The Omega Ring
By Ben Lages
Gil wished desperately that he’d had a chance to smoke before being driven to Columbia Manor. It was unrealistic wish; he’d had to come straight here from the site of the explosion, but he nonetheless needed something to calm his nerves. His mentor, Columbiaman, had been gone a long time--much longer than usual—and the largess of the red-and-white corridor and of the estate surrounding Gil made him feel feebler than ever. Or maybe it was because he had just had to flee a crumbling Capitol One bank after failing to defuse a bomb.
This was the fifth time in the last two months that the Omega Council had had to hold an emergency meeting because of Gil. As it was, he was on probation, meaning that until further notice, he was relegated to tasks like cleaning the Manor and investigating traffic accidents. He wasn’t even supposed to be at the bank when the bomb was discovered; he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was until he’d run to a bathroom to put on his uniform and mask. By the time the device was discovered, there were only three minutes left on it, and by the time Gil had gotten to it, there were only ninety seconds.
There was no way the whole place could have been evacuated on time; the bomb was on the first floor, but the building was twenty-two stories tall. Gil happened to be there, he figured he had no choice but to step in. He had just studied bomb defusal the previous year, after all. But he realized too late that he’d slept through most of that class, and when this dawned on him, he had thirty seconds left. Without even meaning to, he simply stood and fled from the bank.
Welp, he thought, might as well go grab something from the vending machines. There was no use just sitting here worrying over the inevitable, and he had forgotten to eat that day. Besides, he’d already been here for two hours, and it was close to 8 PM. Once the Council summoned him, he’d be in the Omega Ring for another long while; no use going in on an empty stomach.
A few minutes later, Gil was in the rec room three halls over. He had no cash, and he tried in vain to get his Omega Card to work. Piece of shit, he thought. He’d needed to get a new card for a while, as the back of his had gotten faded with overuse. It became apparent that the vending machine would never read it, just as had happened in the armory a couple weeks earlier. Gil couldn’t check out the gas charges he needed, and the failed attack on Professor Delirium’s lair which ensued was the reason for one of the emergency meetings.
He thought it was unfair that the Council met so often on his account; sure, he could be a bit of a fuckup, but the only reason they cared so much about his doings was because Columbiaman, one of the most senior members, was his mentor. And where were they when he stopped a hijacking at LAX as the plane took off? The Council usually only met for truly world-threatening things, not caring about what happened with little rat sidekicks like Gil. But then, the Council always did as they liked.
As Gil began shaking the snack machine, hoping for something to fall out, he heard a portal open and close behind him, and he knew immediately that it was Minerva, who was not employed by the Council. She was truly an anomaly; no one knew where she had come from or even what she was truly capable of, and she came and went from their midst as she pleased. Because of all that, she could never have a sidekick. Sidekicks’ sole purpose was to take the place of their mentors once the time came, but unless someone like Minerva fell from out of the blue, there was no replacing her once she was gone. That was assuming she would ever even cease to exist.
Gil stopped shaking the vending machine and turned around. “Minerva, how goes it?”
She shrugged. “Probably better than you. I was near Uranus when the bomb went off, so I couldn’t quite get there in time to help.” She glanced at the floor, a bored look in her pink eyes. “Sorry about that.”
Gil shrugged. “Hardly your fault. I shouldn’t have even been there.”
“So why were you?”
“Had to talk to my financial advisor. Some friends and I went to B-Dubs the other night, and I had my card declined. Ended up running away.”
“I take it no one caught up to you?”
“Well… not exactly. I got caught, like, twenty minutes later. Obviously couldn’t make bail, so Columbiaman had to bail me out. My hearing’s in a month.” He laughed at himself a little. For most people, this would probably mean never finding a job again, but Gil had a job in which accidental civilian casualties and disciplinary hearings were fast becoming everyday fixtures.
“You couldn’t have just fought the cops off?”
“Didn’t have my uniform on my, so my friends would have realized that I did… this.” He grinned. “I also may have been a little drunk.”
“I see. Sorry to hear about that. I assume you’re here for a hearing, so why aren’t you waiting by Columbiaman’s office?”
“Haven’t eaten all day. Thought I’d grab something in here before going in, but my card’s a piece of crap.”
Minerva held out her left hand, which took an aura of green light, and the glass on the vending machine melted off, slumping to the floor like a transparent blanket. The two sat in silence for several minutes, eating stolen candy, when she spoke. “We’ve never really talked, have we?”
“No, I guess we haven’t.”
“What’s it like working with Columbiaman? He always seemed like an ass to me, and I’m curious as to whether that’s true.” She grinned. “Forgive my bluntness.”
“Well… you’re not wrong. Don’t know if I’d say he’s an ass through and through, but he can certainly be pompous.”
“Hm. How so?”
“Well, he’s like the rest of the Council—thinks that because he was in the war, he can just fuck everyone around.” He thought for a second. “He did bail my ass out of jail, though.”
“Admittedly, I don’t know much about the Council. I’ve only delt with them once, and that was when I first got here.”
“That reminds me: why do you hang around? I mean, it’s not like I don’t enjoy seeing you, but you seem like you’ve got better shit to do than deal with Council shit.”
Minerva shrugged. “Morbid curiosity, I suppose. Want to see how long this pathetic little council of theirs can last before it falls apart.” She stared down at the table, her eyes casting a faint glow over it. “Or before the whole planet does.”
“That’s a fair take.”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“You know, I’m honestly not sure why I do this stuff anymore. I guess it was because the idea of working with supers seemed really sick to me growing up, and by the time I had to figure out what to do with my life, I didn’t have any better ideas. Plus, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about money. Fucking hilarious, right?”
“If you had known that you’d be working with Columbiaman, would you still have signed up for training?”
Before Gil could answer, his Omega Phone buzzed. Where the hell are you?! Read a message from Columbiaman. “Fuck. I’ve gotta go.” He stepped to the door, still with half an espresso-infused Snickers bar in his hand, and paused. “Yo, on the off chance you’re still here when I get back, we should definitely talk more.”
“I won’t. And frankly, I don’t think you should go.”
“You think I want to? I’d say they’d kill me if I don’t, but there’s a good chance that that would actually happen.”
“They’ll kill you if you do go. Gil, I don’t know if you heard on the ride over here, but that little mishap downtown left at least sixty-five people dead, and they’re still turning up injured people. It’s the middle of the night, but who knows how many people were actually in that bank? The Council may be old and overcompensating, but they’re not completely incompetent.”
“If you’d dealt with them as much as I have—”
“I don’t need to deal with them. They’re beneath me, and frankly, they’re beneath you, too. You said yourself that they’re only where they are because of the war, which is going on thirty years ago now! Gil, when was the last time Columbiaman did anything other than appear at press conferences?”
Gil sighed. “I know, but I have to go.” He paused one last time. “I’ll put it this way: Columbiaman may be an oblivious old fuckhead, but I’m far from the first sidekick he’s gone through. He’s got no gripes with that shit.”
“So you know you’re making a mistake.” Minerva had always carried herself with a certain stoicism, and this was the first time Gil had seen it falter whatsoever. “I don’t pay mind to the Council if I can avoid it, but I see what they do. I hope for your sake that you come to your senses while you still can.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Minerva. Things will be alright.” He couldn’t bring himself to look up from the red-carpeted hallway floor as he said this.
* * *
“Did you go to the goddamn rec room?” Columbiaman growled upon seeing Gil. “I ask you to wait on this bench—a simple goddamn request, no? And you go to get fucking candy…”
“I’m sorry,” Gil said plainly. “I hadn’t eaten all day.”
“And that’s your priority? Not the tens—maybe hundreds—of lives that were just lost due to your negligence?”
“If you’re so concerned over it, why aren’t you over there helping to recover people?”
Columbiaman’s face was almost as red as the carpet. They entered the office, and Gil sat in the chair in front of the desk. The wood-paneled wall at the back of the room had not yet opened, so presumably, they were still waiting for the Council to be ready for them to come up. Columbiaman lit a cigarette, sat in his black chair, glanced at him. Then he rested his hands in his gloved hands and sighed.
“Just… how could you, Gil? How could you let this happen?” He looked up at him. “You know there’s no happy ending here, right, kid?” What exactly did that mean?
“Why couldn’t y’all have sent Ultor to deal with it? I know he can sense shit like this.”
“You know Ultor is busy with some of our affairs in Baghdad. And don’t you dare shift the blame onto us. You were the one in that fucking bank.”
“I’m on probation! I’m not even supposed to touch shit like bombs!”
“But you took Bomb Defusal, and on a base level, you should know that stopping something like that is the right thing to do! But according to all the reports, you just… ran…” He put his head back in his hands. “If I had pulled that shit during the war… do you even fucking realize what a disappointment you are? How much you’ve failed me and the rest of the Council?”
There was silence which, to Gil, seemed to last a few years. Columbiaman looked older than he ever had, his decades of turmoil manifesting in the wrinkles which the mask over his eyes failed to conceal. His blue and gold costume, which had once been skintight over his muscular figure, now began to sag over a fleshy bag of brittle bones.
“I’m sorry,” said Gil after a few more reluctant minutes. “I know that what happened out there is my fault. I don’t have any excuse for it, and I won’t fight if I get fired, but I just need to tell you that I’m sorry for this.”
The wood-paneled wall, which was controlled by the Council above, slid open. “I am too, kid.” With that, they walked through the short corridor to the pod, which sealed once they entered. Once the two dawned the silver spacesuits and helmets inside, they strapped in, and the shiny little room smoothly launched. Columbia Manor shrank to a tiny mahogany dot, and soon, so, too, did the rest of LA and then the rest of California. As they broke through the atmosphere, the giant chrome disk which was the Omega Ring came into view.
Gil felt an odd calm wash over him as the Earth shrank and the space station grew nearer; he’d been through this so many times now that it now had a strange familiarity. He knew it would suck going into the cold, panoptical council room to be reprimanded once again, but it was still some semblance of a routine, which was more than he could say he had at home. He wondered how much of the icy void which surrounded him was under the control of those elite few. Once they passed back down through those clouds, anything they said went for every superhero in their employ; their orders were truths from on high. But up here, did they really matter at all? After all, Minerva seemed to be from up here, and did she care about what these old fuckheads thought?
The pod ascended into the Omega Ring, and upon exiting, they were met with the same old familiar main hallway. Its cold grey floors were spotless, and the inner walls had countless oak office doors, while the outer wall was lined with thick windows overlooking the Earth. Just ahead of them was the elevator, and the two entered. But rather than pressing the button to go up to the Omega Council’s meeting room, Columbiaman pressed the button to head down to the very bottom floor. Gil had only ever been up here for disciplinary hearings, so he had no idea what was in the rest of the station or where they were going. When the door slid open, he was met with a black-walled room, in the center of which was what looked like an operating table. Before it stood a large, indistinguishable machine with what looked like a steel mask which would cover someone’s entire face. A masked doctor fiddled with the machine’s red control panel.
“Don’t you worry, Columbiaman,” he said, “I’ll get this kid acting right.”
“What is—” something rock hard hit the back of Gil’s head, and his surroundings were drowned in a sea of black. For what might have been seconds or decades, he was tossed around on invisible rip currents, never seeing where he was going but feeling as if his head was being cracked open against rocks every few moments, only for their innards to fall into a new head, which he then inhabited. After God-knows how long of this, a gloved hand appeared before him, and he took it. As it pulled him forth from the darkness, the waves subsided, and he was met by Columbiaman, who looked much younger than he’d remembered. Gil realized then that the masked face smiling down at him was, in fact, his own. For reasons he couldn’t put his finger on, this sight brought him a sense of peace that he’d not felt since beginning his training.
The image faded, and he felt the cold steel mask lifted from his face. He was bonded to the table by leather straps, and there was no sign of Columbiaman or the doctor. Instead, Minerva stood before him, loosening the straps.
“Gil! What did they do to you?!”
Gil stood and stretched, his surroundings flooding back to him. “I don’t know that they did anything. Where’s Columbiaman?”
She smiled. “He’s gone. You don’t need to worry about him or the Council anymore. Come on, we need to get you out of here.”
“What do you mean, ‘he’s gone?’” Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something on the floor. It was a massive pile of ash, and just across the room, there was another. Gil looked into her pink, glowing eyes, which now had an inexplicable malevolence. “Minerva, what did you do?”
“Don’t worry about it, Gil, we need to get—”
“I said what the fuck did you do?!”
“Gil… what have they done to you?”
“Do you know what the Council will do to you when I show them what you’ve done here?” Do you have any inkling—”
“The Council is gone, Gil! Now please…”
Gil lunged at Minerva, and she screamed in surprise and was gone, leaving him alone in there with the ash. He began to hyperventilate, and every part of his brain shrieked, and soon, so did he. He could barely remember the world outside of here; all he knew was that he existed for the Omega Council and to take up Columbiaman’s legacy now that he was gone. But he didn’t have what it took—not yet, anyway—and with no one to lead him to it, what was he left with?
Terrified at what little prospects he had left, he stumbled back onto the table and lowered the mask back onto his face, realizing too late that Minerva had wrecked the machine. He screamed once more, darting toward one of the black walls and ramming his head into it, and then lay on the floor, a warm pool fast staining the area around his head. As he slid from consciousness, the shrieking stopped, and he wondered why he’d done this. He’d hadn’t had any better ideas, he supposed.