One word from the parahuman in charge was all we needed. The clock was too short for anything more.
Capes fanned out, most of them on foot. I could leave the parts of the crowd closest to us to them. I flew, avoiding the sky directly over the group of affected people, circling around the periphery instead. The wind was cold against my face and legs.
The massed crowd of citizen workers was to my right, the people with powers to my left. Half of the light sources in and around the clearing had broken, and the only other illumination came from the effects of powers. A common thread ran through all of it. Energy spilled out and created matter where it splattered on the road, materials sprouted from nothing, streaked with thin streams of liquid that glowed like fire, and more abstract growths formed suspended in air, their images sticking to the backs of my eyes like the persistent afterimages of sparklers waved in the dark.
People were shouting. Some were screaming. I couldn’t make much of it out.
I flew to the far side of the clearing, which also happened to have some of the thickest gatherings of people. They had been citizen laborers, gathering to make their displeasure known to the construction groups. They’d been facing the building until the incident, they’d backed up, and there were places where the presence of buildings and parked vehicles made it so they had no place to retreat, leaving them now packed together, shoulder to shoulder, front to back, jostling.
I’d helped to evacuate before. I had attended the Leviathan attack on my hometown. I had been around for the majority of the Slaughterhouse Nine crisis. I’d participated in other, minor incidents, helping with fires and storms, though those had mostly involved helping the elderly and standing around.
The truism was that in a disaster, people were their own worst enemies.
Never this bad.
I’d never seen or imagined a situation where people would do the opposite of evacuating, throwing themselves headlong into the hazard. They thought the people in the center of the clearing were getting powers, and people were breaking away from the crowd at the clearing’s edge to run toward the affected individuals.
Crystal created a wall to block off a street as she passed it. She wouldn’t be able to keep it up as she got further away, but it bought time for others to get there.
She raked a laser across the road, a bright and noticeable distraction, to give people pause.
I dropped to the street, using a pulse of my aura to get people’s attention. Some stopped to look, while others ducked low, as if instinct drove them to shy away from the perceived threat.
“Run!” I shouted, using my aura to play up my words. “Other way!”
I saw eyes widen, and turned to look. A man had opened his mouth, and had something that looked almost as tall and thick as a telephone pole spearing skyward from his mouth. Blood streamed from the sides of his mouth, his jaw clearly dislocated, and more fluids painted the length of the pole as it continued to rise. It reached its maximum height, and then forked, the upper half splitting out into two equally thick portions, a giant ‘Y’ shape. Each branch then forked into two, and forked into two again.
“Go,” I said, sparing only a momentary glance for the people I’d been stopping. I saw them start to run away.
The man reached up, his fingers dragging along the blood-slick shaft of the trunk of the fractal tree he had vomited up. Each movement of his hands was slower and weaker than the last.
I flew toward him, to do what I could to help, even though I wasn’t sure what that could possibly be.
The ‘tree’ toppled, and it was only because I was already on my way toward him that I was able to intervene. I reached out for the falling tree, and my power was quicker to touch it. Phantom fingers bit into the surface, fracturing the chalky material. With flight, my bare hands, my power, and my aura pushed out to give people a little more incentive to get out of the way, I controlled the tree’s fall. It broke into chunks on contact with the ground. One of the people with new powers was pinned beneath branches, but it didn’t look like he was hurt by the contact.
I flew to the man who’d grown the tree. Even before I reached his side, I could see the damage that had been done. Jaw, throat, chest, and stomach had been torn away. Traces of the same material that had formed the tree had collected in his insides and pelvis, breaking into jagged pieces at some point before or during the tree’s fall.
He had no throat to feel for a pulse. I wasn’t about to rule anything out, even as I saw the remains of his heart in his splayed-out chest cavity. I pried one of his eyes open, and I saw no response.
I went from a crouch to airborne in a second.
That particular disaster had been dramatic and visible for a significant portion of the people nearby. Most were thinking twice about running toward the epicenter.
When was the next wave coming? The number of people to trigger all at once had seemed to double the last time. They didn’t look like multi-triggers either. One power each, some self-destructive. I could hear the screams and shouts of a lot of unhappy people and I couldn’t see one person who looked particularly happy about their new ability.
I flew to a new location, looking to see where I could get the most people away. The tree had done my work for me in one spot, Laserdream was standing at the intersection of two streets and walling them off with red-tinted, translucent fields.
I saw another group- people were pulling away from the crowd, which was actively trying to grab them and hold them back. Young people – older teenagers and twenty-somethings, that might have been a group of friends. Seven of them.
I shouted, but my voice was drowned out by the dentist-drill scream of a power somewhere nearby, by the hollers, the warnings, a dull explosion.
I used my aura again. Several people in the group stumbled, so caught up in reacting to my aura that they lost track of where they were going or how to put one foot in front of the other. Several others paused, helping their friends that had tripped, stopped, or fallen. The people at the edge of the crowd reacted too, pulling back away from me.
I’d hoped more of them would stop shouting and screaming. The affected people and the people at the edge of the clearing were making so much noise that it nearly drowned me out as I shouted, “Get back!”
A number of people listened. The crowd in particular was inclined to take my order, getting away from the scene. Two of the seven who’d lagged behind the others turned to go too.
Five, however, looked at me and then continued to run toward the scene.
I clenched my fist.
Rationally, I knew that they likely saw this as the simplest thing in the world. The people over there had powers; all they had to do to get powers was to head over there. Some might well have no idea what triggers were, or they might have bought into one of the various other theories out there, some intentionally obscuring the truth. They didn’t know better.
Well, the screaming should have given them pause, but that might have been balanced out by the fact that they felt especially powerless at this time in particular. Because we were only two years after the most catastrophic and traumatic loss of human life in history. Because as much as we were recovering, we were far from being where we’d been. We weren’t okay. The dispute between the citizen workers and the construction administrations only brought that home.
Rationally, I knew that.
Less rationally, I had a weak point that extended well before the Gold Morning, well before the hospital stay, well before the Slaughterhouse Nine, before the bad days against Empire Eighty-Eight, before my trigger, even. I’d spent a fair portion of my time post-trigger and especially in the hospital, thinking about it.
I couldn’t fucking stand being ignored.
I flew to intercept.
I hadn’t practiced with this power enough. Even using it was a hard reminder, with a mental and emotional cost. I knew I needed to come to terms with it, and my time at the hospital had been an early foray into that.
That had been flight, and my flight was more or less untouched.
I flew low, approaching a car. As with the tree, all of my powers were up and active as I reached out in the car’s direction. Phantom hands dug into the metal of the car’s body, invisible fingers stabbing through. A mass of something pressed down on the hood, caving it in.
If I had any control over those limbs, it wasn’t something that lent itself to fine touches. It didn’t work well with the careful, methodical, warrior monk approach. In this, in the instinct and the moment of frustration, I could only hope that what I wanted and what my power wanted were mostly in agreement.
I glanced up to make sure Laserdream wasn’t watching. I was close enough for my fingertips to brush the car’s paint as I swept my arm to one side, the holes and dents in the car twisting or opening wider as the phantom grip adjusted. The- the other Victoria, the phantom Victoria that had never left the hospital, the wretch, threw the car.
I canceled my power momentarily, to force it to release its hold, so it wouldn’t fling the car into the people I was trying to stop. I let it reactivate a half-second later, flying forward in the car’s direction. My defenses were up and sufficient to let me adjust the car’s trajectory with a sharp kick to the side. Just to be safe.
It crashed into a parked car, upside down, its roof and windows shearing into the top of the other. A loud impact, metal scraping metal, a dozen windows on the two vehicles breaking. It was raucous, chaotic, sudden and surprising, in a stark contrast to the massive, enduring weight that seemed to settle in me.
Harder than flying. I could tell myself I was helping people, keeping them clear of danger, and it helped much as it had with the flying, but it was still hard.
The fact that a car had flown into another car twenty feet in front of them was enough to stop them in their tracks. I had their full attention now.
“Get away! It’s dangerous!”
Some backed away, then ran. Two backed off but didn’t run. The last of them was a man about my age, who stepped closer to the cars, intent on climbing over them.
I was prepared to grab him as he climbed onto the underside of the car I’d thrown. He continued to ignore me, finding his balance, stepping forward-
The fragment of a trigger vision hit me. The latest wave.
I saw only a flash of faces, and in seeing those faces, I saw the phantom self that clung to me. The impression lingered for only a moment before I realized the faces didn’t resemble mine.
The man had been springing forward from the car to the ground when the event had hit. I saw his legs swing forward, while his head remained in place. He dangled, suspended in the air.
I picked myself up off the ground, flying to him.
Gone already. No pulse, no light behind the eyes. He made a faint gurgling sound, but it was some biological process or symptom of what had happened, not a sign of life. He was pissing himself and shitting himself in death.
He dropped out of the air, and I caught him. It hardly mattered, he was gone, but it didn’t feel right to just let him fall. I eased him to the ground.
“Please help!” I heard a guy shout, amid renewed and nearby whimpers and sobs.
I flew. The two who had drawn back but hadn’t run- a boy and a girl. The boy was holding the girl, while she strove to stay on her tiptoes. Her face was turned skyward.
I flew to them, and I caught her, helping to hold her.
“Hold her steady!” the guy shouted.
I held her as steady as I could.
“My neck!” the victim shrieked the words. A single glowing vein stood out on each arm, and glows on her legs suggested more of the same, but she barely seemed to care about it. Clear fluid was streaming from her nose, thinner than snot, with needle-thin streams of blood joining it.
“We got you,” I said. “We’re here, we’ll support you. Stay calm.”
“I can’t move my head!” she cried out. “Every time- my neck!”
“Don’t try,” I said. The guy was looking to me for help, and I wasn’t sure what to say or do.
“My head hurts,” she said, sounding very far away. Her words dissolved into a stream of whimpers and cries of ‘ow’.
I was supporting her weight, but it wasn’t easy to do it from a strength perspective with my feet on the ground, and it wasn’t easy to stay steady while flying.
“Laserdream!” I shouted the words, top of my lungs.
“Headache,” the victim said, her eyes wide. “My brain.”
The guy looked at me again. This time I didn’t try to hide my expression. I knew I looked grim.
Her brain. The Corona Pollentia, the means by which powers were operated by the parahuman. Hers had been established, but not as a fluid, functional thing. It was a nail, taking her brain and fixing it to a specific position in reality.
Laserdream appeared beside me.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Give her something to stand on,” I said. “She’s stuck.”
The forcefield appeared below. The girl no longer had to stand on her tiptoes.
“People are evacuating more now,” Laserdream said. “We need to handle the people toward the center. The waves are random.”
I turned, looking at the guy. “Do you know her?”
“Can you run? Go tell people to get away, as fast as they can. This is bad.”
“You don’t want to get caught in it,” Laserdream said.
The guy nodded.
“Bye Anne,” he said. He let go of the girl, transitioning the grip entirely to me, then turned to run.
She was making small sounds, guttural. One hand came up to touch the side of my face and my hair, clumsy, as if she didn’t have full use of her fingers.
“I’m sorry Anne,” I said.
She made another of the gurgling sounds. She was vomiting, I realized, and with her face fixed in a skyward position, there wasn’t anything I could do. Anything I did to move her would add to the damage to her brain.
I hugged her, hard. After a moment, I felt her hug me back, clumsy but fierce.
It was only a moment later that she started to convulse, whole-body. I moved to try to seize her head and keep it from moving- a second too late. One wrenching, forced movement of her head and upper body, and the nail ripped through a good share of the material in its vicinity.
I caught her as she fell, and laid her out on the ground, placing her on her side.
“We need to help others, Victoria.”
Spooky, to take to the air again. I’d seen the numbers of people affected double, roughly, and this was another doubling, to look at it. More artificial sources of light had broken, as space folded in areas, as things grew to obscure them, or as tendrils of energy lashed out like living things, distorting geography with each impact.
Matter creation, matter manipulation, matter distortion.
Over fifty people, if I had to guess. It could well have been sixty-four. They were too spread out for me to effectively ballpark. Many might well have died from their power expression or the ‘nailing down’ of the brain.
There was no being polite, now. One person hesitating at what could have been the edge of the affected area. I didn’t even pause as I grabbed him by the wrist, picking him up off the ground, dragging him with me, me barely six feet above the ground, him with toes and shoes scraping the road’s surface. I didn’t want the fall to be too rough if I was knocked out of the air again.
I half-deposited, half-threw him toward the crowd that still lingered. I pointed at the largest guy present. “You. Make sure these people get away! Keep an eye on this one!”
He looked spooked, and I wasn’t even using my aura. He gave me a singular nod.
Another two, two men together. One of them fought me as I held him, trying to pry my hand free.
“Assholes!” he screamed, twisting my fingers, trying to get leverage to bend one backward. “Keeping powers to yourselves!”
I didn’t reply. I tightened my grip to keep him from getting any one of my fingers, and I saved my breath and my focus.
If this was turning out as badly as it looked like it was, the aftermath would be answer enough.
The guy who’d fought me was deposited beside the first vehicle with flashing lights that was waiting at the edges. A fire truck.
“Don’t let him go back! And try to get further away, in case it expands!”
I was already leaving before they could answer me. I heard the shouts, though. The answers.
Crystal wasn’t using lasers or forcefields much anymore. Only flight, only manhandling.
I delivered two more armfuls of cargo, getting people clear of the danger. On my return trip, I saw the geography transforming. A culmination of everything up to this point. From matter generation, matter distortion, and matter transformation to… something that made the entire area look as though it was being smudged and smeared around, streets widening, buildings pulling back from the street.
Except- no. No, this was a familiar smudging and smearing. One that worked with us.
You made it, little V, I thought. I felt emotionally numb from the series of events, the deaths I’d seen, my momentary use of my power and how the feelings I’d tapped in that moment weren’t easy to bring back into order.
There was only what needed to be done, the mission that stood front and center. It was difficult to execute effectively, but simple in how Glory Girl, Victoria, the phantom wretch and the capes I was working with could all agree it should be done.
Get people clear. Get them safe.
A woman screamed words that barely strung together, the heel of one hand pressed to her forehead. The other was pointed forward. She shot something that was only visible by the way light refracted at its edges. The projectile hit the ground, carrying forward like a cartoon mole and the elongated, humped trail of dirt it left in its wake. Unlike the mole, the hump was jagged, folded earth. Road folded up like complex origami. She was pinning people down, keeping them from exiting a building.
In the words I could make out, she wanted them to come help her, and in her actions she drove them away.
“Stop!” I shouted to her.
She shot one projectile at me. Barely visible, it cut through the air, wind shrieking.
I didn’t want to kill her, and if her hand at her head was any clue that she was in similar straits to Anne and the other man, a light push could do horrendous damage.
I drew closer to the ground, defenses up.
Work with me, I told my power. My agent. My flight wobbled as I experienced the lopsided drag of a hand reaching down at one side, clawing at the ground as I passed it.
It didn’t create nearly enough debris.
I changed angles. I flew for the hump of origami road, two feet across, two feet tall, jagged and menacing.
I passed within a few feet of it, and let my forcefield hit it.
The hump of ground shattered explosively, blades of road cutting at my legs. But it did create a cloud of dust and debris.
She shot at me, and I reversed direction, passing the hump again, striking it.
The two passes created enough of a mess to block the view. I flew to the people the origami road woman had pinned down. “Go, go, go!”
I stood by with my defenses up, positioned to intercept any incoming projectiles. They took the chance to run for it.
This whole thing was a clusterfuck. How many people were caught? How many were acting irrational? What options did we have? What the hell was I supposed to do?
The origami woman didn’t send any attacks through the cloud of shattered road that I’d created. The moment the group was out of sight and away, I was moving again.
A complete and total clusterfuck. I flew high, and I looked down, wishing we had more light on the scene.
I could see where the distortions were being utilized. The space between the people at the edges and the center of the effect was being extended, making the clearing larger. It made it harder for people to approach, carried fleeing people away. It meant the effect had to reach further if it wanted to catch anyone.
In the tension and the emotions that gripped me, I felt an isolated point of peace and calm I could grab onto.
Vista was here, Vista had made it through Gold Morning. She was one of the people I liked. A reason I was doing what I did. She was one of the good ones, she was doing good work here, and I wanted to help her on multiple levels.
In that line of thinking, I found both the focus to think beyond mere instinct, and to realize what I could do. I knew how Vista worked.
“It’s Vista,” Laserdream said. She’d appeared beside me again. She had a flying cape with her.
“Come on,” I said. I flew for where the expansion of space seemed weakest, even pinched.
They weren’t on the streets. It was people in buildings.
I tore through a door, flew through a house. Nothing. I bumped into Laserdream and her PRTCJ friend on the way out. “Search the buildings. Vista’s power is weakest when it has people in its area. There are people near here.”
We spread out. One building each, searching neighboring houses. I was midway through my search when I heard a whistle.
I flew to the sound. Vagrants, or just refugees from Gimel who had decided they’d be more comfortable squatting in unoccupied, recently built houses than they were in the tent cities.
The three of us carried them clear. We were delivering them to safety when the next pulse hit. We weren’t hit, but I could see a glowing figure in the sky flicker and drop briefly before they caught themselves.
We took to the sky again, looking for pinched areas where things hadn’t distorted enough. There were two spots, and both were already being addressed.
The area was clear. We found our way to where the Warden-affiliated capes had collected. They had gathered at the edge of the effect.
“I think we’re clear, Rocketround, sir,” Laserdream reported.
“We should be shortly,” the leader said, glancing at a Foresight cape who stood nearby.
“Yes sir,” the cape said. A girl with a hood and blindfold.
“How many?” Rocketround asked.
“Ninety two, if you include the ones in houses,” she said.
Rocketround paused, staring down the length of the road toward the center of the vastly extended clearing. He spat. When he spoke, he managed a tone that pretty perfectly encapsulated what I and probably most of us were feeling, “Fuck me.”
Ninety two. Ninety two, many like Anne. Many wanting help. I wanted to fly in, to do something.
“I want everyone clear of the area. We wait, we see what happens,” he said. “We see if it expands in reach with further pulses, but I don’t want to give it anything. Not even any bounceback from reaching out and finding some of us. Let me know when the next pulse happens.”
“Yes sir,” the blindfolded girl said.
Something in the distance crashed to ground. Another fixture like the fractal tree?
Laserdream approached me, and she put an arm around me. I did the same for her.
There was small talk, people remarking on what they’d seen. Horrible things. People buried alive by their own powers. A few cases like what I’d observed.
“Is Vista around?” I asked. “That was her, right?”
I hadn’t expected Rocketround to be the one to answer, but he was the one who spoke up, saying, “She is. Upstairs, top floor. She said she needed a view and no interruptions.”
No interruptions. I was disappointed.
“Who’s she with?” I asked.
“Wardens,” he said.
“Good for her,” I said.
“Who are you and who are you with?” he asked.
“Victoria Dallon. Nobody, yet. I’ve been interviewing for teams.”
“She did pretty good work,” blindfold girl said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“When you three got the homeless out of the house, Vista said something under her breath. I think it was ‘thank you’. They were getting in her way somehow.”
I nodded. “I’m from her town. I was briefly her teammate.”
It was so mundane it was chilling and disconcerting, after the chaos we’d just weathered. A few moments of horrible, of stupidity and damage and madness, and now we waited to see what happened next, waiting to see what the aftermath would be. We talked about dumb things.
“What do you think?” Rocketround asked. “Not just asking you, Victoria. Anyone.”
It was in that question that I saw the first real hint that he was shaken. He was doubting his own capacity in this.
“This is going to hurt,” another cape said. “People were already feeling pretty beaten down, and… ninety people? We lost ninety?”
“We don’t know if all of them are in trouble,” Laserdream said.
“I think they might be,” blindfold girl said.
Laserdream didn’t have a response for that. She only hugged me tighter with the one arm.
“I think-” I started. “Just speculation.”
“Any clues or guesses about what’s going on would be good,” Rocketround said. He was gripping his upper arm as he stood with arms folded. He’d emphasized ‘any’, which only served to emphasize how little a clue he and we had.
“The broken triggers are pretty out there. Not a lot of consistent points or facts… except that they’re big,” I said.
“Big?” a nearby cape asked.
“They tend to cover a lot of ground. Shaker stuff.”
“Yeah,” Rocketround said. “That’s come up in briefings.”
“Location, environment, and position matters a lot,” I said. “The capes closest to the perimeter were least mobile. I think the further they got from the center, the less flex there was. Until their agents wouldn’t let them move at all.”
“Typhlosis pointed that out,” Rocketround said, indicating the girl with the blindfold.
“We might want to make them stay put,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rocketround said. “We’ll do that.”
Someone else spoke up. A remark about common thread through the powers they’d seen. Others chimed in.
I only half-listened. A lot of images stayed with me. The faces I’d seen midway through the one fragmented trigger, the indents in the car as the phantom limbs had reached out for it, Anne. The lingering sensation of Anne clinging to me, hard, the touch on my face. I didn’t know what she had wanted to communicate. A last kind gesture?
“There we go,” the blindfolded girl said. “Pulse. Nobody else affected.”
“I’m going to approach,” Rocketround said. “Roadblock? I’d appreciate it if you came.”
“Of course,” a cape by the side said. A guy in heavy armor.
“Protect me if we run into any trouble.”
“Only four left,” Typhlosis said.
“Four?” Rocketround sounded surprised.
Laserdream’s head snapped around. Looking at me, looking at Typhlosis.
Typhlosis continued, “Only four alive, still. The rest went down. Eaten by their powers, or they tried to move when they couldn’t, and their brains caved in.”
I squeezed Laserdream’s hand.
I might have been less surprised than her because I’d read up more on how these things tended to go.
“Let’s go,” Rocketround said. “Anyone comfortable joining me, come.”
They speed-marched toward the center of the effect. One hand on another cape’s arm for support and guidance, Typhlosis directed us toward the nearest surviving cape.
“Three,” she said, as we got close enough to see him.
He was a man, mid-twenties. His legs and stomach were buried in a writhing mass of something very similar to the origami road I’d seen earlier, materials made thin, folded many times over, until they didn’t quite seem to be three dimensions anymore. Some of those materials were the pieces of the twenty or so people in his immediate vicinity.
A lone figure, standing on a hill of the fallen citizen workers, caught up in the broken trigger’s effect.
“Don’t move!” Rocketround shouted. “Alright!?”
“Not moving,” was the response, quiet.
“No using powers. Stay put, stay calm. We’re going to find out a way to help you.”
“I don’t think I can be helped,” the man said. His head was bowed, and he couldn’t seem to move it. His hair was long, tied back into a low ponytail, and it covered much of his face.
“We can figure something out,” Rocketround said.
“Two,” Typhlosis said, quiet.
Two parahumans left.
The effect had caught over ninety over what couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. Now there were two.
“I’m worried,” the man in the clearing’s center said. “I can feel all the others.”
He moved his hand.
Every body in the vicinity moved. A matching movement of hands, limp arms rolling off of sides or fingers digging into powdered sidewalk.
“Don’t move!” Rocketround called out.
“I’m on a brink, and I can’t see it, but I can feel it,” the man said.
“Try not to think about it,” Rocketround said. “Okay?”
“I can feel it,” the man said. He wasn’t paying much attention to Rocketround. “All the way down to this vast well, partially filled with potential energy. Like I’m on the lip of a volcano and it’s an impossibly long fall with only magma at the bottom. I don’t know if I’m better off throwing myself down into that or leaving it alone.”
“Leave it alone,” I said, my voice joining more than one other person’s.
“What if my thoughts and brain get made into a part of that? One piece in that thing’s construction. What if it makes me immortal, forever a part of this thing? A recording of me in there, how I think, how I do things.”
“We’ve studied parahumans, powers and power sources a lot,” Roadblock said. “We’re pretty sure that’s not a thing.”
“Yeah,” the guy in the clearing’s center said. “But…”
He trailed off.
“It’s not a thing,” Rocketround’s voice joined Roadblock’s.
“But I’m standing closer to it than you are,” the man said. “And from where I stand, I feel like it might be.”
Nobody had a ready response to that.
“One,” Typhlosis murmured.
“I’m the last one standing on the brink now,” the man said. “I don’t think I can do this much longer. Do I embrace it or turn away? I wish I could see you, to-”
He reached up, to move his hair out of his eyes.
“Don’t!” I called out. My voice wasn’t the only voice of protest, but it might have been the first. Perhaps because I was most mindful of arms that weren’t mine, in my immediate vicinity.
The arms of people all around him operated as extensions of him. A matching, reaching movement, up and out. Some disintegrated as they moved, but one lying next to him reached up, out, and into the finely spun construction of road that cocooned the man’s legs.
As I’d done to the altered road, the reaching arm broke the construction like it was sugar crystal or a snow globe. There was a spray of blood, and the man dropped, jerking as his Corona Pollentia remained in place, briefly suspending him. He was dead in that instant, well before he sprawled to the ground, shattered from the waist down.
My hand held Laserdream’s tight.
I was thankful that Typhlosis didn’t give us an updated count.
Crystal had backed me up for a good while. She’d been a friend, a support.
She had performed during the event. She’d been focused, she’d done what she needed to do. It had been after that she faltered. Hearing that the people who’d been touched by the broken trigger weren’t doing well, then hearing that only four remained. Hearing and seeing those four drop away.
It had been that way for Leviathan, too.
It had probably been that way after I went to the hospital.
Fine during, not so fine after.
It had been ten days, now. Ten days after the broken trigger with the citizen workers. One of the worst we’d seen for citizen casualties and damage.
I landed on the balcony, letting myself in. I took the carton out of the plastic bag and popped it into the microwave, lid ajar. Eighteen seconds.
“Vic?” Crystal called out.
“I’m here. One second.”
“That had better not be what I think it is.”
Crystal groaned audibly.
I pulled the carton free, grabbed some spoons, and walked over to the living room. Crystal was sitting in the armchair, watching TV, a blanket on her lap.
She glared at me, but it was a mock glare, and it softened considerably as she saw the carton.
“Slightly melted brownie caramel ice cream,” I said. I collapsed onto the couch, reaching high overhead to hold the carton and a spoon out to her. “I’ll share it with you.”
“Well, if you’re sharing it…”
“I’ll exercise with you too, to work it off. For now, though, it’s comfort food, staying cozy, and keeping each other company.”
“Okay. You’re mostly forgiven.”
“And a stupid-in-a-good-way movie to watch,” I said, pulling the movie case out of the pocket I’d wedged it into. “Because it turns out TV sucks after the world ends, and I can’t watch you subject yourself to it.”
“Okay,” she said. “You’re forgiven.”
I popped the movie in, then settled on the couch, pulling a blanket over my legs, arranging a cushion to sit up against. I fetched my phone and checked my messages. A second cancellation from Jessica.
After a disaster like that, too many people needed looking after.
I twisted my head around to look at Crystal, as she ate a spoonful of icecream from the carton. She passed it to me and I took a bite for myself, from the side she hadn’t dug into. I passed it back, watching as the movie started.
My turn to look after Crystal.
The lights were off in the coffee shop, though it wasn’t dark with the light coming in through the windows. The majority of the customers were sitting on the outside patio, and the interior was quiet, empty, and cool.
It was eerie, to go from the disaster to the more or less quiet period after. To be back on this street, where the car had hit the pillar, and where I’d seen so much grief from one person, and to try and reconcile that with the broken trigger, the ninety dead, the fact that so many were dealing by ignoring it. Moving on a matter of two weeks after the fact.
“Victoria?” the barista asked me.
My first thought was that she’d recognized me. “Yes?”
“Your friend stepped into the back. She said she’d be right out, but she asked us to keep an eye out for you so you didn’t think she was late.”
“Got it. Thank you.”
“Can I get you anything?”
I looked outside. Sunny, warm. The summer and its heat lingered in the daytime. “I can’t bring myself to drink anything hot when the weather’s like this. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Ice coffee? Iced tea? Pop?”
“Iced tea, please,” I said, noting the use of ‘pop’. A lot of people from a lot of regions had gathered in the megalopolis.
I didn’t have to sit down and wait for her to bring it to me. It was in my hands within a matter of seconds, and I took it to the seat furthest from the door, where Jessica and I would have some privacy.
She was out of the washroom before I’d fully settled in. Her blouse had buttons at the front and a collar, but was sleeveless, tucked into shorts. I wondered if she looked less at ease in casual clothing because she was a professional at heart, or if it was personal bias and years of knowing her as the therapist in the office that colored my perceptions. Her hair was damp, and she had what might’ve been a folded paper towel, soaked with water, resting on the back of her neck. She collected a drink she must have ordered and paid for earlier.
“Doing alright?” I asked.
Jessica smiled. “I was cooling down. I’ll be glad when the weather is more comfortably cool.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not that I mind the heat. It’s that I worry about how it affects people. I get antsy when the weather is like this.”
Jessica nodded. She glanced out the window. “It doesn’t help.”
“Brockton Bay was always nice, weather-wise. It didn’t have a lot going for it, but it did have mild weather. Once upon a time.”
Jessica smiled. “It’s good to remember the good things. At the risk of slipping into habit, I’ll ask: how are you doing? You’re okay, after the broken trigger incident?”
“I’m okay. My cousin wasn’t, but she’s bounced back. I think it was a wake-up call.”
“She might be reconsidering if she wants to be with the PRTCJ. She might aim for something lower-key. Her mom did, after things went bad in Brockton Bay.”
“I hope she’s happy and comfortable, wherever she ends up. I did like her, when she and I crossed paths.”
At the hospital. That fragment went unspoken.
“How’s the girl I found?” I asked.
“She’s managing. We’re getting her stabilized and figuring out her power. She wants to meet you at some point, to thank you.”
“She’s good, though?”
“Far better than she was.”
“The broken trigger aside, how have you managed since we last talked? You talked about joining a team.”
I gave her a one-shoulder shrug. “Pitched myself to a few. It didn’t take. I lost my job, the volunteer stuff feels empty. I’ll survive in the meantime.”
“I find it very interesting that you asked about Hunter, and you wanted to clarify that she wasn’t just managing, she was good. Then I ask you, and your response is that you’re surviving. You’re managing.”
“You’re going therapist mode on me,” I remarked, smiling.
She smiled back.
“How are you?” I asked, before she could ask me the same.
“I’m settling into my new role, trying to wrap things up and make sure there are no loose ends as I transition. Are you-”
“You said-” I said, inadvertently interrupting her.
“You said you were busy. Is busy a good thing, in Jessica-Yamada-land?”
It took her a second to answer. Not our usual one-sided dialogue, this, her talking, me waiting for a chance to communicate, already plotting how I could say what I wanted to say as efficiently as possible. I smiled at the observation, and I was left pretty sure she caught it, because she smiled again.
She replied, “I’m looking forward to when I have more time. Right now, it’s balancing out. Any exhaustion on my part is easier to deal with because the things I’m doing are new, exciting, a little terrifying, but positive overall.”
“Terrifying? Because of the people you’re dealing with, or…?”
“When working with patients, the first and last meetings are the hardest, with the stakes greatest, and I’m having an awful lot of first and last meetings these days. Maintaining course after the initial connections have been made is easier. I know who I’m talking to and what I’m doing, there will be peaks, plateaus and valleys, but I can generally feel like there’s progress being made. The first meetings and the goodbyes? They’re critically important.”
“You want to make sure you’re laying good groundwork.”
“It’s not just that. The wrong kind of connection or break can do a lot of damage. Failing to realize you’re hurting a patient when you say something or take an approach, failing to be strong enough from the outset with patients who need a hard line, being too hard on patients who need a soft touch…”
I nodded. I started to think about which I’d been, back then, but thinking back was hard and unpleasant.
“I…” She’d started to say something, and then stopped.
She sighed, leaning back in her seat.
“I’ve put myself in an awkward position here,” she said. “Actually a few, including you and me sitting here having this conversation. I want to get right to it so you’re not talking to me under the wrong pretenses, but I’m not sure how to navigate this, either.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“That’s just it,” she said. She frowned. “I wanted to have a conversation with you for another reason.”
That stung, in a way. That we weren’t meeting up for the sake of meeting up.
“Okay,” I said.
“I might have made a mistake,” she said. “And I was thinking you might be able to help.”