He stares out the window as Colt drives, not willing to look at the man. The silence is thick, their fingers at the edge of jittering. Colt eventually speaks,
“Look I understand why you’re upset…”
“Don’t.” Ridian grits his teeth against a forming yell, his eyes sting. “Just don’t.”
Silence dawns again, a wide maw between them, uncomfortable. And Colt is once more moved to break it.
“I did what I had to do. I saved lives. Those people you met, every one of them is still here because of me.”
“Yeah, every one of them is hiding in a shit-hole. And what about all those people suffering: all those people running; struggling; dying! All those powered people who had a chance because of your movement. You sold them out. Let the world think you were a terrorist. Just so you could save a few people. Or maybe just so you could save yourself.”
Colt lets out a harsh bark of pained laughter. “Believe me, this had nothing to do with saving myself. Do you think I’ve enjoyed this, having this burden; having everyone hate me?”
Ridian sighs, deflates. “No. I know this wasn’t for yourself. You did what you thought you had to. You’re the great hero, saving one person at a time as you watch the world burn.”
“Sounds an awful lot like what you do.”
“Well there’s nothing much else to do now but that, is there. We’re in the aftermath. You know, I blame the movies.”
Ridian explains, “The hero, tasked with saving a whole world or saving one single individual, always has to still try to save that one person. Because that’s apparently what makes us human, recognising that even that one person is special, has hopes and loves and dreams, has family and friends and people who will miss them, deserves the effort. And everyone else; they’ve become an amorphous mass of beings. The notion that each of those people have hopes and dreams and family and friends is forgotten. They are a homogenous person-less group that can be sorted out later. The hero will find another way to help them. The truth is: there’s never another way.”
“As much as I hate to disagree now that you’re willing to talk to me again, you’re wrong. I never thought I’d find another way. I was there, as close to the inside as anyone can come. We were all going to lose. I knew. There was only this. A scrap to be salvaged.”
They both know something serious has happened as soon as they enter the sanctuary. There’s a quiet buzzing sort of atmosphere. The television is the central focus. Ridian’s stomach plummets as he realises what he’s seeing: the camps. A world smeared in dirt and shit and blood. The abuse and deprivation clear for all to see. He can’t look away. He wants to. He knew, of course. They all kind of suspected that this was the sort of thing that went on. It’s another thing entirely to see it. He swallows down rising bile.
They all seemingly stand there for eons watching wild captions and colourful commentary and protests and fighting and repeatedly silent rolling footage. They stand in anger, in fear, in determination, in sombre atheistic prayer.
Colt spends the next couple of hours stopping the younger ones among them from running out fighting on a suicide mission. Ridian would've been cheering them on and all for joining them- just a few short months ago. But now he surprises himself by helping Colt rein them in.
Powered people previously in hiding are pouring out of the woodwork and flooding the streets. They’re fighting. They’re being killed. Even some of the non-powered people are outraged by the whole situation.
Ridian stays calm for everyone else. But the moment he’s alone with Colt, the anger, the hunger; the ever-present twitching urge to do something pours out of him.
“We have to do something. We have to do it now! This is the best chance we’re going to get, when we’ll have the support. We’ll have people willing to fight! Don’t say it’s not the smart thing. There’s no point sitting here hiding any more. After this, they’re going to kill us; they’re going to kill us all!”
“No! We can’t let this slip by. In a few months all this will be is a sad anecdote. All we’ll be is a footnoted misquote in a history book. We need to act now.”
“You can’t just… wait what?”
“I said you’re right.”
“Okay, great. So we should come up with a plan.”
“Oh I’ve been planning for a long time. Just waiting for it all to come together. I think everything is finally in place.”
Ridian smiles. “I don’t know why I expected anything less. What’s first?”
“A drink I think. There are things to discuss.”
They sit opposite each other with their drinks, just like that first night of true conversation -and revelation- between them.
Colt begins, in his yarn-spinning tone, “You know I was one of the first people they collared. It was before anyone even really knew that the collars could truly hold us. I was young and arrogant and thought they would never be able to stop my powers.”
“You were right.”
“No. Not completely. My powers are extremely dulled and even this is with years of practice. They knew they needed to stop me because they knew what I could do. I was far too much for peace and rights and righteousness back then to really do any damage.”
Ridian quirks an eyebrow. “But not anymore?”
“No. I still think those things are important. But I also know they’re not always possible. That brings me to my first question.” Colt pauses, straightens, waiting for something.
“If you had a chance to make sure we were all okay, safe and happy and secure. Would you give anything?”
Ridian leans forward, sombre but certain, “Yes, of course.”
“Would you even give up your chance for revenge, your chance to mistreat others as they have done us?”
“This is hardly a time for pacifism.”
“I’m not talking about the fight. I’m talking about after we’ve won. It’s contingent on my deciding to go ahead.”
Ridian sighs. He knows maybe even a few weeks ago any promise to not seek vengeance would be a lie. But here, now, with Colt by his side. He knows he can make this oath. “Yes. I would.”
“Last question. Would you be willing to bear the burden of being the only one who remembers what happened to us, the only one who remembers the horrific truth. Of knowing a different world to everyone else.”
Ridian narrows his eyes suspiciously. “You’re going to do something with your powers? It can’t be that simple.”
“It’s not. Please answer the question.”
Ridian swallows. “Yes.”
Colt nods satisfied, leans back in his chair and takes a gulp of his drink. “I assume you know there’s a three second delay between the collars removal and the internal detonation killing the wearer… You know how when you’re dreaming time elasticises; the smallest fraction can seem like a lifetime. Can you imagine what someone who implants illusions in peoples’ minds can do in three seconds?”
Ridian blinks. And then recoils. “No, are you insane? You’ll die!”
“Yes, and you said you’d give anything to win.”
“Not this, not like this! We’ll find another way!”
Colt smiles wryly. “There’s never another way.”
Ridian makes an odd screech of a sound, he’s unsure whether it’s a laugh or a sob, probably both. He puts his head in his hands. “You bastard.”
“May I suggest another drink?”
“Yeah…Yeah, and then explain to me why I have to be here for this fucked up show. I thought you needed me for my powers?”
“Yes. I needed someone strong, a leader: someone who could bear the weight; someone who could keep looking after everyone if my plan didn’t work and we lost; someone who could keep looking after everyone if the plan succeeded and we won. You are more than I could have ever hoped for. I know I won’t have to worry leaving things in your hands.”
Ridian wants to yell and rail and throw things; speak on how unreliable and wild he is. But he doesn’t. Sometimes survival is a necessary sacrifice. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.”
They venture to an abandoned warehouse. No disturbances here and no one to be caught in the blast radius.
“So I need to get everyone to destroy all records of what’s happened. What if they don’t listen to me?” Ridian asks.
“If what I’ve done works they will. And there will be those who suspect the truth. You can let the conspiracy theorists be. People believe what their minds tell them to.”
Colt sighs and takes his hand, speaking gently, “We’ve been through this ten times.”
Ridian twitches, wants to keep spinning more words to elongate their time. “I know. I know this has to happen eventually. But maybe we could have just a little longer.”
“We’ll always want just a little bit longer.”
Ridian nods and walks away, when he's gone far enough he turns around, “I love you.”
The explosion is white and hot and searing.
Ridian doesn’t know what exactly was put in everyone’s’ heads. But he knows it’s a whole new timeline, a whole new world; one where they were always the winners and none of the atrocities seeped into his bones ever happened. He lives with his sorrow. He sees the powered people alive and well and happy. They love him. But he still lives with his misunderstood joy. He keeps his promise; lets the non-powered people live their lives unencumbered. They respect and fear him.
Ridian gazes over his empire, alone.