From the Ashes
by Adrien-Luc Sanders
Sociopath. Killer. Deviant. Monster, devoid of morals, incapable of human emotion. The villain known as Spark has been called that and more, and as a super-powered aberrant has masterminded countless crimes to build his father’s inhuman empire.
Yet to professor Sean Archer, this fearsome creature is only Tobias Rutherford—antisocial graduate researcher, quiet underachiever, and a fascinating puzzle Sean is determined to solve.
One kiss leads to an entanglement that challenges everything Tobias knows about himself, aberrants, and his own capacity to love. But when his father orders him to assassinate a senator, one misstep unravels a knot of political intrigue that places the fate of humans and aberrants alike in Tobias’s hands. As danger mounts and bodies pile deeper, will Tobias succumb to his dark nature and sacrifice Sean—or will he defy his father and rise from the ashes to become a hero in a world of villains?
Title: From the Ashes (Fires of Redemption, #1)
Anthology: Holding Out for a Hero
Author: Adrien-Luc Sanders
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Length: 157 pages
Release Date: September 2012
Imprint: Ever Afters
© 2012 Adrien-Luc Sanders
I am not my father.
I tell myself that every day. No matter how many people I hurt, no matter how many I kill, no matter how many nations I topple beneath the crushing fist of tyranny, I am not my father.
I’m only his shadow.
My name is Tobias, but he calls me Spark. I suppose it’s a fitting name for the son and second in command of the world’s most feared villain, the Lord High General Infernus Blaze. Yeah. I know. Some name. If I had a choice, I’d call him Michael. Or just Dad. But he prefers Blaze—and if he’s the flame, I’m only a glimmering reflection of his glory.
After twenty-five years, I should be used to being a sidekick. I grew up following in my father’s wake. When he conquered Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, I stood at his side. While he set loose his flame and burned them to the ground, I watched. In my earliest memory, he stands wreathed in embers and hellish smoke, his eyes alight with rage and madness, while Bangkok crumbles around us. I was nine. Nine years old when I understood my purpose, and my place in this world.
The humans make villains of us, Spark. They fear us. They hate us.
Borders flaked to ash amidst the screams of the dying, uniting destroyed nations into the foundation of his empire. Those who lived, served. It wasn’t a choice.
We will show them hatred. We will show them fear. We will give them the villains they crave.
Under his orders, I took Laos. The country fell to me alone. They called me a thunder god descended from the heavens in a chariot of lightning, yet it was still his victory. It was always his victory.
Only then, my son, will we rule this world.
I thought I’d escape it if I went to graduate school in the States. I’m studying for my Master’s in Biogenetic Science at UC Berkeley. I want to know what makes people like me and my father different. I want to know if it’s true that we’re predisposed to go bad—that it’s encoded in our genes, a hardwired mental disorder that gives rise to these powers. That there’s no changing us. No treatment for our diseased minds. No variant on our deviant genetics that might offer hope for something different. Sometimes I think there is no hope.
No hope for us to be anything but monsters.
They call us aberrants. Aberrant genetics. Aberrant psychology. We are sociopaths, psychopaths, sadists, freaks—a sickness of the worst kind, rejected by man and nature alike. They fear our power, but our power isn’t what’s truly frightening.
You know the old saying: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s not true. We corrupt the power. We use it to destroy, to wreak terrible punishment on the species that gave birth to us. It’s no surprise the humans hate us.
No one here knows I’m an aberrant, at least. No one knows I hurt people, break people, kill people. No one, not even the other grad students, has a clue that quiet, antisocial Tobias Rutherford is Spark. Neither does Dr. Langdon, the head research scientist in the Biogenetics Department. Dr. Langdon is the one thing standing between me and my pre-doctoral qualification. Without his approval, no PhD candidacy—which is why I spend my evenings slaving in his lab, sorting slides and listening to him preach about curing the monstrosities of aberrant genetics. He calls me his research assistant. I think he confuses “research assistant” with “indentured servant.”
Yeah. Even here, I’m just a sidekick.
Langdon’s on the warpath today. Pacing the lab, talking to himself in that high, weasely voice, his head bobbing on his thin neck like a stork hunting for frogs. He stares down at his own reflection, which grimaces up at him from the glossy, pale grey tiles.
“I don’t understand it. All the pieces are there, but the carrier continuously destabilizes after propagation and I—I—” He moans and drags his hand through his hair. A few strands come loose in his fingers. “I can’t present this before the Board. They’ll laugh me out of the department and give the grant to that asshole Brady.”
Without lifting my head from the fluorescent microscope, I murmur, “Maybe there’s an unknown autoimmune element. It only takes one trigger to wipe out the carrier before it can deliver the payload.”
His frigid stare practically peels the skin from the back of my head. He clucks his tongue. “If you have time to theorize, you have time to run the comparisons from last year’s transgenic mouse trials.”
“Already done.” I slide off my stool, shrug out of my lab coat, strip my latex gloves, and drop them in the bin. “And I’ve run comparative analyses on today’s slides.”
When I brush my fingers over the tray of dated slides, I let slip a small burst of electrical current—not even an amp, invisible to the human eye, but enough to rupture the cell walls on the samples. It’s easy this time, thanks to the conductive quartz slides used in ultraviolet fluorescence microscopy. Using fluorescent elements lets us track modified viral RNA, which acts as a carrier to insert corrective genes into the cells of transgenic mice modified with aberrant human DNA. The glass slides used in other tests are harder to tamper with.
“This batch looks like a bust,” I say. “The carrier’s too aggressive, and it’s still propagating after cell penetration. The cells all burst after first-stage replication.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rutherford. I wasn’t aware you were running this lab.”
“Of course not, Doctor. I spoke out of turn. I’m sorry.” I scoop up my backpack. “I’m late for my evening class.”
Langdon flicks his spidery fingers at me. “Fine, whatever. Just get out.”
I suppress my smile and, weaving through rows of narrow tables and equipment, slip out of the lab. Even here I’m still doing my father’s work, but in this case I don’t mind. I may not like being my father’s shadow, but I’d never help a human exterminate my kind. We’re born the way we are. We can’t help it. There has to be some middle ground, and if I can, I’ll find it before people like Dr. Langdon unleash a “cure” that will kill us all.
My in-ear headset rings as I clatter down the stairs. “Hi, Dad.” It’s on my tongue to call him Blaze, and it tastes bitter. But I’m in public, and sound carries. The last thing I need is for some pimply undergrad to overhear me talking to the leading contestant on America’s Next Top Psychotic Dictator.
His voice is deep, almost soothing. Maybe that’s why aberrants flock to his cause. It’s hard to imagine that voice as evil. He plays the benevolent shepherd too well, sheltering society’s loathsome rejects in his love. Promising a safe haven where they can be free of human persecution. Vowing to give them the strength to fight for their rights. It’s a good message, in theory. In reality the execution is a bit more bloody and despotic, but even I still buy into the cult sometimes. Too many memories, I guess. When I was a kid, I thought that warmth was real.
“Any progress?” he asks.
“Minor sabotage. Langdon hasn’t unearthed anything worrisome, but I’d rather keep him stalled.”
“That’s likely best. At the moment, though, I need to reposition you. While Langdon’s research is a concern, I have better use for you elsewhere.”
I stop at the foot of the steps, gripping the cool metal bar of the door. Through the slit of a window I can see the night outside, dark and defined by blue shadows. “Where?”
“New York. I’d like you to deal with a certain senator.”
I glance over my shoulder. The stairwell is empty, but I drop my voice anyway. “If I assassinate a political figure, I’ll be exposed. I thought the point was for me to stay in deep cover.”
“The point is for you to be my presence in America, and to act on my behalf. I need you in New York. Maintaining your cover shouldn’t be an issue.”
“I can’t transfer now. It’s nearly the end of the semester. It’ll look too suspicious, and there aren’t any universities in New York with an equivalent to my degree program.”
“Once you’ve finished there, you’ll come back here. I don’t see any point in remaining overseas for your education when we have perfectly competent scientific personnel here. You’re old enough to be out of school and doing something with your life.”
Of course. As long as that “something” is helping him dominate the world at large. I grit my teeth. “Is that an order, sir?”
His voice hardens. “It is. I’ll have the necessary data sent to your email. Is your connection encrypted?”
“New algorithm every thirty seconds.”
“I’ll expect an update soon.”
“Sure. You know me. Ever faithful.”
I hang up and lean against the door. It figures. The moment I get settled in and start to make a life for myself, he uproots it for the sake of his grand plan. Not that “burn everything standing” is much of a plan.
Not that I have much of a life, either.
I drive home to an empty apartment, an echoing and sterile space that looks like a show home for some jet-setting socialite. No roommate. No friends. No boyfriend. I don’t even live on campus.
I can’t afford to let anyone too close. One casual slip and it’s over. My first year in the States, a lab assistant caught me using my powers to interface with the campus intranet and access Dr. Langdon’s personnel files, class schedule, and records of his grant applications. Hiding the corpse wasn’t easy. Harder still was removing the fingerprints, and the teeth. The face was already burned well beyond recognition.
I’ve had to do the same to two others. Kalen was the worst. I’d met him through Debbie, who’d been my mentor in the Biogenetics program. Nice girl. Had a girlfriend, Patricia or something. Debbie had been smart. Smart enough to keep me on my toes in the lab. Smart enough to start to figure me out. I’d been dating Kalen for a few months by then. At first I didn’t understand why he’d started behaving so strangely.
Then the questions started. The kind of probing, analytical questions Kalen wouldn’t think to ask. He’d been sweet, but not very bright. It didn’t take me long to figure out Debbie was behind the interrogation. Debbie suspected me and was using Kalen for information.
At that point, I’d had to get rid of them both.
Sleeping with a human had been a mistake, no matter how short-lived. Letting down my guard, though? Sheer idiocy. Naïveté.
You can be damned sure I wasn’t that stupid when disposing of the bodies.
I’d rather not have to do that again. It’s more difficult to deal with when I don’t have the mask, the identity of Spark, to hide behind. I don’t like seeing their faces, instead of just a wave of bodies collapsing at my feet. It’s hard not to remember the look in Kalen’s eyes, when I killed him in the same bed where we’d made love the night before.
The day after, I’d felt like I should cry. Should miss him, with his weird little habits and the way he looked ten years old when his face lit up in that stupid smile. Something. Anything.
I’d lied to Langdon about my evening class. Ethics of Transgenic Animal Testing, taught by one Dr. Sean Archer, and officially cancelled for the night. Something about Archer being sick. I’d overheard my classmates planning a San Francisco beach trip. I hadn’t been invited. I hadn’t expected to be.
Frankly, I’d rather be in class. The subject of ethics itself bores me—tedious human morality, people desperately grasping at anything to convince themselves they aren’t animals. Instead, I spend the lectures listening to Archer without really hearing him. He’s from Manchester, and that cultured British lilt to his otherwise rough, gravelly voice tends to hypnotize me. The voice shouldn’t fit him so well. It’s the voice of a large man, a dangerous man. Archer, while tall and broad-shouldered, is lean and bookish and almost too pretty.
The only thing dangerous about him is his eyes. He has sly eyes, a green so pale it’s almost white. Those eyes always find me the moment I’ve zoned out and lost track of the discussion topic. He’s embarrassed me in class more times than I can count.
Maybe I should be glad class is cancelled.
By the time I swap slacks for jeans and settle on the couch with my laptop, my email is already overflowing with messages from my father’s aide, Jeremy. I open the files and skim through. Senator Rick Cranston, New York, landslide winner of the 2014 Congressional election. So he just took office last year; interesting. If he’s made himself a threat already, he’s probably young. Ambitious. Arrogant.
Arrogant men are easy to kill. They make more blind mistakes, confident they won’t fail.
Someone’s compiled a book’s worth of information on the Senator’s daily routine, hobbies, voting history, even a few things the press would pay millions to know. It would be easier if I could just turn him over to TMZ and let the vultures do the dirty work for me, but Dad’s out for blood.
There are photos, too. Healthy tan, full head of hair, surgically perfect smile. Dad must have an inside informant, to get all this. Too bad he doesn’t have his informants do the dirty work, especially if they’re human. With my style of wetwork, there’s usually no doubt an aberrant was involved—which will only incite retaliation, in the end.
But that’s probably what Dad wants. Fuel for his fire.
The last file is the most incriminating. New legislation on aberrants, proposing we be stripped of our rights and treated as illegal aliens. The bill includes huge budget grants to turn federal Immigration and Naturalization Services into an anti-aberrant force capable of containing us and expelling us from the country. Typical. Kill it, or make it someone else’s problem.
There’s even an outline for a research facility. The words Quarantine Zone and Treatment Center practically vibrate off the page.
Quarantine. Treatment. Lock us up. Experiment. Cure us. Make us normal, or manipulate our genes for their own benefit. Aberrants are just the new transgenic mice, caged by human rats.
I set the laptop on the coffee table. The clink against the glass brings Samadhi running from the bedroom; she always thinks it’s her food dish. She’s big even for a Maine Coone, a silver tabby cream puff, and she waddles when she walks. With a mewl, she noses my foot, struggles up onto the couch, and makes herself very uncomfortable in my lap. Grunting, I shift her until I can breathe, then run my fingers through her fur.
“Well, my tubby little Buddha,” I murmur. “Looks like I’m going to New York.”
I’m not moving, or transferring schools. Dad can go to hell. Semester break is coming soon. Christmas, the busiest travel season of the year. It won’t seem strange if I take a vacation over break.
It won’t even be hard to travel under a false identity. Dad has front corporations on top of front corporations scattered throughout the country. His fingers are in everything. If he can turn his Thailand-born son into a third-generation Thai American citizen with family in Georgia, he can turn me into a foreign tourist long enough to fly to New York, assassinate a senator, and fly back to California.
Samadhi sticks her damp nose into my cheek. I scratch under her chin. “At least I know someone loves me, as long as I feed you.”
It’s too bad she can’t talk back. There’s never anyone to talk back. This apartment is too big for one person, too big for just me and one oversized cat. It’s too quiet, too dark, yet filled with the whispers of a thousand secrets I can never tell. They’re in every corner, every shadow. A murder here. A massacre there. The enslavement of an entire country, and worse. Worse in my past, and worse to come.
I am not my father, but I am indeed my father’s son—and we are villains in a world without heroes.
I need to get away. Away from the apartment, away from its secrets. It’s too bad I can’t get away from myself. Too bad I can’t truly be the son my father wants me to be and turn my back on the human race. Life would be easier if I didn’t wonder. If I didn’t think, sometimes, that maybe we were meant for something more.