowed us to remember what we had done, they knew we would try to seal the Doorways. So they sent us back with memories erased, and—” An icy stab of guilt shot through me.
It was my fault. All of this. I was the last volunteer. If I hadn’t come out, then no one else would have entered the Doorway. They would have buried the thing in concrete and been on the look out to do the same to any future Doorways. Chances are, the Masters might not even have sent any more, realizing their invitation was rejected. Some more Worlds might have perished, but the remaining superhumans might have eventually been whittled down by resisting worlds.
I should have killed myself after wiping out my team. By trying to be a big hero and return to the Masters to sabotage them, I instead gave them exactly what they needed to capture hundreds of millions of people over the last decade.
There was one silver lining to this. It seemed that, even after all this time, the white elf’s potion still made me immune to the Masters’ control. Even with memories restored, Cero’s device had not brought me under her control.
I was free.
But Lisa was not. She was one of the most powerful superhumans on Earth, and she was Cero’s tool. If I proved to be a hindrance to Cero’s plan, then Lisa would kill me. She would turn my teammates or kill them if she couldn’t. She would assist Cero in invading New Gondwana, and then god knows what came next. I didn’t believe for a second that the Villain Maker would stop there. If she was indeed the “vengeance of a dead world,” and wanted to ensure that the Masters had no more ammunition, she would find a way to complete the Extinction Wave.
Lisa watched me calmly as I trailed off, lost in my thoughts. “Yes,” she said when she realized I wasn’t going to add more. “That theory makes sense. For some reason, they can’t just grab us themselves. They don’t want to send back anyone they can make use of, and they don’t want to send back an uncontrollable element. They knew enough of human nature to know that just seeing people gain powers would inspire many to go for the Doorway.”
She paused for a moment, then said, “So, what turned you? What made you shake their control?”
I lied. “A small rabbit boy tried to shoot a fireball at me. It reminded me of an old cartoon I once saw, about a little wizard kid that learned a fire spell to chase off a monster. That episode inspired me to stand up to my school bullies.”
She chuckled. “Oh, James. You haven’t changed.” She moved to hug me again.
This time, I hugged her back. As I did so, I focused on the earth mana below us. I took it and stretched it up to greet us, without moving the earth. Then I stretched it further, going down, down, down past the crust, past the mantle, down to the very center of the planet.
I strained my power to the utmost, and extended another thread of mana to where I knew Strider was. I could see the blip of her power standing in the battlefield. I forced the wind to move and whisper in her ear.
I felt tears again and squeezed Lisa tightly. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. I connected the thread of earth mana to her body.
Miles away, Strider heard a different whisper. “Terraport her.” She acted immediately, letting her power trail through the mana line I had set up.
Lisa vanished from my arms and reappeared in the center of the Earth. I prayed with grim self-loathing that being trapped by compressed iron as hot as the surface of the sun would kill her. If not instantly, than the constant assault of planetary forces would, eventually, crush and burn her before she could crawl out.
I took a final moment to wallow in my regrets, then I flew towards my teammates.