This story was written for the anthology book Heroes by various authors for SilenceInTheLibrary Publishing. Heroes is no longer available, so you can read the short here.
Though it was a bright, sunny middle of the day in Urban, it was typically dark in its sewers, the only light being that which peeked through manholes and drainage grates and glanced off the brick walls and thinly-running water. It was perhaps not as quiet as one would have expected, as some of the city sounds managed to make it down into the pipes and echo about endlessly, resembling an orchestra constantly tuning up in preparation for an introduction that never came.
A rat sniffed around in one of the larger drainpipes, searching for a morsel or two for lunch. It was comfortable in the almost-dark, having little trouble seeing in the sewers, and depending more on its ears and nose to find its way about. But even with its sensitive ears, not to mention its naturally-alert demeanor, the rat managed to be startled by a sudden rush of almost-silent movement in its direction. The rat squeaked in alarm, jumped out of the way and cowered as a man, wearing clothing so bright that it almost glowed in the dark, went by in a run that was many times faster than the rat had ever seen a man run.
The man paid the rat (and the others he passed) no mind as he ran, balancing speed with stealth as he continued down the sewer. He was a big man, built noticeably more muscular than the average man, but with a lithe frame that any triathlete would have admired. The thin wisps of light that penetrated the sewers occasionally flashed against his white and gold uniform, his blond hair, the stylized letter “A” emblazoned across his chest, and the gold domino mask around his eyes. Despite the wan light, he moved unerringly down the sewers, using senses fine as a jungle cat’s, the orchestral tuning of the city above effectively providing cover to his passing.
Finally he slowed his progress and increased his stealth, as he approached a drainage opening in the wall. A thin trickle of water crawled out of the opening and down the wall, to mix with the rest of the sewer water as it ran away behind him. The large man stayed out of the path of the water and climbed silently into the pipe. Though a normal man wouldn’t have been able to see into the space without a flashlight, he could see that the outgoing trickle of water did not come from an unknown distant point down the pipe; but instead, started at a small point, a hole just two feet into the pipe. The rest of the pipe beyond that was dry.
His mouth ticked up in one corner as he proceeded down the pipe… just as he had, almost a year ago to the day. He occasionally touched the walls to confirm that nothing had changed, no new booby-traps had been added, no snares or warning systems had been placed. As if he had not been expected to come this way ever again. Yet, here he was, creeping up to a false wall that he knew was there, sliding around it, and stepping out into a pitch-black abyss.
He landed, as he knew he would, on a stone platform just a few yards’ drop from the false wall.
He fell into a crouch, and took in the vast space beyond: An abandoned city storage space, roughly four stories high and equally round, partially carved out of the bedrock and partially bricked in for support. Abandoned, but far from empty, the space was filled with all manner of machinery, apparently cobbled together from many sources. If a Trekkie and a steampunker had had kids that liked old Jack Kirby comic books, they might have thrown this place together.
Despite the fact that machinery was clearly functioning, the place was dusty in many spots, as if it had been abandoned for a significant time, and only recently re-occupied. That fit with the memory of the last time he’d seen this space… one year ago.
In one quadrant stood a machine that dwarfed everything else in the room. This drew his gaze immediately, because it was the only thing in the room that was different from what he’d seen when he was last here. Yes, that infernal machine had been here; but it had been destroyed, by his own hand, a year ago. Now it was back and, judging by its appearance, redesigned and rebuilt by what must have been an inspired, brilliant… demented mind.
Anger boiled in him as he glared down at the machine, his fists clenching as he prepared to throw himself at the machine and tear it apart once again. But before he moved, his eye caught motion on the far side of the machine: Someone was there, working on it! Immediately he stood up, and at the top of his voice, a voice that boomed through the space like an explosion, he yelled:
“Who are you? How dare you bring this engine back to life?”
His booming voice caused the person by the machine to pause; then step around the machine into full view. He was built similarly to the man standing above him, and even had a uniform that emulated the other; but where the man above wore white and gold, the man at the machine wore black and gold, with much more of the black than gold. He also had a letter emblazoned across his chest, the letter “R,” in a matching style as the “A” on the man above. And instead of a domino mask like the man above him, the man in black and gold had a close-fitting black helmet that concealed his head completely. He stepped clear of the machine, faced the man above, and said: “Hello, Adamant.”
The man in white and gold stared, his mouth falling open as he gazed downward. “Relentless?”
The man in black and gold replied, “It’s good to see you, too.”
Adamant continued to stare. “Brother?”
Everything in the storage space—looking upon it immediately suggested the words “mad scientist’s secret lair”—had been shiny and pristine when, a year ago, Adamant kicked out the ventilation grate and landed on the stone platform beneath it.
The loud bang of Adamant’s arrival had drawn his quarry out immediately from behind the machinery at which he’d been working. Despite his gaudy black and gold costume and domino mask, the presence of an old-fashioned pipe wrench in his outstretched hand somehow made him seem less than impressive. “Adamant!” he shouted in greeting, and even smiled at him.
“Relentless!” Adamant shouted back down at him. “What are you doing?”
“Didn’t expect you so soon, brother!” Relentless sneered, tossing the wrench in a lazy arc, and catching it deftly without looking. “I guess they don’t make tenement fires like they used to.”
“Lucky the last downpour left plenty of water in the canal for me to put it out.” Adamant leapt from his perch, inscribed a smooth arc through the air, and landed on his feet at the far side of the space. “You won’t be facing any manslaughter charges today, at least.” He glanced at the large machine behind Relentless. “Is that the machine Dr. Tobin told me about?”
“You’d be proud of me, brother,” Relentless stated. “If you and Tobin didn’t hate me so much. But I’ve done it this time. My geo-engine is almost ready. It’ll power the city, and be the prototype for all non-polluting power sources for the planet!”
“You’re right,” Adamant told him. “I would be proud… if your machines actually worked as advertised. Tobin told me about the feedback error in your calculations. She said the blowback will be devastating!”
“Tobin’s a moron,” Relentless shot back. “There’s nothing wrong with my calculations! She’s jealous of my genius!”
“Tobin’s thorough. And we both know you’re careless!”
“I’m not overly-cautious,” Relentless countered. “The feedback problem is manageable!”
“I can’t let you turn this thing on,” Adamant stated.
Relentless grinned back. “Oh, really?”
Adamant sprinted forward, crossing the distance between him and his brother in the blink of an eye. But at the same instant, a massive shape flew from another corner of the lab. Something large and metallic swung out and hit Adamant, throwing him across the room. Adamant hit the wall in an explosion of bricks and dust, and slumped to the ground for a moment.
Shaking his head to clear it, Adamant regained his feet, and looked up. Between him and Relentless was a robot twice his size, made of gleaming black slabs of metal plate and struts, a steampunk monster, glaring down at him.
“Sorry,” Relentless stated calmly, “but I’m too close to finishing, and I won’t let you stop me. This planet needs protection from the real villains, the polluting industries, the gas-guzzling cars… the waste! I’m going to save us all… and I won’t let you stop me! Max,” he directed at the giant robot, “keep him busy!”
The robot immediately ran forward, arms out. Adamant tried to fake and dodge around, but the robot was much faster than he anticipated; it found him with a massive metal paw and knocked him into the air. The robot then turned and brought its other hand up, like a volleyball player making a serve. Its arm snapped forward, slapping Adamant out of the air and propelling him across the lab, this time, to drive bodily through a storage container in an explosion of glass and metal.
“Try not to break anything important,” Relentless cautioned as he returned to his machine.
“Don’t do it!—” but Adamant was blocked by the robot again. It piled atop him, and they rolled across the room, trading violent punches and crashing into loose equipment and mechanical detritus. Adamant was capable of punching holes in stone walls; but Max was equally powerful, and so fast that Adamant could only manage to dodge about half of the blows that rained down on him.
“Stop resisting the future, brother!” Relentless called out as he worked. “When we received these powers from the Moon Crystal, we swore we would fight to protect the planet. Well, I’m doing just that! Fighting individuals… stopping terrorists… that’s thinking too small! This will save the planet!”
“The feedback—” Adamant shouted, and paused to duck a girder thrown at him by Max. “—when the machine comes online, it’ll create an initial firestorm that will kill millions at its epicenter!”
“A regrettable downside, or course… but for eliminating pollution, worldwide? Stopping global warming? I’ll accept the consequence!”
“NO!—” Another girder thrown; but this time, Adamant caught the girder in mid-flight, and swung it like a beam-sized baseball bat at the robot. “You have no right to make that decision!”
“It needs to be done, brother!” Relentless stepped back from the panel he’d been adjusting, and put down his wrench. “And I’m doing it!”
As Relentless started for the control panel, Adamant saw his only chance. He feinted with his girder-bat, causing Max to slide to the left in preparation for the blow. But at the last moment, Adamant shifted the girder in front of him, and charged forward. He impaled Max on the girder and kept moving, shoving the robot back. Adamant pushed Max against one of the machines at the perimeter of the room, and with a mighty shove, pushed the end of the girder, through Max, into the machine. The corner of the room exploded in light and noise as Max was electrocuted by the machine and lightning bolts flew around the room.
The lightning bolts impacted Relentless’ power plant, and instantly, circuit boards began to spark and fry, and panels burst from the body of the machine. Relentless cried out in alarm as flames blew a cover panel from the machine’s side. “No! The breakers! They should have held!” Relentless leapt from the control panel to the blown cover, but Adamant jumped and tackled him before he got there. They sprawled and tumbled into another part of the engine, collapsing a part of the structure and smashing more delicate components.
“No!” Relentless screamed. “It was going to work! I was going to save the planet!—” Adamant and Relentless struggled beside the machine, trading punches, both trying and failing to get the upper hand. But thanks to the Moon Crystal, the brothers were almost exactly equal in power, and neither could best the other.
Abruptly they both froze when they were eclipsed by an unexpected shadow over them. Still grappling each other, they both looked up to see Max standing above them, the girder still impaled through its body and too twisted on either end to be pulled out. Max teetered drunkenly, and the brothers were sure the robot was about to come down upon them; but it turned aside, and its massive body plunged into the side of the damaged power plant.
The brothers were instantly thrown by a powerful concussion of heat and noise that reverberated through the room. Adamant found himself being thrown almost to the platform from which he’d arrived, striking a wall and sliding back down to the ground. Flames and thunder rolled through the lab, its force knocking over machines and breaking delicate instruments. Adamant couldn’t see the power plant in the conflagration… nor could he see Relentless. But he struggled to his feet and fought his way back into the carnage, in search of his brother, at least.
He lifted an arm to black the flames from his view, only then noticing how badly his uniform had been burned and shredded by the battle with Max, and then, the explosion. The heat was intense; if Relentless was still in there…
“Lester!” Adamant shouted. “Where are you? It’s Adam! Are you all right? We have to get out! Les!” He found a steel beam in his way, fallen across the lab space, and he shoved it aside, singeing his hands on the almost white-hot metal. “Brother!”
The beam he’d pushed aside fell to the ground with a loud crash, and the air shifted by the impact pushed the flames away. Abruptly, the area was clear for a second, and as Adamant gained a moment to look around, he was sure he saw a figure slumped over the control panel. “Les—”
In the next instant, the flames reasserted themselves, gathering fresh air and fuel from somewhere and erupting in a volcano of force. Adamant was thrown again, almost losing consciousness when he hit the wall this time. When he managed to get back to the center of the lab, most of the remains of the power plant were blackened cinders and charred metal.
There was no sign of Relentless.
“I was sure you hadn’t survived the explosion!” Adamant exclaimed. “How can you even be here?”
“I had to be here,” Relentless replied. “There’s unfinished work to be done.” His voice sounded different… perhaps strained or damaged, or perhaps just changed by the helmet. Adamant had to assume that his brother had been severely hurt in the explosion and fire; severely-burned skin would also explain his use of a helmet for the first time.
“Relentless, please,” Adamant said, leaping down from the platform. He gestured at the rebuilt power plant. “Tell me you’re not—?”
“Do you remember,” Relentless interrupted him, “What we promised to ourselves when we got this power? When we weren’t sure if we’d even manage to escape that deathtrap of a crypt after it collapsed on us? We said: If we get out of this, we swear to do everything we can to help our fellow man.”
“Of course,” Adamant replied.
“Well, we can no longer afford to think small,” Relentless told him. “It’s not enough. The world will collapse soon, and we need to act right now to stop it. There is no choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” Adamant insisted. “And it’s wrong to deny the people of this world the chance to decide it for themselves. It’s their world… it’s their right.”
“And it’s not ours?” Relentless countered. “We were born here. We’re humans, just like everyone else. It’s only because of a spelunking accident that we received these powers. In a way, we’re no different than an Edison who invents light, or a Ford who invents an assembly line. They changed the world, and no one told them they had no right to do it. No one criticized them for the gaslight workers or craftsmen that they put out of business. We have the ability to make the world better; we have the same right.”
“Edison and Ford put people out of work,” Adamant stated. “You’re machine would kill them.”
“And how many have died breathing toxic fumes?” Relentless asked. “How many have died in coal mine explosions or collapses? How many have suffered cancer from carbon soot in their lungs? Progress can be lethal. Doing nothing will be even more lethal.”
“You don’t know that. We can—”
“I do know that. As sure as I’m standing here.” Relentless indicated the machine. “You were right, of course. Back then. The geo-engine wouldn’t have worked… and the feedback explosion would’ve been worse than even Tobin thought. But it’s ready now.”
He gestured at his machine. From a closer position, Adamant could see that it was vastly improved from its previous version… though he had no way of knowing whether the improvements were purely cosmetic, or at all effective. In addition to the improved assembly, a few standalone modules were attached to it, and two large silvered glass cylinders stood along one side.
“Lester, listen to me,” Adamant said. “You’re no physicist. If Marla Tobin couldn’t figure out how to make that thing work, what makes you think—”
“Time,” Relentless said calmly. “Sometimes, all you need is time. I tell you, it’s ready now. I’ve worked out the missing component. It was so obvious, once I had it figured out—”
“I can’t let you turn it on,” Adamant stated. “You know that.”
“Yes, I know.” Relentless nodded, and casually lifted his hand. In it was a small device, the size of a cellphone. He tapped something on the face of the device, and beside the machine, the glass cylinders began to rotate in place. As they rotated, Adamant realized that only one side of the cylinder’s glass was silvered; and as they turned, he could now see clearly inside the cylinders… and his blood turned cold.
“Yes,” Relentless nodded, “Dr. Tobin was kind enough to assist me one last time.”
Dr. Tobin stood inside one cylinder, her arms lifted above her and tied to what looked like a nozzle for some type of output anchored to the top of the cylinder, identical to the nozzle at the cylinder’s bottom. She had a gag over her mouth, but she seemed otherwise unharmed. All the same, she pulled desperately against the ropes on her wrist and tried to make sounds past her gag. The other cylinder was empty.
Adamant started forward, but Relentless put out a hand. “Whoa. There’s a charge. Break it and it’ll kill her.”
Adamant, wisely, froze, and his eyes seethed as they turned to his brother. “How could you?”
“Trust me, I didn’t want to do it this way,” Relentless said. “But it was the only way I could assure your cooperation… and keep you from breaking the plant again.”
“Think so?” Adamant gritted, and turned on a heel. Maybe he couldn’t hit the power plant, he realized, but if he damaged so much other equipment that it couldn’t be fired up—
But as soon as he spun about, he realized something was close behind him. Before he could react, powerful metal bands slapped themselves around his arms and legs. Like that, he was immobilized.
“Good work, Max.” Relentless nodded as if he’d just learned something. “Let that be a lesson to you: Never delay an attack. Being proactive really does pay off.”
“Relentless!” Adamant struggled vainly against the robot. “You’ve got to stop!”
“No, I’ve finally got to finish.” Relentless gestured, and Max moved forward, carrying Adamant towards the machine. Adamant tried to free an arm or leg, but he could do nothing against the power of the robot. “For the sake of the planet,” Relentless went on as he led Max and his burden to the machine. “For the sake of humanity.”
“You’ll… kill millions!” Adamant cried.
“Unfortunately… people will die,” Relentless agreed. “Dr. Tobin was right about that, of course. Weren’t you?” He patted the cylinder in which Dr. Tobin stood, and she leaned forward, shaking her head and trying to yell through her gag. “But, as I said… time. Time gave me the answers I needed to make this work… and to reduce the casualty rate to… probably… just a few thousand.”
“And that’s supposed to be acceptable?” Adamant demanded.
“Against billions? It’ll have to do,” Relentless replied as he approached the second, empty cylinder. “You see, I had to work out a way to absorb and redirect that blowback she calculated. Without proper control of it, the machine would never have worked. But it will now.”
“It won’t! Brother—!”
“Have faith, brother. Now, Max: Configuration C, please.”
Max reached the cylinder in which Dr. Tobin struggled. The cylinder’s unsilvered side began to slide open, and Adamant could now hear Dr. Tobin’s muffled voice behind the gag. Her words were unintelligible, but her tone was alarmed, pleading. From Max’s side, a metal arm extended outward and took hold of the rope holding Tobin to the nozzle at the top of the cylinder. Small fingers extended and untied the rope from the nozzle, and Max smoothly lifted Tobin out of the cylinder. She was deposited on her feet, but the robot arm continued to hold the rope, effectively keeping her immobile next to Max.
Max then extended the bands holding Adamant, placing him onto the base of the cylinder. Once he was in place, the bands disconnected from Max’s body. Adamant, still immobilized by the bands, watched helplessly as the cylinder began to close around him.
“Relentless! What are you doing?” Adamant demanded, before the glass slid closed.
“It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to figure this out,” Relentless told him as he touched a control on his handheld device, the the second cylinder began to slide open. “But the Moon Crystal that powers our bodies… which channels some unknown geologic power into us… gives our bodies the power to focus and redirect the backflow from the energy surge. I thought I could get here soon enough to explain that… but my transit calculations were off. Probably because of my own power levels. I never was good at calculating them.”
“So I arrived too late to make sure the first attempt would work,” Relentless continued as he stepped into the glass. “But when the explosion threw you clear, I saw the opportunity to get it right the second time.”
“What?” Adamant jerked futilely against his restraints. “But everything was smashed! And you—”
“Yes,” Relentless nodded as he started the cylinder closed around him. “I… was dead.”
Adamant blinked, confused. “Lester? What are you—?”
“I’m saying Lester died that day, a year ago. The first year was tough, accepting the loss. But I eventually moved on, comfortable in the fact that at least lives had been saved. But Lester’s warnings about what damage Mankind’s pollution and waste were doing to the planet? You have no idea. It’s been tragic. So many lives lost… so much of humanity gone. Lester was right… I was wrong. I should have never stopped him trying to save the planet… eventually, he would’ve gotten it right. So I vowed to get it right for him.”
Adamant stared. “Who… are you?”
Relentless pressed another stud on his control device, and as Max began to roll backward, taking the still-struggling Dr. Tobin further from the power plant, the plant began to activate. From inside the cylinder, Relentless peered about at his equipment, and nodded. “This will do it.”
He reached up and removed his helmet.
Adamant gasped. “You’re—” He stared at the face of a man who looked considerably older than himself, though with the body and physique of a much younger, healthier man; there was none of the hideous scarring that he’d expected to see on the concealed face… only wrinkles. The man looked like what Adam imagined his father would have looked like, if he’d been alive… except…
Slowly, realization dawned on him; and although part of him refused to believe it, he couldn’t deny the evidence of his own eyes. “How—” he croaked at first, and had to try again to speak. “How could you be… me?”
“Believe me,” the old man said, “if I told you how time travel really works… you’d never believe me.”
“Died in the explosion… yes.” Adam—the old Adam—dropped his head sadly. “I returned only in time to pull him out of the wreckage, before the flames consumed him… but he never revived. I was so close…” His head bowed low, and a tear stained his chest.
But a moment later, old Adam raised his head. “But he’s not going to die in vain. I spent years studying the plans he developed… fortunately, he had copies stored elsewhere. Marla—the future Marla—helped me, a lot.” He looked at Marla, still struggling against Max’s arm. “I feel so dirty doing this to you, after all we shared… but I couldn’t have you tell me—him—what was going on, once I brought you down here. Sorry, honey.”
Adamant looked around at the power plant. “What’s happening?”
“When ignition starts,” old Adam explained, “Geo-magnetic energy will be drawn from the Earth’s core—a relatively tiny portion, but more than enough—to kick-start a dynamo system that will run, without assistance, for hundreds of years. The first burst of energy creates an incredible amount of heat and radiation. The equipment can shield itself, and the local area around it, but parts of the city will be roasted.”
“Then why are we in these things?”
“I discovered that the initial blast can be mitigated by channeling them through our Moon Crystal powers,” old Adam explained. “Ironic, huh? Between us, we can refocus most of the energy back downward, or back into the ignition process, reducing the damage a few thousandfold. There will still be losses. But I have to consider them acceptable losses, compared to the damage to the world and humanity if we don’t do this.”
“No!” Adamant snapped, and Dr. Tobin tried to cough through her gag at the same time. “If I’m going to die, I don’t want it to be for—”
“Relax,” old Adam said. “You’re not going to die. There are still important things for you to do… though this will probably be the greatest thing you’ve ever done.”
Adamant locked eyes with his older self. “Oh my God…”
Old Adam smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve had my run, and I’m too tired to be good for much else. I have no idea what this will do to the… the space-time… whatever. If this works, the environmental damage hopefully will be reversed as the world takes the lessons here to develop more geo-magnetic engines. But does that mean I don’t go… you don’t go… back in time, and the damage gets done anyway? Will this be a paradox, a time-loop, going on forever?” He shrugged. “Don’t know. But if it saves the billions that will die otherwise… if it saves the planet… it’s worth it to be trapped in a time-loop forever.”
He turned to Dr. Tobin. “Marla, when it’s over, help my younger self out of here, and make sure you get the performance data from the control systems for study. It should tell the world how to duplicate this system… hopefully much safer than this in the…” He chuckled to himself. “The future.”
“Please,” Adamant pleaded, “don’t do this…”
Old Adam shook his head. “Sorry. This is one battle that needs to end here.”
“Marla was the only other person who knew.”
Adam stood there, still facing her tombstone, as the other mourners began to drift away. Only Detective Oliver Hardy, Adamant’s police liaison, remained at his side. When Adam spoke, he risked a furtive glance to make sure no one was close by. “You mean… about the geo-engine ignition?”
Adam nodded. “It was her idea to blame the initial deaths on Relentless, to avoid the scandal. If she hadn’t talked me into it…”
“You would’ve cut your career short by decades,” Oliver said. “Speaking on behalf of everyone you’ve saved over the last thirty years… not the least of which being the President… twice… I think you made the right decision.”
“Well, it could’ve been worse,” Adam shrugged.
“Don’t be so modest, hero,” Oliver told him. “You stopped global warming.” They paused to look around them, at the cloud-flecked sky, the green fields of the cemetery, the birds circling lazily about, the electric cars that were just pulling away with the last of the mourners.
“But I wonder, sometimes,” Adam said. “What old me said, about an endless time-loop. Our environment isn’t ruined, billions haven’t died… so I won’t go back in time. Does that mean the geo-plant doesn’t get invented in some reality, the environment does gets trashed, and another me is going to go back in time to save them? Are we still trapped in a never-ending battle?”
After a moment, Oliver shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe forever. But you did your part. Whether it’s over or not, that’s all anyone can ask of any of us.” He nudged the larger man. “I think you’ve earned a night off, hero. Buy you a drink?”
“Can’t… Calcutta’s in town,” Adam smiled. “Some battles never end.”