It was over in an instant.
But then it began again.
As the flames surrounded me, I felt not the agonizing bubbling welts that signified my flesh being torn from my bones, nor the lack of sensation that would indicate the loss of my nervous system to the flames. I didn’t even feel the rolling waves of heat I knew must exist as I died. I felt warm, but not in the sense “felt” implies. It wasn’t as if the flame was warming me. Nor was it as if I was warmed from the inside out. Rather, it felt as if I had become the flames themselves, and had merged with the great expanse of pure energy surrounding me.
It was that realization that prompted me to open my eyes.
I didn’t see what I expected to.
Then again, I didn’t see anything surprising by comparison.
That’s because, you see, I didn’t see anything at all. I quickly realized that I couldn’t do anything, least of all open my eyelids. Then it hit me.
I didn’t have any eyelids to open.
I was dead.
A host of new questions sprung up at that realization. “How could I be dead!?” “Why was I killed!?” “If I’m dead, why am I still here!?” I mentally tossed and turned, trying to make heads or tails of the situation. I tried to move my arms. Nothing. Of course not. Why would I expect any different, not being able to even blink. I tried to thrash around, to scream, to no avail.
“Only me and my thoughts,” I surmised. As a last attempt, I tried to make use of my other senses. Feeling, smelling, hearing. None responded.
“Now what?” I asked myself.
“Concentrate,” responded someone who was definitely not myself.
I mentally screamed, “Who–no, what–no, where are you? Where am I? What the hell is happening to me!!”
“All in due time,” the voice, which I quickly realized was the same PA announcer from earlier, responded.
“NO! I want some fucking answers, right no–” my voice was cut off, no, silenced, all at once. There was a long moment of silence as that fact was given ample time to sink in. She could control my thoughts. I could still think, but there were no mental words accompanying the statements. “All in due time,” the voice repeated. “For now, take my advice. Concentrate. Focus on seeing through your energy, not your body. After all, you don’t have one to use anymore, and you might never have one again if you refuse to listen to me.
Suitably motivated, I tried to follow her instructions. As someone with an energy based power, minor as it was, I understood the basics of feeling one’s inner energy. I imagined taking a deep breath, settling into a trance of sorts, and began to turn my gaze inwards, if one could go further in than their own mind.
Realization struck me at once.
“I–I’m not dead!?” I exclaimed.
“No. At least, not entirely. Your body is dead, certainly, but your mind, and-more importantly-your spirit still lives on.”
“But…” I stuttered. “How? How am I still alive, even partially? And how are you communicating with me? I don’t have a brain, let alone ears!” “Alive? Well, that’s debatable. As for how we’re communicating, the organization I work for has access to people with all kinds of powers. Mine happens to involve communicating with spirits, which you qualify as.”
“Why!?” I let a rush of emotion take me, and shouted all at once: “Why did you turn me into a ghost!? Why did it have to be me!? Why did it have to be anyone!? Why!?”
“One moment.” I heard a sound akin to a chair being pushed away from a desk, and a door opening, then slamming shut.
“Just tell me what I have to do to leave this place,” I slurred weakly.
“There’s the magic words!” Rather than the mental thoughts of before, an image of a gruff, burly man appeared before me.
“Uh…hello?” I tried.
“Hello,” the man agreed. “Congratulations on your survival.”
“Thanks, I guess…could you please tell me how I can get out of here? Where is here, for that matter?
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re dying for some answers.” The man rolled his eyes. “Well, allow me to deliver. We just got the ok from higher up, so I’m be pleased to inform you. I’ll even help you form a new body, though that will have to wait until after we’ve reached an understanding. Don’t want you going off and testing your new powers on us after we’ve been so generous, putting our careers on the line for you.”
“Hold on, hold on! New powers? New body!?”
“That’s right.” He grinned. “Not only can I help you make an entirely new body, but master the first few powers we’ve unlocked for you. You’ll gain more over time, but we can discuss that later. For now, we should talk introductions.” He stuck out a hand. I am the head scientist Victor Dee. I’ve had the pleasure of orchestrating the little scenario we find ourselves in now.”
“So, you’re the reason I was burnt to a crisp and disembodied?” I yelled.
Slow down, slow down! You’ll see, the benefits far out way the pain and risk you endured. Just give me a chance, and I promise everything will work out.”
I scowled, but nevertheless stuck out my hand.
The man responded with a hearty chuckle, and I realized my blunder: I still had no body, even in my mind.
“No matter, we’ll solve that soon enough. To start, I’ll let you in on exactly what kind of program this is. We, that is, me and my fellow colleagues, like to refer to ourselves as S.H.E.L.L. That is, the Super Human Expropriation and Liberation League. We focus on capturing, enhancing, and yes, liberating powered individuals like yourself. Particularly, we try and focus on those with powers that harbor great potential, but due to some mishap or too of the dice, fell short of being great.”
“Yeah, I’d say that sums my life up pretty well. Heat and energy manipulation at the cost of rapidly burning my stamina. But then, you already knew that.”
The man smiled knowingly. “Yes, we have been keeping track of you for some time now. The long and short of it is, we saw how close your power came to being quite a contender, and frankly, your tendency to disappear for weeks at a time made you a prime target. I’m sorry to say, we took advantage of that with little restraint.”
“Hey, as long as I get another body, become stronger as a result, and don’t have a debt hung over my head, I’m happy. So what sort of new powers can I expect?”
“We tested most to make sure they worked while you were still unconscious, so I can guarantee this: you now have the ability to drain and store energy from your environment, meaning you don’t have to consume your own energy in order to use your power anymore. Better yet, you don’t need to fear about running yourself dry anymore: whenever you get close to using up all your energy, you’ll start to absorb all the energy within about a 5 meter radius around you, until you’re completely topped off. Speaking of which, be careful: we couldn’t increase the maximum amount of energy you can contain at once, try as we might.”
“Sounds like a minor drawback compared to all of the improvements,” I said.
“It is, at that.” Victor grimaced, clearly upset. “Still, I wish we could have found a way. Regardless, there’s still one more thing you should know.”
“Fire away. I doubt it can be much more shocking.”
“You’d be surprised.” A length of string appeared in his hands, which he absentmindedly began winding and unwinding around his fingers. “I still haven’t told you how you got in the situation you’re in now.”
I laughed. “I doubt it could be too strange in comparison.”
“You’d be surprised,” Dr. Dee said with a frown on his face. “I’ll just go ahead and tell you–there’s no way this will come easily. As soon as you exceed your maximum capacity for energy, your body will break down spontaneously.”
Victor twiddled his thumbs and began again with a sigh. “If you absorb too much energy, you’ll disintegrate. If you absorb more than that, you’ll explode. Completely. No one knows how long it will last- the last time, when we simply dropped you into fire, it only took a hour or two. It took almost three weeks when we set off a bomb next to you, and a full month after you were struck by lightning.”
I gulped. “So what do I do if I end up like this again? What do I do now, since I’m currently in that situation and all?”
“I take it we’ve reached an understanding then?” Victor questioned.
“Yeah, you could say that,” I replied.
“Good. I’ll keep it clear and simple. You are not under any further obligation to help us, or even have anything to do with us. Hell, we won’t be angry, even if you directly oppose us. Have fun with your new powers. Try finding a worthy opponent and making them your rival.”
“Sounds like I’m going to have a lot of fun.” I said with a laugh.
“Anyway, let’s get you out of here. If you wish to help us, then make sure to find your way to any if our members. Remember, S.H.E.L.L. Is the organization, and Crawfish is the password.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Unoriginal, I know, but hey, we use what works. Anyway, we know you can form a new body, we just don’t know where it all appear. It could quite honestly appear anywhere. Try not to get yourself killed if you appear at the bottom of the Pacific ocean.”
“Lovely thought.” I muttered, mostly to myself.
Now, if you’re ready to go?
“This is going to be quite similar to how we allowed you to picture your surroundings through your energy.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve even got that part down.”
“It will come in time. Just remember to focus on your own inner energy, not your kindle body. Speaking of which, try doing that now.”
Almost as soon as I began I could see not only the blurry mass of energy that was my mind and spirit, but the all white laboratory room from earlier, minus the flames.
“This is working much better than it did earlier.”
“Like I said, all the skills you need will come in time. Next, focus on the body you want to be placed in. It doesn’t have to be human, you know.”
I gave him a shocked look. Or at least I tried.
“You can form your body out of basically any materials, so long as whatever you create can support life,” he repeated.
“I think I’ll steer clear from trying that, given how little I know of anatomy.”
He nodded. “Wise decision. I was just making you aware. You may have to use that ability, someday.”
I shuddered, and began to picture a body as close to mine as I could remember: harder than you might expect, given his little you see your own face, your own back. Still, after I had a firm picture of my old self, complete with muscle growth and, after a moments thought, better arches on my feet, calluses on my hands on case I ever got back to rowing, and even ones on my fingertips in case I ever learned to play the guitar.
“I see you figured that last part out quickly.”
I chuckled. “You could say that, yeah.”
“Alright then. This is where we part ways. I hope to see you soon.”
“We’ll see,” I said softly, before giving Victor my attention one last time.
“Focus on compressing your energy into that body. Don’t miss even a little of your life force, or you may lose limbs on top of years from your life.”
I gulped, and began the process.
Slowly, I imagined all my energy coming together, slowly, into the center of the body and then spreading out slowly, like clay in a mold. As the last of my energy filled in, my eyes-yes, I had eyes again-were filled with a powerul bright light, and my ears detected a loud, high pitched whistling. It grew steadily louder and louder, until finally I felt my entire body smack into a hard, rough, but mostly flat, surface.
I opened my eyes, and I pushed up off from the dirt ground beneath me.