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art by ShotHot Design

As Fast As You Can

Nathaniel Lee was born in northern Virginia and received a BA in English Literature from Oberlin College. He is a former English teacher currently working as a phone monkey in Charlotte, NC. He publishes daily microfiction at www.mirrorshards.org, and he has original stories forthcoming from Abyss & Apex, Podcastle, and the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. He regrets being unable to fly.
The cars might as well have been parked. Sixty miles an hour is just not that fast anymore. I ran between the rows, head down, arms pumping. It doesn't propel me much faster, relatively speaking--like running on board a jet plane--but it's necessary. Everything is necessary, if it increases my efficiency by even the slightest margin.
I slowed as I neared the crash site. It's hard to see in the blue-lit twilight that comes when I push myself to my limits; I didn't want to bump anything. Might cause more damage than I prevent, at this speed.
The air was filled with crystalline fragments, hanging suspended like bubbles in amber. One car was caught halfway airborne, careening off the curb. I could see every clod of dirt and chip of paint from the point of impact. The other car had been struck from behind. The smoke from the damaged exhaust lurked near the ground. The whole scene was utterly frozen, glass and metal glinting in the two-tone light.
Once, I might have taken a moment to marvel at the beauty of it. Long ago, that was, back when breaking the sound barrier was top speed. I had no moments to spare now.
Gauging impacts is tricky, especially on objects already in motion. I'd had a lot of practice. It took barely any effort to take the doors off. Easy as popping a can of soda.
I saw the math on it once. One of the big eggheads, the scary-smart ones, showed me. You know how they get at that end of the scale? Flat eyes. Anyway, he did it up for me on one of his computers. Mass times acceleration. I ramped up one side of that scale so far that the other one was nearly irrelevant. Who needs muscles and armor and all that jazz? Speed is strength.
After the doors popped off, metal disintegrating under the force, the car was a little blurry to my eyes. It was moving faster, with all that extra energy I'd just given it. Inside, immobile bodies, terror and shock. Not from me; they hadn't even perceived what I'd done yet. I had to get them out. Maneuvering people was particularly hard. Doing it without hurting them, at least. The egghead guy--Doctor Devious, maybe?--had told me that whatever it was I did extended out from my body a short way. Explained why I didn't burn up like the door's hinges, how I could breathe here at my upper limits. It wasn't a big field, and I didn't have a lot of control over it. Hard, to move something the size of a person, but like I said, I'd gotten a lot of practice at it lately. I gathered them up, one by one, watching each limb to be sure I wasn't going to snap their bones off when I moved. I didn't look at their faces, though. I never did.
They always looked like Evelyn.
I'd been lucky with the car wreck. Caught a glimpse on a helicopter traffic-cam just as it started, and ran there before it got much further. There were injuries, of course; whiplash, as much from my rescue as the actual crash; damages to the road, the retaining wall, even other vehicles hit by shrapnel. One death. The family in the blue Honda had had a little girl. Hit her head. I'd laid her with the others I'd saved, pushed the cars off the road, and left them all. From their perspective, in an eyeblink they'd all been teleported to safety, their cars nothing more than a sudden noise off in the woods. For me, it was a frozen tableau; five stunned beneficiaries and one tiny victim. None of them moving.
There would be a funeral in a few weeks. Or forever, as far as I was concerned. Speed is time, and I had to make use of it. No matter how fast I was, I was always too late, always doing damage control, always reacting. Reacting faster than anyone else could even imagine, but reacting all the same. You can slice the seconds into finer and finer sections, but it's still a damned asymptote, and it never hits zero.
Maybe that will change too, one day. Things get weird up here in the blue glow around c. Don't ask me about relativity. I used to be impressed by catching a bullet.
One task done. There were always more, though. Here at base, I had radios and televisions tuned to hundreds of frequencies--emergency dispatch, news, police, top secret channels, the works. I started slowing myself enough to let them creep forward, see if I could catch the next disaster before it got bad. I resented even the loss of this much time, the few frames that disappeared while I looked for someone to save. Every second was precious. I could save a dozen lives in that second. Slowing is stopping. Stopping is inaction. Inaction means people die.
The blue tint eased. Lights glowed again, and screens moved forward. Only at a glacial pace; I couldn't afford a hint of inefficiency.
Sound is almost meaningless to me now; I'm either outrunning it or charging into it until it Dopplers out of my range. My senses are still human, still limited by my genetic heritage. Just accelerated. Thus, I felt the tiny tremors before the ringing began.
My communicator was about to receive a call.
From whom? It had been a decade since the team broke up. Years since our last reunion, and that one hadn't been fun. Alien imposters. A couple of wars averted, a couple not. Topspin's death. Kind of a mess. Left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Since then, Amazonia had gone off-planet with Ultarr. Meat-Mountain had probably succumbed to the inevitable coronary, and he'd never liked me much anyway. That left Alkahest and the Roach still on Earth and on speaking terms with me.
The communicator twitched against my belt. I plucked it up, felt it quiver as the incoming signal hit it. I glanced around my room, at the frozen images on the monitors and the vibrato thrum of speakers still moving too slowly for me to hear.
They wouldn't call me unless it was an emergency.
I grimaced and relaxed my grip on my speed. For the first time in years--actual years, not relative ones--I dropped back down almost to normal. Time hit me like a firehose to the gonads. Seconds roared past in a glittering throng. Every moment carried more lives into oblivion. Every moment took Evelyn further away from me.
The little starburst-emblazoned comm unit trilled. Incoming message. I closed my hand around it. It chirped as it recognized my bio-signature.
"Hello?" My voice sounded like a clogged drain. I cleared my throat.
"Ginjy? Is that you?" It was Alkahest. His clipped, pseudo-European accent was unmistakable.
"Official designations only on this channel, Dimebag," I said. It felt good to joke again. I realized I'd missed it.
"Sideswipe, then."
"How's it been, Alkahest?"
"I confess I've seen better times. What of yourself? No one's heard from you in years. I was half-afraid I was calling a dead man's phone."
I flexed a hand, feeling time piling up on me. "Still alive."
"Excellent. We have a problem and I require your assistance."
"I figured."
"Are you up for some old-fashioned heroism? It's easier if I explain in person. Safer, as well."
I imagined him stroking his silly goatee as he spoke. He hadn't changed a bit. I looked at my monitors, my radios, all the clutter of surveillance, pouring out sounds and images in a storm of information, too much for one person to absorb, to even filter out one stream. Suffering. Disaster. Death.
"Saving the world again?" I asked.
"Maybe more than one." Alkahest's voice was flat and hard. This was serious.
"Tell me the place. I'll be there before you."
Alkahest chuckled. "That might be hard, high road or low. I'm already here. 'Staking out the joint,' as they say. Highway 68, up in the mountain pass."
I was surprised it was so close. I'd be able to get there in a few seconds without even revving back up to full speed. Given that it had taken weeks of acceleration to get where I'd been, it was just as well.
I ran.
They called me Sideswipe, the Human Lightning Bolt.
My friends called me the Gingerbread Man.
They'd started the pass with dynamite, as per usual, but about halfway through the job, Meat-Mountain had decided to announce his existence to the world in his usual showy fashion. There were still handprints visible in some of the rocks.
I spotted my old teammate easily. That purple-and-orange suit of his is unbelievably garish. He always claimed it was an unavoidable byproduct of the alchemical treatments that made the soft cloth tougher than steel plate and Kevlar. Personally, I think he just liked the attention.
He turned his head as I slowed to a halt. Fast reflexes. Impressive. He'd always been sharp. Not quite a Doctor Devious or Mentron, but quick. Wily, if that was the right word. He'd gotten older, but not by much. He might not ever have discovered the legendary Elixir of Life, but at least one of his anti-aging concoctions had obviously done something. Only the merest dusting of silver speckled his dark hair. He used to offer the treatments to all of us, whenever he came up with a new one. I always took him up on it, full of daring in my youth. If I were honest, that was probably the only reason I was still alive.
Alkahest's eyes widened when he saw me. Not because I'd blurred in like a cartoon character--he was used to that after all these years--but because of my appearance.
"Sideswipe!" he said, his eyebrows almost dancing a tango as he searched for an appropriate facial expression. "You're looking... well."
"Cram it," I said. "I know what I look like." I pushed my once-red hair back with a wrinkled hand.
"What you suspected was true, then," he said.
I nodded. "Acceleration. Of everything. I figure I'm probably two or three centuries old at this point, relatively speaking."
"I'm sorry, Daniel." He met my gaze, but his eyes stayed hooded.
"Don't be," I said. "You're why I'm around at all. Those longevity potions did the trick."
"I've developed some new formulas," he said, lifting one brow. "Perhaps..."
"No. I knew what I was doing. I could have stopped," I lied. I couldn't ever stop. Slow, stop, die. Speed doesn't kill, but the sudden jolt at the end does. Just ask my car crash victims.
There was a pause.
"I suppose 'Ginger' isn't a terribly apt nickname any longer," Alkahest said at last, staring at my snowy locks.
"Yeah, well, 'Dimebag' still works for you, Ron. I've been here ten seconds and you're already pushing drugs on me." I grinned, glad for the break.
"Medicinal purposes only," he said with a wink, patting the largest of his innumerable satchels and pouches. Glass bottles glinted as he turned to regard the outcropping that loomed overhead.
"So what's the job?" I said. I'd done a quick recon of the area before stopping to talk and hadn't spotted anything unusual. "Malphast about to break free from Gehenna? Another replical invasion from the Nanite Cloud?"
Alkahest shook his head. "No one from our past. Not exactly. In truth, I'm unsure who is behind it. My research has, as you know, always treaded around the grayest areas of the Subtle Arts. Recently, I've turned up a pattern of sorts. Disruptions in certain energy flows. Troubling portents. Experimental outcomes far outside of the normal margin of error. Whispers from my... esoteric suppliers. Someone is pursuing a line of research which I thought I had closed forever. A line of research I myself pursued briefly after a... request from a friend." He looked at me with those penetrating eyes, stained purple around the iris from his years of self-experimentation. "There's a reason I called you, Sideswipe."
I blinked, and Alkahest slowed to a still-life for a moment as my stress response jacked my speed back up. My mind was grasping for time to think. There was one thought, however, which was never far from my mind.
"Evelyn," I gasped.
Alkahest nodded. "Someone is trying to weaken the barrier, to open a portal through the Veil and touch the Other Side."
He kept talking. I didn't listen. Something about harmonics and resonance, balance and thaumaturgic principles. My mind was filled with an image of Evelyn's face, her blue eyes shining, her lips curved in a knowing smile as she twirled away from me on a dance floor. I tried to hold that image, but it faded, ground down by the sandpaper rasp of passing seconds. It was replaced by another image, still Evie's face, still receding, but her eyes now wide with pain, her lips parting in a gasp that spiraled into a scream, falling away, falling down into darkness while laughter rolled across me like thunder.
"I wasn't fast enough," I whispered. I looked up to see Alkahest--Ron--staring at me again with that closed, unreadable expression. "Lay it out for me," I said, turning my gaze away. "Layman's terms. I'm no magician."
"Nor am I," Alkahest said. "I am an alchemist, a thaumaturgic researcher, a transmutational technician, a--"
"Ron."
He closed his lips so sharply his beard quivered. "Bottom line, if things turn out as I expect, the dead will rise."
"So... zombies?"
"No." Alkahest made a curt gesture. "Mindless thralls aren't the half of it. I'm speaking of old spirits, powerful spirits, steeped in the substance of the nether regions. Strong personalities, very strong. Ghengis Khan. Vlad Tepes. Adolf Hitler. Julius Caesar. Alexander of Macedon. The most cunning and ruthless conquerors ever to walk the Earth, supplied with a near-limitless supply of unkillable phantom troops."
"Limitless?"
"The dead far outnumber the living."
"Hunh," I said. "And here I thought there was a population crisis."
"Don't be facetious, Ginj. The point is, it shouldn't be possible. I destroyed my notes, sabotaged the source, and canceled the whole project when I realized what an open gateway could mean for the world."
"I remember," I said tightly.
"...and now someone has carried on my legacy! Impossible!"
"Couldn't they have just replicated it? Done the legwork themselves?"
Alkahest snorted. "I know my own work when I see it. Whoever it is, you see why we must stop him."
"Or her."
He waved a gloved hand. "Irrelevant. This is a crisis of our own making, rooted in our foolish actions so many years ago."
More than you know, I thought. Outwardly, all I did was nod.
"I've traced them here--the structure of this mountain made it one of only five possible locations worldwide--and located the entrance, but I cannot simultaneously open the way and reliably deal with whatever defenses may be in place."
"I'm on it." The world slowed around me as I accelerated.
I watched Alkahest pull out a pair of neon-green goggles--could that man do anything that wasn't in an eye-bleedingly ugly color scheme?--and a packet of white powder. In slow motion, he shook the paper envelope and moved to the rock wall, where he poured it out in a line across the ground. He turned and leapt away, seeming to me to hover for long seconds in midair as he legged it for safety.
I've always liked explosions. The intricate patterns of detritus, the swirls and ripples of the shockwaves. I sidestepped a few flying splinters of granite as they drifted lazily past and strode in through the new hole in the rock wall. A black-clad guard was staring around in confusion. He had his hand on the butt of some exotic-looking rifle. Alien, maybe? Transdimensional? Still, why is it always black with these people? His compatriot, across the room, was lurching toward a big red button mounted on the wall. Good training, to react that fast.
But they were between me and Evelyn. She was in here, somewhere, on the other side of some hypothetical gate through the Veil.
I grabbed the startled guard at the shoulder and hip and flung him at the wall. Even as the first guard's helmet shattered on impact, I leapt for the other. I tackled him, rode him to the ground, and hammered away with my fists. Speed is strength. Speed is damage.
I registered pressure on my shoulder. My hand hurt. I looked up. Alkahest's urbane features swam into focus. I blinked, realized my eyes were full of tears. Alkahest was looking past my face, down at something near the ground. I followed the line of his gaze.
The guard lay beneath me, unmoving. His black helmet was staved in. Dark fluid leaked out in a puddle. My hand was coated with a slick layer of gore up to my elbow.
"Daniel..."
"Bad guys," I said, growling so my voice wouldn't break. "I'm out of patience."
Alkahest said nothing, but his eyes were troubled as he searched my face. He rummaged in one of his pockets, came out with a small container of eye drops. "Three in each eye," he said, offering the bottle to me. "You'll need to see if they cut the lights."
I wiped my hand on my silver jumpsuit, leaving a streak of crimson that started fading immediately as the alien-tech cloth cleaned itself. The eyedrops stung a little, but afterward the gloomy cavern was bright as noontime sun.
That was the pattern for a while. We'd hit a closed door. Alkahest would open it while I dashed through and subdued anyone on the other side. I tried not to let myself go again, but I was tired. The ceaseless grind of time passing drained my reserves. I had to stay slow enough for Alkahest to keep up, at least if I wanted to get through the next door without mashing myself into paste against it. I don't think I killed anyone else. I didn't check too closely. They didn't move afterward; I made sure of that.
The place was nearly empty, for a secret base of a world-conquering lunatic. There were seemingly endless tunnels, boring down into the rock like the spoor of some immense worm. The whole facility had an anticipatory air to it. It wasn't ready yet; it was waiting. Maybe I was projecting, standing in front of a door and tapping my foot while Alkahest puffed up, bottles rattling on his bandoliers.
"Slow," I remarked.
"You used to take a little more time," he said. "Show others a little courtesy."
I shrugged. "Time is a luxury. There's always another disaster somewhere. Always another bad guy."
"Ha!" said Alkahest as he bent to this newest door, a blast shield of some kind; they'd managed to figure out they were being invaded, at least. "That was always the problem, you know, with what we did. We defend, but we never attack. We can't take a proactive approach. It's one of the reasons I'm retiring."
"Retiring?" I couldn't keep the accusation out of my tone.
Alkahest looked up at me, turned back to his work. "We can't all be as driven as you, Daniel. I never even wanted to be a hero, you know. Vigilantism. Constant conflicts and the risk of injury or death. Celebrity. No time for research. No time to actually fix things."
"It's not like you could go commercial," I said, a memory surfacing. "You tried once, didn't you?"
"'Not replicable in controlled laboratory conditions,' they said. 'Anomalous,' they said. 'Statistically infeasible.' Bah." Alkahest stood and backed away, lowering his goggles again. "Get ready." He lifted the hand that held the reagent and squirted a dose of liquid onto whatever he'd treated the door with.
The blast this time wasn't so much a single concussion as a sort of chemical belch. Smoky, too; I darted through anyway, choking on the fumes, and found myself on a narrow walkway, perhaps fifty feet long and ten wide. On the right, it was unworked stone. On the left, a vicious drop into darkness. No guards. Nothing moving at all, save myself. At the far end was an enormous door, the largest yet, a disc of steel and titanium embedded right in the stone wall. I could feel... something... on the other side of that door. Not a presence, exactly. More of an absence. A void far deeper than the one beside the ledge. It tugged at me, pulled on my innards, an oddly familiar touch in a place I'd thought burned away years ago. Turns out the old wound hadn't really healed. Hadn't even scabbed over. I knew, deeper than my physical senses, more fundamental than gravity, knew as though I'd already seen what lay on the other side of that door.
Evelyn was waiting for me.
I dashed forward, intent on ripping the door from its bank-vault hinges with my bare hands, but before I'd made it halfway down the path, something shoved me and sent me flying. I had a confused glimpse of some sort of machine through the smoke. Some sort of automated turret. Then I was falling away, knocked from the ledge. As I fell, I saw an orange flash followed by an arc of actinic blue. The light seemed to go on forever.
This is how it feels, I thought. This is what Evelyn felt.
Then something warm wrapped moist arms around me. My fall ended with the sound of a plucked rubber band. The unexpected impact jolted me from my reverie. With an effort, I slowed the world to a crawl and examined my situation. The thing that held me was a mass of white strands, gooey yet firm, stretching back in a line up over the lip of the cliff. The angle was sharpening as I continued to swing down toward the rocks. I felt the glob that held me slipping as I swung, losing its grip.
The self-cleaning suit! It had seemed like such a good idea at the time....
I pushed further, chopped time into halves, and halves again. The yielding surface of the putty that held me seemed to become stiff as a pole. My perception of motion toward the wall halted. I climbed up my lumpy lifeline like a monkey, albeit an arthritic one. My chest would be badly bruised in a few hours, and I thought I'd strained a shoulder somewhere in there.
Alkahest was waiting. The white strands clung to the rock wall behind him as he peered over the edge, still looking at the trailing end of the putty-rope. I allowed the world to resume. Alkahest blinked. "Sideswipe! Wonderful! When you disappeared, I thought I'd lost you."
"I'm glad you were here," I said. I gestured to the sticky gunk. "Handy stuff."
"Derived from spidersilk, at least in part," said Alkahest. He patted a device at his belt that resembled a caulking gun.
"What hit me in the first place?" I said. Back in the vicegrip of time, the pull from behind the door seemed more powerful than ever. "I should have been able to see anything coming. I've been dodging bullets for years." I peered around him at the curious weapon that guarded the large door. It was tracking back and forth between us, as though trying to make up its mind. "Unless that thing fires relativistic projectiles...?"
"Nothing so tawdry," said Alkahest. He sounded almost pleased. "It's based on some quite complicated theory, but what it seems to do is this: it doesn't aim and try to hit a given target. Instead, it first hits, and then works out how it could have done so. A perfect shot, every time! A gun that literally cannot miss!"
"It time-travels?"
"If that's as close as your limited understanding can come," Alkahest sniffed.
I rubbed at my joints. The pain was catching up to me. It always did; the one thing faster than I was. "So how do we get past it?"
"It may be a perfect shot, but it still can't shoot two things at once, and it's not fast to reload those concussive blasts. We'll both go in, and whoever makes it to the gun takes it out."
"I'm not anxious for either of us to go over the edge," I said.
"Here." He passed me a foil-wrapped bundle. "A one-shot dose of my Automatic Net. Pull the tab and aim well. And don't drop your end; it'll kick a bit."
"You think it'll go for me?"
He shrugged. "You're obviously faster than I. It will likely identify you as the larger threat and will have acted appropriately." He pulled out his own Automatic Net. "Stay with me, Sideswipe. We have to enter its range at the precise same moment."
I nodded and forced myself to relax. My instincts cried out at staying under time's weight when danger threatened. Speed is protection.
"Ready?"
We both crouched.
"Set."
He sounded like he was announcing a race. I swear he was smiling.
"Go!"
We rushed forward. I saw an orange flare of light and kicked into high speed. This time I didn't go flying. A blue line carved its way erratically forward from where Alkahest had been a moment ago, racing me to the weapon's barrel. He'd been hit, then. Or will have been being hit. I don't know. I hate time travel, loops, and eddies. I prefer forward motion.
The gun was facing me when I arrived, as though already prepared. I leapt forward, hoping it wouldn't just rotate on its mounting to follow me. Luckily, however ridiculously advanced the gun's computer brains might have been, its tripod was barely more than state-of-the-art. It had a notable firing radius, but it couldn't shoot its own feet.
I could have sworn I felt the tingle of another dose of that orange energy already passing over me. The aftereffects of a shot that would never happen, I guess. I kicked out in a low sweep and knocked the thing clear off its moorings. It floated up into the air.
Doubling my fists--and wincing as I squeezed my cracked finger bones--I spiked the nasty contraption down into the pit. Another orange-blue flash showed the stalagmite-ridden floor a moment before it impacted.
Belatedly, I turned to check for Alkahest. His suit could handle conventional projectiles, but that gun had been about as far from conventional as it was possible to get. As it turned out, I needn't have worried; a purple-gloved hand was clinging to the edge. I was beside it in the blink of an eye.
"...angle of deflection must be based on the inherent energy of the target," he babbled as I pulled him up. "My suit absorbed most of the backlash, but the trajectory..."
"Easy, Ron," I said. "We still need to get past the door, and I'd rather not try to ram it down."
He rested for a moment on all fours. "Yes. Yes, of course." He sat back and fumbled through more pouches. I noticed his glass bottles weren't even scratched from the impact he'd suffered. He came up with two small vials and a metal flask. "Here," he said, handing me one of the glass containers. It held maybe two ounces of yellowish fluid. "If there's even the makings of a gate in there, we'll need defenses against the buildup of necrotic energies."
I shrugged and broke the wax seal. The liquid had a sweet, cloying flavor; not pleasant, but a welcome change from most of Alkahest's philters.
Alkahest approached the door. He gingerly unscrewed the cap of the metal flask. "My greatest treasure," he said, lifting the flask as if in a toast. "My first accomplishment. My namesake. The Alkahest! The universal solvent!"
"How can it handle the door? It hasn't even eaten through the flask," I said, snappish with the urge to move, to get through the door, to reach the gaping need on the far side. I was actually shaking, I found, to my surprise.
Alkahest shot me a glare. "The flask is Adamant, the only substance known to resist the Alkahest."
"More like the semi-universal solvent, then."
"Must you mock even this?" Alkahest rolled his eyes. "An explosion large enough to penetrate this door would kill us both in this enclosed space. Watch as I open it with hardly a whisper." He leaned over the locking mechanism, muttering to himself. His hand moved and I heard a faint hissing sound.
A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over me, battling the burning desire to keep moving. The weight of all my subjective years seemed to double. Evelyn was so close, just an arm's length away. I could see her, hear her, smell her. Her presence was like a magnet, yet I wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. Nothing seemed worth it any longer.
Why was I reluctant now? Now, after all these years? Was I afraid? I knew I was repentant. I'd served my time in Purgatory. I searched my muted emotions. Evelyn couldn't know, could she? No. I'd never really pushed myself in front of her, never gone all-out. I just... hadn't been fast enough. No one knew how fast I could be back then. She might still blame me for being a failure, I supposed. But I could bear that now, even if I couldn't have then. I could stand it if she rejected me, spurned the withered and scarred husk I'd become. I've grown over these years of unending toil.
Something metal clattered to the floor. Alkahest stood, tucking his flask away.
"At last," he said. "Come along."
I followed, feeling as if this time it was the world speeding up and leaving me behind.
The cavern beyond was mostly raw and unshaped. Stalactites hovered on the ceiling, making the vast space feel claustrophobic. The floor was dominated by a ring of metal. It looked absurdly like an inset pool, a hot tub, except for the arcane symbols etched all along the outer rim. The flowing script resembled Arabic, or maybe one of the alien languages we'd encountered over the years. Nearby, connected to the metal ring by an insulated cable as thick as my arm, was a console where screens flickered in the darkness.
Otherwise, the chamber was empty.
I peered around as Alkahest strode to the metal ring and mounted the shallow steps.
"Nobody here," I said. "Maybe he knew we were coming?"
"Come," said Alkahest. "Come and look at this. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, truly."
I forced my weary legs to shift across the floor. That, at least, had been carved and polished until it sent up ghost-glimmer reflections. I stepped up to the ring beside Alkahest.
Inside was... nothing. Not the floor of the cave, but not a hole or pit either. Just a gap, a hole in the world, or in my perception of it. Not darkness, not light; just absence. My brain rebelled at trying to process the visual impact and I squeezed my eyes shut.
"Magnificent," Alkahest breathed in my ear. I felt his hand on my shoulder.
A great many things abruptly made sense to me. "There never was anyone else here, was there?"
Alkahest's hand tightened. "I always said you were a solid thinker, Daniel. Not the fastest or the most agile, certainly not the most brilliant, but given time, you get the job done."
"Why would you do this? Why this silly play-acting?"
"Most of it isn't a ruse at all, old friend. Virtually every word I've told you is true."
"So you're killing off all the old heroes, starting with me? Why not just poison me? You've had enough opportunity." Something--not Alkahest--tugged at me, pulling inside my head. I opened my eyes and found my gaze dragged back to the void.
"Oh, I did," Alkahest assured me. "Not fatally. I need you, Daniel."
"I won't join you!" I said, trying to wrench my shoulder away. I was too weak; whatever had been in that yellow liquid, my body wasn't processing it away like it should have. I tried to push myself faster, give myself time to shake off the effects--speed is time--but I couldn't. I was trapped in time like it was flypaper. "Doing this... you're no better than the scum we fight. You're worse, you traitor!"
Alkahest's grip clutched spasmodically. I wanted to turn my head and spit in his face, but I was held by lethargy.
"Don't talk to me about betrayal, Daniel," he said. "Did you really think no one else knew? That no one else could tell Evelyn was frustrated and angry, ready to leave? That no one could do the calculations on just how fast you could run, even then, before you matured? All the others were sympathetic. They gave you space and made excuses for your odd behavior. You'd just lost your girlfriend, after all." Alkahest's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Can you really stand there and tell me you're better than I am? But then, hypocrisy has always been one of your strong suits. You let your lover fall to her death out of petty vengeance for some spat, and you have the gall to look down on me?" He laughed then, low and bitter. "On the other hand, that's precisely why I need you, Daniel. That's why you're important, why I had to lure you to this place of your own accord. The gateway, you see, is a complex piece of metaphysical engineering, but it is still an object of death, and I need a death to open it. The key must also be carefully prepared with a rigorous regimen of rare minerals and compounds, of course. I've managed to administer most of them to my various companions over the years, though you're one of the few still alive. More to the point, I need a connection to stabilize it, someone with a strong bond to the dead." He leaned in and hissed in my ear. "And for my purposes, that sacrificial lamb must be a traitor." He threw the word back at me. "A traitor's heart, so the gate will open my way and not theirs. I want you to know this, Daniel. I want you to understand the depths of your failure."
The gate was changing as Alkahest talked. The terrible emptiness was marred by a trickle of shadow, flowing up from the nothing like oil. It spread outward until it touched the edge and then began to rise. Ripples formed perfect circles on the surface, reflecting from the edges, impacting each other and swirling away in complex wave patterns. Alkahest watched avidly; I helplessly. The gate quivered like a drum.
A voice. A whisper, in the back of my head.
Evelyn's voice.
Daniel...
"You are my tool and my case in point." Alkahest moved forward, staring down with a smile. "Even the self-appointed guardians of law and order fail to meet their own standards. People are selfish, greedy, and painfully stupid. You careen around your little corner of the world, trying to expiate your well-earned guilt by saving strangers, and what do you accomplish? A Band-Aid on a cancer victim. It may comfort you to know that I intend to enforce rigid highway safety standards in the future. We will do things right this time."
I've been waiting, Daniel....
"We?" I managed to croak.
Alkahest clucked his tongue. "I'm not insane, Daniel. Megalomaniacs try to rule the entire world. I have no need to be supreme merely to fuel my own ego. I intend to share quite peaceably with my like-minded compatriots. How did you think I acquired the computer for that little toy outside? You're far from the only speedster in the world who might need a little softening up. Next time it will be loaded with something considerably deadlier, of course. Pity you threw it down the pit; it was rather expensive."
It's cold here, Daniel. Can you feel it?
The otherworldly black substance was even with the surface of the metal rim. It stilled to immobility, reflecting none of the sparse light in the room. It seemed less like a pool of liquid and more like a hole, a gaping throat that would swallow the world. It should be screaming, I thought. Maybe it is. The air was vibrating, like my speakers at home; I was just at the wrong frequency to hear it.
Daniel...
I saw Evelyn's face. I saw the night we met. I saw the gleam of her eyes up on top of the Henworth Building, after I'd carried us both up the sheer wall, brought her to safety. I saw her gold-brown body shadow-striped in candlelight, wet with sweat. I saw the blankness in her eyes and the wry twist of her lips when I said I loved her. I saw her fall, again and again and again, and I stood... and did nothing. I wasn't fast enough to save her... but I could have been, if I'd wanted to. I knew that. I'd always known. I felt again the conflicting push and pull inside me, the drive forward and the sag of inertia. It would be easy to let it happen, to stand unresisting while Alkahest threw me to my own demons and let the rest loose. Evie would have me back at long last, and, oh, what she would do to me....
Hands were forming now on the seamless black surface. Other voices joined a chorus of whispers, other hands and faces pressed against that ebon membrane that sheared thinner with every endlessly passing moment. I was drugged, weak, groggy; I was robbed of my speed.
Speed isn't everything.
I moved suddenly. It was laughably slow compared to my usual efforts, but Alkahest wasn't expecting anything but submission. I didn't try to fight him. Instead, I wrapped my limbs around him and toppled us both into the grasping hands of the opening gateway.
A traitor's heart, he had said, was the key.
It was like falling into thin air. The darkness swallowed us without a splash or a ripple, and we rocketed downward. The voices were louder here, the whispers filling my ears until they were all I could hear. Alkahest flailed in my arms, grasping for bottles or packets, fumbling for his tools. I knew better. We were beyond that now, beyond all of that. I wrapped my hands around his throat and felt it vibrating. Alkahest was screaming as loudly as he could.
I focused my thoughts outward as I squeezed. Shut the doors, I thought. Close them and don't open them again. I am here. I have given you a traitor's heart. Close the gate!
Something tugged at Alkahest as we tumbled through the airless well of whispers. Again, more urgently. Hands other than mine roamed over his gaudy suit and useless potions. Cold hands. They gripped him, pulled him away, held him as I continued falling. My hands brushed past his face as my fingers parted. He tried to bite me.
I fell. I had no reference points to guide me. I might have been standing still, or I might have been hurtling at tremendous speed. After a time, I saw a light up ahead, or maybe up above. It was the only light in an eternity of darkness. I began to move toward it. Was it because I wanted to? I don't know. The firefly spark grew larger and I fell into it. I saw limbs, a hand, a face. Features resolved themselves.
It was Evie.
She was smiling.
I wondered what would happen when I arrived in her arms. I wondered if I would deserve it.
I fell forward, toward the end.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 13th, 2011


This story probably had its roots in Silver Age Sentinels, Aberrant, and other superhero based roleplaying games. Like all good nerds, I had extensively sourced arguments/discussions with my friends as a way to pass the time. One was about super-speed and its relative utility. We ended up concluding that it was generally the most unbalanced power to have, either in or out of a game, since speed also grants damage avoidance, extra attacks, strength-equivalence, and other perks in addition to mere movement enhancement, and no one knows how to model it appropriately in terms of cost in character points. I've always wanted to write a story based on a super-speedster (although in games I tended to play armored/tank types). Having seen other serious attempts at superhero fiction ("Soon I Will Be Invincible," the Wild Cards series, the "Union Dues" stories on Escape Pod, etc.), I decided to give it a try.

Once I'd settled on writing about a speedy superhero, I needed to decide what sorts of problems would make sense for someone so gifted. It occurred to me that speed is always forward; no matter how fast you are, you can't go back. I found it grimly amusing to imagine someone trying desperately to outrun themselves and just getting more and more alone with every step. Everyone sometimes runs away from their problems instead of solving them; superheroes just do it at Mach five.

- Nathaniel Matthews Lee

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