Alpha

A Character Study

Alpha couldn’t be bothered to walk the halls of the ER attached to the Hero Association. He jumped out a window and flew to the top floor instead. The fewer people he had to run into, the better. The sycophants and worshipful followers gave him a headache even on the best of occasions, and the Association was the number one gathering spot for that lot. Not that he didn’t understand their feelings, of course. He was, after all, the most powerful super alive.

The window leading into Psych’s room burst open before Alpha even reached it. The Mentalist, a dark and lanky man with disheveled clothing and dark circles under his eyes, scowled out at Alpha with his arms crossed over his chest.

“You’re not coming in until you promise not to harm her.”

Alpha rolled his eyes. “She’s a criminal.”

“She’s a child.”

“You can’t stop me from getting to her if I really wanted to do it,” Alpha pointed out.

“That remains to be seen.” The Mentalist glanced back into the room at the one who spoke, fighting a grin. The voice was raspy and crackled with congestion. What had the healer said? Blood in her lungs. Broken ribs. Concussion. Seriously, how had such a frail creature caused them such problems? No proper super should be this badly injured.

“You think the Mentalist could stop me?” Alpha scoffed.

“I’m in a hospital bed and even I could stop you,” the girl said. “The Mentalist wouldn’t even break a sweat. Or do you really think brute strength would work against someone who can break your mind?”

“I can’t break minds,” the Mentalist demurred.

“No, you don’t break minds. Can’t and won’t aren’t necessarily the same thing.”

Alpha flew closer to the window, but the Mentalist stepped up to block his path. “She’s a kid, and you will promise not to hurt her.”

The much more muscular super peered around his subordinate. He could see the girl’s feet at the end of the bed, and a quiet figure standing in the corner. More than anything, Alpha hated being told what to do. As if the Association and everyone in it didn’t belong to him. But, he had to admit, the Mentalist did have his shady little tricks. It was easier just to agree. He didn’t feel like having someone clean the splatter off of the wall.

The Mentalist glanced at him with a raised eyebrow and Alpha grinned. “Fine. I promise not to harm her. For now.”

The man in the corner snorted, but Alpha barely even glanced his way. The man was a nobody. Probably just the civilian that had brought her to the Association after he found her unconscious. The healer said the man refused to leave the girl’s side, and no one wanted to accidentally hurt him by trying to force him out.

“You have a lot of explaining to do, Psych,” Alpha warned her in a low growl. “After what you did to my heavy hitters, you’re lucky we even bothered to have you healed at all.”

“Sure thing, Ed. Whatever you say.” Psych leaned back on the bed and closed her eyes.

“Estelle,” the Mentalist sighed. He pinched the arch of his nose. “Why do you insist on being so antagonistic?”

“I’m good at it.” She twisted where she sat, her mouth pinched into a fine line. The man in the corner stepped forward. Alpha barely remembered he was there at all.

“She’s obviously in pain,” the man said quietly. “I thought you were an empath, can’t you tell at least that much?” He reached down and took her hand in his. “Can’t we get the healer to see her again? She obviously needs more help.”

“Not if she won’t allow it,” the Mentalist said, glaring pointedly at the girl. “If you would release your psychic shield, he could fix you the rest of the way in minutes.”

“I’d rather deal with it myself.”

“Psychic shield?” Alpha asked blankly. Having them talk around him like he wasn’t even there irritated him. Was he or was he not the leader of the Association? He deserved their respect.

“She projects a wall of psychic energy around herself as a natural defense,” The Mentalist explained. “It’s impenetrable. Nothing can get through it unless she wants it to.”

“Psychic energy.” The man who still held the girl’s hand glanced down at her with a raised eyebrow. She grinned up at him like he was a favorite toy.

“That’s what it is,” she said. “Why would I make that up?”

The man snorted, but didn’t say anything. The Mentalist harrumphed. “You can let her go, now, Akash,” he said, his eyes drilling holes into the pair’s linked hands.

Psych grinned impishly at the Mentalist. “Party pooper,” she said. The man, Akash, blushed and released his grip, taking a step back as he shoved his hands into his pockets. She sighed, her grin fading to a complicated frown. “I want to leave.”

At last, Alpha was in his element. “I don’t think so, Psych. Not until you’ve paid for your crimes!”

“What crimes?” she asked, her voice bored. “The heroes stopped me every time I tried, didn’t they?”

“You stole tens of thousands of dollars over the course of two years!”

Psych tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. Doesn’t sound like me. Do you have proof?”

Akash couldn’t quite hide his grin, and the Mentalist nearly choked on his own laugh. Alpha sputtered for a moment, caught off guard. Technically, they did not have proof that the girl stole the money. It wasn’t discovered that anything was missing until well after she’d run off, and there was no video footage or physical evidence to link the girl to the crimes. The only proof they had was that she was in the area when most of the things were stolen. Even when they raided her home and checked her employment records, there was no sign that she’d done anything wrong. They hadn’t even found her uniform. If it weren’t for the Mentalist positively identifying the girl, they wouldn’t even know she was Psych to begin with.

“Well then, I guess I’m free to go since there aren’t any crimes I can be charged with, right?” She swung her legs out of the bed and floated up rather than stand.

A chill that made no logical sense ran down Alpha’s back at the sight of her floating before him. Her hair and the robe she wore fluttered slowly as if the girl floated in water. When she moved through the air, it was with finite precision, as if a robot programmed coordinates in her flight path. It seemed as if the world moved around her instead of the other way around. Fighting the part of himself that told him to flee, he reached out to grab the girl’s arm.

His fingers slid off of a solid surface several inches over her skin. She looked down her petite nose at him, as if Alpha, the strongest hero in the entire world, was nothing more than a bug to her. What’s worse, for the first time in his life he actually felt like one. Was this what it was like for the people who met him? This sense of being entirely outclassed?

“I’m leaving,” Psych announced.

The Mentalist gently pushed Alpha aside and touched the girl’s hand. She let him, Alpha realized. “I told you that I would happily take you in, Estelle. You’ve already been through so much. Let me protect you.”

Psych looked away from him. A small tremor traced its way across her shoulders before her chin firmed and she pulled away. “I can protect myself.”

“You’re just a child,” the Mentalist said.

“I’m not a child. I’m sixty-seven,” she retorted with a pert smile.

“You’re sixteen,” he replied, voice dry.

“I’m an old sixteen. Ancient. Practically a fossil.” She looked past the Mentalist, her eyes clinging to Akash with an expression of longing that looked too mature for her young face. For a moment, Alpha could almost believe that the girl was in her sixties. “Akash. You could come with me.”

Akash frowned. “You should stay here with the Mentalist. It’s where you belong.”

“I don’t belong anywhere in this world,” she said.

The pressure in the room intensified. For a moment, Alpha’s body felt as if it was being torn apart–like every cell of his body would disintegrate at once. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. Somewhere on the other side of the room, Akash cursed. When the pain subsided, Psych was gone.

Alpha panted, pressing a hand to his chest as if unsure his body was still in one piece. “What was that?” he demanded. “What did she do?”

The Mentalist didn’t answer. He stared at Akash, who floated in the air with his arms held out wide and his eyes glowing. He stayed that way for three minutes before dropping to the ground with a scowl.

“Well?” the Mentalist asked.

“Moon,” Akash growled. “She went to the moon.”

“What? How?” Alpha demanded. Even he couldn’t fly to the moon that quickly. Was the pain he experienced caused by the air burning as she left?

“What is she really?” the Mentalist asked.

Akash hesitated. “That’s not for me to say. It’s her secret to tell.”

“Then what are you?” Alpha demanded.

Akash looked at Alpha like he was a speck of dirt. Lip curled in animosity, he said, “I’m called the Technopath.” The name meant nothing to Alpha, so he looked at the Mentalist, whose skin had gone pale.

“Is that so?” the Mentalist asked.

“It is.”

Neither man said anything further. They stared one another down and the tension in the room grew palpable. At last, the Mentalist sighed, backing down. “I see. It’s that serious, is it?” Akash blushed, but didn’t answer. The Mentalist nodded and glanced at Alpha. “I will take care of the Psych case. Place her under my jurisdiction. I’m officially applying for the right to adoption. I will take responsibility for her from here on out.”

“Something tells me she won’t appreciate that,” Akash said. “But we can try, I suppose.”

“You can’t decide these things on your own,” Alpha said, feeling for all the world like a pouting child. “I’m the head of this Association. That girl is a danger to everything I’ve built!”

“That girl is a runaway child who is desperately trying to survive on her own,” the Mentalist said.

“She’s kind,” Akash added. “Kinder than I had reason to hope any super could be.”

“She didn’t seem that kind, to me,” Alpha muttered.

“She doesn’t like you,” the Mentalist said. “You don’t even need to be an empath to pick up on that much. You’d have to be a moron to not realize it.”

Was that a slight on him? Alpha glared the Mentalist down, but the empath only smiled sweetly in reply. That more than anything set Alpha on edge. He ground his teeth in frustration. If the girl hadn’t already put him on edge, the Mentalist wouldn’t have dared to talk down to him like that. Something about her put him off, that was all.

“Why don’t you go back to your office and fill out the paperwork for the adoption?” The Mentalist suggested. “We can take it from here.”

“I’m still your boss,” Alpha said.

“Yes, of course you are,” the Mentalist replied. “And I do appreciate you getting to work on that for me. Akash, if you would? I believe we have a workroom you could use to help track Estelle.”

He led the Technopath, or whatever he called himself, out of the room. Abandoned, Alpha sank into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. He never wanted to see the girl again. If the Mentalist never found her, well, it was no problem of his. All the same, maybe it was better to let the empath take the fall for whatever the girl chose to do next. If the past was any indicator, it wouldn’t be long before she got into some kind of trouble. And then Alpha could be rid of her and the Mentalist both.

They were below him. Little more than pests. He kept telling himself that as he flew back out the window and down to his office on the lower floor to get started on the paperwork. Alpha wasn’t scared of some strange super kid. He was a Hero. The Hero of heroes. Strongest in the world. Nothing could stop him. It was fine. Everything was fine.

The Mentalist

A Character Study

Tenfold wouldn’t come out of her room. That, more than anything else, made the Mentalist hate Psych, or whatever it was she called herself. Their encounter had scared the woman beyond reason. Or, perhaps, it was with good reason for her to be so afraid. After watching the video footage of the encounter between Psych and Tenfold it had become abundantly clear that Psych far outclassed the duplicator. It was as if they hadn’t even been playing the same game.

None of Tenfold’s hits had landed on the woman. At first it seemed like it. Psych reacted perfectly to every hit; slammed into walls so hard that it had left craters; and yet, the video footage told a different story. The walls broke before Psych hit them. Tenfold’s fists stopped just short of the red clad villain. And in the end, with a single touch, Tenfold had been left locked in place and completely vulnerable. The villain could have done anything to her, at that point. Tenfold could have been killed.

Instead, the villainess had simply tucked a slip of paper into Tenfold’s sleeve and made a run for it before backup arrived. The thought of it made Mentalist’s stomach churn. All of the top brass of the Hero Association had poured over the note. They tried to ascertain whether it was a manifesto, a declaration of her next target, or anything that made sense at all. It wasn’t. It was an address that led to a small apartment rented out by a poor couple and their four children.

Inevitably Alpha, the leader of the Hero Association, assigned the Mentalist to find out why Psych was targeting this family. And the Mentalist had readily agreed to the job. Because Tenfold still wouldn’t come out of her room.

His anger built as he approached the apartment building. There was no reason to get regular civilians involved in the game of heroes and villains that the supers of the world played. Supers were little more than entertainers. They were highly paid wrestlers at best. The fact that most of them could take out a city without breaking a sweat–well, they tried not to let too many people dwell on that fact. Laws for supers were much more strict than for anyone else, and that little bit of inequality would just have to put people at ease.

Mentalist reached out with his mind as soon as he entered the building. Tracking distance with his mind was impossible, so he searched through mental images until he found ones that matched the faces of the people he was looking for.

A sense of fear and pain hit him so hard that the Mentalist nearly stumbled into one of the other people taking the elevator with him. His heart seized and he punched a hole through the top of the elevator, briefly making a mental note to pay for the repairs later, and flew upward to the floor where he knew the family lived.

“She can’t already be here,” he cursed himself. “It’s too early.”

But villains who didn’t play by the rules of the association rarely followed any set of rules at all. It was stupid of him to assume Psych wouldn’t attack before the date and time she’d written on her note. He was through the elevator doors and at the apartment in the blink of an eye. He’d already ripped the front door off of its hinges before he even thought to take a closer look at what was happening inside.

A teenage girl huddled on the floor, covering a small child with her body as a woman struck her over and over with an iron pan. A bottle of whiskey lay on the ground at her feet, its contents soaking the taupe carpet.

“How dare you talk back to me! After all I’ve done for you!” The pan swung down once more and the teenager cried out in pain, but refused to move away from the little boy who huddled under her and cried. Bruises covered the girl’s face and neck. Blood poured freely from a gash on the boy’s head.

“He didn’t mean it!” the teenager gasped. “Please stop!”

Up swung the pan again, and back down, aimed straight at the girl’s head. It struck the Mentalist’s outstretched hand before he’d even realized he took a step. The woman stared at him blankly, and never had he wanted to strike down a civilian more than in the moment when her eyes met his.

He knew her entire life in a flash. Her name was Faith Hudson. Her own parents locked her in closets and refused to feed her for weeks on end. She’d run away from home at seventeen with the first boy who promised to take care of her. Her whole life was spent running from bad situation to worse until eventually she’d ended up with an abusive husband, taking care of his two kids.

She’d decided to foster to fill the void in her life. Faith had just wanted something to call her own, and her husband didn’t mind the extra money the new kids brought in. But the girl had turned out to be weird, and the boy was too difficult for her to handle. Resentment broiled inside of her at the two useless children she’d taken under her roof. She’d taken to drinking. Then she’d taken to beating them, just like her parents had done to her.

They deserve it, the woman thought. It’s their fault. Why can’t they just be normal?

The Mentalist flinched away from the woman’s mind. He didn’t want to pity her. Part of him didn’t pity her, and never would. That fact made him uncomfortable. He was the hero who always knew where people were coming from; he should have more compassion. That was difficult to feel as he stood over two bloodied and battered children who’d done little other than accidentally spill the woman’s whiskey during a tantrum.

The Mentalist scooped the children both up into his arms. “I’m here to protect you,” he said.

The girl nodded, but refused to look him in the eyes. Instead, she cradled the squirming young boy close to her chest. “Get us out of here,” she whispered. The boy wept silently.

Within minutes, the three of them stood in front a DCS worker at the hospital as the Mentalist quietly explained what he had witnessed in the house and what had brought him there in the first place. The woman listened quietly, nodding occasionally before gesturing for him and the children to take a seat.

He sat next to the children with a scowl.

“She didn’t believe you?” the girl asked. She appeared more resigned than worried.

The man hesitated, not sure he should explain what had him so angry. Rather than mention the woman’s underlying thoughts, he said, “She had no choice except to believe me.”

The girl nodded and looked away. “They never believe me, when I tell them. I’ve tried to report it before.”

“I know.” The Mentalist sighed, rubbing his temples to hide his anger. It had been on the forefront of the social worker’s mind. The girl, Estelle, was a known liar. She’d falsely reported the family for abuse three times according to her records. There had never been any evidence to support her claims, and the social workers had been instructed to take down her reports but put them in the de-escalated claims pile. This time, since the Mentalist had been there and witnessed the violence first-hand, they had no choice but to take it seriously. It made him sick to think what might have happened if he hadn’t been there to stop it. The girl might have died protecting her foster brother.

“It’s okay,” Estelle said, patting her brother’s shoulder gently. “He’s safe, now.”

“And you?”

She snorted, but didn’t answer. Instead she kept her eyes glued to the nurse who approached them with a chart. Estelle stood quickly, the little boy dangling from her arms. “Take him, first,” she insisted. “His head hasn’t stopped bleeding.”

The nurse whisked the boy away and Estelle sat gingerly in her chair. Her breathing was rough and from the waves of pain that emanated from the girl he was certain she’d broken at least one rib. He was amazed. The girl was a fighter, through and through.

“You’ll be safe now, too,” the Mentalist promised.

Estelle stiffened slightly, then relaxed her shoulders. “Yeah. I know.”

“We could try to arrange for a family to take the both of you,” he offered.

“It would be harder to place him.” She bit her lip and closed her eyes as she tilted her head back against the pillar behind her. “Could you check in on him, from time to time? Make sure he’s ok?”

“I will. I’ll do the same for you.”

“I won’t need it.” A tear fell down her bruised cheek. The Mentalist cursed himself for not coming to the apartment even a little bit sooner. He hated the fact that the girl had gone through this at all. She was so young. Barely fourteen, though her demeanor gave her a maturity well beyond her years. All the same, she was only a child.

No one had seen the horrors that this child had suffered. No one except Psych, who had sent the entire Hero’s Association to hunt the family down and protect the children. At the end of the day, he wasn’t the real hero. It was the red-clad woman who’d scared his friend that had saved these children.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” Estelle said. She stood up, clutching her ribs and limped away to the bathroom. The Mentalist barely made note of her exit, trapped as he was in his own self-pity and doubt.

After a time, the nurse returned to take Estelle back to the examination room.

“She’s in the bathroom,” the Mentalist explained. “How is the boy?”

“A small concussion. He needed three stitches, and we’ll keep him under observation.” She smiled broadly at him. “I’m a huge fan of your work, by the way. I have a thing for the thinking type heroes. You guys are the best.”

“Thank you, that really means a lot.” They stood and chatted until finally the nurse peeked around him to the bathroom. “Is she okay in there? It’s been a while.”

Without waiting for him to answer, she walked over to the bathroom and slipped in the door. He felt her surprise before she stepped out and called him over. “She’s not here,” the woman whispered.

The Mentalist took a step back in shock, then opened his mind to search for images of the girl. His eyes glowed and the air around him became thick as he spread out his search radius to the edge of his reach. At last he let the mental trick go with a curse.

“She’s gone. I think she ran.” He pulled out his communicator and typed a message to the Association, requesting backup to search for the girl. He didn’t have to wait for a response. A text popped up on his screen right away.

Runaway civilian teens are the jurisdiction of the police, not the Hero Association. Wrap up your business there and return to headquarters as soon as possible.

A cold ball settled into the bottom of his stomach. A child disappears in the middle of the city and this was the best response they could muster? Not for the first time, the Mentalist resented the title of Hero that had been bestowed to him the day he joined the association. Some hero he was, if he wasn’t even allowed to protect a child in need.

“Damn them,” he muttered. “Could you report the girl’s absence to the case worker on site?” he asked the nurse. “I’ll look for her on my own.”

The nurse nodded and ran off to do as he asked. The Mentalist took to the air, flying out of the hospital and over the city, scouring the minds that passed below him for any glimpse of the girl, however brief.

She was nowhere. Estelle had disappeared into thin air, as if she’d never existed at all. The Mentalist kept looking for her all night until his mind dragged and body dipped and swayed through the air as if he was drunk. He crawled into his bed that morning haggard and miserable.

He’d failed the child. Failed her so thoroughly that he would never forgive himself.

“It won’t happen again,” he swore. He would never fail another child like that ever again. And if he ever had the fortune to find Estelle, wherever she was, he would make sure she had a safe home to return. Even if it meant taking her in himself.

Tenfold

A Character Study

Tenfold watched silently as the red-clad woman floated from store to store in the packed mall. She carried several large bags slung over her shoulder and gleefully filled them in each place as the terrified store clerks stood helplessly by. As far as criminal acts were concerned, it wasn’t exactly diabolical. She never went near the jewelry store; the most expensive thing she’d placed in one of her bags was a gaming console, and even then she only took one.

Normally Tenfold would have left the petty criminal to one of the newbie heroes. The problem with that, in this case, was the way the woman flew. Something about it sent chills down her spine. It was like watching someone float in water. She didn’t angle her body to turn or pitch forward and back to change her speed; rather, she hung leisurely in the air and the world moved around her.

It’s eerie, a part of her thought quietly.

Let someone else handle it, a second part agreed.

“I can’t,” Tenfold whispered to herself. “We don’t know who she is.” She glanced at her com one more time, hoping the Association would get back to her and identify the unknown super.

I don’t like it. The new voice was always one of reason. Tenfold knew better than to ignore that part of her. Her intuition was never wrong.

“Why not?” Tenfold asked. A passing shopper looked at her with a strange expression, but she ignored it. It wasn’t the first time strangers found her odd, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Technically she didn’t need to speak out loud to the voices in her head; it was a bad habit.

Most villains wear black. The ones that are okay with sticking out are the most dangerous. Another shiver went up her spine. As usual, her intuition had a point.

The red-clad villain didn’t even wear a normal uniform. She had tall red boots, loose red pants, a red turtleneck, and a flowing red jacket over it all. A red ski mask covered the villain’s hair and face completely. Whoever it was didn’t want anyone to guess who she was, but she clearly wanted to be seen.

It’s not a registered villain, another voice added. It can’t be. The Association would have gotten back to us by now.

Tenfold looked at her com again. Still no response. She sighed, rubbing her temples as voices clamored for her to run away. But she couldn’t. The shoppers and store clerks on the floors the woman visited were scared. She had to do something about it.

Please no. Intuition, yet again, screamed at her that it was a mistake.

“We have to. If she’s not registered, she needs to be taken in and face punishment.” Several voices inside of Tenfold’s head groaned. “We can fight about it later. Just get out here.”

One by one, several forms stepped out of Tenfold’s body. The voices in her head grew quiet until, at last, she was the only one left. The blessed silence was peaceful, but also a bit lonely. She didn’t like to be separated from the others for long. The other figures were all perfect duplicates of Tenfold, each looking to her with different expressions ranging from irritation to outright mutiny.

“We can fight about it later,” Tenfold said. “For now, we’ll focus on bringing her down.”

“I’m not sure we can,” Intuition said. She looked uneasily toward the red villain, before turning back to the others. “Call for backup.”

“We are our own backup,” one of the duplicates muttered. She practically vibrated with excitement. That one was always ready for a fight, for no other reason than to test herself. Obviously, that competitive spirit was a very small part of Tenfold, because the rest of the duplicates shifted uneasily at the thought.

“I’ll call,” Tenfold muttered, giving her competitive self a stern look. She typed out a quick message and waited a few seconds for a response. “ETA ten minutes.”

“What if she’s gone by then?” one part of her asked.

“What if she hurts someone?” another chimed in.

Tenfold chewed on her lip and peeked around the corner at the red woman. Her breath caught in her chest. The woman was turned, fully looking at the pillar behind which she and her duplicates remained hidden. Her posture was casual, hands in pockets as the tail and belt of her long jacket flowed out behind her.

“We’ll have to keep her busy,” Tenfold said.

Before the others could complain, she stepped out from behind the pillar and struck a pose. She genuinely hated this part of the job, but if the shoppers thought this was anything other than a normal, planned show then they would panic. People could get hurt. As far as they were concerned, this whole episode needed to be nothing more than a silly pro-wrestling match with super powers. Because that’s how things were done.

“Halt, in the name of justice!” A couple of her duplicates chuckled at the stupid line. She fought to keep from turning around and glaring to shut them up. “I don’t know what makes you think you have the right to rob these innocent people, but I’m here to protect the peace! Leave these people alone!”

The red woman floated smoothly down, hovering in the open air on the other side of the railing in front of Tenfold. She laughed, her clear voice ringing out to the crowd around them. “Innocent? Oh, please. None of these people are innocent, little hero. Their minds are full of dark deeds, just waiting to come to light.”

Tenfold nearly melted with relief. This woman, whoever she was, played the game. She couldn’t be that dangerous, right?

“Don’t let your guard down,” Intuition whispered behind her.

Almost on cue, Tenfold’s body froze in place, as if the air around her solidified. The red woman floated upwards and Tenfold followed suit, panicking. Below, her duplicated rushed out from behind the pillar. Two of them leapt into the air to grab hold of Tenfold’s feet. The rest sped up the steps, following along on the sidelines to try and encircle the villain.

“Who are you? What are you doing to me?” Tenfold yelled.

“My name is Psych,” the red woman announced. “And I’m here to bring the darkness to light.”

Tenfold struggled against whatever force bound her body, grunting with effort. One of the duplicates that dangled from her legs climbed up, first steadying herself by using Tenfold’s feet as a platform before clambering up to her shoulders and leaping toward Psych. The supervillain twisted out of the way, allowing the duplicate to sail uselessly past before freezing her in an awkward pose.

Two more duplicates leapt toward Psych at different angles. For a moment, it seemed as if the pincer attack might catch her off guard; but then she dropped down several feet, allowing the duplicates to collide in the air and freezing them at the moment of impact. She laughed heartily and twisted her hand, setting the duplicates spinning in place. Tenfold and the strangely posed duplicate twisted around in a wide orbit of the two embracing duplicates.

“Oh, this is fun,” Psych said, raising an arm flamboyantly. More duplicates rushed her all at once, but the villain froze all of them in various embarrassing poses before sending them into orbit along with the others.

“Let us go, Psych. This isn’t a game.” Intuition stood at the outside edge of the top floor, staring down at the cluster of duplicates as they spun helplessly around one another.

“Isn’t it?” Psych asked, touching her chin in thought. “It seems like a nice little game to me.”

Intuition launched herself forward at the villain. Before Psych could freeze her in place, she threw a fistful of dirt at the woman. Psych called out in pain as the dirt hit her hard in the face, distracting her just long enough for Intuition to land a solid punch to the gut.

Psych flew backwards, slamming hard into a pillar. Intuition landed on a duplicate, absorbing her back into her body, before dropping lightly to the ground and disappeared back into the mall. The villain stood slowly, shaking herself off and brushing dust from her clothes.

“You pack quite the punch, little girl,” Psych taunted, floating back up. “That was a mean little trick you played, don’t you think? Unbecoming of a hero.”

Something pelted Psych from behind and the woman turned, one hand out as if ready to freeze someone. When her back was turned, Intuition and the rescued duplicate leapt out to recapture more of the captured clones, disappearing once again before Psych could capture them.

“That trick won’t work a second time,” Psych growled.

“How about this, then?” Intuition leapt from below, slamming Psych upward into a beam. Psych moaned in pain and several of the duplicates broke free of her grasp as she lost her concentration.

Again and again the duplicates took advantage of the villain’s blind spots, slamming her into walls, distracting her as more of the duplicates were rescued, until the last of them was finally free of her grasp.

Tenfold checked her comm again and nodded toward Intuition. Backup was here. It was time to end this. All of the duplicates surrounded Psych on all sides. The woman heaved, exhausted. She dropped a few feet in the air before gaining altitude again. The contents of her bags of loot were scattered around, forgotten in the fight.

“It’s time to take you in,” Intuition said. “You’re no match for all of us, Psych.”

“That’s what you think,” the villain gasped. She raised her arms and the entire building began to shake.

As one, Tenfold and all of the duplicates rushed out of their hiding places, high over the villain’s head. For a moment, they all paused briefly in the air, shuddering briefly before continuing forward. In the center, above Psych’s head, Tenfold collided with her duplicates, reabsorbing them into her body. She dropped on top of Psych and slammed her fists down onto the woman’s shoulders, sending her shooting down to the ground so hard that a crater formed where she landed.

Tenfold dropped down next to the woman, breathing heavily as all the shoppers cheered her victory. Something about the crater gave her pause. “Have I ever hit anyone that hard before?” she whispered.

We can’t hit that hard, a voice in her head whispered.

Something’s wrong, Intuition agreed. Her clothes aren’t ripped. After a fight like that, they should be damaged, right?

“Your right,” Tenfold agreed. She slowly made her way to the woman lying unconscious in the middle of the crater, body tensed for a trick. Her backup would be here any second to help her clean up, but the worry made her overly cautious.

Tenfold knelt beside Psych, reaching out to touch the woman’s mask.

She blinked and Psych was gone.

“What…” Tenfold looked around. She was surrounded by members of the Hero Association.

“Tenfold?” The Mentalist asked nervously. “Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” She stood up and looked around, confused. “When did you all get here? Where is Psych? Did you take her away?”

They’re looking at us weird. Tenfold shivered and clutched herself for warmth. The other heroes traded glances before the Mentalist rested a calming hand on her shoulder.

“She got away. You were frozen in place. No one could wake you until I broke you out of the psychic hold she’d placed on you.” The words were loud and reassuring, but Tenfold couldn’t help but notice the slight waver in his voice; he wasn’t certain. Why wasn’t he certain?

Tenfold stared down at her hands rather than look at the confused heroes that surrounded her–and went still. Tucked into one of her sleeves was a small slip of paper. Shaking nervously, she unfolded the note, reading it over twice and still unable to stop the shivers that wracked her body. A duplicate stepped out of her and took the note.

“I’ll take it from here,” her calm self said, gently touching Tenfold on the shoulder.

Tenfold nodded and allowed herself to be absorbed into her duplicate.

“Psych left us a note,” the calmer version of Tenfold said, handing it to the Mentalist.

What did she do to me? a voice in her head wondered. Why don’t I remember? All the voices in her head murmured amongst themselves, but Tenfold ignored it as she watched her compatriots with level eyes.

“What is it?” the Mentalist asked.

“An address. And a timestamp.”

“Another attack, maybe?” One of the heroes asked. The others crowded around, checking the note quietly. The Mentalist didn’t join in. He watched Tenfold, worry in his expression.

“Are you alright?” he whispered.

No. No, I don’t think I am.

The Technopath

A Character Study

The girl’s arms were strapped to the wall with thick wire. Flickering iridescent lights made the parts of her skin not covered in brilliantly blooming bruises and inflamed cuts look sallow. Both of her eyes were black over a nose that used to be a different shape. Her breath came in wet, heavy bursts from her chest.

“I thought you said she was a super.” Akash watched the girl closely, looking for any sign that his cohorts might be right. Based on the beating the girl had taken, it seemed unlikely. He should know, being a super himself. He was the resident expert on such things. As it was, the only thing remarkable about the girl was the fact that she was still alive after the torture they’d obviously put her through. He hid his feelings behind a blank stare, but looking at the damage that had been done made his heart ache; she was so young–maybe seventeen at best. Practically a child.

“She is.” Lieutenant Gains stood at ease next to Akash and glared at the girl. The lines on his face formed deep crags that made him look like an angry pug. “We have it on film. She reached into nothing and pulled out money. Probably stolen.”

“Then why does she bleed?” Despite the implication that the girl was a thief, he couldn’t quite shake the thought that they must be wrong about her. Supers didn’t bleed like that. Even the weakest of them were durable enough to withstand a stiff beating from a normal human with only small bruises and scrapes left as a memento. The ones that did bleed usually healed within minutes, but the girl showed no signs of regeneration.

Gains shifted. “We’re not sure. It’s some kind of trick. Probably part of her power set, to blend in more easily.”

The girl coughed and blood sprayed from her mouth. She gasped in pain, her head jerking slightly as she woke up. Akash held his breath watching as fresh tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Hello?” Words fell from her lips as more of a garbled croak than speech. She coughed again. More blood dripped down her chin. She groaned. Akash stepped closer to the glass. If it was camouflage that made her bleed like that, it was too much. The girl would die at this rate. Was she weak, a human, or just stupid?

Her eyes focused somewhat, clinging to Akash. “Are you here to kill me?” More tears leaked down her face as she gasped for breath, drowning in the fluid that was rapidly filling her lungs. “Please kill me.” It was no more than a wheezing squeak, but Akash heard it as clearly as if she spoke the words directly into his ears.

“Let me in the room.”

“She’s just faking-.”

Akash glanced at Gains without emotion. “Let me in.”

The older man grunted and gestured toward the solid metal door that led into the cell. Akash stood in front of it and waited patiently for Gains to press the button that released the magnetic lock. A tone sounded out and a heavy clunk indicated that it was unlocked. Akash pushed the door open and stepped into the cell with a chill of apprehension racing down his spine.

The air smelled pungent–a heavy mix of bile and fear sweat. He held his breath as he stepped haltingly closer to the girl. It wasn’t right. How could people who were opposing the tyranny of supers use tactics like this? He’d been so certain of their cause. Fighting against supers who abused their power was one thing. It was a cause that he knew was just. And yet, as he looked down at the silently weeping girl, he questioned his mission for the first time. Please kill me. Her hopeless plea would haunt him until his dying day.

The girl’s clouded eyes focused once again, taking in his face with an expression of wonder. Beneath the bruises, the swollen face, and the broken nose, she was beautiful. A face cut like a precious gem and shining gray eyes that bore into his soul as if she saw the very essence of what made him Akash. “It’s you,” she whispered. One shaking hand fought the wire rope to reach out to him.

Akash fought the urge to step back. Slowly, unsure why he did so, he bent to one knee in front of the girl so she could reach him more easily. She leaned forward and pressed her swollen, bloody lips against his in a gentle kiss. He jerked back in surprise, but the girl barely took notice. Her smile was brittle and wet. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“I don’t know you,” Akash protested. His heart hammered against his ribcage. His lips tasted like pennies and something bittersweet.

“You don’t?” She swayed where she sat. “You-you’re not mine, are you?” Tears flowed down her cheeks and her breathing hitched. “I thought you were my Akash. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” The admission was shaky and uncertain. How did she know his name? Even his cohorts didn’t know his name. They only ever called him The Technopath. “Are you really a super?”

“Yes.” The answer came so simply. They were right, he thought in wonder. Akash glanced back at the window where Gains smiled triumphantly. In the flickering light, the expression was foreign and dangerous. A pit of uncertainty grew in his stomach.

Akash shook his head in disbelief. “How?”

“What?” Her eyes fluttered. She danced on the edge of consciousness. Any second she would pass out, and he wouldn’t be able to get any more answers to the growing question that nagged at his mind.

“How were they able to hurt you if you’re a super?” He whispered, terrified of what her answer might mean for him. It could ruin everything. But truth was a rare commodity in the world in which he lived, and even a small amount of it was valuable. He would accept the truth even if it hurt.

“My powers. The space around my body is locked in a quantum field. If they hit it they would get hurt. So I moved the field.”

Akash let out a bark of indignation. “You moved it. So they wouldn’t be hurt when they hit you.” He ground his teeth together, forcing his way through the uncomfortable conversation despite his growing anxiety. “Why haven’t you healed?”

“Can’t.”

“You can’t heal?”

She folded forward, her fleeting strength completely used up. She couldn’t heal, and so the monsters that put her in the cage beat her so badly she could barely breathe. It made no sense. Not unless it wasn’t only the corrupt Hero Association that his allies were after. Akash was no fool. Supers weren’t the only creatures who abused power. He desperately hoped that he was wrong: but there was a quick way to find out.

Akash caught the girl up in his arms and yanked the wire ropes out of the wall, freeing her chafed wrists. Scooping her up as gently as he could manage, Akash lifted into the air. His veins filled with icy calm despite the hot fury that broiled within him. The power in the building flickered at the surge of his anger.

“What are you doing, Technopath?” Gains growled, slamming a fist against the glass. “Return the prisoner at once!”

“She is a child,” Akash said, brushing the girl’s mahogany brown hair out of her sweaty and swollen face. “She needs medical attention.”

“She’s a super,” Gains growled. “She should be euthanized before she’s powerful enough to cause us harm!”

“I’m a super,” Akash said, his eyes glowing as the technology in the building flared to life and powered down over and over again as his rage grew. “Is that the fate you believe we all deserve? Regardless of our loyalties?”

“Supers have no loyalties except to themselves. Your insubordination today proves that.” Gains slammed his fist down onto the panel in front of him. An alarm sounded and the door to the room flew open. Into the room streamed men in riot gear holding polymer rifles with a sickly orange glow emitting from the barrel–weapons known as Ability Obstruction Assault Ordnance, or AO-AO. They were a particularly nasty type of rifle that Akash had created to help the military more easily handle rogue supers. The absurdity of them using Akash’s own weapon against him seemed to be lost on Gains.

“I won’t allow you to harm an innocent child,” Akash hissed at the old man.

“Pah! Innocent.” The old man’s face hardened, his upper lip curling upward in a fierce snarl. “Fire!” Gains shouted at the soldiers, spittle flying from his mouth.

Akash held out his hand to the men with a wicked grin. “Override four-two-oh.” The guns in the soldier’s hands flashed a green light over his outstretched palm, then fell to pieces in their grips before any of them had a chance to fire.

“In case you ever betrayed me,” Akash explained quietly. At the time, he’d felt guilty for planning such a feature. How easily it could have been used against his allies. All of that worry seemed meaningless, now. “I’ll deal with you later, Lieutenant.”

Gains’ face went pale. The soldiers who crowded the room shuffled nervously, gripping the remains of their weapons with shaking hands. All of the power they once held was literally in pieces on the floor at their feet. Without those weapons, they had no chance to stop even the weakest of supers. Akash was not weak. He was not weak at all.

Akash looked down at the girl in his arms, perplexed. He floated down to land in front of the terrified soldiers who backed away from him as if he was a predator and not a dedicated friend who’d worked alongside them for ten long years. Silently, Akash walked through the retreating crowd of soldiers, into the empty corridor, and out of the building. Sirens blared uselessly all around. Wherever he walked, soldiers on the base stopped to stare, but no one dared make a move against The Technopath.

Outside of the military base, the girl stirred, tucking her face closer to his chest. “Where?” Her breathing was so rough that she could barely get words out anymore.

“I’m taking you to the Association. If my information is correct, they should have a healer.” It was the last place he wanted to go, but the only realistic choice if the girl was to survive.

She shook her head emphatically, tugging on the front of his shirt. “No. No.”

Akash paused, just as confused as before. “You don’t want to go to the Hero Association? Why?”

She tugged desperately on his shirt. “Please. No.”

“I can’t fix you on my own. Not without more time,” he explained.

The girl tucked her head to his chest. “No.” It was a small whimper that did wonders to make him reconsider.

Akash was at a loss. He hugged the girl closer and took to the air. “I’ll protect you,” he whispered into her hair. “I promise. No one will hurt you ever again. But I have to take you where they can fix you.” Never had Akash thought he would argue in favor of the Hero Association. They were the enemy. Supers used the association to place themselves on pedestals above the everyday hardworking man. They used their strength to manipulate leaders and government systems to their own ends. Supers were a menace to society. Except the young woman in his arms was hardly menacing. She was small. Strange. Beautiful. “I’ll protect you.”

She went slack, and for a moment he panicked–until the sound of her labored breathing beneath the roar of wind in his ears told him she’d fainted again. He sped up, leaving a slipstream in his wake. He would take her to the association, find the healer, and then…he wasn’t sure. Run away with her? Shut himself and the girl away somewhere no one could ever find them? He wasn’t sure what he could do.

The way she’d looked at him, with foggy gray eyes that softened as they fell on his face, made his chest ache. He would do anything for her, he realized. One look was his undoing. So into the lion’s den he fled, leaving any sense of regret far behind.