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Author: Rachel Fierro

Chapter 27 – You’re Still Angry

The two of us stood there on the rooftop, staring at each other, not saying anything. Her thigh-length coat fluttered lazily in the wind, too heavy to be moved much. She had her hands tucked into her pants pockets, leaning casually against the doorway that led back into the building.

She’d lost weight, I realised. She’d always been fit, but she’d also always had a persistent layer of body fat that gave her a cuter, cuddlier look. Not that anyone else seemed to consider her cuddly, but I’d seen her softer side.

The kindness in her eyes was gone, too. Had that just been a trick? Surely not. We’d known each other for too long for her to have been faking that. Beneath it all, she was a genuinely caring person.

Or at least, she had been.

There wasn’t anyone more dangerous in the city. Before Impact Day, before the arrival of everything that had changed the landscape of the city, she was impossible. With the power she had now…

Charlie was tenacious, driven, single-minded. She had a goal, and nothing and no-one would stop her from achieving it. She was tough, clever and more than able to handle herself in a fight. She’d gone up against the gangs with nothing, and nearly won.

Now, she had all of that and more. Superhuman strength, speed and resilience. Her wounds healed almost instantly. Her senses were sharper than anyone, or anything. She was unstoppable.

Her words from the television broadcast echoed through my mind.

She smiled again, a softer smile, but one that conveyed just what a difference in power there was between us. I had nowhere to run, no way to escape from her, and she knew it.

“You’re looking better,” she said, almost taunting me. The last time she’d seen me, I was halfway dead and entirely broken.

“So are you,” I replied, my tone full of venom.

My reply seemed to give her pause. What was that expression? Concern? Irritation?

“You’re still angry,” she said bluntly.

I took a deep breath. This wasn’t the time for over-the-top theatrics.

“Do I not have a right to be?”

Charlie shrugged. “I did what I had to do.” The line was careless, forced, too much like she was reading from a script.

“And to hell with the consequences, right?” I demanded.

Charlie cocked her head, the way a curious dog might do. Her hands remained in her pockets, but her arms seemed tense, ready to move at the drop of a hat.

“Do you want to fight me?” she asked, surprising me.

The idea was laughable. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less.

“What good would that do?” I asked, trying to figure her out. Even now, she was a mystery to me. It’s what had attracted me to her in the first place, way back when. She’d been a puzzle for me to wrap my head around, as much as anything.

She smiled again. A different smile. A smile of triumph, bemusement and arrogance. It was a smile I knew well.

“Would you like to dance, then?” she asked, and if her last question had surprised me, this one nearly knocked me off my feet.

She was asking me to dance? Surely she wasn’t being serious. Was she mocking me? After everything that had happened, was still happening, was going to happen? What part of her thought it was a good idea?

“What, here?” I asked, confused enough that it took me several seconds. “Now?”

She shrugged casually, the smile remaining. “I guess we could go somewhere else, but I like the privacy here. Nobody can see us.”

Nobody can see us, she said.

I shook my head. “Weirdo.”

She took another step towards me. I didn’t back away. What would have been the point? This situation, this conversation was entirely out of my control.

Another step. Close enough to touch. I didn’t know what to do. If someone saw us, what would they think? If Sabrina saw…

It was hard not to remember what it used to be like, with her. The love that I’d felt, the passion, the need. Bodies don’t just forget those feelings, even if heads would very much like them to.

I took her hand, the hand of someone who had threatened to kill me, who had the power to do it. Her fingers wrapped around mine, gently, and her other hand found my hip.

There was no music, no rhythm, only the sounds of the city. That was what we danced to, holding each other in silence, moving slowly, gracefully.

“I miss you,” she said softly, so quietly I almost didn’t hear. We stopped dancing. I let her go.

“You’ll live,” I said coldly. The message needed to be clear.

“How’s Sabrina?” she asked, her expression and body language shifting instantly, defensive and professional.

“She doesn’t like me,” I said, though I’m not sure why. Reflex response, maybe. We used to tell each other everything.

“You never were good at making friends,” she said, understandingly, condescendingly. A reminder I didn’t want, didn’t need.

I decided to try catching her off guard. She deserved it, even if provoking her was a stupid idea.

“How’s Sadie?”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed, and for just a moment, I saw vulnerability flash across her face. It was gone in an instant, but I relished the victory.

“I think she hates me more than you do,” Charlie replied reluctantly. The edge to her voice almost made me regret asking.

“Sounds about right,” I said instead, rubbing salt into the small wound, the only wound I was capable of making.

Charlie looked distant, vacant, though only for a few seconds. When she returned, everything about her was hard.

“Do you still have it?” she asked, the question I’d been waiting for. The question I’d known she was here to ask. The question she already knew the answer to.

“Yes.”

“No burning desire to give it back to me? To come work with me again?” she asked, the sort of question with only one correct answer. The sort of question that still needs to be asked.

“No,” I said bluntly. “I’m happy where I am.”

A screeching sound filled the air, grating against my nerves. The fighting from earlier had attracted infected. Already, I could smell them.

Charlie nodded, and backed away. “Well, you know where to find me. You know, if you want to,” she said. One final chance, she left unsaid. “Otherwise, sooner or later…”

I shook my head again, the message clear. “I can’t see you again. You know that, right?”

“I know,” came her wistful reply.

“It… was good seeing you, though,” I confessed, surprising myself. Despite everything, the chance to see her gain, to talk to her, to touch her… It was why I needed to stay away from her. Proximity was dangerous. She was dangerous.

“Does that mean I’m forgiven?”

“No. Goodbye, Charlie,” I said.

She just nodded, turned on the spot, and leapt off the rooftop, disappearing into the darkness.

I collapsed, my head whirling.

Chapter 26 – Don’t Try Anything

The fresh air was amazing. It felt refreshing, even more so than just the abundance of space around me. I’d been cooped up indoors for far too long.

Zoe had, of course, been opposed to by going out. She’d suggested that at the very least, I should wait and go out with Sabrina, who could protect me. I’d had to bite my tongue, assuring her I knew how to handle myself without giving too much away. I promised I’d be safe, avoid conflict, not stray too far.

I lied, in other words.

It wasn’t that I was specifically looking for a fight. I just had no intention of backing away from one, and a small part of me did relish the thought of getting the chance to take all of my frustration out on someone, no hold barred.

Zoe had also reminded me of the risk I might bump into Charlie. We both knew she was out here, somewhere, and for all my confidence, I knew full well I wouldn’t stand a chance against her in a fight.

It was a risk I was willing to take.

I walked slowly, enjoying the tranquility. In the distance, there were the sounds of violence, the omnipresent backdrop of Melbourne ever since Impact Day. Gunfire, explosions, the inhuman screeching of the infected. By rights, I should have been terrified, but I’d never felt calmer. I was exactly where I wanted to be, and more importantly, I was alive, functioning, capable.

Even with all my upgrades, I knew better than to consider myself superhuman. Zoe, Sabrina, Charlie, they were all considerably stronger than me, faster than me, a lot more durable than me. They could heal wounds almost instantly, I couldn’t. In a fistfight, any one of them would trounce me in under a minute. At best, I could rest assured my bones wouldn’t break, I could hit harder than any human and my reflexes were sharp enough I likely wouldn’t be caught unawares.

It didn’t matter. I never intended to be a superhero. I wasn’t looking to save the city, not like Charlie. I didn’t want to put my abilities to good use, like Sabrina. I didn’t have a home to go back to, like Rachel. All I had was my mind, and all I wanted was the chance to push it.

I stopped in front of a storefront, the lighting perfectly positioned for me to admire my reflection in the window. I was on the scrawny side, not as athletic as I once was. Still as flat-chested as ever. My hair was shorter than I was used to, a styled mess of curls that barely touched my shoulders. I wore combat boots from an army surplus store, and fake leather pants and a jacket, the kind you’d wear for protection on a motorbike. They weren’t without modifications.

A glint in the reflection caught my eye, and I focussed on it, saw the source in a window behind me. Sniper. SR98, standard issue for the army. Military presence. Uncomfortably close to our base.

I gave no impression of noticing. It didn’t matter. Several soldiers emerged from around corners, twelve counting the sniper. All of them had their rifles trained on me. One of them stepped forward. Lieutenant.

“This area’s under quarantine,” he said gruffly. “No civilians allowed out after curfew. Identify yourself.”

My eyes scanned the soldiers around me. They were on edge, ready for a fight. They didn’t see me as a civilian. Would be foolish to. A teenage girl out in the dark, alone, in the middle of what was effectively a war zone? Not likely to be there by accident.

Would they believe me if I convinced them I was? Even if I did, they’d just try to escort me to the nearest safe place, outside the combat zone. Not interested, and the likelihood of convincing them was low enough it probably wasn’t worth the effort. More likely, they’d decide I was a member of a gang member. Not one of the Stars, because I didn’t have the tattoo on the back of my hand. Well, technically they couldn’t see my hands under the gloves, but it was tantamount to the same thing. The Stars did not hide their identifiers.

A lesser gang, then. They’d try to detain me. When I refused, resisted, they’d use force. Lethal, if necessary. Twelve of them, including one sniper. One of me.

“Must’ve gotten turned around,” I lied, making no effort to disguise that fact. “Don’t worry, I know my way back.”

“Check her,” the lieutenant ordered. One of the other soldiers lowered his gun, and pulled out a small device that looked like a diabetic’s insulin checker. He began to approach me.

I knew what he was looking for. It would take a sample of my blood, test for markers, compare it to both human blood and their likely limited database of supernatural samples. 83% accuracy on identifying if I was supernatural.

My blood, though mostly my own, had traces of Zoe still interspersed through it. Would the machine identify me as supernatural? Instincts said yes. Which meant they’d try to kill me on sight. Too dangerous to detain.

“Don’t try anything,” the soldier said as he approached me. He was young, not more than a couple of years older than me. Things hadn’t gotten bad enough to send every available soldier into the city, so he probably volunteered. Eager. His mistake. I grinned at him.

My hand grabbed his throat, discharging enough electricity from the glove to temporarily overload his nervous system. He twitched and then went limp, but I was strong enough to hold him up. I needed him as a shield.

The others wouldn’t open fire without a clean shot, or so I hoped. I didn’t want to kill any of them, which was going to make the next part a lot trickier. Not impossible, just difficult. That was fine. I liked a challenge.

A flick of my arm and a flashbang grenade dropped into my waiting palm. I pulled the pin with the hand that was holding it, waited a second, then tossed it into the midst of the soldiers, some of whom were already moving around to flank me. I shut my eyes just as it went off, the deafening bang filtered out by the implants in my ears.

Wouldn’t take them long to recover. Had to move quickly. I threw the still limp soldier into the path of one of his stalled comrades, knocking them both to the ground. With my free hand, I fetched another grenade, pulled the pin, and hurled it towards another soldier. It exploded in an eruption of foam, quickly encasing him, already solidifying. I was already moving.

I wrapped my hand around the lieutenant’s face, another electrical discharge ensuring he’d be down for the next thirty seconds or so. It was enough to twist his arms behind his back and wrap a zip-tie around his wrists.

Time for another experiment. I’d had the chance to put together so many new toys while I waited to recover. It felt good to finally have a chance to use some of them.

I pulled out a collapsible baton, flicking my wrist to extend it to its full length. I’d made something similar for Charlie, before everything happened, before she had superstrength. This one was better.

I thrust the end of it into another soldier’s throat, delivering another jolt of electrical energy that knocked him off his feet. The others were beginning to recover from the effects of the flashbang. That was fine.

There was a button at the base of the baton. I pressed it, and the casing around the tip retracted, revealing a sharp, pointed blade. I hurled it like a javelin, catching a soldier in the chest. The blade wasn’t designed to cut deep, but once it was embedded in the skin, through the protective gear, it unloaded another electrical charge.

Six down, six to go. Sniper was still a risk. Should’ve dropped a smoke grenade sooner. Too late to worry about that now. I pulled out a pistol that resembled a flare gun and fired it in their direction. A genade arced toward the window, further than I’d have been able to throw it, and exploded just in front of it, spraying the room, the sniper and anything under it in a white powder that immediately starting smoking, as well as giving off enough heat that the sniper would be forced to remove it all from him.

The butt of a rifle knocked the pistol out of my hands. Rude. I growled at the soldier, but he was already swinging again. Bad move.

I sidestepped the swing, leaving my foot in place, grabbing his arm and carrying his momentum forward. He tripped, falling face first, and I kicked him in the groin hard enough to feel a protective cup break. Four left.

I didn’t want to kill them, but that didn’t mean I had a problem hurting them.

The remaining soldiers had an open shot. I had to throw myself forward, taking advantage of my above-average speed to catch them by surprise. The sound of gunfire from up close was grating more than anything. I rolled forward, making myself a smaller target, pulling out a knife as I did. Quid pro quo, fuckers.

Coming out of my roll, I slashed across a soldier’s ankle, and he lost his footing, collapsing to the ground. Using my momentum, I sprung back up, throwing the knife and catching another soldier in the shoulder, causing enough damage to throw off his aim. That still left two pointing guns at me, fingers about to press down on triggers.

Why’d I only make one of everything? I muttered to myself, running out of options. Once again, I was reminded how much easier it would be if I could’ve just killed them. Good thing I’m better than that.

Still, I was getting valuable data. Next time, I’d have a better idea of what worked, what I needed more of, what needed adjusting. Not a complete waste of time.

Too early to be thinking about that yet. Still soldiers to deal with. Threats to subdue.

What did I have left? Not much. One more grenade, and a grappling hook. Good enough. Was I fast enough? Probably not. Unless…

Another hand gesture, triggering specific sensors in my glove. The pistol that had been knocked from my hands exploded, a loud bang that was enough to distract the soldiers. I dropped the last grenade from my belt and pointed up at the nearest rooftop, a cable bursting out from my sleeve. The soldiers looked back just in time to see me yanked up into the sky, then the grenade went off, quickly filling the area with thick black smoke.

I stood at the edge of the building, looking down. They had no way of following me, and under the circumstances, probably no inclination. Excellent. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted, and not a single injury in the process.

And Zoe thought I couldn’t take care of myself.

I allowed myself a smug grin, turning away from the edge. Mission successful. I felt great. Fresh air, open spaces and the chance to stretch my legs. Plus I got to throw down with a whole squad of soldiers.

I froze when I realised I wasn’t alone on the roof. She’d caught me by surprise, and I wasn’t the least bit prepared to deal with her.

Her blue-green eyes shimmered dangerously in the moonlight, her body language pure aggression and power. A victorious smile played across her lips as she watched my reaction.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Charlie said.

Chapter 25 – What Do You Want, Rachel?

“Rachel can’t know about this,” Sabrina said, almost aggressively. Very out of character for her. I closed the other windows, focusing on the recording.

Zoe glanced over at the camera, smirked almost imperceptibly. Fuck. I should have known she’d notice. She noticed everything.

“I won’t say a word,” she told Rachel, her eyes leaving the camera. Interesting.

“Okay,” Sabrina said, looking around nervously. “I think we were wrong about my power. And you’re the only person who I think might understand.”

If Zoe was at all interested, she didn’t show it. If anything, she looked bored. It was a telltale sign she was actually intensely focussed. That would have been my cue to focus too, if I wasn’t already.

“What happened?” she asked, at least maintaining polite interest. I didn’t think Sabrina could see through it.

“I got into a fight with Ami,” Sabrina said. “Even with your power, I was losing.”

Zoe nodded. “She’s incredibly dangerous. In terms of offensive power, she probably tops me. Speed and surprise are the only way to get the upper hand.”

I made a mental note of that. Any information on the weaknesses of another superhuman was invaluable, and I had Ami pegged as an extremely powerful opponent. I was glad we hadn’t crossed paths yet.

“Well, like I said, I was losing,” Sabrina said. “And then something happened.”

Sabrina took a step back, and shifted. I’d seen her do it before, when she activated Zoe’s powers. I knew that it gave her the same strength, speed and toughness, and at least some portion of Zoe’s enhanced mental processing. It didn’t seem to bring any of Zoe’s accompanying cunning or emotional intelligence, though.

This time, though, it wasn’t Zoe’s form that she took. Judging from the context of the conversation, I could guess who’s it was, even if her transformations weren’t complete. She grew a little shorter, her skin took on a different tone, her hair grew straighter, her figure more petite. Her face shifted and changed shape. Her eyes, though difficult to see on camera, seemed to have turned a shade of light purple or pink.

Zoe took a step back, overacting surprise. Ironically, I could tell she actually was taken completely by surprise, and wanted to look like she was overacting intentionally. Not sure how I knew that, but I did.

“You have her powers?”

Sabrina nodded. “Like this, I’m not as strong as when I use your power, or as fast. My senses aren’t as sharp, but they’re all still better than, you know, normal. And I have her telekinesis, but I don’t know how to use it.”

I updated my mental file on Sabrina. In terms of potential, her power had just skyrocketed. How was she doing it? Was there a limit to how many powers she could replicate? Could she combine them? What about my power, could she copy that? Charlie’s? If she did try to copy Charlie’s power, would it be the one Charlie had taken from me, or the one she’d had before that?

Despite the massive increase in power I was applying to her, I didn’t consider her any more of a threat. Her motivations were too simple, too naive. More importantly, they didn’t conflict with mine. The chances of us ever needing to fight…

Well, in that scenario, I still felt like I had the upper hand. She didn’t know anything about the things I created, and even if she did, I was always making more. She’d never be able to stay ahead. Conversely, I was well aware of what she could do, and could plan against it. Maybe I’d never need to use any of it, but it was always better to be prepared.

“It’s weird,” Sabrina was saying, in the recording. “It’s like having an extra sense, one I don’t really understand. It’s very overwhelming. Like being aware of everything around me, all at once. And being able to move it? It’s like growing an extra arm, or a dozen extra arms.”

“And you have no idea how you were able to do this?” Zoe asked, sounding almost desperate.

“None,” Sabrina said, shaking her head. She was lying. How did I know that she was lying?

Zoe knew she was lying, too. The two of them stared at each other, not saying anything. I was prepared to fast-forward the recording when the sound of a cleared throat startled me, and I pulled the earphones out of my ears. Zoe was standing above me.

“What do you think?” she asked, not bothering to ask me what I was doing.

“Nothing you don’t already know,” I said, though I suspected it was a lie. Did Zoe suspect something about that?

“The question I need answered,” Zoe said, impatiently, “is whether her power originated here, or from home.” Her impatience didn’t seem directed at me, it was more general frustration. Something about Sabrina’s revelation was making her nervous.

“In your world, the superhumans, they’re all the result of technological advancement, right?” I asked, not entirely sure how I knew that for sure. It felt right, though.

“All of us,” she confirmed. “We’ve no examples of anyone naturally born with any sort of supernatural ability. Here, on the other hand…”

“We don’t have that kind of technology yet,” I followed on for her. “And other than Wendy being here, somehow long before you, there’s no explanation for people with superpowers. And yet, my knowledge is clearly not natural, Miss Murder has an ability you’ve never seen before, and Sabrina might be the most dangerous of us all.”

Dangerous was a stretch, and Zoe knew it. Still, the point stood. I contemplated briefly bringing up Charlie, but it would do more harm than good. She would ask more questions than I was willing to answer.

“Is there any precedent for any of this?” she asked, already knowing the answer. She had full access to the Internet and the ability to read and process information a lot faster than any human.

“None that I know of,” I said. “I know my, er, ability intensified after Impact Day, though. And it’s been growing steadily stronger. Perhaps your presence is some form of catalyst?”

Could Charlie’s power be growing stronger, too? The idea hadn’t occurred to me before that moment. Well, it wasn’t like there was any way to test it, anyway.

“There are too many unknown variables,” Zoe said, irritated. “Keep studying Sabrina. I won’t tell her. Just share anything you find with me.”

“Of course,” I lied. “In fact, I have a few ideas about that. I want to test her, put her in new situations. That would be a lot easier for you to make happen than me.”

“I’ll make it happen. Meanwhile, how do you feel about your new body? Everything working as expected?”

I grinned, flexing my fingers to demonstrate just how mobile I felt. “I feel alive again. And I’m already brainstorming ideas to push it further, see what else I can change.”

“Why?” she asked, almost accusing me, though I wasn’t sure what of. “What do you want, Rachel?”

I stared into her eyes, trying to figure out exactly what she meant. I knew she didn’t trust me, but if she’d figured out what I was actually working towards, she wouldn’t be asking the question, she’d just kill me on the spot. Which meant she was asking about something else. Suspicious, but not about anything specific, maybe. Paranoia was in her nature.

She didn’t care about this world, so she wasn’t worried about what I’d do once she left. Was she worried about me following her? Or was it because she wasn’t planning on leaving, and wanted to know how much of a threat I’d be?

What could I say to convince her there wasn’t an issue, when I didn’t know what she was planning? Something benign, non-threatening, passive…

I shrugged. “I’m a tinker. Building things, improving things, that’s motivation in itself. You’ve given me a whole new toolset, and now I want to see how far I can push it.” I paused for effect. “Once I’ve made myself worth it, of course. Your work comes first.”

Would she buy it? I could feel her scrutinous gaze, her keen perception analysing every micro-expression, every subtle change in inflection. Could she tell that I was lying?

“Mason would love you,” she said simply, walking away. “I pray the two of you never meet.”

Chapter 24 – Everything Went Almost Perfectly

When Charlie tore out the solidified blood that had temporarily granted me superhuman strength, I’d thought it was the most pain it was possible to experience and still remain conscious. The blood healed me even as it was being ripped from my body, keeping me together, keeping me just alive enough to feel every agonising second. It had left me paralysed, unable to move, lost in an ocean of pain and isolation, until they showed up, had injected me with the ‘cure’, had broken me down into an all but useless husk.

I’d thought that was the most pain I was ever going to experience in my life. I was very, very wrong.

To purge the toxin from my body and keep me alive, phase one had consisted of concentrated radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and injections of Zoe’s blood, and together they’d left me as a mostly shaken wreck. Somehow, I’d pulled through.

Phase two made that feel like a tropical vacation. Zoe’s main idea, one I’d foolishly signed off on, was effectively a supplementary skeleton. A combination of metal and silicon, grafted to my skeletal system, was supposed to make me tougher and more stable, and myoelectric implants enhanced neural and muscular response times. Well, that was an oversimplification, but the main point was that it involved literally cutting me open down to my skeleton, and I needed to be conscious the entire time.

Things I did not have to be conscious for included optical and cochlear implants designed to enhance and expand my vision and hearing, and a few synthetic hormone distributors that would give me a greater level of control over the physical state of my body. Then there were redundancies for vital organs and even upgrades to them.

Basically, over the course of a month, Zoe turned me into a cyborg. The time passed in a blur, with me being either unconscious, or in too much pain to know what was going on. I was dimly aware of Sabrina coming and going, and whenever Zoe wasn’t operating on me, she was working on her machine, but for the most part, my entire world was pain.

Then, one day, it stopped. It wasn’t a gradual shift, the pain didn’t slowly recede, it just stopped. For the first time in close to a year, I felt normal.

At first, I didn’t understand. I lay in bed, starting at the ceiling, waiting for the pain to return. I waited to feel sluggish, vague, detached. Instead, I felt nothing.

I tried moving my hand. It did exactly as I wanted, without resistance or pain or shaking or delay. I stretched and contracted my fingers, watching in amazement as they moved.

I sat up slowly. There was no rush of dizziness or nausea, no ache or twinge of pain. It was incredible.

“How do you feel?” Zoe asked, and even though I hadn’t known she was there, I wasn’t surprised.

“Normal,” I told her. “Phenomenal.”

“Everything went almost perfectly,” she said, but her voice was an almost guttural purr, an edge of danger in it. “Things almost went badly. My blood should have countered that. Somehow, you didn’t have enough.”

I tensed, feeling like a fool. I should have known even a little bit would have a huge impact. More to the point, I should have known she’d notice.

“Faulty medical equipment?” I asked, knowing full well she wouldn’t buy it.

“Here’s the thing,” she said, leaning in, an aggressive glint in her eye. “Sabrina isn’t calculating or cunning enough to mess with any of things. You, I thought you were too clever to try something that foolish.”

There was no way to keep her suspicions off of me. It was too obvious. All I could do was try to obfuscate my actual motives. Somehow, I had to do that without lying.

“I needed information. After seeing what Wendy’s blood did, I needed to find out what yours could do. And, no offence, but I didn’t trust you to be honest about it.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “And what did you find out?”

I had to keep myself from showing obvious relief. She bought it, and I had actually run some tests, so it would be an easy sell after all.

“Your blood is almost the opposite of hers,” I said. “Whilst Wendy’s sustains, yours consumes. Similar effects in terms of physical augmentation, but it’s much more intense, and would burn out a human body within weeks. My theory is that Wendy is some kind of battlefield medic, whilst you’re designed to create a temporary militia of superhumans in a pinch.”

She stared at me, her expression unreadable. The tension returned, as I waited to find out if my gamble would pay off.

She pulled back, laughing softly. I did my best to maintain an unintimidated expression.

“You’re right, I wouldn’t have told you,” she said. “Clearly, I’m going to need to keep a closer eye on you. You’re going to be a lot more dangerous now that you can actually take care of yourself.”

“As long as you’re not planning on hurting or infecting anyone, we’re on the same side,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t know I was lying.

“I’m not some cartoon villain,” she retorted easily. “All I want to do is go home. The mess, well, that’ll be yours to clean up.”

“Then let’s get your machine working. Right now, that’s my top priority.”

At least that part was the truth.

Chapter 23 – I Did Not Sign Up For That

“What’s this?” Sabrina asked, turning the device over in her hands. Her surprised expression was entertaining, at least.

“A gift,” I said. “Trying to make myself useful.”

I still couldn’t move around very much, but I had enough mobility in my hands to craft, and at least my brain seemed to be firing on all cylinders. I got restless.

“Okay. What does it do?” she asked, sounding more than a little skeptical.

“It’s a shock glove,” I explained. “A modified version of my own. Good for incapacitating people without causing them any lasting damage, you know?”

“Isn’t that still really bad for you?” she asked, frowning.

“Can be,” I conceded. “Especially if they have a heart condition or something. Hard to design around that, unfortunately. Use with caution.”

She held it up, looking inside of it, as if expecting it to be booby-trapped.

“Why?” she asked.

“What do you mean, why?” I responded, pretending I wasn’t expecting exactly this line of inquiry. Of course she was going to be suspicious.

“What do you get out of this?”

I pretended to be offended. “I like to help, okay? I can’t do much right now, not in the middle of my treatments, but I can at least do this much. It’s… I used to do it for Charlie, until…”

Sabrina’s face softened immediately. My chest ached.

“Thank you,” she said. “Um, how does it work?”

I grinned.

“There’s a specific hand gesture to activate it,” I explained. “Here, put it on and I’ll show you.”

She nodded, sliding her hand into it. As it clamped around her, she flinched and cried out.

“Ow! What was that?”

“The best part,” I said. “It doesn’t need to be charged, because it uses you as a battery.”

“What? I did not sign up for that,” she said, tugging at the glove, trying to remove it.

“Relax, you have plenty of excess energy,” I told her. “I’ve been looking at the tests Zoe ran on you. You won’t even notice it, and it means it’s always guaranteed to work. Plus, you can ramp up the power if you need to use it on, well, someone a little tougher.”

It took a moment, but I saw understanding cross her face. She nodded covertly.

“So how do I make it work?”

I ran her through the gesture. She had to do it a few times to get it right, but the glove lit up, and she tested it out on a receptor I’d build specifically for that purpose. She smiled, satisfied.

“Thank you, Rachel,” she said. “Um, I don’t mean to complain, but it is a little tight…”

“Oh, of course!” I said, hoping it didn’t sound completely rehearsed. “Here, let me get it off you. I’ll adjust the size a little, and get it back to you.”

“I appreciate this,” she said, as I unclasped the glove and slid it off her hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I guess I’m still adjusting to, you know, everything.”

“Trust me, I know what you mean,” I lied. “But for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a great job.”

She blushed, smiling awkwardly. I let her leave, more than a little pleased with herself. God, she was so naive I wanted to throttle her. Not literally, of course.

As soon as I was alone, I opened up the glove, pulling a small vial out from a hidden compartment. A tiny amount of her blood sloshed around inside. A smile broke out on my face.

I slipped the vial into a locked, hidden container. The last thing I wanted was anyone else stumbling on it, and asking what I was doing with it. A girl’s got to keep her secrets, after all.

With that sorted, I turned my attention back to more important matters. I was pretty close to figuring out Zoe’s machine, and I’d already managed to point out a few adjustments that had impressed her.

From what I could tell, the core of the machine was going to create a literal black hole. That actually wasn’t all that difficult, all things considered. The difficult part, and the part that Zoe was clearly still struggling with, was turning that black hole into an actual transdimensional gateway. She was almost there, but with the materials we had available, it was still a little ways off.

The genius of the thing excited me like nothing else ever had. It was the most advanced, incredible piece of technology I’d ever seen, and to have the chance to look at it up close, to go through the designs, to watch it being built, it was a dream come true.

Then of course there was the fact that it was supposed to be a bridge to a parallel dimension. An actual, bona fide alternate reality, one which was apparently so technologically advanced it could create superhumans like Zoe. I wanted to see that world more than anything else.

Did Zoe intend to let anyone go back with her? Was she just looking to get home, or did she care about more than that? I found it difficult to believe it would be that simple, but I didn’t know nearly enough about her to predict more than that.

There was another risk, too. Even if we could create an interdimensional rift, what if it got out of hand? It only needed to open long enough to send her through in theory, but what if we couldn’t close it after? What if it expanded?

What if more like her came through? What about getting rid of the others that were already through? There were too many variables, too many possibilities, and I did not trust Zoe to nearly the same degree as Sabrina seemed to.

A gentle knock at the door drew my attention, and I was surprised to see Zoe standing there. She never knocked.

“What’s up?” I asked, putting down the soldering iron I’d been absently turning over in my hands.

“Time for your medicine,” she said, grim humour accenting her voice. “It’s going to be a big one.”

Chapter 22 – There’s Something Missing From Your Story

As promised, Zoe’s early treatments were close to unbearable. The chemicals tore through my body, consuming the toxins that were destroying me from the inside out. It felt like being hollowed out, and filled with venom and ice.

We spent hours on the treatments every day, as much as my body was able to withstand. I tried to push myself further, tried to suffer through more, but Zoe kept telling me, it wasn’t about pain. Any more and I would literally start falling apart at the seams.

Whenever I wasn’t in the middle of treatments, I was in a sort of vacant haze, unable to engage with the world around me. I was dimly aware of Sabrina coming and going, bringing back more and more components for Zoe’s machine. Zoe ignored me whenever she wasn’t actively treating me, locking herself away to work on it.

It took weeks before I was able to function between treatments again. As soon as I could, I started poring over Zoe’s schematics, and rifling through the components Sabrina had retrieved. A picture was starting to form in my head. It wasn’t enough, not yet, but I was on the right path.

I needed to understand what it was Zoe was building, and how it worked. It was crucial. If I couldn’t manage that, well…

As I began to regain mental acuity, Zoe filled me in on the next stage of the recovery process. Once the toxic agents had been completely removed from my system, she’d be able to use a diluted version of her own blood, to repair the damage. She’d also proposed a few modifications, and I’d taken to that suggestion with an almost manic glee, when I realised the possibilities.

I was looking through the components we had available, and putting together the plans for the first round of upgrades, when she stepped into the room, completely silent.

I’d realised two things about her, in the time I’d spent with her. We’d dramatically underestimated her.

First, she wasn’t just strong, or fast. That was such an oversimplification of what she could do. When she moved, she moved like a wild animal, with a predatory grace that sent a chill down my spine. It became apparent just how dangerous she’d be in a fight very early on, and I was very glad we were working together.

Second, she was brilliant. Her understanding of mechanical engineering might have outstripped my own, and mine was supernatural. She was a scientific genius, familiar with concepts that would have sent the most respected minds of the generation reeling. She could run calculations in her head as fast as any computer.

I was so very, very glad we were working together.

“You lied to Sabrina,” she said, though there was no accusation in her tone. Only statement of fact. Even still, I panicked.

“Eh?” I replied, as nonchalantly as I could manage. She couldn’t suspect me, not yet. I hadn’t done anything to earn it.

“About your condition,” she said, with a glint in her eye that told me to tread very carefully.

“I’m not faking this,” I said, knowing better than to outright lie. She was basically a human lie detector. Well, maybe not human.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

I looked up at her, barely able to stand. If she genuinely thought I was trying to deceive her, she’d have torn my head off already. Probably literally.

“Oh. You mean Wendy,” I said, knowing full well she didn’t. I knew exactly what she was talking about, but if I didn’t play this exactly right… “I really can’t tell you where she-“

“Rachel. You need to be honest with me. I can tell when you’re lying.” That glint in her eye again, replaced almost immediately with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything to Sabrina.”

Right, because it was Sabrina I was worried about. A clumsy teenage fool with no ability to control her abilities.

“I haven’t lied,” I insisted, lying.

“I know Wendy,” Zoe said. “I know how she works. There’s something missing from your story.”

I had to force myself to maintain normal breathing. We both knew where this was going, but I had to play things just right.

“I assure you, there isn’t,” I said evenly.

Zoe smiled indulgently. “With your physiology, her blood should have lasted decades. More, if you were careful.”

Keep her focused on that lie, so she misses the real one.

“I told you, Charlie tore it out of me.”

My chest ached just thinking about it. I could still picture her standing above me, my blood dripping from the blade…

“There would have been enough left in your system to heal you completely,” she said, undeterred. She was right, of course. “Here’s the thing. Her body also produced a counter-toxin, designed to strip any traces of her blood from someone’s system. Now, if someone had injected you with that after Charlie had ripped it out…”

My body twitched involuntarily. Those wounds were still fresh.

“Yeah.”

“It can’t have been Wendy, though,” Zoe said, barely talking to me. “She’d have known. And Charlie wouldn’t have had a reason to. Which means someone else was working with Wendy.”

I had to keep myself from laughing. She was so close, and yet still so far.

Charlie had tricked Wendy, tricked me, tricked them. All of us, in order to claim that power for herself.

I shook my head. There was no point giving those names to Zoe. No, worse than that. If she knew, if she could track them down, it could ruin everything.

“You won’t tell me?” she asked, annoyed. “After they left you in this condition?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

I saw the anger flash through her eyes, but it passed almost instantaneously, and I knew I’d managed to keep her off the right path.

“Okay,” she said. “I can understand you not trusting me.”

“It’s not just that,” I said.

“In any case, it’s not important. I think we’re ready to start you on stage two. How do you feel about that?”

I glanced again at the plans I’d been weakly scribbling down in a notebook, looked back at her, and grinned.

Chapter 21 – Everyone Has An Agenda

Part 3 – Rachel

Everyone has an agenda. Charlie taught me that, and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget. With her, it was never about love, it was about what I could do for her, for her crusade. The crusade that should have killed her, if only that were even possible.

Strangely, she didn’t scare me. I wondered what that said about me, that an immortal superhuman could declare to the entire world that she was coming for me, and I wasn’t the least bit scared. A dark part of my brain laughed. What else could she even take from me at this point?

That night was a vivid memory to me, one I relived every time I closed my eyes. I was lying on my back, fingers gripping the sides of the table, as her knife cut me open, and she reached in and stole the borrowed power inside of me. She walked away a demigod. I could barely walk at all.

I remembered the scream, the horrifying, piercing shriek that had literally torn open the sky, and brought monsters into the world. I remembered the way the pain had shown on her face, the way she’d dropped to the ground, clutching herself like she was trying to keep from being ripped up from the inside.

The memories were so intense, I didn’t realise I was dreaming until I woke up, breathing ragged, covered in sweat. Adrenaline surged through my system and I felt disoriented, wondering what I was doing in what looked like a run down hospital room. It took a few moments to remember.

This was Zoe’s home, an abandoned medical facility that Sabrina had led me to. Somewhere I would be safe, and maybe, somewhere I could recover.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed Sabrina sitting across the room, her legs folded up against her chest, a wary expression on her face. If she noticed me wake up, she didn’t give any indication of it.

“Were you watching me sleep?” I asked, struggling to pull myself up to a seated position. Every muscle in my body felt weak, barely able to support my own weight. My bones felt brittle, and I couldn’t stop shaking.

“Asks the girl who broke into my room,” Sabrina retorted, shifting her weight, swinging her legs down to hang off the side of the table.

“My life was at risk,” I protested. “Is still at risk.”

“Necessity is the mother of all evil,” she said, and I didn’t have the energy to tell her she was mixing her metaphors. It didn’t seem like a conversation worth having.

“So is there a reason behind you watching me?”

“I don’t trust you,” she said bluntly.

I sighed. “Well, at least you’re honest about it.”

She dropped off the side of the table, crossing the room to get closer to me. She lacked Zoe’s animalistic grace when she inhabited her own body.

“How do you know so much?” she demanded, a determined expression fixed on her face.

“I was with Charlie through the whole process,” I said, shrugging. “I’ve been dealing with this shit a lot longer than you have.”

She shook her head. “Zoe’s machine. Why does she think you can help?”

“Because I can,” I replied, a little shortly.

Sabrina didn’t like that. She folder her arms, her suspicions intensified.

“So you’re, what, a metaphysical engineer, now?” she asked, her tone suggesting it was not a genuine question.

I sighed again, wishing something as simple as having a conversation wasn’t so exhausting. I could feel the room swimming, and my head was aching, but she wasn’t going to leave me alone until she was satisfied.

“Do you read many comics?” I asked.

“Huh? No, why?”

“You think I don’t have a power, because I’m weak,” I stated, not leaving her room to correct my assertion.

Her eyes grew wide. “Are you a mind reader?” she asked, taking a step backwards.

“No, thank fuck,” I answered, rolling my eyes. “That sounds terrible.”

“What, then?” she asked, clearly frustrated. “Super arrogance?”

I smirked. “You should sheath that wit before you cut yourself with it.” She glowered at me. I decided to answer her question. “I’m a tinker.”

The way her eyes nearly glazed over, it was almost comical.

“A what?”

“I have a preternatural affinity for technology,” I explained.

“That’s not a power, that’s just being a nerd,” she said accusingly.

For some reason, that annoyed me. All I wanted to do was rest, but I’d used valuable energy trying to explain to her what I could do, and all she could respond with was trying to insult me.

“You’ll eat those words some day,” I said. “Besides, Zoe thinks I’m valuable, and she’s a lot smarter than you-“

Do try to get along, children,” Zoe said, gliding in through the open door. Speak of the devil…

“I’m leaving,” Sabrina said sharply. “I’ll get you the next item by Friday.”

She stormed out of the room, right past Zoe, who made no attempt to stop her. Once Sabrina was completely gone, Zoe raised an eyebrow in my direction.

“You upset her,” she said.

“She’ll live,” I said with yet another shrug.

“What do you think she is?” Zoe asked, suddenly serious.

“Different,” I said, not wanting to give away all of my suspicions at once. “Dangerous. Completely innocent.”

“Interesting,” she said, nodding in vague agreement. There was an awkward silence, one which she eventually filled my smiling warmly and asking, “Ready to begin your treatment?”

“Yes,” I said immediately.

“I haven’t told you what’s involved, yet,” she warned.

“It can’t possibly be worse than this,” I retorted.

“We’ll see,” was all she said in response.

“What am I in for?”

She walked over to the bed, helping me out of it. She took my hand and led me back to the main area, where she did most of her tinkering.

“Stage one is basically cleansing your system,” she said. “Are you familiar with cancer treatments?”

I shuddered. “I don’t suppose those are quick and painless where you’re from?” I asked without hope.

“I was deliberately using a more modern reference point,” she said. “We’re going to flood your system with a cytotoxic agent, combined with near-lethal, targeted doses of radiation.”

“Sounds delightful,” I said dryly. “Sign me up.”

“It’s a very specific malady we’re dealing with here,” she said, a little defensively, as if I’d disapproved of her methods.

“Tell me about stage two, then,” I said. “Brighten my spirits.”

“It’s going to hurt,” she told me. “A lot.”

“Fantastic.”