The room was an unoccupied, unfurnished office, plaster and brick, hardwood floor, and a flickering light at the ceiling. The light was too bright when on, and the room was too dark with the light off, and the room was just a little bit too warm for her liking. Sleep escaped her.
It was, in every given moment, a feeling like being on a ledge, the natural and instinctive adjustments to fix her balance pushing her forward, and her stomach lurching, alarm surging through her mind. She couldn’t remember having a stomach that would react like that, or being afraid of falling, but she’d dreamed of it, and so it was intimately familiar without truly existing.
A few hundred times over, she felt it. Reflexive, natural movements, each one prompting that surge of alarm, of tension, the desire to overcorrect and overreact. The feelings washed over her like a wave, overlapping, combining, contradicting. Dealing with it in every minute of the last nine years.
The faces of the dead had never quite left her. They drove that alarm home and made the analogy of the ledge a lie. There was no dream of holding a baby, but she’d heard it before and she liked babies, so it made a kind of sense. The feeling, a dozen times in a second, that she’d been holding a child and she’d let it slip and fall. That a whole, entire, precious life would be lost.
That lurching, lost, horrible feeling came with every thread of herself that reached out. Extended to hooks and pulls, moved along the kinetic pad, rods and framing that connected the mechanical arm Rain had made her to one of her primary organs. He’d given her a gift by giving her these arms, because their movement felt like arms she’d dreamed of. She could feel fingertips drag along plastic laminate, as she turned a page.
She had brought her portfolio with her. Each picture was a story in a long and hard journey. The earliest ones had no sanity, no order, no choice of color, only long and narrow slashes of paint. When she hadn’t even had the control to pick what paint to use, only the paint, the canvas, and enough emotion boiling inside her to drive her to attack the canvas with that paint, to tear at the canvas.
Then, here, one picture. Vertical slashes on glass, photographed, because the glass wasn’t canvas but someone had wanted to preserve the image for her. Vertical because she’d struggled and fought so hard and so long on that day that her inhumanly strong limbs had lost their last iota of strength. She had collapsed against the glass, tendrils slick from tearing open paint tubes, and she had slowly slumped down, dragging the paint down with her.
Then paintings with more form. Experiments with control, to attack the canvas, then to move more gently, moving near it and directing focus elsewhere, so it was gentle movements only. There were experiments where she had everything covered with paint and then used her tendrils to whip it away, uncovering the pale canvas beneath. Negative images.
And then the practice with pens and paintbrushes. The focus on manual control. Crude, scribbled images, where pen was so often dragged wildly across the page mid-stroke. Slow, gradual improvement. A rough outline of her old room. A staff member, viewed from the back through the glass wall of her room, as he cleaned up blood from the floor. That had been after Ernesto had hurt himself. Ernesto hadn’t had powers, just the bad luck to have a kid who developed them and accidentally used them on his dad before he learned control. Or her dad, Sveta didn’t remember. Ernesto had always sung to her from across the hall.
On the next page, one of her first attempts at a portrait, to try and draw Ernesto as she’d remembered him.
On the page after, emboldened by her efforts with Ernesto, she’d drawn Weld, even attempting to paint within the inked out lines.
She stared down at it for a long time.
A soft knock at the door disturbed her thoughts.
The door opened, and it was Ms. Yamada who came in. Sveta felt her heart leap and already jilted emotions whirl around inside her organs and head.
“I saw the light on under the door. I was going to go upstairs and work on things until you woke up, if you were asleep. But this doesn’t look like a very comfortable room.”
“It’s what I wanted,” Sveta answered, raising herself up. Threads of herself worked with the prosthetic arms to hug the open portfolio against her chest. She had the portfolio with her, some grooming things like a brush for her hair and a scrubber to get the waxy shedding off her tendrils, and a bunch of clothes she’d removed from her bag and piled around it to try to make a pillow.
Jessica had a pillow, she noticed.
“Sorry, to make you worry. I’m alright. I’ve dealt with worse.”
“I’d like to see you moving toward better. Steadily, carefully.”
“Sorry,” Sveta said, instinctively. She hated when she did that. “I didn’t think you were checking in on us anymore. Weren’t you delegating? We were going to see someone else.”
“Victoria contacted me,” Jessica said. “It seemed important for me to come. She was going to bring you things, but she gave them to me instead.”
From Weld’s. How many times had Sveta brought up the subject of pillows, in her nattering to Victoria? How she was always worried she’d destroy someone’s pillow or make it lumpy, how it was all she really needed?
Victoria had been thinking about her.
She reached out with tendrils, and she saw the alarm cross Jessica’s face.
“It’s okay. I’m impressed you’ve come so far,” Jessica said. She relinquished the pillow.
Sveta took it, then hugged it to her upper body, lower face buried in it, eyes peering over. She inhaled, and she could smell the familiar scents of Weld’s apartment.
“You’re not staying with your friends?” Jessica asked.
“No,” Sveta said. “I’m anxious, and I keep playing out nightmare scenarios in my head. The room they’re lending me is so nice, I’m worried if I slip up, I’ll break or tear something. And the door doesn’t… secure.”
“It doesn’t lock?”
“It locks, but not in a way that stops me, or stops either of them. I could tear off the doorknob and hurt the person standing on the other side, or take the door off the hinges. I stayed there the last two nights and tonight I was here and I decided… maybe I’d stay in an office like this one.”
“Are you more comfortable?”
“This door doesn’t secure either. But it’s better.”
“Let me know if I can help.”
Again, she breathed in deep. It comforted her and hurt at the same time.
“Victoria’s going to come in shortly. She wanted me to hear you out or talk to you. The way she puts it, she’s worried she bullied or pressured you into this, she wanted me as the contradicting opinion. Someone who knows you well enough to be gentle.”
“You’re here to tell me it’s a bad idea?”
“I’m here to ask you why you think it’s a good idea. Then we can talk about that. Do you want to get comfortable? I have more things Victoria gave me.”
“Oh, sorry, I’ll take it off your hands.”
Jessica didn’t flinch from the reaching tendrils this time. Sveta took the bag, setting the portfolio down.
“I remember this,” Jessica said. “Ernesto Ochoa?”
The portfolio hadn’t closed in the time since Sveta had been staring down at the page. Now it lay on the floor, open to Ernesto’s sketch.
Sveta nodded, solemn. She was glad the page had turned and that it wasn’t still open to the image of Weld she’d been looking at.
“You don’t still blame yourself for him, do you? I remember, after he was transferred to another wing for care, you kept apologizing, over and over, even though you’d only ever offered him comforting words and kindness.”
“Isn’t it okay, if I did blame myself?” Sveta asked.
The bag had other pieces of clothing, new articles that Victoria had apparently picked out on her own, probably earlier tonight. When Vic had offered to take Sveta shopping, Sveta had said she’d rather hang back here and rest. Vicky had apparently gone shopping with her in mind regardless.
“I think blame isn’t healthy, as a rule.”
There was a stretchy, silky shirt that made Sveta think of Semiramis, with its color scheme. Jade, gray, and cherry blossom pink. It was pretty cool. Not the kind of thing Sveta would have picked out on her own, but now it was apparently hers. Its addition in her tiny wardrobe begged her to find things that matched it.
Sveta pulled a music player out of the bag that Victoria had sent. She pressed the button to turn it on and clicked through the songs. By the look of it, Victoria had asked Weld about what music she liked, then put it into the player.
And art supplies. She had her own buried in among her stuff, but Victoria hadn’t known that. It was a nice touch, and a clean, untainted notebook and paint set was inviting.
“Blame keeps you going, doesn’t it? Ernesto needed to blame his wife for what happened to his child. Indignation and quiet fury got him through days he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to manage.”
“It doesn’t make those days better. It’s my feeling that every day he focused on being angry and hurt, he got further from being okay.”
“Should-” Sveta started. She stopped as it hit her that she’d walked into a verbal trap, or that she was setting one up. Neither was okay. “Should I be okay? So many people died.”
“You were just a child, and you weren’t given a choice.”
“But Rain was just a child too, not that much older, and he was threatened with horrible, horrible things, he was brainwashed from a young age, and he had Mama Mathers looking over his shoulder, ready to make him insane and then to make him a breeder for her cult. He had a gun to his head and people act like-”
Jessica didn’t cut in, didn’t interrupt while Sveta thought aloud.
“-Like if Rain finds a ceiling to his self-blame or a point where he stops blaming himself, then he’s not repentant.”
“I have my own feelings about that, I’ve talked with him about them. I would reiterate, you were just a child.”
“So I should be okay? It’s okay for me to be… okay?”
She’d aimed to put an inflection on that last word, and then her voice had cracked as she’d uttered it, which doubled on the effect. The effect was to make it sound far closer to how profound and impactful the notion was to her. How scary and fragile.
She was playing dirty, she knew. This was the verbal trap that would either get turned on her, or that she would turn on Jessica. The idea of her being okay was too layered, too heavy, for it not to be used by one of them.
“There are no guarantees, and there’s no guarantee of justice in this. There were cultures where they would put hot coals on your tongue if you were on trial, and if you were burned, you were guilty. There’s no more rhyme or reason to how this ends up than there was in that. If you try to imagine there is, then you could end up still holding incredible guilt, with a body that miraculously was fine, or you could end up with a body that was worse than what you have now and losing years of progress in every respect because you attached your expectations to the idea that you end up with what you deserve and then ended up with a tragic result.”
“Or I could get the worst of both worlds, which I feel like I’m doing now. With a body that wants to kill people and all of the self-blame. When I wanted to leave with Weld, I remember you saying I shouldn’t, you didn’t recommend it. You said I had a choice. I made a choice, and people died after that. A lot of people.”
“I think you’re assigning yourself more blame than is right, for those deaths. You played your part, you tried to help, and things were going poorly.”
Sveta shook her head. Emotions surged and seethed through her organs and toward her face, not flushing it or leaving her teary-eyed or leaking bile through her tear ducts only because she controlled herself.
She wanted to say a hundred things, but she couldn’t bring herself to.
“May I?” Jessica asked. She indicated the portfolio.
“Can I sit?”
“I don’t have chairs in here. You can sit on my bag. Here.”
Sveta dragged the bag over by the wall.
“Sit with me?” Jessica asked, as she sat against the wall, sitting on the bag, the portfolio in her lap.
Sveta nodded. She was glad for the company, even though it was hard. Jessica sat so their arms and shoulders touched. Something that hadn’t been possible before.
The portfolio and her development from the oldest images to the newer ones was a depiction of her progress. Things took on more details. More mental resources were freed up as she learned coping skills. Bricks laid atop one another, building something. Progress, step by glacial step.
Jessica started to turn the page, when Sveta stopped her.
Children on the rocks, the paint used with an impasto technique to give rocks dimension and give equal dimension to the waves. That didn’t quite translate to the digital printing of the image, but still…
The images of the children were cruder, not quite matched to the three-dimensional image of the rocks and water, which annoyed Sveta.
“Which one is you?” Jessica asked.
“I don’t know. I was thinking about it last night. Trying to remember who I was. That’s when I dug my portfolio out of my things. Bough says that my mental image of who I’m supposed to be is going to be really important to how this ends up.”
“Is that why you’re dwelling on the notion of blame and self-blame?”
“My concern, Sveta, is so much more general than what you’re talking about here. You’re making sure and steady progress toward a healthier, happier, more controlled state, and you’re risking throwing all of that away.”
“Where do you think I end up, Jessica? If I take this road where I say no to Mr. Bough and I tell Victoria to stop looking for answers like that one… where do I end up?”
“I think… I can envision you with a man that loves you entirely as much as you deserve, who sees your heart and talent and who trusts, respects, and pays close attention to you-”
Sveta shook her head.
“-I can see it, and I think that’s something you’ve expressed is important to you. I see you with a house of your own with a sunny art studio filled with plants and aquariums. I see you adopting. I see you taking your newfound love of cooking and sharing it with this family of yours. With friends. And you working with others who have their own struggles with power and control.”
Sveta touched the page with the children on the rocks. “What if I want more?”
“What if you can’t? Can you make peace with that? There are many people with disabilities or syndromes who have to learn to live with their own struggles. Chronic pain, a body that fights them, a lack of mobility…”
“There are people with disabilities who can fix those disabilities. People who can’t see who can get a surgery. People who can’t walk who can fix it.”
“There are. But that doesn’t necessarily require working with someone like Mr. Bough. There’s a vast, vast difference between a medical professional who has dedicated their lives to healing, and a man like that, who has spent much of his life taking people apart and turning them into a product he can sell.”
Sveta shook her head. “I’ve already come to terms with that, I think. It doesn’t take away or add to what he did, if I say yes or no. I still blame him and hate him for what he is. I just… I’m impatient.”
She touched the shadowy silhouette of the child on the page.
“I want to be her again.”
The black rocks by the shore were precarious. Where the waves crashed against stone, specks of water beaded the black stone, making it slick. Plant life drank the water and spread on the stone, camouflaged black on black, but slicker still.
They clambered over rock, careful with how they moved. A cousin was arranging stones to weigh down a bowl, igniting the contents of that bowl. A beacon on the rocks. They were the oldest, and so they got that duty.
Which was fine, good, because everyone else got to draw. Orange clay mixed with crushed seashell as a binding agent, with oil and fat from the forever drowning, those sea creatures with sharp teeth that had the same general shape as people, except with legs bound together into tails.
The mixture made for sticks that could be dragged across rock, leaving behind bright orange markings on black that would resist being washed off. The boats that came in would find it necessary, with clouds rolling in and the sky getting so dark so early. The craft out on the water were having to fight to get to shore, as the waves rose and fell.
It didn’t matter what they drew, only that they defined the rocks clearly, and that they move carefully on the stone that was slick with salt water, seaweed, and slime. Some of the rock was as sharp as any glass the blower in the village made, and in the dim light, they were hard to see.
Nayet watched as her brother worked with handsome Micha to climb down to one of the bigger rock faces. Micha hunted the forever drowning with his father, and was strong and always happy. Dimi hadn’t yet grown out of the stage where he wore simple children’s tunics with orange clay bead collars, his hair a mop that hadn’t been cut like someone who’d come of age. It was a year overdue and made him look that much more immature next to tall, strong Micha, who was roughly the same age.
“Ahasa, Micha i Dimi!” Nayet shouted at the two boys who were joking together. Hurry. “Hasa ayae a ihe punus yahey ehasa!”
Micha laughed, boisterous, while other kids either laughed with him or jeered. Dimi blushed a red that she could see even in the gloom, ducking his head down. Embarassed.
“No en, Nayet!” Micha said. “Sen, senet, senehasa. Yen senet babat ehasa, huh?”
Now the jeering was directed at her and at Dimi.
“Huh!” she answered, a smile on her face.
She drew, broad side of her biggest chalk-stick against a wall of black rock. She made her drawing a ‘punu’- a large, dramatic and exaggerated image of a boy’s thing, that took up the entire length of rock, ten paces long. She put symbols for good fortune at the root of it and symbols for safety coming out of the tip.
She wasn’t sure what it meant, but she hoped it would give the struggling fishermen a laugh and renew their strength as they made their way to shore.
They were allowed to write whatever so long as they wrote a lot, so they did more rude things. Aspersions about Micha’s ‘babat’- his male caregiver, and what he did with the forever drowning. He might get angry at that one. More ‘punu’, crossed like the fighting sticks the boys and healthier girls used for play-fighting.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. As one, the gathered youth answered with roars and shouts of their own, as if they could beat back the thunder with a cry of their own.
More seriously, they set to work, outlining rocks and adding more symbols and words.
The sky was filled with energy, and energy filled most of the children. Dimi wasn’t one of them. Nayet’s jab from earlier had him sour, and even Micha’s good temper wasn’t enough to rouse him from it. Sulking, Dimi drew on his own. More creative swirls, fish. Birds. Ones associated with good fortune. That was probably why the older people in the village liked Dimi so much.
“Nayet, net abram milana,” Micha teased.
Nayet wiggled, plucking at her top. “Mmah aah, Micha, eyehn den sealman.”
Micha only laughed at the aspersion.
Clearly worried about her big brother, Nayet glanced down at the rocks.
He wasn’t any angrier or more upset, even though he’d clearly heard. Not jealousy, not defensiveness over Micha.
She used up the last of her chalk-sticks and took more from the smaller children. They’d done enough now, but when the storm came they would be cooped up, listening to the drum of the water on the clay tile roofs. This would be their last chance, potentially for days, to stretch their arms and legs.
The sky rumbled, and the children, joined by one adult who had reached the shore, shouted back.
They weren’t even done their responses when the sky rumbled again. The answering cries were strained, higher-pitched, more forced, because of course they had to be louder each time.
When the third rumble came, Micha and Nayet simultaneously noticed something was wrong. Neither of them joined the others.
Another cry, a wail, was undercutting the raucous noise elsewhere.
Dimi had fallen, sliding on the rocks. Now he wasn’t getting up. Micha, big and boisterous and brave, wasn’t willing to climb down.
“Iyet!” Micha warned.
But Nayet wasn’t willing to leave her brother for the water to take. Rocks painted orange were easier to grip, resisting the rain, and so she focused on those. With the sky growing darker by the second, it was impossible to avoid the hidden blades, where black glass stuck out of rock and sliced into finger, hand, leg. Nicks, skin-deep cuts. Dimi had no doubt cut himself once, then reacted in pain.
And when he’d fallen, he’d slid against that surface with a dozen hidden blades. He’d been raked, cut deep enough times that skin hung loose in places. Perhaps the only thing that had saved him was that he wore the child’s tunic, a straight drop from clay collar to mid-thigh. Had he been dressed like Micha, his upper body would have been exposed and cut to shreds. Had he been dressed like his sister, it would have been back and midriff. As it was, only three or four long cuts marked his body.
He was conscious, wide-eyed, lying in water that took on the color of his blood. When she grabbed him, he grabbed her back. That strength wouldn’t last long, and when it went, her grip alone wouldn’t be enough to get him from the water’s edge to higher ground.
The two of them fought, with Dimi using ruined arms and legs to help when he could, every motion trembling. Her own limbs screamed at her with the countless cuts.
Why had he come down this side? It faced a part of the shore few boats were likely to use. Was it Nayet’s fault, because she’d talked about how he and Micha would have time to play with each other later?
Already, Dimi was delirious, more focused on the broken bead at one corner of his tunic’s collar than he was on anything else.
Micha waited, belly down on painted rocks, reaching down to grab Dimi.
Dimi grabbed onto her, gripping her with a startling strength.
“Ya sazha,” Dimi whispered.
“Iyet,” Micha said, face pale.
“Ahasa,” she answered, ignoring Dimi, focusing on Micha. “Aha!”
It was Micha who carried Dimi, who took Nayet’s urging and left her behind so he could get Dimi help sooner. Exhaustion overtook her, as she’d strained every muscle in her body from toe to tongue to get Dimi to safer ground, and now that the battle-shock she’d leaned on to save Dimi was leaking away, her countless wounds were making themselves felt. Bruises and cuts. Younger children supported her as she trudged up the hill to her home, dreading what she would find.
Their parents were ready to take care of Dimi and to bring Nayet indoors. Despite the storm that was surrounding their home, families banded together to give what they had to bandage and treat the wounds. Cuts on the rocks were bad but they were something that could be managed.
The storm was as bad as any they’d faced in Dimi’s lifetime. The temperature dropped until the healthiest of them was chattering at the tooth. And Nayet was drained, Dimi drained further still.
When bandages were peeled away, the skin around them was red, inflamed. Strength and vitality continued to bleed out of the wounds.
Exhaustion claimed everyone, as water rose high enough to take the boats and the houses closest to the water. The clay-worker’s lodge was taken, and because so many had already moved in with neighbors, Dimi’s family was the one to take the clay maker’s family in, crowding in shoulder to shoulder to wait out the storm.
In the midst of it, in the middle of the night, three kinds of Death came for them. One lurched, a giant with crude features, no doubt a bludgeoning death. Another prowled, six-limbed, each limb narrower than Dimi’s arm, and Dimi had shed weight seemingly by the second since his injuries.
The last was the scariest of them. A woman with features like nothing any of them had seen before, gleaming and clicking in time like a music stripped of joy. Interlocking pieces wove in and out of each other like fibers for a tunic, toothed like a saw with teeth meshing.
Ever-changing, parts shuffling and turning in time with the ticks of the joyless music, an endless, inevitable kind of rapping, like a man striking the same part of a drum every beat for all eternity. Where a bludgeoning Death was something the children could understand, and a prowling Death made all the sense in the world, this woman promised a different kind of death. A transformative death.
The same marking adorned all three of them. A tilted cup, etched in black.
“Sou,” the woman with gleaming parts addressed them from the clay tile walkway between huts. “Asher chie senet, atol, pava. Iyet a ayon, ie eh zoya.”
A proclamation, a promise.
Give us your young with no future, the doomed, the sick, the lost. You won’t see them again, but they may live.
She said other things, but neither Dimi nor Nayet heard. They resisted faintly as their parents wrapped them in blankets, then took them out into the pouring rain.
The shock of cold water and the colder touch of the ever-transforming Death was enough to rob the sick children of their hearing, as their parents said last words.
Three Deaths carried them past the thresholds.
Jessica picked up her phone. It had vibrated.
“Problem?” Sveta asked.
“No. Victoria was wondering if I was still here. She’s avoiding me, I think. Keeping her distance.”
Sveta wasn’t sure what to say about that.
“I’m going to go. It’s late enough I should sleep, and it seems you’ve come to a decision. Please do call if you need anything, I’m not practicing-”
“You could have fooled me,” Sveta answered. Then she caught herself. “Sorry. It’s late.”
“It’s okay. I… yes. I’m making a special exception here. While I’m not practicing, I can pull strings and ask for favors. I also do want to hear from you, however this goes. If you need me I will come.”
Oh, those were horrible words to hear. Ominous ones. The only way Sveta would need Jessica was if things went terribly wrong.
Or even a little wrong.
Jessica stood, getting her things.
“Jessica?” Sveta asked.
“Mr. Bough was telling me that, um, for what he does, how I end up is going to be a combination of his skill, my old self, and, uh, it helps to have things to splice in. He’s asking for tissue or blood samples from people I would like to model my eventual self after. We were thinking, um, we would collect a series of samples from people very close to me, people important to me. And that would be a little bit of who I eventually became. If everything went right. It would only be, like, two percent of my eventual body, and it wouldn’t affect my face or my brain or, um, anything.”
Jessica didn’t look surprised at the request.
“Victoria mentioned that.”
Sveta spoke up, rushed, hurried, “I’m sorry, but would you- could you be one of those people, for me?”
She hated herself for asking, for forcing Jessica to give a harder answer.
“I don’t think I could or should, I’m sorry. I feel like if I did, I wouldn’t be able to help you after.”
“It’s okay. I understand,” Sveta said, even though she did feel hurt and she didn’t wholly understand.
“I’m leaving behind my caseload, but I’ll make a special exception for you, going forward. If you need me, I will be here for you.”
“Thank you,” Sveta said, quiet. “I appreciate that.”
“Good luck,” Ms. Yamada told her.
She heard a distant noise, a crash, and she screamed, top of her lungs, as if to drive that noise away.
It ignored her, pressing on. She turned away, her focus limping like a person with a crushed leg might hobble forward in an ungainly way. Where she focused, she lashed out, she grabbed, and she tended to move in that direction. She couldn’t ignore the sounds of tramping boots. She couldn’t ignore the lessons imparted in her so many times before. This was a pattern, a nightmare set to endlessly repeat, front to back, forever. Dread, anxiety, death. Sometimes that death was animal. Sometimes it was insect. Those were- they were bad, for reasons different than the other deaths. Her body wanted to eat and that meant making her eat. If she didn’t eat of her own accord, chewing and swallowing, then this writhing body of hers would pull food against her face until it was crushed against lip and tooth, feeding her by forced morsels and fighting every step of the way.
If she didn’t eat the rodents, the dogs, and the centipedes, then it would try to feed her the people, and she couldn’t bear that. If she ate then she had more control, and if she had control then she could avoid the worst cases. If she could maintain a kind of stability and train her focus, keep the deaths to cats and rodents, then it was a nightmare, but it was a looping nightmare that stayed stable. By night, she would dream, of a village by the water, of peers and friends, family.
She’d been imprisoned alongside- had it been her brother? And then she had become this and they had become dead, crushed to death by the movements of a body of black stone, ground into wall and floor until there was only pulp, and black gobbets that creaked like rock and twitched like meat.
That was stability. To dream of things lost and live to avoid more loss.
This, the sound of boots, was the loss of that stability. The descent into a whirlpool of worse and worse, darker and darker, less and less control. If she killed a person, and she’d killed so many now, tearing into a crowd, then being hunted after, they came for her.
With limping, struggling movements, she fought to get away, focusing attention on anything that could be a handhold, willing her body to cooperate. Her movement was slowed because her body insisted on carrying its next potential meal with her, dragging an arm, neck, shoulder, and the crushed lower part of a head behind.
“Upstairs!” was the shout, in English. “I hear it!”
She screamed, long and loud, raw, to answer that coming fury with something that might drive it away.
“I’ll go. Back me up,” was a woman’s voice.
Again, she screamed, her voice higher-pitched, more frantic.
The person came into view, a woman in a skintight outfit, wearing pieces of armor, broader across the shoulders than anyone she’d seen, man or woman, muscular, and wearing a helmet with red hair flowing behind.
She attacked by instinct, gripping, roping, choking.
“C’mere,” the woman said, gripping tendrils and hauling her in closer. “Finally got you.”
She screamed, snarled, her body fighting to get away, to crush. Nothing worked.
The woman pulled her in closer and closer, until gauntleted hands gripped her by the face.
They were eye to eye. The woman’s eyes searched her expression. In answer, she only trembled, tendrils continuing to lash out.
“Oh, you poor thing. You’re not doing this on purpose.”
“No,” she said, in a voice she’d barely used except to scream. She knew English even though she didn’t know why, like she knew Russian. This was her first time using it. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m a heroine, okay? They called us in to help and now we’re going to get you that help, alright?”
“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
The heroine hugged her, bringing face to chest, clumsy in how forceful she was, but unbearably kind.
Victoria hugged her almost immediately after coming in the door.
“You got everything I sent?”
Sveta nodded. “Pillow. The shirt.”
“I gave you several shirts, and now I’m really curious which one you like enough to call ‘the’ shirt.”
Sveta allowed herself a chuckle. She broke the hug and turned, reaching for and picking up the shirt with jade and gray and light pink as boldly outlined cloud and animal shapes.
“Aha,” Victoria said. She smiled.
It was good to see her smile. She looked tired.
“How are things? I’m a little out of the loop.”
“Things are manageable. There was a triple-hit of releases, copies of messages from an online, inter-team message service, like the chatroom you guys used to talk outside of therapy. They weren’t flattering, but Dragon pulled a retroactive overhaul of the look and style for the message system and we were able to respond by saying ‘no, this is what our messages look like. Someone made that up’. It happened in like, fifteen seconds, with five or six of us responding, so it’s… really positive. It means people are second guessing things, being critical of what they read.”
“That’s really good.”
“The downside is we’re expecting them to drop something a lot heavier. It’s been a few days of quiet since we uncovered it all, then this, and we don’t think they’re going to leave it at this.”
Sveta nodded. “Scary.”
“It is. But how are you? Are you managing? Are you comfortable?”
“I can’t completely relax,” Sveta admitted. “I worry an employee is going to come through the door and it’ll take too long for me to pull myself together.”
“Let’s do something about that, then. I can think of a few options.”
“What if we used our tech to drop you into another world? Somewhere sunny where you can swim. Forget everything.”
“Seems lonely,” Sveta said.
“Might be,” Victoria said. “We could also, if you’re willing, use one of the empty cells.”
Sveta’s immediate reaction was an instinctive jerk back. Then, as she thought on it, she relaxed some. She’d had bad dreams about being imprisoned, surrounded by nightmares. She’d found some catharsis and fresh horror in revisiting that field of nightmares organized into small boxes. Cauldron’s cells. Where she had once been kept.
It was the very first time and only time she’d really validated that her dreams had any foundation in reality.
“That might be better.”
“Are you feeling out of control?”
“I feel like if I don’t make sure absolutely nothing can go wrong, it will go wrong. And it might go wrong no matter what. Ms. Yamada thinks it will go wrong.”
Victoria made a face.
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “She wishes me luck. But she won’t say I should and she was very careful to say if I need her, or when I need her, I can ask for her.”
“Was I wrong to send her?”
Sveta shook her head.
“I wanted… maybe it’s selfish, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t steamrolling you, that I picked the best person I could think of who could argue against my idea.”
“It was good. It was fine. I was glad to see her and to talk for-” Sveta said, pausing, “-what time is it?”
“Five in the morning, about.”
“For hours,” Sveta said. “It’s really five?”
“What the hell are you doing up at five, you moron?”
“Keeping you company. Expecting you wouldn’t be sleeping, and figuring I could go over notes and work on stuff in a safer place if you were asleep. But mostly figuring you wouldn’t be getting much sleep.”
Sveta shook her head.
“Do you want food? I can get food. Or anything you want.”
“I want, um, it might sound weird, but that idea about going into a cell. Where I can let my hair down. Before people wake up and employees come in?”
“Okay,” Victoria said. “Get your stuff, and let’s go.”
Victoria helped grab things, carrying the pillow and the portfolio, while Sveta brought the bag with clothes and other hygiene things.
They passed through the hallway, and Victoria was fatigued enough she got one of the passwords slightly wrong. Into the bunker. Down the side path to the prison.
“Who do you want for company?” Victoria asked.
“Put me close to Bough?”
It took a minute to negotiate with the guards, ensure everything was okay. Then she locked herself in, ensuring she had her phone secured where she couldn’t damage it. She shed her prosthetic arms, jumping as the shock marked the detachment of the kinetic pads, and placed them away with care, surrounded by clothes. She shed her clothes for the most part as well.
She let herself unfurl and reach out, finding things to anchor onto, and she had to take steps to relax, to undo the steps and the measures to keep things focused. A headache she didn’t know she’d had eased.
In this cell, which had its reinforced glass and chickenwire on four sides, opaque panels providing some privacy, she could see the landscape beyond, and the night sky. She could track the time of day.
Her portfolio she opened, pulling apart the rings that bound the pages together, and she let the pages scatter, decorating her cell with art and memories, personality and meaning.
Only then did she look past the glass at Mr. Bough, who was her neighbor. She willed him to see her and her art, to know she was a person and not a patient or a subject. She hoped that small measure would make a difference, if a difference was needed.
But her art was her own measure for sanity. Her music, she put on at a low enough volume it shouldn’t bother the others.
This would do. It would allow her to manage, for as long as this ended up needing. For as long as she had her art, her music, and the ability to create, she could stay sane. She was locked up and locked up was safe, whether it was in a hospital room, in a cage of Weld’s own body, her prosthetic body, or a cell. Nothing could spiral down and out, getting worse and darker.
Something clinked at the door. Sveta turned to look.
A vial with a plastic stopper. Then another. Then another. All dropped into the slot in the door where file folders normally rested flush against the glass. All crimson.
She drew close enough to look.
Antares. Swansong. Precipice. K. Armstrong.
“Swansong and Precipice said you hadn’t asked, but they thought they’d offer. We didn’t ask Lookout, but you know she’d say yes. Tristan said he really doesn’t like getting his blood drawn so he won’t go out to do it until he’s asked.”
“It’s really kind,” Sveta said, blinking hard. “Armstrong did?”
“And the others. I- I don’t even know. People are so kind, but-”
“You’re allowed to say no, if you have reasons, aesthetic or because of power interactions, cluster-”
“I thought of you and Ms. Yamada because I thought you were the people who I’d like to make a kind of official, unofficial family. I wouldn’t have dared to ask Mr. Armstrong but I’m really glad and really touched.”
Sveta was misty eyed, and remained where she was, looking at the vials, as Victoria found a position sitting down, leaning against the door.
Sveta found her own position there, a foot or so from her friend, meeting her eyes. She hadn’t expected or counted on the company, but it meant a lot. The blood for the procedure with Bough, too.
She got her fresh new art supplies, held it where Victoria could sit and watch with her head leaning against the glass, and she started drawing.
“Coming in,” the nurse said.
She wore the bodysuit, with its overlarge head and reinforced neck, a spacesuit in a normal atmosphere, reinforced three times over.
Sveta concentrated, focusing on the steps. Visual images of bricks, every second as something that mattered, another brick on a wall, that wall as part of a larger construction, that large construction being art, something she crystallized in her own mind’s eye, elaborated on, refined to the precise detail.
Another trick was word games, switching from Russian to English. One she played, she had a board in her head, like the game with letter tiles on a grid. She alternated from English to Russian, matching by sounds rather than by letter, and tried to build it into something elaborate that she held in her head.
When she felt like she was in a good place, level and calm, she opened her eyes, looked at the nurse.
“Yes ma’am,” Sveta answered.
If she snapped, let her control slip, if she sent one tendril the wrong way, then that might be the end of this experiment.
“Not too tight,” the nurse told her, while extending an arm.
Tendrils reached for and found the arm, and with care, she brought herself closer. The nurse carried her out into the hallway. The space had been evacuated, except for another employee who was in the spacesuit.
The freedom was exhilarating and the exhilaration was enough to make her anxious. A tendril batted against the nurse’s helmet, which made her stop in her tracks.
“I’m okay,” Sveta said. “Sorry.”
This was a judgment call. The nurse could easily decide to turn back and carry her to her room.
Instead, the woman carried her forward. Into a rec room, with television and computers.
Sveta thought what she was looking at was ten or fifteen people sprawled across the couch, an arm thrown over here, a leg thrown over there, head resting against backrest, another dangling near the floor. All in the same dull gray sweatclothes, all with the same blonde hair, cropped short except in one case, where it grew long.
Except they were one person.
A computer was positioned next to the couch, and hands worked, struggled to coordinate to operate the keys. Each key had a hole in it where joysticks could be screwed in. Pull to push down. They typed with effort.
“That’s my computer,” Sveta said.
The typing stopped.
“I mean, it’s the one I use, but I guess you’re one of the other two people I share it with,” Sveta said. She pulled herself to the computer stand, and wrapped herself around the stand, resting her chin on the top of the monitor. “I’m sorry if I hog it.”
“Its o.k.,” was the mechanical text-to-voice response. After a short delay. “Do you want to use it?”
Beneath the girl’s clothes, a tube shuddered, audibly slurping. Multiple sets of eyes closed, as if in pain, or bothered.
“No. You need it to talk, right?”
“I do not have much to say.”
“I can’t believe that,” Sveta said. “I’m Sveta. I’m a case fifty-three, which is what they officially call people like me.”
“I know. I studied capes once.”
“Awesome,” Sveta said. “So you do have something you’re into. My thing is art, and a bit of video games, which is where I hog the computer. I only follow some capes-”
“-What kind of art?”
“Painting, and drawing, and anything I can manage. It’s therapy for me. Sorry if I’m talking too much.”
“Okay. Just let me know,” Sveta said. “What-”
“What capes? What capes do I follow?”
“Um, sorry, before I answer, communicating like this is tricky. Is it okay if I talk over, and then you interrupt, or do you want me to wait, or, um, sorry, just thinking-”
“Watch, question mark.”
“Watch the screen. I’m dumb. Okay, but um- if you grab me I might hurt you. I’m not one hundred percent.”
“Do you need to go back to your room, Garotte?” the nurse at the door asked.
“No! No. I’m okay. I’m just being careful.”
A finger pointed from couch to the screen. Sveta maneuvered to look.
It’s okay if you hurt me. My psych and the nurse explained the risk. If you hurt my hand or one of my heads, I have more.
Sveta settled down, much of her body finding some purchase across and along the floor, at the couch legs, and at the base of the computer stand. She watched as words appeared.
I could use some company.
“Me too,” Sveta said.
You were talking about capes you like.
“Oh, yeah, I-” Sveta started, stopping as more words started to appear.
Warning: get me going on this topic and I may not stop.
“Warning acknowledged,” Sveta said. She twisted around to shoot her new companion a smile. “I have one favorite, and he’s Weld.”
I know Weld.
“You know who he is? That’s great. The more popular he gets, the better it is for all of us. Erm, us being case fifty-threes like me.”
I know him know him.
“You know him? Is he half as cool as he seems from- from media and videos and stuff?”
Sveta was twisting around, to look between her companion and the screen with responses.
“If you get me started on that subject, I might never stop. That’s my warning to you,” Sveta said.
“But- oh, man, this has been bugging me, and I’ve been searching, but I wanted to look up the heroine who found me, back when I was in Russia. I’ve been looking but I can’t find her. Do you think-”
Yes. Tell me about her.
Then they were at it, not stopping in their exchange or chatter for more than a second at a time, until their turn in the rec room was done.
“This is going to be a multi-step procedure. My planned approach will be to knit together your tendrils, three at a time. Once that’s done, I want to fray the edges, make them serrated. Then we knit them together.”
Mr. Bough drew on the wall of his cell in erasable marker. “It’s like a zipper. With this, we can create a general framework, outline proportions, and from there we add mass, fill it in. Inside-out, bone, organ, muscle, nervous tissue, skin. It’s possible this will require multiple procedures over weeks.”
“Misleading,” Effervescent murmured.
“What?” Mr. Bough asked. “You were there when they attacked us.”
“Arrested you. For very good reason,” Effervescent said. “You’re fibbing about the weeks.”
“It may require multiple procedures.”
“That’s true,” Effervescent said.
“Spanning days or weeks.”
“Don’t jerk us around, Mr. Bough,” Victoria said.
The man drew in breath through his teeth.
“A couple of days or sessions?” Victoria asked.
“There we go,” Effervescent said.
Mr. Bough frowned. “I don’t know how your power will interact with this. It’s my experience that powers tend to find a way. When I was in Boston, there was a group that mutilated themselves to try to force their powers to travel in these alternate paths. It worked. They were strong.”
Sveta looked at Victoria. Victoria’s power had found a way, wrapping its forcefield around the new body, then holding that shape after.
“How do we work with that?” Victoria asked.
“I think the best way is to give the power a way. It might mean you’re not perfectly, one hundred percent an ordinary girl, but it might also mean that when your power does try to find a way, it doesn’t find that way by tearing your new body apart.”
Mr. Bough drew on the cell wall. A hand with a hole in it, a line snaking out like a tongue from a mouth.
“I don’t want to be hollow,” Sveta said.
“There are other options.”
“Okay,” Sveta said.
“I feel like we glossed over the surgery and timetable,” Victoria said. “Can we walk it back a bit? Was that glossing intentional?”
“No,” Mr. Bough said.
“I don’t get the weird manipulation feeling from that response,” Effervescent said.
“Thank you,” Victoria said. “Timetable, surgery. How?”
“I make needles,” Mr. Bough said. He ran his finger along his arm, and a needle slid out of it, a foot long and, as it disconnected from the flesh, bulbous at the tip. “I can place what I need at the head, and it will disseminate into the patient. That way, I can splice in traits I want-”
“What the patient wants,” Victoria said, stern.
“He wasn’t being duplicitous,” Effervescent said.
“Just sketchy,” Victoria muttered. “Go on.”
“Some of this, if I use the right pins, and I do plan to, is going to tap into the patient’s self image. Some of this is necessary to make the connections feel natural, making the body feel intuitive, instead of like a fit of shoes that’re the right size but worn and stretched out to fit someone else’s subtly different foot.”
“I’ve been using tech that uses the same principle,” Sveta said, moving her arm.
“Good. That’s interesting, and promising.”
“If you were willing to let my companion do his thing-”
“No,” Victoria said.
“-he could unlock your missing memories and make that connection much stronger, bring your body closer to your actual self, that’s buried deep in your memories.”
“No,” Victoria said. “Effervescent can’t get a good read on Mr. Drowsing and it feels more like a bad idea.”
Sveta nodded. “Agreed. At least for now.”
“Okay. Just saying. I can also make edits. They’ll propagate through, depending on where the needle rests. Rewrite DNA, alter the design, encourage adding mass… this won’t be easy. I’m going to add mass and it’s going to look very wrong, even frightening, because of how far it deviates from who you are and what you want. Tearing down or replacing is a lot easier than building.”
“Okay,” Sveta answered.
“This will be ugly.”
“This whole thing is going to be ugly,” Weld said.
Sveta wanted to reply, but she couldn’t bring herself to. Not the way she should.
“Yeah,” was all she managed.
His bed was a collection of ripped up old tires that he’d set up in the back of the truck. He’d thrown around some pillows so that others could lie down if they wanted to, and as he undid the loops and bindings that held her close to him, she reached for the pillow. Being by his side and at his back was reassuring, and it was often distant, because even though she was touching him, reaching through him in places where her tendrils threaded into one part of his body and out of another, she didn’t face him. Now she hid, pulling the biggest, toughest pillow around, hugging it.
In the background, the chatter of the other Irregulars could be heard. Outside the truck, they talked and made late meals.
“Do you want the ball?” he asked, picking up the reinforced hamster ball.
“Not just yet? Is that okay?”
“Perfectly okay,” he said, easing down and lying across the bedding. His fingertips hit the side of the truck as he dropped his arm, producing a percussive bang.
“Do you want me to get lost?” she asked. “I’d understand if you wanted your room to yourself. We’ve got… thirty-seven Irregulars now. It’s a lot.”
“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t raise his head, instead staring up at the ceiling. “Talking to some of the other groups about allying. It could bring us up to forty-five, forty eight. We’re estimating about ninety, ninety-five in total, that are still alive right now. We could double that number if we included people like the ones you talked about from the asylum.”
“Maybe,” she said. He was referring to the victims of powers. People like Victoria, or Ernesto, or Colony, or Mick the Tick. “I don’t think the others would go for it.”
“So many different factions. So many politics. You are maybe one of four people who get it, who I can talk to without stressing out.”
“I’m glad,” she said, her voice small.
“Thank you for having my back, in more ways than the one.”
“Ha,” she said, dropping her eyes. She hated it and loved it at the same time.
“Hey,” Weld said. “Hand. High five or fist bump, but don’t leave me hanging.”
He was lying on the bed, arm extended above him, hand out and distorted, so the upper half resembled a fist, and the lower half had the palm.
Three tendrils slapped across his palm. A bunch hit the fist a second later. Two remained attached, as he kept his hand up there, holding on.
“I’m not good at this leadership thing,” he said.
“I don’t believe that for a second.”
“I screwed up in about fifteen seconds when talking to my first team, back in Brockton Bay. I’m not sure I’m doing better here.”
“You inspire,” she told him. “You inspire me, you inspire all of them.”
“Inspiring isn’t the same as leading.”
“You lead just fine. People love and respect you. We trust you. You just… you don’t love and trust and respect yourself enough.”
“Do any of us truly love ourselves? Our ‘tooth and nail’ faction aside?”
The group had banded together in the eastern United States and celebrated their case fifty-three nature. To an extent, they celebrated it at the expense of non case fifty-threes. Their recruitment had come with stern rules.
“I like us,” she said, and it was so close to saying what she wanted to say that she felt a little dizzy. Small vital organs pumped and beat behind and beneath her like a trail of thudding hearts.
“I like us too,” he said. His voice dropped, “But I don’t like me.”
Those thudding hearts shriveled, bile churned inside her, and despair threatened to consume her brain, insofar as she had an actual thinking-organ. To see this wonderful, amazing boy so lost and struggling, even knowing it was because the week had been long and fruitless, it almost physically hurt.
“If you could only see yourself how I see you,” she said. She tugged on the arm he still held out at an angle, that she still held, like she’d slapped him a high-five and then kept her hand there, holding his.
He dropped the arm, draping his arm over his face, eyes hidden in the crook of the elbow. “Likewise.”
An automatic response.
“No, I don’t think it’s likewise,” she said. “You’re smart, you’re good at so many things, you’re one of the nicest people I know, and one of the people who’s done the most to make the world a better place. You are so beautiful, you have so many people who would give their right arm to be with you-”
“No,” he said. “Listen, I know there’s a standard pep talk that comes with talking to other case fifty-threes. I get it. We tell each other we’re beautiful in our own way, we lie and we say anything’s possible. And I- if I’m honest, I don’t really like it or buy into it, so I don’t say it, but I won’t say anything if someone else says it. But you don’t need to give me the patter.”
“It’s not patter. Weld-”
He pulled his hand away from where she held it, letting it fall alongside his body and leg.
“Weld,” she said, raising herself up and over him. Again, that trail of almost-hearts pumped within the curtain of tendrils. “Speaking as the girl who is sort of in your bed-”
She was going to regret saying that for the next fifty years.
He moved his arm away from his eyes. She almost lost the nerve to speak.
Almost, but somewhere inside her, some bizarre firework of images went off. All of Weld’s star power, the folder of images and promotional material she’d saved of him that she would never ever show him, and the very normal, very silly things like how he talked among friends, among old teammates, and how he talked to leaders and capes or community people he respected, how he talked to her, how he laughed at some shows and how he looked when he listened to the exact right piece of music and let the tension melt away…
How he looked right now, just a guy that was eighteen or nineteen with a whole community leaning on him, weary and lonely…
Letting that summation of a person hurt was far scarier than even losing this friendship.
“A-as the girl who is kind of in your bed right now, if I could kiss you I don’t think I would ever stop. You are beautiful and handsome and sexy and I would stake my life on the fact that there are thousands, tens of thousands of girls out there who would die happy if you would love them and let them love you. If you let them see the you that is kind to children and who stands up to bullies. If you let them see the you that listens to anti-music and laughs so hard, or the you that looks so happy when another case fifty-three has an achievement or hits a personal milestone.”
“You’re not so bad yourself, you know,” he told her. “Not many people could say all that, so well or so convincingly.”
“I can say it because I mean it, and if there’s anything I want to come from our friendship or my embarrassing myself like this, I want you to believe it too, okay? I want you to get to where you find a girl and you believe everything I just said.”
He reached out, and her tendrils snapped to his arm. Impulsively, she brought her face close to his, and she kissed him.
Then she pulled away. She reached for music she knew he liked and put it on.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m running away,” she said. “Because I’m so embarrassed I can’t think straight. Hamster ball for me, I’m going to roll out into the nearest ditch and bury myself.”
“I can’t, I shouldn’t, I don’t know, I’m sorry,” she said. Her feelings and thoughts were all fireworks, still, but now they were explosions of doubt, and a chasing shadow of blood, past and future.
“If I want anything from this, I want you to get to where you don’t feel you have to run, and where you don’t feel like you have to apologize.”
The music swelled.
“Good choice,” he said. “Don’t be gone too long or I’ll worry.”
Hamster ball. Lid on but ajar, door opened, lid screwed in. This one had pegs she could use to propel herself. She went out the open door.
The other trucks and vehicles were crowded around. One of the case fifty-threes was acting as a television, projecting signals onto the side of a truck.
She fled from all of them, the surge of positive emotion giving way to doubts and anxieties. She wouldn’t have been able to forgive herself if she hadn’t said anything and she couldn’t forgive herself now that she had.
There wasn’t any good ditch nearby, so she propelled herself in the direction of the woods, stopping at the treeline. She stopped to ponder the mechanics of trying to bury herself alive inside her hamster ball, dismissed it as a silly idea, and spent long minutes stewing inside her own mire of thoughts, instead.
Footsteps trudged through grass, prompting her to turn around.
She injected false positivity into her voice, “Hey Egg!”
“Can I pick you up?”
“Yep. Come on, cheek, cheek.”
He made a face, but he politely obeyed, holding the ball to one of his cheeks so she could faux-kiss it through the hard plastic, then turned his other cheek. It had started with one of the others doing it, one of the case fifty-threes from Europe, a boy, had kissed Egg. To get Egg to relax about it more of the Irregulars had started doing it. That it included some girls seemed to motivate Egg.
“How’s our seniorest junior member doing?” she asked.
“I’m happy. I never thought life could be this good.”
“I’m so glad,” she said, her spirits lifting some from where they’d been.
“It’s a temporary kind of good, but it’s good. Are you okay? Are you good?”
“I’m… feeling very full of complicated.”
“Sitting in a ball in the woods-”
“Edge of the woods.”
“Doing nothing but getting ticks and mites and fleas all over you, crawling in through the air holes.”
“Ew, no, ick.”
“No,” he said. He held her up, moved his flashlight against the orb, illuminating everything and creating stars behind her eyes, and searched the interior. “One ant.”
There was laughter from one of the groups by the trucks. Weld had left the truck and was probably looking for her or something. She felt five different kinds of humiliated and awful.
“Sitting in the woods in the dark with an ant to keep you company.”
“And me,” Egg said. He smiled.
“Just thinking,” she said.
She watched as the smile fell from Egg’s face.
“I was talking with some of the guys, I think it was yesterday. You know, I’m the oldest of the under-sixteens. The older Irregulars found the one we’re calling The Cloak two days ago-”
“Yeah. And it sounds like as soon as we have a good window or opportunity to go after Cauldron, we can.”
“We were talking about who’s going and it sounds like I am. The other junior Irregulars aren’t. Whippersnap and those guys.”
“Yes,” she said. She’d talked about it with Weld.
“They wanted answers, and they were asking questions, making sure we were all on the same page. We have thirty-ish people-”
“And six or seven groups or cliques inside this. We might have more depending on who we recruit.”
“About the only thing most of us can agree on is we want justice. I know you’ve talked about how bloody and horrible it was when you were dropped off near Karelia Lake.”
Before Wieldmaiden from the Guild had rescued her and taken her to the Asylum.
“Yeah,” she said, feeling diminished, aware of the darkness, the cold, and how close those mangled bodies were to her, as if Egg could take two steps forward, taking her those two steps back, and place her right in the midst of that bloody scene where she carried around part of a mangled body for hours before convincing her body to let her go.
That carnage and death followed her always.
“I know how angry you really are,” Egg said.
“Yeah,” she said. “I was. But I’ve calmed down. I’ve realized that I don’t like the blood or violence. It gets to me.”
Thanks to Weld, in part, for helping me get my head around it all.
“Not everyone has calmed down. Some are angrier now than they used to be. Some of those people are wondering… did you end up talking to Weld? You were with us and you were saying we should back down, not bother him while he was stressed, and you’d find a time to bring it up.”
The idea of talking to him about that and breaking his heart shook her. She wasn’t even sure how she would. She wasn’t sure how she wouldn’t, or how things would go if she didn’t.
“I had… a conversation with him.”
“Do we need to worry?”
“I-I’m not the person to do this, I think. I paint, I- draw. I try to be moral support, and an extra set of eyes to watch over him if we’re in a situation he needs it.”
“Do we need to worry?” Egg asked, and his tone was fiercer, more dangerous.
What did that even mean? Would he hurt Weld?
What happened if she said yes? They’d hurt Weld? Pressure him? Depose him as leader?
What happened if she said no? They would go on doing what they were doing, and maybe there was a chance she and Weld would convince them there was a better way, like Weld had convinced her?
“No,” she said. “But don’t pressure him. And if he says anything on the subject, try to hear him out? Be fair to him? You outnumber him-”
“We outnumber him.”
“You do. So be fair to him.”
“I’ll tell the others to play nice,” Egg said. “Do you want me to put you down?”
“Please,” she said, not one hundred percent sure what Egg meant with the first part. She didn’t want division among the only family she knew, and she definitely didn’t want to be the cause of it.
Egg laid her ball down in the grass, and she turned her focus to ushering the ant out through the airhole.
It was fifteen minutes before Weld was pointed her way. Fifteen minutes of sitting in the dark, thinking.
“Keep me company?” he asked, and his question cut through all plans and fortitude she’d erected in her head.
“Gladly,” she said. “Sorry I’m such a dork.”
“No. Don’t apologize,” he said.
With one short exchange of words, and the distraction of talk, she let herself forget what she’d intended to say about Egg and the more bloodthirsty members of the Irregulars, and wholly convince herself that this wasn’t that big a thing. There were too many nice people and too many people who she couldn’t picture being that angry or upset- after all, a fair few belonged to the tooth and nail contingent, and they were pro-irregular, how could they want revenge or violence?
Weld was enough of a personality and had a good enough heart to sway the handful of real malcontents. Right? He had to be. She was bloodier than all of them put together and he’d changed her.
Her mind was cleared by the end of an exceedingly awkward night of hanging out with Weld and Gentle Giant, pretending nothing had happened, her heart cleared by seeing Weld happier and more lively, in a way she hadn’t seen in weeks. If nothing else, he’d been flattered, and she’d made a change for the good.
The only trace of the conversation with Egg was a lingering feeling of something left unresolved, a deadline missed.
Sveta’s body arched as a blister appeared, filled with liquid meat, swelling until it was larger than the rest of her. Skin tore and flesh within ripped apart under its own weight. Her arm tensed, gripping the edge of the table.
“One more time.”
“It’s been six times already,” Victoria said, voice tense. “Six times and you’re doing the exact same thing. You’re torturing her.”
“It doesn’t- exactly hurt,” Sveta said, through grit teeth.
She felt the needle slide into place. No sooner was it in place than some pins were pulled from a jar where they sat in some fluid. She was poked, needles penetrating where tendril met the back of her face. One after another, at least ten. Her tendrils strained and flexed where they were clamped down against the table, stretched out.
Again, she felt the flesh appear, grow, and swirl with random, vague nerve connections. It built up into a massive, fluid-filled hunchback. Again, she felt tendrils stretch, strain, and splinter. That splintering feeling, she knew, was the zipper edge forming, that would interlock tendrils.
The blister-hunchback popped. Fluid flooded out, onto the metal table, and because that table had a lip, some sloshed back into her face. She sputtered, coughing.
“One more time.” He stabbed her with another needle.
“You keep saying that,” Victoria said. “Say it again and we’re going to have problems.”
“Each time we do it we get better results. How well does she hold together? What are the stress limits? What can this ‘skin’ take?”
“Building her up over and over again, only to repeatedly destroy her isn’t getting her anywhere. Get to the damn finish line, then refine from there.”
“Can you trust what I’m doing? I-”
The blister expanded, then unfurled, unzipped. A hundred pounds of flesh became a hundred pounds of pencil-thin tendril. Tendrils reached out and seized Mr. Bough.
“He’s panicking,” Effervescent reported, an almost ludicrous comment, given the scene. Already, Sveta was screaming, in warning and alarm, her every instinct failing her. Victoria kicked in the glass door to the lab, her backup following her in.
Sveta hung back, staring at the sea of reaching hands and arms, of faces.
She thought of Victoria. There were too many similarities, as if she could take Victoria’s silhouette, hold it up against this scene, and find a perfect match somewhere. It helped that this was so vast.
Weld had been torn apart, as far as she could tell. Her fucked up body had been burned. Now it glistened with the blood of the woman who had been responsible for…
For all of this.
The man with golden hair, beard, and skin was here, the end of the world.
Egg had painted a picture where the Irregulars were ready for revenge. He’d led her to believe it wasn’t as bloodthirsty a desire as it had been. Or she’d wanted to believe that.
She, in turn, had heard what Egg said and convinced herself it wasn’t that bad. That it would hurt more than it helped. That, with a looming deadline, at the very least, Weld would question Doctor Mother, and there would be a thousand answers to get. By the end of that, when it was time for the revenge, for blood, she and Weld could temper it. Ensure it was humane. She had been genuinely shocked to find out that it was as bad as it was.
Now Weld might be dead or dying, most of the others were dead, and all was lost. They didn’t have names or know where they came from, so they might visit home.
She saw a garden of flesh that seemed to reach as far in either direction as she could see, in the largest part of a large complex. She saw reaching hands, legs, overlapping parts, heads, and hair both short and long, and she kind of understood what they were up against, how rooted it was in what they were and what they’d been dealing with.
A part of her fleetingly wondered if answers like she and Weld had sought and needed were even possible. If it would have been better to be on the other side.
Too late now. Too painful to even consider.
If there was one last thing to do, she would do what her hero would do, and she would help, however she could.
The last pin was removed, dropped into a metal pan. Mr. Bough backed away, his arms and hands bandaged from when things had gone wrong in the last session.
Sveta drew in a deep breath, no longer concerned that it would make the pins dig in or poke the wrong thing. Her partially-intact stomach pressed against the cold table, as did her thighs, her toes. She twisted around, turning over, and winced as parts and flesh she’d never been old enough to have got in the way.
Victoria jumped forward to rearrange and reposition the towel that had been draped over Sveta’s back and buttocks.
There was still flesh missing, mostly in the area in front of and around missing, nonessential organs. A kidney, part of the liver. A bit of a Sidepiece aesthetic, but it crept up higher, framed by stiff ribbons of skin.
Her hair- she touched the back of her head, and she felt the short hair there.
And her power- she reached out, willed it, and her arm unzipped two dozen times between fingertip and elbow, unfurling and extending. Tendrils reached out, far thicker but flatter, with saw teeth at the edges. It zipped back up to normal a second later, with only a sharp smack at the back of her hand as one flat tendril was pulled in too fast.
Then, tears welling in her eyes, she allowed herself to relax, to let down her guard and be vulnerable in a way she hadn’t done for Weld, around anyone, in all the years she could remember existing, and all the vague years of her childhood she’d dreamed of.
Nobody died as a consequence.