Chapter 161

                The new room was bare, save for two plastic folding chairs. Concrete walls paired with a matching floor and ceiling made it feel almost like they were back in the HCP, which for all Alice knew might be the case. Generally, their classrooms and gym weren’t quite so barren as this though. The current room was minimal in every capacity, and the Subtlety student in Alice immediately noted that it would be ideal for blocking remote signals and ensuring no monitoring devices were hidden nearby. An optimum room to have a private conversation in, or as private as one could get with Supers in the world. Seconds after the room came into focus, two figures sitting in the chairs did as well. One was so similar to Chad it was easy to mistake them, but she already knew this man was Joshua Taylor, the Hero called Intra.

                In the other chair was Charles Adair. Not the love-struck man from the wedding, or the concerned husband from Shelby’s breakdown, or even the broken soul Phil had been comforting moments prior. No, this was the real Charles Adair, the hard-eyed man Alice had always known him as. However much time had passed, whatever had occurred in the interim, the last of that decent man had been purged from this new Charles. Words became audible, and for the first time she noticed that Joshua was holding a picture.

                “You can’t do this. I’ll alert Dispatch. I’ll call the company workers.”

                “The thing about a company is that even in its most noble of incarnations, it is still staffed by people. People who can be swayed by the promise of riches. If you try to make that call, my people will intercept it. You’ll have accomplished nothing, save for dooming your family. Now if you tried Dispatch, that’s a different matter. She is beyond my reach, and if you tell her what’s happening then she will undoubtedly bring me down. But it will be too late to stop my people from pulling their triggers. You will have successfully stopped me and my plans, and all it will cost is your wife and son’s lives.”

                “Holy shit. That’s how he did it.” Nick stepped forward, drawing closer to the pair and looking over Joshua’s shoulder. “This is a picture of a baby with a date and time stamp. From context, I’m guessing it’s Chad, and taken recently. Probably through the scope of a sniper rifle.”

                The picture in question was shaking as Joshua stared down at it once more. He looked anxious, near-frantic, as his eyes darted between the photo and Charles. “You’re bluffing. Or this is a sick joke. You wouldn’t destroy your whole career, your whole life, just to make me play along. And that’s what would happen if I called Dispatch.”

                Charles Adair reached forward and gripped the top of the photo, steadying it. Unlike Joshua, there was no tremor in his hands whatsoever. He’d committed to this course, and had no doubts or nerves to disturb him.

                “Let me be very clear, Joshua. Let me make sure you understand the score perfectly. This is no joke or bluff. If you don’t leave this room and publicly turn villain, forcing Globe to put you down, then I’m going to kill Chad and Miriam. Make a detour, talk to a single soul for reasons that don’t sell your story, and they die. Your comms will be blocked from Dispatch once you’re on the scene, but I’ll still be listening in case you try to slip Globe any message. I don’t think I need to repeat myself again and tell you what happens then. Yes, you’re right, if this goes awry my life is done, but ask yourself what I really have left to lose. A wife living in constant comatose torture, a daughter who will rightfully spend her life hating me for denying her a mother, and a job spent saving people when the person I love most in the world remains beyond aid. It’s nothing but the paltry scraps of a true life, and I will gamble it without hesitation on a chance to bring Shelby back. Because I don’t think you’re willing to trade your loved ones just to see me stopped.”

                “He’s not bluffing at all, is he?” Mary asked. Alice shook her head. She knew Charles Adair well, and she’d seen him go all in before. That’s what was happening now. He was laying everything out in the open, because subterfuge held no value. If Joshua had tried to buck the deal, then that would have been the end of things. And it probably would have also been the end of Chad and Miriam Taylor.

                Joshua yanked the picture back, away from Charles’ steady fingers, and looked down at it once more. “Why? Why are you doing this? I was willing to give you blood, tissue, bone marrow, whatever you needed to help Shelby.”

                “But we both know none of that offers what I really need.” Charles moved his hand upward, and carefully pressed his index finger against Joshua’s temple. “It’s the brain. It’s always the brain. That’s where we see the differences, the additional organs and glands and structure that give us actual data to be used. I need, Shelby needs, your brain, Joshua. In there lies the potential to change the world. Think of all the Powereds you’ll be helping if my research succeeds. Think of all the lives changed for the better thanks to your sacrifice.”

                “Don’t you fucking dare try to twist this.” Joshua knocked the hand away, and for a moment Alice saw his features narrow in fury. If he was as strong as Chad, there was no question he’d be able to beat Charles in a fight. Which made her certain there were protocols in place should Joshua make things physical. He clearly knew it too, because Joshua lowered his hand rather than using it to strike Charles. “Don’t you try to make this anything other than the horrible, murderous plot that it is. You should at least be man enough to do it yourself, Charles. Don’t drag your brother into this.”

                “I wish I didn’t have to, but we can’t risk you dying in normal field work. Your brain might be damaged, and then it’s all a waste. No, you need to turn traitor and be brought down by a fellow Hero. If your best friend is the one to do it, with no idea what’s really going on, then the whole thing will be nothing more than a blip on the DVA’s radar. One more Super gone bad. And when I suggest using your corpse to turn this tragedy into something good, I’ll have the backing to take custody of your body. The bribes are already paid; it’s just a matter of setting it all in motion.” Charles was remarkably calm as he detailed everything, meeting Joshua’s objections with patience at every turn.

                “This conversation is really making me wish I hadn’t cursed out your dad back in freshman year,” Nick said, slowly backing away from the two Heroes.

                No one said anything else for several moments, as Joshua stared down at the picture of his sleeping son. “You’re a monster.”

                “I know,” Charles said, still perfectly calm.

                “You’re going to hell for this.”

                “Without question,” Charles agreed.

                “How do you know Phil won’t go for the brain when he kills me? It’s the smartest target, given my power.” Joshua was crumpling the picture slowly. It became a ball of scrap before he let it hit the ground.

                “Because he loves you like family. The head, the face, that’s a target for the emotionally detached or hateful. Phil won’t be able to bring himself to make the killing blow there. And as long as you don’t heal the spot he does pick, he’ll have no need to. Don’t get any cute ideas about tricking him into bashing your brains in just to spite me, either. All you’ll be doing is condemning someone else with a similar power to die. Maybe even Chad, if he manifests an ability and takes after his dad.”

                Joshua was out of his seat in a flash, hands wrapped around Charles’ neck as he lifted the smaller man from his chair and pressed him against a wall. “Don’t you threaten my son! If I do this, you don’t touch him or Miriam. No matter how it goes, even if my head doesn’t give you what you want. Promise me that much, Charles. Let me die at least knowing my family is safe.”

                “You have my word. They will never be touched, by me, by outsiders, or by life’s tribulations. They will never want or lack for anything. I will watch over them from the shadows as best I can without ever making myself known. I promise.”

                Joshua lowered Charles back down slowly, his hands shaking once more. “I wish your word counted for something. You’re a Hero, and a friend. I’m supposed to be able to trust you.”

                “If it’s worth anything, I never wanted it to come to this either,” Charles replied. “But you’re a Hero too, and I’m only asking that you do for your family what you’ve been prepared to do for countless strangers since you took up that title.” He smoothed out the wrinkled front of his suit, undoing Joshua’s damage.

                “Die for them.”