Science Fiction Romance ghosts Superheroes

Gamma Ray vs. Death

By Carrie Vaughn
Jun 27, 2019 · 5,919 words · 22 minutes

Photo by Jordan McDonald via Unsplash.

From the author: Superheroes never die. They always come back.


     Ray paced along the computer banks and sensor readouts, around the steel table that formed the centerpiece of the Command Room, passing the wide double doors to the hangar and returning to where he started. Something on that last mission had gone wrong, but he didn't know what. He should have known--he'd been in the middle of it--but his memory went fuzzy right at the good part. He still didn't feel right, like he was drifting. Like his mind wasn't all here. His feet were numb against the floor. The fact that the team wasn't back for the debriefing increased his worry. Where were they?

     And what had happened?

     Hours seemed to pass before the doors to the hangar opened and the team filed in.

     "Finally," Ray muttered, but his worry didn't diminish. He'd never seen his teammates like this. The five of them wore civilian clothes, nice suits and dresses. Even Gadgeteer wore a skirt, and Ray had never seen her in anything but jeans and T-shirts when she was off duty. Heads bowed, shoulders slumped, they moved slowly, like they were sleepwalking. One by one, they found their seats around the table. They didn't say a word.

     And no one looked at him. No one saw him. Ray swallowed and tried to quell a fluttering in his stomach. Experimenting, he waved a hand in front of Mr. Steel's face. Not even a flinch, and Steel had super reflexes to go with his super strength.

     Then Gadgeteer, the spunky young woman who maintained the team's equipment and did amazing things with copper wire and chewing gum, said, "I can't believe he's gone." She was staring at the one empty chair around the table. Ray's chair.

     "Oh, no," he said. "No no no, that can't be right. Guys, I'm right here, I've been waiting for you--"

     But no one heard him. He looked at his hands--they were solid. But when he grabbed the back of the empty chair to pull it away from the table, nothing happened. He couldn't feel the stainless steel frame and padded back. His hands skittered off the surface and it didn't budge. He could walk, but couldn't feel the floor--because he drifted an inch or two above it and only made the motions of walking.

     They'd been a team for five years. They'd been through everything together, every kind of scrape, trouble, disaster, supervillain, and alien invasion. They'd had some close calls. But they'd never lost anyone. Until now, apparently.

     Ray looked at the five of them: their leader, Mr. Steel, hunched over and silent; Tessa, sitting rigid and frowning; Cheetah, the super-fast woman with flame-colored hair, bit her lip and crossed her arms stiffly; and Gadgeteer. Even Jetstream, the team's loner, sat with them for this moment. They hadn't just lost someone. They'd lost their invincibility. They were mortal again. They were falling apart before his eyes. Because of him.

     "God, Ray," he murmured. "What are you going to do?"

     "It was good of the city to put up the plaque," Tessa said. The athletic black woman sat at Mr. Steel's right. Usually, the telekinetic was the one rallying the team, shouting directions and encouragement. The team's second-in-command, she had the enthusiasm to carry them all. Ray had never seen her so subdued.

     "He'd have hated it," Gadgeteer said, sniffing. "He wasn't engraved marble and lilies, he was neon and cheap beer. None of that service was about him!" She put her hands over her face, and the room was silent but for her stifled crying.

Somehow, his heart broke, even though he was dead and shouldn't have felt anything. He knew she had feelings for him, and he'd always liked her. He'd never known what to do about it except laugh it off. They were always so busy, fighting one crisis after another. And now--

This had all become one big, stupid cliché.

He slunk to the corner, crossed his arms, hunched in on himself, and watched. He was still in his fighting suit, the specially designed heat-resistant, gray-toned body glove that could withstand his radiation blasts. He was ready for action. Would always be ready for action. If he had to die, why couldn't he just. . .stop? Vanish out of the universe. Why couldn't it be over? That would have been far better than watching his team--his friends, the best friends he'd ever had--go through this.

"He would have wanted us to get back to normal," Tessa said. "He wouldn't have wanted us to sit around moping."

"I don't care," Gadgeteer said. "I don't care anymore what he'd have wanted. It's been over a week and it hurts worse now than it did when it happened. I just keep thinking about everything. . .everything that I miss. I keep finding his things, I keep--" Her face was red. Her dark hair was loose, but ruffled. Like she'd been standing in a breeze at a funeral. "I'm sorry. I can't do this right now."

"Annie--" Mr. Steel said, but she stood and left, almost running out of the room to the door that led to the living quarters.

"Let her go," Tessa predictably said, laying a hand on Mr. Steel's arm as he stood to run after her.

Jetstream, the raven-haired hot-shot flier, scowled. "It shouldn't have happened. If I had gotten to him sooner--"

Steel shook his head. "We've been over this a hundred times. There was nothing any of us could have done."

"But if I hadn't--"

"It wasn't your fault," Steel said.

Jetstream slouched over the table and quickly wiped his eyes.

One by one, they drifted away to grieve privately. Tessa rose, second to last. Touching Steel's shoulder, she said, "Are you all right?"

He pursed his lips in a wry smile. "I will be, eventually."

"It wasn't your fault, either," she said, and walked away.

When he was alone, Steel stood before the giant monitor over the computer bank. "Retrieve archive footage," he spoke the command. "Gamma Ray. File dated May first."

He'd been over it a hundred times, but went over it again. Ray stood nearby, watching the video screen with Steel.

The footage must have come from a TV news crew, maybe one that had found a vantage on a building opposite the park where the battle had taken place. The angle looked down on the clearing between the City Museum and the wooded bike paths to the south.

Professor Terrible's killer machine emerged from behind the museum building. The thing had been huge, as big as the building itself, and made of nearly indestructible titanaloid steel. Built like a tank, it moved on treads that could mow under any obstacles, climb stairs, rumble through water, and adhere to the sides of buildings. It had a dozen appendages bearing blades, laser guns, cannons, rocket launchers, microwave emitters, and sensor and communication arrays. They had assumed that Terrible himself was inside the armored core of the machine, operating it like a tank.

They'd been wrong. Terrible wasn't anywhere near the place. The thing was a robot, set to its most destructive capabilities and let loose in the middle of the city.

Ray--Gamma Ray as he was known and loved by the public--arrived on the scene first. They'd known Terrible was on the move, and he'd happened to be the one investigating the warehouse from which the robot emerged. When he understood the machine's power and the gravity of the situation, Steel had radioed Ray to fall back and wait for support. Ray had disobeyed the order. He didn't want to see the robot trash the museum, as it had seemed bent on doing. Firing blasts of energy from his hands, he managed to distract it. All its sensor dishes and receptors swiveled to focus on him, and Ray led it to the clearing. That was the image Steel watched now: Ray, a tiny bug next to the monster, bracing for an attack.

Ray remembered thinking that if he could just hit a weak spot--find a key sensor, a video receptor, a control antenna--and destroy it with a well-placed blast, the fight would be over. He never doubted that he could beat the thing single-handed.

Then--something had happened. He didn't remember what. The world had gone fuzzy, like bad TV reception. Then, a moment later, he was pacing the Command Room, trying to remember what had happened. He watched the video replay, intensely curious.

On screen, he blasted the thing. Standing braced, visible energy beams--white light, searing with intensity and difficult to look at--blasted from his hands. But they didn't strike the robot's metal skin. The machine had a force field, and the beams deflected, putting a hole in a nearby building and setting a tree on fire. Ray had apparently been ready for this, because he danced out of the way and tried again. The shield seemed automatic, and it had no weaknesses.

In the video, Ray could be seen speaking into his headset, relaying information to Steel. Steel had the audio recording cued up.

"--can keep it distracted, it won't do as much damage!"

Steel's recorded voice shot back angrily, "No, Ray, get out of there. We need to set up a trap. You can't take this thing by yourself!"

"I know that, I'm not going to! I'm just going to keep it busy!"

"Jetstream's on his way, wait for him--"

"Too late!"

The robot brought to bear an appendage that looked like a post hole digger, something designed to drive into the ground, dig, or smash an opponent to dust. Ray was fit, athletic, tough. He dodged the crushing blow when it pounded toward him and kept firing beams at the thing. The monster actually became flustered, flailing its limbs, pivoting to keep Ray in its sights. Jetstream flew into the frame then and became a second insect harassing the metal beast.

Ray moved behind it and blasted the joint of an appendage with one of his beams, hoping to catch him off guard. But the monster was ready for him, and swiveled one of its gadgets into place to block the beam.

It didn't just block the beam. Ray could imagine--could almost remember, even though the memory of this scene had been erased from his mind--the feeling of surprise as the robot collected his own energy beam in a parabolic dish, and fired it back at him.

The beam of radiation caught Gamma Ray directly. He shivered for a moment, his arms flung out, limned in an aura of glowing, white-hot energy. Then, his skin and hair charred and smoking, he flew back, smashed hard against the street, bounced, and rolled, coming to a rest with his back twisted, his limbs wrenched at unnatural angles.

Watching, what was left of Ray observed with detached satisfaction that the suit seemed to hold up to the blast just fine. It wasn't the radiation that killed him, but the force of the fall onto the road. Broken back at least, probably neck as well, and limbs, skull--everything broken.

Mr. Steel leaned on the table, his head bowed, and listened to the rest of the radio chatter. Jetstream reported the whole thing, shouting that Ray was down. Steel kept yelling at him to get Ray out of there, and Jetstream kept saying that it was too late. The panic and desperation in their voices made Ray's heart ache. The others arrived in moments and battled the thing into submission. Gadgeteer struck the final blow by rigging a localized EMP that froze it.

But Ray was already gone.

He'd considered a theory: maybe his reflected blast had only converted his body to some form of conscious energy, that he was somehow still alive and they only had to figure out a way to convert him back to his physical form. But it was right there on screen: he'd left a body. A scorched, shattered, dead body. They'd buried that body.

So now what?

     After dark, after everyone had gone to bed and the computers were left humming and processing surveillance data from all over the world, ready to sound the alarm if need be, Ray tried an experiment.

     He'd use his powers to write his name on the wall of the Command room. They'd come in the next day, see it there, and know he was still alive. Or still around, at least. Then they could work together to figure out how to get him back to a physical form. It had to work. He knew it would work just like he knew he could take on Professor Terrible's machine all by himself. Hell, the blast of radiation would activate the sensors and get the team in here in seconds. Then he wouldn't be alone anymore.

He decided the wall with the hangar doors would be best. It offered the clearest space, and if something went wrong there wasn't any infrastructure behind it to destroy. He'd just blow a hole into the hangar, which was designed to take a beating anyway.

Across the room from the wall, he stood feet apart, legs braced, and rubbed his hands, his ritual of preparation. It was certainly good to be doing something again. He straightened his arms, closed his hands into fists, and thought, now.

Nothing happened.

Usually, he felt a surge of power in his gut. It flowed up his spine like a gust of hot air, burned through his arms, collected in his fists and fired out in a blast of directed energy. Now, he felt no surge. Nothing welled up in him, no power blasted through him.

He'd had that power since he was a teenager. Not having it felt. . .wrong. He felt empty. Insubstantial.

His legs folded under him and he sat down hard. Or pretended to. He was still a matterless form that didn't actually make contact with the floor. That was it, then. His power had died with his body. He really was finished.

     Time passed and confirmed Ray's fears. He didn't sleep, didn't get hungry, cold, hot, or tired. He was permanently wakeful, permanently insubstantial. Timeless.

     He wandered though the team's complex, observing, and alone.

     He tried. He had to be able to do something, or what was the point of even being here? Rattle a doorknob, make the lights flash, anything. If he was still here, there had to be a reason why. Unfinished business or the violence of his death anchored him here. If he could find the reason why, maybe this stupid, truncated existence would end.

But he didn't want to fade away, go to wherever he was supposed to go. Fade off into whatever afterlife waited for someone like him. Or fade into nothing at all.

He wanted to be part of the team again.

He needed a plan. He had to find a way to tell them he was still here. Mr. Steel had the great planning chops on the team. It was why the others deferred to him more often than not. Ray was the spunky comic relief. No wonder he'd been the one to die. More tragic that way, he thought with a huff.

The team had resources. Computers, high-tech vehicles, alien artifacts that might have sensors that could detect unusual energy signatures--his, for example. Maybe he could influence the temperature of a room. He only had to find the thing he could do, then use it to make his presence known.

And since he had all the time in the world, he simply tried everything.

He tried the computers first. He couldn't affect the keyboard to do something simple like type "Hey guys, it's me" on the screen. His fingers skidded over the keys. But if he put his hands on the front panel and leaned, he passed through, into the machine's innards. Then, he was at a loss. If he couldn't type, he certainly couldn't do something like pull out wires and circuit boards to crash the whole thing. In fact, he couldn't feel anything at all. Just the strange, muted sensation he felt every time he tried to touch something solid. Maybe if he thought hard enough, concentrated--sort of like he did when he used his power--he could influence the system on some level.

He closed his eyes and imagined pushing energy through the computer circuits. Pure thought. Ectoplasm. Whatever.

"Hey!" Something shocked him, like a static charge, and he flinched back. But nothing visibly had happened. He lurked in a corner to wait.

Something had happened. When Mr. Steel tried to access the system the next morning, he frowned, tapped at the keys a few times, then called Gadgeteer on the intercom. "Annie? Something's wrong with the computer."

"I'll be right there," she answered.

When she arrived, Steel said, frustrated, "I can't access the archive."

She only had to fiddle with the system a moment, her head stuck under the very panel Ray had pushed his ghostly hands through, before she emerged victorious.

"Just had a burn-out in one of the processor's circuits," she said cheerfully. Ray was a little sad that she'd returned to her chipper self so quickly after his death. Had it been quickly? How many days--weeks--had it been? He hadn't kept track. He couldn't tell. She continued, "I'll replace it and everything'll be all right."

And it was all right, and no one gave it a second thought.

When Jetstream made pasta for supper, Ray stuck his face in the steam over the pot of boiling water. He had this idea that maybe the shape of his head would form in the mist. One of the women would look over and scream in surprise, but then one of them--Gadgeteer, probably--would recognize him. Then they could all work together to figure out how to get him out of this predicament.

But it didn't happen like that. He held himself over the pot, and the steam wafted in a new pattern for a moment. No more so than it would have if someone had opened the door and let in a draft. No one noticed that the steam moved without a draft.

He couldn't do more to the team's equipment than short out a circuit or two. He could access the closet of alien artifacts, and he even made one of them ping by holding his hand inside it for a minute, but his teammates attributed it to an electrical quirk.

Despairing, he invaded his teammates' privacy. Namely, Gadgeteer's.

Late at night, he sat by her bed. Even in the dark he could see clearly. Technical journals and schematics lay spread over her comforter. Occasionally one slid off when she shifted or turned over. A glass of water, an intercom, and a couple of half-dismantled gadgets of undetermined purpose sat on the night stand. Then her. She was even cute asleep, wearing an oversized T-shirt, curled up under the covers, hugging her pillow, her hair splayed around her. She frowned a little.

What the hell was he doing here? Then it occurred to him: that's exactly what this was. Whatever he'd done, no matter how much he'd tried to fight for what was good and right, no matter how much he'd tried to follow Mr. Steel's example, his faults came out in the end, and he'd landed in Hell. He'd watch his team, his friends, forever, and not be able to help them. Not be able to do anything.

"I'm sorry, Annie," he said softly. "I don't even know why. I'm sorry I never said anything. That I never told you how I feel about you. I'm sorry I got myself killed. I've been trying to find a way to tell you. To tell you everything. But I guess it's too late. But I miss you. I just wanted to tell you that. Even if you can't hear."

He reached out to smooth a strand of hair from her face. Didn't affect the hair at all, of course. But he sensed something. A change in the sensation on his fingertips, an anomaly in the air. He felt more than a little creepy doing it. Here he was, watching her sleep, and she didn't even know it. Now he wasn't just dead, he was a pervert. Maybe he belonged in Hell.

She turned, lifting her head, and her brow wrinkled. "Ray?"

Ray pulled his hands away and stood back. His heart should have been pounding. If he still had a heartbeat.

She was still asleep, he was sure of it. Her eyes were closed, her body still snugged under the covers, her face still crinkled in that pursed, thoughtful look, like she was in the middle of a dream. Maybe it was just a dream.

Then, in her sleep, dreaming, she brushed her hand across her cheek, right where his hand had been. "Ray," she whispered.

"Annie?" She was just having a dream. It was only a dream.

He knelt by her bed and touched her hand like he would have if he was alive. Like he should have when he was alive. A light touch, fingers brushing along her wrist until his hand lay alongside hers, their fingers twining.

And he felt something. Her warmth pressing against him. Her hand moved, her fingers shifting against his, and he felt the pressure of it. Somehow, by some cosmic weirdness, they were holding hands.

"I miss you, Ray," she murmured, then sighed as she sank deeper into sleep.

"Oh, Annie."

     The next morning, she looked a mess when she came to breakfast. She stuck her hair in a pony tail without brushing it, still wore the T-shirt she'd slept in, with sweatpants and bare feet. Shadows made her eyes look sunken.

Ray stood back and watched. He couldn't take his eyes off her.

Tessa asked, "Annie, are you okay?"

"I'm fine. I didn't sleep very well," she answered.

"Any reason why?"

"Thinking. You know. Still thinking of Ray."

Sitting around the kitchen table, the others nodded in understanding, heads bowed.

Staring at her empty plate, Gadgeteer continued. "It's like I can still feel him. Like he's looking over my shoulder. Like he's still here. It's felt that way since the funeral."

Ray gaped. He knew it, he knew he had to have some influence and wasn't just floating around here.

"Why haven't you said anything?" Ray said. No one heard. But he was hopeful, for the first time since the funeral. He rushed to kneel by her chair and put his hand over hers, where it rested on the table.

"We all feel like that," Steel said.

"No." She shook her head. "I mean last night, I could have sworn he was right there. Like he's not really gone. I just. . .I don't know." She stared at her hand--his hand. Like she could feel him touching her.

"Please, Annie," he whispered, all his attention turned on her. "Please, believe it. You can figure this out, I know you can." His insubstantial flesh looked solid to his own eyes, but the edges where his hand folded over hers seemed vague, until he couldn't tell where the lines of his hand ended and hers began. He could speak to her, contact her. He knew it. "Please."

The others watched her as a look came into her eyes--a focused, thoughtful expression. Her inventing look, Ray always called it. It meant the problem she was working on would soon be solved. She'd pulled them out of so many scrapes in the past.

She glanced to her left, where he knelt beside her. Almost like she could see him. Maybe she could.

"I have an idea," she said, and rushed away from the table to her workshop. Ray watched her go and wanted to laugh.

He grinned at the others. "I knew it. I knew she'd figure it out. You just wait, you'll see."

The other four team members sat in awkward silence, stealing glances at one another. Finally, Mr. Steel said, "I hadn't realized how much it's affected her. I thought she was doing all right."

Tessa said, "She loved him, you know. Never said a word about it, but she did."

Cheetah looked up. "Did he--"

"I think so," Jetstream said. "I'm pretty sure he did."

"I did," Ray said. "Of course I did. I was just too stupid--"

"Is she all right?" Steel said. "Because if she isn't, I'll take her off duty. I don't want her getting hurt."

"No, you idiot!" Ray said, just like the old days, like he always argued with Steel when they were sitting around this very table. "She's doing her thing, fixing problems. She's fine."

Tessa shook her head. "I think that would make it worse. This is all she has now."

Tessa was always the smart one, the real brains behind the outfit. Ray leaned on the table next to her. "Listen to her. Let Annie work!"

Steel sighed. "All right. But I want everyone to keep an eye on her. If you see anything that seems wrong, let me know."

Ray rushed after Gadgeteer.

Her workshop was a marvelous chaos. The size of a three-car garage, it barely had enough open space to walk across it. She managed to keep pathways clear between various supply cabinets and work areas. Gadgets as large as car engines sat shoved in corners, dismantled. Three tables were covered with smaller devices, all in various states of repair. Boxes with dials sticking out of them and wires trailing away were everywhere. Scorch marks painted the ceiling and walls in a couple of places, results of some less successful experiments. A blow torch, arc welder, a lathe, a band saw, soldering gear, and other machines Ray couldn't identify made up the heavy equipment. But in the end, give Gadgeteer a pair of nail clippers and a coil of dental floss, she'd create a device that could move the world.

She was already working, searching through bins on a set of shelves, pulling out wires and transistors, dials and other, less identifiable electronic detritus. She piled the supplies on one of the work benches, then strapped on her tool belt and got to work.

"Ray, I don't know if you're really here. . .Geez, what if this is all in my head? I'm going crazy. Maybe this is all wishful thinking and I've gone completely crazy. Ray, I don't know if you can hear me. . .but if I have gone completely crazy, I'm blaming you. I mean really, leave it to you to get creamed by your own radiation blast." She actually smiled.

So did Ray. He stood on the other side of the work bench. "Hey, I apologized for that already."

"I know you didn't mean to. Nobody could have seen that coming. But you know what I mean."

"I think I do," he said. It was easier to blame somebody: Professor Terrible's killer robot, Jetstream for not getting there in time, Steel for not having a good game plan. Hell, he could blame Gadgeteer for not stopping the robot in time. But he wouldn't. In the end, he'd been the one in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just one of those things. In this line of work, he couldn't expect to live forever.

She didn't hear him, didn't respond. But it didn't matter.

He watched her work. A few hours into the project, Mr. Steel stopped by. "Annie? I just wanted to check in. Make sure you're okay."

"Can't talk, working," she said in a monotone, without turning around. Steel left, looking worried, and Ray wanted to throttle him. Didn't he recognize her when she was at her best?

As she often did when she was working, she forgot to eat and fell asleep at the work bench, slumped over, head resting on folded arms, screwdriver still clutched in her hand. She was sleeping when Tessa brought her a sandwich. She set the plate down and lightly touched Gadgeteer's hair. "Poor kid," she murmured, then started to turn away.

Ray was waiting for her. He grabbed her wrist, or tried to. As always happened, matter became slippery and uncertain under his touch. She passed right through him. But she paused, shivered, and rubbed her arm, the very spot he'd touched.

"She's right, Tessa," Ray said. "Listen to her. I'm still here. I'm right here."

Tessa shook her head and walked away.

     She hadn't invited the rest of the team to watch the test of the pair of model devices she'd built, but they came anyway. They all wanted to see what she'd been up to for the last week of tinkering. They all had a look of pity in their eyes.

     She explained the devices. "Theoretically, a ghost should leave some kind of trace on the environment. Radiation, a psychokinetic trail, something. So, it's just a matter of building a sensor sensitive enough to detect the smallest trace of such evidence."

     "Haven't people already tried this?" Jetstream said. "There've been ghost hunters doing this sort of thing for ages."

     "But they're not me, are they?" she said, smiling. "This one, I've programmed using the last EEG reading taken of Ray's brain. If that pattern still exists, is still active, it should find it. The second I've programmed with the spectrographic signature of his energy beams. It's unique to him. If he's here, any part of him, then that signature should be here too."

     They looked like any of a dozen gadgets she'd created over the years. Small, square, metallic, definitely not pretty to look at. They tended to look jury-rigged and vaguely unreliable, with multi-colored wires looping out of them and mismatched buttons. These each connected to a remote control with an LCD screen. She pointed the first one toward an open space and switched it on. The screen on the remote lit up; that was all. Only Ray heard her murmur, "Please, help me out with this."

     He stood right in front of the sensor. He stood far away. He jumped up and down, waved his arms, shouted. Gadgeteer stared at the screen like she might develop laser eyes and bore a hole through it. But nothing happened. She picked up the device, aiming it in one hand, holding the remote in the other, and walked around the room, sweeping it back and forth, a ghost-hunting Geiger counter. Ray kept in front of it the whole time, even gripping the machine--at least as much as he could in this state. Still nothing.

     Jaw set, Gadgeteer put the first device aside and switched on the second one. No one said anything; the tension in the room was brittle. No one wanted to be the one to tell her she was crazy to think this would work.

     "Come on, come on," Ray muttered. "Work, dammit!"

     But this was the device designed to read his radiation blast signature. He no longer had that power. He had no reason to think it would detect him without it.

     Again, not a click, not a blip, nothing. When Gadgeteer set the sensor back on the table, her hands were shaking.

     Tessa tried to sound comforting. "Annie, I know you miss him, we all do, but--"

     "Don't--just don't even start," she said, her voice low.

     Ray was desperate. "Annie, don't give up, please. Come on, I'm right here, you know it! You'll find a way to prove it!"

     He touched her hands where they covered the device. And something happened. A faint run of static sounded from the sensor, and the screen on the remote flashed green. Gadgeteer froze. Hand in hand, just like they had been the other night, they stood, and the sensor hissed his presence.

     She glanced up, and they met each other's gazes. At least, he imagined they did.

     "Did you see that?" she said.

     "What's it mean?" Steel asked.

     "It's detected a trace of Ray's radiation burst!"

     "Where?"

     "I don't know." She picked up the sensor and started moving. Ray backed away, and the static and activity on the screen stopped. Gadgeteer shook the machine.

     "What happened?" Jetstream said.

     "I don't know."

     Ray had a suspicion. The sensor by itself wasn't enough. Him by himself wasn't enough. Slowly, she panned the device over the space by the work bench. He stood next to her and held the device with her, as much as he could. His hands, her hands, both over the machine, making contact. That was the key, he was sure of it.

     Again the device gave off a signal.

     Gadgeteer laughed. "It's working! He's here! I told you!"

     Then, something else happened. They both saw it because they were both staring at the device. Gadgeteer watched the sensors, and Ray was watching their hands--which had started to glow.

     "Annie, what's that?" Steel had donned his commanderly voice. It happened whenever he confronted something he didn't understand, that he thought was dangerous.

     "I don't know," Gadgeteer said, watching the glow, a white light that surrounded both their hands and the device. "Maybe the sensor is overheating. He must be really close."

     Right beside you, Ray thought. Holding you. He recognized that silver, super-hot glow. It was part of him. "No, Annie," he said by her ear. "It's not the sensor doing this."

     He felt the familiar surge, the well of power growing in him, ready to be released. But now, he felt it through her. He still had the power--but he needed someone else's life to energize it. Hers.

     "Okay Annie, hold on, here it goes!" He stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her, held her hands in his, and braced. Just like before, just like the old days, he felt the power surge through him, and her. The energy collected in her hands and blasted away from them, a burst of light that struck the steel wall on the other side of the workshop.

     They stared at the blackened, smoking space on the wall, where part of the metal had melted, dripping to the floor.

     "Holy. . ." Jetstream muttered, trailing off.

"That machine, it's duplicating Ray's powers," Steel said.

"No, that's what I've been trying to tell you. It's Ray. He's here!" She was both crying and smiling. She put down the device and offered her hands. Ray cupped them in his, and they glowed. They'd practice, she'd get the hang of it. And he was back in the game.

"Oh, Ray," Tessa said.

"It's great to be back," Ray answered. Gadgeteer laughed. The glow in her hands reflected back to her face. Maybe she'd even learn to hear him, one of these days.

Then the alarm rang.

Steel rushed to the networked computer terminal in the workshop and called up the report. Full of determination, he reported to the others. "Zombies are attacking the city power plant."

Jetstream said, "Good timing. Ray's powers always worked great against zombies."

"Annie," Steel said. "Can you handle it? Can he handle it?"

"Yes yes yes," Ray said. "Of course we can!"

"Yes sir," Gadgeteer said. "I think we can."

"Then let's move it!"

When Gadgeteer raced for the hangar with the others, Ray was right beside her.

This story originally appeared in Better Off Undead, 2008.


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After the Golden Age

The only daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the world's greatest superheroes, Celia West has no powers of her own. When her parents' archenemy, the Destructor, faces justice in the "Trial of the Century," Celia finds herself sucked back into the more-than-mortal world of Captain Olympus―and forced to confront a secret that she hoped would stay buried forever.

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Carrie Vaughn

Award-winning, bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Carrie Vaughn digs into her archives for stories and treasure.