The Atlas Puzzle
"Damn it… These powers are just…useless!"
Virgil's words resonated in her mind as they stood in front of the door leading to Philip's house. She looked over at him, the boy's glowering silence speaking far more volumes than he ever did talking. His hand was still entwined in hers, but for once, despite the one witness who managed to spy them with such a display, his face was normal. It wasn't evenly set, but it was normal. Focused even.
He doesn't look like the dreaming kid who always use to ramble on about dumb cartoons, she thought. I'm…not sure if I like that.
She didn't have time to dwell on it as the door opened to them, and Philip's mother stood in the entryway, looking at them with curious eyes. She glanced down at their clutched hands, an amused smirk rising upon her lips before she looked up at them.
"Hello. You're one of the boys that came with Richard," she nodded to Virgil. "Nice to see you again. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Um…yeah," began Monique, deciding to take the lead. "This may sound weird, but we're looking for Richard, and…ah…Virgil here says that he saw him come in here."
"Ah, yes," the woman nodded. "He's upstairs with my son. I can get him for you if you want. Or would you like to come in?"
"That'll be fine. Thank…you…"
As Monique's words trailed off, the woman disappeared abruptly. She looked over at Virgil, eyes half-accusing, half startled. Virgil could only moan.
"He's doing it again," he said, covering his eyes with his free hand.
"Who?" asked Monique, trying to recover. "What? What just happened?"
"Phil," Virgil replied, stepping into the house. Monique's strong grip nearly stopped him and he looked over his shoulder at her in annoyance. "You can let me go now. I can't go anywhere now. Neither of us can this time."
"Uh…what?" Monique berated herself for the repetition, but she was far, far out of her element here. A part of her questioned whether or not this was a good idea, but she banished the thought. She made her decision to not ask the load of questions she had until she knew what happened to Richard and why Virgil was so agitated. She could only keep going forward and try to keep up.
"Phil's the reason why I have this power," he said, pointing at himself. His body shimmered, becoming transparent for a moment before reasserting its solid appearance. "And what happened to his mom…don't worry. She's okay. We're just stuck in Phil's head for right now. Or…something. I can't remember exactly. All I know is he doesn't let anyone in here without his say-so."
Monique scrunched her face up disbelievingly. It sounded insane, and she was more than willing to share her opinion about it.
Virgil shrugged helplessly at her and spun, hiding his scowl from her.
"That's one reason why I couldn't exactly talk about why I was worried. You shouldn't be here anyway." He dropped his chin a little, regarding the stairs in the center of the room with hostility, as though they were the cause of all of his troubles. "He'll probably try to drag you into it too."
"Drag me into what?" asked Monique.
"His dumb little game," he replied before raising his voice to call out. "Rich! Are you up there?"
"C'mon up!" came Richard's reply from upstairs. Virgil's eyes brightened up and he took the stairs two at a time. Monique followed after him at the same speed, and they quickly found Philip's bedroom, door open with Philip sitting at a small coffee table, chuckling a little. Richard sat in front of him, his back to the others.
"That wasn't very nice."
Philip shrugged. "I'm so sorry for wanting to have a joke at someone else's expense. But I couldn't help it."
Virgil glared at Philip, who simply smirked back.
"He mimicked my voice," Richard supplied, turning towards them. Virgil's scowl deepened.
"Oh, lighten up!" laughed Philip. "Their my powers. I can use them however I want. I mean, didn't you?" Philip leaned back and tapped his head knowingly. Monique, standing behind Virgil, saw him tense up. She narrowed her eyes, feeling the soft glow of anger begin to simmer in her stomach.
"You want to cut the shit, little boy?" Monique demanded hotly. She wanted to say more, but her lack of information had her mind grasping for straws on the matter. She was really, really out of her element here.
"You'd make a nice addition," began Philip.
"No!" shouted Virgil, his fingers, already curled into tight fists, now digging into his palms. "Leave her out of this!"
Philip shrugged. "I won't make any promises." He gestured for them to take a seat at the coffee table. "I see Virgil hasn't told you anything about what's going on. You two were pretty impatient."
"How did you…?"
"I can read minds. Well…most of them anyway."
He shook a finger at Virgil. "I thought you knew that I wouldn't hurt Richard. He's part of the test after all."
"You used your powers on Mike. And it's not like you have to hurt anyone directly when you can use people like Tom."
"Tom?" Monique raised an eyebrow. "Can someone please explain this to me in detail now?"
Philip smiled, happy at the interest. "Sure. Why not?"
"No!" snapped Virgil. "Screw you! She's not getting involved!"
"She's already involved," Philip pointed out.
"So? So was Ashley, and that didn't stop you from brain-wiping her or whatever it was you did!" Virgil was starting to sound desperate. "Do the same to her and leave her out of this!"
"Excuse me?" Monique glared darkly at Virgil and Virgil became rigid as he realized what he just said.
"S-Sorry," he started to stammer, but a protective pang went off in his head and he dug his heels in. "No. I mean… Monique! This guy's nuts. He…"
"I can take care of myself," she interrupted a little hotly. "Unlike you." Brushing Virgil aside she set herself down at the coffee table. Folding her arms beneath her breasts, she gave her full attention to Philip.
Richard gave a shrug to a flummoxed Virgil.
"It's not your fault she wants to be Atlas."
"What does that mean?" Monique asked rhetorically, silencing the younger boy. Seeing that no one was going to answer she looked back at Philip. "How about we get some explanations?" she huffed.
Philip found himself giggling a little.
"Sure. Explanations around then." He looked up at Virgil. "But you've got some footwork to do. I'll invite you," he pointed at Monique, "in, but Virgil has to take off."
"What? Why should I even do anything you tell me too?" snapped Virgil.
"Because Shelly—the girl that the two of you helped back into the nurses office earlier today— has an ability that can help you. Michael might get into trouble if you don't find Shelly. Yes, I keep tabs on you Virgil, don't look at me like that."
"What do you mean Mike might get in trouble?" asked Monique, sitting straight up.
"He's gone on 'patrol'," replied Richard. "He's looking for Tom."
"Why does this Tom guy have anything to do with this?"
"Never mind that for the moment," cut in Virgil. "Why can't you just bring her here?"
"Jeez…" Philip rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. "Do I have to waste time explaining everything? Look. When I give a person a power, I lose that power for good." He eyed Virgil. "I found that out testing it on you. Now Shelly's got a teleportation power that can get you where you need to go, and she'll be a valuable asset to your team." Philip twirled a finger in the air impatiently. "Now why don't you get going? You're wasting time demanding all of these explanations. You can ask these two all you want when you get back."
Virgil seethed, flexing his fingers. Philip eyed him contemplatively.
I guess I ought to dig the knife in a little further.
"I did mention that Mike is hunting for Tom, right? And you already know how well you did against him."
Monique looked questioningly at him, and Philip smiled, more than willing to answer.
"Remember the bus incident? That was all him. At least, that's what Virgil says. Anyway, he's looking for him, hoping to catch him in the act so he can give the evidence to the cops."
Monique turned her quizzical gaze towards Virgil before returning it to Philip.
"Sure thing. But remember, Virgil goes looking for Shelly. He needs to find her."
Monique blinked as both she and Virgil found themselves standing in front of Philip's mother, one eyebrow arched in a questioning manner.
"Are you two all right?" she asked, looking back and forth between them, concerned.
"Huh?" Monique felt her heart skip a beat as she remembered what Virgil told her earlier. They had never actually left the front stoop. "Sorry," she replied, forcing a chuckle. Reaching down, she removed Virgil's hand from hers. "My friend here was holding on a little too tight. Yes, I'll…um…" What did she say again before we disappeared down the rabbit hole? Oh yeah. "…I mean, thanks. He's upstairs, right?" Monique pointed over the woman's shoulder, who nodded.
"Yes," she replied, her mannerisms smoothing out a little now that conversation picked up again. "First room on the right."
"Right. I'm taking off."
Philip's mother raised a surprised eyebrow at Virgil as he stepped away and took off down the walk at a run. The boy didn't bother looking over his shoulder at them; didn't bother with a wave either. Monique pressed her lips into one thin line and forced a smile for Mrs. Reynolds.
"Sorry about that. He's a little bit busy." She pushed her teeth together, baring them in what she hoped amounted to a worried look that held the inner most secrets of her friend's personal life. "Lots of stress," she added, pulling in a sharp breath and rocking on the balls of her feet for added measure. Mrs. Reynolds seemed to get what she meant as she nodded, a sympathetic smile on her face.
"Don't worry about it. Phil's told me all about the tests you're all being put through."
Monique's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He told his mother about thi—?
"The school certainly expects a lot from all of you, doesn't it?" Mrs. Reynolds continued, shooting Monique's surprised thought full of holes. She sighed mentally as the older woman ushered her in, still chatting with her. Monique kept her expression pleasant, but inside she could only wonder about what she was getting into.
Just keep moving, she told herself. You'll get through it in the end.
Virgil raced across the street toward the school. He was breathing hard upon reaching the doors and his chest was burning painfully, but he threw the door open and rushed inside, not so much as slowing down. Almost as an afterthought, he disappeared upon entering the building. He was too angry to care if he had been caught on camera, but he didn't want a repeat of getting caught for running in the hall. All he wanted was to get this over with as quickly as possible.
His first stop was the nurse's office. He didn't think that Shelly would still be there, especially since her last incident would most likely have her sent home or to the hospital (although he could not remember an ambulance ever showing up during the day), but he might as well start somewhere. And if she wasn't there…
Virgil poked his head in. The nurse was busy writing something down on a small sheet of paper. She didn't see him, as his cloak was still on, and he took a quick look around. All the beds save for one were empty, and the occupied one had a large student in it, busy napping apparently. Virgil stepped back and tapped his chin thoughtfully.
If she's not here…if she didn't stay after school, then she probably went home.
Virgil knew where she lived…roughly. He barely knew her, but he had seen her a few times on the after school bus before, and had seen what house she got off at. Because he didn't pay attention to her doings, he couldn't rightly recall how to get there. All he knew for certain was that there was quite a few twists and turns, and it was…not convenient at all to get there on foot.
I'm starting to really wish that I owned a car right now, he thought irritably. Stupid power. Of all the abilities, how come I got invisibility?
He shook his head. I can't think like that right now. How about this then? If I can't find Shelly, then I should try to find Mike and either back him up, or get him to go home. His place is at least in walking distance.
Nodding firmly to himself, he headed back towards the school exit.
Shelly rolled her head on the school's window sill, her sharp eyes staring outside with a bored expression that bordered on annoyance. At the very least, that was how it would have appeared to anyone looking at her. For Shelly, her outward appearance served as a mask for how she felt on the inside, which, right now, was far from good. Upset was a far better description.
Stupid police. Her sharp, dark eyebrows narrowed into knife-like edges.
Her day had just not gone well at all, and based on her conversation with her mother it showed no signs of improving. The police did not believe her about not remembering yesterday's events, even with multiple people corroborating her story. Well, her mother didn't say that, but she knew that was the case as there was also another group of students who did remember something, and since she was to be questioned again…
Shelly clenched her eyes shut angrily for a moment. They hadn't give her a moment's peace when they questioned her, and they made her feel as though she were being squeezed into a very small box. She didn't want to go. She wasn't looking forward to it, and what was more, she didn't want to go home either. Go she would though. She had no choice in the matter. Not as long as she…
Shelly's thoughts took a pause as she noticed a boy—Virgil—suddenly appear out of thin air and go racing down the sidewalk of the school, charging off in the direction of the Bridge. She sat up suddenly, her dagger-like eyes shooting skyward.
Whoa! I…did not just see what I thought I did, did I?
She did. She had. Virgil Southwick had just sprung into existence from seemingly nothing. Shelly's hand went to her mouth in shock as she remembered the incident in the hall.
So that… Oh my God. That was real! I thought that I just banged my head when I passed out! That… Jesus.
Shelly felt as though her entire world had been turned upside down. A swarm of thoughts surged through her mind. What if… What if Virgil knew something about why she couldn't remember anything? Or…
What if he erased my memory to begin with?
Her eyes flashed as she thought of the possibilities. All of a sudden gates seem to open up. She had to know what was going on. Virgil's ability to turn appear and disappear held the key to her questions.
She was just about to push away from the window sill and go chasing after him when she hesitated.
Hold on. If he's got this kind of power, then what if he has others? What if…what if I end up stepping into something I can't get out of?
In her mind, she was already conjuring up a multitude of monsters, her imagination being given free reign as the unknown continued to pile up possibility after possibility. It didn't take long before she had what amounted to an entire plotline for a book laid out, and still more possibilities streamed forward.
She leaned forward, her gaze following Virgil as he crossed the street, barely even looking both ways as he tore off at his furious pace. He was, she noted with more than a little curiosity, in quite the hurry.
Now that I think about it… He never stood out in class. He was nothing but a nerd, barely spoke or stood up for himself, and he gets his ass kicked all the time.
She leaned her chin into one hand as she turned ideas over in her mind.
Could he have been faking the entire time?
A curl of dark smoke rising somewhere off in the distance caused her eyebrows to wiggle as she caught sight of it. Pulling her chin away from her hand, she scrutinized it carefully.
Black smoke. Fire? Looks like it's in the direction of the Bridge, but I can't be sure.
She blinked as she realized something.
Virgil was running off in that direction.
A chill ran down Shelly's spine. She swallowed as the full weight of the situation impacted her.
This…this can't be happening, she thought, not wanting to admit to it. That kid doesn't have superpowers, and there isn't some kind of fight going on. I'm not losing my mind. It's probably just a coincidence that he's running off towards a cloud of smoke. Yeah. That's it.
The sound of a siren going off from the town's fire department added a certain dimension to what she denied. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and quietly began counting to three. Her mind calmed at once and she took another breath. She felt a warm tingle cross her skin and then… Shelly staggered, feeling a little dizzy all of a sudden. And not only that, intense heat beat upon the air as well.
What the hell…?
She opened her eyes to the very place she just named.
Michael liked the sound of a bike tire as it spun. The odd, but continuous clickity-click noise that it made comforted him for some reason.
Just wish that the roads were a little easier, he grunted as he peddled over a rather steep slope. He made a mental note to start biking more frequently and get something that qualified as shape.
After all, I might end up needing it.
He panted exuberantly as he began to descend down the hill. Wind whipped past his face, picking up speed and blowing his hair every which way. He leaned into it and opened his mouth wide, baring his teeth. No bugs impacted them, and he admitted to some measure of disappointment. He had heard that such things happened, particularly from his uncle, who owned a motorcycle, but he had yet to see it for himself.
Maybe next time, he thought upon reaching the bottom. He maintained his speed, glancing around him as he did so. He furrowed his brow. Provided that I even have a next time, all things considered.
He scanned the tree line of the Islands around him. A part of him wondered what he was going to do if he encountered Thomas. He knew what he intended to do. Take pictures for certain and try and catch him in the act of a crime, preferably wanton destruction, and he also had the mindset of beating the snot out of the older kid as well. One could say that he had a bone to pick with the guy for attacking Virgil.
No one gets away with it if I can help it, he thought. But first I have to find him and… Why do I smell hot pavement?
Michael's olfactory warning came almost a second too late and he quickly diverted his course. Dumping his bike onto the side of the road and into a ditch directly next to an Island, he spun around, unzipping his bag, looking frantically about him. He saw heat rising from the road and a loud laugh reached his ears.
"Oh…man! You should see the look on your face right now! It's freakin' priceless!"
A twig snapped from behind Michael and he jumped out of the ditch, whirling about with wide eyes landing on Thomas—in the flesh—standing at the edge of the tree line, his hands stuffed into his pockets and smirking playfully. Michael's hand went into his bag, searching about for his paintball gun's handle.
"Hey there, shithead," Thomas greeted, sauntering down the hill in a too-casual fashion. "Are you going to take your beating this time like a man? Or are you going to try killing me again?"
Michael blinked in confusion. "Uh…what?"
"I'm talking about your friend. What's his name?" Thomas dug a finger into one ear, squeezing one eye shut thoughtfully. He didn't seem at all concerned about what possible reasons Michael had for having one hand in his book bag. Perhaps, Michael surmised, he felt that he didn't have to worry.
Michael's hand relaxed on the handle and moved carefully over to the camera that shared space next to it. He scowled, realizing that he wasn't finding it. Thomas now took notice of his movements. Removing one hand from his pocket, he swept it to the side and suddenly Michael leapt back with a cry as his bag caught fire and evaporated in seconds. His paintball gun and Richard's digital camera clattered to the ground. Thomas smirked.
"Don't tell me you're going to fight me with that…" he asked sardonically. Michael glared up at him and Thomas couldn't help but laugh at his defiance. Are you shitting me, kid? Did you see what I did just now? What did your pal tell you about his fight with me? I messed him up pretty good yesterday, you know. Damn near burned his feet off, and he has a power!" He fixed Michael with a confident gaze. "You don't."
Michael glanced down at his paintball gun and camera before his eyes flicked back up at Thomas.
Why aren't I dead already? he wondered, licking his lips carefully. Whatever. As long as I'm still alive, I can play for time…find an opening. It's what we do all the time in our game.
"Oh yeah?" Michael forced a smirk on his lips. "What makes you so sure of that? Ol' Phil added me to his dumb 'test' you know."
Thomas raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to one side. "Test?"
"Ugh. Please try to keep up. I thought this stuff was common knowledge on your side."
Thomas shrugged nonchalantly, but he grinned all the same. "You're pretty mouthy, you know that? I hear you were like that when Alex was kicking your friend's ass. You jumped into a fight that didn't involve you. Kind of like you're doing now. You do that a lot, don't you?"
Michael's eyes shot down to his paintball gun and camera before looking back up at Thomas.
"I fight for my friends, prick. I back them up when they're in trouble, even when they don't want me to."
"So do I. That's what Pat wanted to do when he wanted to beat down on your pal. You know…he was only trying to protect him. But whatever. Either way, you're here because your pussy of a friend is all hurt." He said the last two words in a mocking, baby-like voice. "But you know something?" he asked, his voice becoming serious. "Your little fuck of a friend deserved it after what he did to us."
"What are you talking about?" asked Michael, feeling his anger beginning to boil. "As I recall, you and your pales were going to beat the shit out of us! Protect us? I call bull shit! And as for what he did to you… All Virgil did was…" His already dark scowl deepened. "…was…"
"You don't know, huh?" Thomas shrugged. "Whatever. I don't give a good God damn frankly." He raised his left hand and a red glow materialized around it. "I just want a little bit of payback, and to have some fun. Right now, you're both. Lucky you."
Michael's hand dove down to the ground, and Thomas swung his arm into an upward arc, intense heat swarming around the limb and quickly leaping out in a focused stream towards the paintball gun. Thomas' smirk widened.
You're about to get a nasty surprise…
Strangely, it was the camera, suddenly snatched forth from the ground, that flew towards him and impacted with his skull. Thomas staggered backwards a step, momentarily stunned and surprised by the unexpected act. That moment was all Michael needed to charge forward and deliver a powerful kick into the older teen's balls.
Thomas' mouth opened in pained shock. He was unable to speak…unable to so much as breathe as his legs turned to lead and all but collapsed beneath him. Reaching out, he clutched at Michael's shirt, his lips mouthing airless curses at him. The heat that had swam around his arms gone—dispersed upon the wind. Michael felt more than a little grim satisfaction as he glared down into the teen's eyes.
"No one screws with my friends," he told him firmly. Grabbing Thomas' hands, he pulled them off his shirt and pushed him backward. Bending down, he picked up Richard's camera and turned it on. The eyepiece opened and he pointed it at Thomas. Michael noted, worriedly, that the air was starting to warp around his body again as his skin began to redden. And the look in his eyes…
He looks pissed, he thought. Not even Dad at his angriest compares to this guy.
He considered the wisdom of just making a break for it, but decided to linger a moment longer to get that one, precious picture that he needed to seal Thomas' fate. He didn't know how much it would help, but at this point, he felt anything would do.
With a click of the camera, Thomas exploded with a dark fire that seared the air.