Kassian strolled through the elevator doors. “Nice digs,” he commented as Atlas switched on the lights.
“Thanks.” Atlas gestured to the sitting area in the center of the room, and Kassian settled onto the couch.
He pretended not to notice the famous superhero’s probing gaze; he knew he stood out. The tattoos, spiked hair, scars… they served as permanent reminders of a life he wasn’t proud of.
A beep resounded through the chamber, and a hologram popped out of the arm of Atlas’s chair. “Can I talk to you?” a female voice asked. The superhero nodded, and the image disappeared.
“Excuse me,” Atlas apologized as he stood and exited through a door in the opposite wall.
Kassian got up and wandered around the room. He paused near the glass wall and gazed out over the city, attempting to ignore the voices echoing from the adjacent room.
“Are you sure about this?” the female voice expressed.
“He’s our only link,” Atlas reasoned.
The ex-criminal leaned against the glass and closed his eyes. Against his wishes, the memories flooded in.
They’d planned the raid so carefully; every detail was accounted for. Kassian lined up with the other henchmen in the back of the van, ready to pull off the heist of a lifetime. If they succeeded, Evander would have what he needed to take over the world.
Kassian flinched as the warehouse alarm echoed in his mind. Just one alarm; that was all they’d missed.
But it was enough.
The thugs dashed to the van, but Evander had other plans. Throwing his spoils in the back, he pumped the gas and screeched through the closing doors to the helicopter, and Kassian and the others watched him fly away.
Within a minute, the cops arrived. Kassian encouraged the others to surrender in hopes of a lighter sentence. He planted himself in front of his fellows, ready to do so.
But the henchmen opened fire, and the cops returned it. Kassian caught it from both sides.
Kassian fingered the holes in his jacket as the faces appeared once more in his mind’s eye. He watched as they fired, as they turned, as they ran.
As they fell.
Lying helplessly on the cement floor, their blood mixed with his.
The police won that day, but Kassian didn’t care. He barely remembered being hauled into the back of the ambulance. For days he lay in the hospital, watching doctors and officials decide his future. Then another familiar face showed up.
Atlas. The villain had foiled Evander’s plans time and time again. He always came out on top, probably because he could fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes. Not a normal guy.
Evander hated Atlas. Every move was an attempt to evade the so-called superhero. But Evander said he was a villain, and the henchmen believed him.
But, if Atlas was a villain, why did he argue for Kassian’s release?
Kassian snapped from his reverie as the superhero returned, hovering over the floor, distracted by the device in his hand. He caught Kassian’s eye and gestured to the seating area.
The girl from the hologram entered the room and made her way toward them. She swept her chocolate-colored hair back into a ponytail and adjusted her oversized sweater.
“Atlas, you’re floating,” she commented as she took her seat.
She smiled cordially at Kassian as Atlas settled down next to her. “I’m Chandra.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Kassian agreed. “You’re the… librarian chick.”
Chandra raised her eyebrows and nodded. “I’ll take it. Atlas?”
“Right.” Atlas leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, swiping his dark curls back from his forehead. “So, you’re probably wondering why you’re here and not in prison.”
“The question did come to mind.” Kassian fiddled with a pencil he’d plucked from the cup on the table.
“Well, we’re prepared to make a deal with you. Are you up for it?”
Kassian didn’t look up. “What kind of deal?”
Atlas placed his device on the table and a holographic likeness of Evander popped up. Kassian’s eyes flitted up to the image before returning to the pencil in his hands.
“You help us find Evander,” Atlas continued, “and the government will drop all of the charges against you.”
Kassian stared at the broken pencil in his hands. He glanced up and met his companions’ bewildered gaze. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Atlas’s eyes were wide. “How did you do that?”
Chandra fumbled for her device and scanned Kassian before he could react. She tapped the screen a couple of times and stared at the tattooed thug across from her.
“Have you always had super strength?”
Kassian set the broken pencil on the table. “Um, no… I’m really sorry…”
Atlas casually waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a pencil.”
“We don’t even use them,” Chandra chimed in. “They’re just there for aesthetic.”
“Anyways,” Atlas clapped his hands together, “does that sound like a deal?”
Kassian met the empty gaze of the hologram before him. Normally, he wouldn’t dream of betraying Evander. But now…
Kassian cleared his throat, but his voice cracked anyways. “Deal.”
“Good.” Chandra pressed a button on the device, transforming Evander’s image into a giant globe. “Do you know where Evander is?”
Kassian sighed. “I don’t. If he’d wanted me to know, he’d have taken me with him.”
Atlas shared a quick glance with Chandra. “Not to make things worse, but do you know why he didn’t?”
Kassian absently fiddled with one of the holes in his jacket. “I guess we were more expendable than we thought.”
Atlas nodded awkwardly. “Well, do you know where he could have gone?”
“Why do you need to find him?” Kassian probed.
Atlas paused, rubbing his hands together nervously. Kassian’s eyebrows furrowed. This awkward guy in jeans and a hoodie was the superhero who had constantly bested them?
“Do you know what you were stealing at that warehouse?”
Kassian shrugged. “He didn’t say, but it was in a big case.”
“It’s a death ray,” Atlas responded flatly. “Don’t ask me why the government even has it in the first place; I wasn’t invited to that meeting. Anyway, if Evander uses it, a lot of people are going to die. We need to locate him now.”
Kassian always knew Evander wanted to rule the world, but he hadn’t really cared. However, death was all too real to Kassian now. His heart began to pound.
Chandra and Atlas were staring at him.
“You good?” Atlas asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
Kassian sniffed, trying to calm the beating in his ears. “There’s a castle.”
Chandra straightened in her seat shared a glance with Atlas.
“On some island,” he continued. “Whenever he needed to run, that’s where he’d go. He never told us where, but it’s worth a shot.”
Atlas leaned forward. “That narrows it down,” he sighed, “but not enough. Did he say anything else?”
Kassian rested his chin on his hand. “Not sure.”
“Well, it’s a start,” Chandra offered.
Suddenly, Kassian snapped his fingers. “Raoul.”
Atlas extended his hands excitedly. “Okay, who’s Raoul?”
“I heard him say the name over his comm once. The next day, he left for the island.” Kassian shrugged helplessly. “That was, like, a year ago, but…”
“It’s something,” Atlas encouraged. “Chandra, see what comes up for Raoul.”
“Right.” Chandra retreated to the other room, device in hand.
The pounding in Kassian’s chest escalated. He struggled to take in a breath, but Atlas didn’t seem to notice. “Hopefully we’re not too late,” he mumbled to himself, rubbing his smooth, square chin. Kassian stared down at the table, chewing his lip nervously.
“Kassian,” Atlas began, and Kassian raised his eyes. “Thank you.”
“Um, it’s fine.” Kassian stood up and stumbled over to the glass window, propping himself up against it.
“Kassian! Hey,” Atlas followed him and placed his hand on his shoulder. “You all right? Is it your wounds?”
Kassian shook his head, vaguely noticing the warmth emanating from Atlas’s hand through his leather jacket.
Atlas stuck his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. “Listen, I understand there’s a conflict of interest here, and it must be hard for you to… betray Evander.”
“He’s done the same for me.”
“Right.” Atlas paused. “How long ago was it?”
“What, the heist? I thought you were there.”
Atlas folded his arms. “I was, after the police had already gunned down every last one of you in defense. I was referring to the experiment.”
Kassian stiffened. His right hand instinctively balled up into a fist. “How do you know about that?”
Atlas didn’t flinch. “I’ve battled you guys for a long time, and I know for a fact you haven’t always been this strong. What’d Evander do to you?”
The superhero’s gaze never wavered, his blue eyes just as piercing as his laser vision. Kassian sighed, running a hand over his spiky, black hair. “A month before the heist. He’d been preparing it for a long time. He said we needed to be ‘better’. So, he enhanced us.”
“Did you all end up strong?”
Kassian shook his head. “Just me. Others got speed, flexibility, brains.” He gazed absently through the window. “Not that it helped them any.”
“And just you got the healing power?”
Kassian’s jaw twitched. “You noticed that too, huh?”
Atlas shrugged. “It’s the only explanation for how you’re alive right now.” Kassian didn’t respond, and the realization lit up Atlas’s eyes. “But you didn’t know that, did you? You thought you were going to die.”
“Thought?” Kassian scoffed. “I expected it.” He took a deep breath, and the words spilled out. “It took utter betrayal for Evander to lose my trust and five bullets to the chest for me to realize that…” His words caught in his throat. “I’ve been on the wrong side this whole time.
“I looked Death in the eyes, and it’s not an experience I’d wish on anybody.” He turned to his companion. “But that’s what Evander’s planning.”
Kassian expected a response, but Atlas just stood there, patiently listening. “Can I ask you a question?” Kassian continued.
Atlas leaned back against the window. “Sure.”
“Why are you trusting me?”
The superhero inclined his head. “Couple reasons. First, I have to. You’re the only one who survived and the only lead we’ve got. Secondly,” he straightened his posture, “I recognize that look in your eyes. I know what betrayal’s like. I’ve been where you’re at.”
Atlas paused with a twinkle in his eye. “Also, I can tell when people are lying. That’s, like, one of the things I can do.”
Kassian threw his hands in the air. “Oh, now you mention that?”
“Hey, I didn’t want to pressure you.”
“There’s pressure just looking at you.”
The superhumans turned as Chandra popped between them, holding her device up. “Found Raoul Kumar in the police records; he was arrested five months ago for extortion. I called the prison and he sang with no hesitation.”
“What’d he say?” Kassian probed.
Chandra threw up another hologram of the world and highlighted an island to the south of Africa. “Evander’s on the north shore of Madagascar.”
Atlas pulled his hoodie over his head and tossed it on the couch. “Chandra, get the jet ready. We’re going to Africa.” He extended his hand to the tattooed thug. “You in?”
Kassian matched the superhero’s grip. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
In seemingly no time at all, Atlas’s jet descended just off the north shore of Madagascar.
“Do we have a plan?” Kassian asked as the gangway lowered.
“Well,” Atlas adjusted the belt of his suit, “not really. I don’t usually, which Chandra hates.”
“Yup.” Chandra’s voice crackled over the comm.
“Listen,” Atlas continued, “I don’t condone this and it’s not how I roll, but if taking Evander out is the only way to stop him, don’t hesitate.”
“I’ll drop you at the north entrance and head to the south. We’ll work our way inward. If you find the ray, destroy it.”
With that statement, Atlas wrapped his arms around Kassian’s waist and vaulted through the open hangar door over the ocean. Wind whipping through this hair, Kassian watched the castle in the distance grow.
Atlas dropped Kassian off at a second-story window. Kassian put his elbow through the glass and, brushing the shards aside, climbed into the castle.
The corridor Kassian flowed into a balcony overlooking a ballroom. Throwing subtlety to the wind, Kassian vaulted over the banister and landed on his feet, the resounding thud echoing through the empty room.
His eyes scanned the balcony and walls and settled on the double doors across the room. Bursting through, he strode into the hallway.
Kassian rounded a corner and busted down the first door. Splinters of wood flew into the room as he poked his head through the gaping hole.
Lying on a wooden table was the black case. Kassian stepped forward and flipped the latches open.
“At least we know he’s been here,” he muttered.
Suddenly, a loud crash boomed through the castle. Kassian ripped through the doorway and darted up the nearest flight of stairs to another balcony.
In the room below, Atlas struggled to his feet and lifted his fists, wiping blood from his lip with the back of his hand. A familiar voice echoed through the chamber, and Kassian’s breath caught in his throat.
“You like them?”
Evander approached the hero, brandishing a pair of mechanical wristbands. “I designed them myself. With these, I match your strength and powers perfectly. You can’t win.”
“Wanna bet?” Atlas panted. His eyes glowed red, but the villain deflected the lasers with his wristbands, redirecting the blast into the wall above Kassian’s head. Kassian shrank back, heartbeat echoing in his ears.
At that moment, the sunlight reflected off a metal structure in the center of the balcony and caught Kassian’s eye.
The death ray.
Kassian stood and balled his hands into fists. With Evander distracted, he had a shot at destroying the ray. Inching along the balcony, Kassian glanced down to watch Evander lift Atlas by the throat and hurl him to the floor.
The banister cracked under Kassian’s grip. His eyes darted back to the death ray for only a moment.
The hero rolled over and coughed violently. He wiped blood from his lips, painfully aware of the villain’s approach. His arms shook under his weight, and he fell back with a gasp of pain.
Evander pressed a button on his bracelets and planted the sole of his boot on Atlas’s chest. “Fitting, I think,” he snarled as he stretched out his palms, “that the last thing you experience will be the blast of your own lasers.”
The villain whirled around as the banister of the balcony was ripped from its place. Before Evander could react, Kassian flung himself from the verandah and, swinging the beam like a bat, belted Evander across the room.
Atlas struggled to his elbows. “Thanks.”
Kassian lowered his makeshift weapon. “Anytime. You good?”
Atlas strained to sit up and let out a groan. “Probably not.”
“Kassian!” Evander swayed to his feet. “You’re alive!”
He stepped forward, and Kassian whipped his bat around, positioning it underneath his chin.
“Kassian,” Evander chuckled nervously, “whose side are you on?”
“Probably the one who didn’t leave me behind to be shot up by the cops.” Evander’s eyes widened. “But you didn’t know I’d survive that either, did you?”
Evander batted the banister aside and discharged his lasers, but Kassian slid to the ground and swept his legs out from under him. The villain fell hard, and the henchman struck again with the banister.
The weapon splintered and shattered as Evander slammed into the opposite wall. Kassian tossed the pieces aside and helped Atlas stand. “Can you fly up to the ray?”
Atlas grunted as Kassian slung his arm over his shoulder. “I don’t think so.”
“If I get you up there, can you destroy it?”
“Probably, but – whoa!” Kassian lifted the superhero in his arms and pitched him up to the balcony. Evander staggered to his feet and aimed his lasers at Atlas.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Kassian barreled forward and grabbed Evander by the wristbands, crushing them in his hands. Behind him, Atlas supported himself against the wall as his eyes glowed red.
Kassian pinned Evander to the wall and watched the death ray burn in the whites of his eyes. “Kassian,” the villain reasoned, “we could rule the world.”
The former thug snorted. “Like I haven’t heard that before.” The death ray crumbled behind them.
“You’re weak,” Evander spat. “You’ve always been weak. The strength you have I gave you. I’m the reason you’re alive!”
“That’s your problem.” Kassian tightened his grip on the Evander’s wrists. Fear flickered through his eyes.
“You won’t kill me,” he sneered.
“You’re right,” Kassian responded. “Because that’s what you’d do.”
He seized a bar of metal from the ground and twisted it around Evander’s wrists. Atlas hovered shakily down from the balcony and flopped onto the ground. Kassian threw Evander down beside him.
“You threw me across the room,” Atlas grumbled.
“And I’d do it again.” Kassian crouched next to him. “What now?”
“I called Chandra; she’s bringing the jet.” The superhero squinted up at him. “What about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re free now. Where are you headed? Any family?”
Kassian rested his arms on his knees. “Nope, no family.”
The jet hummed in the distance. “In that case,” Atlas continued as Kassian helped him up, “I could get used to having you around.”
Kassian hauled Evander to his feet. “Like a sidekick?”
“Not necessarily. More like a team.”
“So, partners?” The jet hovered over the castle, and a line dropped down through the ceiling window. Atlas hooked Evander to it by his wrists and watched him rise into the sky before turning to Kassian.
“How about friends?”
Kassian returned his gaze and grinned.
“I could get used to it.”