Mope licked at her face, tongue stroking her eyes, licking the eyeball directly, dragging her eyelid closed so it would slowly open again. Mostly the eyes, she supposed, because she was crying. He searched the inside of her mouth, collecting her drool for himself, before wagging his tail for a moment, then whining.
I can’t play with you, Mope, Carrie thought to herself. Not today. My mind is a balloon attached to my body with a long, long string.
She looked down at the room like she imagined God looked down on people, but she could only really see what her eyes saw, one open and the other partially closed. Smell, though, she could smell the smoke and people and the more smoke and the booze, as if she was sampling the entire room. Or just what reached her nose, half stopped-up with snot. It made more sense for her current balloon-brain self to be bobbing around, tasting it and smelling it all over the place.
Mope nudged her body with a cold, wet nose.
She could hear too. Voices. Talking, conversation overlapping. Most of them were distant, because only her mom and stepdad came up to the second floor. Sometimes Cooler and Bottom Bunk did too, they were the guys that came over every weekend and some days after school. They were ‘family’ enough that they could go upstairs. When they came over, she stayed in her bedroom and maybe they would peek in on her and say hi.
She wondered, if God could see and hear and look down on everything like this, could she do that too? She floated like a balloon and the string felt shorter than it had a moment ago. Could her hearing sharpen until she could hear every word? Or would she remain a balloon with a funny string, until one day she popped or the string came undone and she never floated back down?
The mortal, existential fear that seized her had a grip on her brain while leaving her body taking its slow, shallow breaths.
This kind of fear came and went, like black food coloring or ink dropped into water, it made scary shapes at first, dark and unfurling like a black octopus wrapped in a cloak, then expanded out, reaching for every part of her brain. Unlike the ink, it was a threat, and she could imagine it was cold, cold enough to shut down her mind or make parts of it shiver like her body shivered uncontrollably sometimes.
When it ‘went’, it wasn’t really gone. It stayed with her forever and made her thoughts a little bit more black overall. The fear would keep drip-dropping in, shocking every time it appeared, tinting the water darker each time.
Stark fear drip-dropping in at random, until her floating, bobbing balloon mind couldn’t get any darker and was that inky, shroud-wrapped octopus.
What happened then?
The door opening and the blinding light shining in her eyes was a welcome distraction from the old fear and a new blot, blot, blot of fear. Because everything was terrifying when all you had was a string tying you to your body.
The music was louder, pounding. Someone sang along.
Two men, she observed. They were hard to make out because she was looking down on the room from an impossible height, like the room had a ceiling a hundred feet high and her balloon mind had come to rest on it, looking down.
“Hey Mope,” Cooler said. “Hey, Carrie girl. Eidolon jammies.”
Eidolon jammies? When had she got those? Was she losing her mind?
Was this how the balloon went away? Deflating? The important things leaking out?
Her thoughts knotted and twisted up with the sensations, the smell of Cooler’s incessant cigarette smoking, and of booze, and body odor, and of sex. He sat on the corner of the bed and called Mope up.
“Who’s a good boy?” Cooler asked, words blurring into each other. It wasn’t that her hearing wasn’t sharp. It was that he was drunk. Mope nudged at her body’s butt, whined, and then hopped down from the bed, going downstairs. Without the dog to hold onto, Cooler sat there, swaying visibly even while sitting down. He fiddled with something he had resting on his knee.
“Let’s leave,” came the voice from the door. Cooler ignored the voice.
Bottom Bunk leaned against the doorway, arms folded. He looked so unhappy. The smell of him was worse. He smelled like her mouth tasted when she threw up a bit but the barf never left her mouth. Sour and bitter.
Him smelling like that made her hate him because it was awful, and because every time he got near, she had the exact same struggle to put her finger on what that smell was like. She had the exact same conclusion: barf in the mouth. Then she had the exact same thought after.
What if she threw up in her mouth? Right now? What if thinking that very thought made it happen?
Drops of black ink unfurling into horrifying shapes without meaning. Black ugliness with nowhere to go because it couldn’t travel down that string to her body.
Then, always, she had the same general realization, like becoming aware of her tongue in her mouth. That her tongue lay in drool that was accumulating in her mouth, and that wasn’t so different from puking and the puke filling her mouth, and her being unable to breathe.
That thought was like someone taking the cap off the bottle and dumping the blackness in. Even with the string being as thin and long as it was, she thought her heart might stop from the pressure of it.
“See this, Carrie?” Cooler asked, leaning forward. He waved something in front of her eyes. It moved too fast to be seen, and it was dark except for the edges that caught the light from the doorway. “Want a tattoo?”
She did not, but the distraction of this new situation was a relief from the heart-stopping blackness that flooded her head.
“Been giving them to people downstairs,” Cooler said, his voice airy.
“Leave her alone, Cool,” Bottom Bunk said.
“You’re not supposed to give tattoos to kids, but it could be our secret, yeah?” Cooler said. “Yours, mine, and Bunk.”
“This don’t feel right at all, man,” Bottom Bunk said.
Cooler sprung to his feet with a force that he couldn’t keep up with, and had to put an arm out to stop himself. It pushed at a poster Carrie had put up of Chorus Cross, and the bottom corner tore where it had been tacked to the wall.
You tore my poster!
“Bunk, bitch. This is why nobody likes you,” Cooler said, putting his face near Bunk’s.
My poster. The first band I ever actually liked. I don’t like people and I don’t like bands with people. Cross Chorus is entirely digital. Digital voices and digital faces. Absolutely nothing scary about them.
“It don’t feel right.”
“Who are you to talk about right, Bunk?” Cooler said, getting more heated. “You stole money from little old ladies and shit.”
Bottom Bunk looked over at Carrie, like he cared what she thought. She already knew, though.
More importantly, her poster.
“We saved your fuckin’ life, Bunk. This is the kind of loyalty you show?”
“No, uh,” Bunk said, twisting his face around so he didn’t have to look at Cooler, who had his face an inch from Bunk’s. “No. It’s not about loyalty, Cool.”
“Nobody likes an asshole who steals from grannies, Bunk. Everyone has a granny. Everyone loves their fuckin’ granny. But we protected you, because you were Gas’s cellmate.”
“I know, man.”
“Got you a job most ex-cons would love to have. You don’t make six figures normally.”
“I know. Shit.”
“Know your damn place, man,” Cooler said. “I’m having a little fun, giving the girl a thing so she doesn’t have her weekend totally wasted.”
Oh. She’d lost track of time.
She’d missed the Sunday morning movie on channel forty.
Cooler pushed Bunk into the doorframe, leaning in heavily. “If I gave a single fucking word, you’re not with us anymore. Not work, no parties, nothing. Don’t fucking bitch at me about what’s right when I’m doing nothing wrong. Sour-ass smelling bitch.”
Bunk remained frozen, his face all clenched up, his eyes looking everywhere but at Cooler.
Cooler backed off, leaning away, swaying, and putting his hand on her poster again to steady himself. Crinkling it. He sat on the bed, and her perception of the motion was like her body was on a boat and a wave had rocked it. She didn’t really feel much. It was why the drool-
-ink-black fear washed over her mind-
-didn’t register most of the time.
“What do you think, Carrie?” Cooler asked. “Ladybug? Little girls like ladybugs, right? That’d be cute. One on the ankle? Or a unicorn? I could put something on your hand so you can look down and see it all the time.”
Carrie floated, disconnected and anxious.
“And an Eidolon to match the Eidolon-jammies? Hm?” Cooler leaned over, almost falling on top of her.
He fiddled with the device. It whirred, and it made a sound like a dentist’s drill.
“You take after your mom. She’s so pretty,” Cooler slurred. “Beauty mark right here, doesn’t she?”
It took him three tries to touch the right spot on her body’s cheek. She barely felt it, tracking it more by the way the shadows fell and what she could see at the edge of her vision.
“Give you a ladybug there?”
He drove his finger into that spot in her cheek with enough force that it should have hurt. It didn’t.
Mostly she just felt confused. She had never really thought about getting a tattoo. Was it like a temporary tattoo, but stitched on like a sewing machine did? She felt like she could remember or connect the dots if she wasn’t so… balloon headed.
But it was needles, and she hated needles, and it was dentist-like and she hated dentists.
But it wasn’t really her. She didn’t feel attached to her own body. It was a thing.
The string felt shorter, though. She felt closer to her body. Like the ceiling was only twenty feet above everything.
“Cooler,” Bottom Bunk said.
She hated Bottom Bunk. He smelled and the smells always led down the same roads to the fear of throwing up and not being able to breathe after.
“Bitch!” Cooler’s response was belligerent. “Didn’t I say to shut the fuck up?”
“You’ve been using that a lot tonight. Shouldn’t you change the…” he struggled to find the word. “The battery. Refill the, uh, the ink?”
“Bitch,” Cooler said, like he was going to say it in response no matter what Bottom Bunk said. Then he lurched to his feet.
He was gone a minute later. He didn’t mush up her poster this time.
Bottom Bunk remained at the door, smelling up her room. She hated him for that.
“I’ll fend him off, keep him distracted,” Bottom Bunk mumbled. “You just, y’know. Sleep. Whatever.”
He loomed in her doorway.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, before closing her door.
She floated, lost in thought, fixated on the damage to her poster. She thought of Cross Chorus and that did a lot to help distract her and fill the time. She played the music in her head, best as she could with the regular thumping coming from downstairs. Mostly she played her favorite verses over and over again, and the string that connected her to her body was short enough now she could kind of rock with it.
The bed jerked.
There was a moan, and it alarmed her. Like lying in bed late at night and feeling convinced there was a monster in the corner behind her and it had been there all night.
She was close enough to her body to feel that alarm. She felt her heart, dull and numb, and curled her fingers.
The moan got worse, and then became a cry. A wail, loud.
More alarm, more concern, dread. Dread like it was five o’clock after school. Between three and four she looked after her brother and then at five her mom and stepdad came back and she dreaded that. Because her stepdad didn’t like kids.
Those moments were what she held onto. That freedom, those hours where she didn’t have school and she didn’t have parents. Being a latchkey kid, as one of the books she’d read once said.
She remembered reading books. It had been a while. She had sat at school reading the little magazine that had new books in it that kids could order, and she’d realized she didn’t have the time to read anymore. It had bothered her a lot.
Now what bothered her was the moaning, which gradually got more articulate.
The dread got worse and worse, and she tried desperately to find that control or series of whatevers inside of her that would let her stop that sound, because-
Because it made mom come. The door opened. Mom stood in the doorway, frazzled and upset.
“I told you to be quiet today,” her mother said. “I ask you for one thing.”
Her mother entered the room, Mope following behind and hopping up. Carrie could hear licking.
“Aw, fuck,” Carrie’s mom said. “Can’t make this easy for me, huh?”
Carrie was awash in confusion.
The bed jerked a few more times, moving.
“Mmomm. It hurts.”
“Hush! Hush. Let’s get these off you.”
It wasn’t Carrie. Ari was lying next to her. Her brother. She’d forgotten, or she’d wanted to forget, or… she hadn’t been thinking about it. Hadn’t been able to.
She was lost, bobbing, disconnected, and now feeling very worried for Ari. What hurt? Why?
Her mother walked back around the bed. Holding a rumpled set of Eidolon jammies. Ari’s. He’d wet himself, and the white fabric was soaked from crotch to knee, dark with the fluids.
But as Carrie’s mom went to the bathroom, Carrie could see the stain- yellow only around the edges. Most of it was pink or red. Blood.
He’d peed blood?
Ari was hurt, he was wailing, moaning, and her mom was moving so slowly and casually.
That black-ink fear washed into and through her until there was nothing else. In the midst of it all, frantic, she fumbled to move, struggling to sit up.
Her mother returned, pushing her down, before going to Ari, a fresh set of jammies and a towel in her arms.
After so long of being so still, staring at the same section of her room, Carrie’s attempts to move and see what was happening were incoherent, slow. Images and familiar parts of her room that should have been instantly recognizable took seconds.
“Stay put, Carrie!” her mother barked. “Please!”
She tried to speak and found her mouth moved too slowly, like it was full of gum. She swallowed the excess saliva and snorted back snot, and her throat hurt.
“Fresh bottoms on, towel under you, and… here you go.”
Her mother jabbed Ari with a needle, depressing the plunger.
Carrie protested without words, reaching over.
“Stop moving or it’ll break off inside him. You’ll hurt him, Carrie! Stop moving!”
Carrie froze, though the hand she had extended wavered in the air.
Her mother’s voice was airy, lazy. “If there’s still blood in the morning we’ll take him to the doctor. Figure out what the fuck to say. Fuck.”
“Mmm,” Carrie tried to say ‘mom’. To get through to her mother.
There was another syringe. Her mother walked around the bed to Carrie’s side, sitting where Cooler had sat.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, Carrie,” her mother said. She reached for Carrie’s leg, hiking down her pyjamas to expose the side of her thigh. Carrie tried her best to fend off her mother’s hands and the needle, but her own hands barely cooperated.
“Your stepdad doesn’t like kids, so we’re just going to keep you out of the way for a bit.”
A bit. Carrie felt more dread.
She fought, pushing, raising her voice. She knew she was supposed to lie still. If she was still she was safe, because she could have a few hours and maybe sneak off to the bathroom very quietly, kind of like how she had a couple of latchkey kid hours after school.
“Stay still, Carrie. Or you’re going to bump into it while I’m giving you your medicine and it’ll break off.”
The idea of a needle breaking off scared her more than anything, and she was all full of fear already.
Scared her more than the fact that her stepdad’s friends had come over for ‘brunch’ on Saturday, interrupting morning cartoons, and Carrie and her brother had been ‘kept out of the way’ like this ever since. It was dark out outside and it was Sunday. Pills and needles and whatever else.
There had been two other school days where she had gone to school, come home, had two hours with Ari, and then this. Being kept out of the way. Waking up the next morning to go to school.
And Ari was bleeding and she couldn’t do anything to help.
But the idea of a needle breaking off scared her more than anything, somehow, even more than being stuck with a needle in the first place.
The syringe came down and the feeling came after, slow at first, then a rush, sweeping in like a breeze.
And her body was gone, along with the fear and concern for her brother. The world was abstract and airy, and her thoughts were the contents of a balloon, swirling around with nothing to contain them, tied to her body with a string so long she couldn’t see her body or the room any more.
“Stay put. Be still,” a voice said, and she couldn’t even hope to place or figure out who or where it came from, or why it said what it did.
It didn’t last nearly long enough, or it lasted a while, but the crash back to her body was harder than ever before.
Pain. A stabbing, sharp pain in her midsection, like someone had stabbed her, and kept stabbing her. A spike through her middle that was constantly being twisted.
She remembered Ari and her fear for Ari, and she felt her fear that this pain would continue for even a minute longer, and she was afraid to move because if she did then her mother would come in and give her something else, with only a change of clothes and a towel to put between her legs and any blood.
The spike twisted again. In the midst of fluid that was ink black in color, a droplet landed, unfurling like a great knotted octopus wrapped in cloth and smoke. Red in black now.
Already disconnected once, she disconnected again. Again, she pulled away.
Pulled back into a void of stars, cold, the only heat sources impossibly distant. The only non-numb things she could touch were hostile. Chunks of rock and ice traveling at bullet speeds to crash into her. She drifted, lost in abstract sensation, and this was, at the very least, familiar.
She didn’t fight to come back from it. She felt like she was committing a betrayal by lingering.
Because ‘back’ was a return to a hostile world of blood and paralysis and being so very, very afraid.
“That woman is Contessa,” Withdrawal reported. “The bogeyman of capes. The man in cuffs behind her is Teacher.”
“The same Teacher that attacked us?” Caryatid asked.
“Yeah. They finally got him,” Withdrawal said. “But Antares is worried. She says she doesn’t trust Contessa, and she knows more than she’s letting on about the disaster the brainy-type capes are all worried about. Either that, or she’s going to make a big mistake.”
“She’s strong?” Caryatid asked.
“Apparently she’s one of the very strongest. She can see the future and use that to do anything perfectly,” Withdrawal said, reading off whatever he was seeing in his goggles. He seemed to take that in. “Wow.”
Finale spoke up, sounding unsure, “If this is a mistake, does that mean she’s not being perfect, or does it mean she’s going to make a mistake perfectly?”
Caryatid reached out, putting a hand on the back of Finale’s head. It elicited a head turn and smile from her friend.
Finale wasn’t dumb. Not mentally disabled or autistic, not mentally ill. Just developmentally delayed and stunted. She would probably never grow up all the way, would always have issues with outgoing filters like when not to say inappropriate stuff, incoming filters like judging whether people were being honest, and impulse control. Her own hangups and perceptions of her real and imagined limitations were as bad as anything.
But she could sometimes say or ask really smart things, and have no idea she was doing it.
“That, or she’s doing something that looks like it’s going to be a disastrous mistake on purpose,” Withdrawal said. “Either way, Victoria thinks she might be missing the anti parahumans as a problem. Here, possibly. Something’s in her quote-unquote ‘blind spot’, that she isn’t seeing.”
“I’m not sure I really get it,” Finale said. “But you can explain later. For now, just tell me what to do.”
“I can’t speak for Fume Hood and Withdrawal,” Caryatid said, “But I don’t know what to do.”
Contessa made her way down the stairs, hands in her pockets. A crew of capes followed her, with a hulking woman carrying Teacher over one shoulder. The man was wrapped in what looked like a tube of plastic.
“Ma’am!” one of the Cheit staff called out. An important looking official stood by the staff officer, speaking in something that almost sounded English.
Contessa didn’t slow down. Her soldiers followed suit.
“Do we stop her?” Caryatid asked.
“Can we stop her?” Fume Hood asked. She created an orb. “That’s a good few capes. There’s bystanders.”
Of course Fume Hood was mindful of bystanders.
“We go,” Withdrawal said. “This whole thing is too dangerous. Antares thinks it blows up.”
Caryatid remained where she was, paralyzed. Caught between stepping in to help and leaving with her friends.
“Cease! That man is intended to be in our custody!” the Cheit staff member called out.
Contessa didn’t slow.
“We will open fire!”
Withdrawal was guiding Finale back. Caryatid reached for Fume Hood, touched their mentor’s coat sleeve, and dug fingernails in.
“I can’t,” she whispered.
“You can’t retreat or you can’t step in?”
“Either. Both. Earlier, before all this happened, we talked about our trigger events. Withdrawal, then Finale. I told you about mine,” Caryatid whispered.
“I can’t deal with this.”
“Focus on tomorrow,” Fume Hood said. “Tomorrow, what do you want to have done?”
There were too many people around. Innocent bystanders. Caryatid summed up her courage, then strode forward a few steps-
“Caryatid!” Withdrawal called out. “You can’t!”
-jogging more steps, then running, before putting herself in the woman’s way, arms out to either side. A car to her right helped bar the way.
She reached within herself, and then let her power settle. Stillness.
Turning a page, finding something other than humanity, mortality, and physical sensation on the other side. Her body was made of turning pages.
Taking a step, without stepping forward, backward, left or right. Like there was a slight rise and fall, and she was something else on the other side.
Her consciousness unfolded, as though she were looking down on it all from above. She wasn’t, but… that was kind of how it felt, when she viewed it all as a series of positions, colors, and textures with a focus that was predominantly on what was close to her, everything blurring out into paint-like splashes as they got further and further out.
Off to the side, catching up and getting to a good vantage point, Finale pointed her hands at Contessa, fingers meshed together, thumbs pressed together and sticking out, index fingers sticking forward. Ready to shoot.
Don’t leave. Don’t set off this situation and turn it into a disaster.
Caryatid couldn’t open her mouth to talk while in her statue form.
“Ari,” Contessa said, not breaking stride.
Still barring the way, as the woman got closer by the second, Caryatid took a second to process. Ari? Her brother? Why his name? What did this woman mean? Was it a threat, or-
She dropped the breaker form. “What do-”
The woman in the suit seized her by arm and shoulder, pushing her to the left. She stumbled.
Caryatid felt the impact at her back. The effect landing.
She twisted her head around. “Don’t!”
“I know! My aim is usually so good, I’m sorry! I can’t-”
The pull reversed direction, an arm bar keeping Caryatid from resisting as she was pushed to the right. She tried to take a quick extra step to get her balance again, and found a leg in her way.
She toppled. Her head glanced against a nearby car’s wheel well. She sprawled onto the slushy pavement, momentarily stunned, unable to gather her thoughts or physical wherewithal.
“Cary!” Finale called out.
Others were calling out, but heroes and Patrol were stuck with the burgeoning, still hostile crowd of anti-parahumans and other angry refugees.
There was a gunshot, elsewhere. From the direction of the station. Cheit, now.
The boom that answered could only be a power. Not Finale’s. There were shouts, screams, and agonized noises.
Caryatid looked up, and her vision was obscured. A rivulet of blood, running down her face.
More shouting, more screams. Muffled, like noises from another room.
She saw Contessa walk by the driver’s side door, jamming a knife into the lock, jerking it, still without slowing or quickening her step.
Withdrawal skidded a bit as he landed next to her, crouching over her with his extended limbs, as if to shield her from danger.
He was always so intimidating, when he jumped up close to her like that. Springy movements, metal squeaking if it wasn’t tuned up perfectly, which it almost never was, and he came across so tall like this. He bent closer, touching her head wound.
At the back of the car, barely taking a second to do it, Contessa popped the boot.
The seven foot tall muscular woman dumped Teacher in his plastic sheet inside.
“I’ll drive,” Contessa said.
“Contessa!” Fume Hood called out. “We need you to slow down!”
“Slowing down would get people hurt. Cheit’s leadership agreed to let me take Teacher, the ones complaining are a subversive faction that’s dependent on him,” Contessa said, as she walked over to another car. She used that small knife to pop the lock there too, jamming it in between the door and the frame this time. She bent inside.
“That’s my car!” a man screamed. One of the people being arrested.
“You’re going to incite a war!” Fume Hood shouted.
The car started, as fast as if the woman had the real keys.
“The war is happening regardless,” Contessa said, as she straightened. She made a gesture toward the team of parahumans that had come with her. “It will be mostly internal within Cheit. It will be healthy in the long run, with few casualties, and better relations between worlds after the fact. They will shoot at people here, I can’t see with perfect clarity, but I have good reason to think there won’t be more than two permanent injuries or deaths. This is for the best.”
“For the best? Fuck no, I can’t buy that!” Fume Hood snarled.
She always swore more when she was stressed.
“You don’t have to buy it,” Contessa said, as she returned to the first car. She loomed over Caryatid and stood within Withdrawal’s reach. The door was already open, thanks to the initial knife stab. “You only have to accept it, wait, see, and then know it to be true.”
“Yeah, no. I have problems with trust and serious common sense issues,” Fume Hood said. “Stay put, let’s handle this.”
She chucked the orb of gas.
The woman in the suit bent low, her posture like someone bowling a strike, but her arm moved the opposite way. The orb was redirected, flying straight up.
She straightened, raising her hand over her head. That hand dropped with the orb as it fell. When she stopped moving, she had it in between three fingers.
Fume Hood had said once that her orbs were as fragile as christmas ornaments or lightbulbs unless she wanted them intact, which was usually when she was handling them. She could use her power to fling them at speeds like a pitcher threw a baseball. Each contained enough compressed gas that they could fill a large room.
Contessa had caught a christmas ornament thrown at baseball pitcher speeds.
Hm. Redirected and then caught.
So that was doing things perfectly.
Fume Hood created six more orbs, which formed a circle around her upper body. Her cape and hood billowed.
Contessa flicked the orb she held onto Withdrawal and Caryatid.
Caryatid went breaker. Withdrawal couldn’t, though.
And he had a new mask. Was it-
He coughed violently, one of his feet losing traction on the road.
Fume Hood had hesitated, giving Contessa time to get into the car. She hurled her orbs at the windshield, then hurried to Withdrawal’s side, sucking up gas to form a new orb.
“Open your mouth. Let me suck up what you’ve got in your lungs.”
“It is open,” Withdrawal said, voice hoarse. “Fuck, this sucks.”
The car peeled out, swerving around some of the people on the battlefield, heading straight for the barricade. The other car, loaded up with members of Contessa’s group, also left.
Her leaving was supposed to be a good thing, right? They’d planned to run, but Caryatid had changed her mind and threw herself and her team into this mess.
Except no. The people were riled up. That one guy screaming about his car being stolen. The people at the barricade. People who had gotten out of their cars to watch or check what was going on, after hearing the gunshot.
And Cheit. The men from Cheit were upset. Straightening, Caryatid could see the people who were lying on the ground or being dragged. People who, like her, had gotten in Contessa’s way.
But there were many others.
Putting her team between angry anti-parahumans and angry people from Cheit.
She touched her head wound, feeling blood and a piercing pain.
What could she do? Where could she go? If she moved she might get hurt. If she did anything, she might make things worse.
She stood, using her breaker form to protect herself, shielding her team.
Blood and paralysis and being so very, very afraid.
Caryatid, a Critical Moment
Carrie gripped her cell phone with two hands. The hold music was maddening.
She tensed as the person on the other end picked up. “Ahem, Ms.-”
“Yes, good,” the man on the other end sounded like he was still getting organized. Shuffling papers. “Hmm…”
Paper shuffling was good, right? It had to be good.
“I had a conversation with a- I must say they are a lovely husband and wife. Educated, well-to-do, well-meaning.”
The man on the phone had to be old. Carrie shifted her weight from foot to foot, impatient.
“They are, and I can testify, I’ve looked up the records to verify, they’ve arranged doctors, therapists. Everything you could hope for. They’ve expressed an intent to adopt him. These things can change, especially when volatile personalities are involved, but for the time being your mother seems to be cooperating.”
Adopted. She rocked back a bit.
“Can I see my brother?” she jumped in. “Ari?”
“I, hmm. Well, you see, this isn’t the easiest thing to discuss. I assure you, I want to make it abundantly clear your brother is in good hands, but I must regrettably inform you that he is nonetheless in the hospital, you see.”
“Perfectly routine. Nothing to do with their treatment of them. I see here in the file that you have previously expressed deep concerns about possible caregivers and your perception of foster care.”
“Please, miss. Volume down. I assure you, nothing to worry about. I won’t say it’s routine, but you… let me see here…”
He audibly turned pages.
There were tears in her eyes. She looked for a place to sit, and settled on the roof’s edge. The neighborhood was shitty, with old detritus and trash in the streets. One in every ten windows was broken, and a car on the road hadn’t been moved in what was probably years.
But it was their turf. A place for her team to hang out.
“You’re aware of his health issues.”
“It’s more of the same, miss… Carrie, was it? Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Yes. Carrie. Can I see him? Which hospital? I can take the bus.”
“Carrie, dear. You can be confident that the doctors and nurses are taking exceptional care of the boy. There’s no need to visit. He’s carrying on with his life just fine and he’ll be fine, certainly.”
“I do need to visit. I want to visit. I haven’t seen him in a year.”
“My dear girl… there is no easy way to say this. I hoped to avoid it. He doesn’t want to see you.”
She went very still. Her eyes were filled with tears, but she didn’t blink to clear them. The moisture crept over the surface until there was only blurriness.
Her voice was a croak. “After the hospital?”
“From what the foster parents expressed to me, hm, let me see my handwritten notes-”
He paged through.
“Tell me,” she said. “I’m free whenever. Day or night. I don’t care where they live, I’ll find a way, I’ll walk.”
More audible flapping of pages.
“He’s the only family I want to keep.”
Another page turn. A thud, like something was dropped on a desk.
“This isn’t easy. I’m so sorry, my dear. His foster parents report that he wishes to make a fresh start, and avoid all reminders of his prior life. He finds it quite traumatic.”
So do I. But Ari… Ari was a good part of it.
“Could they be lying? Is there a chance they’re just lying so they don’t have to worry about me? Because I’m a good person, I’m no trouble.”
“I thought perhaps there was. But, ahh. This isn’t easy.”
“Tell me,” she said.
“He made it very clear. If you contact him, he will tell the world your secret. Does that mean anything to you?”
“No,” she lied. My powers.
He had been so mad that she had gotten the powers and he got nothing. That he had been rendered incontinent by the drugs their mother had used to pacify them. That he had lost a kidney and had a partial ureterectomy.
Doctors had worried she would have similar problems. But she had mended. Her brother had been smaller. The drugs had hit him harder.
“Rest assured, he is getting the best care. He is in a loving home. Sometimes you must give these things time.”
Caryatid stood on the rooftop, staring up at the sky, because turning her face in any other direction would let the tears spill free.
She let the phone drop to the flat roof, then dropped down to a crouch, wrapping her arms around her knees. It hurt. It hurt so much. She buried her face in the fabric of her dress. Then she used her power.
To not be human, to be numb, to be a statue that didn’t feel things in the same way. So long as she was a breaker, she was an unfeeling thing.
The door to the rooftop creaked. She heard it but she didn’t look up. Looking up meant moving and moving meant feeling.
“There’s nobody on the other end. I’m going to hang up, okay? I’ve got your phone in my pocket,” Bella said.
Carrie didn’t move.
She was aware of Bella sitting next to her, leaning into her. Bella hugged her immobile, unfeeling self.
“I guess you called your brother like you said you would?” Bella asked. “It didn’t go well?”
He doesn’t ever want to see me again.
“That’s awful,” Bella said. “I’m so sorry. You deserve-”
There was a hitch of emotion. The hiccup of tears.
“You deserve better. You’re one of the nicest, best people I know. Top two.”
Bella cried in her place, while she remained stock still.
Bella worried, Carrie realized. Bella would be concerned.
Couldn’t let Bella be concerned. Couldn’t let Bella shoulder the tears all by herself. Not when they came from a place of such unfiltered caring.
She let herself be human again. It took some reconfiguring, from sitting side by side to being able to properly hug, but she adjusted, wrapping her arms around her friend and letting her friend do the same for her. She sobbed into Bella’s shoulder, while her friend rubbed her back.
At least… she had a new family, going forward.
Fume Hood, Now
She hesitated before every throw. A lot of the people fighting were civilians, and there was a chance that any person she hit with her gas could be asthmatic, too young. Pregnant.
It had been easier being an asshole. When she’d been an asshole, it had been okay to gas a teammate. Or it had been something they would roll with. These guys, especially the Malfunctions… she would actually feel bad if she gassed them. Even with a light dose, like tear gas.
She heard Withdrawal cough.
She felt bad. Contessa had used her gas to hurt this team.
Each throw was calculated. Placed far away from anyone who looked like they might be vulnerable. Blocking off vision and blocking off access to areas. The wind periodically picked up, necessitating that she take time to gather up the gas before it could wash over her ‘side’ in the battle.
Not that there were really sides at this point. Not in the sense where there was stuff over there and stuff over here. The anti-parahumans had broken through and were mixed in with everything. They grabbed improvised weapons, or drew hidden ones. The refugees who were angriest were shouting, gathering together, telling the anti-parahumans to stop, or telling people to calm down. One very loud woman was shrieking about her husband’s vascular problem and how he couldn’t sit in the car for too long without issues. At the same time there were guns.
Cheit’s people and a few scattered capes were in the mix, too. Their security had armor on, had weapons, and were more organized. The gas was helpful there. They liked to stay together, so blocking off one part of the group blocked off the rest.
They were outnumbered and reinforcements were a few minutes out. Sandwiched between two factions, and neither faction was especially friendly.
She did what she could to protect the Malfunctions. She had been a free agent at the same time Victoria had been looking for someone more experienced to pair with them. That had been weeks ago.
They’d kind of ended up in each other’s company since then.
Fume Hood jogged through her gas to flank a man in Cheit armor who had just shoved Finale to the ground and stood over the girl with a baton raised. She coldcocked him.
She shook her hand, wincing at the pain, and put her other hand down for Finale to grab, helping the girl to her feet.
Helped that they couldn’t see through her gas, and she could. That she could breathe it in and they couldn’t.
As awful as this was, as awful and ugly and stupid, it felt cleaner than what she was used to. She’d once felt the opposite, after every stupid stunt, party-with-powers-involved, and what she would have once called ‘escapades’.
Back when she had been awful, ugly, and stupid.
There wasn’t really a balancing of the scales in this universe, but it felt good to be pushing back against that kind of thing. She’d once ended every night out in costume feeling dread and a desperate need to go, to do stuff, to distract herself from what was initially a dread that the cops or heroes would kick her door in.
Then, after she’d gotten used to it, a kind of uneasy feeling about what would happen if she stopped and thought long enough to dwell on events and where she was at. Toking, fucking, sucking, smoking, drinking, and everything under the sun kept her mind off things.
Now she faced reality without the armor of distractions, and reality was harsh, stark, with edges drawn in too precisely. It wasn’t easy going, but at the very least, she could feel like she was making incremental progress toward being someone she could like.
Fume hood judged where Finale was shooting, picked out one of her orbs, with a more yellow tint than a yellow-green or green tint, and used her orb-only telekinesis to curve-ball it forward. It detonated into a cloud.
The ‘bambambam’ became a rattle of detonations that knocked the offending group of anti-parahumans back into the expanding gas cloud. It would be very similar to tear gas in practice.
Caryatid tackled a guy who was bearing a fire axe, knocking him to the ground. She went breaker while atop him. Fume Hood threw another orb. A deeper green. Nauseating, longer-acting, but subtler.
Caryatid in her form wasn’t affected. The guy with the axe, though, the fight quickly went out of him.
Fume Hood waited until he was all out of steam, then sucked up the gas, choosing to guide it through the air so the cone of gas that was being gathered blocked the path of a group of really angry looking teenagers.
…She wanted to help them. Malfunctions and the people in general.
Withdrawal fired his pill popper at a car that had just lit up, headlights bright. The red juice, it looked like it softened things that weren’t flesh. The red mist primarily expanded beneath the car. The vehicle sagged, wheels fighting for traction on otherwise normal road, distorting in shape. When the car did move, it fishtailed, then stopped again. Had it continued, it might have run some people over.
He leaped on top of the hood. The hood distorted too, as did, apparently, the engine block. Smoke billowed out from around the cracks in the hood. The wheels and undercarriage had given up their last gasp too, apparently. The wheels stopped spinning.
“Window!” she called out.
Withdrawal glanced back at her, then hit the windshield with the end of the pill popper, punching a hole in it and breaking it elsewhere.
She created more orbs, having them circle around her. A yellow green orb- she touched it and it stopped orbiting her. She gestured, and it flew forward at ninety miles an hour. She guided its course with some mental focus.
The orb flew into the hole in the windshield and hit the car interior at the same time Withdrawal leaped away.
Helping them felt good. She was their ‘mentor’, in some senses, telling them how villains operated, what the rules of the cape scene were, how to do some stuff in a fight like throwing punches or thinking about a crisis.
But they were really the ones who rubbed off on her.
She felt so terribly guilty, being around them.
One of the anti-parahumans. A big-bellied man with a gas mask on.
“You killed a woman’s baby,” he growled, voice muffled by the mask.
“I’ve done a lot of things.”
Fume Hood, Then
“You’re all bitches! Cunts and bitches!”
The group of girls alternately laughed and gave her the finger as they walked away.
Huffing for breath, furious, Lauren swiped a food tray off of one of the outdoor tables, letting the food and drink crash to the ground.
“Hey!” the burger stand employee called out. “Hey! You clean that up!”
She gave him the finger, and she walked away.
Her ‘friends’ had turned on her. Torn her down, hated on her clothes, made fun of her house and family. For no reason.
Fuck them, it wasn’t like she had a choice.
Fuck all of this. Fuck the burger place. Fuck her family, who wouldn’t even understand if she explained it. Fuck her mom, because she’d freaked out over finding one joint in Lauren’s room and cut off her allowance, curbstomping her social life in the process.
She jogged away so the burger guy wouldn’t be able to catch up to her, then walked with her hands in her pockets, pulling the front of her jacket closed, because the zipper always got stuck and if it got stuck now, when she was in this fucking mood? She’d freak.
Her brown hair was tied back into a tight ponytail, because she didn’t have the stuff to give it volume, her jeans were one size too big, and her sneakers had holes in them she could stick a finger through.
Fuck her mom. Fuck this.
I’d give shit to someone who looks like me, she thought. Can’t even get as mad at those bitches as I want to.
What even was the point? Living in this fucking flaming cum dumpster of a town. She walked by the detritus and piled up clothing that looked like a homeless person’s camp, and she hated that she lived here. Hated that this was the way the streets fucking looked.
She horked a loogie and spat, placing the spit close to the pile of shit.
The clothes moved. Startling, she backed off, moving away at doubletime to avoid any incident.
There was a man at another collection of homeless stuff, half a block down, wearing army camo and a colorful shirt with Mouse Protector on it. He had a thick beard and stood with his mouth open, making it apparent he was missing a couple of teeth.
“That ain’t right,” he drawled, as she walked down the other side of the road. “Spitting on someone.”
“Spit near, not on.”
“Ain’t right to lecture someone about something you didn’t see right.”
“I think you should go back. Apologize. She’s up.”
Lauren looked back. There was a girl, maybe two years older than her, who was sitting up, looking.
“Leave me alone, man. I’m having a shitty night.”
“That makes it more important to make things right. Most people who do shitty things are having shitty times of it.”
“Yeah. Right, got it,” Lauren said, shrugging. She started to walk past him, heading down the street. “You sure have it all figured out.”
“You think you’re better than me?” he asked, behind her.
“Kinda do, no offense.”
“From where I stand, you’re a little shit-smear on society who spits on those she thinks are lower than her.”
From where he stood.
He was closer. Approaching her. And as he got closer, she could see that he was actually kind of buff. His sleeves were tight around biceps and forearms. Had he actually been in the army, wearing that camo?
“I spat near her, didn’t even see her. Okay? So back off.”
She could smell him. Unwashed, gross.
Further down the street, someone hopped to his feet as he saw them. A homeless girl, roughly her own age.
The girl got in Lauren’s way. She hesitated, then turned. A passing car kept her from crossing the street.
“Wanted her to apologize to Yasmine. Yas has been having a tough time of it. She’d appreciate a human moment.”
“Look, just let me go. You can’t legally do this shit,” Lauren protested.
“Paul looks after those of us who aren’t really good at defending ourselves,” Yasmine said, indicating what might have been a prosthetic leg. “Think of him like a bouncer, the street’s his club.”
“Street’s for everyone. Basic human right or something.”
“Your rights extend to the point they start trampling on someone else’s,” Paul said.
“Yeah, well, I’m not trampling on anything,” Lauren protested.
Lauren bolted, pushing her way past the girl with the prosthetic leg. She felt the girl grab her clothes, fall, and take her down with her.
She landed in the midst of the girl’s collected trash and general garbage. A resealable lunch container, and what looked like a mess of pens, tied plastic bags of personal items or actual food-smelling trash, papers, a dirty blanket, dirty clothes. She shrieked, fighting to get her way free, backing off.
“Jeez, you didn’t have to go that far,” Paul said.
“I thought maybe she stole something. You weren’t clear about what she’s apologizing for.”
Lauren, eyes wide, scrambled back, past the girl with the prosthetic leg who now sat on the blanket. Paul took a step forward, and she wheeled around, ready to run.
The wheeling made her aware of a sensation at her arm. She heard Paul exclaim as he noticed the same thing.
They hadn’t been pens. Syringes, lined up and packed together in a case. Some had stuck into her arm near the elbow, and bounced as she moved. She rushed to pull them loose, scattering them to the ground. Then, struck by the thought she might need to know what was in those syringes, she dropped to her knees, grabbing at one.
Paul stepped closer, and she backed away on hands and knees, the syringe feeling fragile in her hand as she put weight on it.
Panicked, she turned to go- only to see the commotion had stirred up some of the other locals. Someone had stepped out of a nearby doorway. Someone across the street shouted.
Loathing and revulsion in all directions, inward included, choked her. The scene around her distorted, and for a panicked moment, she thought it was drugs.
But what she saw was too big for drugs.
Fume Hood, Now
Surrounded on all sides by hatred, revilement, disgust. Aimed at her.
Try all her life, never make headway. If anything, trying only got her stuck deeper in the mud. It was only in retrospect that she realized what she did wrong.
Being a stupid sixteen year old shit, refusing to back down or apologize out of some twisted pride, and crashing into some diabetic’s used syringe stash?
Slumming it with the guys who celebrated doing nothing, aside from the occasional so-big-it-has-to-fail attempt at something outlandish, be it some get-rich-quick business, starting a gang, siccing a giant vegetable on Boston, or attempting a prison breakout to get on the good side of some key villains in the scene. Failure, failure, partial success, wish-it-had-been-a-failure. Then, after all that slumming and fucking around, smoking up and fucking, she’d found herself wondering why she never made headway in life. Which fed more self loathing, more of the activities that served to distract herself.
Throwing herself headlong into the scene with people she knew she shouldn’t hang out with, and hitting some stupid pregnant woman who she still wasn’t sure wasn’t trying to get hurt. Costing that woman her baby.
Going willingly to jail. Thinking that would fix anything.
This, thinking she could make a difference.
And even more specifically, this very scene. Doing patrols to make sure traffic was moving and raiders weren’t closing in, and then accepting a gig dealing with anti-parahumans. When she had a history with the type.
She could have said no. Couldn’t she?
People didn’t forget. The bad stuck with you forever.
The guy in the gas mask was kicking her ass. Her gas wasn’t slowing him down. She created orb after orb, sending it flying with the intent of knocking the mask ajar, overloading it, or just blinding him so she could get in a few quick hits. But he had a baseball bat, and he’d clipped her once already.
“You’re going to pay for what you did,” he said, walking deeper into the gas, swinging where he thought she might be.
“Working on it, went to jail, doing a kind of community service,” she said, while walking to the left, before abruptly changing direction.
He seemed to guess what she was doing. The bat came perilously close. Long arms, long bat.
This was distracting her from helping the Malfunctions. They were kids, ten years younger than her. She didn’t want this in this kind of situation when they didn’t have other people at their backs.
Still pacing sideways, she could see him move to vaguely track her. It wasn’t perfect, but he was good. Good eyes.
She suspected she knew why. The fan at her back.
Reaching up, she peeled her coat off, holding it out, and slowly made her way to a nearby railing. She hung her coat there, the heated fan still going. Distorting the gas that flooded the area around them. It thinned out by the second as she ceased making new orbs, but she knew if she threw anything it would distract. She wanted to predict his movements.
And he did start to inch closer to the railing.
If she got the mask off, she won. There was a railing, she could use it as a jumping-off point.
It was a question of waiting, of timing the attack, staying low so that the thinning cloud wouldn’t reveal her. Her costume was tinted to blend in with the green-yellow.
She sprung forward. One foot on the railing-post that matched the one she had hung her jacket on. Giving her the height to reach for his head.
He saw her, in that last moment. The butt-end of the bat, hands close to it, came up to her stomach. Not much of a hit, but it distracted her from getting her hands on his mask or even landing properly.
The bat came down in an overhead swing. Hit her ribs at her back.
Her cry was strangled. Spots flashed behind her eyes.
Withdrawal. She could hear his limbs rattle in places as he made the approach.
The other two were coming too.
The big guy backed off as the three Major Malfunctions drew close to Fume Hood.
“Pow- ow, fuck – powers?” she asked.
“No,” the masked man said.
“Pretty sharp,” she grunted.
“Outrage, disgust,” he said. “Pushes you.”
She nodded. That, at least, was her language. Or it was her birth language. The kind of thinking that she had always gone back to. If the other guy hated you and you hated yourself… losing was a pretty sure bet, no matter how strong you were.
And for a long, long time, she hadn’t liked anything about herself.
Blame, from all directions, including her own blame turned inward. Resentment, same thing. Frustration.
Wearing her down.
“You win,” she said. “Got your licks in. This is going to hurt like hell for a long, long while.”
“I’m not done,” the man said.
“You’re done,” Withdrawal replied.
The man drew his gun, still holding his bat in the other hand. He pointed it at Withdrawal.
“No!” Fume Hood grunted. The shout elicited a blinding pain. She tried to stand and instead landed on her elbows and knees. She created an orb, holding it in her hand. She couldn’t bring herself to throw it, or to focus enough to use her power to fling it. “Shoot me. Just me. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine, you idiot!” Finale said. “I could-”
The gun went off.
Fume Hood twisted to try and look up and see what had happened. The pain in her back made her see only darkness and stars for long seconds instead.
“Shhhh,” the man in the gas mask said. “That was a warning shot. I know how you work. I know you could try to disarm me. If you make another sound, Finale, I shoot before you can do anything.”
In her breaker form, Caryatid reached over for Finale’s hand, holding it. Finale nodded, lips pursed shut.
“What’s the point?” Caryatid asked, as she turned human.
“Don’t- keep using your form,” Fume Hood grunted.
“What’s the point of this, what do you gain? You get to gun down one of us?”
The man shrugged. “She took a life, we take hers.”
“No! There has to be more to it!”
“Reasserting some control? You’ve been holding Endbringers over our heads for years and now there’s rumors they were manufactured. Then you held the end of the world over our heads. Now this… supposed reason for evacuation, conveniently after the mayor gets exposed? You have powers but you keep clutching for more.”
“What happens? You shoot her and you win? This changes the outcome?”
He pointed backwards without looking to check. There were some people there, mostly young ones, with cameras. “Keep fighting us, it’s only going to encourage us, seeing how vicious you get with the unpowered. That’s if you win. If this next bullet lands, if I walk away with a win, it’s a bit of motivation. We all know what you did to that pregnant woman, Rotten Apple. Pretend to be a hero all you want, we all know what you are and what you did.”
“Kill a kid?” Fume Hood asked. “Like you just threatened to do?”
He aimed, and he fired.
It felt like… getting shot. She wanted to wrap her head around it so she could start to process the pain, but the most familiar sensation she could connect to was the last time she’d been shot. Every muscle in her body but one clenched with the pain, which speared through her midsection. The one muscle that didn’t seem to have any strength at all was low in her stomach, and in its absence she found herself flopping over, curling up into the fetal position.
“You bastard!” Withdrawal called out. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Point that thing at me and I’ll empty this into the group of you.”
“You need to go,” Fume Hood whispered, barely able to follow what was happening, but giving it her all anyway. She could see people closing in nearby. This guy’s friends. Forming a defensive perimeter around this scene. Others who might not be friends, who were just regular civilians who were watching.
“We’re not leaving you,” Finale said.
“You have to. I’m sorry.”
“Finale!” Fume Hood hissed out the word. The hiss made her back and stomach cramp up. “You go. I’m… I’m not this great person. I’m not worth it.”
“You-” Fume Hood tried. “You told me your stories. Your trigger events. You told me who you are. Let me- let me tell you who I am. I’m Withdrawal’s mom. Selfish and lazy and dismissive and really fucking bad at taking care of others. I’m the kids who egged Finale on, and the asshole who scared her after. I’ve been such a jackass for so many years, I hurt and scared so many people. I’ve dealt drugs to people who were like your mom, Caryatid, I’ve drugged people. I’ve ruined lives and broken up families just by being there. Sometimes on purpose, or for fun.”
Everything in her strained with the pain. Talking so much made her feel like she might pass out.
“Maybe that’s who you were, but you’re other things too,” Caryatid said. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”
Fume Hood shook her head, rocking on the spot as she tried to find a position where she was comfortable. “You go. Let them shoot me or humiliate me. It’ll be humiliation, that’s their goal. They don’t want blood they want power.”
Too late a pivot to convince anyone. Even Finale, apparently. If only she’d been thinking.
Caryatid moved, putting herself between Fume Hood and the man. She went Breaker. Withdrawal partially hid behind his pill popper. A thin shield that wouldn’t do.
There were too many others.
They’d moved because the man with the gas mask and gun was moving.
Fume Hood sat up, hand reaching for Finale’s shoulder.
Her hand was occupied. An orb. She’d created it and forgotten about it.
All of that straining, all of that pain, tension, the muscle activations, whatever it was. She’d been straining and flexing parts of herself that had nothing to do with her body. Her power, by pure reflex.
One orb, with enough condensed, noxious gas in it that it was almost black.
She had made this kind of orb in the past. Purely as an experimental thing. But even in her lowest moment, she hadn’t even considered using it on people.
Because when she’d thrown it, it had swept over grass and trees. It had killed what it touched.
If she got shot now, the Malfunctions, even bystanders-
Immediately, she began withdrawing gas from it, making it dissipate. It wasn’t enough, considering. One percent at best, two percent.
She found strength she hadn’t realized she had. Struggling, hand out, warding the gunman off. “Wait!”
He raised the gun, pointing.
She couldn’t drop this, or risk that it popped. She let her power cast the orb out and forward.
She hit the Anti-parahumans. The gunman. Probably a few errant civilians who had been content to watch without outright participating.
Doing the unforgivable, to avoid doing the impossible. She couldn’t hurt the only decent people she knew. Even if it meant betraying everything she wanted out of herself.
She saw people keel over, skin blistering. Eyes turned her way. Horrified. Hateful. Disgusted. In disbelief.
It hadn’t been so purposeful, not any more than spitting on a homeless girl or gassing a pregnant woman.
But that didn’t matter.
Something in her gave, her consciousness missed a stair in the staircase it was descending.
Fume Hood saw the cosmos, and she saw the world she lived on. She saw lives that spread over those orbs like disease, and she saw them extinguished.
She saw herself in the midst of it. The fundament on which her own power was built.
How deep that power went, how big it was.
Something else gave.
Cracks began to spread, starting with her. The Malfunctions backed away as those cracks stretched across the area.
Like the breaking of a window, as a single point of pressure was applied.
And as those lines spiderwebbed out, there were areas that had cracks on all sides… and those areas fell out, fell free, falling into a kind of oblivion.
Fume Hood, A Critical Moment
“You play guitar?” Finale asked. “Can you show me?”
“I’m not great. Self-taught. Mostly just to pull out at parties and campfires, if the mood’s right.”
Fume Hood picked up the guitar. She experimentally strummed it, then began to play.
After listening for a minute, Finale grabbed two paintbrushes, and began using them as drumsticks on nearby tins, playing with some force to make up for the lack of actual drums.
The drumming was probably better than Fume Hood’s guitar playing.
“I want to do this to kill time at the next stakeout,” Finale said, speaking over the music.
“I think this would give us away.”
“But stakeouts are so boring.”
Fume Hood felt the cracks reaching out, saw the destruction as bits of building fell, the road dropping away into nothing. Civilians were running.
Off to the side, cracks spread in three dimensions, cutting through air, terrain, powers, until they reached the station.
One crack reached deep enough to hit the portal within. It was like throwing water on a grease fire. The cracks began spreading out dramatically from there. She could see Cheit on the other side.
She could feel that well of power.
Withdrawal was running, trying to help Finale. Caryatid was slowest, but she could move about as fast as the other pair because she was just the one person.
If what was happening to Fume Hood happened to them… if Withdrawal was trapped in one place, locked down, fed this influx of sensations and awareness, this negativity, it would devour everything good about him.
If Finale was disconnected from everyone and everything she cared about, and made an architect of calamity?
If Caryatid was paralyzed, disconnected from her humanity?
Forever, for each of them?
She made the decision. She reached out and seized it.
To steer and even force the cracks. All to guide them or encourage them to form away from innocents, where she could. Away from the Malfunctions, so they could run and at least tell others what had happened.
Gas leaked out of her mouth, and her body contorted, distorted. More like Caryatid’s other form than her own.
She was losing herself.
Fume Hood, a Critical Moment
“Put your hands here,” Tempera said.
Victoria did. Pressing her hands down over the bullet wound. Blood leaked out over the tops of her fingers.
Fume Hood looked up at the two women’s faces. Watched as Tempera prepared some ‘paint’. Saw Victoria’s concern and focus.
Why are you trying? Why, for me?
“Not-” she managed to say. The pressure on her stomach didn’t make it easy to speak.
“Not?” Victoria asked.
“Not a good day.”
Tempera took an offered first aid kit, popping it open, grabbing things from within. Victoria focused on applying pressure, her eyes going from the wound to the scene around them.
“Not a good day for any of us,” Tempera said, looking over her shoulder, before she got to work.
But you’re still trying.
We’re still trying?
The cracks spread, finding weak point after weak point, spreading out from there. Places powers had cut too deep. Portals. Parahumans.
Where enough cracks spread, chunks simply… fell away.
Is this it, then? We should have run away?
Should I have let myself be shot?
Or would it have been any one of these other things and people, pushed to the edge? If I’d taken that bullet, would those people I can see now watch that video of my execution, push things further, find another breaking point?
She watched cracks spread further.
The cracks found their next launching off point. A woman with awareness extending everywhere. Each line of awareness was a weak point, like lines scored into rock before that rock was cracked. The cracks stretched easily along those efficient lines.
The woman in the suit, now locked in place, caught by her own well of power.
Because she’s her own blind spot, like Withdrawal said, much as any of us are blind to our own selves.
She was too interconnected. Her power tied to too many things too constantly, and that power formed bridges. Connected everything, in a way.
There were others, here and there. Others who were consumed by that power, twisted by it. Writ large. Some connected things further.
The city fell away and where it didn’t, it was because of people like herself, like the distant Kronos titan, the new titan borne of the woman in the suit. Of distant others who were too weak at just the wrong time.
Fume Hood, a Critical Moment, Now
He communicated with her.
Her reply was inarticulate. Almost, she was ready to give up fighting, to consider her job done. She’d limited some of the damage and spared some of the lives.
[Help] was the second attempt from the distant voice.
This was hell. Her hell. It had to be everyone’s hell. For all her life, she had fought so hard and made so little progress, everything only evident in retrospect.
This was that, with too much on the line. She wasn’t nearly as strong as some or even most of the others that were emerging to stand tall, and she was already so very tired, so very weary of the world and her place in it.
It had been minutes.
He was asking for her to hold onto focus over days, if not weeks, months. He asked knowing how hard this was, because he had been enduring it.
She pushed out her own reply, trying to use power to articulate words, traveling along cracks and vast, broken emptiness. Along the new networks the woman in the suit was helping to form. [Yes]
The exchange was like a hand reaching out. Her hand reaching back. Something fundamental being conveyed.
To the Kronos titan. Back to her.
She began asking, to see about forming a dominant network, or even something that would help the people of this sad, small rock in this vast, scary universe.
Not enough of the others were replying or reaching back.