Obsequious was the word. A flurry of young men and women in very precise haircuts and outfits made absolutely sure that he and Ms. Matteson were cared for, that they had cold tea, that they had nuts, vegetable platters, and bread. One even offered a bath, which bewildered.
It made it hard to find ten straight seconds to think. That might have been the very point of it.
Kamil’s hand absently brushed against a pillow that was built into the arm of the chair he sat in, while Ms. Matteson worked her way through a conversation with a young ‘pen carrier’, a boy with hair and clothes that could only be described as a uniform.
Ms. Matteson was of a type that Kamil had seen often enough, when talking to prospective employees who were fresh out of college, traumatized by the academia to the point of perpetual anxiety, wide eyed and fidgety, twenty or thirty pounds overweight, not used to sleeping normal hours, giving evidence to faint circles under the eyes. Someone who’d had enough on their plate that they’d started and ended the journey from adolescent to adult with the shakiest of ideas what an adult was to wear. Where some clung to the ‘teenager’ look, Ms. Matteson had lunged for a more formal, adult look that she wore with what looked like perpetual discomfort. A black skirt, a formal shirt, a styled suit jacket, and large, round glasses. A boring hair cut.
It endeared him, really. He’d been almost exactly that, many years ago. It endeared him too, to see her relaxing and forgetting her anxieties as she engaged with the ‘pen carrier’. He’d worried what kind of people Sveta had near her.
The ten year old boy in the severe haircut and uniform spoke, “I write, I organize, I learn, I-” he made a hand motion, more like he was trying to remind himself than anything. “-am rised-up.”
“Raised up,” Natalie said. “Is that related to social class?”
The boy’s eyes went wide, as he took a second or two to try to wrap his head around the words.
“I’ll rephrase. Is it about power, family status, rank?”
“Rank. My family… no wealth. No rank. Never fortune. My patron… fortune. Is taken-right of those above to rise-up those below.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Responsibility, I think,” Kamil volunteered.
The boy nodded. He stole looks at Kamil, eyes traveling up and down arms and across Kamil’s face until he realized the person he was looking at was looking back. “I have father, mother, urm, father I carry pen for.”
“How did they pick you?” she asked, leaning forward.
“Urm… random? Is luck. I have chance and cannot waste. Heavy… to carry?”
“It’s a burden.”
“Expectations. From your parents and family?”
“I know what that’s like,” she said. “I’m grown up, I earn good money, I studied hard and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Now I help write laws. But my parents? Not happy yet. I’ve carried that burden for a long time. I might always.”
“That’s their failure, not yours,” the boy said, with all of the innocence and brazenness of youth. It seemed to shock Ms. Matteson into a rare smile. “Oh. I should go. Should I give word you have need- for anything?”
He’d stumbled through that last sentence.
“No need, we’re well taken care of,” Kamil told the boy.
He watched the boy duck and jog off. That there was a gap in the torrent of attention might have been a failure in the team that was managing them. He could imagine another room or a hallway where distractions, people with food, and young people with questions were all ready for someone to send through to them, to distract and keep them from wondering where Breakthrough was.
He checked his watch, heavy on his wrist, and estimated it had been about an hour and a half that they’d been here, waiting for their escort to the prison.
It had started with the inital foray, talking to diplomats, meeting Luis and Yosef, and promising exchanges of ideas. Parahuman knowledge for parahuman knowledge. He was an advisor to the police and an ex-PRT Director, so he knew enough that he could make offers.
From there, the more political maneuvering. Not his specialty. Jeanne Wynn had armed him with a few things. There was talk of opening trade, something about a ‘textile pathway’, and from the time those specific words had left his mouth, a lot of unfriendly people had started acting more friendly.
Yosef hadn’t been among them.
But due to the mis-alignment in attention, or the fact that they’d run out of people to send, there was a pause, a gap. A chance to think and to talk. The door at the other end of the room banged shut as the pen carrier left.
“Ms. Matteson?” he asked.
He intimidated her, he could tell. That brief widening of the eyes, apprehension at just the idea of having to respond to something open ended.
“Call me Natalie, please.”
“I will. How are my girls doing?”
“I shouldn’t call them that,” he said. “Sveta and Ashley.”
“Oh,” Natalie said, dropping her eyes to her hands in her lap. “I have no earthly idea how to answer that.”
“Is it that bad?” he asked.
“No. I don’t know,” she said. She opened her mouth like she was trying to formulate a sentence, then partially closed it, her eyes widening instead. Like she’d glimpsed something too big to wrap her head around.
He’d seen that too, in his years with the PRT departments. A part of him was impatient, worried for a variety of reasons, and he didn’t want to waste their window of time, so he filled in, led her along. “You look after them.”
“I think of it less as looking after them and more like I’m clinging to the outside of a fast moving vehicle. Sometimes I reach through the window to grab the steering wheel, if I really think I have to. Mostly I shout and worry that the rush of wind is drowning me out.”
“I think that part of that whole culture has rubbed off on me.”
The door opened, and he felt frustration as a young girl, twelve or so, approached, ducking her head down before collecting some of the serving platters.
He controlled his emotions, working on the suspicion that they wanted him on edge. They wanted him in a state where he’d be too disorganized to counter them or challenge them.
Instead, he picked food from the platters that sat on the little table between them, and spent a moment eating and observing the situation. The room had large windows with wire running through them in an illustrative fashion, like stained glass windows without the staining. The light that shone through came in at an angle that made the windows seem to glow of their own accord, illuminating the otherwise lightless space. The room had a painted floor that looked like it could have been a pool of not-yet-congealed blood, smooth and uninterrupted by seam or tile from one corner of the room to the other. The walls were brighter, a foggy pink broken up by white.
The space was long and wide, in a way he suspected was designed to make them feel small.
Joke on them. This was nothing compared to some of the things he’d handled.
Natalie filled the momentary silence with her voice, sounding like she regretted saying what she was saying before she was even a few words in, “I got into this because powers are neat. Now I’m seeing the people behind the powers and I’m thinking about getting out.”
“Anyone would have doubts after being caught up in a situation like this,” he said.
“No. I mean, kind of, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to suggest they’re doing badly, either. Except, um, obviously, they’re in a strange prison.”
“Yeah. But that’s something we can fix. Besides that?”
“Ashley’s… really grown since I first met her. Sveta’s- obviously Sveta is doing terrific.”
She’s going through a breakup with grit teeth and she’s keeping up her day-to-day. A body doesn’t change that.
“But?” he prodded. “It didn’t sound like that was the end of it.”
“But I see them grow and do better or do worse, or they get hurt and… I realize I don’t really matter. The laws don’t really matter at this point. When it’s stuff like this I’m glad, as awful as it sounds.”
“Because it’s a chance to matter?”
“No. Gosh, no. I’m explaining myself badly.”
The chair’s seat was too low, and Kamil’s arms and legs were long. He stretched legs out in front of him and crossed ankle over ankle. “They’re their own people. We can shepherd and we can find opportunities to nudge them to a better path, but we can’t stop them when they get started or reverse their courses.”
“Yeah,” Natalie answered. “Sorry, I didn’t end up answering your question.”
“You did, a little. You’re thinking of leaving?”
“I thought about it. I feel like right now I’m serving more as a… witness.”
“To a crime?” he asked.
“No. To… whatever it is that happens. Gold Morning happened and it was a long, long time before we got anything even close to the full story. I don’t know if people even believe the story we got. Whatever happens next, these guys are going to be on the periphery of it and if I’m on the periphery of them then…”
“Then you might be able to explain, when people want an explanation,” he filled in.
“I go back and forth on whether it’s worth it,” she told him. “I like them, I feel sorry for them. A lot of it is interesting, I really feel like I helped and am helping with Lookout. I’m even happy to help here, as stressful as it is. But I can’t shake the feeling that things are going in a bad direction and I can’t stop that. I like a lot of the people individually but… the collective and the momentum of them all worries me so much.”
“What I can tell you,” he said, “Is that seventeen years ago, I got interested in all of this because I thought powers were neat. Then I saw the people behind the powers and that’s when I truly committed.”
“Different times?” she asked.
“I don’t know that they were. Around the time I joined the PRT proper, the Siberian killed one of the greatest heroes. Alexandria publically executed a person with powers that wouldn’t stand down; controversial then, but nowadays we don’t think about it.”
“I think about it a lot,” Natalie told him. “Not that, specifically, but similar events.”
He nodded, giving her a sympathetic smile. “Collectively, we don’t think about it enough. My era and my first days outside of power testing labs and in the PRT were marked by the Simurgh appearing, and people starting to talk about the possibility they’d keep coming, and that we wouldn’t win in the end. Europe saw political upheaval, Russia enlisted parahumans into its military and started hunting down those who wouldn’t enlist, activists across the United States were emboldened by leaders with powers. That momentum and feeling of being small and behind is… not new.”
“But everything’s so fragile right now.”
“One bad winter we’re not prepared for could cut our population in half.”
Natalie wrung her hands. “Billions of people are lined up against Gimel. Shin is scared of us, Cheit wants to take over, they’re the big ones.”
“And we have good, capable, intelligent people on our side. Great minds that saw us through the end of the world are watching, waiting, and preparing. This team you’re looking after, I think it has some genuinely good people in it.”
“Good people doesn’t necessarily mean they do good things.”
“Did they do something that concerns you?”
She shook her head. “Nothing that I could point to and say ‘that’s wrong’. A lot of things I spend time agonizing and wondering about.”
“Try talking to them? When there’s a chance.”
“The way they’re going, that’ll be in a few months.”
He’d been her, once. Lost, anxious, fresh out of school with no idea of how to disengage from adolescence and commit to being an adult, still figuring out how to balance work in the labs with ensuring he was keeping the door open for professional growth, with family, keeping up with pop culture enough he didn’t end up alienated from friends, trying and failing to manage a love life, and the little things like keeping his apartment clean.
Like her, he’d dressed himself up like an adult, faked it, put on a mask. He’d picked a few things to do well and let others flounder. Maybe that had been a mistake.
The door opened. They had guests, and these weren’t pen carriers or serving girls. They were the closest thing Shin had to royalty. Luis, the head of the Founders, who had been closest to Goddess, and Yosef from the Lone Sands or the Cold Sands, depending on the season. With them were some of Shin’s parahumans.
Cryptid, a woman he thought he might have recognized from old files, and a man he didn’t recognize.
He stood from his seat, and Natalie Matteson followed suit.
He couldn’t help but pay attention to Cryptid. The boy was halfway to being a man, but he had skipped puberty, applying the components of the adult man with broad and inconsistent strokes of the brush. It made his frame seem uncanny and wrong, and the collar with cloth draping down from it obscured some details enough that Kamil had no idea if it hid the worse details or exaggerated the bad by hiding the good.
Ungainly, not lopsided but imbalanced. Put together wrong.
Kamil knew he had a longstanding habit of finding parts of himself in others. Empathy run amok, maybe. When he was young he had alienated people, responding to every complaint and problem by relating to it.
He couldn’t help but relate to this uncanny boy with the mind and memories of an adult. Memories of kidnapping people young and old, of various nationalities, disabled and able, subjecting them to brutal experiments, some of which had changed the permanently, in mind and body. Had the man known as Lab Rat been a power in his era, in his area, then Kamil might have been haunted for the rest of his life by the fact that he hadn’t stopped him sooner.
He related because he felt uncomfortable in his own skin. He was gangly without being tall, at five feet six inches, with a tendency to put on weight toward the stomach and hips. He was cursed with a perpetually angry look that almost never matched his mood, a jaw that seemed set like he was spoiling for a fight, and a crooked nose. His hairline was receding, and gray hair had coming in early, in locks and patches with no rhyme or reason to it. If none of that was enough to prejudice people against him and force him into an uphill battle when it came to proving himself as an academic and leader, the fact that he was black might.
Me too, he thought, while looking at the boy who was put together so strangely, who seemed so lost in this strange world, as much as he tried to hide it.
He walked down the length of the long, empty room, Ms. Matteson following. Cryptid and the other two parahumans remained where they were, even while the ambassadors made a show of meeting him halfway. Luis shook his hand, grip warm, and smiled, while nothing warm was visible behind the eyes.
Yosef’s grip was harder, no smile crossed his lined face.
Luis leaned closer to ask, “You were looked after?”
“Very well, thank you,” Kamil answered.
“Our apologies for the wait. We had other business to attend to,” The steel didn’t leave Luis’s eyes.
“I understand very well.”
He was led to the door. Seeing Ms. Matteson’s reticence, he put a hand on her shoulder to support her, leading her past the parahumans.
“We’ll be guarding you,” Cryptid said, his voice strangely low, even considering his pseudo-adult frame. “As you’ll be entering a prison with dangerous parahumans within.”
“They aren’t dangerous, Chris,” Natalie said.
“The law of this land would disagree with you,” Cryptid said. “My own experience and observations, even. You get our protection, and we keep the peace while we’re there.”
“Very well,” Kamil said, giving Ms. Matteson a look. “I welcome whatever measures you think are sensible.”
The woman with the tattoos of ‘Crock’ and ‘Shit’ on her face smiled, showing him teeth that had been narrowed to points.
“Don’t fib,” she told him. “You don’t welcome it at all. You’re concerned.”
He knew who she was, now, he was fairly certain.
Someone he couldn’t empathize with, even if he’d wanted to. She was too far gone.
Years of experience leading a PRT department had conditioned him to want to jump to action in a crisis. Had Shin wanted to twist his arm and get a certain result out of him, they could have done just this – set off alarms, deploy men with guns to a crisis with parahumans allegedly involved, and make him sit, make him wait.
He paced, while the woman who Cryptid had called Crock o’Shit remained still, watching him and Natalie.
Cryptid had raced off, leaving them confined here. ‘Somewhere safe’.
Crock of shit indeed.
The men with guns in the room were more likely to use those guns on him or Natalie than they were to use the guns on any parahumans or rioting prisoners.
Coalbelcher and Cryptid were gone, leaving only the one.
All because of a riot, apparently the second incident in a matter of hours that they were blaming Breakthrough for.
He worried, and he couldn’t let on that he worried.
Yosef was the authority here. He leaned across the table and spoke, unsmiling.
“Mr. Armstrong,” the translator offered. “A question.”
Yosef asked. The translator translated, “M and S protocols. What are they?”
There were very few things that an ex-PRT director wanted to hear less. Youth Guard, that was a bad one, it promised headaches every week for potential years. But Master Stranger protocols? It demanded paranoia.
“I’d need to know the context,” he answered.
After explaining the back and forth, the translator elaborated, “The parahuman Antares was going to go see her friend, Tress. She made an offhand remark and said you could explain it for Yosef.”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“He knows,” Crock o’Shit said.
The Translator’s single word followed her statement. Yosef’s expression didn’t change a hair.
There were lie detectors who worked through the letter of the law, and there were lie detectors who worked by the spirit of it. She was the latter. That made this harder.
Natalie Matteson clutched her hands together in her lap.
A stone room, twelve guards, one parahuman, a world leader and his translator, and a riot going on outside.
“It’s confidential,” Kamil told Yosef.
“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.
Yosef’s words were a rumble.
“This doesn’t endear us to you, Armstrong,” the translator said. “It comes across as subversive, a message passed from her to you.”
“If it was a message it wouldn’t be one that makes me look bad when I tell you I can’t answer.”
Yosef’s gaze went to Crock o’Shit.
“True,” the tattooed woman said.
Yosef didn’t wait for the translation of that, going straight to his response.
“I don’t want to hear any more coded phrases, Armstrong,” the Translator told Kamil. “Confidential or otherwise. You will be escorted from the prison and sent back, and any parahumans engaging in it will be punished.”
“Understood.” No choice but to play along. It had been a trap, no right answer.
But why had it come up in the first place?
Yosef said something, almost under his breath.
“You worked with the parahumans for a long time,” the translator offered.
“I did. I work with the police now, counseling them, and I do some research into powers.”
Yosef’s response was dark and suppressed enough anger that there wasn’t much need to get the translation. “What a shame that we can’t trust you now, Mr. Armstrong.”
Kamil kept his composure. This, at least, was another thing he’d had to learn. Weathering the pressures of government authorities, of media, of the public.
Holding true to what he believed and knew. That the capes were good. They wanted a better world, whether for themselves or for everyone, but they often struggled to find the way there.
Hearing an allusion to Master Stranger protocols made him paranoid, but that paranoia was largely reserved for specific people, for anyone he felt intensely about, as enemy or ally.
His phone buzzed in his coat pocket.
A call? A text?
He drew his phone from his coat, looking down at the glowing screen. His heart started racing. His phone had been on airplane mode.
Yosef barked a question.
“A phone call?” the translator asked, looking just about as alarmed as Kamil felt.
“Not a call,” Kamil said, looking down at the screen.
You’re in danger. Escape. Crock o’Shit will attack.
“Partial truth,” Crock o’Shit said, making a hand motion.
Yosef had a question.
“A signal?” the translator asked. Yosef barked a single word in another language, and this one wasn’t translated for Kamil and Natalie’s benefit. Guards by the door lowered guns, pointing them at Kamil. Natalie shrieked, scooting back, and one gun followed her.
Kamil, slowly put the phone down on the table, before lifting his hands.
Yosef picked up the device, then handed it to the translator.
Yosef was tense, back rigid, as he looked over the translators shoulder.
They’re so scared. Gold Morning caught us by surprise, but it came and went quickly. They effectively lost their world to a parahuman takeover and endured it for years.
Ashley and Sveta both knew he took medication at mealtimes. Had they-?
To be safe, Kamil clapped his hand to his chest twice, looking at Yosef.
One word, barked.
“What medication?” the translator asked.
Forcing his hand.
“Nitroglycerin. For my heart.”
Crock o’Shit nodded when Yosef looked at her.
Yosef put the phone down. Kamil could read it upside-down. The screen had changed to an alarm telling him to take his nitroglycerin for his heart.
“You looked scared,” the translator stated, following Yosef’s response. The man was growling more than he was speaking now, his words a mumble, like being audible and clear for Kamil and Natalie wasn’t even a consideration anymore, that he was that angry.
“I was almost positive I turned my phone off. I clearly agitated all of you.”
“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.
The translator echoed both statements, then listened while Yosef responded.
“I’m losing my patience,” the translator said, while Yosef stared down Kamil. “I don’t trust you.”
“I’m sorry that’s the case,” Kamil answered.
Yosef asked a guard a question.
The guard, in turn, opened the door, asking someone outside.
“Yes,” was the one word, accented response, in English.
“All of them are accounted for. They’re in the plaza.”
Yosef spoke, not as much of a growl now, but the look in his eyes was all steel and darkness, his face even more humorless than before.
“Let’s get this over with,” the Translator said. “You’ll go to Sveta Karelia’s cell to talk with her and wait while we organize the others. This will free our guards to manage the other parahumans.”
How to get out of this? He picked up his phone, and the screen changed as soon as it wasn’t facing anyone else.
A button to press if he needed help. If there was anything else, he didn’t see it. He couldn’t study his phone for too long without drawing attention.
“Crock o’Shit will escort you.”
Did he hit the button now? There was a reason they hadn’t just come to help and had left it an option. It was dangerous if they helped. Costly.
But the alternative was that he was ‘escorted’ by Crock o’Shit and they killed him?
He approached Yosef, and shook the man’s hand. “It was good to meet you.”
“I wish I could say the same,” the translator conveyed Yosef’s response.
“I really do believe that with our help, you could implement something like our PRT. Adapt, assimilate, condition, and use the institution as a bridge between parahuman and human.”
The translator motioned for him to slow down.
He didn’t wait for the translator to completely finish before starting again, “You have a prime opportunity here, infrastructure already in place, and so much research. We could each share the best parts of our cultures with one another.”
Yosef shook his head.
Kamil pressed, trying to channel all of the enthusiasm and fervor that he’d had as a young scientist into a certain kind of energy. Irrepressible, the geek that believed everyone was as interested in his favorite subject as he was. Relentless.
Yosef tried to interrupt, and he pressed on. “The textile bridge, the sharing of knowledge, security, it’s the start of something, and I’m really excited about that.”
“Lie,” Crock o’Shit cut in.
Kamil stopped. The smile dropped from his face.
“Words backed only by desperate fear, not truth,” Crock o’Shit said.
“What do I do?” Natalie asked.
“You stay,” Kamil said. To the rest of the room, he said, “You keep her safe. Whatever happens in… in this riot, you keep her here and safe.”
Yosef responded. Translated, “We have no grudge with her. We have no grudge with you.”
What were the options?
Crock o’Shit stepped forward, arm out. She was of a height with Kamil, but stronger, her arms muscled and past what looked like three layers of fishnet sleeves, they looked covered in scale tattoos.
No phone, no weapon, and a dangerous parahuman walking him to his execution.
Yosef said something in his tongue, brief. There were nods from guards and the translator. Kamil could imagine what it was, knowing the deeper context.
This was an unsanctioned execution. Yosef would be saying something like how he was never here.
Crock o’Shit escorted him from the cell. Into a prison hallway, past prisoners who kept their heads down and gave Crock o’Shit a wary look.
“You were Fidelis, weren’t you?” he asked.
“I would have liked to study your problem.”
“You’re telling the truth, but I’m not your guinea pig.”
He had related to Ashley Stillons, back in the day, by thinking of his own upbringing, the hard road to get out and away, the desperation. He had related to Weld by tapping into a part of himself that wanted to do good, by tapping into the boy inside of himself.
Every negative thought and feeling was a building block, a tool or a lens through which he could interpret and study the people around him who struggled.
And he was now in the custody of Crock o’Shit. Fidelis. A heroine who had abandoned or lost everything good about herself. She had gone after a crime boss as a hero, lost her heroism along the way. By the end of that particular journey, she found him, ate a third of him, starting at the genitals and ending at the throat, and then left the mangled body on the floor for the first twenty-four hours she conducted business thereafter, taking over his position.
She had been arrested a few years after, then went to the Birdcage, which was probably the worst place for her. Placed under Black Kaze, if he remembered right.
The worst place for her. Any prisoner picked up bad traits and habits, defensiveness and a loss of faith in the system from their time inside. She was particularly vulnerable, with the way she absorbed dishonesty and ugliness, making it manifest in the form she wore.
He felt for his phone in his pocket, and he wanted to find an excuse to reach out. Instead, he could only hope it worked when he needed it to, if he had a free moment.
And there were no guarantees.
“What are you getting out of this?”
“Out of what? Walking you to a prison cell?”
He looked back over his shoulder at her, and saw her smile, toothy.
“Working under a boy pretending to be an adult and a healer. Living in a strange world. Doing menial errands.”
“They let me eat the leftovers when they fuck up a healing or experiment.”
“A joke,” she said, with no humor. “They experiment on dolls. Brainless human bodies made to supply organs and tissue. I’m their dog, drooling and wagging its shitty tail, eating off the floor when they make a mess.”
“Why refer to yourself like that?”
“Because I don’t care,” she told him. “I have servants and drugs, booze…”
“That’s not a life.”
“It’s my life,” she retorted.
“Aren’t you better than that? You had status as a Protectorate hero. People fought to have you on their teams. Watchdog wanted you.”
“Status isn’t important to me.”
“Crock o’Shit. Fidelis-”
“You sound desperate,” she told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. When he looked, he could see the fingers were wider apart and longer than they should be, the knuckles pronounced. She leaned in close, whispering, “I know why. They tipped you off. It doesn’t matter.”
They reached an intersection as she finished talking, and she gave him a shove on one shoulder.
There were PRT directors who came from the army. There were ones who came from the FBI. Some were ex-CIA, others politicians, and still others graduated from squaddie to captain and kept gaining ranks until they ran a department.
Some of those, many of those, they could have fended for themselves here, found a way to get a gun and use it.
His eye fell on her hand.
Changer. They tended to trigger from crises of identity. Once triggered, those crises tended to stick with them. They were, in PRT parlance, very hard to hold onto, beause they were most likely to leave and try to go another route. Movers tended to change departments often, Blasters, Strikers and Brutes tended to bear heavier weights of post-traumatic stress. But Changer-
If there was something about her he could get at, figure out, or use to avert this march to execution, it was her identity.
And he couldn’t even begin to fathom the puzzle of a woman who was force-marching him forward.
The claw at his left shoulder tightened as they reached a door.
“Here’s good,” she said.
She was supposed to take him to Sveta. She took him to an empty chamber instead.
“You were military,” he said, talking despite the fear that gripped him. He stepped forward, but she stood in the doorway.
She was taller, her face slumping down at one side, so the lower row of sharp teeth were perpetually visible. One of her arms was longer than the other, twisted up like a braid. The same arm that had been resting a hand on his shoulder. The tattoo with the corps motto on it was stretched out and distorted.
“Marine,” she said, with slurred speech.
“What happened out there?” he asked. “Where did Fidelis come from?”
“Fidelis came and went a long time ago,” she said. “You can’t talk your way out of this.”
“I’m only partially trying to talk my way out of this. Part of it is that I hate unanswered questions and unfinished stories. I want to know the full story behind what kills me.”
“You’re telling the truth,” she said. She smirked, leering. her face was stretching out, long. “Not knowing is going to be the least agonizing part of this. I can’t eat you, that’s too obviously me, but I can break you. If I break every last one of your ribs and pelvis, how long does it take you to die?”
“This isn’t you.”
She snickered. “Can’t breathe so easy without your ribs. Can’t move your arms, can’t move your legs. Do you stop breathing? Do you drown in your fluids? Do you go into shock? You’re a doctor type. Don’t you know?”
“No,” he said.
She was a changer. Her change was tied to prerequisites, and prerequisites were commonly tied to specific kinds of trigger event. There was the theory that it was drugs and altered mental states that did it, that there was something small but ‘Breaker’ in the trigger that added a bigger on-off switch or component, tied to something external. Lung in Brockton Bay had been in his files as an example.
Another theory was that it was failure that did it. The rise, the fall, the deed… all in a trigger that tied into a power that had a higher barrier of entry.
For Crock o’Shit, that barrier of entry was lies, it empowered her other form, in a reaching way.
Except… she didn’t need lies to change. She could change either way. The lies were… background.
“What happened out there? You joined the Marines, you had a natural sense of justice, you tried to do something or right a wrong?”
She’d changed more over time, darkness seeping in.
“Was there corruption?” he asked.
“Boys and girls, using their access and station in various ports to ship drugs back home to Lousiana,” she said, her voice taking on a monstrous note. “They don’t check naval vessels like they check other shipments from overseas.”
Her braided-together tangle of a body was only barely human in silhouette now. Branching, forking limbs formed a webwork between one arm and one leg, bristling with claws. The overall form was more like something between a naked mole rat and a bat without wings, with skin like callus, only resembling scale when it was pebbly and not a sheet of the stuff. The tattoos stood out and multiplied as the skin did, casting whole areas of her in blue-green.
There was more to it, he saw. Folds and flaps parted as she breathed or moved one way or the other, and he saw hidden teeth or limbs, buried within.
Nothing at all like a crocodile, tattoos aside.
“You tried to stop them?” he asked, holding his composure.
“I was them. I was one of the ones in charge. I shipped drugs and people back home cut it wrong and killed friends of friends of mine,” she said. “There was an investigation. I worried every second of every day that my life was ruined, until I got powers from how it tore me up inside. I was the one they would finger as the boss, the top dog. And it was all for nothing.”
“Nothing?” he asked. Top dog… is that a component to why she grows?
“They swept it under the rug. I turned over a new leaf,” she said, and she sneered in a way that made him unsure if she was joking or if her face was just transforming that much. Her words were less intelligible now. “But others didn’t forget or sweep it away. They blamed me for us getting caught, want money. So I dealt with ‘m.”
“What you’re doing now, you’re just repeating those mistakes.”
“What I do now is what I’m good at,” she said. “I break you. I drag it out as long as I can. Director Armstrong.”
She made his name and old title an epithet.
“No you don’t,” he said. He pulled the phone from his pocket. He held it out. “You’ve been recorded.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Crock drawled the words. She started forward. “I destroy the phone.”
“It’s being broadcast,” he said. He turned it around, checked- and surprised himself, because there was footage and there were clips that… weren’t from his phone.
Breakthrough. They’d recorded things, but they couldn’t say they’d recorded it, or it would damn them. It would be use of parahuman powers while they were in prison, a violation of rules that had been established.
But him? He was safe. He could be a spy, and while that wasn’t great from a diplomacy perspective…
Well, neither was cornering him in a holding cell with a monster and setting him up to die. Whatever their purpose was.
“It’s being transmitted,” he said, still looking at the screen.
“You know I’m not lying.”
Crock o’Shit twisted around, hauling the door open. She started to go, or to lean out, and then reconsidered.
Twisting around, she grabbed him, picking him up like a child might pick up a doll. He grabbed her ‘forearm’ for stability, and found it alternately too hard and too soft, depending on where he gripped. He wasn’t sure which was worse for the situation.
He was carried bodily, held up so high that his feet dangled above the heads of prisoners who ran for cover.
“Crock,” he grunted.
“You admitted to a lot. Dangerous admissions.”
Her claw tightened around him.
Breakthrough was waiting, close to the door that led from the secured hallways around the prison into the prison proper. The group had assembled. Cryptid and Coalbelcher stood by.
“They have something. A tinkered transmitter.”
“No they don’t,” Cryptid said.
Crock o’Shit huffed for breath. She slurred the words, “What the hell?”
“They have only the faintest scent of electronics on them,” Cryptid said. “If they had anything, it’s gone now.”
Kamil had learned to read Ashley since getting to know her, too late to save her, but early enough to support her. He could see the posture, the shift in footing, the way she rolled her fingertips into place as she folded her arms, pinky landing first, index finger last.
The evidence would be annihilated, as would, he presumed, anything tying them to the riot.
Crock o’Shit turned, storming away.
“Where is she going?” Antares asked. “Stop her.”
“Why?” Cryptid asked. But he raised his voice. “Don’t do anything stupid, Crock.”
Crock only growled.
Kamil had figured her out, if only to a small degree. That she had committed a wrong, once, and somewhere along the line, because she hadn’t dealt with it, it had festered.
“I’m going,” Swansong said.
“If you want to get in my way, do it at your own risk, Cryptid. She’s going to do something.”
“You’re pretending I care. We rule a continent, you’re prisoners. Guess who gets a say?”
“There’s too much at stake,” Antares said.
“Chris!” Lookout’s voice was higher. “Don’t be a shit, you’re-”
And then they were out of earshot, the latter part of the sentence unfinished.
The path they traveled was a reverse one. Back to the single cell, where she was supposed to kill him.
The charade was over, and she didn’t even seem to care. She’d been seen. There would be witnesses. A cover-up was so much harder to manage. Impossible, even, because there were other cameras or devices tracking all of this, and now she knew.
And she was still going to kill him.
And Breakthrough wasn’t following, wasn’t taking action.
She had to work to shoulder her way through the door, and doors in the prison were larger than doors back home. Once free to stand tall, she tossed him. He was airborne for two heart stopping seconds before he crashed into floor and bars at roughly the same moment. The bars separated the last two thirds of the room from the front third, and there was no way through, no way to hide on the other side while the enraged changer dealt with him.
“If you do this,” he said, grunting as pain from the fall set in. “Everyone loses. If you don’t… you go back to the life you were living.”
She flexed one braid of an arm, and a lunging, eyeless maw, the closest thing to ‘crocodile’ about her, reached out in his direction.
It stopped, pulling short.
Ribbons and bands of flesh encircled part of the limb. More encircled part of her head.
Sveta. She had appeared through a closed door, or she’d been in the room all this time.
No, she was still slipping in under the door, more of her, more flat, razor-edged tendrils, that bound up Crock o’Shit.
The changer lunged, charging forward blindly, to bludgeon him to death. He scrambled out of the way.
She crashed into bars with enough force to bend them.
More of her body unfolded, arcing overhead, set to crash down on top of him and on either side of him. He hurried to cover. A tendril gripped him, helping him slip past.
More of her opened up, until everything humanoid was gone. Her body was a pod, an installation that the changer mutations reached from. All ugly, all monstrous, eyeless, earless, fangs and teeth.
All ugliness she’d absorbed.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Fidelis! You’re better than this!”
But she wasn’t.
What followed was so frantic he couldn’t process it all. Lunging bites that he only avoided because he dodged them or because he was pulled out of the way.
Croc uttered a single word, drawn out as a roar, guttural. He could guess it was ‘Director’.
An anger, seated so long it had eaten her up inside. A betrayal or great wrong done to her, that she’d never recovered from, or that she’d manufactured to keep her identity intact.
Sveta hurled him, violently enough it hurt when he landed.
He realized it late: every move she’d made, every push she’d given him, it had been to drive him toward one corner, as far from the door as possible. With the throw, she’d placed him next to the door.
A tendril opened it before his hand reached it, and he escaped to the hallway, bleeding in two places, bruised in a way that would hurt for a week, but alive.
Guards came running, now. The commotion earlier was too hard to justify ignoring.
They checked on him, and they looked in on the scene.
Crock o’Shit roared at them.
They dragged him by the arm, and they opened the door two cells over.
Sveta, stooped over the drain with water running out of the hose, drenching herself.
“Oh,” she said, covering herself up with a towel. “Mr. Armstrong!”
She didn’t quite cover up the three wounds she’d sustained, all a funny shape, but the guards weren’t looking hard enough to notice, it seemed. They were preoccupied, more than a little scared.
It was over. The charade broken. If they’d been looking to make parahumans look unruly by using tamed Shin parahumans to force the hand of foreign Gimel ones, that was over with.
If Yosef had indeed wanted this to be discreet, it wouldn’t be. The answers would come out. Answers had a way of doing just that. Crock had triggered from just that very reason. Even now, guards were looking to make sense of the situation, investigating.
“I was getting ready to leave, thought I’d rinse off,” Sveta said, getting dressed behind the divider by the shower stall.
The shower. The drains. She had slipped through, crossing over to the cell with the most commotion.
Control like she’d never had. A light of heroism and pride in herself that shone in her eyes, that she’d been chasing for so long.
Maybe the difference between himself and Ms. Natalie Matteson was that she hadn’t had the chance to see this light yet – only the darkness.
Dressed, Sveta crossed the room, wrapping him in the tightest of hugs.
“Let’s get you all out of here,” he told her. “Everyone’s waiting.”