Though the pain had faded, her head was still foggy as she listened to the two men speaking. From the way their voices faded in, Willow realized she must have slipped out of consciousness at some point in the jump. She tested her limbs and found them bound, hands cuffed together over her head and fastened to the wall. Her communicator was still in her ear, but there wasn’t even a whisper of coming from it. Wherever they were, it was out of range, and the absence of Dave’s presence struck her with an unexpected wave of loneliness. The only blessing seemed to be that she’d kept her right hand shut, muscles refusing to part even as she was knocked out, so the object Mason had slipped her was still in her grasp. Quickly she shut her eyes, hoping they wouldn’t realize she’d come around.
“…cuffs might not hold her. It makes far more sense to eliminate her as a threat; here and now.” Willow didn’t recognize this voice, but she knew Doc Omni’s too well to mistake it for his. By process of elimination, this must be Dr. Apex.
“That’s not the way we play our game,” Doc Omni replied. “Think of it as superhero flag football: we’re going for the capture, not the kill.”
“And if I don’t agree to play by your silly little rules?”
“If you touch her, I’ll rip your throat out.” There was no anger in Doc Omni’s voice; he said these words as plainly as if he were asking Dr. Apex what time the next bus was arriving.
“You don’t have the-”
“It’s been twenty minutes since you copied me, and in the last five I slipped away to pick up a new power. I’m willing to bet I can kill you faster than you can replicate my abilities, but that’s only if you’re really so set on unraveling everything over the life of a single superhero that you’ll ignore the gain you’d receive from our success. You can either go do your job, or stay here and entering a dick-measuring contest that ends with one of us dead and the whole plan destroyed. Your call.”
Willow couldn’t quite make out what Dr. Apex was mumbling in response, but she did hear a soft sound, like static mixed with the pop of bubble-wrap. Just like that, she knew he was no longer in the room, or probably the dimension, for that matter.
“You can stop pretending to be asleep now.”
Willow opened her eyes slowly, the ruse clearly no longer effective, and for the first time got a good look at the room she was trapped in. It was silver and round, made entirely from metal. Every surface in sight was smooth, with not a single door to be found. Unless there was some sort of secret mechanism that opened an invisible hatch, the only way in and out of a place like this would be teleportation or dimension hopping.
“At least you keep this place cleaner than you kept your room.”
“Even I’ve grown up over the years.” He stared at her, his usual clam, placid expression fixed firmly in place. Just like his voice, just like his demeanor; everything measured and careful. It fooled most of the world, but not his big sister.
“Thanks for not letting Dr. Apex kill me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, we’re family. Leaving each other in life-threatening situations is one thing, but outright murder… if either of us were willing to stoop to that then this would have ended years ago.”
“Seems like you’re doing your best to end it right now anyway.” Willow carefully tested her restraints once more. They held firm, showing no signs of give whatsoever. She could tell without checking that her last power had faded out. In all the excitement of bouncing around there hadn’t been a chance to grab a new one either. It was a subpar situation, to say the least.
“You would think that way.” Doc Omni walked slowly around the room, looking up at the empty walls and ceiling. “I created this place, you know. Wrote it up in a short story, the calm center in a sea of, admittedly, poorly penned action taking place outside. Just like that, an afternoon of effort and suddenly this place exists. Or did it always exist, and I merely crafted a portal through which I could enter it?”
“Jesus, Perry. If you’re going to wax philosophically just call Apex back here and let him kill me.”
“It’s not philosophy, Jen. In our case, it’s a very pragmatic question. Did I create this place, or did I create the portal? These works we leap into, have they always been there? Or did their entire dimensions spring into existence when some author haphazardly strung the right combination of words together?”
“Both. Neither. Who gives a crap? That’s like asking if we’re all secretly in the Matrix, you can’t prove or disprove it, so the question is irrelevant.”
“What if I could? What I could prove, one way or the other, if these places, if we were real.”
A shiver ran down Willow’s spine as she caught a glimpse of the excitement in her brother’s eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t act like you’ve never wondered. We leap into these places, see these people, made of flesh and blood and sentiment that seem just as real as our own. You have to have asked yourself the inevitable question: are we any different than them? Is our world, our fate, is everything predestined? Words on a page in another dimension, that dimension itself a footnote in another work. An endless cycle winding through the multiverse, all leading to one, single, true plane of reality.”
“Even if that’s true, we don’t know that there’s one-”
“Do not pretend with me, Jennifer.” Perry jerked his head around, a slight flicker of true anger breaking through his composed facade. “No one else believed me, even before you stopped backing up my story, but you do know the truth. What we saw that day, that… thing that used our world as a footstep between dimensions. The being so fundamentally different that even seeing it left us warped, burdened us with these abilities. It was real. It might be the only thing we’ve ever seen that was real.”
She knew the day he was talking about, she could picture most of it so clearly. Perry, wearing his old orange sneakers leading the way through the forest trail. Her younger self, working so hard to keep up as the sun beat down on them. The green clearing where they stopped to eat a quick lunch at her insistence. If only they’d kept going. If only they hadn’t been there when…
Her eyes squeezed shut of their own accord, trying to coat her mind in darkness. That memory was like a bomb in her brain. If she dwelled on what she’d seen for too long, her consciousness would unravel and madness would set it. Just like it had for Perry. Poor Perry, who was so honest and straightforward that he couldn’t accept that there were some things better forgotten. Perry, who’d kept ranting and raving until their parents had to put him away. For his own good, they said. Perry, who’d slowly warped into the man who became obsessed with testing the other dimensions, and what they could withstand.
“So what’s your plan? Since we’re clearly reached the evil monologue portion of the game, it must mean we’re near the end.”
“The how is irrelevant to you, but I intend to keep using the transversal omnilocators to break down the doors between dimensions.” He held up his wrist, and for the first time Willow noticed the bracelet that now covered a significant portion of his left forearm. “Of course, replicating our abilities is impossible with just technology. We’re far more special than that. Some poor imitations can be formed, certainly, but to really spread our capacity around they need to draw from the source. I’m going to spread that power as far as it can reach, break down all the barriers in the entire cycle, keeping plowing through walls until I find the true reality.”
“And what then?”
“Then? Then I’ll be free. Truly free. Don’t you get it? Nothing in these worlds changes. We go down, visit about, spread information, but we’re never in the stories. When we go back, everything is as it was before. These worlds are set. Bound. And if we’re in one, then so are we.”
“You’re destroying countless universes all for a wild theory.” Willow didn’t even try to keep the venom out of her voice.
“I’m freeing them, letting them leave the destinies thrust upon them. It’s just a temporary measure though; until I can find the true reality then we’ll all still be living under the yoke of a pre-determined life.” His anger had faded now; in its place was an expression of genuine sincerity. For the briefest of moment, Willow remembered her brother as he had been, but she hardened her heart to the sentiment. Perry was gone, for all intents and purposes. Only Doctor Omniverse remained.
“If you’re right, then you can’t win. If we’re all living under this destiny then you’re doomed to fail.”
“Maybe so,” he agreed readily. “Maybe I’m struggling in vain. But at least I’m fighting. At least I won’t lie down so easily. And besides, it’s possible that our peek behind the veil has given us more freedom than most. Maybe you and I can truly change the world. Well, I can, anyway. You’re going to stay here until the first true domino falls. From there, no amount of universe hopping can stop me.”
Doc Omni reached into his coat and pulled out a small book, one Willow was just able to make out the name of. He flipped to a page, then glanced over at her.
“Goodbye, big sister. I’ll come for you when this is over, and I’ll personally show you the new world I’ve forged.”
Another pop, and he was gone. Willow stared at the space where he’d been for several moments, then slowly began to work herself to freedom. Perry had always been smart, always been good at planning, but what Perry hadn’t been was doing superhero work for the past decade. He hadn’t learned about the important of contingency plans. And he especially hadn’t realized how much power could be tucked away in a single page.
It took some time to work her left glove free, pulling the fabric up inch by inch with her fingers. Finally she got it high enough to reach the folded sheet of paper underneath. In careful, practiced movement, she unfolded it, until the whole thing was shaken out. That done, she let it flutter to the ground. Large type and double-sided printing meant she’d be able to read no matter how it landed, though she wasn’t looking forward to it. This power was too big, too overwhelming. It was like juggling a cinder; she could only hold it for a few minutes at best. Still, at times like these, it had its uses.
Willow looked down at the single piece of paper and read about the villain Globe, from the Super Powereds universe. The power crashed over her like a wave, it was all she could do to take a breath. A sphere formed around her, invisible but as real as the blood in her veins. She could sense everything in it, feel every last bit of existence contained there. And she could bend it all to her will.
Dealing with the rush nearly caused her to pass out again, but Willow narrowed her focus down to the tasks at hand. With the little mind she could spare, Willow mentally destroyed her restraints and conjured a book that she could use to jump out of the room. That done, she let the power fall away, her hands still shaking slightly even as it faded.
There was no time to grab another ability, she’d have to snag one from the new world as she went. Willow cracked open the book, the same one she’d seen Perry holding only moments before, and tried to guess the page number he’d been on. It would be close, but there might still be time to stop him.
Where is Willow going?