The world was white and bright.
He was lying down.
In a bed.
In a white room.
Was this another dream? Was this what it was like to be dead?
Hours passed. Or minutes. Ghosts hovered over him, vaporous gray apparitions. They were there. They were gone. He was surrounded with light. This must have been heaven. Or the afterlife. Shapes floated above.
“Help…” he said weakly.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.”
Ash refocused his eyes. The ‘ghost’ was wearing a bulky white biohazard suit. It was folding a set of sheets.
He wasn’t dead. He was in a white room. There was a door and a plate glass window opposite him. He was lying on a hospital bed, with a beeping machine next to him. Beside that was a metal cart full of laundry.
“Who…” Ash said.
“Don’t bother moving. You’re too weak. And you’re strapped down.”
Ash tried to lift his hand. Leather straps bound both his arms and legs. It didn’t matter–just opening his jaw made him sore.
“Here, drink this,” the man said. He took a glass of water from the bedside table and held it to his mouth. “Try not to spit it up this time.”
Ash drank. It felt like liquid magic. “Who are you?” Ash repeated, his vocal chords no longer desiccated
“You don’t remember me? Oh.” The man pulled his suit down so that the window mask revealed his face. It was Rion.
“Now, don’t get all agitated. I don’t want you to have another seizure.”
Ash licked his lips. “Why are you wearing that ridiculous outfit?”
“It’s a fireproof suit.” Rion picked up the sheet again and finished folding it.
“You don’t need that,” Ash said. He knew he’d been beaten.
“Oh, I know. I don’t think you could light a match in your current condition. It’s just a precaution.” Rion waved his hand. “In fact, everything in this room is fireproof.”
Ash looked at the walls. “Isn’t that convenient…”
“Recognize it?” Rion asked.
Ash shook his head.
“It’s the room you were born in. Well, raised in, I should say. I think you slept here. I knew it had to be your room, since it was the only one with fireproofing.”
“Are we still in the building?” Ash croaked.
“Yeah. When you were sleeping–which was most of the time–I went exploring. Trying to find out more about us.” Rion set the sheets down. “There… uh, there were quite a few rooms like this. Some weren’t so pretty.”
“You find anything?” Ash asked.
“Not in particular. I think they either didn’t keep any records or they were wiped out, so they could disavow knowledge.”
Ash thought hard about what to say next, because it was a lot of words and movement caused pain. “Why are we still here? Are we safe?”
“There’s a lockdown function. Puts steel plating on all the doors and openings, like a cocoon. I guess it’s for a war or riot. There were lots of curious people at the door the next morning. I think as far as anyone knows, Starkweather Tower’s a dead obelisk in the sky.” Rion fiddled with the machine next to Ash’s bed.
“It’ll stay that way until long after we’re out of here. There’s an underground tunnel that’ll lead outside the city, when we’re ready to go.”
“Well, sure, I’m taking care of you, aren’t I?” Rion headed towards the door. He turned back and smiled. “You’re my lemon.”
Ash scrunched up his face. How could his brother be so chipper?
“Now, that’s enough questions,” Rion said. “You get some sleep. I’ll check on you in the morning.”
Rion shut the door before Ash could protest. He tried to hold out his hand, but forgot it was strapped down. He still had so many questions.
Whatever Rion did to the machine made him sleepy. Probably a knockout drug, the bastard. Before Ash could have another thought, he passed out.
Over days, Rion gave Ash food, water, changes of clothes, sponge baths, and even led him to the bathroom when needed.
Ash did all these things without argument. That was the way it was now. He was the loser, the weak one, and he deserved complete subjugation. He would have done the same thing had the situations been reversed. He owed Rion his life, and therefore had to submit to him. It was the way of things.
There was no concept of time. It was like prison, except the caretakers didn’t zap him. He didn’t ask for a magazine or TV–boredom was his punishment. And healing from whatever Rion had done was a full time job.
Rion came in more frequently. They talked. They each told the stories of their short lives, starting from the park bench and the alley. They told of their powers. They told of their feelings through their trials. Eventually, Rion stopped wearing his fireproof suit. One day, he led Ash back from the bathroom and didn’t strap him down.
Ash asked a lot of questions, and Rion answered them all. But there was one Ash wanted to ask, but never could. He made up excuses instead–Rion needed to fix something, Rion was concentrating on something else, Rion had better things to do. The truth was that he was scared of the answer. It might be something he didn’t want to know.
Until one day, Rion said, “Why don’t you go ahead and ask it.”
Ash did without hesitation. “Why am I still alive?”
“Well, there’s a lot of stuff left over. It’s a medical business, so there’s a lot of equipment and medications lying around. And I can use my power to find out how to use-“
“No,” Ash said. “I mean, why did you keep me alive? Why did you bother?”
“Cause you’re my brother,” Rion said.
Ash shook his head. “Not good enough. We both know I’m a dangerous man. I can set things on fire with my mind. I could walk inside a nuclear reactor and start World War III.”
“Oh, come on. Why would you do that?” Rion said. “If you started World War III, we’d all be dead. You know that.”
Ash rolled his eyes. “You don’t think someone like me would want to start World War III? I wanted revenge on humanity. Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out.”
“I thought you said you were God.”
Ash sat up carefully. “It doesn’t have to be World War III. It could be a mall or a whole town.” He leaned forward. “I want to kill people. Doesn’t that make me dangerous?”
“No more dangerous than I am.”
“Not because of our powers. I mean, I was ready to kill you and then move onto the rest of the world. And you’re the only one who could have stopped me.” Ash paused to let Rion argue his point, if he had one.
“True,” he said.
“So it’s clearly you against me.”
Rion shook his head. “See, that’s your problem. You gotta stop thinking of everyone as either a friend or an enemy. Life doesn’t work like that.”
“It doesn’t?” Ash cocked his head. “What other categories are there? Neutral?”
Rion shook his head. “It’s not about categories. That’s the thing. You can’t divide the world the way you want to–those people who should live or die–because life doesn’t work like that. You’re trying to shove a black and white solution into a problem that’s way too colorful.”
Ash rolled his eyes. “Whatever. The point is, by letting me live, I could still enact my plan. To…” He rolled his hand, trying to think of the word. “To fix the world.”
“I don’t think breaking things can be called fixing.”
“Will you let me finish?” Ash said. Rion pursed his mouth, showing he’d be quiet. “What’s stopping me from escaping? Or jamming a knife in your back when you’re turned around? Or something? Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance? It’s not like you can change me.”
“Aha,” Rion said, “That’s where you’re wrong. You see, Ash, you’ve been so set on the idea of keeping the good ones and chucking out the bad, that you don’t see there’s a third option–repair.”
“Repair?” Ash snorted. “Repair doesn’t work, you’ve already seen that.”
“It doesn’t?” Rion asked pointedly. “Why not? You’re a living example.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You haven’t torched me yet.”
Ash’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t even thought of doing so. It would have been easy. He could have done it a dozen times over by now. Was it because he was biding his time until he was at full strength? Because he hadn’t planned his course of action afterward? Surely, it wasn’t because he had feelings for Rion?
And then he realized–it was. Rion was the one emotional connection he had left. If he killed Rion, he would truly have nothing, even less than before.
“You didn’t keep me alive just to make an example of me…” Ash muttered.
“No,” Rion shook his head. “For my own best interests, healing you would not be on my list of priorities. It would have been to get as much distance between this godforsaken city and me.” Rion adjusted himself on the bed. “Here’s the real reason. For all I disagree with your plan, and your methods, you’re right.”
Ash furrowed his brows. “You… think I’m right?”
Rion nodded. “The system no longer works. The guilty aren’t being punished. And the innocent are being victimized. The world is too full of people who ‘get away with it’, and that’s not acceptable. But,” Rion held up his finger. “It’s not going to be fixed by deciding who lives and who dies.”
Ash sat back with a self-satisfied smile. Rion, for all his free-spirited ways, actually understood the problem. If he didn’t agree with the methods, at least they were both on the same wavelength.
“So you do want to join me?” Ash said.
“No. Haven’t you been listening? I said you’ve got the right idea, you just have it backwards. Evil is like a virus, like a cycle. And lots of people have trouble breaking that cycle. Because they perpetuate it among themselves. Well, why can’t it be reversed?”
“Because it’s too strong.”
Rion shook his head. “You can do it. Spin the cycle the other way.”
“And you seriously propose to do this? You’re gonna save them all?”
Rion sighed. “No, not all of them. Some are the ones that Darwin missed. That’s where you come in.”
Ash smirked slyly.
Rion ignored him and continued. “You know why we were paired up, right?”
“Because we were brothers? Cause we were the only ones to survive the program?”
Rion shook his head. “No, it’s because we worked together well. Think about it. Think about why hired killers and hitmen always work alone. Because bringing a second is a liability. Not with us. We sustain each other. We keep each other in balance. That’s why I kept you alive.”
Rion stood up, and walked toward the door. Ash looked puzzled, not quite sure what to make of his brother. He couldn’t tell if Rion was trying to help or acting as an obstacle. Maybe this was what he meant–not everyone was a friend or enemy.
Rion turned back, “We leave tomorrow.”
Ash nodded. Rion left the room.
The next evening, Ash selected a new set of clothes, and walked out of the room that had been his home for… who knew how long.
Rion was waiting at the door. He was also dressed and holding a pack. Ash glanced at Rion’s hand, and how much shorter his pinky had become–the sacrifice he had been willing to make–and followed him down the hallway.
Every window was covered by a steel gray shutter. Only the red emergency lights gave off light, just enough to walk around. It was like an ancient, sealed-up pyramid.
Rion led Ash to the nearest stairwell. The elevator was closed, since the building used minimal power when in lockdown mode. This meant the only working systems were lights, ventilation, plumbing, and not much else.
They descended the 108 flights and then some, ending up well below ground level. They moved through an underground storage area until they came to another door.
They looked into a dark sewer-like tunnel. Rion grabbed an emergency flashlight from his pack.
“I think we can follow this tunnel out,” Rion said.
Ash sneezed from the displaced dust. “You don’t sound very sure.”
“I’m sure. Wherever it goes, it’s better than here.”
They walked through the corridor, hearing only creaks and low noises. “You sure no one knows about this place?” Ash asked after a particularly loud plunk. “You sure there aren’t S.W.A.T. teams or military breaking through right now?”
“I’m sure. The map said this tunnel was Starkweather’s emergency escape hatch. I checked it out while you were incapacitated to make sure.”
“Kinda ironic, that we’re using it now.”
“Yeah.” There was a silence. He knew what Ash did, and he was glad it hadn’t been up to him. “Shame I never got to meet him.” There was no hint of malice in his voice.
“I don’t think you missed much. He was a crazy old man. Lonely.”
“Yeah, but he was the only one who knew what we were like before we lost our memory.”
“I don’t think it matters. Whether we get our memory back or not, it’s not gonna change who we are now.”
“I know, I’m just curious. I’d like to see who I was before and compare who I am now.”
“Why? Are you going to fund a study?”
“Look,” Rion said, “I don’t know what we did before we lost our memory. But look at us–we’re the same person, we started the same way. And we went out and became totally different people. Yet we came back to each other, like we were meant to. Don’t you think that says something about human nature?”
Ash shrugged. “It’s the same thing for everyone–people trapped in the same cycle. Even when we got our second chance, we ended up doing the same things we did before. Except I failed where you succeeded. That just makes me depressed.”
“It makes me all the more hopeful,” Rion said, “And I think it proves my point.”
They continued walking for a long time, both in quiet contemplation. Ash broke the silence. “You know, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about us.”
“Like?” Rion said, swishing his flashlight back and forth.
“Like where we came from. How did we get our powers? Who worked on us?”
“What happened to Dr. Mason? And where’s Geri Baxter? What role did she play in all this, besides being a friend, apparently.”
“Maybe she wants her sweater back,” Ash said. “She’s probably cold.”
“I think they’re still alive. And if so, they’re definitely out of Starkweather’s city. And maybe there’s other people out there who know about us. Maybe they could help us.”
“Or maybe they want us dead.”
“There were others like us. Maybe they’re still out there.”
Ash reacted. “I thought Gray was the last.”
“I don’t know. If Gray was alive, if Dr. Mason’s still out there, maybe we’re not the last. Could be none, could be a thousand.”
“Thanks, I’ll be able to sleep easy tonight.”
Rion stopped in his tracks as Ash bumped into him. He flashed the light up and down. Ash was about to ask what he was doing, when he drifted over to a wall and put a hand against it. Almost immediately after, he focused the light on a ladder hanging at the top. A long thin piece of rope dangled down.
“This is it.” Rion jumped up, caught the rope, and pulled the ladder the rest of the way down. He went up first, and stopped at the ceiling. There was a manhole cover blocking the path. After several pushes, he said, “It won’t budge. It’s rusted in.”
“Let me try.” Ash scooted up the ladder. Rion leaned to the side to let him through.
Ash placed his fingertips on the center of the manhole cover, like he was delivering a pizza. They began to glow red and the cover popped off.
Rion climbed out and helped Ash up. It was the dead of night. Crickets chirped. The half moon shone on the desert plain, scattered with small bushes and scrub brush. No cars coming for miles. Behind them, the city lights glowed effervescently.
“Well, where do we go now?” Ash said.
“I don’t know,” Rion said and shrugged.
They started walking down the road, towards the rising sun.