I’m lying on the floor. I’m as good as unconscious, vulnerable while an alien beast stalks me.
The thoughts grew dimmer, the thoughts of the scene taking over, louder than whatever he could voice in his own head.
“We need something for over the bed,” Merindah said, paging through the art. Images were printed out and blown up, each within a plastic sleeve with rigid black borders.
“I like leaving that space blank.”
Merindah reached over to place a hand on his cheek. A little bit condescending, dismissive, but fond. “It’s too spartan.”
“We have things on the shelf there,” Gilpatrick protested.
“Let’s see if anything jumps out at us,” she said, moving on. Bulldozing past him, in a way.
Gilpatrick browsed, disinterested, half of his attention on his girlfriend, half on the reams of mass-produced art, available in bed and bathroom stores, oversized furniture stores, and, here, mall kiosks.
She was beautiful, and he knew she worried. Three times this month, he’d had mobilizations. Full kit, guns signed out, briefings in the van en route. Each mobilization had ended without incident, yet he’d returned to find her waiting up for him, worrying. Two nights ago, he had hugged her, and she had started sobbing.
She knew what the job entailed, what really happened in the background, because her sister had been one of the people affected. It was how they’d met. She cared too much about him, and as a consequence, this wasn’t going to work. She hadn’t figured it out yet, but she wouldn’t be able to endure another year of being on the sidelines. He had the power to perform better, be careful, use all the tricks he’d learned. He knew who had his back. She had none of that.
He’d seen it happen with a previous partner, though Heather hadn’t felt the impact of powers on her life or the life of anyone close to her. It had taken her longer to figure it out, he’d said too much after a bad day, and he’d seen the exact same pattern play out.
Telling Heather the bad stuff had been his first mistake. Ending it too early had been his other mistake, because it had made him the bad guy, had hurt her too deeply. He’d kept quiet for Merindah, but she knew enough to fill in the blanks, she was older than Heather had been, and she watched him, noticed his emotions, no matter how guarded he was.
He was already saying goodbye to Merindah, in a way. In another way, he clung to her and that caring. The tenderness she showed. He would let her realize it was untenable instead of repeating what had happened with Heather. Maybe it would be a few months, if the situations continued or if he got called out of the city for more emergency mobilizations. Maybe it would be a year.
“Sean?” Merindah asked. She stood on her toes to look over the wall of the kiosk, hand raised, finger pointing.
He was so grateful for the depth of concern she’d showed, the tears she’d shed on seeing him return in one piece. It made his heart swell and hurt at the same time. He resolved to put up with the nonsense about the decorating of the apartment.
He circled the kiosk, and stabbed one image of a boat, painted in oils, golds and greens and blues. “I like that.”
“Name one thing we have in the bedroom that matches that,” Merindah said.
“The quilted bedcover that’s folded over the drying rack, remember? That your sister gave us.”
Merindah raised her eyebrows, giving it serious consideration. “It wouldn’t match the curtains or the rug.”
“Our problem is we got stuff for the bedroom and a big piece of art is the sort of thing you get first and stage the rest of the room around. We could shuffle stuff around.”
“I don’t like boats. Not for a bedroom,” she said.
“What’s wrong with boats?”
“They’re a living room thing. Or a study- if we got a house with a study I think that would suit you. Boats would work.”
“We could get it now,” he said. “And if I ever have a study, I can move it into there.”
She made a face.
“Other option: we don’t put a big piece of artwork up. We have the shelves, plants, we have the clock…”
“I want art.”
He pointed at the boat.
“I don’t want a painting of a boat in my bedroom,” she said. She indicated a picture.
Grays and reds and a bit of green, a background of blurred brush strokes, like a haze hung over the scene. Men and women in white gathered around their altar.
He stared at it for long moments, then shook his head.
“You’re hopeless,” Merindah said. “It doesn’t speak to you?”
“It speaks to me,” he said. “But it’s not saying nice things.”
She gave him a kiss on the bicep, a consequence of how petite she was.
“You keep at it,” he said. “Let me know if anything else jumps out at you. You want to eat before we leave the mall?”
“Maybe,” she said.
He stepped away, sighing.
His eyes turned skyward. Past the tops of the walls of the mall, it was open space- literal space. Black and so filled with stars it didn’t seem possible, with nebula hues and a streak of white where the stars were so densely packed together they looked like they were part of the same thing.
Something triple-helix in form reached across that space, black against a bright backdrop. A complex ladder, twisted, reaching across the void. Specks of black like birds taking flight jumped from it and took roost, each with a bright trail left behind them.
Maybe Greek for lunch.
An abrupt motion at the corner of his eye drew his attention.
A boy, teenager, with longer hair, a shiny short-sleeved button-up shirt that would have been better suited to a visit to a club than a shopping mall, and skinny jeans. He’d been leaning against a wall by a bookstore, and the abrupt motion had been him freezing.
It took Gilpatrick a second to realize why.
“You’re not dead-set on the boat painting, are you?” she asked him from the other side of the kiosk.
“No, Merindah, I’d rather have nothing than have the boat,” he said. “But if I had to have something, I’d go with the boat.”
She snorted. “I’ll find something we both like.”
“I believe you,” he said.
The teenager hadn’t budged.
“Waiting for someone?” Gilpatrick asked.
“Me?” the teenager asked.
“Maybe,” was the response. Defensive.
There were a hundred things Gilpatrick wanted to ask. To say. He found himself ruling them out, second guessing. Like this might be a last chance, and one wrong answer would scuttle it.
He could have talked about relationships, finding the right people to cling to. But did he want to, here?
“What sort of thing would you put up on the wall of a house you owned?” Gilpatrick asked. What would he ballpark that at? Thirty percent of a ‘none of your business, creep’?
“I dunno,” the teenager said. “Pictures of myself? Friends?”
First hurdle passed.
“I can’t advise pictures of yourself. Gives off the wrong vibe if you invite people over. Classic bachelor mistake.”
It wasn’t really a classic mistake, but it was one he’d known people to make. What was this statement? Too critical? Eighty percent chance he was in the clear? Ten percent he scared the teenager off by being too critical? Ten percent chance he scared the teen by being too familiar, making it abundantly clear this wasn’t a first conversation?
“Wrong vibe how?”
Could he read the tone? Was that defensive? If he stated it outright, would he offend the teenager? If he stated it outright, would he lay groundwork that made the rest of this conversation less fragile?
“Too full of yourself, maybe. You want stuff that suggests you have hobbies, friends, that invites conversation.”
What was the chance that criticism he’d started with scared the guy off? Or that the teenager was aware enough of things to hear what Gilpatrick really wanted to say? On the flip side, there was the chance-
“Like boats,” the teenager said. “I overheard.”
“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said. He smiled. “Like boats.”
“Maybe,” the teenager said. Seeming to accept things. “What if you’re around people who need you to be full of yourself?”
“I have a cousin who’s a music producer,” Gilpatrick said. “It’s like that for him. His face is his brand and he has to constantly, always sell that brand.”
“I like it,” the kid said. His eyes betrayed a deep sadness at the same time his posture suggested bravado, like he was rising to a challenge that had been set before him.
Gilpatrick was reminded of how Merindah had broken into tears the other night, hugging him. It hadn’t taken much.
“He keeps the self-promotion mostly to his office. If he needs to cater to people or if he throws a party, he’ll rent a house and decorate it for the event. Promotes artists while he’s doing it. It’s good for networking. His home is a proper home, you wouldn’t imagine it was him, if you saw it anywhere else.”
“Sounds expensive,” the teenager said.
“It is. But he does pretty well. He thinks it’s worth having that divide between work and his everyday life, especially when his work takes up seventy percent of his waking hours.”
“I work from home,” the teenager said. “I don’t get that option.”
“I figured,” Gilpatrick said. He saw the alarm flash in the kid’s eyes. So easy to read. “Your generation is usually doing stuff online. Streaming, gaming, web pages.”
“And people your age call them web pages,” the kid snarked, his smile turning up only one corner of his mouth. He’d let that alarm slip away, now that the contract was established. That Gilpatrick would support the illusion.
It was never a full smile from the teenager. Like he was always a bit guarded, or reserved.
Gilpatrick flipped through the big book of art that was in arm’s reach. The big painting on the next page was like a hole in reality, and through that hole he could see more nebula, more stars, more of the banded triple-helix, except something was tearing its way through the helix now. A steady, rolling explosion.
He watched as it progressed.
“Your girlfriend is beautiful,” the teenager said, quiet.
Gilpatrick drew in a deep breath.
“Thank you. But why bring her up?” he asked the teenager, giving the boy a hard look. As hard as any look he ever gave him, knowing it might scare him, terminating this conversation. The awkward segue felt like it might break this spell. Too guarded. But letting that slide wasn’t an option either. Because he was genuinely unsure what the boy had meant, bringing that up, and there was no way to navigate the conversation ahead without clarifying.
“Oh. No, just… good for you, man. I didn’t mean-”
You didn’t mean to threaten her by bringing her up. I know now.
Gilpatrick smiled. “You’re fine. She’s special. Makes me feel like I’m something more. Like I belong in this world. Really, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
I don’t know what I will do without her. We won’t be together in five years.
“Really cool,” the kid said.
Again, that look in his eyes.
“Do you have that? A person, place, goal?”
The kid crossed his arms. Guard up, the look deepening. He looked to either side. Considering escape routes, now.
Pushed too hard.
But he wants to have this conversation as badly as I do. Or he’d be gone already.
“For me, you know, getting out on the water, canoeing up the lake with my friend or girlfriend, it keeps me going when work gets tough. I’ve been tearing down my grandparents’ house now that they’re gone, but that’s work that’s too cold to do in winter, too hot in summer.”
He knew he was rambling.
But… carrying the conversation further from that hard push. And mentioning things he’d mentioned before, in prior run-ins.
“There’s a music event this summer I’m looking forward to,” the teenager said.
“I’d ask my cousin if he could get good tickets for you, he has tickets for everything around here, but you probably wouldn’t trust some random offer from a stranger,” Gilpatrick said.
Again, that half smile. “Exactly right. Sorry.”
“No sweat,” Gilpatrick said. He smiled. “I hope you enjoy that, though.”
“I’m stupidly excited for it. I’ve traveled for six hours to visit one of the bands that are going to be here, at the same venue as another group I’ve had to catch a plane to see.”
“Ah, I’m so jealous. My favorite bands don’t do the tours or events anymore. I remember catching a bus to go to an event, rained the entire time, crowds of people everywhere, feet churned up mud you could sink in up to your knees.”
“What was that, like, Woodstock?”
“Fuck off,” Gilpatrick said. “I’m not that old.”
The teenager crowed out a laugh, surprising, loud, and genuine. “You-”
Gilpatrick was glancing back at Merindah as the kid had started speaking, seeing if she reacted to the laugh. When the sentence started and stopped suddenly, he looked back at the teenager, to find the guy close mouthed, arms folded, leaning against the wall, eyes on the ground.
Gilpatrick saw a woman approaching, and turned his attention back to one of the big books of prints. A picture of a wooden duck, blown up to poster size. A map. A hole in reality, giving a closer-up view of the triple-helix with black, narrow buildings clinging to it in the same way iron filings might cling to a magnet.
“Everything okay?” the woman asked.
“Yeah,” the teenager replied.
Gilpatrick glanced back, looking at the woman. She was objectively beautiful, with brown hair in waves, and heavy eye makeup. She wore a striped sweater that she practically swam in, but her figure was nice enough that the suggestions where the sweater made contact drew more attention than something more conventional would. The collar was wide enough that one shoulder was left bare, a hint of a tattoo peeking out beneath a bra strap. She closed her long-lashed eyes as she kissed the teenager.
Had she been a teenager, Gilpatrick would have felt gross taking note of those things. But the woman was closer to Gilpatrick’s age, old enough to be the teenager’s mother, though she would have had him young.
Opening her eyes, she saw Gilpatrick looking.
The look she gave him was long, searching, and unflinching. She was confident enough to look away, searching the area and the scattered people in this particular wing of the shopping center.
“He and I were talking art,” the teenager said.
“Come on,” she said, one hand on the boy’s back, and she didn’t break contact for a second as she steered him around. Leaving.
At the same time, Gilpatrick noted that she crossed from standing at the teenager’s right to standing at his left, putting herself between him and Gilpatrick. Making it harder, but not impossible, for the teen to glance back over his shoulder.
“You-” Gilpatrick raised his voice.
Stupid, speaking up now. He saw the woman look back, and he knew he was playing with fire.
“-You want to grab a bite at the food court?” he tried. “My treat.”
There was no response. They didn’t slow down.
Was it a mistake, to make that final overture? Was that the kind of thing that got people killed?
Would it have been a mistake, to not speak up at all?
Merindah touched his arm. He turned away from the scene of the teenager and woman walking away.
“Which one was he?” she asked. “Or should I not ask?”
He hugged her, kissing the top of her head.
“Okay,” she said, hugging him back.
He stayed there, hugging her, as the walls of the shopping center were overtaken by the emptiness. Stars and nebulas, and a civilization being devoured.
The last things to go were him, Merindah, and the image on the one print Merindah had pointed out. Here, at least. A red, muddled background like clotted blood, men and women in their white forensic coveralls, and in the center, their ‘altar’, a metal barrel with concrete within, a slice of a desiccated face peering out where metal and concrete had been removed.
The scream was ten kinds of raw, and it was loud after the chaos of the shopping center.
Gilpatrick snapped to awareness. If it hadn’t been for the last coherent thoughts he’d had before the altered memory overtook him, it might have taken him a second or two longer to get his bearings again.
“I’m the one you want!”
The beast was at the center of the room. Marcial was half-awake, and half-alive. Her lower body was mangled.
With far less strength than a whole Marcial might have managed, she batted at the beast’s head with her weapon.
It was massive, he could see. Eight limbs, a body that unfolded around it like a flower’s petals, each ‘petal’ an armored, ‘furred’ length of body, with a limb stabbing out, ending in a paw that looked like licks of flame frozen in time, painted to look like red or blue steel.
“I’m the killer, I’m the one your host hates!”
The words were raw.
Gilpatrick found Rain in the jumble, navigating the detritus and crap that cluttered the room. He had a metal pole in each hand.
“Don’t!” Gilpatrick bellowed.
Rain stabbed it, slamming a spike into the armpit of one limb.
The beast reacted, rearing up, back- and Rain took quick steps, one hand still on the metal spear, to keep the weapon angled right, the base of it dragged in the white powder beneath foot and claw.
When the beast’s weight came fully down, the base of the spear stabbed into the ground, almost impaling Rain’s foot. Its own body weight drove the point in deeper, and helped Rain get the second pole to impale the same area.
The metal poles, as thick around as either of Rain’s arms, bent under the creature’s mass and weight. But it slowed it as it tried to turn and claw at Rain.
“Fight me! Leave them alone!” Rain roared the words.
It almost seemed to try. The makeshift spears dragged furrows into the dirt as it tried to turn Rain’s direction.
Does it react to emotion? Gilpatrick wondered.
“You can have me, if you let them leave. Let them take the fucking wounded!”
Gilpatrick, just getting to his feet and finding his equilibrium, was rocked by the emotion that ripped through him. His thoughts tore as emotions that had made up maybe three percent of his mental real estate took over everything, grinding and crushing away anything and everything else.
Hurt, inflict, shoot-
Each emotion was an action- the first two were frustrated ones, an inability to find someone in reach. An inability to find an insult or invective fresh in his mind.
His finger pulled the trigger. He aimed wildly and checked the gun in the same motion, reflexively pulling the trigger again and again.
-maim, destroy, tear it all down-
Nobody and nothing close enough. Only this sea of white sand that smelled and tasted like salt and chalk on his tongue. He grit his teeth so hard it felt like something would give.
He fixed his attention on the idea. On Marcial’s ruined lower body. With the way the impulses gripped him, he was already moving, already on his way to her.
Make it hurt.
-make it hurt, torture, butcher, kill-
He was heedless of the beast, who fought Rain, ten or fifteen feet away. Heedless of Rain, who screamed again, raw and without reservation.
Gilpatrick dug fingers into Marcial’s wounded body, past hot meant, blood, and to exposed bone, slick with fluid. She groped for and found his collar, twisting it, choking him-
Make it hurt.
His adjustments, bare fingers in open wound, gave him his victory here. She couldn’t keep choking him with the pain she was in. She tried and failed to get a grip on his wrist, fingernails scraping on the slick surface of his PRT-issue windbreaker.
He hauled, hard, on the bone, as if he could tear it from the bleeding meat of her, his thoughts numb.
Make it hurt. Need time to make it hurt.
He hauled again, pulled her.
Still growling, the beast crashed into him. He sprawled, grit digging into skin, salt dust in his nose and mouth.
Can’t hurt it. Too tough.
I can hurt her.
This time he grabbed hold of the raw edge of the wound. Her hand grabbed his wrist, tight, fingers digging in.
Have to get far enough away to do it without interruption.
He dragged her, mind numb, the fighting happening only paces away. As the growls rose in volume, he gripped harder, his thoughts dipping into even more gruesome extremes and end cases. Things he could do, based on things he’d seen.
Get through that doorway, take her to pieces. Quadruple amputee.
Stick her in a barrel.
The words became a refrain, against a background of Rain’s hollering and screams. A prolonged cry of rage, matching the beast’s howl.
The boy was hurt, scrambling back, practically frothing at the mouth. He was bleeding openly now, ribs at his side exposed.
Gilpatrick watched as he toppled.
Execute. Stomp his head in. Let him bleed.
The angry thoughts were almost melancholic.
Rain screamed his rage at the monster, rough-voiced, like every bit of pain that had started with a ‘spare the child’ paddle and ended with a furious scrap against a monster twenty times his size in an alien dream could be uttered at once.
The scream became the latter half of a word. “-UUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!”
The red-haired woman came sprinting out of the back room. Toward the beast and the boy.
“I’ll come!” Colt said.
“No!” was the replying bark.
Gilpatrick kept trudging forward, dragging Marcial, who had lost consciousness.
Wake her up and hurt her so badly she passes out again. The thoughts were ugly, sad.
Let the villain get chewed up.
Let the boy get trampled.
There’s work to do.
He wanted that catharsis, craved it. That rage-filled scream, except hands-in-a-wound violence, instead.
Colt backed off, scared, as he approached, teeth grit. Other Patrol members did too. Fucking Cox, Valentin, who had run off, unscathed.
Let the villain get chewed up.
Let the boy-
–die quickly, if he has to die.
The sudden rubberbanding of his emotions left him reeling, swaying on the spot. The blood filled him with disgust, the thoughts he’d had with horror.
He scrambled away from Marcial, in case those emotions returned.
It had been a rise and fall, gentle and subtle, or at least noticeable degrees of change while he was in the room. Now- that change just now had been night and day.
When he’d passed through the door.
“Is she dead?” Gilpatrick asked.
“No. She’s breathing. That means there’s a way,” Colt said. “This way. Gotta get her out of this intermediary room. I’ve never done this, but I saw it.”
“I’ll help,” Diaz said. “Tell me what to do.”
Trying to get his thoughts in order, Gilpatrick turned back toward the room.
Love Lost was fighting, having taken hold of one of the spikes. Rain lay there, bleeding.
Early was dead, mangled. Gaymon was smeared against a pile of broken wood near where Rain had started out. Bastian lay face down, less obviously dead, but the lack of any movement whatsoever, even with the sounds of emotion-affecting growls and howls… it said a lot.
Three dead, at the very least, Rain likely, unless Love Lost could somehow win.
“Don’t go, you can only fight it one on one,” Kelly said. The guy hadn’t spoken up much. “If you try to fight side by side with someone, it just makes you fight each other.”
Gilpatrick felt a surge of emotion, and that surge came with its own alarm and delirious edge- because he didn’t trust his feelings, every inch of him had to be on guard against them.
But it was frustration, paralysis coinciding with a drive to go, because he hated being unable to do something. Especially when Lucky’s fate was so fresh in his mind. Now Rain?
Some small part of him had been able to convince his rage to drag Marcial, to delay, postpone.
No other way he would have made it here.
“If I do something, drag me back in,” he said.
“We should just go,” Cox said. The rookie who now appeared to be a child. No falsified nametag now. She wore an undershirt and tattered dress with blood at the hem. She pressed him, “We have the one kid from the cluster, we can manage her, get directions.”
“We have two people who are fighting for our sakes.”
“We have a mission,” Cox said, staring at him with a cold conviction a child couldn’t possess.
“We have a responsibility,” Gilpatrick retorted.
“To the people up there!” Cox raised her voice, pointing up.
“Technically, down there,” Valentin said, pointing down at the floor, with its crystalline sheen. “We’re on the other side of the mirror.”
“Either way,” Cox said, looking resentful.
“Drag me back in if it comes to it,” Gilpatrick said, to Valentin. “Or are you with her? Do you think we should leave all of this behind?”
Valentin, skin alternating from dark brown to pink to near-white pale, hair in a mix of textures and shades, looked over toward the fighting. A lot of emotions passed through the two eyes with their different shades.
“Valentin,” Cox said, soft.
“We have thirty minutes. We can spare a few,” Valentin said.
“Thank you,” Gilpatrick said, as Cox made a face, looking away.
The others were divided. Diaz was helping Colt and Marcial. Kelly and Hanson were standing in the doorway, watching and simultaneously blocking the view.
Gilpatrick watched the scene unfolding, saw Love Lost fighting with her all, to fight a boy that was allegedly responsible for her daughter’s death. A death that was vivid and rich in Gilpatrick’s memory, sitting alongside the dream he’d just had, and the emotions and thoughts that had gripped him and taken over his body.
Any one of those things would, if Gilpatrick was one to believe in souls, be the kind of thing to make his soul ache over the long term. In the short term, he felt like it was cracked.
He thought of Lucky, of the girlfriends who hadn’t been able to handle the secondhand pain, the victims he’d seen across his years of service. The kids he’d taught, who were traumatized to their cores by the way their world had ended, the loss of loved ones, and their utter powerlessness in the aftermath of it all.
Too many for him to help. He’d had to curtail the numbers, screen out as many as he could. He’d turned away kids who needed someone who could explain what had happened and how this part of the world that had seemed like something that happened in the background, on television, and in movies and games was now everywhere and everything, ninety percent of the reason the city had sprung up so fast.
He waited until the growling had died down enough, then stepped out onto the salted ground of the area beyond the door.
He intended to scream, to give every bit of rage and anger and frustration he had bottled up to the beast, and he did just that.
But that was only one tenth of what was there.
The scream of rage became a howl.
With the dead lying before him, that painting of the crime scene -the hardest he’d ever had to look at- crystal clear in his mind, the city in ruins above, or below, or… everywhere, and yet another stupid, brave teenager who didn’t deserve this reality lying there, it wasn’t rage that he found himself expressing.
The beast turned left, looking back.
On its right, Love Lost hauled out the spear of metal from its armpit, then drove it back in.
It twisted, and she used the same tactic Rain had, to limit its turn, the metal pole bending and the base of it digging into the ground, providing resistance.
She grabbed Rain by the scruff of the neck, and she ran, half-dragging him.
He was just conscious enough to get his feet under him, if not to keep his balance. She did that, jerking him, hauling him.
The beast roared, and again, Gilpatrick felt his mind go numb, the feelings bubbling up.
He saw Love Lost charging him, and prepared to meet her, teeth bared, feet digging for traction in the ground-
Before he was hauled off balance, back through the doorway.
He crashed there, landing on his back. There wasn’t time to both get up and to see what happened next, so he remained where he was.
The beast was making its approach, running on all fours, far faster than Love Lost was when dragging someone behind her.
It roared, and her expression changed, hardened, but she didn’t change course. Infused with an insane rage, she did exactly what she had been doing seconds before, minutes before.
It closed the distance when she was twenty feet from the door.
The gunshot was deafening in the confined space. Gilpatrick’s hands went to his ears- first the ear closest to the sound.
Valentin stood in the doorway, handgun out, and unloaded it, firing into the beast’s face. It twisted its head away from the source of the harm, turned a little too far to its right, and again drove the metal spears that were in its armpit into the ground, digging them in deeper.
Hanson helped grab Rain as Love Lost crossed the threshold.
The beast stopped where it was. Still within the room.
Everyone present, even the people who had been standing by, like Hanson, was left panting for breath. Because even they had been holding their breath.
“Thank you,” Rain said.
Love Lost ignored him, walking beneath the alien statues that stood at the corners of the room, out the door to the outside.
“You didn’t empty your gun,” Gilpatrick said, his head lolling back as he panted for breath, still exhausted from the howl. His desperate attempt to communicate to a thing that communicated emotions.
Valentin turned away from the beast, who still stared at them through the open doorway. “I had another magazine stowed where I couldn’t get to it in a hurry.”
Still walking away, Valentin patted a cargo pocket, on patchwork pants that were partially blue jeans, partially a uniform.
Gilpatrick had heard of something like that, from officers who’d been through the worst of what the job had to offer. Keeping one last bullet, because the dark corners of this world were that dark, the bullet a mercy compared to some of the fates waiting for them out there. A visit from the Slaughterhouse Nine among them.
This didn’t feel like that.
He watched Valentin exchange a few words with Cox. Then the two of them were out of sight.
“You okay?” Rain asked.
“My soul hurts a bit,” Gilpatrick said. “Not that I’m sure I believe in that sort of thing.”
“I know just what you mean,” Rain said.
“Figure out what you’re doing when we get where we’re going, yet?” Gilpatrick asked. He didn’t want to say too much on the subject, but he was very aware there were three dead bodies in that room. Bastian, Gaymon and Early.
“Hmm,” Rain said, glancing back toward the door, where the Beast now lay down, still staring at them with strange eyes.
The silence and lack of answer made Gilpatrick worry.
They stepped outside. Gilpatrick was genuinely shocked to see Marcial intact, wearing a dress shirt under a kevlar vest. Her eyes were downcast.
She and Gaymon were friends.
“I have ideas,” Rain said.
Gilpatrick looked over at Rain, and saw the boy was looking down.
Gilpatrick followed the boy’s gaze, and saw that where they stood on the dark red crystal, there were shocks of light bouncing to and fro.
They were figuring out how to navigate the space, where up and down weren’t necessarily rules so much as they were questions of interpretation.
Gilpatrick wasn’t as flexible in his ability to flip around what he was focusing on as some of the others, so he reserved his concentration for the long inclines, and sprinted up the shorter ones.
Here and there, they stopped. There were sections where he could almost see through, and get glimpses of what was happening on the surface. There were other parts, especially parts where the crystal stuck up, or forked, or formed pillars, that he could see images and scenes. They tended to reflect the people closest to them.
“Digging into this stuff tends to draw unwanted attention,” Rain said. “But we’re about to get our distraction.”
“Can we distract the unwanted attention?” Cox asked.
Gilpatrick studied the girl.
“It’s… big,” Rain said. “Like what we fought in the room, simpler. I’d rather wait.”
“I’d rather do more,” Cox said. She seemed to notice the attention she was getting. “People up there need us. They’re fighting.”
“I know,” Rain said.
“Cox,” Gilpatrick said. “What Patrol are you from?”
“Nilles,” Valentin answered.
“She can’t answer for herself?” Marcial asked, her arms folded.
“For one thing, I’m out of breath,” Cox said. “These short legs.”
“You’d be less tired if you curved your brain,” Marcial said.
“Curve your what?”
“You guys are distracting me,” Rain said. He peered into pillars, brushed a hand against one, and grimaced. “I wish I could swipe these to change the scenes.”
The scenes didn’t seem to last long enough to need swiping. They were faces, some were of people who vaguely resembled Rain. Many sneered, or scowled. The girl Gilpatrick had seen in the photo frames in the girl’s room appeared, smiling while looking away. What had her name been? Allie?
“Adapt,” Marcial told Cox, walking away from Rain, so he wouldn’t hear as much. Her arms were still folded. “Wrap your head around this place, and everything is downhill.”
“My brain is apparently so rigid it can’t let go of the fact it thinks I’m a kid. You think I’m going to get it to interpret what is clearly an uphill slope as something downhill?”
“Guys,” Rain said. As he leaned away from the pillar, Colt leaned in. The scene being displayed changed to parents, friends. Flashing images, none lasting any longer than a second, with a wide variety of expressions.
“You need more quiet?” Gilpatrick asked. “Is this it?”
“I need you to focus on… think of loved ones. People you care about the most.”
Gilpatrick’s parents had passed. Just a short while ago, he’d been in a vision, telling Lucky that, that he was redoing their place. His girlfriends were gone.
He thought of them all the same. Heather and Merindah and Val.
He thought of students who warmed his heart and gave him hope. He went out of his way to include Jasper in that. As obnoxious as the kid could be, the guy was a force for good in the world.
He watched, and he saw the energy at their feet traveling along various routes and courses. Dancing along the surface, to destinations so distant he couldn’t see them.
“Okay, stop,” Rain said, looking between that energy and the images on the pillar. “I need… just me, Love Lost, Colt, and any of you who secretly have powers who joined this mission…”
“What the shit?” Marcial asked.
“…I need all of you to focus on your relationship to your powers. If you don’t have powers-”
“I think we might,” Diaz said.
“Okay, yeah, probably,” Rain said. “You’ve got the lightning at your feet, I’m pretty sure you were connected to the network. You-”
The detonation hit at the horizon. A volcano might have erupted and not felt as violent as this did, because this vibration sang along and through everything, ground and air.
The plume of destruction was narrow and tall. Had there been clouds, it might have touched the clouds. Crimson dust and chunks of ground.
It took forty seconds to a minute before the shards began raining down around them.
“Fuck me,” Marcial said. “The-”
The other detonations occurred further away. At points on the distant horizon. The initial blast to their ‘west’, two more to the east now.
Cracks spread along the already shattered landscape.
“I didn’t really think of how fucking hellish it would be to be inside this thing as they cracked it open!” Marcial finished. “I thought we’d be clear of it!”
“We are,” Rain said.
“Hey,” Hanson said, pointing.
The images on the crystal were frozen. Every facet of the crystal had a different image, and each image was presently a flickering, snarling face.
Rain hurried between pillars, checking, searching. Everything was locked into place.
“This is our distraction?” Cox asked.
The prior detonations were dwarfed by what came next. The plumes of dust and debris had been like the eruption of a volcano, before. At the first site of detonation, there was a second explosion that shattered three-fifths of that particular island. For a moment, the cloud of dust was tinted gold from a light from within.
“I know I’m fucking distracted!” Marcial said, clearly nervous.
The entire landscape tilted. It was a question of two or three degrees, but that was enough to send a carpet of tiny shards sliding down some slopes.
“I need the people with powers they’re familiar with to focus on those powers,” Rain said.
“I see what you’re doing,” Colt said. She put a hand against one of the pillars. Rain picked up her hand and moved it to another face of the same crystal. “I think so, anyway.”
Off to the side, Love Lost closed her eyes.
The landscape had already been a plain of red crystal, segmented into islands by cracks that ran impossibly deep. Now sections sloughed off and dropped away into the abyss. Islands subdivided. Lights danced everywhere, like lightning crackling along the surface and finding nowhere to go.
Distant figures were highlighted. Some evidenced cracks. Others toppled. Giants hidden in the darkness.
Gilpatrick jumped as a flash of light emitted from where they were, back in the direction they’d come.
“There,” Rain said.
The light continued to travel its route, having to reroute, dodging around.
That particular island, which Gilpatrick could view as the peak of a mountain with a chunk of crystal atop it, saw segments break away, leaning away from the center mass.
“That’s a thing we can do,” Rain said, watching. “I’m not sure if it’s a good thing, but… it feels right.”
Love Lost reached over, grabbing him by the upper arm.
“What did you do?” Marcial asked.
“I disconnected you guys.”
“You took these powers we never got to use?” Gilpatrick asked.
“I don’t think I could do that,” Rain said. He looked at Love Lost. “But I don’t think you’ll be sucked into the dream every night. I wanted to spare you that, at least.”
Love Lost’s expression changed, as she leaned closer to Rain, until Gilpatrick worried she might hurt the boy. He stepped in, and she stopped.
“I don’t think we could, Nicole- Love Lost,” Rain said. “I don’t think I could cut you out of the room, or stop the dreams. We’re too enmeshed.”
“Try,” she rasped, her eyes glittering.
“It might kill you, or leave you stranded here. Or… something. It could leave you and me and Colt like the Capricorn brothers. Except… With chunks of each other left inside each other. I could separate them because they were just tacked on. There’s been no integration, no information sharing, no interrelated experiences.”
“Show me,” she said. “Let me see.”
“I…” he said, staring at her. In the background, more crystal was cracking and sloughing off. “…Don’t really trust that you wouldn’t do something.”
“Wow,” Marcial said. “She jumps in there to save your life and this is the treatment she gets?”
“Uhhh,” Colt said, her eyes wide. “I kinda agree with Rain. She would.”
Love Lost scowled, then turned away.
“So… that was doable, because we have a good concentration of people here and a very cut and dry addition to this puzzle,” Rain said. He looked so nervous. “It’s a good test run-”
“One where you targeted us and brain damage, chunks of us left inside each other, and being stranded were possibilities,” Diaz said.
“For me as much as you. More than you. I’m- Love Lost, Colt and I, we’re integrated,” Rain said. “We don’t have a lot of time. The defenses are down, and there’s stuff I can be doing. I just need to find-”
He touched the crystal, then looked over the chasm at the lowest-tallest point of the hill.
“What’s down there?” Gilpatrick asked.
“Each island is a separate network. They broke apart and stopped being able to form bridges when Scion died. We want access to that network.”
“How do we get over there?”
“I think…” Rain said. “If I had to choose one part of my experiences I don’t need my- or our agents to keep to use against us…”
He touched the crystal.
The images, stuttering, often frozen, all changed, everywhere near them.
To a woman, not far off from Gilpatrick’s age, but so wispy, frail, and pale that she looked older than she was. Her eyes were cold, her mouth thin-lipped. Even though it was just an image, she managed to look down on everyone present.
“Might get- is getting a bit fucky,” Rain said.
The image spread, taking over the surroundings. It crawled across the ground, so that faces, stretches of face, and the woman’s cold eyes, all took individual facets of the landscape around them.
“Christine Mathers,” Kelly said.
With those words, like she had been invoked, scenes on nearby crystals showed a young Rain kneeling on a bedroom floor, while the woman held him by his hair, jerking his head this way and that while she screamed.
There was no sound, but Gilpatrick knew it was screams by the way her face contorted.
The images spread further. The energy traveling along the ground traced along the edges of those images, formed eyes and skeletal hands.
“And this is with the security, for lack of a better way of putting it, off,” Rain said.
A cliffside near them cracked, then broke.
The images winked out.
The broken section of cliff sloughed off, then toppled.
It crashed violently against the island on the other side of the chasm. Forming a crude bridge.
Still a bit of a jump to get down there, but… Gilpatrick nodded. He could see the way that had been formed.
“I could um,” Rain said, “I have no idea how it would work, but I could try sectioning off your daughter from the island. It might alter your power, but it would also mean it has less material to use for your dreams.”
Love Lost shook her head.
“Okay,” Rain said. “Colt?”
“We have other stuff to do.”
“Okay,” Rain said.
Gilpatrick followed Rain to the slope where the chunk had broken off. It was a bit like going down a slide to try and land on a three-foot wide plank. It was wider than three feet, but as far as Gilpatrick was concerned, the slopes on either side of those three horizontal feet were too steep, threatening to send anyone trying to stand on them down and over the edge.
Three feet was a lot, but not when approaching it at a slight angle and a high velocity.
Rain was first down the slope.
He skidded along three feet of the column, hit the slope, and used it like a skateboarder might ride in a ‘u’ pipe.
Gilpatrick waited until three more people had gone before he felt confident enough in his interpretation of that particular space before following.
By the time he caught up, Rain was already at another set of pillars.
The light flashed out, jumping out to the distance, and over the horizon.
“What did you do this time?” Gilpatrick asked.
“Broke up some of the Titans,” Rain said. “I think I got one.”
“We got one,” Colt said. “We could push for more.”
“Not without unwanted attention,” Rain said.
There were more of the ‘security’ on the horizon, shaken and immobilized, now starting to rouse.
“We wait until the next opportunity. Until then, we need to stay safe,” Rain said.
Test run using the familiar and stable, Gilpatrick put it together. And then a decisive blow.
“What’s next?” Gilpatrick asked.
“We might not get to decide,” Colt said.
Gilpatrick looked at her, concerned.
Then followed her gaze.
At the top of the ledge, Cox and Valentin stood on the clifftop near the other cluster of crystals. They hadn’t descended.
The pair stared down at them, looked over in the direction where the flash had gone, and then started running in the opposite direction.
Love Lost was the first one to give chase. Rain was second.
The landscape screamed. The sky was illuminated by flashes of light, and those flashes reached down to touch the landscape around them.
The damage Victoria’s side had done had opened up cracks, broken connections, separated islands. Rain and Colt had done strategic damage, focused on Titans.
It gave them a hope that a sustained attack could be mounted, and the threat of the titans forging enough connections to close this loop and shatter Earth at least had something of an answer, now. It wasn’t an easy or perfect answer, but they had their options.
But this… this was the opposite of that, in a way. Islands moved, creaking and screaming, scraping against one another, with a glass-on-glass sound. The light flashed down in beams and rays, and when they were done, what had been two was one, and flashes of light that had had nowhere to go were now traveling the distance.
They made their way through a forest of thin, spire-like crystals.
A funhouse, but there was nothing fun about it.
Gilpatrick saw himself in that forest of reflections. Not images he’d seen with his own eyes, but instead they were images captured from memories, surmising, from snapshots taken by a camera that hadn’t been there.
The one edge of the forest seemed to capture revulsion. A time he’d been sick. When he’d been a teenager and his face had been caked with acne for eight months. When he’d been low, so depressed his self image had been distorted, warped, and he hadn’t recognized his own face in the mirror. The face he’d thought he might have, then, was now represented on one blade of crystal.
Into another field of emotion. One was as recent as his bout of rage when the beast had howled at him. There was a look of satisfaction on his face, following a decisive line he’d dropped in a fight he now regretted having. His every ugliness, his every bit of himself he could hate, distilled in crystal.
They’d caught up with their targets. Valentin and Cox.
Gilpatrick glanced at Rain, and looked past the boy to see images. Contorted in rage. Beaten and bleeding. Hopeful, weirdly. There were more than a few of the boy wearing a demon mask. Several of his face lit by flame.
“What you’re doing, it’s dangerous,” Rain called out.
Valentin looked up.
Reflected in the crystal behind the androgynous man was a woman, with face coloration like a blindfold, and strict bangs across her forehead.
Behind Cox was a doll’s face, reflected a dozen times by a dozen different crystal faces. Sometimes slick with blood.
“Titan Fortuna, Contessa, she’s forming connections to the other Titan networks. Our reality is breaking down as hers wins out,” Rain said.
“Isn’t it fitting or fair that she gives us the distraction we need to fix a problem she helped create?” Cox asked.
Gilpatrick walked around. The pair weren’t acting especially scared, even as they were surrounded.
“I know of Matryoshka,” Rain said, indicating Valentin. “I didn’t think she was a part of the community.”
“Enough of one. In this, we’re on the same side,” Matryoshka-Valentin said, voice accented now, like an act had been dropped.
“I’m not technically,” said the doll who had appeared as a girl, who had appeared as a soldier. “But they included me, brought me in. I owe them everything. This… this body is me. Before I changed to that.”
She indicated the doll heads.
“I’m not unhappy. I’m lucky enough I can be human, if I can get bodies. They aren’t. We can change that.”
“It’s dangerous,” Rain said.
Gilpatrick saw letters, and watched as a facet of crystal showed ribbons coming together. Two bodies overlapping like they were being woven together. Two officers, with their individual uniforms, pulled together.
He knew one of them, he was shocked to see. Elaine Chapo.
Another, dusty and unconscious, was a man. The name on his Patrol uniform read ‘Roux’.
“You can’t do this without…” Rain was saying.
As the layers wove over one another, the ribbons blurred. Letters intermingled, rearranged as ribbons moved. Chox. Rhao. Rap. Roo. CRa. Chx.
Searching for and struggling to find a working order, by whatever logic they operated by.
Faces changed, like the woman was trying on different proportions of features.
When she was done, or done enough, she pulled off her jacket and tossed it away.
Tossed it to the doll girl, apparently.
He had to walk around to see the reflection of the doll girl in the same pillar, that showed them putting their faces on, so to speak.
The doll head, forcing its way into the mouth of a civilian’s corpse, dusty. Fingers pried and dug into flesh, cracked bone, and drove wedges in, parting the face down the middle as she squeezed in. The ‘rookie’ he’d seen in the house, before they’d all gone under and come here.
“We’re not going to hurt you or get in your way. If you want to stop her, you can,” Matryoshka-Valentin said. “But we need to do this. It may be our last chance.”
“If you want to do this at a time things are sane and there’s no risk of collateral damage, you can,” Rain said. “I will bring you along next time. I’ll swear it to you. Sveta is my friend, I know how important it is.”
“You yourself said we need distractions,” Cox the doll girl said. “We had a close call with the ‘security’ on the way here. Someone’s agent.”
“Please don’t do this,” Rain said. “You can’t build, you can’t make things normal by cutting away. We’re working with crude tools in a material we barely understand. I wasn’t willing to work on Love Lost because she was too deeply integrated. How integrated do you think powers are if they’re bound into people’s skin, hair, or hearts?”
“We might be running out of time!” Kelly called out. Late to arrive. “People are signalling! Things are getting bad over there!”
“It’s our choice to make,” Matryoshka-Valentin said. “I know enough case fifty-threes who would roll the dice, if those dice included a chance of dying and a chance of being normal.”
“You have work to do,” the doll girl said. “You might have an opportunity to send some signals, make some last-second changes. You should leave us to do this.”
“You’ll regret it forever, if you end up killing these people you owe so much to,” Rain said. “I know I have no place saying this when you guys have life harder, so much of the time-”
“I’ve seen enough to say you get a bit of a pass,” Matryoshka-Valentin said. “Tough home life. You’ve bled more times in a week than many people do in a lifetime. I can see it.”
Rain looked at nearby crystals.
“Rain,” Gilpatrick called out. “We need to make all of this worth the lives we lost. Is this conversation going to get us there?”
“I’m trying to stop something terrible from happening,” Rain said.
“Let us work,” Matryoshka-Valentin said, accent turning the ‘work’ into a ‘vork’. “We don’t have long either.”
“The work you’re doing is dangerous!” Rain insisted.
A nearby island was fused into place. In that flash, Gilpatrick worried he could see the silhouette of a Titan.
“I’m worried,” Colt said.
Rain turned her way.
“Rain,” Gilpatrick said. “I’ve been asking you why you want to do this. Separating the Titans is good, it’s… critical. But we can do more.”
Rain clenched his fists. “Why are you worried, Colt?”
“I think you understand all of this from a…” Colt grasped for the word. Gilpatrick hated every second of delay. “…handyman perspective. I’m-”
“You’re a dreamer, you’re approaching this from an abstract angle,” Rain said.
“Exactly!” Colt said. “Intuition. I understand the dreams in the dream room, I can mess with them, because the power is so close to me. And by that same feeling and understanding, I’m getting a sense of what she’s doing, by the…”
Gilpatrick was tense. He glanced back at the pair sitting in the forest clearing, hands poised near crystals. “She who?”
“Fortuna,” Colt said. “The Titan. The one who’s knitting together this landscape and making more Titans as we speak. She wanted the damage to be done the way it was done.”
“She wants this,” Rain said. He looked at the two case fifty-threes. “You guys see her as an enemy?”
“Yes,” Matryoshka-Valentin said.
“You’ll never forgive her? The case fifty-threes who you’re planning to fix? They’re never going to stop seeing her as an enemy?”
“Never,” Matroyshka-Valentin said.
“Then there is never going to be a way this isn’t playing right into her hands,” Rain said.
The words hung in the air. Light flashed in the distance. Islands knit together. Expanses of crystal bright enough to be more red than black showed reflections of the world on the other side. Sections of city falling into chasms that opened wider.
“By that logic,” the doll girl said. “There’s absolutely nothing you can do that isn’t playing into her hands, either.”
Rain seemed stricken by that.
“We should try anyway,” the doll girl said.
But Matryoshka, hand poised near a crystal, didn’t move.
“Shouldn’t we?” the doll girl asked, hopeful.
“It would be too tidy a way to execute too many of her direct enemies. He’s right,” Matryoshka said.
“I will help you,” Rain said. “If there is a way to do this, I will help you find it. Just approach me directly.”
“If it’s even possible to, later,” Matryoshka said. “This? She’s winning. If she hasn’t outright won.”
Rain shook his head.
But he looked lost. Spooked. On the edge of panic.
Too much on a boy’s shoulders.
“Love Lost, Marcial?” Gilpatrick asked. “Can you get those two? Get them away from where they can do anything problematic? We don’t have long.”
“Two minutes at most,” Colt said. “Pretty sure.”
Love Lost and Marcial picked up the two infiltrators, who didn’t resist or pull away.
They were all going to be awake in a minute anyway.
Rain stood there, in the center of the clearing, tense.
“Rain,” Gilpatrick said. This is part of my job. Supporting them.
He prayed his words to this teenager would reach or provide an answer where Gilpatrick had once failed Lucky Break.
Rain looked at him.
One thing he’d always wanted to ask Lucky, or say to Lucky…
“Step back. Calm down. If you had a friend who was standing where you are now, what advice would you give them?”
Rain shook his head.
“Wouldn’t you tell them, at least, that there’s no time left to do anything? We got Skadi away from her peers. That’s going to save a lot of lives. Accept that.”
Rain turned his head, like he was about to shake ‘no’.
But he kept turning. His body turned- he started running, pushing past the forest of crystals with a violence that saw his hand and shoulder bloody after the moment of impact.
Rain, running to the largest, most obvious crystal nearby, just past the forest.
Throwing himself at it, so he slid forward on his knees and shins, touching it while there was still time.
Gilpatrick watched as scenes were reflected. Flickering, briefly lived.
An image of a courtroom.
An image of Swansong, Rain’s departed teammate, except more animated and alive than any of the ones Gilpatrick had seen so far.
“Pass it on,” Rain said, quiet.
In the background, Colt collapsed. Others began to topple like dominoes.
They were waking up.
“What did you do?” Gilpatrick asked.
They woke, and the house was shaking.
Valentin was already on two feet, running. Natalie was pushed out of the way. Gilpatrick was still waking up, pulling himself up off the ground. The confusion of other senses slowed him down, or else he might have grabbed them.
Face split open, ‘Cox’ lay on the floor, the doll head pulling itself free, skittering along the floor on legs tipped by scissors and doll-like fingers, trailing bloody ribbons, chains, and fishing lines with hooks. ‘Valentin’ scooped her up.
“It’s not what I did,” Rain said, rubbing at his eyes. “It’s what I said. I sent a message, to the only person that Titan Fortuna can’t see.”