I paced. Simple footsteps felt insufficient to burn off the nervous energy, so I took to flying, only to quickly realize that it had the opposite effect- I would have had to fly at max speed against the wind to feel like the external effort was helping anything psychologically.
I landed, and instead of pacing back and forth across the room, I used my flight to push myself down. Walking a few steps involved a whole-body strain. I made it three steps and decided to focus on just standing instead, testing myself against that tension.
It took endurance to keep my knees from buckling or the trunk of my body from folding. It took concentration to not automatically snap to using my forcefield, which would absorb the strain with zero effort.
It helped like pacing helped, and it was a little less conspicuous.
The sound of the elevator opening was my cue to stop. I was more or less recovered and normal as Dr. Darnall emerged. Doctors left the same elevator, one pair that walked together and one alone, apparently doing their rounds.
The hospital itself was inconsistently lit. Areas were dim, where patients were asleep, and other areas were bright. It was almost backwards, that there was so much lighting where there were no or very few people, and the places where the people were most densely congregated were dimly lit and quiet. The white walls and bright fluorescent lighting made the difference from the dark, unlit pre-sunrise morning outside that much more intense, like there was nothing at all beyond the hospital. Rain droplets on the window captured the light at an angle, forming crescents.
Darnall was dressed down from the prior times I’d seen him, wearing a sweatshirt over a t-shirt, jeans, and nice shoes. He looked as tired as fuck, with lines in his face.
“Good morning, Victoria,” he greeted me. He didn’t sound tired, at least. “Thank you for coming out here. It makes things easier.”
“It’s not a problem,” I said. “Thank you for seeing me with no notice.”
“You’re welcome, I’m happy to address whatever it is this is. Here, this way. We can talk in the cafeteria.”
The building was the same hospital where I had visited Fume Hood, and the same one where I had done some rounds of crisis-point style visits, flying kids around. The part that had been under construction weeks ago was built, and other parts were now in progress. The hospital was set up with long-term care in mind, and the surrounding area was arranged to give the families of patients the ability to stay or live close to their loved ones.
Some of those people were up at this alien hour, in this fluorescent white space. In a lunch room that could have fed two hundred, three or four pairs or groups of people sat talking. There was a wide expanse of open seats and benches where the only person who might approach and overhear was a janitor.
“Do you have someone staying here?” I asked. “Is that too personal a question?”
“No. But I come here for some of my other patients.”
“This is close to home, and it’s reasonably close to you, you said?” he asked. When I nodded, he nodded as well. “I don’t go to restaurants, so I don’t know what places we could meet at. With most of my patients, they have places they prefer, or I’m going to them because they work high-pressure schedules. Much as you do. If you prefer anything different-”
“This is good,” I said. “Just- anything except an office or actual hospital room.”
“Good. If it’s alright, I’m going to grab a coffee.”
“I’ll grab something too,” I said.
It was kind of awkward to follow him through checkout and either make small talk or be silent, so I took a bit more time than necessary.
We sat. The table was slightly damp, having been recently wiped down, and I used my jacket sleeve to wipe it dry before pulling the jacket off and draping it over my lap. I wore a sweater-knit tube top over a button-up collared shirt- the fabric of the shirt was too thin on its own, because ninety percent of the shirts on the racks were, and the sweater part of it at least kept things modest while dressing things up in a similar-ish way to wearing a vest. Jeans worn with the legs pulled down over boots kept things more casual.
“I’m sorry to have you wake up early,” I said.
“It’s not too bad, today. It being this dark out makes it feel later than it is- I had a year where I had three patients I saw at five in the morning, because it was the only way to fit around their shifts. Six-forty-five is nothing compared to that. Is this an emergency, or something between an emergency and a regular appointment?”
I had to think on that for a second before deciding. “The second one.”
“I had that feeling. Is it okay if we structure this like an ordinary session?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Okay. We’ve met for two sessions now, laying groundwork-”
His polite way of saying we hadn’t made much progress.
“-and as part of that groundwork, we set out goals and tasks for the week. It hasn’t been a full week, but I’m interested to hear how this is going.”
“Uh, two components to the homework. Tracking my mood over the course of the past few days, and tracking my outbursts.”
“Let’s start with the first. Mood?”
“It’s… nervous right now. Over this week… I wrote it down as a morning, noon, night thing. There were days I was busy and I didn’t get to it until the evening, and it was really, really hard to remember how I felt earlier that day.”
“Even when you thought about the events of the day?”
“There were days where I was contacting hero groups, trying to get people on the same page, going after the same villain pair twice… and at the end of those days I couldn’t remember if things had happened that day or the day before, or sometimes the day before that.”
“I wonder if there’s a way to stabilize that, or structure things better.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I had an iced tea with peach flavor in front of me, and I cracked it open. I took a sip and then said, “Not at this stage.”
“Alright. Were you able to work it out? If there were blank spaces in the entries, I would be concerned that they would be the times you would most want to be aware of your state of mind.”
“When I’m most stressed and busy? Yeah. I used my phone, the music I listened to and the text messages I sent. I was… surprised. Having a focus helped.”
“Reaching out to the other groups?”
“And Lookout. Yeah. Except, I think I was surprised by the positive trend, and I let my guard down. It led to outbursts.”
“Uncontrolled power use? On television?”
“That was the big one, yeah,” I said.
“How’s your diet?”
“Skipping meals. Eating stuff like this on the fly.” I indicated my blueberry muffin. I picked off a crispy edge, dismantling the cap.
“I was up late and I’m up early, as you can see. That’s pretty usual.”
“Are you functional? Having difficulties focusing?”
“No. But I think my body tricks me sometimes. Fatigue sneaks up on me.”
“If you’re fine after staying up late and waking up early, then don’t worry too much about it. But be mindful and take notes, try to track fatigue and times when you feel you’ve hit your limits, at the same times you’re tracking your feelings. It can sneak up on you.”
“Okay. I’m not sure it’s staying up late, exactly. Last night, it was because a teammate was attacked. Casualty from appearing on television is that the bit-rate villains will break ranks and try to mess with you.”
“Was that Lookout?” Darnall asked. When I nodded, he said, “Is she okay?”
“She’s more or less fine, but she’s having to relocate from her home to an institution. Anyway. We’re still trying to track down the people who did it, but that cuts into time I’d spend sleeping.”
“It’s good to be aware of that. Continue to keep track of those times when you do slip, either outbursts or disassociation, and do try to eat better. Your body needs its fuel.”
Dr. Darnall sounded a lot like my mom, talking about the fuel of the body.
He told me, “See if the days of accidental or impulsive power use or especially bad disconnects from whatever is going on correlate to days you’re not sleeping enough or times you haven’t eaten recently. I do want to talk about that involuntary power use in a minute.”
“So do I.”
“It’s a good first update. I like how you’re already assessing your own data from tracking your emotional state.”
“That’s the plan, right? Training me to be my own therapist.”
“Yes. That’s a good quick assessment of the homework. If you’re up for it, I’d like to keep our appointment for the one-week mark, you can keep taking notes and keeping track, and we’ll focus on it more then, with some deeper discussion.”
“Sure. No complaints.”
“Any questions before we move on? Thoughts from your last session?”
“No questions. No thoughts.”
“Okay. Then let’s talk about today. Why did you call?”
“Well,” I said. I removed my jacket from my lap, moving it onto the bench beside me, just so I could shift position to something more comfortable. “One of the most powerful and dangerous people on Earth wants to meet to talk. She was a villain and tyrant who took over a whole Earth.”
“You said you were nervous. She’s why?”
“She has apparently recruited my sister,” I answered him.
Even just saying it, it was taking the respect I’d accumulated for this very powerful, very scary woman and tainting it. It took a big feeling and made it also one of the most negative feelings possible.
“Someone toxic who was gone from your life is now back.”
“Somewhere nearby. We may end up talking. Um. But the timing is godawful.”
“It absolutely is.”
“Some b-list nutjobs just came after a kid. That would never fly, before Gold Morning. They put our lawyer in the hospital. We haven’t caught up with them yet, despite me spending a few hours last night on the hunt, but the consensus seems to be that it’s stupid, petty people seeing us putting our faces out there and wanting to ride the wave of attention. I had a kind-of aunt who died for pretty similar feeling reasons, and remembering that’s really bothering me. And then my sister gets thrown into the mix? She’s the one thing I can’t handle. I can’t deal with thinking about her on a good day. Now I have to face her on a bad one?”
“Do you have to face her? What happens if you sit this one out?”
“I don’t think anyone truly knows her. Sveta knows her by association only. If I sit this out, I think this ends in utter disaster.”
“You attended the taping of Hard Boil. You lost control of your power and it almost ended in disaster. Why is this different? What guarantees that your intervention and presence makes this better?”
I drew in a deep breath.
“You look like you disagree.”
“I don’t blame you for taking that stance, when it comes to the show. It’s an interpretation, and a fair one.”
“For what it’s worth, it didn’t end in disaster. I’m still rooting for your team.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That means a lot. Look, Hard Boil was always going to be a disaster or something approximating one,” I said. “I don’t think the show changed many minds among Hard Boil’s core audienece. It did distract and let us pass the ball to people who can take the shot, and opened up the way for those who receive the shots.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Okay. Look, Mayday’s with Advance Guard. The team was pretty fractured after the attack on the Fallen. This morning he’s going to go on television and radio. People have questions about powers, about Scion, the day we fought Scion. They’ll have other questions and the teams we’re associating with are positioned to talk about it. We’re coordinating this like we planned to coordinate information. People want to know this stuff and they want to discuss it. Hard Boil wants to demonize Lookout? They’re going to be left behind while everyone else focuses on bigger things.”
I saw his eyebrows go up.
“It’s an excuse to let people reach out to media and put their best faces forward. We sacrifice ourselves a bit to give everyone else a chance to elevate themselves. Considering the problem came out of our camp to start with, it’s a kind of amends.”
“One that came back on you. Not to diminish what you’re doing, but you talked about wanting to protect Lookout, and she was almost hurt, by your own words.”
“It did. You could argue that once they chose to use Lookout as their example criminal for the show, she was going to be a target anyway. We just didn’t think they would track her down that easily, or that they’d be willing to cross that line.”
“I hope you’ll forgive my saying so, Victoria, but there seems to be a common thread running through your statements and behavior here. You seem to be fighting with all your might to get control over the situations you find yourself in. You talked about wanting to get a handle on the situation with the people who attacked your teammate in her home. You’re sacrificing sleep to hunt people down, and you stood up on stage and took an aggressive stance to regain the control you’d lost. Then you left to keep it.”
“Well, I mean, obviously.”
“Explain this to me.”
“The Fallen? Chaos and ignorance. The community center attack? Shortsightedness, more chaos with civilians caught in the fray. Hollow Point? Chaos and greed. The invading soldiers from Cheit? Secrecy and ignorance. We combat the chaos with order and the ignorance with the sharing of information. We combat greed by being selfless.”
“No mention of your sister and this Goddess?”
“I don’t… really think of my sister, if I can help it.”
“Sorry. But you did ask me here to discuss her, didn’t you?”
I hesitated, then nodded, finding it momentarily too difficult to talk. I drank some of my peach iced tea.
I tried to think of my sister as an agent of chaos. Maybe way back then. Goddess? She would cause chaos, as soon as she decided to make a move. But was she an embodiment of it?
If I’d thought she was one, I wouldn’t have been willing to consider the meeting.
Doctor Wayne Darnall wasn’t talking. Waiting for me to finish sipping at my iced tea and round out my thought.
“I don’t know how to deal with her, and I worry I’m not strong enough to deal with Goddess. I want help. I need… whatever armor you can give me, psychologically. I need tools or weapons, coping strategies, any mental tricks you have for not snapping.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Victoria. My goal and my role is to equip you with tools that you learn to use over the long term. The operative word is learn. Nothing is instantaneous.”
I’d known that. I just… a part of me had hoped he could give me some tricks. Even for the placebo effect, just to give me a sense that I wasn’t completely defenseless while facing down giants like my sister and her new queen.
“Sorry,” I said. “For wasting your time.”
“It’s not a waste. I don’t think there are any one-hundred percent answers, but I do think we can take some baby steps in the right direction. We can talk coping strategies, coping mechanisms, but only if you understand these aren’t fixes, and I’m not giving you the all-clear.”
“Please,” I said.
“For the record, I don’t think you should attend this meeting if your sister might be present. There’s too little to gain, and too much to lose.”
“I’m the reason she wants the meeting. Amy’s the reason that’s the case. If I don’t facilitate this and attend, then there is no meeting, there is no communication, and there’s only chaos. I don’t think the good guys come out ahead in that scenario.”
“All for the sake of getting a handle on this?”
“One hundred percent,” I answered him, with only a sick feeling in my gut.
“Then let’s change the subject for a moment. I may have been misreading things as I watched the episode, correct me if I’m wrong, but your team looked surprised when the subject was raised. My instincts were that it wasn’t because of how low the hosts stooped in trying to get to you.”
“It wasn’t. You’re right.”
“Have you told them since?”
I shook my head. “Only one of them.”
“I can’t armor you, Victoria, but I can point out a weak point you’ve been ignoring. Let’s talk this through.”
I felt conspicuous, as people milled around me. The hospital was waking up, and both the families who were staying at places nearby and the families who were really devoted were arriving for the start of visiting hours. Eight thirty in the morning.
I didn’t feel great, as it happened. I was less Victoria Dallon and more the arms, legs, body and head of Victoria Dallon, very aware of the clothes she wore and the movements of this body. With the rain outside, people came in with wet hair, umbrellas and coats. Slick wetness slid across bare hands and occasionally the face. Lurching bodies periodically bumped and brushed up against the body of Victoria Dallon.
I hated this and I didn’t fight it either.
It was a state of mind that had kept me alive and sane when the body hadn’t been mine. A way of framing thoughts and not letting the small discomforts and the awkwardness get to me. In rehearsing conversations and facing the details I’d have to spell out for others, I found myself back there. Not irrevocably so, I could have backed off or forced myself to the surface, but I wasn’t one hundred percent up to it.
Some people saw me and gave me second glances. One or two smiled. Ten glared or gave me dirty looks. The looks only distorted the alignments and fits of body, skin, mind, and heart. I could rationalize it- I’d been on television less than twenty-four hours ago, after all. I couldn’t sell that rationalization to the feeling in my gut.
It went beyond just me, though. It felt like people were more frazzled, more angry, more rumpled. My mind was in a place where I was more able to dwell on the bad.
Natalie had family with her- a few young cousins or siblings, a few people of an age to be aunts and uncles, and a lone parent: a mom who was probably the complete inverse of my mom. Her mom babied her, getting water that she didn’t reach for, fretting, moving aimlessly. The main reason I thought the kids were Natalie’s siblings was that her mom looked very much like a mother of four that hadn’t slept, showered, and had pulled on whatever she’d had at hand. Natalie just seemed to lie back on the hospital bed and let it happen, making regular comments to the cousin or sibling nearest to her in age.
A rain-slick umbrella licked its way along the length of my arm. I pulled my arm away, gripping my wrist to help keep it out of the way, and took a step forward and a step the side. Toward the door, putting myself in line of sight. I rapped my knuckles on the frame.
“Oh, hi Victoria,” Natalie said. To her family, she said, “This is someone I’m working with. You’re up early.”
That got me a dubious look from her mom.
“I was in the area.” Intentionally. “How are you?”
“I’m ready to go home. They kept me overnight after I fainted a second time, and I really shouldn’t have. I’m discharged after lunch.”
“I’m still worried,” her mom fretted.
“I’m just really, really lame.” Natalie’s head lolled back to her pillow as she said it, as if she was exasperated.
“You’re not lame,” I said. “You went above and beyond last night.”
“That night feels like a dream now,” she said. “The pain drugs are contributing to that feeling.”
“I’m sorry we put you in the line of fire,” I said. “That kind of thing with going after people at home- that shouldn’t happen. It’s unprecedented.”
“Don’t say that,” Natalie said, mock-stern. “As the closest thing you have to legal counsel, you saying that is tantamount to admitting culpability. If I wanted to sue you, you’d be digging your own grave with that.”
“Right,” I said.
“This wasn’t what I wanted for you,” her mom cut in. “You would have been safer going into medical school.”
“If I worked in a hospital, I’d have belligerent drug-seeking patients to deal with or something, and I’d be miserable. I’m working under some excellent lawyers and my prospects are good. I’m only three-quarters miserable doing what I’m doing. If I put up with the three-quarters I don’t like for a little while longer, I’ll be able to move to doing things I like. And I get to do this stuff with the hero team too. Scary moments aside, it’s really neat.”
“The hero team is too dangerous for what you’re getting.”
“You don’t even know how much I’m getting.”
“I know it’s too dangerous!”
“Thank you for coming, Victoria, you don’t have to feel obligated to stay for the family squabbling. Can you keep me updated? I may drop by at four or five.”
“You should rest,” her mom protested.
“I can do that,” I said. “I’m glad you’re on the mend.”
“They warned me I’ll have a scar, but they said I’ll probably have no permanent damage.”
There was no sentence the mom didn’t react to, whether it was dramatic expressions, eyes widening, or posture shifts.
“Can I see?”
She had to adjust the hospital gown collar, pulling it down enough to show me the slash. From sternum to shoulder, and some of the arm. Only the arm had bandage taped over it – by the location, it might have nicked an artery. The rest had the stitches alone. It was even on both sides, stitches neat, skin not puckered or even that inflamed for this stage in the healing process.
“Looks tidy. If you want, I brought a pack of different shades of camouflage concealer over from the old Earth, and I think I have one that would match your skin tone. You’re a shade lighter than me.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s only enough in each tin for two or three applications, but maybe you’d want it for an event. Minimize or downplay the scar while wearing something strapless.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll wear anything strapless in my life, but it would be really nice to have the option.”
“Also brought this,” I said. I held up a knit blanket, still in its packaging. It was tartan, in bottle-glass green, white, and dark gray.
“Thank you,” she said. I saw the worry line on her forehead, even as she smiled.
“The last time I visited this hospital, there were walls still incomplete. I was imagining a draft.”
“It’s perfect. Can you put it over my feet?”
The mom took it from me and arranged it over Natalie’s feet.
Natalie seemed inordinately pleased with the gift. Meanwhile, I felt weirdly out of place in my own skin, and very aware of her family’s attention on me.
“Drink, Nat,” her mother urged. Natalie drank her water.
“If you’re bored with nobody around, and if visiting hours are still open, there’s something I want to discuss,” I said. “I can bring anything you need, too. I’m fast and you’re not far.”
“If you think my mom is leaving while visiting hours are open, you’re just plain wrong,” Natalie said.
“Where is that doctor?” her mom asked.
“Don’t bother the doctor, mom. Everything’s fine.”
“The more attention you get, the better.”
“I will get worse care if I’m obnoxious.”
“I’ll be the obnoxious one then if it means getting you the care you need.”
“Natalie, I’m going to get out of your hair,” I told her. Then, spur of the moment, I winked and said, “Be sure to get in touch about that one-on-one conversation. Team stuff.”
“Team stuff? Legal?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it can wait until this afternoon, I think.”
That was excuse enough for Natalie to shoo her mom and the mini-Natalies out of the room- they weren’t even paying attention to us, mostly sitting in a row of three chairs in the corner, talking. They went with the aunts and uncles. Cousins. The mom went a separate direction.
“Needed a moment to breathe?” I asked.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Believe me, I get it.”
“My mom is embarrassing. I love her, but you can’t tell her anything. Your mom, I know for a fact, is awesome.”
I drew in a breath and held back the big sigh I wanted to give.
“Are you okay?” Natalie asked. “You didn’t stay up all night hunting those losers from Kenzie’s house, did you?”
“No. We got the mooks and handed them off to the authorities. Tipped off other teams, we’re collapsing on them like we did with Trial and Error. If we pin them down, I might fly over and help.”
“Are you okay though?”
“I did want to talk with you about something one-on-one,” I told her. “If you’re up for it.”
I shook my head. “Not really. But it came up last night, and it’s been pointed out to me that this stuff being kept private is kind of a weak point. Maybe if the others had known, they would have known what to say when it came up on the show. Extra heads-
“-extra arms,” I finished. My voice was quieter with each word.
“That was a real thing?” Natalie asked, equally quiet.
“I was a puddle of body parts for two years and the one person who could change me back sent herself to the one place nobody was supposed to get out from. She threatened bioplagues if they didn’t send her there…”
“So I heard. She said if they put her in a jail cell, she’d make bacteria that ate through whatever materials they made it out of, and disperse the bioweapons through the holes. It was stupid and shortsighted to send her to the Birdcage, but she forced their hands… and now she’s working with Goddess.”
Lips, a tongue, and a throat that didn’t feel quite like my own carried on with their explanations for our unofficial eighth member of Breakthrough.
Sveta’s first words on seeing me were, “You’re drenched!”
“Saw Natalie,” I said, stepping inside. Most of the team was assembled in the headquarters. No, it looked like it was everyone. Chris was just napping under a table, waking up as Byron kicked the table leg. “She seems alright, all things considered.”
“That’s so good to hear,” Sveta said. Without moving from the center of the room, she snatched up a towel from a table and thrust it into my chest. I grunted at the impact.
“I’m glad,” Ashley said. Her projection was beside Kenzie. It was static, like a power-saving mode, arms folded, legs crossed, rear end against the edge of the desk, but nothing below the neck moved. “We owe her one. Does she need books or something while she’s in the hospital?”
“She’d be out of the hospital before she could finish anything. Is there any news on our targets?”
I found myself looking to Tristan for the answer, but it was Byron sitting next to Rain in that corner, instead.
“No reports from the teams that are helping us out,” Rain said.
“Nothing on Goddess, she’s sleeping in,” Kenzie said. “But we did have some weirdness at the prison earlier. I wasn’t here, and I couldn’t do much on my phone, but it’s like I kicked a sad, pathetic hornet’s nest.”
“Hornet’s nest?” I asked.
“An enclave of really shitty tinkers,” Chris said.
“Probably teacher,” Rain clarified. “But we were thinking it might be the Speedrunner cluster. The New Fallen.”
“Whoever it is, it’s fun! It’s like playing whack-a-mole, except they’re bad at dodging and the guts get everywhere when you land a good hit. Really satisfying.”
“But you don’t have the files you wanted,” Chris said.
“I’ll get them soon!”
“This is your specialty and they’re succeeding in stalling you.”
“I’ll get them soon, Chris!”
The flow was comforting, reassuring. Stuff to do, enemies to target. The banter, the easy companionship. More a team than friends, maybe, or that was the immediate vibe.
“I need to get this out of the way,” I cut in, abrupt. I was aware of the heads turning. That ease and comfort fled, replaced with scrutiny. Only Sveta looked concerned, not suspicious or surprised. “Therapist’s orders.”
“Is this-?” Sveta asked.
“If I don’t do this now, I won’t get around to it. It was a problem last night. I don’t want it to be a problem again. It’s too glaring a weak point, and if my sister’s out there, it might come up. You need to know what she’s capable of.”
“She changed you,” Chris said.
So blunt, so crass. I was annoyed and that annoyance could’ve made it so very easy for me to take all of the feelings that were stewing inside and lash out at him.
I glanced at Sveta.
“It’s more than that, Chris,” Sveta said.
“Easier to show than tell,” I said. I indicated the door.
It took them time to get outside. Raincoats, an umbrella. It took more time because Rain and Ashley were locked into position for whatever reason. Kenzie left last, one camera under each arm, while Byron held up one umbrella. Sveta just let the rain soak her.
When they’d all found the fire escape, I was by the ground. I walked by the trash, and snatched up three two-by-fours. Planks too warped for use in construction or repair, weather-worn from being left beneath the fire escape.
I took to the air, holding out the two-by-fours. I let the Wretch out.
Hands took the two-by-fours from me, holding them out and ready. One creaked with the hold on it. The other twisted as two different hands gripped it and threatened to snap it.
My hands no longer held the beams of wood, while they floated near me.
And as the rain came down, droplets ran down and wicked off, momentarily tracing the Wretch in its entirety. The arms, the heads, the faces, the hair. A tangled flowing of nude flesh, parts repeated over and over again, with me in the center of the mass. I didn’t look at it, keeping my head down, my hood down where it covered most of my face.
“She can do this,” my voice didn’t sound like me. “Change powers by changing the host’s physiology. She made the Class-S threat that took control of everyone, bringing them to the battlefield. That’s who’s going to be at the meeting today.”
I swiped my arm down and at an angle. The Wretch threw the planks down toward the foot of the fire escape.