Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, I admonished myself. An explosive impact rocked the building I’d taken cover in, and I had to work to suppress a cry of fear. Outside, the fight carried on, oblivious to my presence.
I hadn’t intentionally gotten caught up in the middle of a conflict. It had just sort of erupted around me, and I couldn’t get away from it, not without going through the line of fire directly. Not that it was much safer inside, but at least they couldn’t see me.
Would they care? Would they perceive me as an enemy combatant? A spy? A threat? Even if they recognised me as a civilian, would they let me live?
Near as I could tell, the fight was between a group of soldiers, whatever that collective is called, and a bunch of gangsters. Not the Stars, one of the other ones. I hadn’t gotten a good enough look to know for sure.
Neither of them seemed likely to show mercy. The gangs were brutal, callous, driven by desire for power more than anything. The individuals seemed to have all lost their sense of, well, individuality. Was that normal, in situations like this? Was there a normal, for situations like this?
For their part, the soldiers in the city didn’t seem much better. They were desperate, cut off from the rest of the world, surrounded by chaos. Surrounded by madness.
I crawled over to the window, knowing it was a bad idea. My curiosity would be the death of me, but I needed to know what was going on. If I couldn’t get away, I could at least try and learn something. That was worth the risk of a stray bullet, right?
There were maybe a dozen fighters on each side that I could see, all armed to the teeth. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, machine guns. Not exactly easy stuff to come by in Australia. Who was supplying them? The gang’s gear was different to the soldiers’, so it wasn’t like they’d just looted army supply depots or something.
I thought I caught a glimpse of someone in a window opposite, doing the same thing I was, looking out at the street below. It was a young girl, with long, lilac hair, but as soon as I caught her eye, she disappeared, and I’d already forgotten what I was looking at.
I heard a loud crack, realised a sniper had taken a shot. I couldn’t see them, but I saw one of the gangsters’ heads literally explode. I felt sick to my stomach.
Then everything changed. Both sides stopped firing at each other, and starting attacking something else. No, someone else. She strolled casually through the battlefield, barely paying attention to them.
As she moved, people near her died. Decapitated by invisible swords, torn apart from the inside, shot with their own weapons. It was obviously this girl, but all she was doing was walking. Well, I could guess who she was, then. Didn’t know her name, but I’d heard about her. The girl from before, Silver, had mentioned her. Had she said her name? Couldn’t remember. Didn’t matter.
It took this girl less than a minute to take apart both sides, and suddenly, everything was quiet. I let out a tense sigh. At least it was safe to leave, so long as she didn’t decide I needed to die as well. I retreated from the window.
I waited for a few minutes, not sure how long the girl would be out there, no way of knowing without having any idea what she was doing here in the first place. Was it her territory? Maybe she was here for whatever the gang and the soldiers were fighting over.
When several minutes had passed without me hearing anything, I risked moving. Down the stairs, out the back door, away from the street. No sense taking any chances.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl said, surprising me. She was perched on a streetlight, and I had to crane my neck up to look at her. “The city was evacuated.”
I was surprised how gentle her voice was. Not her tone, that was hard, almost military, but her voice was soft. It was a little odd.
She dropped, landing elegantly beside me, looking at me curiously. Up close, I realised just how young she was. My age, thereabouts. Possibly younger, possibly older. Too young to have the sort of power she had.
She was pretty, too. That was even more unnerving. It didn’t fit, with what I’d just seen her do. Pretty, young, just murdered more than twenty people.
“I know,” I said, remembering she’d spoken to me. “I don’t want to go.”
“You’ll die,” she said, without a hint of emotion. Not a threat, not concerned. Just a fact.
“Or get infected,” I agreed. “That’d be worse. But I can’t leave.”
“Why not?” she asked.
What was with these people? These young, comic book supervillains, happy to just converse casually with me, it rubbed me the wrong way.
Not that I was complaining. Talking to me was definitely preferable to killing me.
“A lot of reasons,” I said, already looking for an escape. Not that I thought I had a chance of escaping her. Still, didn’t hurt to have an idea of where to run, if the opportunity did present itself. “I can’t find my friend. I need answers about what’s going on, and why. I can’t stand the idea of sitting out somewhere safe while my city burns.”
She nodded as if she understood. Did she? I doubted we had anything in common, she and I.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked.
How was I supposed to answer that? Give her Sabrina’s name, a physical description? What was she, the neighbourhood watch?
“I’d just as soon not say. No offence, but I’ve got no idea whose side you’re on,” I told her evenly, hoping I wasn’t about to be decapitated.
“I’m not on anyone’s side, but fair enough,” she said. Again, she nodded like she understood. “Name’s Ami, by the way.”
We were on first name terms, now?
“Veronica,” I said, after an awkward pause. “You’re okay telling me your name?”
Ami shrugged, and in doing so, revealed a pair of Japanese swords hidden beneath the folds of her clothing.
“What are you going to do with it? I’m not from here, I have no history here,” she said.
Well that was… completely reasonable. Damn.
“I’m just used to people keeping secrets,” I said. “Can I ask where you’re from? What you’re doing here?”
I mean, if she was in an expository mood…
“I don’t see why not,” she said, but didn’t answer the question.
I got momentarily distracted by her eyes. A vivid violet colour, unlike anything I’d seen before. My first instinct was to believe they weren’t real, contacts or something, but I reminded myself she was a monstrously powerful telekinetic. Maybe they were natural.
She looked surprised, as if she hadn’t parsed the question until I prompted her.
“I don’t know where I’m from,” she said, sounding almost vulnerable. “A world like this, but different. The future, maybe. We got sucked through some kind of wormhole, and now I just want to go home.”
The future? I could believe that. Maybe a thousand years into the future, when they’d figured out how to make supersoldiers with psychic powers, and time machines.
Wasn’t any less ridiculous than any other ideas I’d come up with.
“We?” I asked, latching on to something different. I knew there were others, but I wanted to hear how she described them. If she described them.
“Four of us,” she clarified. “Five, if you include Zoe.”
Five superhumans parading about the city, wreaking havoc? What a nightmare.
I did a mental tally. I knew about her. Silver had claimed to be from here, not one of them. Miss Melbourne, she was a local. Miss Murder? Didn’t know anything about her. That those three existed was interesting, but not relevant right now. I knew about Specimens G and Z, and I could guess Z was Zoe. G, Zoe and Ami. Two others, I didn’t know about.
“I’m guessing Specimen G is one of your group?” I asked, trying to confirm the data I did have, hoping it would lead to something new.
“Gabriel,” she corrected, sounding irritated. “I don’t know how that name managed to proliferate again.”
I made a mental note. Gabriel, Zoe, Ami. They had names. Human names, not superhero names. Not code names.
“Why aren’t you working together?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t a sore subject. She frowned, and I flinched. Don’t decapitate me.
“We have different priorities,” Ami said, as if that explained anything. I cocked my head, trying to suggest curiosity. She got it. “He’s obsessed with Zoe.”
“It’s complicated. She was our mission. We’d captured her, then, well, this happened. he wants to recapture her before trying to get home. I just want to cause as little damage as possible.”
By murdering soldiers and gangsters in the street? You have a funny concept of minimal damage, lady.
So Zoe was aligned against the other four, but Gabriel and Ami had different objectives. What about the other two, though? Wait, that was a question for her, not for me.
“And what about the other two?”
“M.I.A.,” she said, spelling out the letters. Missing In Action. “Haylie’s the key, she’s the one I’m looking for. Exxo, I’m not sure about. I have a lot of questions, and nobody to answer them.”
Haylie and Exxo. Now I have a list of names. Haylie was normal, Exxo wasn’t. And Haylie was the key? What did that mean?
“I know the feeling,” I grumbled sympathetically. “Which makes me wonder, why are you answering mine?”
She shrugged again, a harmless gesture turned into incidental threat, as the swords came into view again. Was that intentional?
“I don’t have a reason not to, and I know you’re not an enemy,” she said.
“You know? How?”
She’d said it with complete confidence. Did she know who I was?
“There’s no hostility,” she said. “Only curiosity.”
Wait. She was telekinetic, could control things with her mind. If I knew my science fiction, and I did, did that mean-
“Are you telepathic?” I asked. “Are you reading my mind?”
She laughed, which was not the reaction I was expecting.
“Yes, and no. Reading human minds is almost impossible. Thought patterns are jumbled and disjointed and way too fast, and they rely on internal context to even make sense of them. I could open a channel to your thoughts, for example, but it would be an unfiltered mess of words and images and emotions, half of which I wouldn’t understand. And it would completely overload me. But, traces of emotions and motivations are easy enough to pick out, from the surface.”
I shook my head, trying to process all of that. I understood what she was saying, more or less. What I wasn’t grasping was why she was telling me.
“Wow, you’re just an open book, huh.”
“I’m pretty used to it,” she said, with the faintest trace of a smile. “Where I’m from, I live a very public life. I talk to the media all the time.”
Again, I didn’t understand. It didn’t fit with my mental blueprint. She was basically a superhero, or a supervillain, right?
“You don’t want a life of secrecy?”
“Not particularly, no,” she said simply. Okay then. Probably better to turn my questions towards something useful, while she was still being accommodating.
“So, who’s Haylie, and why is she so important?”
“Now that, I can’t tell you,” Ami said, her face hardening. “There are already too many people looking for her. But maybe you can tell me something?”
What could I possible know that would be useful or interesting to her?
“I’ll do my best, I suppose. It’s only fair, right?”
“Who is the Celestial?” she asked bluntly. “Do you know anything about them?”
The Celestial? Leader of the Stars? Why did she care about him, of all people?
“Had a few run-ins with the Stars?” I asked, fishing for clues.
“Something like that.” Nothing.
“I wish I knew,” I said, my shoulders slumping. “I mean, I know that he’s been leading the Stars for a couple of years now, and they’ve gone from some small street gang to one of the most dangerous militias in the city. Most of that changed after Impact Day, but even before then, they were powerful. They changed too quickly, almost like they were ready for it. It’s like they always know where to be, and when. My best guess is that he’s an information broker, and a very clever one.”
Ami nodded, taking in everything I was saying. Would she consider me useful? Would that be enough to spare me?
“You keep saying ‘he’. Do you know for sure that he’s male?”
The question caught me off guard. I hadn’t even thought about it.
“Uh, no, not really,” I admitted. “But I’ve heard Stars referring to him that way.” I think.
“Interesting,” she said, still nodding. “And his… assassin?”
“Miss Murder,” I said. “I didn’t come up with it.”
“Do you know anything about her?”
“Nothing that isn’t, you know, considered common knowledge,” I said, shaking my head. “At least among people sharing this sort of information. She can teleport short distances, kills without hesitating, can turn her body to smoke, and she never speaks.” Another detail occurred to me. “Oh, and apparently she’s like, a teenager. My age.”
I almost said our age, but I remembered something Silver had said. This girl could have been one hundred years old. Future anti-aging technology?
Ami just nodded again, as if what I was saying was useful.
“I see. Thank you. And you know nothing about their base of operations, or how I might find it?”
She got a curious look in her eye, almost dangerous, but not quite.
“Would you tell me, if you did?” she asked, almost accusingly, but tempered.
“Surprisingly, yes,” I told her. “They’re, well, possibly the worst thing to happen to this city, if you don’t count zombie infestations and military occupation. And you seem… honest,” I finished, after struggling to find the right word.
“You have a phone?” she asked, and for the umpeenth time, caught me off guard.
“Give it to me.”
I handed it to her, unlocked. She fiddled with it, then returned it to me. A tracking… something? She hadn’t changed the hardware. Downloaded a virus?
“I acquired a cell from from, well, I obtained one. It seems to function without issue. If you find anything, please, send a message to this number.” Wait, she’d just given me her number? “In return, I’ll keep an ear out for anything that might be useful to you.” She hesitated. “I’ll ask again. Your friend, the one you’re looking for. Who should I be looking for?”
Did I trust her more, now? Enough for this?
Well, what was the worst she could do, if I told her?
“Sabrina. Sabrina Labelle. She’s, uh, trans.” Would she even know what that meant? “You might think she’s a boy. A bit taller than me, a little chubbier, long dark hair, curly. Darker skin, too. Big eyes.”
Wait, I had a photo on my phone. Dozens, even. I pulled them up, and showed her. She nodded.
“I will relay anything I find,” she said.