“Sir?” the butler said.
Starkweather looked up from the piece of steak on his fork.
“We’ve got him,” Charles said.
Starkweather smiled. “Any casualties?” he said, then inserted the bite into his mouth.
The butler shrugged. “Nothing significant. We were able to obtain him before the police back-up arrived.”
“Good. Bring him up.”
“Sir?” the butler cocked his head to the side. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“What are you worried about?” Starkweather shrugged, still focused on his dinner.
“He’s lost his memory. Anything could have happened to him since then. We don’t even know why he’s still alive. It’s been nearly a week. He could have developed into a psychopath.”
Starkweather laughed. “Not him. Not my son.”
“It’s got to be someone’s son.”
Starkweather set his fork down and looked at him. “Charles, after all the years of tests, all the training and experiments, all the drugs, are you suggesting he has become unstable?”
The butler shook his head. “I’m not talking about the experiment. I’m talking about his humanity.”
Starkweather looked up at the Rembrandt painting hanging over the mahogany cabinet. “It’s better I see him alone. It will ease his apprehension. If he’s lost his memory, he’s probably disoriented and frightened. Better he ask questions of the man responsible than a room full of scientists.”
“Sir, wouldn’t it be better to meet in a holding cell? Or some other location where we can control him?”
“Nonsense. Where are you more likely to panic–in a white-walled psych room or a pleasantly furnished mansion?”
The butler tensed, trying to think of another argument. Starkweather picked up his fork again. “Besides, I want to see what sort of person he is now. I want to see how he did without any strings attached,” Starkweather waved his arm in the air. “Go get him.”
The butler bowed. “Right away, sir.”
Ash could only remember bare images of what happened. He was cleaned off in a room with white walls, and had a fresh set of clothes put on him. He wasn’t in a police station, or a hospital. He was in a posh apartment penthouse and standing in front of a double door. Two big guards stood on either side. Wherever he was, it beat being dead, like he thought he was after he fainted.
He could have blazed the guards and made a break for it, but they had to know about his powers. A human bomb is nothing you leave lying around. Plus, he wouldn’t learn why he was here.
Besides, why escape? Where would he go? Everything he had worked for had crumbled. His new identity had gone up in smoke. All his bridges were burned.
The guards opened the doors to a lush dining room with paintings and a chandelier. A long cherrywood table with candlesticks made the room crowded with luxury.
Although there were settings for twelve, only one guest was seated, all the way at the other end. Ash could barely see him over the foliage centerpieces.
“Ah,” he clapped his hands. “The prodigal son has returned.”
Ash guessed he was seventy years old. Probably the owner of this apartment, if not the building.
“Leave us alone now,” the man said. The guards bowed and exited, closing the doors behind them.
The old man dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “Well. Well, well, well. You had me going for quite some time, little one. All of us. Quite scared.”
“All of us?”
“You don’t remember? You really did lose your memory. Interesting. You don’t remember this room? This building?” When Ash gave no response, he shook his head again. “That must have been just awful. I’m sorry, little one.”
“Look, I don’t have the slightest fucking idea where I am, who I am, or how I am. I assume you have those answers so why don’t you start talking. And stop calling me ‘little one’. My name’s Ash.”
“Ash?” the old man said. “Oh, that’s what you call yourself now. I see.”
“Do you know my real name?”
“Does it matter? It’s no longer your identity. I doubt anything could change that. Unless you have another mind-wipe.”
“Is that what happened to me?”
The old man cleared his throat. “Let’s start over. My name’s Leonard Starkweather. Have you heard of me?”
“If you’re the Starkweather who’s plastered over every drug ad, then yeah.”
“Oh, good,” he said. “I hoped they were still using the name. Yes, that is me. I’m the Starkweather behind Starkweather Industries. We made our money creating a lucrative market in anti-depressants and psychiatric medications. I won’t bore you with all the details of my life, but suffice to say, many books have been written about my life. Understand?”
“Right. Big-wig conglomerate. Get to the part about me.”
Starkweather laughed like Santa Claus. “Oh my, you have changed. More than I expected. Yet, I still see the same old you.”
Ash rolled his arms, indicating he should move along. This was like a puzzle he couldn’t find the last piece for.
“Yes, you,” Starkweather said. “You see… I always figured I should do more with my money than let some spoiled next of kin inherit it. Call me a philanthropist. Once I reached a satisfactory sum, I started using our facilities for some of my personal interests.”
“And I was one of those interests?”
“More like a result of it. Of inspiration.” He coughed. “I get ahead of myself. Our specialty was neuroscience, as I said before. And, once we had the money to buy that research, we made a bit of a breakthrough with ‘fluid electricity’.”
“Fluid electricity?” Ash cocked his eyebrow. “That from a comic book?”
“Oh, that’s just a name. Marketing, you know. It’s more of a biological synaptic electrical thingummy, condensed to liquid form. I can show you how it works if you’d like?”
“Thanks, we’ll save that for later.”
Starkweather laughed and clapped his hands. “This fluid electricity, we never released it. With good reason. It created people like you.” He pointed a bony finger at Ash. “Only not consistently. We went through so many. Some people could do nothing. Others, well, their brains exploded as soon as we injected them.”
“Yes, the initial phases were brutal and glum. But we stuck with it, because we knew we had something. Some failed miserably, others were somewhat successful, useful at least. And then there was you.”
Ash nodded. “So that’s it. I’m just a guinea pig that got free?” He couldn’t help but feel let down.
“I realize this must all be confusing and scary. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking. Would you like some hot tea? Or some cocoa? You always loved cocoa.”
“I did?” Ash said, baffled. He didn’t feel like a ‘cocoa’ guy.
“Yes, I’ve known you since birth. I’m sort of your father in a way. I made sure to be there at every milestone–training you, guiding you, keeping you safe, keeping your life structured. That was the problem we kept seeing. They never ended up… stable enough.”
“Stable enough for what? Wait a minute.” Ash put his hand to his chin. “This wasn’t just research, was it?”
“Very good. You were always the quickest on the draw,” he said with a cheesy laugh. “I did have a purpose in mind. I suppose your memory has betrayed you there as well.”
“What was that purpose?” Ash said.
“You see, my interests weren’t just in neuroscience. Social issues, too. Social sciences–history, anthropology, politics. I was a senator once, you know.”
“Really, that’s fascinating. A politician who makes psychics in his spare time.”
“Sarcasm,” Starkweather laughed. “How delightful. Yes, well, I was always interested in how people interact with each other. Where is humanity going? How do people live and survive?”
“So then why did you create me?”
Starkweather sighed and looked down. “Oh, it sounds so brutal, to hear it for the first time. This is the part I dreaded. It’s always been second nature to you.”
“What was second nature to me?” Ash said.
“Well, I- I don’t like to say. Oh, but that’s foolish. Just an old man’s unease. If I can’t admit it to my own son, I don’t deserve my wealth.”
“Are you going to say it, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?”
Starkweather paused. “Ash,” he said. “You were out in the world alone. You got to witness humanity firsthand. As I understand it, you were not in the most affluent of neighborhoods. You see, I’ve been living in this ivory tower for quite some time. I think I lost my reins on the business when I was forty or forty-five. That leaves you with a lot of time. One of the great things to do with time is to read the news. It’s always changing, and there’s plenty of it.”
“Yeah, got it.” Ash had given up on pushing.
“But that was the problem, wasn’t it? That there was plenty of it. So much killing, so much corruption, sleaze, riots, sickness, death, dying. Did you see it?”
“Ash, you’re what I like to call a human predator.”
“Now I don’t want you to get this confused with a hired gun, or assassin, or something like that. You see, there’s a great deal of people out there who would, and should, have been killed years ago, if nature could take its course. The alcoholics, the wife-beaters, the drug users, the adulterers, the pedophiles, the murderers, the sickos, the insane, and a million others that have no name.”
He paused waiting for Ash to nod with comprehension, which he did.
“Your job… our job… was to eliminate those people who Darwin had forgiven.”
“So… we kill people?”
“Oh, Ash. It’s not like that.” Starkweather regarded his painting. “You see, it’s not just that these people are allowed to exist. That, in itself, is harmless. But they breed. They have little scum children of their own, who make more scum children. And often they have multiple partners, increasing their numbers. It’s a cycle that spreads itself to others, like bacteria.”
Ash nodded. Finally, something was starting to make sense.
“These are the people that, in a former society, would have died off through natural selection or banishment. That’s why I call you a predator. It’s something that this society has missed. It’s this one percent that ruin it for everyone else. Suddenly, the weak, the sick, the unintelligent, are allowed to thrive.”
“If it’s all the ‘breeding’,” Ash quoted in the air, “that you’re worried about, why don’t you just… castrate them instead?”
“Well, I haven’t found a psychic power for that.” Starkweather laughed. “But seriously, even cutting them off at the source wouldn’t do it. It’s the effects that they have on those around them–the abusers, the pedophiles, the alcoholics.”
“So you decided the human herd needed some thinning?” Ash said.
Starkweather shook his head. “Ash, I want you to understand why I did what I did. I don’t want you to see me as some sort of mass-murderer. You’ve seen it yourself, haven’t you? The dregs of society, the obstacles to progress. If it weren’t for them, we’d have colonies on the moon by now. This is a culture that’s gotten out of hand. A culture where we argue whether or not the Holocaust took place. A world where people need drugs to stay focused in school, to feel happy, to lose weight, to make sex feel better. Legal drugs that people use just to make it through another day.”
“All right, I get it. So what went wrong? Why did I end up with no memory?”
“That, I’m not quite sure about. We think it- well, let me start from the beginning. The powers came with a price–we’d shoved something into your brain it wasn’t designed to have. Using your powers caused terrible headaches over time. You’ve had those?” Ash nodded. “Yes. You needed a constant supply of painkillers to stave them off. That’s why we implanted a chip that injected pain suppressors. It was also a global locator. A tracker. And a week ago, yours stopped working.”
“I don’t know, but–and I do hope you trust me on this, I only had the best of intentions–if those chips were removed, it was supposed to kill you.”
“Kill me? Oh, I see. A little insurance to make sure you stay in the clear.”
“It was so that everyone would stay in the clear. I only wanted to keep track of your whereabouts. You understand, right? You know the capabilities of your powers and how devastating they could be without control.”
Ash crossed his arms. “So you get to decide who lives and who dies, you pull the strings from your ivory tower, telling me to soldier through the muck.”
“Ash, if you’d seen the other experiments, you’d understand. It would be like throwing a loaded gun into a prison. And, no offense, but you are still a child. I have the benefit of experience.”
“Yeah. You’re older… and wiser… and ridiculous,” Ash scowled. “You think because this money and power gives you permission to lay down your own brand of justice?”
“I never thought that at all, Ash. I was only doing what I was doing because there was a need. These people pollute our society. They never learn, they never have ambition, they never grow up, never mature, and never bring anything to humanity’s table. They’re like little black holes, sucking away everything from the people around them. Do we need them around? Are they necessary for life? This is something people want, only no one will admit it.”
“So then you can make people do or say whatever because you pay them or put chips in their head? Or maybe you’d turn someone like me on them if they defy you.”
“Ash, please. You don’t understand my vision. Let me-“
“Your vision? YOUR vision?” Ash slammed his hand on the table. “Fuck your vision. Fuck all your visions. I am not your puppet. I’m not your soldier of fortune. I’m not your worker bee or your lap dog. I’m my own person. And you will listen to my goddamn vision!”
“Ash, please calm down.”
“What did you expect was going to happen when you brought me here?” Ash pulled out the chair in front of him. “Did you think everything was going to go back to the way it was? We’d go back to business as usual?” Ash stepped onto the chair, and then onto the table. “What makes you think I should listen to you, when I can do this?”
Keeping eye contact, Ash threw his arms to the side. Flames burst from the wall. The picture on his right caught fire.
Starkweather trembled. “What are you doing? They’ll put you away. They’ll euthanize you.”
“What makes you think you can use me to decide where humanity is going? That you can create people to judge the weak? Well, guess what? I judge you weak.”
Ash sliced the air in front of him with his hand. A stream of fire sailed down the table like a giant cleaver, and burst at Starkweather’s end. Plates and candles flew in the air.
“Guards! Guards!” Starkweather called, then coughed ferociously from the smoke.
“I’m not playing your game anymore.” Ash walked down the length of the table as the firelight cast him in a smoky glow.
Starkweather rose from his chair, hacking into his hand. Ash sent a burst of fire in his path. Starkweather turned to go the other way. Ash sent another wall of fire. Starkweather huddled in the corner. Ash stopped at the edge of the table, grinned, and jumped down.
Starkweather crumpled up like a tissue, and looked up as if Death was standing over him. He held up a trembling hand as Ash’s shadow swept over him. “If you won’t judge them, who will? Who will carry out proper punishment?”
Starkweather dropped his hand. His face took on a grim countenance. “God is a crutch for the weak. He doesn’t exist.”
Ash brought up his hand. “Oh, no?”