RION AND ASH
“Rion,” Ash said. “Can I call you Rion? Or ‘brother’?”
Rion looked at him. The computers and snaking wires made it look like he was sitting in a cyberpunk throne room.
“You don’t seem delighted,” Ash said. “Isn’t it great? You finally get to understand your past.”
“How long have you been here?” Rion said.
“Not long,” Ash said, pointing to the corner. Two freshly burned corpses lay together, smoke wisping from their bodies. Rion grimaced.
Ash shook some pills out of a bottle and knocked them back like candy. “I supposed there’s no need to introduce myself. Is there?” He smiled. “You know who I am.”
“Yes,” Rion said. “What I don’t know is exactly why we’re here. I read the report, but it didn’t help.”
“Instruction manuals never do,” Ash shook his head. “Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to look at some of the computer files. You know Starkweather, right?”
“Yes. Is he here?”
“After what you’ve seen, do you think he’s here?” Ash held up his hands.
Rion’s face turned down.
“This was his personal observatory. Billions of bytes of data coursing through, giving him information on nearly every person in the world. He could see each new birth and death as it happened.”
“Did he create us?”
“Well, we were both born here. We were part of some psychic experiment, and I guess we were the two best.”
“So are we clones? Or twins?”
“I don’t know. We weren’t introduced to each other until we were five. And as I understand, we became fast friends. One report said that we sustained each other. We fed off each other. One person said he thought that’s why we survived. Why we didn’t turn out…” Ash waved his hand in a circle, not wanting to say something vulgar.
“Like Gray?” Rion said.
“Perhaps. His story was quite sad, wasn’t it? Just kept around as a precaution for us. Anyway, Starkweather was delighted that he had not one, but two great candidates for the project.”
“We were supposed to work as a team,” Rion said. “He trained us so that we’d work as a team, since our powers were so complimentary.”
Ash nodded. “You find, I destroy. We were dropped in a different city each time. We were supposed to cull a few out, then move on so no one grew suspicious. We left no evidence and couldn’t be tracked. Pretty good plan, all things considered.” Ash shifted on his throne. “So then the question begs itself–how did it go wrong?”
Rion shook his head. “I wish I knew. I woke up on a park bench six days ago–no idea who I am.”
“Sounds like my story,” Ash said. “I was in an alley.” Ash tapped his fingers on his arm rest. “I have a theory, if you care to hear it.”
“Shoot,” Rion said.
“I suppose one of us rebelled against our lot in life. Either sick of being a slave, or disgusted with what we were doing. He wanted to leave the project. The way to do that, I think, would be to deactivate the chip.”
Rion continued. “The other didn’t like that idea very much. So the one ran away, did it in secret with the doctor who would know how. But the other interrupted the process. They broke into the lab. There was a fight. But by then the damage was done.”
“They got the chip out. But I thought that would kill the person,” Ash said.
“I did too. But I think what was supposed to kill us made us lose our memory instead. Your guess is as good as mine,” Rion shrugged. “After the fight, we went our separate ways, and we both ended up where we were.”
“If only one of us wanted to deactivate the chip, why did we both lose our memory?”
Rion shook his head. “No idea. Maybe the chips were tied together.”
“Maybe there’s a psychic bond between us, because I feel like I know who you are,” Ash said.
“Me too. And not just because we look alike, but somehow we’re… the same.”
“Like brothers should be,” Ash said. “For instance, I know throughout this entire conversation, you’ve been thinking one thing–what do we do now?”
“And I know you’ve been wanting to answer that since you saw me. And it’s got something to do with our powers.”
Ash shrugged. “Well, we are here, aren’t we? And we have these abilities beyond normal humans.”
“I don’t get what you’re saying.”
“It’s like this–I think Starkweather was on the right track. There are a lot of people out there who are ruining the world for everybody. They take and take and get away with it. You get that?”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Rion asked, aghast. “We’d just be jumping back into the same thing that wrecked our lives in the first place.”
“Ah, but this time, we play it by our rules. Not some fuddy-duddy old man in a glass tower. He intended for us to remove just a few bad apples from the bunch. Except he was one of them.” Ash opened his palm. “Whereas we are a higher form of life.”
“That’s not true.”
“Oh, Rion, don’t pretend you’re not. Nature treats us on ability alone, and we have abilities they don’t. It doesn’t make them bad, it just makes us more impartial. Don’t lie to me and pretend you don’t feel that way, because I know you do.”
Rion looked away, ashamed. “You’ve got a point. So what?”
“So don’t you think that humanity needs a push in the right direction?”
“What do you want to do? Become leaders of the world?”
“No, not leaders. Judges. That’s what we were designed for–not vengeance or punishment. We deal in justice. If we don’t act, humanity will burn itself to the ground. How many car bombs will it take? How many schools get shot up? How many borderline personalities are we going to gawk at while some lawyer undercuts the Bill of Rights? We can do something about this.”
“You want us to corral them like horses?”
“No, no. You’re thinking in their terms. This isn’t like ethnic cleansing. That would be grotesque–something a dictator would do to assert power. There’s no purpose behind it. This is subtle. It’s necessary. It’s making sure the bad guys don’t keep winning.”
“It’s justice,” Rion said.
“Exactly. It’s justice that society left out, that it forgot.”
“How are you going to judge them? By their laws? By ours?”
“It’s not that hard,” Ash said, folding his arms. “You’ve been out there. You’re telling me you can’t tell who the bad guys are and who aren’t?”
Rion had seen plenty of what Ash was talking about in his time on the streets–the one’s who took everything while the good people got screwed. People like Memory, Tuesday, and even himself. He’d be lying if he said the proposal didn’t have some merit.
“It just takes common sense,” Ash said, “Their laws let the inmates run the asylum. We don’t need them.”
“But what about people who make mistakes? What about a second chance?”
“Life doesn’t give you second chances. People don’t change who they are.”
“Some people can change. Are you saying we step in and crush them no matter what? Why don’t we save them?”
“Saving them doesn’t work. And it takes too much time. Prisons are overcrowded, courts are backed up. And nine times out of ten, it’s the same people. The same people who get those second chances,” Ash leaned forward. “Does society need them? Really?”
“And you think that’s going to save humanity?” Rion said, fists clenched. “These people need to be educated, not eliminated. If you kill them, they won’t learn anything. You’d have to kill them all until there’s none left. Everyone’s guilty of something. You’ll be killing forever.”
“Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous,” Ash said. “If a tree falls in the forest, do all the trees around it fall?”
“People aren’t trees. Even if your plan worked, what do you expect to happen? Do you think people will stop being assholes because you killed them all?”
“Yes,” Ash said. “They’ll evolve. Without assholes in the mix, they’ll breed themselves out.”
“This is learned behavior, not genetics.”
“Evil breeds evil. Maybe it’s because of environment, maybe genetics. I don’t know. But we have to eliminate it. We’re humanity’s antibiotic. We’re their judge.”
“There’s no justice in your kind of judgment. Because in justice, there is mercy. There’s forgiveness.”
“Justice and mercy cannot co-exist.” Ash said, “One must be eliminated.”
Ash stared at Rion, willing him to back down. Rion flexed his fists, and remained stoic. Ash glared back. Neither of them spoke for a long time.
Ash had waited for Rion’s arrival with the hope that he could find a kindred spirit. Someone who thought as he did. Someone to be his ally, his friend. Someone to help achieve a mutual goal.
Rion had anticipated finding his past. He had expected to find Starkweather, only to discover a replacement. Ash’s face shifted into the countenances of people like Paul, Scooter, Harrington, Gray. And behind him, the souls of Tuesday and Memory pleaded to be saved.
“Rion,” Ash said, “I’m only going to ask you this once. And I want you to think very carefully about the answer. Will you join me?”
Rion needed little time to comprehend what ‘think very carefully’ really meant. He spoke calmly. “I have to save the turtle,” he said. “If I don’t do it, no one else will.”
Ash sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been watching you, Rion. I’ve seen what you’re capable of. But I just don’t think there’s room for you in the new kingdom.”
“We may be special, but we’re not humanity’s rulers. And there’s no kingdom. Just because you’ve got power doesn’t mean you’ve got to use it.”
“And let great potential be wasted?” He stood up from his throne.
Rion raised his arms, expecting Ash to throw a punch. “What are you going to do? You wouldn’t kill your brother. I’m the only tie you have to your past.”
“What can I do?” Ash spat. “I can’t have any qualms about destroying those who intend to stop me. There are already too many who have.” He gestured to the bodies in the corner.
“But they weren’t like me.”
Rion leapt forward. A giant wall of fire burst up in front of Ash. Rion flew back to the perimeter of machines.
“Do you intend to kill a god?” Ash said over the hissing shield. He made the firewall dissipate gradually.
It wasn’t until then that Rion truly understood Ash’s motivations–why Ash killed those people, why he had set up a throne room. “You don’t want to help humanity,” Rion said, “You want revenge on it.”
Ash looked shocked. “Maybe humanity deserves it. They deserve to burn.” Ash stepped forward. “Oh, yes, it will be a pleasure… to BURN.”
Ash’s eyes lit up like two smoldering lumps of coal. He pounded his fists together and they burst into flames. Orange leaping sheets covered his forearms as if they were burning logs.
Ash stepped down from his throne and glowered at his fallen brother. Rion lay frozen like a mouse before a cat.
Ash reared back his arm and thrust it forward. A giant sphere of fire leapt from his hand and shot towards Rion. On pure instinct, he rolled out the way, behind one of the giant server towers.
The fireball exploded on contact with the floor, casting off billows of smoke. Ash lost Rion in the haze.
“Rion… come out, come out,” Ash said in a sing-song voice. “I can’t burn what I can’t see.” No response, obviously. He spun in a circle, looking for movement or shadows.
“Fine, then,” Ash said. “I’ll just burn down the whole damn thing.” He threw out his hand at the nearest server. The top half of the chassis exploded, sending metal and plastic flying. “Doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Ash backed against the next machine, hoping to catch Rion cowering behind it, and sidled around. “I wonder if we used to play hide and seek when we were kids. Mm, Rion?”
He turned and looked behind the server. Nothing but darkness. He turned back.
Rion stood in front of him, hands outstretched. Ash didn’t have time to react.
Rion grabbed Ash’s head and focused. The heat radiating from Ash’s arms and eyes threatened to scald him, but Rion kept contact. He sent out a snapping pulse of power.
Ash froze. He grunted. Then he shoved Rion in the chest. Ash fell against the server tower, while Rion sprawled on the floor.
“What was that?” Ash said with a mix of hurt and confusion. “It felt like you were trying to electrocute my mind. But I shut you out.”
Rion crab-crawled backwards. He felt exactly what Ash had described–he couldn’t penetrate. Like he wasn’t strong enough. Maybe he couldn’t use psychic power against another psychic. “I was trying to stop you,” Rion said.
Ash smirked. “It didn’t work.”
Ash whipped his hand out, but Rion saw it coming. A stream of fire poured out of Ash’s hand but, Rion ducked back into the shadows.
Ash grunted. “It’s all a matter of wills, Rion.” He skipped forward, looking left and right. “My will is stronger than yours. I get fewer headaches than you do. I don’t need as much strength to use my power. You can’t break into my brain.”
Rion hunkered down in his hiding spot. His adrenaline was betraying him by making him breathe heavy. He had to find a weapon, but the closes thing was a box of tools–wire cutters, a hammer, electrical tape, pliers.
No, that wouldn’t work. Ash would ignite anything he could throw at him. Even sharpened steel could be melted or heated enough that he couldn’t hold it. The special powers he had depended on had been rendered inert. The only thing that could fight fire, in this case, was fire.
He had to figure something out. The longer this went on, the greater the chance he would lose. Ash had all the advantages, like he said. More useful power, fewer headaches. All his headaches were good for was…
Rion looked again at the wire cutters.
Ash started singing maniacally. “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in. You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in. Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed as he prowled the circle.
Ash sprang in between two servers, but saw nothing. Where the hell was he? This was getting ridiculous. He wanted to eat his food, not play with it.
Ash explored the room all the way around. No noise, no movement. He ducked his head in and out, trying to catch Rion moving. He checked around every corner, and backtracked just in case.
Ash returned to the inner circle perplexed. There were only so many places the kid could be. There was only one way out, and he would have seen the door open. He stood in the center of the room and scratched his head with his flaming arm.
There was something wet on his scalp. He pulled his hand back and rubbed a viscous liquid over his finger tips. It had no smell, and though the light was weak, it seemed reddish.
Blood. His blood? But he hadn’t taken any blows to the head. Another drop fell on his open palm.
“What th’?” Ash said and looked up.
Rion was hanging from the ceiling, holding onto the power cables. He screamed, let go, and dove headfirst onto Ash. In the split second Rion touched Ash’s head, he focused.
Ash screamed and flew back. He felt like he had touched his tongue to a live wire while standing in a puddle. The flames in his eyes and arms winked out. He groaned, muscles frozen from the shock. He could barely lift his head to see. Rion was standing over him.
“Wh- wh-” Ash tried to form words with his cottonmouth.
“I finally understood,” Rion said. “I understood why we keep getting headaches. Why the powers increase the more pain you’re in. It’s not from overstrain. It’s from getting stronger. It’s the powers getting better, like working out. The more pain there is, the stronger you are.”
Rion held up his left hand, which was missing the tip of its pinky finger up to the first knuckle. Blood dribbled down from the stump.
“Y- y- you,” Ash wheezed. “You’re insane.”
Rion approached Ash. “You want a contest of wills?” Rion held up his hands, fingers crooked and ready to clutch.
“No, no.” Ash tried to creep away, but only managed to wriggle back a few inches. His legs wouldn’t work, his arms wouldn’t work. His power wouldn’t work.
“I’m going to give you back all the pain you caused,” Rion said. Electricity crackled over his palms like crawling snakes.
Ash’s eyes widened. There was nothing he could do.
Rion bent down and laid his hands on the sides of Ash’s temples. Ash’s eyes darted left and right as he felt the touch of skin on his head.
He felt the first jolt and yelped. Then he yelled out again.
Then came the big one.
Ash’s screams penetrated even the thickest walls of the roof.