“For the good of all,” the group chorused, loud, spirited.
Max muttered it, a tad out of sync from the people around him. No one seemed to notice, too focused on the man standing at the front of the room and the words he spoke so confidently it was easy to get swept up in them and not pay attention to their meaning, to the message the man was teaching.
Nineteen years of this, of sitting idly by as his parents and siblings were brainwashed, suckered into being part of a cult. It was what this was, a cult. More than half their earnings given to the man up there, to the Guider, to Dedov.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Max realized what had been done to him, what he had been robbed of. He had so much of his life attending these sessions, believing every lie out of Dedov’s lips and he didn’t even know the man’s first name, and he wasn’t certain Dedov wasn’t the man’s last name either.
It was hard for him to fathom ever being so stupid.
Max had tried to wake his parents up to the truth but they didn’t listen to him, were on the verge of sending him off for private sessions with Dedov before he played it off as a test, to see if they were as devoted to the Guider as he was. They had praised him afterwards for being diligent in rooting out unbelievers.
His siblings… He didn’t even know how to approach them. How did you tell someone that everything they were ever taught was wrong, something made up to use and abuse you?
He tried not to fidget. The fold up chairs they sat on were uncomfortable and the scent of the candles placed all around the room made the inside of his nose itch. As far as he could tell, no one else was bothered by it so he couldn’t be either, if he didn’t want to attract attention. If they realized he didn’t believe then his parents would reject him, disown him, and he wouldn’t be able to help them or the rest of his family if he were separated from them.
“…and above all else, we must protect ourselves from the world beyond these four walls. Within, we are safe, surrounded by truth and good. The outside world will seek to rob us of this if they are aware of the good held within this room and ourselves. Spurred by jealousy and evil they will try to destroy it, twist it until we are as wicked as they are. To protect ourselves and our goodness, you must not speak of me or the good of our sessions. At the same time, there are those out there lost and confused, the good inside of them baffled and shunned by the evil around them. It is our duty to reach out to them, to spread the good,” Dedov said, turning his head to look at the entire room full of people. “For the good of us all.”
They repeated it, then stood up, going to talk amongst themselves.
Dedov went from group to group, saying a few words and collecting money before going on to the next. The session would officially end once Dedov made his rounds and returned to the podium at the front and dismissed them.
Max had a plan. If confronting his parents didn’t work then he’d confront the cause of their problems. Force him to admit to everyone he was a fraud. He would do it privately, away from everyone else. He was scared they might try to mob him and he would do something he would regret if they did. As misguided as they were, they were still people he had known for most of his life, people he cared about.
Dedov approached Max and his family. His little brother eagerly handed Dedov a wad of bills his parents had given him. Dedov took it with a smile, putting it into his pocket. “Your contribution is much appreciated, if only everyone in this wicked world of ours was as the good contained within you all,” he said.
“Speaking of good,” Max cut in, before his dad could say anything. “Can I talk to you alone, Guider? I need some advice, there’s this girl at school who I think might be lost and confused, like you were saying earlier. I want to help her, her parents only care about money and not about the good.” The lie was effortless. He had practiced this, carefully planned out every word. The line about money would be like catnip to Dedov.
“I see, that’s very unfortunate for her, yet at the same time she is very fortunate to have someone enlightened, such as yourself, there to help guide her. Yes, come with me, let’s discuss this in greater detail,” Dedov said. He turned and headed for the door behind the podium.
Inside was a small office with a desk, most of it occupied by a computer monitor, two chairs, one behind the desk and the other in front of it, and a bookshelf in the corner near the door.
Dedov closed and locked the door behind them. Neither of them sat down.
“Now, tell me about this girl, Max. You mentioned her parents were overly concerned with money. They are wealthy, I’m assuming? Businessmen, perhaps?”
Max moved to put himself between Dedov and the door. “I know the truth about you Dedov. You’re a scam, a fake, and you’re going to go out there and tell them that while you can.”
Dedov laughed, a throaty chuckle. “Why would I ever do such a thing?”
Max stretched to put his hand on top of the bookshelf without moving away from the door. He took a deep breath. His hand sunk through the wood, much like a ghost would. His hand had become immaterial, not as there as it should have been. As quickly as it had become immaterial, it shifted back to being solid, creating a hole in the bookshelf the exact shape and size of his hand. He pulled his hand out of the hole, unharmed.
“Because I can do that to your head,” he said, hoping he sounded convincing.
His eyes nearly bulged out of his skull. “Fuck,” Dedov breathed out. “Fuck, you’re one of those freaks. Shit, I didn’t expect this.”
Max hadn’t expected it either. Five weeks ago, he had been an ordinary guy.
“Now go out there and tell them,” Max ordered. “After that, we’re going to go to the police and you’re going to give us all our money back, you motherfucker.”
Max glanced up from the screen of his phone every few seconds to peer at the woman sitting at a table by herself eating a muffin and drinking coffee.
He would have been a lot more discrete about it if the woman wasn’t as attractive as she was. She, and the others in this quaint little coffee shop, would just assume he was looking because she was hot, not because he was investigating her. According to her co-workers and boss at the SAA, she had been acting very strange lately, slacking off at work, missing weekly training sessions, being rude to her teammates. There were concerns whether she was stable.
Superheroes were still human under the costumes they wore, capable of being corrupt or unhinged as any other human out there. It was up to Max and every other member of the SAA’s internal affairs division to make sure the public could trust the people protecting them.
The woman, Mia Calvin, had so far looked to be normal if different. She had spent her mornings here since the start of the week, buying a blueberry muffin and coffee for breakfast. It was a new routine. According to her teammates, Miss Calvin skipped breakfast most of the time in order to arrive to work on time and get as much sleep as possible. On the few times she woke up earlier enough to eat, she did so at home, being a bit of a cooking enthusiast.
It was strange, the sudden change in routine. There was no discernible reason for it.
Miss Calvin rose from her seat leaving her empty plate and mug on the table for the workers to collect later. She left and from the big window at the front of the store, he saw her head in the direction of the city’s local SAA building, away from her apartment. By his estimate, she would arrive more than ten minutes late.
He stayed where he was, enjoyed the good coffee and the game he played on his phone until he received a message telling him Miss Calvin was at work now.
Good, now he could search her apartment without needing to worry when she would show up.
It was a quick drive to her apartment. Getting in was easy enough, he pulled on a pair of gloves then phased his arm through the door and made his hand solid to unlock it while leaving the rest of his arm intangible.
A shame he was only capable of making parts of himself intangible at a time.
The apartment was a mess, everything torn from shelves and tossed onto the floor. A sea of belongings, covering up most of the carpet. It reminded Max of an amateur’s attempt to search an apartment, no care taken to put things back where they were.
It begged the question of what the person was looking for.
There wasn’t enough evidence for him to conclude Miss Calvin was the one who did this. A spurned lover, perhaps, seeking revenge. It wouldn’t be the first time he came across that one.
Max walked around the apartment, occasionally picking up items of interest lying on the floor. The closet inside her room was empty, the contents, her clothes, were everywhere. On beds and the ground. There weren’t as many clothes as he might have expected, from what he knew about Miss Calvin. She often went shopping according to her credit card statements.
A theory crossed his mind. The mess, the missing clothes… There was a chance she was planning on leaving town in a hurry. In her rush to get all the essentials packed, she could have made quite a mess while searching for some key item.
The why still eluded him.
He continued looking through the apartment, stopping when he saw a bookshelf almost as tall pressed against a wall. He would have ignored it if he didn’t see the tracks left in the carpet. Someone had dragged the shelf from across the room to its current position.
It was just a hunch but years of doing this had made his hunches remarkably accurate.
Max pulled the shelf away from the wall.
There was a door behind it, no knob.
He phased his hand through the hinges of the door then made them solid, destroying the hinges. He pushed and the door fell open, clattering to the ground.
The woman inside the room flinched at the sound, an inch or two away from being hit by the door as it fell down. She had handcuffs around her wrists and ankles. There was tape over her mouth, stopping her from talking. She was a mess, red hair disheveled, clothes torn. Her eyes were wide not with fear but with relief.
A dead ringer for Mia Calvin.
Max walked over to her and ripped off the tape.
“Oh thank god you found me. You gotta get me out of these before she comes back,” she said, her voice hoarse, panicked.
“Before I do, I’m going to need an explanation. You’re Mia Calvin?” Max questioned, as calm as she was not.
She nodded with too much force instead of speaking.
“And the she you mentioned, that would be someone who looks exactly like you?”
She nodded again.
“Secret evil twin or shapeshifter?”
“Oh god this is going to sound crazy but you have to believe me. She’s me but from an alternate universe, she’s trying to take over my life,” she said.
Max quirked a brow. People joked about alternate universes all the time but as far as he knew, they didn’t exist. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Nothing was.
“Okay,” he said. “If she’s an alternate version of yourself, I assume she has the same powers? How did she get here then? As far as I’m aware, you don’t have the ability to travel through universes.”
“I – Wait, how do you know about my powers?” Miss Calvin said. Ah, she was starting to think rationally again after getting over the joy of being rescued.
“I work for the SAA, Internal Affairs. Answer the question.”
“She has some device, this chest plate kind of thing.” She raised her hands. “Please, can you get these off?”
“Depends. How do I know if you’re the Mia Calvin of this universe and not the alternate?” Miss Calvin looked a little horrified, her mind scrambling for an answer. He smiled down at her. “That was a joke. It’s kind of obvious you’re this universe’s Mia Calvin.” Using his power, he waved his hand through the chain connecting the cuffs and severed them. He did the same to the one binding her feet. He gave her a helping hand, to get her back on her feet. With his other hand, he took out his cell phone and typed out a message to the agent in the charge of this city.
She would make sure the other Miss Calvin stayed at the SAA building until he and this Miss Calvin arrived and they could sort the whole thing out.
If they could sort the whole thing out. Max knew how to handle all kinds of situations, alternate universes weren’t one.
Miss Calvin was a little unsteady on her feet, it took her a moment for her to stand up straight without support for him. “We’ll take my car to the SAA. There’s no need to rush. Would you like to use the bathroom before we go?” Max asked.
She nodded and slowly walked out of the room, careful not to trip over the door on the ground. Max waited a moment, looking at the room Miss Calvin was held in. A walk-in closet, the clothes missing.
Where had the alternate planned to go? Miss Calvin wasn’t an inventor and he had no reason to believe her alternate was one either. The device had to have been made by someone else. It was possible there were others from that Earth here on their Earth. A world capable of traveling to theirs while they did not have the same ability.
His bosses really wouldn’t react very well to the news.
Max went to the kitchen while Miss Calvin was in the bathroom. He had a feeling she might be in there for awhile.
The fridge was empty, the cabinets bare. He should have bought something at the coffee shop while he had the chance, instead of just getting a cup of coffee. He wasn’t hungry yet but he would be, very soon. They wouldn’t resolve this before his stomach started growling.
As much as Max loved his job, it could be a pain in the ass sometimes.
Miss Calvin came out of the bathroom, her hair brushed, face washed, looking far better than she had just moments ago. It had less to do with the effort she put into looking presentable but the effect of taking a minute to freshen up had on her. She got a chance to get her bearings, to transition from captive to Mia Calvin, superhero extraordinaire. “Do you mind if I go change before we leave?” She gestured at the ripped blouse and jeans she wore. The tears weren’t placed in spots where it would make her indecent, in fact it could pass for a fashion statement. God knew he saw his little sister in similar outfits.
“Feel free,” Max said. “Like I said, there’s no need to rush. Take whatever time you need to find whatever clothes you want to wear in this mess.”
She smiled at him then went into the bedroom to look at the piles of clothes on the ground there.
In the meantime, he took out his phone. The head agent had sent him a progress report. The alternate Miss Calvin was still in the building, working out, lifting weights.
It took her six minutes. This time, she ready to go. They left right away, locking the door on their way out. She waved and said hello to a few people here and there when they passed them in the halls or on the street. Records said she had lived in this building for years, she was bound to become familiar with some of the residents.
They got into the car and drove off.
Miss Calvin was the one who broke the silence. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“That depends on the question. I’m not allowed to answer certain questions about who I am and what I do.”
“Figured as much. Our side doesn’t really know a whole lot about your side, except that you’re there and that you’re watching us. I was just going to ask how do I know you’re who you say you are. You could be working with her for all I know.”
Max smiled, amused more than anything else. She was throwing his earlier question back at him. “Well, Miss Calvin, it’s a little late to be asking that, isn’t it?” He paused as he made a right turn. “To be honest, there is no way to know absolutely. I could be an alternate, as far as you know.”
“That’s not reassuring,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” Max agreed. “It’s very easy to get paranoid in this business of ours.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You sound like an old man giving advice to the youngster. You can’t be that much older than me.”
“You’re twenty-five, I’m thirty-five, that’s a whole decade. You wouldn’t believe half the things I’ve seen in those ten years. Or well, I suppose you might, considering what has happened recently in your life.”
They didn’t speak again until he parked his car in the underground parking lot and took the elevator straight to the floor reserved for superheroes. He used his override to get Miss Calvin allowed despite the fact her alternate was already there. A perk of being a part of internal affairs, having much more power and access than their more public peers.
He checked his phone again. The head agent had ordered the local heroes to subdue Miss Calvin’s alternate. They succeeded, got a little banged up for their trouble, and were keeping an eye out for any tricks she might pull while he and Miss Calvin rode the elevator to get to them.
She was fidgeting beside him, eyes darting here and there.
“They’ve got her secured, I wouldn’t worry,” Max said, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
“I’ll believe it when I see it, she’s a lot smarter than you would think,” Miss Calvin said. “She beat me and has been pretending to be me for days.”
“People noticed, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t,” he said. “You think she’s capable of beating your teammates?”
“I think we shouldn’t underestimate her, that’s all.”
He nodded. “That’s fair.”
The elevator stopped at their floor and the doors slid open. His reflexes were good but they weren’t superhuman. He saw it coming for him a second before it hit. He pushed Miss Calvin aside, out of the way, moving in the opposite direction as he did. It wasn’t enough, the elevator was too small. Legs hit him in the chest and he fell under the person thrown at them, getting entangled in a messy pile of limbs.
Someone strode in and forcefully removed a person from the pile. He couldn’t see who, not with a pair of legs over his head, covering his eyes, but he could guess.
Max pushed the legs aside with little regard for their owner, earning a grunt of pain from them. He climbed to his feet and looked down. The head agent, Agent Jinks, was on the ground, groaning in pain.
She didn’t have powers. Being thrown like that would hurt like hell.
She’d live, which is something he couldn’t say for Miss Calvin, being strangled by her alternate.
It was odd, Miss Calvin was barely struggling, practically lying there and letting herself be strangled. A power, perhaps?
Miss Calvin’s teammates were on ground all around the room, most of them without their costumes, doing little more than twitching. He wouldn’t be getting help from any one of them.
That was fine. He worked by himself most of the time anyway.
He drew the gun hidden by his jacket, in a shoulder holster. It was an actual gun, not a stun gun like most SAA agents used. When Max got into a fight, the other party was typically too dangerous to let live.
Max stepped out of the elevator and fired, hitting Miss Calvin’s alternate in the shoulder.
She let go of Miss Calvin, one hand putting pressure on the wound. She glared at him.
He shot her again, in the knee this time, and she toppled to the ground.
One of her hands reached under her shirt. The chest plate, the universe traveling device, she was wearing it under her clothes. He moved to pull the trigger again, stop her from escaping but his finger wasn’t cooperating. It was frozen.
Miss Calvin had the ability to speed up movements, she could make someone else run twice as fast, and they’d be locked into that movement, stuck running, until her power wore off. Her alternate had the opposite power, it seemed, the ability to slow down or stop movements.
If he remembered correctly, Miss Calvin could speed up a punch but the kicks would be unaffected. He tried to kick her while she was down, only to find she had stopped that movement too.
The alternate was glowing now, her device activated.
She might die not long after getting to wherever she was going, but she’d still be gone, all his evidence with her.
Max closed and covered his eyes as the room was flooded with light, brighter than anything he could remember ever seeing. His arms and eyelids weren’t enough to completely block the light. It hurt, like staring at a monitor too long without blinking.
Once the light was gone, he moved his arms away from his face. It took him a minute before his eyes cleared and adjusted until he could see.
Miss Calvin’s alternate was still here. A woman wearing a jumpsuit with glowing lines like circuits, a utility belt around her waist, and a trench coat on top of it was standing over the alternate. Her hair was tied in a neat ponytail and she looked younger than him, maybe the same age as Miss Calvin was. She was of Asian descent, Japanese if he had to guess.
“Who the hell are you?” Max asked.
The woman ignored him, reaching into her belt and pulling a small white canister. She bent down and a mist came out of a tiny hole in the canister. A white foam appeared on the alternate’s bloody kneecap. She did the same for the alternate’s bloody shoulder.
Max waved the gun in her direction. “I don’t want to shoot you, miss, but I will if you don’t respond.”
“An ordinary gun like yours won’t do much damage to my suit,” the woman said, her voice altered, made to sound robotic, monotone. She rose to her full height, which wasn’t all that impressive compared to his. “I’m here to take her back to where she belongs. She’s a criminal in her own universe. I assume she planned on living her for the rest of her life to avoid her upcoming execution.”
“Nice information to know but that doesn’t exactly answer the question of who you are. Are you from her world?”
“I’m part of an organization that deals with people who attempt to abuse the ability to travel or communicate with alternate realities. I’m not from her particular universe although I’ve been assigned to work there.”
Max liked to think of himself as a guy who rolled with the punches. Alternate universes were one thing but a whole organization dedicated to policing dimensional travel was pushing it, a little. “I can’t just let you go,” he said. “I have reports to write and hand in and that’s going to be hard if you take away the only evidence I have for the existence of alternate universes.”
She smiled and he got the impression it was a pitying one. “You don’t need to worry. I’ll file my report and it’ll get in their hands soon enough.”
“Wait, what? Are you trying to tell me – ”
The woman grabbed Miss Calvin’s alternate and in another blinding flash of light, disappeared.