As Fast As You Can
The cars might as well have been parked. Sixty miles an hour just isn’t that fast anymore. Not for me. I ran between the rows, head down, arms pumping. It doesn’t propel me much faster, relatively speaking. It’s like running onboard a jet plane, but it’s necessary. Everything is necessary, if it can increase my efficiency by even the slightest margin.
I slowed as I neared the crash sight. Even after all these years, it’s still hard to see in the blue-tinged twilight that comes when I push myself to the limit, and I didn’t want to hit anything. Might cause more damage than I prevent, at this speed.
The air was filled with crystalline fragments, hanging suspended like bubbles in amber. One car was caught halfway airborne, careening off the curb. I could see every clod of dirt and chip of paint from the point of impact. The other car had been struck from behind, and the smoke from its damaged exhaust pipe lurked near the ground. The whole scene was utterly frozen, glass and metal glinting in the two-tone light.
Once, I might have taken a moment to marvel at the beauty of it. Long ago, back when I was breaking the sound barrier at top speed, I could’ve had a picnic here. I had no moments to spare now.
Gauging impacts is always tricky, especially on objects already in motion. Then again, I had a lot of practice. It took barely any effort to pry the doors off their hinges. Easy as popping the tab off a can of soda.
I saw the math on it once. One of the big eggheads, the scary-smart ones, showed me. I couldn’t remember who, but he was wearing a white lab coat at the time. They all do. Anyway, he did it up for me on one of his supercomputers. Mass times acceleration. I ramped up so far on one scale that the other was almost irrelevant. Who needs muscles and armor and all that jazz when you can run as fast as I can. Speed is strength.
After the doors came off, the car blurred a little around the edges. It was moving faster, what with all the extra energy I’d just given it. Inside were the immobile bodies, their faces masks of terror and shock Not from me, of course. They hadn’t even perceived what I’d done. All the same, I had to get them out.
Maneuvering people was particularly hard. Doing it without hurting them, at least. The egghead guy-Doctor Devious, maybe?-had told me that whatever I did took up energy, and that energy extended out from my body a little ways. Explained why I didn’t burn up like the door’s hinges, how I could breathe here at my upper limits. The energy field wasn’t big, and I didn’t have a lot of control over it. It’s hard, moving something the size of a person, but like I said, I’d gotten a lot of practice at it lately.
I gathered up the bodies, one by one, watching their limbs to make sure I didn’t break anything when I moved. I didn’t look at their faces, though I never did. I already knew what I was going to see.
They always looked like Evelyn.
I’d been lucky with the car wreck. Caught a glimpse of it on a helicopter traffic-cam and ran there before t got much further. There were still injuries, of course. There always were. Damages to the road, the retaining wall, even damages to the other vehicles via shrapnel. Whiplash, as much from my rescue as the crash itself. One death. The family in the blue Honda had a little girl. Hit her head. I’d lain her with the others I’d saved, pulled the cars off the road, and left them all. From their perspective, it had taken barely longer than an eye-blink to do it. For me it was a frozen tableau, etched onto my brain. Seven beneficiaries and one tiny victim. None of them moving.
There would be a funeral in a few weeks. Or in eternity, as far as I was concerned. Speed is time, and I had to make use of it. But no matter how fast I was, I was always too late. Always doing damage control, always reacting. Reacting faster than anybody else, sure, but reacting all the same. You can slice seconds into smaller and smaller pieces, but the countdown still keeps going, and it never hits zero.
Maybe that’ll change too, one day. Things get weird in the big blue glow when I run, and you never know what’s going to happen. All I know is that I used to be impressed by catching a bullet.
One task done. There were always more, though. Here at base, I had radios tuned to hundreds of frequencies. Police, fire, top secret channels, the works. I started slowing myself down enough to let them creep forward, see if I could catch the next disaster before it got too bad. I resented the loss of even this time, the few frames that disappeared while I looked for someone to save. Every second counted. I could save a dozen lives in a second, and I couldn’t stop. Stopping is inaction. Inaction means people die. Simple as that.
The blue light flickered, then faded entirely, and the screens moved forward again. Only at a glacial pace; I couldn’t afford a hint of inefficiency.
Sound is almost meaningless to me at this point. I’m either outrunning it or charging into it so fast it that Dopplers out of my range. But my senses are still human, still subject to the limits of my genetic heritage, as the egghead put it. Thus, I felt the tiny tremors before the ringing started.
My communicator was about to receive a call.
But from who? It’d been a decade since the team broke up, years since our last reunion. That hadn’t been fun. Alien impostors. Giant robots. A couple wars averted, most not. Topspin’s death. Lots of screaming.
Since then, Amazonia had gone off-planet with Ultarr. Meat-Mountain had probably succumbed to the inevitable coronary, but he had never liked me much anyhow. That left Alkahest and the Roach still on Earth and speaking terms with me.
The communicator twitched against my belt. I plucked it off, felt it quiver as the incoming signal hit the sensors. I glanced around my room, at the frozen images on the monitors and the vibrato thrum of the speakers that were moving too slowly for me to hear.
They wouldn’t call me unless it was an emergency.
I grimaced and relaxed my grip on the speed. For the first time in years-actual years, not relative ones-I dropped back down to almost normal. Time hit me like a fire-hose to the gonads. Seconds roared past in a blazing burst. Every moment carried more lives into oblivion. Every moment took Evelyn further and further away from me.
The little comm unit, emblazoned with a starburst insignia, trilled. Incoming message. With a heavy sigh, I closed my hand around it. The device chirped as it recognized my bio-signature.
“Hello?” My voice sounded like a clogged drain. I cleared my throat.
“Ginger, is that you?” It was Alkahest. His clipped, pseudo-European accent was unmistakable.
“Official designations on this channel only, Dimebag.” I retorted. It felt good to joke off again. I realized that I had missed it.
“Pioneer, then,” he said. “If you insist.”
“How’s it been, Alkahest?”
“I must confess, I have seen better times. What of yourself? No one has heard a peep from you in years. I was half-afraid I was calling a dead man’s phone.”
I closed my hand into a fist and uncurled my fingers. It took barely a millisecond. I felt time bearing down on me. “Still alive.”
“Excellent. We have a problem that requires your assistance.”
“Are you up for some old-fashioned heroism? It is easier if I explain it in person. Safer, as well. For the both of us.”
I imagined him stroking his silly little goatee as she spoke. The old bastard hadn’t changed a bit. I looked at my monitors, my radios, all of them pouring out sounds and images in a storm of data. Too much information for one person to handle. Suffering. Disaster. Death. Evelyn.
“Saving the world again?” I asked.
“Maybe more than one of them.” Alkahest’s voice was flat and hard. This was clearly serious.
I looked at the bank of screens again. “You couldn’t call Roach?”
“He is in Chicago.”
“What? Tangling with some intergalactic menace? Or maybe the Mole Men?”
“No.” His voice remained terse. “He requested to be buried in his hometown.”
“Tell me the place.” I said. “I’ll be there before you are.”
Alkahest chuckled. “That might be hard, high road or low. I’m already here. ‘Staking out the joint,’ as they say. Highway sixty-eight, up in the mountain pass.”
I was surprised that it was so close. I’d be able to get there in a few seconds without even revving back up to full speed. Given that it had taken weeks of acceleration to get where I’d been, that was just as well.
I ran, as my namesake is wont to do.
Civilians knew me as Pioneer, the Human Lightning Bolt.
My friends called me the Gingerbread Man.
They’d started the mountain pass with dynamite, as per usual, but halfway through the construction, Meat-Mountain decided to announce his existence to the world in the usual showy fashion. There were still handprints visible in some of the rocks.
I spotted my old teammate easily. I could’ve done it a mile away. His purple-and-orange suit was unbelievably garish back in the old days, and the passage of time had done nothing to change that. He always claimed that the colors were an unavoidable byproduct of the magic spells he put on the cloth to make it tougher than Kevlar. Personally, I think he just liked the attention.
He turned his head as I slowed to a halt. Fast reflexes. Impressive. Then again, he’d always been sharp. Not quite a Doctor Devious or Mentron, but quick. He’d gotten older, but not by much. He might not have discovered the legendary Elixir of Life, at least not yet. Lord knew he was still plugging away at that, but one or more of his ant-aging concoctions had obviously done something. Only the merest dusting of silver speckled his otherwise dark hair.
He offered his treatments to the entire team, whenever he came up with a new one. I always took him up on it, full of daring in my youth. If I were a more honest man, I’d admit that his potions were probably the only things keeping me alive this long.
Alkahest’s eyes widened when he saw me. Not because I’d blurred in like a cartoon character-he was used to that after all these years-but because of my appearance.
“Pioneer!” He said, his eyebrows almost dancing a tango as he searched for an appropriate facial expression. “You’re looking...well.”
“Cram it.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself. I can’t even keep up with my speech anymore. “I know damn well what I look like.” I pushed my once-red hair back with a wrinkled hand.
“What you suspected was true, then.” Alkahest said evenly. If he was offended by what I’d just said, he did a good job hiding it.
I nodded. “Acceleration. Of everything. I figure I’m probably two or three centuries old at this point, relatively speaking.
“I am sorry, Daniel.” He met my gaze, but his eyes stayed hooded.
“Don’t be.” I said. “You’re why I’m around at all. Those longevity potions did the trick.”
“I’ve developed some new formulas. Perhaps-”
“No.” I waved him off. “I knew what I was doing. I could have stopped if I wanted.” This was a bold-faced lie. I couldn’t ever stop. Slow, stop, die. That’s how things go. Speed doesn’t kill you, the sudden jolt at the end does. Just ask my car crash victims.
There was a pause.
“I suppose ‘Ginger’ isn’t a terribly apt nickname any longer.” Alkahest said at last, staring at my snowy locks.
“Yeah, well, ‘Dimebag’ still works for you, Ron. I’ve been here ten seconds and you’re already pushing drugs on me.” I grinned, glad for the break.
“Medicinal purposes only.” He said with a wink, patting the largest of his innumerable satchels and pouches. Glass bottles clinked as he turned to regard the rocky outcropping that loomed overhead.
“So what’s the job?” I asked. I’d done a quick recon of the area before stopping to talk and hadn’t spotted anything special. “Malphast about to break free from The Vault? Another replicant invasion from the Nanite cloud of Theta VIII?”
Alkahest shook his head. “No one from our past.”
I blanched. “Who, then?”
He winced. “In truth, I am unsure who is behind it. My research has, as you know, always treaded around the grayest areas of the Subtle Arts.”
I nodded, and he went on.
“Recently, I turned up a pattern of sorts.”
That was never good. Magic didn’t usually have patterns. Not that I could seem anyway. That’s what makes it magic. “What kind of pattern, exactly?”
He waved a hand, as if implying that he was trying to think of what to say next. In all the years I’d known him, Alkahest had never been at a loss for words. “Disruption in certain energy flows.” He said finally. “Troubling portents. Experimental outcomes far outside the normal margin of error. Whispers from my...esoteric suppliers. Someone has been exploring a line of research which I thought had been closed forever. A line of research I myself pursued briefly after a...request from a dear friend.” He looked at me with those piercing eyes of his, the whites stained purple around the edges as a byproduct of years of self-experimentation. “There’s a reason I called you, Pioneer.” He finished simply.
I blinked, and Alkahest slowed to a still-life for the briefest of moments as my stress response kicked in. My speed went shooting up. My mind was grasping for time to think, to make sense of his words. There was one thought that came to me clearer than everything else, never far below the surface. “Evelyn,” was all I said.
Alkahest nodded. “Someone is trying to weaken the barrier. To open a portal to the Veil and touch the Other Side.”
“More than that.” I said. Now that my mind was back to normal, I could finally make sense of the situation. I didn’t like what was coming to me, and there was a good chance Ron didn’t either. “They’re trying to bring somebody back through.
“Precisely.” Alkahest said, nodding solemnly. He kept talking, but I didn’t listen. Something about harmonies and resonances, balances and thaumaturgic principles. It all sounded like it was coming from very far away.
My mind was filled with an image of Evelyn’s face, her blues eyes shining, lips curled into a knowing smile as she whirled away from me on the dance floor. I tried to hold onto that memory, but it faded, ground down by the sandpaper rasp of passing seconds. It was quickly replaced by another image, as I knew it would be. Still Evelyn’s face, still receding, but now her eyes were wide with pain, mouth parted in a gasp that spiraled into a scream, falling into darkness while laughter rolled across me like thunder.
“I wasn’t fast enough.” I whispered, staring at the rock beneath my feet. I looked up to see Alkahest-Ron-staring at me. He was still wearing that closed, unreadable expression he loved so much. “Lay it out for me,” I continued, turning my gaze away. “In layman’s terms. Remember, I’m no magician.”
“Nor am I.” Ron said. “I am an Alkahest, a sorcerer, a thaumaturgic being. A practitioner of the Subtle Arts. I am a transmutational technician, not a-”
He closed his mouth so sharply, his beard quivered. “Bottom line, if things turn out as I expect, the dead are sure to rise.”
I hesitated. “So...zombies?”
“No.” The Alkahest barked out a bitter laugh. “Mindless thralls aren’t the half of it. I’m speaking of the old spirits. Powerful spirits, steeped in the substance of the Nether Regions. Strong personalities, very strong. Genghis Khan. Vlad Tepes. Adolph Hitler. Alexander of Macedonia. The most cunning and bloodthirsty conquerers ever to walk the Earth, all backed by a near-limitless army of phantom troops.”
“The dead far outnumber the living, Daniel.”
“Uh-huh.” I said. “And here I thought there was a population crisis.”
“This is not a time to be facetious.” Ron snapped. “The point is, this should not be possible. I destroyed my notes, sabotaged the source, and cancelled the whole project when I realized what an open gateway could mean for the world.”
“I remember.” I said. My jaw had grown unnaturally tight.
“And now someone has begun to carry on my legacy! Impossible!” He yelled.
“Couldn’t they have just replicated it?” I asked, though I knew it was a stupid question. Mine usually were, especially where magic was concerned. “Done the legwork themselves?”
Alkahest snorted. “Believe me. I know my own work when I see it.”
“If you say so.”
“Whoever it is, you see why we must stop him.”
He wave a hand. “Irrelevant. This is a crisis of our own making, rooted in our foolish actions so many years ago.”
More than you know. I thought. Outwardly, all I did was nod.
“I have traced the residual energy of the spell to this location.”
“How’d you know to look here?”
“The structure of the mountain.” Ron said as if that explained everything. I knew not to pry when he got like this. And besides, him being vague was the least of my worries.
“So why do you need me here?” I did my best not to sound too bitter
Alkahest’s expression never changed, so I figured I was off the hook, at least for the moment. “Because I cannot simultaneously open the way while also reliably dealing with whatever defenses might be in place.”
I nodded again. “I’m on it.”
“Thank you, my friend.” Ron said.
The world slowed down around me as I poured on a burst of speed. “See you on the other side.”
Ron actually chuckled at that one. “I should hope not.” I watched as he reached into one of the pouches. He pulled out a packet of white powder and a pair of neon-green goggles. Could that man do anything that wasn’t in an eye-bleeding color scheme? “Stand back for a moment, would you?”
I complied, backing away from the mountain a few feet. In slow motion, Ron shook out the packet and moved to the rock wall, where he poured the powder in a neat line across the ground. He put the googles over his eyes and jumped away, seeming to hover in the air as he leapt to safety.
I’ve always liked explosions. The intricate patterns of debris, the swirls and ripples of the shockwaves. I sidestepped a few shards of rock as they drifted lazily past and strode through the new hole in the mountainside. A black-clad guard was standing there in total confusion. He had his hand on the butt of an exotic-looking gun that ended in something akin to a radar dish. Alien, maybe? Transdementional? Still, why was it always black with these people?
Over in the corner, his compatriot was lurching towards a big red button mounted to the wall. Good training, to react that fast. But why were the buttons always big and red?
I didn’t really want to hurt these guys. Odds are they were just following orders, and getting paid handsomely to do so. They weren’t bad people, just desperate. But they were also the only thing standing between me and Evelyn. She was here, somewhere, on the other side of some hypothetical gate through the Veil. Ron might not have wanted to admit this, but I was sure of it. I could always tell when she was close.
I grabbed the startled guard by the shoulder and hip and flung him at the wall. Even as the first guard’s helmet shattered upon impact, I leapt for the other. I tackled him, then zipped over to the other end of the chamber. I watched him hit the ground with a sickening thud. I winced, but much of my discomfort was feigned. I did what needed to be done, and I did it quickly. Speed is damage, nothing more.
The guard I’d just tackled started to stir, and something inside of me woke up. I leapt on him, sending my fists at his head in quick successions. My punches landed in a flurry, moving like pistons in the engine of a race-car. Soon, his face was little more than a bloody pulp.
I stood and dropped the speed a little, panting heavily. The blue glow around me faded, but only barely.
Suddenly, I registered pressure on my shoulder, and noticed that my hand was killing me. I’d probably broken more than a few bones in my fingers. I looked up, following the sensation on my shoulder. Alkahest’s urbane features swam into focus. I blinked twice, realizing that my eyes were full of tears. Alkahest didn’t seem to notice that, though. He was looking past me, at something on the ground. I followed the line of his gaze.
The guard lay beneath me, totally unmoving. His black helmet was staved in, and dark fluid leaked out from his nose. It pooled on the ground near his left leg. My hand was coated in a slick layer of gore that ended at the elbow.
“Bad guys.” I said, growling so that my voice wouldn’t break. “I’m out of patience.”
Alkahest said nothing, but his eyes were troubled as he searched my face. Then he rummaged in one of his pocket, coming out with a small container of eyedrops. “Three in each eye.” He said, offering the bottle to me. “You’ll need them to see if they cut the lights.”
I wiped a hand on my silver jumpsuit, leaving a streak of crimson that vanished immediately as the alien-tech cloth cleaned itself up. The eyedrops stung a little, but afterward the gloomy cavern was bright as a noontime sun.
That was the pattern for a while. We’d hit a closed door, which Alkahest would blast open with one of his countless concoctions. Then I would dash through and subdue anyone waiting on the other side. I tried not to let myself go again, but I was tired. The ceaseless grind of time passing was draining my reserve battery. It helped that I had to go slow enough for Alkahest to keep up. That is, if I wanted to get through the next door without turning myself into paste against it. I don’t think I killed anyone else. I didn’t check too closely. None of the guards moved after I was done with them. I made sure of that.
As far as secret bases go, this place was nearly empty. There were seemingly endless tunnels, boring down into the rock, like the spoor of some enormous worm. The whole facility had an anticipatory air to it. It wasn’t ready yet; it was waiting. Maybe I was projecting, standing in front of a door and tapping my foot, waiting for Alkahest to do his thing.
“Slow.” I remarked.
“You used to take a little more time.” He replied. “Show others a little courtesy.”
I shrugged. “Time is a luxury I can’t afford.”
“Why not?” He asked.
“There’s always another disaster somewhere. Always another bad guy.”
“Ha!” Alkahest said as he bent to this newest door. It was a blast shield of some kind. They’d managed to figure out they were being invaded, at least. Good for them. “That was always the problem, you know, with what we did. We defended, but never attacked. We could never take a proactive approach. It’s one of the reasons I’m retiring.”
“Retiring?” I demanded. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep the accusation out of my tone.
Alkahest looked up at me, then turned back to his work. “We can’t all be as driven as you, Daniel.” He hesitated, then went on. “I never even wanted to be a hero, you know. Vigilantism, constant conflict of some stripe or another. It was never my cup of tea.”
“Why not?” I asked. My voice was hard, like the edge of a knife.
“There was no time for research. No time to actually fix things.”
“It’s not like you could ever go commercial,” I said, a memory surfacing. “You tried that once, didn’t you?”
He nodded slowly. “‘Not replicable in controlled laboratory conditions’ they said. ‘Anomalous,’ they said. Statistically infeasible,’ they said. Bah.” Alkahest stood and backed away, lowering his goggles again. Then he lifted the hand that held the regent and squirted a bit of liquid onto whatever he’d treated the door with. “Get ready.”
This time, the blast wasn’t so much a single concussion as a sort of chemical belch. It was smoky, too, but I darted through anyway, choking on the fumes. I found myself in a narrow walkway, perhaps fifteen feet long and ten wide. On my left, the walls were made of unworked stone. On my right, there was nothing, save a yawning chasm and a vicious drop into darkness. There were no guards, no crazy-looking weapons. There was no one in the room at all, except for me.
At the other end of the room, far away from me, was another door. This was the largest yet, a disc of steel and titanium embedded right in the stone wall. I paused at the mouth of the door that Alkahest had just destroyed, and he stopped just short of me.
“Hold on.” I said.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I could feel...something...on the other side of that door. Not a presence, exactly, but more of an absence. A void far deeper than the one beside the ledge. It tugged at me, pulled at my innards, an oddly familiar touch in a place that I thought had burned away years ago. In reality, it hadn’t even scabbed over. I knew, deeper than my physical senses, more fundamental than gravity, what was on the other side of that door.
Evelyn was waiting for me.
I dashed forward, intent on ripping the door right of its bank-vault hinges with my bare hands. Before I made it halfway down the path, however, something shoved into me and sent me flying. I had a confused glimpse of a weird machine through the smoke. It was some kind of automated turret. Then I was falling away, knocked from the ledge. As I fell, I saw an orange flash followed by a trail of electric blue. The light seemed to go on forever.
This is how it feels. I thought. This is how Evelyn felt.
Then something warm wrapped moist arms around me. My fall ended with the sound of a plucked rubber band. The unexpected impact jolted me from my reverie. With an effort, I slowed the world to a crawl and examined my situation. The thing that held me was a mass of white strands, gooey yet firm, stretching back in a line up over the lip of the cliff. The angle was sharpening as I continued to swing down toward the rocks. I felt the glob that held me slipping as I swung, losing its grip.
The self-cleaning suit! It had seemed like such a good idea at the time....
I pushed further, chopped time into halves, and halves again. The yielding surface of the putty that held me seemed to become stiff as a pole. My perception of motion toward the wall halted. I climbed up my lumpy lifeline like a monkey, albeit an arthritic one. My chest would be badly bruised in a few hours, and I thought I'd strained a shoulder somewhere in there.
Alkahest was waiting. The white strands clung to the rock wall behind him as he peered over the edge, still looking at the trailing end of the putty-rope. I allowed the world to resume. Alkahest blinked. "Pioneer! Wonderful! When you disappeared, I thought I'd lost you."
"I'm glad you were here," I said. I gestured to the sticky gunk. "Handy stuff."
"Derived from spider-silk, at least in part," said Alkahest. He patted a device at his belt that resembled a caulking gun.
"What hit me in the first place?" I said. Back in the vice-grip of time, the pull from behind the door seemed more powerful than ever. "I should have been able to see anything coming. I've been dodging bullets for years." I peered around him at the curious weapon that guarded the large door. It was tracking back and forth between us, as though trying to make up its mind. "Unless that thing fires relativistic projectiles...?"
"Nothing so tawdry," said Alkahest. He sounded almost pleased. "It's based on some quite complicated theory, but what it seems to do is this: it doesn't aim and try to hit a given target. Instead, it first hits, and then works out how it could have done so. A perfect shot, every time! A gun that literally cannot miss!"
"If that's as close as your limited understanding can come," Alkahest sniffed.
I rubbed at my joints. The pain was catching up to me. It always did; the one thing faster than I was. "So how do we get past it?"
"It may be a perfect shot, but it still can't shoot two things at once, and it's not fast to reload those concussive blasts. We'll both go in, and whoever makes it to the gun takes it out."
"I'm not anxious for either of us to go over the edge," I said.
"Here." He passed me a foil-wrapped bundle. "A one-shot dose of my Automatic Net. Pull the tab and aim well. And don't drop your end; it'll kick a bit."
"You think it'll go for me?"
He shrugged. "You're obviously faster than I. It will likely identify you as the larger threat and will have acted appropriately." He pulled out his own Automatic Net. "Stay with me, Pioneer. We have to enter its range at the precise same moment."
I nodded and forced myself to relax. My instincts cried out at staying under time's weight when danger threatened. Speed is protection.
We both crouched.
He sounded like he was announcing a race. I swear he was smiling.
We rushed forward. I saw an orange flare of light and kicked into high speed. This time I didn't go flying. A blue line carved its way erratically forward from where Alkahest had been a moment ago, racing me to the weapon's barrel. He'd been hit, then. Or will have been being hit. I don't know. I hate time travel, loops, and eddies. I prefer forward motion.
The gun was facing me when I arrived, as though already prepared. I leapt forward, hoping it wouldn't just rotate on its mounting to follow me. Luckily, however ridiculously advanced the gun's computer brains might have been, its tripod was barely more than state-of-the-art. It had a notable firing radius, but it couldn't shoot its own feet.
I could have sworn I felt the tingle of another dose of that orange energy already passing over me. The aftereffects of a shot that would never happen, I guess. I kicked out in a low sweep and knocked the thing clear off its moorings. It floated up into the air.
Doubling my fists--and wincing as I squeezed my cracked finger bones--I spiked the nasty contraption down into the pit. Another orange-blue flash showed the stalagmite-ridden floor a moment before it impacted.
Belatedly, I turned to check for Alkahest. His suit could handle conventional projectiles, but that gun had been about as far from conventional as it was possible to get. As it turned out, I needn't have worried; a purple-gloved hand was clinging to the edge. I was beside it in the blink of an eye.
"...angle of deflection must be based on the inherent energy of the target," he babbled as I pulled him up. "My suit absorbed most of the backlash, but the trajectory..."
"Easy, Ron," I said. "We still need to get past the door, and I'd rather not try to ram it down."
He rested for a moment on all fours. "Yes. Yes, of course." He sat back and fumbled through more pouches. I noticed his glass bottles weren't even scratched from the impact he'd suffered. He came up with two small vials and a metal flask. "Here," he said, handing me one of the glass containers. It held maybe two ounces of yellowish fluid. "If there's even the makings of a gate in there, we'll need defenses against the buildup of necrotic energies."
I shrugged and broke the wax seal. The liquid had a sweet, cloying flavor; not pleasant, but a welcome change from most of Alkahest's philters.
Alkahest approached the door. He gingerly unscrewed the cap of the metal flask. "My greatest treasure," he said, lifting the flask as if in a toast. "My first accomplishment. My namesake. The Alkahest! The universal solvent!"
"How can it handle the door? It hasn't even eaten through the flask," I said, snappish with the urge to move, to get through the door, to reach the gaping need on the far side. I was actually shaking, I found. This was a surprise, and not one I was particularly happy to receive.
Alkahest shot me a glare. "The flask is composed entirely of pure Adamant, the only substance known to resist the Alkahest."
"More like the semi-universal solvent, then."
"Must you mock even this?" Alkahest rolled his eyes. "An explosion large enough to penetrate this door would kill us both in this enclosed space. Watch as I open it with hardly a whisper." He leaned over the locking mechanism, muttering to himself. His hand moved and I heard a faint hissing sound.
A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over me, battling the burning desire to keep moving. The weight of all my subjective years seemed to double. Evelyn was so close, just an arm's length away. I could see her, hear her, smell her. Her presence was like a magnet, yet I wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. Nothing seemed worth it any longer.
Why was I reluctant now? Now, after all these years? Was I afraid? I knew I was repentant. I'd served my time in Purgatory. I searched my muted emotions. Evelyn couldn't know, could she? No. I'd never really pushed myself in front of her, never gone all-out. I just... hadn't been fast enough. No one knew how fast I could be back then.
She might still blame me for being a failure, I supposed. But I could bear that now, even if I couldn't have then. I could stand it if she rejected me, spurned the withered and scarred husk I'd become. I've grown over these years of unending toil.
Something metal clattered to the floor. Alkahest stood, tucking his flask away.
"At last," he said. "Come along."
I followed, feeling as if this time it was the world speeding up and leaving me behind.
The cavern beyond was mostly raw and unshaped. Stalactites hovered on the ceiling, making the vast space feel claustrophobic. The floor was dominated by a ring of metal. It looked absurdly like an inset pool, a hot tub, except for the arcane symbols etched all along the outer rim. The flowing script resembled Arabic, or maybe one of the alien languages we'd encountered over the years. Nearby, connected to the metal ring by an insulated cable as thick as my arm, was a console where screens flickered in the darkness.
Otherwise, the chamber was empty.
I peered around as Alkahest strode to the metal ring and mounted the shallow steps.
"Nobody here," I said. "Maybe he knew we were coming?"
"Come," said Alkahest. "Come and look at this. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, truly."
I forced my weary legs to shift across the floor. That, at least, had been carved and polished until it sent up ghost-glimmer reflections. I stepped up to the ring beside Alkahest.
Inside was... nothing. Not the floor of the cave, but not a hole or pit either. Just a gap, a hole in the world, or in my perception of it. Not darkness, not light; just absence. My brain rebelled at trying to process the visual impact and I squeezed my eyes shut.
"Magnificent," Alkahest breathed in my ear. I felt his hand on my shoulder.
A great many things abruptly made sense to me. "There never was anyone else here, was there?"
Alkahest's hand tightened. "I always said you were a solid thinker, Daniel. Not the fastest or the most agile, certainly not the most brilliant, but given time, you get the job done."
"Why would you do this? Why this silly play-acting?"
"Most of it isn't a ruse at all, old friend. Virtually every word I've told you is true."
"So you're killing off all the old heroes, starting with me? Why not just poison me? You've had enough opportunity." Something--not Alkahest--tugged at me, pulling inside my head. I opened my eyes and found my gaze dragged back to the void.
"Oh, I did," Alkahest assured me. "Not fatally. I need you, Daniel."
"I won't join you!" I said, trying to wrench my shoulder away. I was too weak; whatever had been in that yellow liquid, my body wasn't processing it away like it should have. I tried to push myself faster, give myself time to shake off the effects--speed is time--but I couldn't. I was trapped in time like it was flypaper. "Doing this...you're no better than the scum we fight. You're worse, you traitor!"
Alkahest's grip clutched spasmodically. I wanted to turn my head and spit in his face, but I was held by lethargy.
"Don't talk to me about betrayal, Daniel," he said. "Did you really think no one else knew? That no one else could tell Evelyn was frustrated and angry, ready to leave? That no one could do the calculations on just how fast you could run, even then, before you matured? All the others were sympathetic. They gave you space and made excuses for your odd behavior. You'd just lost your girlfriend, after all."
Alkahest's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Can you really stand there and tell me you're better than I am? But then, hypocrisy has always been one of your strong suits. You let your lover fall to her death out of petty vengeance for some spat, and you have the gall to look down on me?"
He laughed then, low and bitter. "On the other hand, that's precisely why I need you, Daniel. That's why you're important, why I had to lure you to this place of your own accord. The gateway, you see, is a complex piece of metaphysical engineering, but it is still an object of death, and I need a death to open it. The key must also be carefully prepared with a rigorous regimen of rare minerals and compounds, of course. I've managed to administer most of them to my various companions over the years, though you're one of the few still alive. More to the point, I need a connection to stabilize it, someone with a strong bond to the dead." He leaned in and hissed in my ear. "And for my purposes, that sacrificial lamb must be a traitor."
He threw the word back at me. "A traitor's heart, so the gate will open my way and not theirs. I want you to know this, Daniel. I want you to understand the depths of your failure."
The gate was changing as Alkahest talked. The terrible emptiness was marred by a trickle of shadow, flowing up from the nothing like oil. It spread outward until it touched the edge and then began to rise. Ripples formed perfect circles on the surface, reflecting from the edges, impacting each other and swirling away in complex wave patterns. Alkahest watched avidly; I helplessly. The gate quivered like a drum.
A voice. A whisper, in the back of my head.
"You are my tool and my case in point." Alkahest moved forward, staring down with a smile. "Even the self-appointed guardians of law and order fail to meet their own standards. People are selfish, greedy, and painfully stupid. You careen around your little corner of the world, trying to expiate your well-earned guilt by saving strangers, and what do you accomplish? A Band-Aid on a cancer victim. It may comfort you to know that I intend to enforce rigid highway safety standards in the future. We will do things right this time."
“I've been waiting, Daniel....”
"We?" I managed to croak.
Alkahest clucked his tongue. "I'm not insane, Daniel. Megalomaniacs try to rule the entire world. I have no need to be supreme merely to fuel my own ego. I intend to share quite peaceably with my like-minded compatriots. How did you think I acquired the computer for that little toy outside? You're far from the only speedster in the world who might need a little softening up. Next time it will be loaded with something considerably deadlier, of course. Pity you threw it down the pit; it was rather expensive."
“It's cold here, Daniel. Can you feel it?”
The otherworldly black substance was even with the surface of the metal rim. It stilled to immobility, reflecting none of the sparse light in the room. It seemed less like a pool of liquid and more like a hole, a gaping throat that would swallow the world. It should be screaming, I thought. Maybe it is. The air was vibrating, like my speakers at home; I was just at the wrong frequency to hear it.
I saw Evelyn's face. I saw the night we met. I saw the gleam of her eyes up on top of the Henworth Building, after I'd carried us both up the sheer wall, brought her to safety. I saw her gold-brown body shadow-striped in candlelight, wet with sweat. I saw the blankness in her eyes and the wry twist of her lips when I said I loved her. I saw her fall, again and again and again, and I stood...and did nothing. I wasn't fast enough to save her...but I could have been, if I'd wanted to. I knew that. I'd always known. I felt again the conflicting push and pull inside me, the drive forward and the sag of inertia. It would be easy to let it happen, to stand unresisting while Alkahest threw me to my own demons and let the rest loose. Evie would have me back at long last, and, oh, what she would do to me....
Hands were forming now on the seamless black surface. Other voices joined a chorus of whispers, other hands and faces pressed against that ebon membrane that sheared thinner with every endlessly passing moment. I was drugged, weak, groggy; I was robbed of my speed.
Speed isn't everything.
I moved suddenly. It was laughably slow compared to my usual efforts, but Alkahest wasn't expecting anything but submission. I didn't try to fight him. Instead, I wrapped my limbs around him and toppled us both into the grasping hands of the opening gateway.
A traitor's heart, he had said, was the key.
It was like falling into thin air. The darkness swallowed us without a splash or a ripple, and we rocketed downward. The voices were louder here, the whispers filling my ears until they were all I could hear. Alkahest flailed in my arms, grasping for bottles or packets, fumbling for his tools. I knew better. We were beyond that now, beyond all of that. I wrapped my hands around his throat and felt it vibrating. Alkahest was screaming as loudly as he could.
I focused my thoughts outward as I squeezed. Shut the doors, I thought. Close them and don't open them again. I am here. I have given you a traitor's heart. Close the gate!
Something tugged at Alkahest as we tumbled through the airless well of whispers. Again, more urgently. Hands other than mine roamed over his gaudy suit and useless potions. Cold hands. They gripped him, pulled him away, held him as I continued falling. My hands brushed past his face as my fingers parted. He tried to bite me.
I fell. I had no reference points to guide me. I might have been standing still, or I might have been hurtling at tremendous speed. After a time, I saw a light up ahead, or maybe up above. It was the only light in an eternity of darkness. I began to move toward it. Was it because I wanted to? I don't know. The firefly spark grew larger and I fell into it. I saw limbs, a hand, a face. Features resolved themselves.
It was Evie.
She was smiling.
I wondered what would happen when I arrived in her arms. I wondered if I would deserve it.
I fell forward, toward the end.