Captain Viridian got his cloak around him just in time as the storm of debris crashed over him in an angry, howling wave — a wave made up of the remains of the vehicles that had been stopped on the bridge, turned to shrapnel by the power-blast of the villain in front of him. A villain he intended to stop, no matter how powerful he was.
All around him were cries for help from the dying and the wounded, spurring him out of his defensive crouch even before the hurricane of metal had ended, bits and pieces battering him and slashing at his almost invulnerable skin like an angry storm of robot bees. The desperate calls had come in to him via every channel — a meteor had hit the bridge, some sort of firestorm. And born out of it, some kind of a beast in a mask — a manlike figure causing havoc all around him with beams of energy and colossal strength. This was what Viridian had been born for — the protection of the weak, the defeat of the evil, the triumph of justice.
When the blast subsided he saw it, the beast, a human-sized figure surrounded in a glowing surge of energy the color of faded blood. The figure turned an expressionless, mirrored mask on him.
“Worthless being a hero,” the beast’s hollow voice rang through the mask. “The fire catches up with everyone.”
“Stop this destruction immediately,” Viridian declared. “Or face the consequences.”
The beast threw back its head and roared with laughter. Viridian felt the old familiar surge of power, the desire to put a solid punch in the gut of evil.
“Make me pay?” the beast echoed. “Like you made all those other poor, tortured souls in the asylum pay? They’ve already paid.”
This gave him pause. The monster was getting philosophical about the other villains Veridian had brought to justice?
The beast waved his hands palm-up in front of him like he was talking to an ignorant child. “They paid in pain long before you ever got to them. Their so-called crimes were their justice on the weak and the fearful who would have ended them because of their power.”
The beast grunted, his head spasming on his shoulders. “Trust me, I know all about pain.”
“Pain is no excuse…”
That caused the double to laugh again. “No excuse to seek relief? We should all just burn in our suffering?”
Veridian had heard this so many times, the crazed villain trying to make sense of his madness. “I know people who can help you.”
“Like the doctors who helped you after your parents were killed?”
“How do you…?” the words were over his lips before he could stop them. His parents, killed in the destruction of their high-energy physics lab. But the foreign spies that killed them had no idea he was there, hidden away in a closet by his parents when they knew they were in danger. And then, in the ensuing escape, he had run through a field, one of their experiments, that had suffused him with an unknown energy, and turned him into what he was today — a hero. He served in their memory.
But how could this thing know?
“What are you?” he asked the beast.
“I am despair.”
The beast raised his arms, violent energy arcing through his hands, flashing all around the bridge, ripping down girders, hoisting cars, motorcycles, and minivans into the air, hurling everything at Viridian who dodged and rolled, blasting the unoccupied vehicles to pieces, catching those with people inside them and shoving the steel eggs aside as gently as he could.
Lashed by a snakelike mass of broken bridge cabling, he stumbled, rolling over and over again, trying to rise and being hit by hunks of steel and concrete as the bridge swayed crazily underneath him. On his knees he tried to rise and failed, and the onslaught stopped.
The beast was walking towards him with halting steps.
“Too easy.” The mirror-mask gazed down. “This is too easy.”
“You’re nothing,” Viridian said. “Nothing I can’t handle.” But he felt his leg tremble, felt the pain in his ribs, and the coldness in his gut. Maybe just a moment to recover.
“What do you want?” he asked the beast, half curious, half stalling for time.
The beast wandered away, looking for something. He came upon a car, mostly intact, gazed down at it.
“The same thing as you,” the beast said, and with a smooth strike blew the door off the car. Striking into it like a viper with an arm, he hauled the driver out, a woman in a business suit. She dangled from his powerful arm like a caught fish, squirming. “An end to pain.”
Viridian’s heart beat like a hammer in his chest, as the poor woman looked down at him, pleading for rescue with her horrified eyes. He argued with himself, charge forward, strike the arm, break her free. But there were milliseconds before he could get there, and the beast was obviously fast and powerful.
“Put her down,” he said. “Why hurt her?”
“Because I hurt,” the beast growled. He saw the beast’s hand turn, the fingers clench and he shot forward, through a clouding blur of pain all over his body. His arm struck out, breaking the grip of the beast. He followed up with a quick and powerful punch to the face, but the beast rolled, struck out with a smashing blow across his back and Viridian went down.
Through the fog of pain, Viridian heard the slow, cracking noises and the screams of pain. He rolled upward, clambering against the ropes of agony and despair. How had this gone so wrong?
“What are you?” he spat at the beast.
The mirrored mask looked down at him, reflecting the boiling red of the fire and the destruction around them.
A hand raised up, took hold of the mask, took it calmly from the face, and dropped it.
The mirrored-mask was replaced by the mirror image of Veridian’s own face.
“You don’t recognize me?” The beast’s eyes opened, wide and round, horrified, like he was trying to be Viridian’s shocked reflection, trying to force his emotions into that shape.
Then he swung. Fast, calculated, a flat hand sent a wide blade of energy slashing into Veridian, cutting him down and throwing him backwards. There was an explosion. The bridge creaked and screamed a reverberating metallic scream.
The pain brought Viridian focus. Not a meteor, a rift, an explosive hole in space through which crawled this hideous doppleganger.
“Putting it all together now, aren’t you?” Anti-Viridian said, marching forward. “I am quite smart, even if I’m no genius here, in this reality.”
“A portal to another dimension, then? Another me?”
“You,” he nodded. “Another possible note played on the same cosmic string.”
“Not me,” Viridian tried to get up, but he felt like he had been stretched to the breaking point. “You are not me.”
The beast-Viridian knelt next to him, looked him in the eyes with wide, flat eyes. “There is no you or I. There is only us. A million heroes and villains splayed across the surface of reality, fighting for a flag covered a different shade of grey. Mine just happens to be the color of my own blood.”
Beast-Veridian stood. “We’re not so different, Virid. Where I come from, I didn’t have it as well off as you. My parents gifted me my powers, thinking to protect me. But I very quickly got a taste for them.”
The smile on beast-Viridian’s face was like a cut, oozing insanity. The edge turned down in a sneer.
“I left a black hole of a universe behind me, Virid. And I will leave another behind me every step I take through all the worlds.”
Viridian took careful, considered breaths, righting himself, pushing himself upwards. “I can’t let you do that. You’re insane, you know that? We can get you help.”
“You can lock me away in some phantom prison! That’s what you do, isn’t it? You take away the vital fire that makes me who I am, because I’m different, because I’m too powerful and I want the rest of them to bow to me, to recognize me for the deity I really am.”
The beast turned to him, for the first time looking unsure. “They bow to you, don’t they? Their protector? Let you practice your rescue fetish?”
Viridian felt the genuine beast of rage curl into his fists. He didn’t ask for the worship. He was humble. He was noble. He—
The beast’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Viridian like he was looking through his face into his brain.
“Who’s that pretty woman at the paper you hang out with? The one at all the medal ceremonies? Does she know how you lust to be a normal human who could hold he—”
And Viridian struck, a flying fist charged with an angry bolt of energy smashing into the beast’s face, spinning him. And again and again he struck, driving the beast backwards, beating him, until, the beast leaped, and with a confident smile Viridian had seen on newspaper photos of he, himself, taking down normal bank-robbers and mobsters, the beast struck. Beam after beam striking out, blasting him, setting his insides on fire, boiling his blood making him feel like his brain was going to explode.
He was left a broken wreck in the middle of the bridge trying to remember to breathe.
The beast whispered in his ear, his breath cold. “You can’t win. You know that. Your stupid fear holds you back. But, I have to admit, I was right. We’re not so different.”
The beast stood, towering over him. “But I’m not afraid.”
Viridian looked up into the cold reflection of his own eyes. In that mirror image he could feel the pain without purpose overwhelming him. How close had he come to becoming this? How far was her from being this monster, drowning in anger and selfish righteousness. How easy it could be to tell yourself, I hurt, so I deserve this.
“I’m better than this,” he said to his reflection. “Every single life I save, every single stance I take against entropy and despair, keeps a little more light in the world, a little more warmth. It’s those things that saved me. That should have saved you.”
The beast looked hesitant. What was he seeing in his reflection, laying broken beneath him.
He sighed. “Spare me the moral claptrap. I don’t believe in Heaven and there’s no redemption when you’ve killed a universe.”
He pulled a gleaming red blade from out of his belt holding it with a thick black handle. Viridian’s eyes darted to it, hearing the buzz, feeling a coldness radiating out from it.
“You know what this is?”
The blade wavered in the air, barely a part of this reality, cutting through the very wave-form of the universe with a screech as the beast flourished it.
“Pure Auridiallium 7,” Viridian said. “The only substance that can kill me.”
The beast smiled. “Our father made this blade. Back in my universe. Once he figured out what I had become.”
He seemed mesmerized by the blade, staring into it as if seduced.
Viridian struggled, trying to make his way to his feet. He pushed through the pain, groaning. If he could channel something, destroy the bridge, maybe he could stun the beast, stop him long enough to do something.
But the beast was too quick. No, he knew what Viridian was thinking. He grabbed Viridian by the shoulder, twisting it lightly in his brutal grip, causing another shocking spasm of pain. The blade was at his neck, hissing and spitting as it interrupted the cosmic energy that bound his very molecules together.
“There’s still hope…”
“Not for me.”
“No, for the universe,” and with that Captain Viridian grabbed the blade,shattering it, sending bits of ethereal lava flashing over both of them. He felt himself going up like a star going nova, every single bit of him flying apart.
He reached out and grabbed the beast, pulled him in without resistance, drawing him in like a companion star.
“I’m sorry,” Viridian said to himself, as they crumbled to sparkling dust.