With one hand, Bill Archer thumbs the "Off" switch on his phone; while with the other, he draws a line through the next item on list written on the notepad in front of him.
I'm running out of options, here he thinks to himself. Anything from the ruins of the house would be too irradiated to get a viable sample. If Mirage or Flashburn had thought to save something from Sharon's physical body—a lock of hair, her bloodstained clothes—Blackheart would have mentioned it already. The blood test for the marriage license was just checking for syphilis—nothing saved from that; and the doctor's office had only saved the tissue from the biopsy for a year, back when Sharon had found that cyst in her breast in `99. He was still waiting to hear back from the blood bank in Los Alamos—Sharon was pretty conscientious about donating, but that last pint would be close to its expiration date already.
Archer looks back to the notepad. A single word is still legible at the bottom of the list: "Miriam".
Yeah, I can just see how that conversation is going to go, he thinks grimly. Yeah—hello, Miriam? It's Bill… right, your dead son-in-law. The one you said would never be good enough for your daughter, and who'd never give you any grandkids because he'd be sterile from all his god-damn `nukular' experiments… Yeah, how time flies, huh? Well, listen, Miriam… I know you're grieving the loss of your daughter and all now, but do you think I can stop by and plunder the last surviving mementoes of your little girl? Maybe for her first tooth, or clippings from her first haircut? Well, I know this guy… no, he's not really my friend, he sort of a sworn enemy… well anyway, he's kind of a sorcerer, and I was thinking that between his black magic and my Frankenstein science, we might be able to bring Sharon back as some sort of radioactive freakshow-clone…. Really? Well, how does Thursday sound…?
Archer holds up the phone and begins to dial. Halfway through, he pauses, thinks for the moment, then hangs up. Archer fishes a scrap of paper from his pocket, and begins dialing the number written on it. He brings the phone to his ear as it begins ringing.
As soon as the line picks up, he says, "Blackheart? This is Dr. Archer. I don't care what state she's in—I want my wife back. Just tell me when and where…"
There's a significant pause on the other end. Finally, Blackheart speaks. As in their previous call, his voice is harsh, angry, biting off each phrase and spitting it out. "Unfortunately, Dr. Archer, you have no idea what state she's in, or whether she would want you back."
Before Archer can respond, Blackheart cuts him off. "We have to meet. Third Rail. I'll be waiting."
And the phone goes dead.
Bill Archer sets the phone on the workbench, then closes his eyes. With a thought, his body becomes intangible; his clothes fall to the floor with a rustle and the clatter of loose change falling on the floor, revealing the familiar gray bodysuit underneath. He shrugs into his jacket, then turns to face the far wall.
No more running, he thinks to himself.
He charges for the wall at a dead run. He's fast – easily as fast as any Olympic sprinter, but his heartbeat remains steady, as if he were standing still. He's nearly at the wall, with no sign of slowing – fifty feet…thirty feet…ten…
He leaps into the air in a lazy arc, then impacts the wall with the slap of leather on brick. He clings to the wall for a moment, like a spider – his phased fingers and toes embedded slightly in the wall, supporting his weight. Archer pulls himself to a standing position on the wall, his body parallel to the ground, hanging a good ten feet off the ground.
No more hiding.
Archer begins his sprint again, this time up the side of the wall, toward the ceiling. He feels the slight pull against his feet as he plants them in the substance of the wall with each stride, but it doesn't slow him down. Just as he's about to reach the ceiling he performs a forward dive, his momentum carrying him through the roof and into the open air. He lands with a slight crunch on the gravel roof of the brewery.
Time to face up to my responsibilities.
Archer turns to the north, and sees the Gateway Arch glittering in the afternoon sun. He pulls on his goggles to protect his eyes from the glare, then takes a running leap into the air. Gravity seems nearly to have lost interest in him as he soars over the parking lots and loading docks of the brewery complex. It's a good fifteen seconds before Archer touches down on the roof of another factory, and when he looks back, the brewery is nearly a quarter mile behind him.
Archer can't quite suppress a grin as his next leap has him sailing over the afternoon traffic of the 55 freeway. Without the weight of the lead containment suit to slow him down, the range for his jumps has increased dramatically. He knows he's taking a chance, appearing in costume in broad daylight, but he'll have gone to ground and be out of sight by the time anyone could have phoned it in.
Seven-league boots, Archer muses, regarding the world beneath his feet, now in ten designer colors, including Pugnacious Purple.
Within minutes, he stands at the front door to the Third Rail. Archer takes a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever news he's about to receive, then steps inside.
As you head north towards the landing, you see...panic.
I-55 southbound is pretty much shut down with bumper-to-bumper traffic. As you near the Landing, you see a similar situation on the bridge into Illinois. Emergency vehicles are trying to reach wrecked or stalled cars, while the air is filled with news and police choppers. All the freeway ramps downtown are blocked as well, disrupting traffic for blocks in every direction. Nobody seems to notice you.
The Landing is nearly deserted...tourist season hasn't really started yet, and nobody's sticking around for the weekend. The Third Rail is about as empty as you've ever seen it. Jack and Jade are seated at a booth talking with their only patrons: Blackheart and Flashburn. Their discussion seems to be rather tense, but it cuts off abruptly when you walk in. They stand up.
Blackheart: "That was quick." He looks impatient. Next to him, Flashburn looks as if she'd rather be anywhere else.
Jade: "Just let us know if you need anything, Doc."
"Thank you, Jade," Archer replies. "Could we try a Bloody Mary, hold the vodka? I wouldn't want you losing your liquor license, selling alcohol to a two-month old..." He smiles a half-smile as Jade Gorgon pours him a glass of tomato juice.
"Now then," he continues, looking from Blackheart to Flashburn and back, "let's talk. What, exactly, have you done to my wife?"
Blackheart is in his usual 'goateed sorcerer' guise, which might even be his actual appearance. His face contorts in a pained scowl beneath the black hood and grey beard.
"Nothing you don't already know about, Dr. Archer. Mirage told you the whole story in Los Alamos." He glances sideways at Flashburn. "She's in the same condition you were in, until a few weeks ago...."
Flashburn cuts him off at this point, "She was dying, Bill. I couldn't think of anything else, so I had to bring her back here."
"...and then you dumped the whole problem in my lap, Lilah. Now you see where it's got us!" Blackheart turns back to Quantum.
"Dr. Archer, you adapted to life as 'Contained' remarkably well. Much better than Lilah here did." Flashburn looks more than a little insulted. "Fortunately we restored her to the flesh rather quickly."
"But Mrs. Archer isn't coping well. She has no way of understanding what's happened to her, or why it was necessary. She's becoming increasingly emotionally unstable, and exhibiting thoughts which I can only describe as 'suicidal.' You understand this process quite well--would you care to tell me what happens if she has a complete breakdown? What would the yield be, in megatons?"
Dr. Archer responds, speaking mostly to himself, "I don't think she's accumulated enough potential energy to achieve 'critical mass' yet, based on my analysis of my own energy form—especially considering her physical body had much less mass to begin with..." Noticing the looks and Blackheart and Flashburn's faces, he quickly adds, "But I'm not about to roll those dice."
Archer slides his chair back and stands up. "Take me to her," he says. "There's nothing more you're going to be able to do for her; but I might be able to calm her down enough to... stabilize the situation..."
Blackheart frowns and shakes his head. Before he can speak, Flashburn sees the the look on Archer's face, and realizes things are about to get much worse. "Bill, it's not that simple. She absorbed a massive dose of radiation before we transformed her--take that into account, and she might be closer to 'going critical' than you think."
Flashburn stands up and approaches him, lowering her voice. "And...we're not sure if you should see her. She found out you were still alive--someone tipped her off--and they blew up the house after she made several calls to the lab to find out about you. She thinks you're partly to blame for what happened. It might upset her...."
Blackheart lets Flashburn finish, then he also stands up. "As you said, Dr. Archer, we're not about to roll those dice."
Archer's mind races as he struggles to take in this information. From the whirlwind of thoughts, a single word leaps out at him from his subconscious:
He must have been the one to call her—to let her know I was still alive. But why didn't he listen to me—keep mum until I knew she was safe? I told him what kind of danger she would be in, once I resurfaced...now it's all gone to shit, all because of...
Because of me.
Archer forces his attention back to Blackheart and Flashburn. "I have a couple of leads on where to get a viable genetic sample," he begins, "but it may be a bit of a long shot; and even if I'm right, it's going to take time to acquire it. I know you don't have Boleman on your team any more but...do you have any estimate of how long we have to find a solution?"
Blackheart shakes his head, "Boleman was the real expert, after yourself. Lilah here has done some preliminary work on that. Perhaps the two of you should have a look at it." He glances at her for a long moment.
"Actually, my dear, since you were so determined to save this woman, I'm turing this whole project over to you, as of now." He hands her a cell phone. "Let me know when you have something I can work with."
In unison, Flashburn, Hearless Jack and Jade Gorgon (who'd been pretending not to listen) all exclaim "WHAT??!"
He turns back to Doc Quantum and continues, "Dr. Archer, Flashburn is at your service. Assuming the city doesn't get nuked in the next five days, I'll have other problems to deal with. Have you seen Blitzkrieg lately?"
It never rains, Archer thinks to himself.
"Not since yesterday," he replies. "I hear he works nights a lot—he'll probably be waking up fairly soon. Did you have a message to pass along? Or maybe," Archer adds, "you'd be willing to use your pull with the Syndicate to persuade the Un-Natural Disasters to have a sit-down with us? We might be able to save a lot of needless bloodshed... not to mention keeping them from torpedoing the cash cow of your operations here in St. Louis...."
Blackheart sounds as if he's about to get angry again. "It's a little late to talk about 'needless bloodshed', Dr. Archer. The Un-Natural Disasters are acting on their own, and they no longer give a damn about the Syndicate. All they want is revenge. As if we didn't have enough problems...your friend Blitzkrieg has made an unbelievable mess of things, killing Wildfire. And now it seems he's disappeared!"
Good, Archer thinks to himself. With the Un-Natural Disasters off the reservation, at least we don't have to worry about them calling in the St. Louis Syndicate for backup.
"Look—do us both a favor, Blackheart," Archer says. "Stop looking for him. Things are already in motion; if we do have to engage the U.N.D. directly, it'll be outside the city limits. And if it comes down to Blitzkrieg or the city, I'll take him down myself. He should've left well enough alone when they bugged out, anyway. But if your people screw with our plan, we're not going to have the luxury of being diplomatic about it, and I can't guarantee their safety. If they get underfoot, they're going to get stepped on; and I know you don't have the manpower to waste on this petty vendetta."
"But first catastrophe comes first," Archer adds, before Blackheart has a chance to respond. "So if you'll excuse us, I believe that... Lilah... and I have our work cut out for us...."
Blackheart shrugs. "Take him down? At this point, Dr. Archer, I'm not sure if you can find him. I couldn't, and that worries me. In the past, it's been comically simple. As for the rest of our people... they won't interfere. Unless, of course, you ask them to. Good day."
And with that, he turns on his heel and walks out. Flashburn looks at Doctor Quantum nervously. "Okay, now what?"
"Like I already told you," Archer replies, gripping Flashburn firmly by the arm, "you're going to take me to see Sharon. Now."
Her eyes flash. Not with radiation—simply with anger at being man-handled. Archer sees a flash of light and suddenly he's empty-handed. Flashburn taps him on the shoulder. "Don't touch me, Bill. And anyway, that's not happening...."
Archer holds up his hand to cut her off. "Look, I know what Blackheart said. He says she's unstable and could blow. It's possible. He says she's potentially suicidal and blames me for her condition. I can deal with that. But I am not doing a damn thing for you people until I hear it from her."
Seeing the look on Flashburn's face, Archer adds, "But I'm not going to add to the stress of an already volatile situation. So here is what we're going to do. You are going to take me to Sharon. I have ways of rendering myself... undetectable. She'll never know I was there. And you're going to talk to her. You're going to tell her you spoke to me. And you're going to tell her that 'Archie' says he thinks he knows a way to restore her; but that he may need her help to convince Miriam to give him what he needs. Have you got all that?"
"You don't know what you're asking..."
"Then at least I'll know she's OK, and get a feel for the state she's in," Archer continues. "And after that, whatever needs to be done, I'll do it..."
"Bill, would you listen to yourself? If you had any idea...." She shakes her head in disbelief. "Look, I shouldn't even tell you this much... she's at Syndicate HQ!"
Flashburn crosses her arms and looks at him incredulously. "You want to go to our headquarters, and in the same breath you inform me you'll be 'undetectable'? It's a non-starter. That kind of security breach could get me in even bigger trouble than I'm in now!"
"Tell me something, Lilah," Archer says to Flashburn. "Have you ever been in love? I don't mean some teenage crush or a brief hormonal fling—I mean something deeper, something you thought could last a lifetime? And then one day you wake up, and that person is gone for your life, forever? No warning signs, no ups and downs—just gone?"
Archer's voice begins to soften. He begins to slowly pace around Flashburn in a circle as he continues to speak to her. "Maybe you went looking for him; maybe mutual friends tell you he just doesn't want to see you anymore, that he puts the blame on you for things not working out. But would that be enough to soothe your aching heart? Would you be willing to just walk away? Or would you want one last chance to speak your peace—to try to make things right?"
He leans a little closer to her. "And no matter how hopeless things seemed, wouldn't you still want to try? Wouldn't you have given anything for one more day, just to see him one last time?"
Archer's voice is even lower; he is practically whispering in Flashburn's ear at this point. "You haven't lost sight of right and wrong, Lilah—you wouldn't have brought Sharon back to the lab if you had. You know what the right thing to do here is. We can restore her body, but what she needs most now is hope—a reason to hold on, a reason to keep going. We can give that to her, Lilah—you and I together. We're the living proof that all is not lost. Help me, Lilah—help me to help her."
Flashburn's eyes are shut tight as she listens to she listens to Archer, her head bowed, as if his words are causing her physical pain. She's silent for several seconds afterwards, then she finally raises her head and faces him.
"Bill... this is bigger than you, and me, and Sharon. The whole city's at risk already, and I'm not taking any more chances. Maybe Sharon blames you for this mess, but Blackheart thinks it's my fault. He said I should've let her die. If she destabilizes, it's all because of me."
Her face contorts with rage, and a nimbus of radiation surrounds her; the light seems to shine through her for a moment, lending a reddish tint to the dim lights in the bar.
"SO STOP PLAYING THESE FUCKING HEAD-GAMES!!!"
Then she lowers her voice, but the radiation surrounding her remains. "You want the whole city to end up like this?"
Jade Gorgon stares intently at Flashburn, dismayed at the prospect of having to destroy her just as she's trying to turn herself around. Jack stands beside his wife with, of all things, a bar towel. He's looking at Flashburn's footprints, scorched into the floorboards.
"Maybe you two should take this discussion outside if it's gonna get rough?"
Archer stiffens, then turns to face Jade Gorgon and Heartless Jack. "Never-mind, Jack," he says, "I was just on my way out."
He then turns to face Flashburn, and says quietly, "Remember, Lilah—'Archie' says he knows how to save her. He needs her help to convince Miriam. Tell her. And let me know what she says." And with that, Bill Archer heads for the door.
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