Time has passed….
Dr. Archer paces around the makeshift lab area of the team's hideout. Each time he turns around, he glares for a moment at the corroded brew kettle he had converted into a magnetic containment chamber, back when he was Contained. He's been stalling for the last hour – taking care of piddling chores, racking his brain trying to think of other places he could search for Sharon's genetic material. He turns again, sees the hodgepodge of metal and wiring squatting in the corner, looking like some fever-dream version of a planetarium projector. Archer closes his eyes and sighs deeply.
No more putting things off, he thinks. Best to be prepared…just in case.
Archer walks slowly to the corner where the containment unit sits. Next to it lies a dirty and stained tarp; he pulls it back, revealing a neat stack of metal pipes, each about four feet long and capped at both ends. He gathers them up and tucks them under one arm; then with his other hand, he takes one rod from the bundle and inspects it.
Steel pipe, packed with boron carbide, he thinks. Normally an industrial-grade abrasive, but it has the additional characteristic of being able to soak up neutrons like a sponge. Atomic science for the home enthusiast.
As he holds the length of pipe in front of him, Archer thinks back. It had been Reg who first gave him the idea, that night he had first arrived in St. Louis. Dumb sonnuvabitch came at me with a hunk of lead pipe – thing had been sawed to a ragged edge on one end, and he crammed right into my suit's midsection, back before I had the chance to reinforce it. Managed to tear a hole in it; I damn near leaked out while I was fumbling to get the patch over the rip. It hadn't really hurt – it was really just panic and phantom pain; but when the lead pipe entered my form, I could feel it cooling the radiant fire of my energy form like I'd swallowed a tray full of ice cubes.
Archer inserts one end of the pipe into a torus-shaped electromagnet mounted on the outside of the containment unit. It slides in about a foot, then snaps into place with a faint "k-chak". Eventually we became friends, Reg and I; he and the others accepted me into the community. But I was always separated from them, and always a threat.
It's really why I first built this, Archer muses, as he slides the next dampening rod into place. The theory is sound – absorb enough neutrons to stop the chain reaction, and eventually I'd lose cohesion and just dissipate. But Reg, bless him, talked me out of it – told me about needing to stand up to "The Man", and marching with the Reverend King when he was young, and reminding me of that pretty little wife of mine who was still crying her eyes out over me….
It was probably all bullshit, but it worked – it kept me alive, kept me going. And now look at me….
Reg is dead by my hand….
My pretty little wife is now a glowing ball of plasma, just like I was….
It's probably only a matter of time before my old best friend ends up on that psychopath Stern's "hit list"….
And here I am, trying to save St. Louis from nuclear Armageddon, just in time for it to be leveled by earthquake, flood, and hurricane….
Archer steps back to examine his handiwork. Satisfied that everything is in place, he steps to the control panel of the containment unit. He sets the timer for a five second delay, then flips a switch. The lights dim in the brewery as the device begins powering up. Five seconds later, the electromagnets slam the dampener rods into the center of the containment unit with a "crack" loud enough to make Archer jump.
He nods his approval, switches off the machine, and begins to extract the dampener rods by hand – he hadn't built the machine to retract them automatically, since he never expected to use the device more than once.
I let you down, Reg; and I'm sorry for that. But this time we do it right. No stone left unturned, no giving up without a fight.
When he is done resetting the containment unit, Archer steps back to the workbench and begins checking his messages….
...beep... Bill, this is Lilah. Call me.
Dr. Archer is just about to erase the tape. He knows the number after all, but then he stops, and plays it back again, with the volume up a bit louder.
And heard something else on the tape... he missed it the first time... after the 'beep'... before Lilah starts talking... THERE.
A very faint clicking noise.
Never a dull moment, Archer grimaces.
He fishes his phone out of his pocket and hits the "Redial" button. As soon as the receiver is picked up, he says, "It's me. Don't talk; just listen—meet me at the place we last saw each other. And watch your tail." He thumbs the "Off" switch and stuffs the phone back in his pocket.
Walking past the workbench, he picks up a bulging manilla envelope and tucks it under one arm; then exits the brewery through the door.
Archer looks up at the early evening sky for a minute, then closes his eyes in concentration. He can feel himself shifting, going out of phase with reality; but with an act of will, imbues himself with a sort of interference pattern that continues to interact with the physical world. The phone stays in his pocket and the envelope in his hand, even though he is completely intangible.
Papa's got a brand new bag, he thinks to himself, then leaps into the sky with a grin.
Maneuvering in the air while holding on to physical objects is harder work than he expected, so Archer avoids showing off or moving too abruptly while en route. He also tries to stay lower to the ground to make tailing him harder. Even so, he arrives at the Third Rail within minutes.
Upon entering, he immediately heads over to Jade Gorgon. "I'm sorry for the ruckus earlier, Jade—it won't happen again, I assure you. Oh, and I think I still owe you for the drink," he adds, and fishes a couple of crumpled bills from his jacket pocket. Archer then glances around the bar. "Is Ray around tonight, by any chance? I have something for him," he says, gesturing to the envelope, "and a favor to ask of him."
Jade smiles warmly, and puts a hand on his arm. "You're such a good boy, Bill...not many people pay their tab when the bar's about to be destroyed."
Archer shrugs. "A man's got to settle his own accounts," he says, "or else he isn't much of a man."
"Ray's... out. He went with Hardball—they're picking up a package before they leave town." Her tone of voice made it clear they were up to something, but she didn't care to discuss it. "They'll be out until late, I think."
She looked at a booth in the back. "Flashburn's already here. You need anything?"
"A pity," Archer remarks, looking around the bar. "I could have used someone with Ray's... unique talents about now. Although maybe I won't have to at all... Anyhow, when he does get back, could you make sure he gets this? There's a note for him inside, explains it all."
Archer starts toward Flashburn's corner of the bar, then turns back to Jade and says, "Actually, could we try a screwdriver this time, easy on the vodka? Gotta get this digestive system of mine jump-started somehow..."
Archer arrives at Flashburn's table. "It seems one of us has a secret admirer," he begins. "Phones are tapped. We're going to need to come up with an alternate means of getting in touch if we're going to be working on this... project for any length of time." He pauses for a moment. "But first thing's first—do you have any news for me?"
Flashburn looks rather irked about being called back here to begin with, then her expression darkens further when she hears the news about Archer's tapped phone.
"Any idea who...oh never mind. Doc, this is exactly why Blackheart offered you his protection to begin with, to prevent this sort of thing. I'll tell you what I know—it's not our people. And if I find out it is, someone's getting... I mean, they'll answer to me." She stops herself from completing the obvious threat and makes a visible effort to calm down.
"About Mrs. A... she's ready to talk. We can't use your phone... I was going to set up a conference, stay on the line in case something went wrong...." Flashburn didn't have to say 'in case she started to go critical'; they both knew the danger involved. She shakes her head rapidly, as if trying to convince herself to change her mind, knowing she isn't going to.
"Alright, Bill, look... I really, really, shouldn't be doing this. But this phone's secure, and I've made the arrangements." She speed-dials a number, and someone answers on the first ring. "It's me. Put her through. Now." Flashburn looks at Doc Quantum nervously, handing him the phone like a bomb about to go off. "Don't make me regret this."
Dr. Archer picks up the phone gingerly, like he's expecting it to blow up in his hand. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, then brings the phone up to his ear. "Sharon?" he begins. "Sharon, can you hear me? It's me—it's Archie, baby. Are they treating you alright?"
The voice on the phone sounds achingly, tragically familiar, yet it's distorted. Dr. Archer has heard that sound before--he sounded that way when he was 'Contained'. The Syndicate could probably fake that, but then they'd have complete control of the situation--they'd be trying to extort something from him, not trying to avert a nuclear disaster. No, it's probably her.
"Bill, is that really you...you're really alive? Where are you?" She sounds more than a little upset. The phone is loud enough that Flashburn can hear the stress in Sharon's voice from across the table. She draws in a breath and holds it, looking at Dr. Archer and leaning forward apprehensively.
Archer's hand is shaking so badly, he can barely keep the phone to his ear; he grips it with his other hand to steady it. "It's really me, baby. I'm here, in St. Louis. It's going to be alright. I'm going to make everything just like it was. They can fix you, like they fixed Lilah... like they fixed me. You should see me now—I'm good as new, even better! I...."
Idiot! You were about to tell her how you've got two healthy kidneys again, weren't you? Keep your yap shut, Billy—you've put Sam in enough danger already...
Archer pauses for a beat. "You've just got to stay strong; just hold on a little longer, Sharon. All I need is a sample—any genetic sample will do. I'm going to head to Miriam's place, in Amarillo. She's bound to have something we can use—all that scrapbooking she used to do with you and your sisters. It won't take much—your first haircut, baby teeth, dander from your old mattress. Whatever it takes, I will find it..."
"But Sharon," Archer adds, "your mother thinks I'm dead; and she hated my guts when she knew I was alive. I'm going to need your help to convince her to hear me out—to not hang up on me, or call the cops when I show up. Can you think of anything the two of you talked about recently? Something I could say to her to let her know this isn't some sick joke?"
Silence on the other end for several seconds... "Bill? I thought you were dead, too! You should've told me you were alive... you could have warned me about what was going on! Why didn't you ever call? And these people who did this to me... how is it you know them?"
Archer winces at the words coming through the receiver. Memories come flooding back—running for cover at the sound of sirens; the lonely treks cross-country under cover of darkness; the long, sleepless nights thinking of her. "I was afraid," he says finally. "Afraid of what might happen if somehow I... infected you; afraid of what they might do to you, to try to get to me... afraid that it might be the end for us—no cure, no way for us to be together. Running was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I had to do it—it was the only way I had to keep you safe... I was actually packing my bags, getting ready to head back to New Mexico when I heard the news on TV that you were missing. It was the government, Sharon! Some rogue ICoMP commander, using our work at Sandia Labs as a cover for who-knows-what. But I'm through running and hiding... I've got the files on what he was working on; I'm going to blow the lid off of all of it! But first thing's first—we're going to cure you like they cured me...."
"Fine, Bill! You think you can just fix everything... after all this... just do it. What do you expect me to tell you? You think there's any way I can help, like this? You expect me to figure out what to tell my mother? What are you thinking Bill?!"
Sharon gets more hysterical with each breath. Across the table, Flashburn makes 'cut' motions with one hand, gesturing towards the phone with the other. Her face is stricken with terror as she silently implores Dr. Archer to calm his wife....
"Bill...you're losing her..." she whispers.
Across the room, Koyotie stands up, looks towards the their booth, and waves....
Archer's eyes dart from Koyotie to Flashburn, then back to the phone in his hand.
This is getting to be a habit, he thinks to himself.
"Sharon," he begins once again, "it's going to be OK. I've learned my lesson the hard way—I'm not going to try to go it alone any more. If you won't trust in me, that's fine. Trust in Lilah. Trust in the team of scientists her people have assembled. They're the best there is—they've succeeded in changing people like us back to normal, every time they've tried." Archer tries not to think about the one subject Blackheart mentioned—the one they couldn't find a compatible DNA sample for. "Just keep breathing, Sharon—by this time tomorrow, you're going to be back to your old self. Lilah's going to fill you in on all the details when she gets back...."
Archer is suddenly cut off by a burst of feedback followed by the sound of 'white noise' coming from the phone. He stares at the cellular, his expression a mixture of denial, loss, and grief.
Flashburn is livid. She doesn't bother getting up—in a burst of red-tinted light she's out of her seat standing, looming over his seat. "It's happening, Bill, now!!" She pounds a fist on the table to get his attention, not stopping to see if it worked. "I never should-'ve... forget it. We've only got a few seconds. Bomb shelter. Basement. Get everyone down there. I'll be at Syndicate HQ... maybe I can do something."
A moment later, she was gone in another burst of light... teleported straight into a nuclear blast.
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