Chapter 10: Tomorrow I’ll
“We can’t go back to the shelter.” Adlai clutched his knees and breathed deeply between them. Julia sat on his left, Serena on his right with Luciano behind the wheel and Marte riding shotgun. “It’s been a few days already, and I can’t keep sitting in this car. So anyone got any suggestions?”
Julia clapped her hands together. “Marte told me about the forest in Canada, and it’s been forever since I saw last saw trees. I bet we could easily hide among them,” she suggested. “Isn’t that right?”
“An interesting suggestion for sure, but wouldn’t we have to cross water or mountains?” Serena butted in before Marte could reply. Her smug smile creased Marte’s brow into a frown.
Adlai took the word again before anything could begin, however. “I’m not so sure we should go to Canada. Are we looking for a shelter, or are we looking to fight? I think we should stay here and give back to the IMs,” he said, mustering all of his courage into his voice.
“You want to stay and fight? Sure, let’s do that. I mean, it’s not like we just had to flee the IMs with our tails between our legs. I’m sure we’ll do fine,” Serena said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“If I may just say something here! I have made the journey already, and even in car it will not be an easy one. The landscape may look flat and inviting where we are now, but it will be impossible for us to enter Canada. Mountains have completely closed off the borders. I had to go almost to the west coast to find a place to cross, and that was over water in a rickety boat. Lost half my provisions too,” Marte recounted.
“As I said, a bad idea,” Serena replied. “You know what we should be doing? Stop running! Let’s find a new shelter somewhere. We can raid defence bases for weapons and ammunition, and perhaps even some other supplies, and then find a new place to hide. We could even go back to this place I know. It’s totally safe, but I’m not sure everyone would like it. You’d have to work pretty hard to be part of the society.”
Adlai was not blind to the mocking glance Serena sent Marte while speaking. “Enough! In case you two haven’t noticed, we’re the only five survivors from the bus. If we can’t work together, then what did we survive for? I’m saying that we continue John and Maxwell’s mission and find other survivors. Then we can try assaulting Thorne’s base for real. Does anyone have any objections?”
“Um, this might be asking dumb, but... who’s Maxwell?” Julia asked perplexed. Everyone turned to her and stared incredulous, but no answer came over their lips. They had forgotten something important and desperately tried to regain the memory. Flustered, Julia waved her arms. “F-forget it. I’m with you, Adlai.”
“That aside, I agree, and it is me who’s driving the car. Unless you two hens want to wrestle the wheel out of my hands, I suggest you get over your beef.”
“Thank you, Julia and Luciano. Now, I will welcome all objections, but we have got to reach a consensus, and for that I will be putting my foot down. Serena’s idea isn’t bad either. I think we should definitely try and plunder a defence base. We don’t have a whole lot of weapons left,” Adlai said with a determined voice. Marte broke her glare from Serena and looked ahead instead.
Julia clapped her hands excitedly. “Great! I think we’ve all got enough action for now, but if we can find a place to relax and regroup and get our strength back, I think we can do everything.” She spoke like the woman who had entered Finley a few years earlier, and the others, except for Marte, remembered it clearly and nodded their consent.
“Then it’s settled.” Adlai smacked his hands down on his legs and it was official. The silence voiced its agreement.
Luciano opened his mouth when he saw something in the side mirror. A black attack helicopter roared towards them. Instead of a pilot, the front glass was occupied by a caricature of a placid face with no outline. “Uh, guys, I think the whirlybird that destroyed our bus is after us.”
Julia craned her neck out of the window and clutched her Škorpion with determination. The 7.65 mm rounds would not do much against the armour, though. “Not that thing again. What do we do now?”
Serena’s face grew serious as the machinegun on the helicopter’s belly whirled into action. The old World War submachine gun resting between her legs would not fare much better. “Dammit, just as I thought we wouldn’t see it again,” she cursed.
Marte had nothing to say. She aimed her heavily decorated shotgun out of the window and fired. The shell hit its target and exploded, shaking the helicopter, but did nothing more than singe it a little. She loaded another round but fell back into her seat. The car shook uncontrollably, and the helicopter had not even attacked them yet.
“Sorry, I’ll try to keep us steadier.” Luciano’s forehead was soaked in sweat. The road jumped and bucked like a wild horse. The helicopter sprayed up sand around them, unable to get a clean hit. Marte tried to shoot back anyway. Her next round looped over the helicopter and blasted a hole in the sand. Luciano yelped as the car lost traction on one side. “What is going on here?!”
“This isn’t like any earthquakes I’ve ever felt,” Julia squealed, one hand on the entry and exit handle. The ground rose behind them and nearly flipped the car on its roof. Only the four-wheel drive saved them. The helicopter stayed its gun. It knew it would be too hard to hit them, and the strange tremors would probably kill them first.
Marte was back inside the car with seatbelt firmly around her, gripping her seat tightly. “Try going off the road?” she suggested. Luciano frantically turned the steering wheel. The earthquake simply followed them single-mindedly. The ground ripped apart. Sand blew up like geysers. Dirt clotted the windows. The wheels lost solid surface for seconds at a time as fissures opened up. “Look out!”
But it was too late. The others did not even notice what they were heading for until they had passed through it. Was it a portal? All Marte had seen was a white light shaped in an arch.
The morgue was a rarely visited place of the shelter, a remnant of the old Mattlock Industries basement. The cold made it perfect for storing medicine, but also bodies to give friends and family a chance to say goodbye to their departed. A day later, they would feed the furnaces of the shelter. Maxwell rested there mostly out of custom as he had left no bereaved in Lawrence’s shelter.
The first thing he became aware of was the cloth draped over him, covering his head but leaving his feet exposed. Next was the cold table against his naked skin. Panic set into him but his limbs would not do his bidding. They were like filled with lead. All he had the power to do was nudge himself off the table. He fell into a heap, the cloth tangling around him, his heavy arms and limbs frantically waving it off.
“Lohengrinn… Lohengrinn, old buddy, are you still there?”
His words dried up in his mouth and stayed inside his mind. Regardless of thinking or speaking them, Lohengrinn should still have replied. The emptiness frightened him most. Not death or weariness or hunger, but not being able to feel his spiritual guide. He could see the sword leaning against his slab. The orb on the pommel was pellucid. He could see a glass cabinet beyond with blood bags dangling from lines.
Maxwell grabbed the table and heaved himself up. The world swam before his eyes. Still he was lucky; had he lost a lot of blood or broken any bones or even gotten his waist ripped off, he would not have been able to stand. Slowly he staggered towards the cabinet. The tables could only get him so far, jumping from one to the other.
He clung to the foot of third bed. His hand brushed against someone. Through the darkness he became aware of how crowded the place was. There were more people in the room than tables, some lying on the floor covered with knitted blankets or rugs. Amber must have pressed to get him a table. Unnecessary, he chided under his breath. So many had died. He weighed that against the number of people he had seen, and the number of people he hadn’t. They had been lucky. He returned his attention to the task at hand.
The cabinet was still far off. He stretched as far he could. His fingertips grazed the metal hoops opening the doors, but he could just not reach. If he released himself any further from the table, he would slip. There was not enough energy to get him up again, and then how long would he have to be on the floor? He pushed himself off in a daring gamble.
Maxwell banged into the steel and glass container, losing his balance. His wobbly legs would not support him. His swimming head naturally sought the ground. He desperately clutched to the cabinet. It could not take all of his mass and fell with him. Maxwell desperately rolled away.
The doors broke and spewed glass everywhere. Maxwell could fell the shards scratch him. Trickles of blood warmed his cold skin. Drawers flew open. Pills and bandages rolled out along with his desired blood bags. Maxwell rolled on his side and grabbed one. With that under his arms, he once again wormed his way back towards his bed where the sword still leant. He swiped at it and it clattered to the floor. With shaking hands he hoped to rip open the blood bag. He could see the red liquid so sweet and important. He just needed to get inside it.
The plastic was unyielding. His fingers cramped with the attempt, and he whimpered in frustration.
The door at the other end banged open. Lights came on. “What the Hell is going on in here? I swear, if it’s you kids again looking for a high, I’m not going to let you off with a lecture this time.”
Maxwell rolled on his back and relaxed. His mouth was like filled with ancient dust. Each attempt to speak rasped against his throat. Instead of legible words, he wheezed. His lips felt like falling off. Amber towered over him. It took her a moment to realise he was still alive. Her anger became confusion and then disbelief.
“M-Maxwell? How did you… why are you… you… you’re dead! I saw you, you were dead, you were…” Amber held on to the table. She looked ready to faint but at the last moment shook her head. She had no more words for Maxwell. He could not speak, but instead motioned with wide arms to rip open the bag, and then pointed to his sword. In her stupefied state she was open to suggestion. Like a robot given an order, she took the bag, ripped the seal at the top and splashed a crimson wave on the purest white blade. The blood disappeared barely before it could touch the sword.
“Thank you,” Maxwell said hoarsely. Hearing him made his resurrection crash in on her. Her face could not find an emotion to settle on. Grief turned to disbelief to anger to relief. She flung herself at him. He retained most of his decency as the mortuary cloth remained wrapped around his waist. “Could I trouble you to give my sword a little more to drink? Three or four bags will do.”
“Sure. Donations are mandatory down here so we always have extra in storage. In case of an emergency, you know.” She picked a few bags at random and squatted next to the sword. It greedily lapped up every last drop of the next bag. It was then that Amber realised the oddity of her actions. She turned around and found Maxwell standing, flexing and stretching. “Do you mind telling me what it is I’m doing here? H-how are you alive? And why is your sword drinking blood?”
Maxwell swung his arms in circles and shifted his weight to each leg in turn. “You believed me when I said I was born in 569. Did you think I had avoided dying for all that time? I’ve been shot, blown up, garrotted, decapitated, bled, drowned and defenestrated. This one time, I even choked on a piece of chicken bone.”
“But you weren’t moving. Your heart didn’t beat, you had no pulse. Y-you had ceased breathing! And you bleed too, so I… I didn’t think you could be immortal.”
Maxwell scratched his stubbly chin. “I am not technically immortal, lass, since I’m already dead.” The third bag simply hovered over the sword; Amber’s hand frozen as she stared up at Maxwell. “It’s complicated, and you won’t remember even a shred of our conversation anyway. Suffice to say a spirit lives in my sword and it needs blood to sustain my existence. Preferably that of humans. Animal blood makes my powers all tingly.”
“What do you mean I will forget? I don’t think I could if I wanted to, I… I’ve never met anyone like you, Maxwell.”
Her hands carried out her task automatically as Maxwell hopped up to sit on his table. “Can you recall Lawrence’s first Bloodbath tournament? One of the fights was a spectacle for the gods. Both combatants were locked in a mortal struggle.” Maxwell leant back on his hands and looked wistfully at the ceiling. His gaze hardened. “Of course you don’t. You, and everyone else, believe it was cancelled. I’m just a ghost, a ripple in time, and once the waves stop undulating, it will be like there was nothing there at all. Nearly two thousand years have I lived. I’ve defeated Vikings, Ottomans and Nazis. I’ve sealed the Devil himself into a mirror dimension, I’ve tussled with a score of monsters and saved the lives of thousands. Yet no sagas will ever be written about me, no songs will ever be sung. I am a knight of an unknown order.”
A green figure appeared next to him, hugging his left arm and crying. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” Lohengrinn said. All Amber saw was Maxwell looking at his hands on his lap. Lohengrinn dried his face. “But it’s better this way. Humans have lived this long without knowing about the otherworldly danger they are in, all because of us and our brethren. We make them forget not just about us, but also the demons you chase.”
“It’s all kind of hard for me to believe, Maxwell, I mean… even you must admit it all sounds a little too convenient.”
“Oh, I wasn’t seeking your understanding or your pity. I just got rolling off onto a tangent.” Maxwell shooed Lohengrinn away with a wave of his hand. The spirit pouted and dissipated. “So what happened with John?”
“He… he’s… still under the rubble.” Amber choked up and clutched her hands on her chest. Four empty blood bags lay next to the sword. Maxwell jumped down from the table and lifted Amber up on her feet, pressing her close to his chest.
“I couldn’t take any more of your blood, but I should have enough power to clear any obstacle. You’ll see, John will be safe. You know his constitution.” He was calm and composed, holding Amber tenderly with a serious expression on his face.
“That’s not it, of course I know that, it’s just that… we already tried clearing the rubble, but the tunnel has been weakened and the thought of John just lying there under all those stones with us not being able to help and then there are all these dead people too and they were all good friends and now we can’t even get to Lawrence or tell him about anything and I just found out he’s my brother and John too and all I had was you though you we only talked for a few hours and then you were dead too and I just didn’t know what to do. I try to be strong, I really do, but I just don’t know what to do about this whole thing.”
“Amber, it’s okay. We’ll figure something out in the morning.” He lifted her chin. Her eyes glistened but there would come no tears. He put his lips to hers. She did not resist, though she shook slightly. He lifted up her top. She undid the cloth around his waist. He laid her down on it. “I’ll take good care of you. I promise.”
Two eternal souls, neither with a discernible future, were able to forget their worries for a few hours in the comfort of each other’s presence. They could pretend to be humans.
“What is this place?” Marte exclaimed as she pressed her cheek against the window. The light from thousands of green and blue crystals danced in her eyes. “Where is this place? I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“It’s all so pretty. Do you think we could stop and pick some?” Julia’s eyes sparkled as she watched enraptured.
They were in a cave tunnel with some pretence of being rounded. The rough, grey rock was littered with turquoise crystals glowing brightly. The portal behind them was gone. The tunnel continued indefinitely both forward and backward. Marte was more reserved and watched with concerned apprehension.
“We are still being pursued by that chopper and who even knows how many more IMs. We can’t afford to stop for a picnic.”
“I hate to agree with her, but she’s right. Besides, this place just gives me the chills.” Serena rubbed her exposed arm.
Adlai had a face of consternation, taking a few moments to being speechless. “Impossible. Like Marte said, there’s no way this could have been on the other side of the portal. It can’t be a hallucination either, not if we’re all seeing it, but how can this be real?” The light from the crystals glazed over his face. There was a pulse to it as well, like a stone heartbeat. “At the same time, I don’t think we have anything to worry about either. I don’t see any machines or helicopters behind or in front of us, so whatever we have stepped into, they can’t follow.”
Serena snorted, contenting herself with arms crossed. “I wouldn’t be so sure. Couldn’t this just as easily be a trap from the IMs? Leading us straight to an ambush or something?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I mean, that helicopter almost had us. It was a miracle it didn’t kill us before the portal swallowed us,” Luciano said. He felt the comfort of the tunnel and slowed the car down to a more comfortable highway speed.
Marte absentmindedly tapped her foot against the floor of the car. “Don’t forget the portal tried to kill us too. That earthquake nearly swallowed us all up. We can’t trust this place.”
“Look, we either go back to the helicopter or sweat this out. I say we see where this tunnel leads and take it from there. Anyone disagree?” Adlai was firm in his address to the gathering. Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Well, it won’t be much longer at any rate.” Luciano pointed to a growing light ahead. “We must be getting near to the end, so anyone who wants me to turn the car around and face the helicopter, you better tell me now.”
No one said anything, though Julia hummed in excitement, swaying her body side to side. The light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter. Brighter. Brighter. Each of them sat in breathless anticipation. What could wait on the other side? If the tunnel itself was any indication; it had to be something truly spectacular.
The light engulfed them, blinded them. The car floated in nothing.
A woman appeared. The light embraced her, or perhaps she was the cause of it. A single piece of cloth covered her body. The baggy material, so white it seemed impossible, concealed her bust and reached all the way to her wrists and each ankle in turn. Light burned on her forehead wreathed with holly and gold. Those in the car could only look on in wonder, like seeing a living dream. The woman held up her head and flung open her crystal clear, blue eyes. Her face was stern. Her voice was deafening.
“You step unto hallowed ground, mortals. This place is not to be tainted by your presence. Turn around.”
None of them could speak, for before them stood an angel. She had stopped time and space simply to warn them.
We cannot turn around. None of them had uttered those exact words, but the thoughts and wishes of each flowed into one voice. Death lies behind us and the unknown before us. We have made our choice.
“Accursed fools. You so fear the death behind you that you cannot see that only ruin lies before you. On earth I have no power, but we are no longer on earth. I can turn you around if you so wish.”
The humans were frightened, Julia clinging to Adlai and Adlai clinging to Serena. We are not here of our own volition. We were summoned. And whoever summoned us, saved us. We will take our chance with him, they replied.
The angel opened her mouth, farther and farther, until her jaw had repressed the light and left nothing but darkness. A shriek drained what little courage the humans had left, going through marrow and bone. “Then so be it. I tried to warn you, but you choose to act in defiance of God.” The voice rang out unseen. “But take heed. The one who summoned you is a trickster hoping to open Pandora’s Box. He will promise you immortality and wealth, but he plots only his own release. He is close. What he needs is only the collaboration of wretched mortals. I wish you all the luck with your undertaking, and pray for your senses to return.”
Blue enveloped the above while yellow took the bottom. Sky and sand. They were flying, flying down towards the ground. They had no time to scream. The car nosedived into the soft sand. A cloud spewed up around them and settled on the tail of the car.
None of the passengers moved. For a long time the car lay half-buried. The left-side passenger massaged her head. “Oh. Is everyone all right?” Julia asked in a dazed voice. It took a while for someone to reply. Julia didn’t notice, swimming in and out of consciousness.
“What… what happened?” Adlai asked. Sand crept in through the broken windows and filled the bottom of the car. It had taken the lower part of Marte and Luciano and reached up over Adlai’s feet. He gently shook the girls on either side of him.
Luciano was next to revive. He tried the door but found it impossible to budge. Sand pressed too hard on the other side. “We can find out after we’ve gotten out. I don’t fancy being drowned in sand.” Unable to get out of the door, Luciano instead grabbed the ceiling and dragged himself out. He crawled up unto the higher ground and lay flat on his back.
Then it was Marte to stir. She groaned and twisted her head. They were at the bottom of a steep cliff. Above was the hole that they had come out of. “So did anyone else see the woman in white? Or was that just me?”
Luciano crouched down and offered his hand. “No. I mean, at least, I saw her too. Just one crazy thing after the other.” He pulled her out and she flopped into the sand like a hooked fish on dry land. “I’d say we are lucky to be alive; that cave exit is higher up than I thought. Had we landed on a harder surface, well, then we would have gotten our complimentary harp and halo a little sooner.”
The two other girls each opened their door and fell out of the car, with Adlai following Julia. She shook the sand out of her pants and hair. “Perhaps our mysterious benefactor helped us? You know, that trickster that the angel talked about.” She put a finger to her lips and sunk into deep concentration. “Though, trickster doesn’t sound like all that good of a benefactor. Should we turn back?”
“Yes, my dear, allow me to drive the car free of the sand and back up the wall,” Luciano said with a courteous bow. Julia broke from her concentration and stared intently at Luciano before giggling. “We need to get out of this sun, find some shade, and think about what to do next.”
Julia looked around and then up. “But there isn’t any sun. It’s just a blue firmament above us.” She pointed up with her finger and the others followed the direction. No clouds, no sun. Her finger lowered to the horizon. “But I think I see something over there, something really, really big.”
Adlai shielded his eyes with a hand. A black block with some semblance of towers was far off in the distance, straight opposite the hole they had come from. Adlai made a thoughtful sound as he tried to take in the enormity of the complex over the massive distance, eventually gliding his gaze around them. “Good catch, Julia, but I think I see a lake over there, closer by. We could probably make it in a few hours.”
Marte was halfway back in her car, fishing out her belongings. The others got a similar idea and took from the car floor and trunk what supplies they had left. Marte hoisted the gun and shield up on her back along with her rucksack.
“So is no one else going to wonder about the lack of sun? At first I thought we were right back out, but this is not the States. There is nothing for miles but the lake and that other thing. I can see no roads or ruins or anything else. I’m really not getting a good vibe from this place either, especially not with what that angel chick was saying. Instead of moving away from the car, I say we stay and think of a way to get back up.”
The others were of a more divided mind, pawing uncommitted at the sand with their feet or looking away. Adlai remained calm with a friendly smile. He hoisted his own backpack up on his shoulder and took a water bottle from a pocket on the side.
“I know how you feel, Marte, but what must have happened is that the ground opened beneath us. We were swallowed up and dropped into this cavern far below ground. The portal and the angel were all illusions, and this sky must be some optical trick. What else could it be? I bet there are some noxious gasses that have been playing with us this whole time.”
Luciano stretched his arms and took a deep whiff as if to test that theory. “Glowing portals and angels are all a little hard to believe in, leader man, but come on. We all saw it. Does anyone else feel that we are currently underground? That we tripped out on, what, volcanic gasses? Both seem a little out there but I know for certain what I’m going to believe in.” He looked around at the others for support.
Marte waved a hand in front of her face. “Does it really matter where we are? I wasn’t saying I believed in that angelic vision we saw, only that we should be working to get out, not to go further in. The air in here is so stagnant and dead, and the heat is unbearable. It was cooler up in the tunnel.”
Silently the team divided itself into those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to go. Shifting, suspecting glances were exchanged. Hands reached for guns or clenched tighter around them. Adlai bit into his finger rather than relying on the handgun inside his jacket. It was getting heavier with responsibility. He had been called leader, yet he felt powerless to stop them. His eyes met Luciano’s, but shamefully backed down.
Luciano clapped his hands, and everyone’s attention came on him. “Listen up, people, we can’t stay here. I personally don’t care what anyone else thinks, that is up to you, but we have no way of getting back up into the cave unless someone brought rope. If we stay here, the heat will kill us before we can find a way back. I say we go to the lake Adlai saw. It should be cooler there and the water might be drinkable.”
Julia clapped her hands excitedly. “Oh that sounds wonderful! Yeah, I’ll follow Adlai on this one. He’s been good for us so far.” She took Adlai’s arm. He blushed as he nodded. Serena followed quietly with Luciano behind her.
Marte shrugged and sighed, running up next to Adlai. She leant in closer to him. “I know you didn’t actually believe what you said about the hallucinations and such. You’re just trying to calm everyone, but it made you look like an ass. We all know what we saw. It’s not some small mass delusion.”
Serena walked behind them, casually picking her nose and flinging away what she found. “We’re adults, Adlai, so cut the crap in the future. We’ll only get through this… together,” she said, the last word through gritted teeth. Adlai nodded while Julia hummed up beside them.
“Yeah, this does not look good.” Maxwell was once more fully clothed and fully stocked up on breakfast. He put another stone down by his feet. The debris shook, spewed a plume of dust and immediately closed the hole he had carefully made. He turned back towards Amber and wiped his bloodied hands on his legs. “There’s just no way to get past this mess gently.”
“So we are stuck here, just like I told you.” Amber threw up her arms in frustration, but Maxwell shook his head with a sly grin.
“Don’t be hasty. I merely said there is no gentle way of getting through, not that there isn’t one.” He put his hand behind him and found the neck of his guitar. He ripped it off his shoulder. The gigantic, white blade rested with tip on the ground. Lohengrinn stood before the debris, motioning a quick slash at the rocks and stone. Maxwell copied the gesture, putting as much force behind his sword as he could muster.
The force extended out from the tip. A visible shockwave roared through the tunnel and smote everything in its way. Not even dust remained as the white wave splashed against the back wall somewhere at the end. Amber stood dumbstruck by his side, her eyes nearly rolling out of her head.
The unsupported walls could not take the pressure, however. Once again the cave flooded with dirt and stone. The tremors spread under their feet. Dust shook loose and rained down over the courtyard. Everyone held their breath, waiting to be buried alive. The tremors stopped again with no casualties. “Impressive, but also useless and nearly killed us all.” She slumped against the wall and sighed deeply. “If only the Destruction had happened a few days later. We were just planning a back exit when it happened.”
Maxwell tapped his cheek in deep thought. Lohengrinn was making weird gestures with his arms. Something about thrusting them out. An invisible gust of wind blew from the hands, not disturbing the pile-up in the slightest. A few more of the waves and some eager pointing to Amber, and Maxwell was again smiling. “Fret not, for I the Neon Knight just got an idea.” Maxwell confidently drummed his chest.
Amber looked up at him from her half-crouch position against the wall. “Did you see John? If he wasn’t underneath the rubble, then he’s got to have made it out alive,” she said in a low voice.
“Even the end of the world couldn’t kill him. Still, he would have tried to use his powers to get back inside. So if you didn’t see him, then… I guess he was taken by the IMs.” Maxwell descended further and further into mumbling as he got to the end of his sentence.
Amber stood up and punched her palm with the other fist. “Then we need to get out of here quickly. I can’t have both of my… my brothers in danger at the same time.”
Maxwell whistled admiringly at the sudden courage in Amber’s voice. She put her hands on his chest and looked up with hopeful eyes. “But you said you had an idea?”
“I do, it’s just going to be a bit risky, and with the way things are, it will probably be our only chance. But I’m confident in my powers. Are you? In yours?” he asked, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Once I clear the tunnel, you spew some fire in there. Get it real hot.”
She looked perplexed at him before realising his plan. Then she smiled too and flexed her fingers. “Just do your thing and let me do mine,” she said determinedly. Again Maxwell turned to the rubble. He thrust the sword into the air and brought it down. The force was enough to shake the shelter. The gust of power striking from the tip roared through the hall. The shaking worsened. Amber sprinted out in front of him. “One side.”
The air around Amber wavered as she walked into the collapsing tunnel. The walls and ceiling groaned and came for her. Her hands blazed up. A pillar of fire burst from each palm and licked the walls, spilling up to the ceiling and down to the floor. The mass of earth was not only held back, it also melted, but it was not enough. The fire was too local. Amber strained her face and pushed. The inferno became a ferocious beast that tore through the tunnel. Everything in its wake was scorched black.
She fell to her knees. The job was done. The fire beast came back to her. Its fur bristled with embers as it dissipated. Stone and dirt cooled and hardened. The corridor stabilised. The trembling stopped. “There. It worked. I had to make the flames hotter than I have ever done before, but it worked,” she panted.
Maxwell entered the newly established tunnel with an appreciative grin. “Very impressive!” he blurted out. He brushed a hand over the wall and quickly retracted it. “But are you all right? That looked like it took a lot out of you.”
“I’m… I’ll be all right. But I won’t be able to go with you.” She fell to the ground and rolled over, looking at the ceiling with half-closed eyes.
“Why not? I thought that was the plan,” Maxwell said in surprise and crouched. The walls were still hot. None of it bothered Amber, but Maxwell was covered in pearls of sweat.
“Yes, but I realised something. If Lord Arcana sees you, he’s going to know that we cleared the cave, and then he will stage another assault. I have to stay here and protect my people,” she replied.
“If it’s Lord Arcana you worry about, then have no fear. I happen to know someone who can mask our presence quite easily.”
Amber sat up, but before she could reply, a peaceful presence quieted her mind. A man in a meadow jacket stood before her. His blonde hair was long and crowned with a red band. “I never got to thank you for the blood, Amber Summers. The world would be an uglier place if Lohengrinn couldn’t visit it again.” The voice was like silk flowing through her ears. Amber smiled nervously as the man flicked his hair in a vain gesture. “I see you are speechless! Don’t worry, this happens often.”
“So can you do it?” Maxwell asked, completely unfazed by the perfect beauty of Lohengrinn. “I really need her along with me. She fights well and is brave, though she’s still prone to her gender’s hysteria.”
Amber made an affronted noise and got up with arms on her side. “Excuse me?”
Lohengrinn studied his nails with a self-satisfied smirk. “Oh but darling, I already am. I cannot make you invisible, of course, but your spiritual presence will be completely suppressed. Unless that gaudy jester actually looks this way, you will be fine. Plus, I cannot feel him in this forest at all. Hmm-hm! Methinks he has gone on an errand.”
Maxwell nodded and went back towards the shelter. Amber looked from one to the other, giving up on getting an apology, and ran after him. “Who was that?” she asked in a tone she hoped would convey her displeasure. Lohengrinn faded away with eyes closed, a broad smile on his lips.
“That was Lohengrinn, my guardian spirit. He’s the one keeping me alive. Manifesting uses up a little bit of his power, so normally only I can see him, but the man loves to show himself.”
Amber rubbed her arms as if she felt a sudden chill. To an immortal, who knew what the gesture meant. “I noticed. Did you really have to summon him, though? You could have just told me what you wanted to do.” She looked over her shoulder again. He was completely gone, but a smell of grass bowing in a fresh breeze lingered.
Maxwell shrugged with a wide grin. “I don’t exactly have what you would call control over his appearances. I bet he just wanted to make sure you believed me.” They came to the quad in front of the shelter. Maxwell stretched one leg over his motorcycle by the wall when people crowded around him. Each had a bag of blood in their hands. Maxwell looked puzzled at them, still with one leg in the air. “What’s all this?”
A young girl reached out her blood bag insistently. “When you and Amber explained everything, we knew what we had to do,” she said and pressed it up against his legs. She could reach no further.
A man stood behind her. “I don’t know why you need blood, and quite frankly it scares me a little, but you helped save us. And now you’ve cleared the only way out too. So please.”
Maxwell accepted the two blood bags offered to him. More hands extended crimson gifts. “I-I-I can’t accept these. I’ve already taken four from your supply.” He looked up from the blood bags to all the people gathered. Young and old, fighters and noncombatants, everyone had come out with faces overflowing with gratitude and tears of joy. “Don’t you have wounded of your own to tend to? Aren’t there people more in need of these?”
“It’s all right, young one, we all pitched in just now. A little from each of us,” an old man said.
Another girl, not much older than the last, had her arm permanently glued to her crying face. “You saved my mommy and daddy. They told me so. I was really scared of the needle, but I’m more scared of losing mommy and daddy.” The people behind her couldn’t keep their own eyes dry.
Maxwell’s face went from speechless to surprise to euphoric glee at all the blood. The guitar throbbed with heat on his back. He could hear it pound in his ears. Or was it his own heartbeat? “Put them into a big pile, right here at my feet.” It took all he had not to burst out in laughter. He was a man who stood before life’s greatest pleasure. But it was not wealth or women at his feet. It was a round one hundred people, or at least, a pint of them. Slowly Maxwell shook off his guitar. He trembled as he plunged the blade into the pile.
Indescribable pleasure flushed into his system. His brain and mind and thinking disappeared into a sea of ecstasy. The shelter vanished from his eyes. It was not a pleasure he felt often. He flashed back to Manzikert, 1071, a day when the Turks crushed the inept Babylonian military. He was just one soldier there. History could never change from that small part. And there had been so much blood. Each man he drank dry was an increase of his power. He had been unstoppable.
A pair of soft hands wrapped around his brain. The memory faded into this mists of his recollections. A lock was put on it. A lock that had been temporarily burst. He came back to the world. He stood with hands on his sword still. It had been only a moment, but he knew the uncontrollable power within him. It was the power of spirits, the power to destroy all. He had been close to unleashing it. Yet no one seemed frightened or nervous. Only curious.
Maxwell heaved the sword out of the ground again. The blade was purest white with not a single trace of crimson. He had stabbed the pile over and over again to get to every bag. Not one drop had gone to waste.
“I haven’t gotten this charged in a long time,” he roared and flexed his arms. The muscles bulged. “Oh yeah, I’m ready now! Thank you all.”
He bowed deeply to the people. They all cheered and shouted and cried. Maxwell grabbed his motorcycle, and together they ran in a strange victory parade to the exit.
Amber was right next to him when they got to the ladder. The waves of arms and hooting would not stop. “Are you all right?” she asked and leant in so no one could hear. Maxwell could not stop grinning. He put the motorcycle under his arm and his foot on the lowest rung.
“Are you kidding me? I feel like a jet plane made of biceps!”
She tapped the side of her head where ears would normally be. “I hear things. Small things others don’t even notice. Sometimes I even wonder if I hear people’s thoughts or simply the whispers we all have. Did I hear you mention Romanos Diogenes?”
Maxwell merely shrugged to the best of his abilities, left hand clinging to the brackets pounded into the wall, right arm clinging on to his motorcycle. “Maybe. I have been alive for a long time, done a lot of things.” He was almost quicker than Amber. He only reached the top first because she couldn’t overtake him within the narrow tube. “We should be there by nightfall barring any incidents.”
They met no resistance in the jungle. Around midday, after hours of uninterrupted driving, the desert appeared endlessly in all directions. Several more hours passed. The vast stretches of sand and palm trees were left unguarded. No IM in its right mind would patrol an empty, inhospitable area.
Only occasional walls still stood. Sand blew away from the motorcycle. Old streets, some wood or a couple of bones peeked out, unseen for a quarter of a century. It would be utterly unsuited for survival. Even animals were a rarity to be seen. Only dry bushes, twisted trees and ridges of rock dominated the landscape. “Do you know where we are going?” Amber asked accusingly.
“Well no, not really. The Mojave Desert is big after all, and this military installation you talked about earlier could be anywhere.”
At his excuse, Amber took a green cylinder from within her top and dragged the ends away like an ancient scroll. The film that she stretched out was not parchment, however, but a computer screen. A few pokes later and she had found a map. A blinking, cyan dot represented the computer’s location in the world. “We need to move more northeast,” she said after zooming out.
A lizard was nearly blown off its stone when Maxwell sharply turned and whizzed past it. “Roger that.”
Amber hugged the computer close to her with one arm and clung to Maxwell with the other. She refused to put her head to his shoulder, making an awkward twist to avoid it. “Just so you know, you shouldn’t tell Lawrence about what we did. He can get so fiercely territorial about me.”
Maxwell reached behind him and took a beer from his backpack. “No problemo. It was just a onetime thing.” The can popped open with a fizz and a foam.
“Right! I just had a weak moment, and there you were. I still want to try and work out things with Lawrence. I mean… we’re not exactly beings of flesh and blood. When you take all that away, you’re left with love, and that can’t wrong, right?” she asked hopefully, avoiding words whose harshness would break her supposition of her relationship with Lawrence.
Maxwell answered with a burp. “You’re a swell gall, Amber, a true knockout.” He wiped the foam from his mouth, his left hand on the steering wheel perfectly maintaining balance. “I don’t know anything about incest, but Lawrence would be a fool to let you go. But if he does, you know, you can always come back to me. I’ve never met a woman who could light my fire so literally.”
She looked away from him. He had said the word, and Amber felt it fall on her like so many tonnes of bricks. “Thanks,” she replied curtly and went back to navigating.
It was not long after that Maxwell finished his beer. He crushed the can in his fist and was about to put the crumpled mess back into his pack. A sudden noise made it fall out of his hand instead. The clatter of aluminium bouncing over rocks made Amber look up.
A black attack helicopter dropped out of the sky. The cockpit windows were completely white. An inexpressive, stylised face bobbed around on the slate. Vulcan Gatling guns on both sides of the fuselage whirred. Amber gasped. “What the hell is that?”
“Trouble. Hold on, I’ll try and outmanoeuvre it.”
Maxwell turned rapidly. Instinctively, Amber grabbed around him but dropped the computer in the process. The first salvo rained down on them. The computer and the stones and a single unlucky tree were shredded to tiny pieces. Maxwell narrowly got them beneath it. The helicopter hovered in the air. A hatch opened on the underside. An arm reached out holding a rocket. Retaliating, Amber unhooked the three-pronged boomerang from its holster on her back. Flames sprang up.
“I don’t have enough strength to throw my Fire Wheel after spending all that energy in the tunnel. Do you think you could be of assistance?”
Maxwell reached a hand behind him for the boomerang. “Just give it here.” He pulled back again with a cry of pain and sucked on his burned fingers. “Dammit, Amber, how am I supposed to hold on to something that’s on fire?”
The rocket was loosened from the helicopter with a whine. Maxwell gunned the engine and blasted down the sand. He turned around, his sword in hand. The guitar sang as it transformed into the blade. The rocket was cleft in two. The individual parts blasted past them. The explosions tore up a plume of sand and rocks.
Maxwell raced towards the helicopter. Amber cowered from the noise and dust. Her boomerang was easily snatched out of her grip. Maxwell hurled it with everything he had. The momentum of the bike surely helped too.
The Fire Wheel bore into the front. The coolly observing face flickered off. There was no cockpit; it was all computers. Sparks sputtered as Maxwell passed below. Amber shrieked as the helicopter descended on them. Maxwell smiled wickedly.
The bike careened as Maxwell made a sharp turn. They were going back on their route. The helicopter crashed into the ground. The bike sprang just out of the way. The boomerang flew out of the wreckage, tearing up the black armour. The helicopter vanished in a giant fireball and a thick cloud of black smoke.
The shockwave boosted the bike forward. “Are you insane? You could have killed us!” Amber cried while pounding her small fists into his shoulder. Helicopter parts rained down around them.
“What’s the point in living if you don’t do it with style?” He shook the hand used in throwing the boomerang. The skin healed itself as he stared at it. “But boy am I glad that helicopter is done for. I can’t tell you how many times it’s fouled up my plans.”
“So what? Thorne probably has a whole fleet of them!”
Maxwell waved his hand dismissively. The boomerang flew back into his hand. He grabbed it in the middle where holds for fingers spiralled in an intricate pattern. “Well, now we know they can be defeated. Just throw something sharp and on fire at it.” He passed the boomerang to Amber’s eagerly waving hands.
“More importantly, how do we find the base now?”
“It shouldn’t be much farther, so just keep going. Maybe you will be lucky and find a sign.” Amber put her head on his black backpack. “I’ll try and take a nap meanwhile. I can’t tell you how exhausted I am.”
Despite Maxwell’s unpleasant body odour, in part from dirt and sweat and rot, it did not take long for Amber to gently snore with face pressed against his rucksack. Her arms dangled down so Maxwell wound them around his chest. They wouldn’t reach, so Maxwell slowed down slightly and held on to one of her arms while steering with the other hand.
It was pitch black night when she jolted awake again. She rubbed her eyes, but still found she could see nothing. She opened her palm, and a small flame danced between her fingers. The light revealed a mesh fence half buried in sand. A dusty, faded sign said something like military area and stay out. Maxwell stretched to look behind him.
“You awake back there?”
“Just barely. Why did we stop? And why is it pitch black?” she asked.
Maxwell’s neck chuckled. “Well, I was driving around all day and night without you or your computer to navigate, but here we are now. Just need to find an entrance. So, feeling better?”
She closed her hand and the flame went out. What had illuminated the fence anyway was the headlight from the motorcycle. “Yes, but not enough. If we could find a place to rest for the night.” The motorcycle hummed back to life and they moved along the fence. “Where are we? North, south, west..?”
“Ah, not sure, I got a little turned around somewhere. Damn, if I just hadn’t lost my compass at the Battle of Rumbo. I knew it was mistake going back there,” he mumbled to himself with self-reproach, his head hanging low.
Amber stared at his neck, trying to understand the man before her. Her lifespan had seemed so long, yet it dwindled compared to his. “I have never even heard of that battle, but perhaps you could have bought another one?” she suggested.
“Oh, it’s not like I need a compass. It was just a gift from an old friend. Anyway, I could make us an entrance?”
“No, please, we have to find Lawrence first. I don’t think he’s entered the facility yet, so he must still be somewhere outside.”
Maxwell looked distantly up into the air while pottering around the fence. “So what are we doing here?” he asked, keeping his gaze skyward, perhaps looking for something. “What’s so special about this place that it can end the war?”
Amber fidgeted with her skirt, looking for the words to her reply. “Well… Lawrence isn’t all that keen on success. I mean, he will work tirelessly towards it, but once he has achieved a goal, that’s it. Work is done. Nothing more to do and on to the next big thing. Mattlock Industries sold off the IM project to the US government since no one else wanted it. It was them that made the soldier model based on our prototype. All they really did was just add some armour,” she explained.
“And?” Maxwell asked but quickly inserted: “Wait, don’t tell me this base here was some kind of manufacturing plant or something?”
“No, no, no, this base was abandoned when the military was converted to the Local Home Defence; they just kept a few warehouses as a sort of graveyard for abandoned projects. Made it the perfect place to hide a master override console. Every IM ever created could be controlled from here in case of a Skynet disaster. Think of it as a spiritual successor to Lawrence’s original plan. Are you following all this?” she asked worriedly.
Maxwell nodded. “The US government decided to make a computer that could manipulate every one of the IMs should something go wrong like a viral outbreak. I can further deduce that Thorne found out about this and used the console for waging war on mankind. Kind of like inserting a wooden fire door in a concrete room. Just one thing, though: why haven’t you done something earlier?”
“Because the location of this console was highly classified. We’re just scientists, Maxwell. Lawrence had even signed the whole project off to the government. For the last twenty-five years we’ve been trawling through our own two pendants, hoping the information we sought wasn’t on John’s.” She grabbed on to him in an attempt to see his face. She poked her head through his arm.
Maxwell smiled emphatically. “Yeah, those little flash drives that you downloaded the internet to.”
She sat back and crossed her arms. “Exactly. I have no idea how P-I-M found out, though. Even if he removed the block on his memory, this data is too recent. The console is from long after his early design as an oracle.”
“Let me ask you something else then. Do you think Thorne is still here? It’s been twenty-five years; he’s probably at the Copacabana by now, tanning his pale ass. Not to mention he’s probably broken the console too.” Maxwell rubbed his chin, his attention drifting off to beaches and bikinis.
Amber didn’t see. She sighed and answered him seriously. “I don’t know. That’s why I told Lawrence not to run off half-cocked until we had things checked out, but that man never listens. At least the console should be okay. Any attempts of disabling it would just shut down all the IMs… Maxwell, are you listening?” She looked up at him as he didn’t reply. He still didn’t.
Amber poked him in the side with a flaming finger. Maxwell yelped and peered over his shoulder. “Saying something?” He wiped a little drool from his mouth. She crossed her arms and looked away. “All right, I’ll tell you when I see something.”
His green-clad sprite gently hovered down from above, floating towards a dirt path up ahead. Years of neglect had almost entirely obscured it, and they would surely not have seen it without a little help. A faded sign held the usual warnings on the right side. Lohengrinn pointed up to a hill. A dark green tent was perched on top. A man stood before it. He was tall with broad shoulders, silvering black hair and a strong jawline. Amber vaulted off the motorcycle and disappeared.
She reappeared in his arms. He swung her around with a broad smile on his face. “What are you doing here, little firefly? You know better than to leave the shelter undefended.”
He put her down again with hands on her shoulders, giving her a serious and worried face. She shook her head. “It’s kind of a long story, but everything’s under control. Why did you just run off like that?” She pouted with hands on her hips.
“What? You know I wouldn’t do that; I left you a note to use the radio and get help up here. Didn’t you see it?”
Amber looked at him puzzled. Dread seeped into her visage. She clasped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god. I accidentally set the bedroom on fire when I didn’t see you in bed that morning. Your note must have been… I’m so sorry!” She hugged his chest instead and rubbed her head against it. Lawrence patted her.
“Coincidentally, she still sent for help.” Maxwell clambered up the hill with his motorcycle under his arm.
“Who the Devil are you?” Lawrence grabbed for a silver axe embedded into the ground. “And no sudden moves!”
“Whoa, easy there, Lawrence.” A violent threat like that did not faze Maxwell. He nonchalantly continued up the knoll. “I am Maxwell, Neon Knight, and I kill demons and villains alike for a living. Without me, Amber would never have come here.”
“He’s right, Lawrence, and that’s why we came! He’s John’s partner, but then IMs broke into the shelter but we fought them off but then they blew up the entrance and took John and Maxwell was dead but then he wasn’t and then he smashed open the entrance and I blew really hot fire on it and then we–” Amber babbled, but Lawrence simply held her to his chest and she calmed down again. Maxwell nodded.
“They took John away. He was at the other end of the tunnel when the robots blew it up, and he was not waiting for us when we got everything cleared out. You didn’t see him being taken this way?”
“No, I haven’t, but there was some bustle going on earlier. Why don’t we settle down for the night? I got some supplies in the back, enough for the small army I had hoped would be coming.” Lawrence took them past the tent where several coolers were buried into the ground, their tops just barely visible. A couple of lawn chairs were spread around. The fabric creaked uncomfortably under Maxwell, even with his backpack next to him. Lawrence clasped his knees. “So tell me everything that happened, from the top. Who are you and what is your relationship with my brother?”
Amber quickly fell asleep again, curled up in her chair, so Maxwell had to do the explaining. His tongue was blunt and cut no corners. He started with the explosion that had sealed the chamber, but by Lawrence’s questioning got worked backward to his first meeting with John. “You don’t look a day over twenty-two,” Lawrence finally said, looking Maxwell up and down. “I suppose that’s how it goes with regenerative powers. For the sake of reference, how old would you say you are?”
Maxwell put his hand on his chin and stared into nothing. The gears inside his head worked almost loudly enough to hear. The wind whispered gently into his ears, offering him little clues. “Well let’s see. It’s currently 2086, so working back we come to… hmm… one thousand five hundred and seventeen years, I believe.”
Lawrence cracked a big smile. “And I thought I was old at ninety-six. How I would love to study you sometimes, Maxwell. I never knew there were other types of immortality.”
Lohengrinn chortled inside Maxwell’s ears. He waved it off like a bug. “Listen, we were discussing before our mechanical intrusion why you had been so bent on building a time machine. John insisted you were trying to go back and save Ronnie, but Amber said that would be impossible.”
Lawrence made a happy snort and grabbed beer for them both from the cooler next to him. “That’s just like John. After all this time, he never realised that it was him that I’ve been trying to rescue this whole time.” He threw one glass bottle to Maxwell and unbuttoned his own. He took a swig before explaining himself. “I don’t know how much you’ve been told, but John was eight when I left home. Twenty years later, the same man comes to me and asks for money to fund his non-lethal gun project, but it was not my brother.”
Maxwell couldn’t stifle a broad grin. “You mean he wasn’t always this cagey?”
Amber turned in her sleep. Perhaps she had felt the change in atmosphere. Her brow furrowed. “Oh, you wouldn’t recognise him. The John I grew up with wouldn’t stop smiling unless he was laughing. Me they harped on to get a good education, but John they couldn’t care less about. They just tried to pass him off as a girl and otherwise let him run free. They went to extremes to ignore him, but John didn’t care. He had friends. Everyone in the neighbourhood and everyone at school knew and loved him.” Lawrence looked up at sky. Was it growing brighter? Lawrence’s smile wilted as he came to the next part.
“But he got older and wiser to our parents’ cruelty, and ran away when he was ten. I have no idea what John did or where he went in all that time. As you say, he became secretive and evasive. He says its fine and that his teenage years weren’t all bad, but for God’s sake, our parents travelled to Europe without dropping him as much as a note. I did everything I could to find him as soon as I heard. I looked in newspapers, private blogs, I even asked around on the streets. All I wanted was to go back and take that happy child home with me. But it’s impossible. The time machine project was a fiasco.”
“Seems like you got it to work, though. Well, apart from all the lightning and winds tearing up the place,” Maxwell said with hands in his lap.
Lawrence still looked up at the sky with distant eyes. “No, it’s impossible. If we could ever go back in time, then why don’t we have any accounts of it happening just once? Why has no one gone back to kill Hitler? Or cheated in the lottery and absconded with millions?” He slowly dragged his head down again. His eyes and resolute face told Maxwell that the questions were not rhetorical. There was an answer but Lawrence enjoyed the dramatics.
“Maybe they are really careful in the future? No, there’s got to be some kind of policy. Wait, I know, this is a trick question! If we can invent time machines, we can invent cloaking devices too. All visitors from the future have been invisible, that’s it.”
The bottle was empty and Lawrence put it down in the sand so he could fold his fingers together. “Not quite. You see, my time machine used another dimension as a go-between. Your body is stuck there in the gap between realities while your eyes see the past or future.” As Maxwell looked blank and smiled uncomprehending, Lawrence leant a little closer to him. “It’s like watching the world from behind a glass wall; you’re a ghost that cannot interact with the time period of your choosing. You can see and feel things, but you cannot manipulate them, and no one will ever know you’re there. You see the dilemma?”
Maxwell nodded. “Yeah, I think I do.” Still he took a moment more to work it out. “So… if you went back in time to save young John, you would only be able to see him. You could never actually take him back?”
Lawrence relaxed in his seat. “I’m sure it could be done, but I don’t even know where to start. Perhaps if I knew more about the intermediary dimension and its composition but… you would have to break the laws of physics and nature so fundamentally that I don’t even know where to start. I resigned myself a long time ago to the futility of it. It cannot be done.” His arms dangled down.
The first rays of morning light came over the horizon, bathing Maxwell’s face in golden light and dispelling the night’s chill. Below them, the defunct air force base was revealed in all its glory. Only a few warehouses and a control tower were left. The runway was almost completely taken over by sand. A few errant bushes cracked the asphalt. “Why did you become a scientist, Lawrence? You were a Blood Bath Brawler for over thirty years with a spotless win record.”
Lawrence waved his hand lazily. “It’s no good to train only your muscles. Brains and brawns in equal measures. When my parents forced me to study, I neglected the brawns, and when I was a Brawler, I neglected the brains. Working for Mattlock Industries allowed me to work on both, developing technology and building it.” His words were uncommitted as his mind had wandered off into theories. He had never abandoned the thought of rescuing John.
“But there must have been something that inspired you?” Maxwell questioned like a little boy trying to get his tired father to play. “Amber told me about an incident early in your Brawl career, but she didn’t know what it could be.”
The lady in question snoozed on, curled up like a kitten. “She did, did she?” Lawrence sat up, other memories bubbling up to the surface, twisting his mouth into a wicked grin. “Maxwell, do you know why they called me Mr Evil?”