Chapter 321

                “What makes you think I’m dying here?” The gun didn’t twitch in the slightest, broken legs and sudden change of environment be damned. Charles Adair, whatever moral issues he might have, clearly hadn’t skimped on his Hero training. He was a man who knew how to keep focus.

                In response, Nick leaned back and crossed his legs, putting on the most casual posture he could muster. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You got busted, so you wanted to die. That’s what Globe was thinking. Me, I have my own suspicions. Like maybe having a Super who can warp reality to his will would open up some interesting excuses. After all, the data we got came from one of Globe’s people, and the guards were hunting Globe as their top priority. Someone with enough money and lawyers, someone really clever, might be able to twist the story into Globe being the one behind it all. Say he put the bunker under shell companies you own, controlled you into doing what he wanted to explain away any in-person issues. The only ones who could testify against you are Globe and his cronies, and of those only the top man is a real threat. All of the others, you can say, had their memories messed with. It’s a power he used on Crispin, so the DVA knows it’s real. Even if there’s no proof he can do more than blank memories, that alone opens up the idea as possible. Maybe you’ve even got someone with mental abilities on retainer, a Super who can make you think the story is true, thwarting any telepaths.”

                Nick paused, briefly, waiting to see if Charles would offer up some lukewarm excuse. When none came, he continued his theory. “Globe is your biggest threat, he’s a first person account. Neutralize his ability, stick him with a telepath, and poof: he can prove he had no hand in this. That’s why you were going to kill him. Use threats to get him alone, emotion and exhaustion to lower his guard, and the moment he gave you a chance he gets a bullet to the skull. No more threats, no more person to disprove your story. He made a good scapegoat once, so why not use him again? Especially after the DVA finds out there were no nukes under the base, you can reframe it as you finally capturing a wanted killer before he could betray those innocent Heroes he was fooling. Would it be a hard sell? Of course. But compared to where you are now, why not at least try? If you ask me, it seems possible, but that’s because unlike most of your enemies I know better than to underestimate you.”

                Part of Nick wondered if Charles would deny it all, pretend he’d been sincere about wanting to escape and reconcile. Charles Adair was a practical man, however. He didn’t waste words spinning tales unless someone was going to believe them. It wasn’t the same as admitting Nick was right, but it also wasn’t a direct rebuttal.

                “Whether you’re right or not, you’re a little too clever for your own good. Has anyone ever told you that?”

                “Annually, at the very least,” Nick replied.

                “They should up the frequency.” Charles adjusted his grip slightly, never letting the gun’s muzzle point away from Nick’s body. “So, even if you’re right, what’s your play here? I’ve read up on you, at length. I know you wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t want something.”

                “Hurtful. Fair, but hurtful.” Nick gave a mock swoon before righting himself, pausing only to adjust his sunglasses. “And I already told you why I came here: this is the day you die. The others would have gotten in the way, but luck was in my favor since I managed to get you alone.” Confident as he felt, Nick knew better than to let on just how powerful he was at that precise moment. Games like this weren’t over until the final move.

                Another adjustment on the grip, Charles was picking his shot. “Or I could kill you now.”

                “Great idea. Then, when the Heroes arrive, you only have a dead Super and a knocked-out Hero to answer for. That should really help build your case of innocence.”

                “Doesn’t make things worse for me than they already are.” Charles, to Nick’s surprise, lowered the gun slightly. “But it doesn’t help me either. How about instead, we make a deal? That’s more your speed, I believe. You know I have money, however with your connections and power you don’t prize it like most do, so what about something you do value? I have information.”

                Nick scoffed, a response he’d been working to perfect. It wasn’t quite there yet, but he elected not to try and go for a second one. “If you’re going to try selling me on the procedure’s secrets, we already know the root of it and we have your data. Probably your bunker too, if I know my friends.”

                “Oh no, I know so much more than that. I am the man at the center of a billion-dollar spider-web. There’s virtually no question you could ask I couldn’t get the answer too. For example: would you like to know about Vince’s real parents?”

                “Vince’s real parent is the one-armed badass who took care of him, raised him, and just went to bat for him yet again,” Nick snapped, a tad more harshly than he intended. “If you mean his biological parents, which one are you talking about? The small-time robber, or the junkie prostitute he knocked up? They’re both long dead either way, his father was gunned down and his mother over-dosed only a few weeks after she put Vince into the adoption system. Kept clean for the pregnancy, decided to celebrate afterward, truly sad stuff. See, you’re not the only one with resources and dedication, Charles. I cracked that mystery freshman year, but Vince has never shown the slightest interest in learning about the people who gave him away. We’re all more focused on the ones who stick around.”

                The gun wasn’t sinking anymore, however it also hadn’t raised back up. Charles was staring at Nick, something new in his face. It wasn’t an expression Nick had seen the man wear before, but there was no mistaking it: respect. Begrudging respect, true, yet respect all the same.

                “We are very similar people, Nicholas Campbell. In another few decades, you could be in my position. What would you do if something happened to your friends, or to Alice? What would you sacrifice to save them?”

                “You’re right. We’re very similar, and I know it. The others hate you, fear you, despise you, but I’m the only one of the lot who gets it. I understand you, Charles Adair. I know what it is to feel that drive, to be smart and capable without the same restraints of morality as most others. In your position, I very well might have made the exact same choices. I know who I am, and I can admit that. But that understanding won’t buy you mercy; in fact it’s the very reason I came here to make sure you die. Because you are the threat to the people I love. You are the one who could put them in jeopardy yet again. I’m not better than you, I’m not more noble than you, hell in a few decades I might be even worse than you. I’m just the one who is set against you in this particular combat, and I plan to win.”

                In a flash, the gun was back up, not that Nick showed visible concern. He was still sitting on the rock, relaxing peacefully. “For someone without a weapon, you’re making a lot of threats,” Charles pointed out. “But if you’re so sure this is the end, why not kill me already? Why waste time having this conversation?”

                “Simple. I’ve seen your past. Some of it in dreams, but you get the idea. There is, was, good in you once. I thought you might want to make this easy on everyone. If I kill you, it’s going to cause an investigation, but if you finish yourself off then the matter is settled. Just this once, as your last action in this world, I thought you might want to make things easier on the people you care about. Alice doesn’t want to see me hauled into court.”

                “A good move,” Charles said. “But you should have sweetened the pot by promising that you’d look after my daughter, and offer to make sure Shelby gets the procedure.”

                “Why? Alice can look after herself, and we both know I’m going to help both of them regardless of what you choose. I’m not an amateur, let’s not waste each other’s time by pretending that I am.”

                In Charles’ hand, the gun twitched ever so slightly, a lone sign of what was to come. “Fair enough. You deserve the same as any worthy opponent.”

                The gunshot rang out through the empty space and rocks around them, followed by the muffled thud of a body slumping to the ground. From his rock, Nick watched carefully, waiting for any signs of life.

                “I told you to use your power, Alchemist. That’s the thing about guns, they have the potential, no matter how small, to catastrophically misfire. Especially when they’ve taken damage from a sudden high drop to hard ground. So much shrapnel, all it takes is one piece at the right speed and angle. Through the eye, into the brain, well you’d get the idea if you could still hear. Any percentage, no matter how tiny, is enough for me to work with right now.” Nick checked his watch once more. “Although you did cut it a lot closer than I was hoping. Wondered how much goading it would take to make you shoot. A couple more minutes, and I’d be out of juice. Then again, it’s not really fun to gamble unless there’s something on the line, so thanks for keeping it interesting to the finish.”

                Laying back on the rock, Nick peeled his sunglasses off and set them to the side, looking up to the sky. Already the golden lines were starting to fade. Soon he’d be back to normal Nick, facing the future without nigh-insurmountable control of probability.

                Good. This bit was getting tedious. Nick still had so much work to do for the years ahead, so many tasks that remained. In the game of life, this all amounted to little more than a single move on the board. Still, Nick smiled as he stared bare-eyed at the sky and waited.

                It had taken him four years, an expulsion, new friends, a few people’s deaths, and untold hours of hard work to reach this point. If there was ever a time to stop and savor a moment, this was surely it. Because as soon as the Heroes arrived, everything started anew. There were new moves to be made, ones he couldn’t spend four years on. That would came later, though. For just the next few minutes, Nick enjoyed his lazy bask in the sun, the corpse of Charles Adair already cooling nearby.