Chapter 231

               Vince took a deep breath, extended his hands, and tried to make the world fall away. In the desert, it had happened naturally, day after day of relentless fighting had stripped every other thought from his mind. Lander, his friends, even his father had burned away under the scorching sun and steady rhythm of George’s fists. It was a state of calm and focus Vince had brushed against during his more intense battles, but never had he found a way to dwell in it the way he had in the desert. By the time their contest was over, Vince had been the deadliest version of himself to ever exist.

                Coming back had dulled that sharpness, made it more difficult to find the spot of calm cold that lived in the center of his mind. Finding Eliza, saving Nick, facing his feelings for Camille, all while worrying about what his father was up to . . . life had piled back on and complicated the simple precision he’d discovered in the desert. That was a good thing, too. Vince had seen what happened when one spent too long in that mindset. It ate away at the person, made them forget what had sent them to that place originally.

                The thermometer at the south end of the cell began to drop, slowly but steadily. None of the other three so much as twitched. Vince wanted to grin, but he suppressed the bubble of joy in favor of keeping his focus. Grabbing all of the energy he could was useful, however, it was also dangerous. The way he’d drained Thomas last year had proven that point all too well. What if he’d drained an energy his opponent needed to live? Vince had found the control he needed in the desert, when trying to cool it all would have been beyond dangerous. His need had beaten out his limitations, and he’d finally gained better control over what he absorbed. Vince could be careful and precise. With enough practice, he’d be able to use any technique, regardless of the opponent, just by tailoring the strength of it.

                Vince let out a long breath and saw it turn to steam in the air. He had been breathing to the south, after all. At last, he let himself smile and put his hands down. Even after months of training, Vince couldn’t entirely push the world away. He’d reached a certain degree of peace with that, though. Maybe it was for the best if he couldn’t forget the world completely, not even for a few seconds of focus. The world was important, as were the people in it.

                The only reason he allowed himself to go to that chilly, calculating place inside him was because there were people he wanted to protect, and a world he wanted to help save. If Vince ever allowed himself to forget that, he truly would be a monster. And Vince Reynolds had no intention of falling down that hole.

                He was training to be a Hero, no matter what.

*             *             *

                Ralph watched the video for what had to be well past the hundredth time. It was playing on a DVA laptop that was two years ahead of what most people considered top-of-the-line, yet paled in comparison to what some tech geniuses could rig up with motor oil and a calculator. The world’s technology would likely have been centuries ahead of where it was if anyone could ever replicate a tech genius’s work, or even figure out what made their stuff function in the first place. Almost none were able to explain how they put their marvelous inventions together; they just knew it made sense in their heads. Sadly, science didn’t always want to comply with what worked in their heads, though, and reverse engineering their creations was often more difficult than trying to replicate them from scratch.

                He reached over and picked up a glass of carrot juice as the screen showed Vince Reynolds bellowing with rage and firing blasts of electricity across the field. Even after all these viewings, it was still a sight to behold. Ralph had seen a lot of crazy, scary things in his time at the DVA, and Vince’s initial outburst still gave him the occasional chill. How many criminals had tried something like this to scare everyone off, only to look practiced and theatrical? That was the thing Vince brought that they didn’t: authenticity. In that moment, he really was ready to bring the entire world crashing down around him.

                Ralph wasn’t an idiot; he understood how illusions and mental manipulation worked. Ralph knew that Vince wasn’t seeing students, he was seeing monsters. Ralph understood that, to Vince, it hadn’t been a simple testing situation. He got all of that, but Ralph also understood something else, something he seemed to be the only one to get.

                No matter the circumstances, Vince was still in control of his actions. Maybe he was tricked into thinking he was fighting inhuman creatures, and that someone he loved was dying behind him. None of that changed what he’d become in those moments. The beast that had emerged from his psyche wasn’t considering collateral damage, or bystanders, or anything more than pure, unrestrained destruction. Yes, it had been a dire, emotionally hellish scenario, but those sometimes happened in the real world. Heroes died. Sometimes, that Hero died in front of people who cared about them. Anger was expected, even permissible to a certain extent. What Vince had done was an exponential degree above a mere fit of rage.

Everyone else seemed content to brush over it by excusing the circumstances. Only Ralph could see the potential for devastation Vince Reynolds posed. Certainly, in daily, controlled life, Vince was a great kid. Kind, dutiful, caring, all the things Ralph would want to see in a future Hero. If he did make the cut though, sooner or later, something bad would happen around him. Maybe one of his friends would die. Maybe it would be the woman he loved, only this time, for real.

                Ralph had to think about what happened when that Vince broke free again, the one he was watching tear through fellow students with no regard for human life. Vince the Person might be fantastic, but no amount of decency would excuse the damage Vince the Grief-stricken Murder Machine might unleash.

                Next to his glass of juice, Ralph’s phone vibrated. He snagged it before the second “ring” and noted with mild annoyance that the number was blocked. Between government secrecy and those damn feuding mafia kids, he may as well not even have a caller ID function on his phone.

                “Hello,” Ralph said.

                “Good evening, Mr. Chapman.” The voice belonged to Nathaniel, the creepier of the two criminals he’d been forced to fall in with. “I’m calling to let you know that there will be quite a show this coming week. I can’t say when or where, as I’d hate to have a compromised phone ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say, you will certainly get what you need.”

                Damn it, this stupid shit was probably going to endanger other people again. Ralph needed any information he could get if he wanted to stay ahead. “Do you mind pointing me in the right direction at least? I need as much evidence as I can get to do my job properly, so I’d like to be set up.”

                “Oh, don’t worry about that. I promise, there will be no shortage of documentation when things are done.”

                Just like that, the line went dead. On screen, Vince was punching Chad off the ground and into the air. As Ralph watched the ground fall away from the blond Super, sending him spinning helplessly through the air, he felt a strong pang of empathy for how Chad must have felt in that moment.

                It was how Ralph felt every time he tried to picture what Nathaniel was going to do.