"If you had a superpower, what would you do?"
The man groaned. A drawn-out noise uttered from the back of his throat. His head lolled to the side, and he would've tipped over and fell were it not for the rope binding him to a chair.
"I'm sure you've thought of it. What it would be like to have powers. What you would do. How you would use it. Who doesn't dream of being powerful?"
Another groan from the man, but this one came more defined, with something of the shape of a question.
"Wha..." The man’s eyes peeled open, and he looked up at the voice.
He flinched at the sight. It was a bug, a giant bug. The figure was half-wreathed in shadow, the room pitch-black save for a single spotlight focused on him, but he could make the shape of their face. Hooked mandibles and bulbous eyes, it was the face of an ant transplanted on a person.
"Or maybe you never had to dream about being powerful," said the ant, uncaring. Its mandibles unmoving as it spoke. "Why would you have to imagine having power, when you were born to it?"
The man blinked blearily. The voice was a woman's. No, younger. A girl's. She was slight, tall for her age, but still young. Only a teenager.
The man finally found his tongue. "Wha… what are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you." The ant girl leaned in, close enough to see that the mandibles were sharp.
"I… I don't understand, who are you?"
The ant girl shrugged. "No one important. Certainly not like you.”
The man frowned, his irritation giving him the last push to wake. “What do you want?”
The ant girl stared at him. “Phillip Brabeck, Yale graduate, board chairman of Fortress Construction, collector of boats. Net worth, 15.3 billion."
Phillip’s eyes narrowed at the mention of his worth. "So this is about money."
The ant girl shrugged. "Technically."
A kidnapping, then. Phillip inhaled slow. Looking closer, with a rapidly-clearing head, Phillip could see the ant face was just a mask. A well-made mask, with a hard chitinous material close to the real thing, but a mask nonetheless. It was scare tactics and intimidation, but if this was about money, then Phillip could do business.
"How much do you want?" he asked.
"All of it."
Phillip blinked. "What?"
"Well, not all of it, but close. 15.2 billion. I'll allow you to keep the rest."
The ant girl cocked her head to the side. "Does this seem like a joke?"
Phillip shook his head, but not out of disagreement. He simply couldn't believe it. "It's… insane. You can't expect me to give up everything I've worked for."
She laughed in his face. A harsh bark that went off like a gunshot. "Work? When have you have ever worked? When was the last time you sweated outside of a golf course?"
Phillip sighed. Tied up or not, it was clear to him, the girl was just a child.
"I'm the board chairman of a major construction company. The decisions I make affect the whole— ”
Phillip stopped mid-sentence as the girl's hand went to his throat. Her hand was just big enough to pinch the sides. With him tied up too tight to even squirm, there was nothing he could do if she squeezed. But she didn't. Just her touch was enough to shut Phillip up.
"You don't do anything," she whispered, "You don't swing the hammer, you don't operate the crane. You don't oversee production, you don't make inspections. You don't draw up the design, you don't set up the wiring. You don't program the security system, you don't calculate the costs." Her teeth ground together. "You didn't even hire the people who do all that." Her thumb pressed against his chin. "All you did was hire the person who hired everyone else."
Phillip swallowed and any hope of a peaceful deal went down with it. He wasn’t dealing with just some kidnapper. He was dealing with a lunatic. He spoke quietly, as if not to disturb, "I make the decisions…."
The girl pulled her hand away and sighed. "No," she said, resigned, "You don't even do that. You have business consultants."
"Th-they inform the decision, they don't-"
"Forget it. I don't want to hear it."
Phillip closed his mouth and found himself shaking. The rope, the damned rope was so tight. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but the more he tried to move, the more he realized how little he could.
"Phillip," said the ant girl, "Listen to me very closely."
He looked up at her, wide-eyed.
"I'm going to let you go-" Phillip gasped, but the girl went on "-and you're going to go home. You're going to call your lawyer and inform him that you want to sell everything. Liquidate all your assets, empty your accounts, sell all your stock. You're going to tell him you want this done by the end of the month."
Phillip's mouth moved, a protest or something, but no sound came out.
"If you have to sell your stock on a schedule or undervalue your mansions then fine, just keep it legal. It doesn’t matter if the total isn’t exactly 15 billion, so long as it’s everything.
“Once that’s done, you're going to take all that money and transfer it to a list of accounts that I'll give you later. Like I said before, you can keep a 100 million for yourself, but everything else? It has to go."
Phillip still couldn't speak. It was insane. It was madness. The girl didn't care.
"Now, I'm going to tell you what you are not going to do. You're not going talk to the police or the FBI or the NSA or the PRT. If anyone asks what you’re doing, make something up. Tell them you found God or you grew a conscience, I don’t care. But most importantly," The ant girl leaned forward and her bulbous bug eyes bore down on him until he saw nothing, but a flat matte-black. "You're not going to look for me. You're not going to try and come after me. You're not going to tell anyone about me." She paused, staring at him. "Do you understand?"
Phillip nodded. "Y-yes, I… I understand."
He understood that she was insane and he needed to say whatever he had to to get out of here.
"Hmm," the ant girl leaned back, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "I don't believe you do."
"I do!" Phillip cried. He pulled against the rope as far as he could, pleading, "I do, I understand completely, I'll do whatever you want!"
"No," the girl said, "you won't. Not while you don't know the consequences."
Phillip was about to shout something else, a promise to God, a swearing on his mother's grave, anything to get her to believe him, but before he could do any of that, something caught his eye.
A slither of motion from the shadows and a quiet buzzing that grew more and more, multiplying by the moment until it grew into the thousands, millions.
Of all kinds and sizes, bugs. Ants, centipedes, cockroaches, spiders, maggots and more. They skittered along the floor like a tide, their twisting writhing bodies flooding the room. And in the air, like a solid cloud, were mosquitos, flies, wasps and hornets. They loomed over him, swirling like a tempest until all at once, they fell on him. Blanketed him until all he could see was black and brown static and all he could hear was a deafening buzz.
Phillip screamed. There was no thought or hope behind it. It just a noise he had to make. The bugs were all over him. They were under his clothes, in his hair, crawling over every inch of him.
Phillip opened his mouth to scream again, but before he could draw the breath, a swarm of cockroaches squirmed its way inside. The revulsion was instant, and the choking followed a moment after. It was the taste of every nasty thing he had ever eaten times a thousand, and all of it trying to force its way down his throat. Phillip gagged, convulsed like a man electrocuted, and with great effort, he retched.
Puke came up and forced the cockroaches out. Phillip didn’t care that he had dirtied his own pants, or that his head and lungs burned like a fire. Phillip was just glad the bugs were out of him. And as if they finally understood how he felt, the bugs began to retreat. The swarm of cockroaches and all the other nasty creatures, crawled off him and away.
But not entirely. Phillip watched as the bugs collected around a figure. The girl. She stood just a few feet away, perfectly calm as the bugs gathered at her feet, spiraling around her.
"My superpower," the girl explained. She stepped forward and the bugs parted for her feet to fall cleanly. "I control bugs, from the smallest flea to the deadliest spider." She held out a hand and opened it. There was a spider on her palm, it was pitch-black with a splotch of red on its back.
"A black widow," the girl explained. She extended her hand and Phillip tried to pull away, but there was nowhere for him to go. Phillip flinched as she touched his chest and he flinched even harder when the spider made the jump. He held his breath and watched with wide eyes and the spider clambered up his body, up to his neck, one spindly leg moving after another. It stopped, just as it was poised over the vein of his throat.
"All it takes is one bite and…" the girl trailed off, "Well, I don't have to explain that, do I?"
"No," Phillip wheezed, still too terrified to breathe. "Please."
The girl waved her hand and the spider hopped down and Phillip heaved with a huge breath.
"Bugs are everywhere, Phillip. All those little creatures that you never noticed," a fly zipped in between them, "I control them. I see through them and I hear through them. So if you think you can run away or turn against me…" the fly settled on Phillip's nose and when he jerked back, flew off. "I'll know the instant you try."
"Okay," Phillip whispered, "I get it, please. I'll do whatever you say. I swear." And this time he meant it.
"Good," said the girl. She took a step back and stared at him, appraising him like a lump of meat.
Was there going to be another test? Another show of force? Phillip wilted under her eyes. The swarm of bugs crawling over him was still fresh in his mind. Even the taste of cockroach lingered in the back of his throat.
Phillip shuddered and bent his head. What had he done to deserve this? Why was this happening? Why?
"Why?" he sobbed.
Phillip jerked up as he realized he had spoken aloud. His eyes darted fearfully to the corners, where the shadows clung to, where the swarm would emerge, but nothing came.
Only the girl stood before him. "Why?" she repeated, "You want to know why this is happening to you, Phillip?"
He didn't answer. He didn't dare open his mouth.
"Because the world is ending and no one is doing anything about it."
Oh god, she was insane.
"You've heard about it, right? The way we live now, it just isn't sustainable. Maybe things will be fine for another generation or two, but year by year, we feel the effects more and more. Venice, Miami, Rio de Janeiro and a dozen other places are already hurting. Eventually, there'll be a breaking point. The world won't be able to hold up the weight, it'll collapse entirely."
Phillip looked away. It was a theory he had heard before. It was nonsense.
"It's a slow, gradual end,” said the girl, “but an end all the same. And what are people in charge doing about it? Nothing. Or not enough for it to matter. They make promises, they make alliances, and they say a lot of pretty words, but in terms of action… nothing that can make a difference.
"But why don't they do something? It's not like they don't recognize the threat. Scientists all over the world agree that if we don't do something drastic and fast, then everyone is doomed. And yet still. Nothing. Changes.
"Why?” asked the girl, “Why won't they do something about it?"
Her hand went under Phillip's chin and raised it up.
"Why won't they do anything?"
There was nothing Phillip could say.
"Tell. Me. Why."
"I don't know," breathed Phillip.
"Liar." But the girl didn't strike him, didn't strangle him or call on her swarm. She pulled her hand away and simply glared. "It's because people like you are in charge and you’re too busy protecting yourself to save the world.
"If you and all your powerful friends actually set your resources to saving the world, then it'd be done. Apocalypse averted. But doing so is unthinkable because if you did… you would lose money.
"Curbing corporate waste, reducing emissions, taxing excess, all of it would harm your profit line. So... nothing happens.” The girl sighed. “Meanwhile, we march on to the end of all life as if it’ll just be fine."
"We…" Phillip licked his lips, her words had touched a nerve, enough to make him speak. "We have to make money… we have a responsibility to our shareholders, our employees… to the economy."
The girl looked at him and he flinched, but still no blow came.
"Economy. You say it like it's a holy word,” she sneered. “What good is an economy if we're all dead?"
Phillip sputtered for a moment. How could he argue with a fanatic? "P-people have to make money. That's… that's reality."
"That's true," she conceded, "For most people. Not you. You don't have to worry about making money. Tell me, what do you do with it all?"
"I… I invest it!" Phillip blurted out, his voice tinged with desperation. "I don't have a pit of gold that I just swim in! I invest in other companies! I buy real estate! I fuel the economy! I- I-"
"What do you invest in?"
"A-all sorts of things," stammered Phillip, wracking his brain for anything, "Real estate! Resources… Uh, hotels! Phone apps, news networks, sports teams. I-I do everything."
"Yes, yes," the girl nodded, "And what do you do to stop the end of the world?"
"Wh-what? You can't expect me to…"
"Why not? Why can't I expect you to do something about it? Instead of buying another basketball team, why not put that money into saving the world?"
"Instead of buying a mansion or going to a resort in Fiji or getting a gold glazed donut or buying another fucking yacht!"
Phillip wilted, cowering before the girl’s fury, but she didn’t stop
"If you have money, by all means, enjoy yourself, invest in what you want, go ahead and make more money, but there is a point where it is just too fucking much.
"You have 15 billion dollars. You're far past the point of needing money to survive or be happy. And yet you want more, and yet you only think of yourself. You have the power to change the world, to save people's lives, you have the power to make a difference and what do you do with it?
"You buy yachts."
The girl was in Phillip's face now. He had pulled as far back as he could, but she pressed forth until their foreheads touched. Her breath came in hot and heavy.
A moment passed, her practically growling, Phillip holding his breath, waiting for the swarm of bugs to devour him. But his death didn't come. Instead the girl pulled back and when she spoke, her voice was restrained.
"I have a super power," said the girl. "What I choose to do with it determines whether people live or die. I can do some good, save people, stop the end of the world. Or, I can do nothing with it. I could ignore the people's cry for help or pretend the end of the world isn't happening and just… play around, use my power to make myself a queen. But if I did that," the girl looked at Phillip, "that would be evil."
Phillip swallowed and found his mouth dry.
"At a certain point, money becomes a super power. 15 billion dollars. How many people do you think you could save with that much money?"
Phillip's mouth closed, then opened. "I… I can try. If… if that's what you want, I can try."
The girl laughed. "No. You had your chance."
"I-" Phillip's reply was cut off as a bag went over his head. He felt a sting in the side of his neck and the world started to turn black.
"You don't deserve power.”.
Phillip woke to the rush of traffic. He jerked awake, started to get up and slipped back onto his arse. He was in a ditch by a highway.
It was morning and the road was thick with cars, honking and beeping. Rush hour.
Phillip ran a shaking hand through his hair. He was still in one piece. Still alive.
Had it all been a dream? A nightmare after a night of drinking too much?
Phillip reached into his pocket and found his phone. He needed to get out of here. To get back home, get some food, get a drink, find a woman. Get a taste of pleasure after that horrendous nightmare.
He started to dial his butler when he noticed something on his hand.
He jerked the hand away and the spider flew off into the grass.
But a tingle went up his spine up to his neck. A familiar sensation.
Phillip froze, and glanced down. Sure enough, there was a spider poised over his throat.
The spider held itself there for a long time. And then just when Phillip thought he was dead, the spider began to crawl down. Not off him, but down his arm, to the hand that held the phone.
The spider stretched a spindly leg and tapped on the screen. The phone wouldn't register it, but Phillip could see what it was pointing at. A memo.
Swallowing, barely hiding his trembling, Phillip moved his thumb and opened the memo.
There was no text, only a string of numbers.
The spider turned to look at him. Expectant. Waiting.
Phillip felt another tingle at the back of his neck. Another spider.
It wasn't a dream, then. Phillip really was going to lose everything. With a shaking hand, he started to dial his lawyer.
It wasn’t a dream, but a nightmare come to life. A person trying to save the world.