"You can't be here! You'll die!" He turned, grabbed the door, trying to get out before the man disintegrated. The handle wouldn't turn even when he yanked with both hands. It felt like part of the wall.
"I said the same thing when I arrived." The young Arab man at the table watched him panic without moving. The calm words hardly registered as the door refused to move. He gave up, pressed his back against the door, burying his head in his hands and waiting for the horror to start.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I..."
"I know." The man's voice was still calm, and slowly he lowered his hands.
"I...Wait, why aren't you dying?"
"For the same reason you are not exploding." He frowned not following. The man was still smiling, still totally at ease. "Or searing to death in an atomic furnace. This is a null room. It suppresses all powers."
"There's no such thing, or they'd keep...well, they'd keep lots of people in them." He pulled his Punisher T-shirt straight, expecting smoke to billow from the man's eyes and mouth as the tan skin greyed and disintegrated. It did not happen. "You're some kinda hologram." There weren't any scan lines, and the man looked real. Just really puzzled, and the expression was too young for his lined face.
"No, I am here." A fingernail tapped the table, making a clicking sound.
"An android." He accused, not believing it, but not wanting to move in case his power kicked in. The man looked at the green wrap he was holding, a bite taken out. His mouth began to water, and the man suddenly cringed.
"I am a dreadful host. Food?" The young man swept his arms out above the table in a grandious gesture of welcome. The loud rumble from his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten since this morning, the morning all the food in the house had - he lunged forward, grabbed a banana, peeled it as he backed away in case it was simply proximity that had protected his new companion. He tried the door again, but the handle still didn't move. This had to be some sort of trap. The fruit was gone in three bites, and he picked up the next, waiting for the screams. The teen was still alive, chewing on his green leafy wrap. "Feel better?"
"Isss goohhd." He managed to reply, trying to answer round the mouthful. After starvation didn't he need to eat slowly, or did skipping breakfast and lunch and dinner not count as starvation? It was kind of awkward going from middle-class America to wherever on Earth this was, if it was on Earth.
"Thank you." The man's smile was genuine and wide. He edged towards the table and sat down, getting a better look at his companion. The most distinct feature was the thin silver torc glittering round his neck above the loose neckline of his ornately embroidered top. Despite the hard lines in his face, he guessed the man was a young teenager, just a little older than he himself. "I thought you may be hungry. I was. Take as much as you need."
"'anks. That sushi?" He picked up a sandwich, waving it at the plate of green seaweed-like wraps before he bit into it.
"Mahshi. Tuna stuffed grape leaves. Try some." His mouth full of sandwich, he shook his head, finally convinced the teen wasn't going to vanish but not entirely sure this wasn't a hallucination. Didn't people see weird stuff before they died? His stomach was settling, and he took the time to chew.
"Not my thing. Sandwiches'r great. I'm J-" he stopped, both to swallow and because the name brought back memories that hurt. Was he a person any more, or was he just a killer? Uncomfortably reminded of this morning, he stopped eating. The teen looked abashed.
"I am sorry. Please, choose a name whenever you are ready." It was so overformal it felt like his girlfriend's little brother trying to fill in for his Dad.
"'n you?" He mumbled.
"The name I use is Salman. It is not that my parents gave me. That burned." The smile was still there, but the teen's eyes were dark. He could guess what had happened, and didn't want to. There was a pause, as he ran out of things to say, and also of sandwich.
He took another, stalling, and looked around. The room was small, decked out like a fifties diner with a couple of tables and cupboards on the wall. Through the open curtains, bulging and too long for the window, all he could see outside the glass was dark sky and stars. Perhaps beer-guy had been wrong and they had someplace for people like him, but that didn't mean it was a good place. He wouldn't let them use him to kill.
"So what is this? Some kind of mutant trap?" The man looked intrigued.
"Mutant? I know of the parahuman, and the ultrasapien, but not mutants."
"I am parahuman." Salman pointed to the window, through which he could only see blackness and stars. "She is ultrasapien."
"She?" The bulge in the curtain moved, and a bushy-haired face peered round, smiling and wide-eyed. She could only be a child, maybe ten years if that. Somehow she wasn't dying either, so maybe this null room actually worked. The teen finished his wrap and started another.
"That is LaVonna." The girl unwrapped herself from the curtain and climbed up onto the window sill, her legs curled cat-like under her as she looked out at the stars. Her name glittered on a gold necklace above her T-shirt. A thin silver torc glittered above it.
"Hi," he said and waved. The girl looked delighted, lifting a hand and mimicking him as if she had never done the gesture before, but she said nothing. "Hello?" He waved again, and she lost interest, staring out of the window. He gaped, wondering if she knew the danger she was in just being here. "Is there something...?"
"She cannot talk. She has never seen other people before she came here." Salman's tone was serious. There was only one question that came to mind.
"Is she like...er...us?"
"Yes. A life drain effect that kills any living thing within fifty yards instantly. She was born with it."
"That's horrible!" He meant it. What was worse, seeing his mother's clothes stretched out on the floor with no body in them, or never knowing what a mother was to begin with? She'd never known what she had lost, but he had had it to lose. He abruptly decided he wasn't even going to ask the man about family. "So why is she here?"
"Here she is safe. There were various armies closing in, given her value as a weapon of mass destruction. Did no one come after you? Over the years I have encountered so many."
"They wanted me for propaganda. Look what the dangerous mutants can do, kill them all." He rolled his eyes. "Like I wanted this."
"Oh." Salman looked surprised. "They did not try to steer you towards their enemies, or control your mind to destroy those they hated? They preferred me as weapon, not story, but then I walked slowly and it took me months to travel."
"I wasn't like this for very long," he admitted. "If it had been longer than they might have."
"What happened? I know little," Salman set his wrap down, his face serious. He took a second, deciding if he wanted to share and then realising that these people at least might understand.
"I woke up this morning and my family were dead. Then other people started dying, anyone who went near me. My girlfriend..." He brushed at his eyes, wishing the tears would stop. "I hid in a cave outside town where this self-healing guy found me, said I had to die and they'd blame a chemical spill 'cos I was too dangerous to live."
"Then you fell through the floor and were here." The other boy smiled. "My family - they died before I -" He stopped, his smile faded, and then began again. "I had been walking and burning for many years, and then I took a step and was here. The fire was gone."
"You can't be much older than me."
"When the power came to me, my aging stopped. I have walked alone for many years, safe." And lonely. Was that what his life would have been? He'd have killed himself first, was going to, if his power or starvation hadn't done it for him. He'd tried to grab a MacDonalds abandoned on a counter before he fled the town. The food had rotted in the bag, the milkshake cup disintegrated, leaving him holding a useless straw and covering his pants in smoking, disintegrating drink. It had evaporated completely, not even leaving a trace. Guess mom would never have to yell at him about the laundry again.
"And you're not dead."
"And you are not burning." Salman smiled. "It is quiet without the explosions. I like the quiet."
"So this isn't your set-up."
"I did not create it, but for the first food I had eaten in many years I decided to hear out the first voices I heard in those years. I have not regretted it." He looked out of the window, but all he saw were stars and his reflection over LaVonna's head. The girl waved at him in the glass and he smiled back, waving back to her reflection as she giggled. She seemed so innocent, and happy. If this was a bad place, surely she'd be miserable.
"So what's the deal?" he asked, kicking back in his chair.
"As it was explained to me, there are places where our abilities are useful. There are those who try to save realities, to keep them stable." He didn't get it. LaVonna jumped down from the window, running across to him and holding her arms up. On reflex, he picked her up, letting her settle on his lap as she snatched a sandwich in both hands and began to nibble on it.
"Yeah right. How does me killing everything save people?"
"There are some situations even their operators can't recover. When that happens fallbacks are required, to be deployed when the field is completely lost."
"So we're just some kind of bombs then? If they can't have it, no one can?" he said, bitterly aware it was as bad as he thought. No way would he be some government bomb, used to discredit mutants like beer -guy had said.
"No, a final resource against victorious enemies that would otherwise be undefeatable."
"Political dissidents," he said sourly.
"Viral plagues, Zombies, Nanobot armies." Salman offered the last of the wraps. When he declined, the teen took it himself. "Those that have already committed genocide. When a world has been utterly depopulated, when there is nothing left to salvage, the threat remains. Should something break through to another world, billions upon billions can die."
You burn them. Why'd you need me?"
"Where I walk, everything dies. Buildings, soil, everything goes to ash."
"Sounds great," he snarked. "So like I said, why'd you need me?"
"In a zombie scenario after total loss of the human species, that plane is now useless. It cannot be repopulated or materials recovered from it because of the plague, and it poses a constant threat that it will break through into another plane. Zombies are mindless and charge human life even when it isn't wise. If you are dispatched - " Salman smiled, spreading his hands out. Despite himself, he returned the grin for the first time. "Your ability could recover entire cities without destroying the infrastructure, allowing repopulation from those realities less fortunate."
"Worlds die but people live? That happens?"
"Yes. I have walked worlds where the sun has died, to melt the crust for geothermal heat, or trigger a volcano to safely vent. They are rarely so salvageable." A way to use his power to help people, like a real power not a curse. It sounded too good to be true. There had to be a catch. LaVonna was still smiling, snug on his lap.
"And what about her? She's too young to be used like that."
"No. She would not even understand what she has to do. When she learns to speak and can make her own decisions, then she may be deployed."
"But doesn't she have a home?" Salman's forehead furrowed, the lines deepening. In the cold set of the teen's face, he remembered what the other had said. If her power was active from birth, what family could she have had?.
"She was in the jungle fending for herself, before governments decided she would be a formidable weapon. Drop her in a city and let her run to the people she sees. She knows no better, and once she did, the memories would destroy her. Here, she has you, and any others they find."
"So we get deployed solo?" he asked.
"And between missions return to our home base, with each other." He ran a long finger round the torc. "The suppressor collars suppress your own ability and protect you from our's while worn. So long as we do not all remove more than one at the same time, we will be safe."
"So we don't get a normal life?"
"No. But it is a life." He wasn't sure he wanted one at all, not with the memories so fresh.
"Can I have a look at that?" He reached for the torc and the teen leaned back instantly, arms raised to block his throat.
"Do not." Carefully he relaxed, "This is a null room, but it is good to remember these must stay on. If I forgot it when I left, it would not be I that pay the price." Opening a drawer in the side of the table, Salman pushed an identical collar across.
"Yours is here." He took it.
"Isn't this a mutant inhibitor collar?" He'd seen them on TV. If this would work for him, why wouldn't the government use one? Why had they sent someone to kill him? He could have lived, and then the story would have come out and the media reports. Someone would have damaged the collar, deliberately triggered his power at the wrong time, and he wouldn't have been able to stop it. The beer guy had been right, he was better dead with his family. "It won't work. My power's always on."
"So is mine, and hers," Salman said, unphased by the admission they were both extinction-class mutants. "These have been adapted to our circumstances. They also have translators. I believe you speak English. I do not. Your Arabic is very good, if far too formal." Now that was a surprise. He turned the device over in his fingers. It was light, a small sliding catch linking the ends, and a segmented back that let it open enough to go round his neck.
"These don't blow up or anything?" Salman stared at him, and started to laugh. Tears appeared at the corners of his eyes.
"No, no, they do not blow up. If I wished to blow up, I would take it off." That was blunt, and he doubted he'd ever be able to joke about his power like that. After what he had done...The technology behind these was amazing, compared to the bulky things he remembered. If this group could cross dimensions, could make these, then perhaps...
"Can you bring back the people I-"
"No. I am sorry. I asked the same." The pain was there in the lines on his face. Whoever or whatever he was, Salman knew.
"If I take the collar off outside this room?"
"Everything around you will die. Also, you will die slowly yourself. Your power does not sustain you and food will disintegrate like any other organic."
"What if I decide I can't live like this?" Salman lost his smile, for the first time looking his age, not the experiences carved on his face.
"The locked top drawer of the desk contains a gun and a pill. You may use either. Here is the key."
"Thanks." He took the key, looking at the drawer, and jumped as Salman caught his hand before he could pull it back.
"Don't. Please. I have been alone, so long." He stared, not sure what to say. The Arab teen stood up, a little abashed at the plea, brushing crumbs from his face. Reaching up to the torc around his neck, he unclipped it and secured it again. "Just so you can be sure that they come off."
"I need to think."
"Of course." Salman opened the door, the handle moving easily. Outside was green grass, houses, and birdsong. He had not heard birdsong since - he grabbed for LaVonna as she slipped from his lap, missed and she ran out into the sunshine, tumbling on the grass.
"I shall let her play there while we wait for you." Salman smiled at her, and held out a hand to him. J -no he didn't deserve a name yet, looked at him, and the door, and swallowed. To go from a loving family, to nothing, to this in less than a day. It was too much. What the hell choice was he meant to make? He was fifteen, he should have his whole life. Salman lowered his hand, seeming disappointed. "I will leave you to make up your mind. The door is open when you want to join us." He turned, walked through it in two graceful strides, and it swung closed. The latch didn't shut.
He sat, staring at nothing, and then stood up and walked to the drawer. The key turned and inside, as promised, was a small box and a gun. Joining his family was the right thing to do, beer guy had said. He'd said himself he couldn't live like this.
If his curse could not be cured, perhaps it could do some good. His mother would not have died for nothing. His girlfriend - he remembered vividly her body dessicating in his arms as she screamed and blamed him. Could he condemn anyone else to that death? What would his family have wanted him to choose, if they had known?
He lifted the gun and looked at it for a long time before he made his choice.
"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may only be used where there is no life. Heavy atomic weights are available: Arsenic, Caesium, Francium, Lead, Mercury, Plutonium, Radon, and Uranium. Radon and Plutonium have been assigned."