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Category: Impact Day

Chapter 53 – Impossible Is Her Bread And Butter

Rachel, One Day Before Impact Day

“What are you doing here?” Sadie asked. The holographic version of her projected onto my glasses folded its arms, pouting.

I knew from what she’d told me that Charlie could actually see Sadie, as clearly as any corporeal person. That had confused me for a while, but so far as I could figure without Charlie herself to test on, what she was seeing was a psychic projection. In reality, Sadie was effectively constructed of a collection of quantum-locked molecules combined in some combination unlike any naturally-forming material, in some impossible state of matter. A fifth state.

It was the closest to a confirmation of the existence of a soul I expected to ever see. Though it was difficult to pull any hard data, the soul particles, as I was thinking of them, seemed to radiate pure energy in a way that entirely contradicted what I understood about the rules of the universe. That energy seemed to be responsible for connecting a soul to a body, and without a body…

She should have dissipated long ago, or more likely detonated, releasing all of that energy all at once. Instead, some impossible force was keeping her together. An impossible force called Charlie.

Regardless, it was that output of energy that let me track her position in the first place. I couldn’t measure the soul particles themselves, but I could measure their impact on the air around them. They didn’t create sound in the sense of vibrations in the air, but it was did broadcast something on a wavelength not dissimilar to the technology behind wireless communication.

All that added up to my ability to track and interact with her, albeit through several complicated pieces of tech I’d thrown together. It was a fun challenge.

“Rachel?”

Oh yeah, she asked me a question, didn’t she?

“I like it here,” I said. “It smells like Charlie. Besides, I figured you could use the company.”

“Shouldn’t you be looking for Charlie?” she asked, with a hint of accusation.

“I told you, I know where she is. I just can’t get to her.”

“Can’t you build some kind of mech suit or something?” she asked.

I laughed. The idea wasn’t actually impossible. Given enough time and infinite resources, I probably could put together some kind of super suit. Unfortunately, I had neither of those things. Still, it was a fun idea for the future. Maybe Charlie and I could be like Captain America and Iron Man. But like, the angsty teen versions.

“I told you my plan,” I said.

“Your plan is stupid,” she told me. “It’s been five months.

Don’t take the bait. She’s hurting, just like you.

“I’m doing the best I can,” I said, through gritted teeth. “I’ve examined every possible approach, okay? I’m keeping an eye on Aidan and Liz, who are doing everything you want me to be doing. And surprise, they’re failing. Because it will never work, because we’re three teenagers who don’t have any powers between us except a superhuman ability to understand how things work. Meanwhile, there’s a superhuman just sitting around running a fucking café who could just walk right in and pluck Charlie out, and she’s doing nothing. You get it? She’s the best hope we have. And I am working on it.”

Sadie sat there in silence, and I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. My tech wasn’t precise enough to pick up micro-expressions or the nuances of body language.

“What if she doesn’t ever change her mind?” Sadie asked.

“There’s got to be a way,” I said. “I’m not just giving up. I’m not leaving her. I just won’t.”

“…What if I talked to her?” Sadie suggested.

“What?”

“You could use this stuff. Let her see me. Maybe she’d listen to me. Maybe if she knew…”

A smile began to creep across my face.

“Sadie, you have the makings of a genius yourself.”

Wendy frowned as I entered the café, Sadie trailing behind.

“We’re closed,” she said. “And I’m not interested in talking about—” She stopped, and sniffed the air. “What is that?”

“You mean my fancy eyewear?” I asked. “That’s actually—”

“Not that,” Wendy snapped, dropping the visage of pleasantness. “That smell, it’s…”

She approaches rapidly, with that inhuman speed and grace that she usually worked so hard to keep hidden. Astonishingly, she stopped right in front of Sadie.

“Me?” Sadie asked, squeaking in surprise.

“What’s here?” Wendy asked. “Who’s here?”

“Incredible,” I said. “It was your nose that gave her away? That’s gonna have some implications…”

Who is it?” Wendy demanded.

“Sadie,” I said. “Charlie’s sister. That’s why I’m here.”

I handed her a pair of glasses with connected earphones, a matching set to my own.

“You figured out how to communicate with the dead?” Wendy asked.

“Just one,” I replied. “I don’t have a lot of test cases to work with.”

She put the glasses on, and gasped when she looked at Sadie properly.

“Impossible,” she said. “You should be…”

“Welcome to Charlie’s world,” I said. “Impossible is her bread and butter.”

“It’s nice to meet you…” Sadie said.

“How long have you been like this?” Wendy asked.

“Twelve years,” Sadie replied.

“I think Charlie keeps her stable,” I said. “But it’s getting weaker. I think… I think Charlie’s losing hope. And if she does…”

Sadie stared at me, mouth agape. I hadn’t shared any of that with her. I hadn’t wanted to. But if we were going to save Charlie, we needed to convince Wendy. And if we were going to convince Wendy…

“A single soul contains enough energy to level half the state,” Wendy said.

“Five million dead in an instant,” I said.”

“No!” Sadie said. “No, you never told me that!”

“I didn’t want to,” I said. I wanted to save your genuine reaction for Wendy, I didn’t say.

“I need to get away,” she said. “Far away, where I can’t hurt anyone.”

“It’s not just that,” Wendy said. “Soul energy isn’t like, well, energy. Energy is just a property of matter. Specifically, local matter. But soul energy exists outside of the local space. A detonation of that magnitude could rip a hole in the walls of reality itself.”

“Like to the version of Earth that you come from,” I said.

“Yes,” Wendy replied, confirming my suspicions.

“I’ll try to find a way to contain it,” I said. “I’ll find a way to save you, Sadie. Maybe I can shove you inside a different body, or…”

“No,” Wendy said. “That won’t… Just trust me. It won’t work.”

“Then what do we do?”

“I need to think,” Wendy said. “And you need to leave.”

“Don’t take too long,” I said. “There’s a lot at stake here.”

 

Next Week: Charlie Can’t Know

Chapter 52 – This Is Some Real Conspiracy Theory Shit

Liz, One Day Before Impact Day

Six months, and we weren’t any closer. Six months of one plan after another failing. Everything we tried seemed to almost be sabotaged. Either that or we had the worst luck in the world.

“What do we do?” Aidan asked, pressing his forehead into his desk. “What else is left?”

“I could try to get in,” I said. “If anyone could…”

“It’s a slim chance, and if you get caught, you die.”

“And if I don’t, we’re out of options,” I retorted. “So fine, I might die. I probably will. But at this point, it’s all we have left.”

“No, it’s not,” he insisted. “If you die, Charlie loses the best chance she has of ever getting out.”

“So what do we do, then?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Do you think Rachel’s making any progress?” I asked.

“I think we’d know,” he replied. “Whatever else she’s up to, she does care about Charlie. She’d do anything to save her.”

We were pretty sure we’ve managed to lock her out of all our systems, but with Rachel, it was impossible to be sure. We always made sure never to be too careless with what we discussed, just in case she was listening.

“What would Charlie do in this situation?”

“Exactly what you just suggested,” Aidan said with a sigh. “Rush in and cause a mess.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “She acts reckless, but I don’t think that’s who she really is. She’s… clever.”

“Not clever enough to keep her from getting caught,” Aidan muttered.

“I said clever, not infallible. But it does make me wonder.”

“What, you think she got caught on purpose?”

“I didn’t say that,” I insisted. “But I don’t want to completely ignore the possibility.”

“Why would she possibly want something like that?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe she thought she could take them out from the inside. Maybe she’s gathering intel. Maybe she wanted the drama. Who knows with her?”

“Okay, let’s assume she did,” he said. “It would stand to reason that Rachel would be in on it, right?”

So much for being careful.

“Most likely.”

“So what does Rachel want? What is she pushing us towards?”

“She’s pretty keen on getting Wendy’s help,” I said. “But she’s also been minding her own business for months now. Mostly.”

“She interfered with that assassination,” Aidan pointed out. “Who knows what else she’s pulling the strings on.”

“But why?” I asked.

“Because there’s only one thing she wants,” Aidan said. “She wants us to go to Wendy.”

“But Wendy already refused to help.”

“Because she doesn’t trust Rachel or Charlie,” Aidan said. “But she doesn’t have a reason to doubt us. And if we’re kept in the dark, she won’t see through any deception or ulterior motive.”

“This is some real conspiracy theory shit,” I said.

“That’s what we’re reduced to,” he muttered. “It’s all we have left.”

“But it doesn’t help,” I told him. “It doesn’t get us any closer to saving Charlie.”

“I guess I’m starting to wonder if we should be saving her.”

“What?”

“I don’t like being a pawn,” he said darkly.

“You don’t know that you are,” I retorted. “And besides, even if we are pawns, even if Charlie is pulling all these bullshit strings that you think she’s pulling… Does it really matter? Would you really abandon her because of that?”

He looked at me, defiance shining in his eyes. Then he deflated.

“No,” he said. “Of course not. I’d do anything to save her.”

“I won’t say I’ve never questioned it,” I admitted. “Some days, I wonder why I even…”

“Love her?”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “I mean, it never really felt like a choice. She’s just this… You just have to, you know?”

“I know,” he said. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve felt…”

He trailed off, and I knew why.

“You can say it,” I told him. “We’re so far beyond judgement right now.”

“She’s supposed to be like a sister to me,” he said. “But I…”

“It’s not healthy, is it?”

“No,” he said, without needing to think about it. “But it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

“Maybe this is just what love feels like,” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like that with… uh…”

He shook his head, and turned away from me.

What?

“Aidan?”

“Forget it,” he said. “We have more important things to talk about.”

“Aidan, if you’ve got something to say…”

“It’s stupid,” he mumbled.

“Aidan.”

“Come on, don’t act like you don’t know,” he said.

“I really don’t,” I promised.

“Then let’s just forget about it.”

“After all that build up?” I asked. “Not a chance.”

“Uuugghh.”

“Aidan, we’ve spent six months with nobody else in our lives, desperately trying to find our best friend. Do you really think there’s anything you can’t say to me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Why?”

“You don’t even like me,” he said.

“What?”

“You never did,” he told me. “Charlie was the only thing that kept us around each other. Even now that she’s gone, she’s the only thing we have in common.”

“Do you really believe that?” I asked.

“Am I wrong?”

“…Maybe it was like that one,” I admitted. “But you have to know it’s different now.”

“I don’t know that.”

“Aidan, you’re the only person in my life that knows I killed someone. Three someones, now. What could you possible have to hide that’s worth than that?”

“I love you,” he said abruptly.

“Wh-what?”

“I know, I know, I’m pathetic,” he said. “Just another sad white boy who falls in love with every girl who’s nice to him.”

“Charlie was never nice to you,” I said, and he laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to make this… You know. You don’t even swing that way.”

“According to who?” I asked.

“Well, Charlie is…”

“You’ve never heard of a bisexual?”

“Wait, are you—”

“I never really thought about it,” I confessed.

“Right.”

“You’re special to me,” I told him. “Of course I love you.”

“What a delightfully weird triangle that forms.”

“I’m gonna be honest, I never really thought of you as the, uh…”

“Yes?”

“The loving type,” I said.

“Wow.”

“Not like that! Just like, in that way. Charlie being the obvious exception.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, no, I know what you mean.”

“You do?”

“It’s all very confusing, alright? It feels different to me. It’s supposed to be normal, but I never really wanted anything to do with it.”

“What’s ‘it’ in this context?” I asked.

“Any of it,” he said. “Dating. Sex. For a while, I thought I was gay, because I wasn’t interested in any girls. But I wasn’t really interested in boys either. Or anyone else.”

“So, you’re like…”

“Asexual,” he said. “According to the internet, anyway. “And maybe aromantic? I don’t really know. Like I said, it’s weird. And I guess I’ve fallen in love twice, so…” Just then, his phone rang. “Now? Really?” He answered, and his eyes widened. “Alright. We’ll be there.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“That was Wendy,” he told me. “She wants to talk to us. Tomorrow.”

“You’re kidding.”

“She sounded upset,” he said. “Something must have happened.”

“Should we go?”

“I think we have to,” he said. “This could be the chance we’ve been waiting for.”

“Or the beginning of a trap,” I said.

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

I sighed. “Me too.”

 

Next Week: Impossible Is Her Bread And Butter

Chapter 51 – Until You’re Dead

Part 6 – Impact Day

Liz, Four Months Before Impact Day

I stared at the young woman, unable to shake the feeling that something about her felt off, in a way I couldn’t quite explain. It was like she’d been superimposed over a scene in a movie, maybe? Nothing in the world reacted to her the way that it should.

She wasn’t paying attention to me. Rather, she stood over the body, unperturbed by the sight of it. As I watched, she nodded, and spoke.

“That’s right.” A pause, and then, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt.” She had an accent, maybe British. It was strange to hear, like I was hearing it in my mind, not my ears.

She extended her left arm, and without warning, a massive scythe appeared in it, the kind you’d expect to see in the hands of a black-robed skeleton. She swung it, then it vanished again.

A scythe that size, swung at that speed, it should have displaced the air. I should have felt something, but… I didn’t. There was nothing.

“How did you get in here?” I asked, without intending to speak. She turned, slightly surprised. Not to see me, but to be acknowledged by me.

“Same way I get everywhere,” she said, tilting her head slightly. “You can see me?”

“Is that unusual?” I asked, though I didn’t really need to. The answer was implicit in the question.

“Not for the dead,” the woman replied.

I recalled the scythe, noticed again the way the world didn’t seem to acknowledge her presence at all. I felt like I was on the verge of understanding.

“Did I…” I tried to asked, but couldn’t form the words. “Am I…?”

“Nope,” she said breezily. I tried to relax, but relaxing seemed impossible with her around.

“You’re…” I searched for the name. “An angel?”

What else could she be?

“Reaper, actually,” she said, shrugging. “But yeah. I guess that counts? It’s all semantics, isn’t it?”

“You’re here for him,” I said gesturing to the body.

“Yeah, but he’ll keep. I’m more interested in you. Has this ever happened before?”

“I’ve never killed anyone before,” I said, not sure why I felt suddenly defensive.

“Hmm,” she mused, walking closer to me. There was curiosity in her impossibly silver eyes, eyes sparkling and changing like a grey ocean in the middle of a moonlit night. Why did I think that? “Well, this definitely isn’t normal.”

I found myself disappointed. ‘Not normal’ hardly felt like an answer. This woman, this impossible creature, this Reaper, should have been able to explain to her what was really happening.

“That’s it?” she asked, petulantly. “You don’t know what it means?”

The Reaper smiled, and took another step closer. “Let me get a closer look at you,” she said, as she stood close enough to me that I could have touched her, if I had the nerve. I didn’t.

“What are you—” I asked, but was cut off as her hand gently touched my skin. The feeling was strange, like being touched by a statue. Not that it felt like cold marble, more like the sensation of being touched by something that shouldn’t be able to move, to touch. A statue doesn’t touch you, you touch it.

Something within me responded. A chill, a weight, a hunger. Deep in my core. My soul? Was that what she touched?

For just a moment, the sensation overwhelmed me, became my entire world. There was no room, no Reaper, no time or space. There was only that feeling. That hunger. Then it passed, and the world returned, and the sensation slipped through the cracks of my memory.

“Well now, that’s interesting,” the Reaper said, taking a step back.

“What?”

“I can’t tell you,” she said. I bristled.

“Can’t tell me what?

“That’s all I can say until you’re dead,” she crooned. I wanted to hit her, but I had a strong instinct telling me that would be a bad idea.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Good.” She seemed pleased with herself. I hated it. “Let’s keep it that way. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“Can you help me?” I asked, taking myself by surprise almost as much as it surprised her.

“Uh…”

“My friend,” I said. “She’s trapped. I think they’re…” I couldn’t bring myself to say what I was worried they might be doing to her.

Would this strange help Charlie? She had no reason to, but she might have been the only one who could. Wendy was a non starter.

“What do I look like to you?” the Reaper asked. “I deal with the dead, nothing more.”

“She’s immortal,” I blurted out. Would that make a difference?

“…Dammit,” the Reaper said.

“Will you help her?”

“I should have known,” she said, suddenly angry. “This has Charlie written all over it.”

“You know her?” I asked, astonished. Not that it didn’t make sense. Rather, it seemed very likely that a harvester of the dead would know the identities of those they couldn’t harvest. Even still, it surprised her to know Charlie was as important as she seemed to believe herself to be.

“You could say that,” the Reaper said darkly.

“Please,” I begged, desperate.

“Nothing I can do, man. Sorry.”

“What do we do?” I asked, unsure if there was anything we could do. Everywhere we turned, we hit brick walls.

My world was unraveling around me. The existence of an immortal had shaken me, more so because it was someone I thought I knew intimately. A superhuman entity, lurking in the very same city. Now a Reaper? All of this impossibility, and no way to change the fate of my best friend, it seemed.

“I’d tell you to brace yourself, but…” She smirked. “Well, I’m not big on spoilers.”

“You know what’s going to happen?” I asked.

“Good luck, Liz,” she said, and vanished.

I slumped to the floor. None of this made sense. The world didn’t make sense. I felt powerless, for the first time in a very long time.

Absently, I pulled out the crucifix around my neck, rubbing my thumb against it. Once I became aware of myself doing this, I gripped it more tightly. Is that where I would find my answers, I wondered?

That’s all I can say until you’re dead, the Reaper had told me. What did that mean? What did death mean? For me, specifically?

I looked down at the body on the floor. A life, taken by me. Not an innocent one, but a life I had no right to take. No divine writ. Just a selfish, mortal desire.

I’d always told myself there was nothing immoral about assassinations. We were tools, weapons, not killers. The killers were those who ordered the death. But this, this wasn’t a hit. This was an act of desperation. Was it a sin, then? Would I be punished for it? Did I deserve punishment for it?

I would do it again. I was certain of that. If I’m to be judged on the weight of my actions, I will act with conviction. I owe that to the Lord, at least.

 

Next Week: This Is Some Real Conspiracy Theory Shit

Interlude #5 – Vignettes

The Child returned to The Citadel, the stronghold of the Guardians that existed outside of any world’s time and space. Her machinations were, at least for now, complete. For now, she needed only be patient.

Time did not flow normally through The Citadel, if there was a ‘normal’ for time. Time within an isolated system is not bound to the time of any other isolated system. They do not interact, do not affect one another. Still, moving through fourth dimensional space was not as easy as moving through third, and moving beyond that was more complicated still. She needed a rest, a chance to organise and prepare.

“What are you up to?” asked a voice, as a figure faded in from the darkness.

The Nameless had the look of a teenage boy, just on the cusp of puberty. His short white hair was swept up as though by some unknown source of gravity, and his footfalls seemed to stop just shy of touching the ground. He stared at The Child with shimmering, golden eyes ringed with black.

“Advancing the plot,” she replied, not making eye contact. He was interrupting, and she didn’t care for it.

“We’re not storytellers,” he said. “That’s not our role.”

“According to who?” she demanded.

“Child…”

“The First is gone, Nameless. Our traditions are empty now.”

“You’re young,” he said, his voice even and patient. “You haven’t even seen a single cycle through to completion.”

“That’s the point,” she said. “I don’t want to see this bullshit repeat itself. I want things to change.”

“Things never change,” he replied softly. “Nobody is above that. Nothing can change that.”

“We’ll see.”

With that, she disappeared, leaving The Citadel once again.

* * *

Rebecca sat beside the throne, staring into a floating sphere of light. Two others joined her, neither of them as close to the throne as she was.

“What the actual fuck is going on out there?” she asked, shaking her head.

“Nothing we need to worry about,” said the tall woman with ashen purple skin and bright silver hair. “Not our domain.”

“It is unusual, though,” said the thin, elegant man with pale skin and penetrating red eyes. “Do you think Lucy knows?”

“Lucy knows everything, Nix,” Rebecca said. “If they were concerned…”

“I am concerned,” said a new voice, as a figure materialised in the throne. “But for now, I’m happy to watch, and see how things play out.”

“What are you waiting for?” asked the tall woman.

“A spark of light,” Lucy said.

* * *

Rachel pored over the data, an empty sheet of the strongest migraine medication she could find lying beside her. Not everything made sense, but her brain wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t rest. She needed to dig deeper, to find the solutions to problems she hadn’t even considered yet. Pointless adrenaline coursed through her body, and her head throbbed and ached.

“What are you looking for?” Sadie asked, peering over Rachel’s shoulder. She couldn’t follow any of what Rachel was looking at.

A series of makeshift sensors, built largely out of repurposed homeware circuitry and spare phone parts, picked up her voice, her face, and converted them to a digital signal, which popped up on Rachel’s monitor.

“Don’t know yet,” Rachel muttered. “Answers, I guess.”

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a sketch Rachel had made on a scrap of paper. Rachel glanced at the monitor, able to figure out what Sadie was pointing at.

It was a sketch of two circles, intersecting slightly. Around them she had drawn five other circles, shaded in, and all seven circles formed a ring. Inside of that ring, she’d drawn a question mark. Outside of it, she’d drawn a bigger circle, encompassing the others.

“Outside,” Rachel said.

“What does that mean?” Sadie asked.

“Not sure yet.”

* * *

Roxie sat high above Melbourne, supported by nothing more than the air beneath her, cloak fluttering in the breeze. She looked down at the city, and wondered.

Felix’s death was as vivid as it ever was, and it still hurt to relive it. Since then, she’d spent every free moment she had trying to figure out what had happened. No answers had come to her.

Charlie seemed normal after that experience. Whatever that creature was, it hadn’t emerged again. It was still in there, though. Of that, Roxie was certain. After all, Charlie didn’t die. Something was breaking the rules, just for her.

She considered going back for Sadie. Especially now, while Charlie was nowhere near. There was no risk involved. Sadie could be taken to where she belonged, kept safe, given the chance to move on. But every time she entertained the thought, she was reminded of Felix, and she couldn’t do it.

There were other Reapers, of course. Any one of them could have done it. None of them did, and she couldn’t figure out why. In fact, they all seemed to steer clear of this city, around this time. Of course, they all came back once Charlie was gone, but within the timeline of this world, that wouldn’t happen for another year or so.

In the meantime, there were so, so many souls to collect, and nobody but her to do it.

She missed Felix.

* * *

“It’s done,” Haylie said. Alice nodded.

“How does it feel?” she asked.

“Painful.”

“Sorry about that,” Alice said. “Hopefully it won’t be for long.”

“Do you think it will help?” Haylie asked.

“We won’t know,” Alice said, a little flat. “I mean, if it works, we will. If not…”

“Thank you,” Haylie said.

“Don’t mention it,” Alice replied.

“Your brother still doesn’t know, does he?”

“He’s basically genetically wired to think of me as a kid that needs protecting,” Alice said. “He can’t help it.”

“Still, it’s a shame he doesn’t see what you’re truly capable of.”

“Hey, that’s just my lot in life,” Alice said. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Have you considered finding a way to change your body?” Haylie asked.

“I have about a thousand theories,” Alice said. “And no way to test them.”

“Well, if you ever need assistance…”

“Thanks, Haylie. You’re a good friend.”

 

Next Week: Until You’re Dead

Chapter 50 – Why Wouldn’t I Kill You?

Liz, Five Months Before Impact Day

Not satisfied with Rachel’s tampering, I kept researching. You could never trust someone like Rachel not to have an agenda.

Frustratingly, everything seemed to point to her being right. Which left me with a dilemma. If the target was just a test, we were the reason he would be dying. If I turned down the job, she wouldn’t send someone else in my place. He would live, but we’d get nothing. If I took the job, it was murder.

It was a trade, then. His life for information. And I couldn’t imagine any information being worth that.

So what do I do?

There was one thing I could think of. I paid a visit to Jason.

* * *

A stolen school uniform. A few careful tears. Arms covering my face. The scene was set.

I ran down the street, making a lot of noise. I chose Jason’s house, in a fashion that could only look random. I ran up to his front door, and pounded on it urgently.

He answered quickly, a look of surprise and concern on his face.

“Please, you have to help me!” I cried. “I don’t want him to catch me…”

How despicable to subvert that narrative and twist it into something vile.

“Of course,” he said. “Come in.”

He closed the door behind me, and I dropped the act. In a second, he had a knife to his throat.

“Don’t talk,” I said. “My problems get a lot simpler if you make me kill you.”

He nodded weakly, trying not to move his neck.

“I have awfully bad news for you,” I told him. “Someone put a price on your head.”

His eyes bulged.

“So now, consider this. If I kill you, I get what I want. If I don’t, someone else will. That’s how these things work. So let me ask you, why wouldn’t I kill you?”

Still no response. Good.

“Thing is, I don’t like killing. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I did my research. I found us a little compromise. Are you willing to listen?”

Another weak nod.

“Good. So, here’s my proposition. You and I are gonna run a little grift. You’re going to do everything I say, and if you behave, you live. Work for you?”

Nothing. I pressed the knife a little harder, drawing blood.

“Don’t waste my time, Jason.”

He nodded.

“Better. Now, here’s some fun trivia for you. I’m a bit of an artist, and a bit of a drama kid. I’m very good at making very convincing sets, you follow? Shh. I don’t want to kill you. I just want people to think you’re dead. One person in particular.”

I lowered the knife. He kept trembling, but didn’t move.

“Now. Here’s the fun part. I’m gonna need some of your blood.”

* * *

I sat, and waited. Eventually, Miss CEO returned to her office. I smiled as she did her best not to react loudly. She shut the door behind her quickly.

“What is this?” she asked.

It was a fair question. Her office was splattered in blood. Specifically, Jason’s blood. His cold, lifeless body lay on the floor.

“A two-for-one deal,” I said.

“I knew this was a mistake,” she replied, but I noticed she’d dropped the demeanour from earlier. It was just an act after all. “You can tell your boss—”

“He’s not my boss,” I said. “And in any case, this is between you and me.”

“Excuse me?”

“You had no reason to kill this man,” I told her. “You picked his name out of a phone book, or you might as well have. That’s not respecting my craft, Angela.”

She cringed.

“How dare—”

“Shhh. Don’t. Look at him. Touch him, if you’re brave enough. I want you to realise what you’ve done.”

“Get out of here,” she said.

“No,” I replied. “You tell me who you really wanted dead.”

“What?”

“I’m not stupid,” I said. “This one was a test. I did it, and now I’m here to say, don’t pull shit like this. Now, give me the real job, or I’m leaving this mess here for you to clean up.”

Her face paled. I gave her my most evil grin.

“I can’t, yet.”

“Yet?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He won’t be in the country for another month.”

“And what, exactly, would you like me to tell my ‘boss’?”

“It’s the best I can do,” she said.

“Then you’d better hope the price is right.”

* * *

Jason didn’t wake up until hours later. The blood loss combined with the drugs I’d given him had made for a pretty convincing facsimile of death, but she hadn’t even checked closely. It almost felt like a waste.

“God, I feel like arse,” he said, rubbing his head.

“But you’re alive,” I told him. “You’re welcome.”

“Right. Thank you.”

“I think we’re done then,” I told him. “Forget my face, forget this ever happened. And don’t tell anyone. Ever.”

I didn’t wait for him to answer. I just left, and prepared for the real target.

Four Months Before Impact Day

I pulled my knife from the now-limp body, wiping the blood off with the inside of his suit jacket. Without his breathing, the room was uncomfortably silent.

So that’s what killing feels like.

It was uncomfortably easy. Humans really were frail creatures, and that was an unpleasant thought.

I stepped away from the body. I didn’t need to be around when the body was discovered. My job was done. Aidan would be happy. I was… empty.

I hope one day you appreciate this, Charlie. I did this for you.

Not that I ever wanted her to know. She was wholly and rather aggressively against killing, and doing it for her sake would only make her loathe it more.

As I turned to leave, I realised I was no longer alone in the room. My heart skipped a beat as I instinctively went for my knife, but whoever they were, they didn’t seem to be paying attention to me.

It seemed like a young woman, with a long black coat and blue hair. She was staring at the corpse, but she didn’t seem surprised, or even concerned.

Next Week: Vignettes

Chapter 49 – This Is Brilliant, Even For Me

Rachel, Five Months Before Impact Day

I cackled as I shut off the connection to the computer Liz was using. I had considered not letting them know I was watching them, but it had already been a month, and they weren’t making any progress. I was starting to get anxious.

It hadn’t been a fun month. Not being able to talk to Charlie, not knowing if she was okay…

Obviously, I knew she was physically fine. Whatever damage they did to her would just be reversed. She was inviolable, after all. But I couldn’t imagine the emotional toll their torture was taking on her. She was resilient, for sure, but who knew what they could do to her over a whole month.

I was starting to feel a little resentment towards Liz and Aidan. Without them, Wendy would never offer her help to me. But they were dragging their feet, trying to do things the hard way. And Charlie had already spent a month in enemy hands because of it.

I knew I needed to spur them on, but they weren’t making it easy. Liz was easier to manipulate, because she was less intelligent, and less independent. But Aidan already knew that, and any attempt to manipulate her would be competing with him. He was the one calling the shots, after all.

How was I supposed to get to him, though? He was so careful, so calculating. The exact opposite of what I needed him to be. I needed him desperate, reckless, making mistakes. I needed Wendy to be his only hope.

Why are they so annoying?” I asked my empty room.

Talking to myself wasn’t going to get anything done. Instead, I packed up my laptop, and headed back to Charlie’s place. I knew Aidan wouldn’t be returning, and Mark was swept up in a fruitless quest to find his adoptive daughter.

I almost felt bad for him. He was sharp, perceptive, and kind. He knew what Charlie was up to, at least in part, of that I was certain. Now he knew she was missing, and exactly the kind of trouble she might find herself in. It must be keeping him up at night.

I doubted he knew exactly what she was, but he probably knew that there was something different about her. Charlie suspected that was why he adopted her in the first place. I agreed.

In any case, he either wouldn’t be home, or wouldn’t be paying attention. I’d snuck into Charlie’s room a few times before, just to be closer to her, and he hadn’t noticed once.

It wasn’t a long trip. I snuck in the same way she used to sneak out, and settled down on her couch, legs folded beneath me. Pulling out my laptop, I tried running a program I’d been tweaking for a while.

“Here goes nothing,” I said. “Sadie? If you’re here, try talking.”

For a few moments, nothing happened. Then, a waveform on my screen expanded and contracted, and the sound of static burst forth from my speakers.

“Holy shit,” I muttered. “Progress.”

Pulling up the software’s CLI, I started tinkering with the settings. There was an awful lot to try and figure out all at once.

“Keep talking, Sadie. Sing or something. I’ll get this working, I promise.”

The static continued, and the waveform quivered and stretched. I kept tinker, and eventually, I heard a very faint, static-filled voice.

“…wherever you are…”

Bingo!

“Wh-what?”

My heart pounded in my chest. Had I really finally done it?

“Sadie, is that you? It’s you, right?” I asked, not even sure where to look.

“You can hear me?” she replied, her voice shaking. As she talked, I kept changing the settings slightly, trying to get a clearer sound.

“Oh man, this is brilliant, even for me,” I said. “You bet I can hear you.”

“How?”

“Science!” I said, then cringed. It was a little too loud.

“Where’s Charlie?” she asked. God, she sounds so frightened, so timid.

“She didn’t tell you?” I asked.

“Tell me what?”

I sighed. What are you doing, Charlie?

“It doesn’t matter. She was captured. By Vengeance.”

“Captured? Who are Vengeance?”

“A gang,” I explained. “Probably the biggest, scariest gang.”

Silence for a few seconds.

“I told her,” she said. “You know what she said to me? A little pain never hurt anyone.”

I laughed.

“Of course she did.”

“Why are you laughing? This is serious!” she said, her voice a strained whisper.

“Because that’s who she is,” I said. “It’s why I love her.”

“You’re the reason she’s in this mess,” Sadie said. “If you didn’t keep encouraging her…”

“You know there’s no force in this world that could stop Charlie from doing anything. She was always going to do whatever she wanted,” I said. “Besides, I liked her ambition. What’s wrong with wanting to change the world?”

She left me alone!

The smile dropped from my face.

“She’s all you’ve got, huh?” I asked.

“Fuck you,” she replied.

“No wonder you don’t like me. You literally can’t talk to anyone else, and here I am, taking her away from you.”

“You don’t understand me,” she said.

“Maybe not. But now I have the chance to try. Hell, if you wanted, now anyone could have the chance to try.”

More silence for a while.

“…Why?”

“Why what” I asked.

“Why did you do this?” she asked.

“Because I wanted to be able to talk to you,” I said.

“But why?”

“Do I need a reason?”

“I’m nobody,” Sadie said. “I’m not even real. I’m just a ghost.”

Inspiration struck me like lightning.

“Oh, Sadie,” I said. “You’re so much more than that.”

It was hard to keep all of the information pouring into my head. Every new piece sparked new understanding, but the more pieces I collected, the more I realised I didn’t know.

“Don’t.”

“No, Sadie. Listen. You’re not just a ghost. You’re a conduit.”

“I don’t know what that means,” she said.

“Souls can’t exist outside of bodies. If a body can’t host a soul, you die. You physically shouldn’t exist.”

“Great.”

“It’s not just that,” I said. “You’re syphoning Charlie’s energy. That’s why she can interact with you. And it’s why you’re getting stronger.”

“How did you know about that?” she asked. “Not even Charlie knows about that.”

“Logical leap,” I said, shrugging. “Sadie, you and I both know that Charlie is something more than human. And slowly, you’re absorbing some of that power.”

Information kept surging, and my head started to ache. I closed my eyes, pressing my fists into my temples.

“Are you okay?” Sadie asked.

“Learning hurts,” I said. “It’ll pass.”

“You’re not normal either, are you?”

“Nope,” I said. “And I think I have Charlie to thank for that, too. Anyway, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, or whatever. Now that I can hear you, let’s find out what else I can do with you. Oh, and Sadie?”

“Yes?”

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Next Week: 

Chapter 48 – I Just Want Him Dead

Liz, Five Months Before Impact Day

I arrived at the meeting place ahead of time, scoping it out for a possible ambush. I made sure I knew where all of the exits were, and anywhere someone might hide or eavesdrop. I checked obvious places for someone to plant surveillance devices, and mentally prepared three different escape routes.

It was a private city car park, the kind that requires keycard access to get in. I wasn’t provided one, but it didn’t stop me finding a small gap I could squeeze through. Presumably, it was a casual sort of initial test. If I couldn’t get to the meeting location, I probably wasn’t very good at my job.

Once I was satisfied I knew the area and could handle any situation that was thrown at me, I found a dark corner to hide in, and waited. It was uncomfortable and very, very boring, but carelessness is an express ticket to an early grave.

Eventually, the contact arrived. It was a middle-aged woman in a grey suit, with a grim expression and impractically long nails. I took in her gait, her frame, the lines of her clothing. She didn’t seem dangerous, or even armed. Still, I watched for a while longer.

She stopped beside a concrete pillar, and looked around. When she didn’t see me, she sighed, and checked her watch. Then she sighed again.

“I’m not late,” I said, stepping out of the shadows. She jumped, then tried to play it cool, smoothing down her suit.

Is this really the person Aidan was talking to?

“You’re the, uh, freelancer?” she asked, a slight quaver in her voice. “You look awfully young.”

“Yep,” I said, smiling at her.

“Right. Um, well. You know the terms?”

“I know what I need to know,” I said. “Except the details I’m here to get from you.”

“Yes. I’m sorry for insisting on meeting in person. It felt wrong to not talk to you face to face.”

“Whatever floats your boat,” I replied.

“Okay. The target is Jason Bradson. I wrote down his address for you.”

“Any special conditions?” I asked.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Right now all you’re telling me is that you want him dead,” I said. “That’s easy. Sometimes people want it to look like an accident, or they want to send a particular kind of message.”

“Oh. No, nothing like that,” she said. “I just want him dead.”

“Cool.”

“Do you… Do you want to know why?” she asked.

“Not particularly,” I replied.

“Right. Um…”

“Our mutual friend will contact you when it’s done,” I said. “You won’t see me again. Well, so long as you hold up your end of the deal, that is.”

She visibly flinched.

“Okay.”

I rolled my eyes.

“You can go now,” I said.

She just nodded, and left the way she came. I waited for her to leave completely before exiting the car park the same way I came in.

That was either the least professional contract ever or a very convincing ruse…

But why would she act so skittish and uncertain? I didn’t like any of it. As soon as I was a safe distance away, I called Aidan.

“Yo,” he said.

“I met your contact.”

“And?”

“Who was she?” I asked. “She hardly seemed reliable… Are you sure she’s gonna deliver?”

“Dude, that was the CEO of the biggest defence contractor in the country,” he said.

“You’re kidding.”

“Unless she sent a decoy, but the end result is the same. She’s got the goods.”

“Alright. I’ll get it done, then.”

“You’re sure?” he asked, a note of caution in his voice.

“Do we need to have this conversation again?”

“No, no, it’s not that,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure everything seemed fine to you.”

“It seemed super weird to me,” I told him. “I’m gonna do some research first.”

“Is that not normal?”

“It’s generally harder to kill someone when you know more about them.”

“What if they’re a huge arsehole?”

“Statistically unlikely,” I told him.

“What? Most people are arseholes,” he said.

“Most people are people,” I said. “Very few deserve to die.”

“Fine, fine. Do your thing. Let me know if you need any help, but don’t make her wait too long.”

“You got it, boss.”

“I’m not—”

I hung up on him.

Time to figure out what’s going on here.

I did a quick map search for the nearest internet café, not wanting any compromising information in my own search history. Luckily, it wasn’t far. I made my way there on foot, signed in with a fake ID, and started researching my target, as well as the client.

Hours passed, and nothing came up. Finding them both was easy. The client was exactly who Aidan said she was, though by all accounts, the target was nobody at all. He was just a schmuck, a low-level manager of a supermarket. It didn’t seem like there was a professional reason to target him, so maybe personal?

Neither of them had kids, neither of them lived anywhere near each other. If they’d ever had a romantic connection, there was no record of it. Their work had never intersected, their families had no ties. There was nothing at all I could find.

I tried looking for any sign that either had changed their name, but their records dated as far back as their childhoods.

“Where’s the connection?” I muttered.

Rachel would be able to figure it out.

“Rachel can fuck right off.”

I kept digging. If there was a connection, a reason, it didn’t seem like I was going to find it publicly available. I left my computer long enough to buy a cup of low-quality coffee, pushed up my glasses, and prepared myself for round two.

Instead, I found a message on the computer. Someone had pulled up a text editor, and written a short message. I looked around, but nobody seemed to have moved. Nobody seemed to be paying attention, either.

“You were taking too long. I got bored. The answer is:

She deliberately picked a target with no connection. She’s testing Aidan because she expects a long term trade relationship.

You just wasted three hours.

~R”

“How did she—”

As I watch, the cursor blinks, and another sentence is typed out.

Just keeping an eye on you~”

I turned off the computer, swallowed the last of my coffee in an angry huff, and stormed out of the internet café.

I needed to talk to Aidan.

 

Next Week:This Is Brilliant, Even For Me

Chapter 47 – Shades of Grey

Liz, Five Months Before Impact Day

“So what do we do?” Aidan asked, leaning back in his chair.

I wished I had an answer for him. I wished I knew how to take on an entire gang. I wished Rachel wasn’t right.

She was wasting her time, though. Of that I was certain. We wouldn’t get any help from Wendy. Maybe we needed help, but it wouldn’t come from her.

Where could we get help, then? I couldn’t go to my parents, not with this. Taking on one of their more profitable employers? The idea was laughable. I could try and weasel information out of them, but I doubted they’d give up anything useful. We needed something better.

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Alright, well, let’s work backwards,” he said.

“I’m listening.”

“Well, we need to get her out of what is basically a fortress,” he said. “That means we need an exfiltration route. Given who we’re up against, stealth is going to be more effective than brute force.”

“Stealth I can do,” I said. “So we’re going to need… Hmm. Access to the fortress. Access to her. A way to get her out unnoticed.”

“We could join the gang,” Aidan suggested. “I’m using Rachel’s hacking software, but I can’t get anything that’ll get us people on the inside. But we could be the people on the inside. We’d learn a lot more that way, and we’d get direct access to her.”

“Not necessarily,” I told him. “Vengeance are big, and they’re careful. It would be months, maybe years before new recruits were given access to something as valuable as Charlie.”

“So we steal identities,” he said.

“Could work,” I said, considering it. “Won’t be easy, but I don’t think any part of this is gonna be easy.”

I began to lay out what we’d need. An understanding of their operation, especially within wherever they were holding Charlie. A way to trick anyone we encountered there, and the credentials to navigate it freely. Disguises so we wouldn’t be recognised, or perceived as as young as we were. Once we had that, we could go in, get to Charlie, and… Well, we needed a way to get her out, but we couldn’t do that until we knew what the set up was.

“One step at a time,” Aidan said, echoing my thoughts.

“How do we figure out what’s going on internally?” I asked. “Is that something you can get access to?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Information is always obtainable, but it’ll take time. I’m still new at this, you know.”

“Do you need anything from me?” I asked.

He pondered that, the wheels and cogs in his mind turning over.

“There might be something,” he said. “But…”

“But?”

“I don’t want to ask for it,” he said.

“Why not?”

“It’s…” He sighs. “Look. You know that I value you as a friend, and as a person, right?”

Now I know this isn’t going anywhere good.

“Just spit it out, Aidan.”

“I might have a contract for you.”

Oh.

“You want me to kill someone,” I said, feeling slightly hollow.

“Well, not me,” he said, hurrying to explain. “One of my sources. It would be an exchange for new connections.”

“I see…”

“I didn’t want to ask,” he said. “Really. I mean, you know I don’t think of you as a… you know.”

“An assassin?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Aidan, I am an assassin. Or at least, I’m ready to be one. And I won’t be made to feel ashamed of that legacy.”

He looked at me with a pained expression on his face.

“Since when do you think of yourself as an assassin?”

“Since my best friend went missing, I guess?”

That wasn’t entirely true. I’d thought of myself as an assassin my entire life. It was how I was raised.

Being an assassin didn’t mean being a killer. It meant being a weapon, a tool. There was blood on your hands, but it was blood that was bound to be on someone’s hands. At least if it was you, you could ensure the death was clean, painless, beautiful.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s fine,” I replied, not really meaning it. “Tell me about the job.”

“You’ll do it?” he asked.

“I’ll consider it. Especially if it will help save Charlie.”

“Alright,” he said, a little flatly. “I’ll set up a meeting.”

“Now you sound disappointed.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I just found out my friend is willing to kill.”

“You brought it up,” I told him.

“I didn’t expect you to say yes!”

“Let me ask you something, then,” I said. “All this information that you’re buying and selling. You think that isn’t hurting anyone? You think that won’t get anyone killed?”

“I’m not killing someone with my own hands!”

“And that makes you so much better than me.”

“I didn’t say that,” he argued.

“Didn’t you?”

“Ugh, fuck, I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t want to fight about this.”

“Me either,” I agreed, my shoulders slumping. “We’re living in shades of grey, here. And I think we’re both willing to push the limits of our own morality if it gets Charlie back.”

“Are we bad people?” he asked.

“Maybe. But right now I care less about being a good person than I do about saving my best friend.”

“This sucks,” he said.

“There has to be a reason for it,” I told him.

“I wish I had your faith.”

We sit like that for a while, neither of us saying anything. Aidan sighs, and reaches out to me. His hand touches mine, and I hold it.

“We’ll find her,” he said.

“I know,” I said, without really believing it. “So let me do what I can to help.”

Aidan returned to his laptop, and quickly composed and sent an email. Minutes later, he got a response.

“That was fast,” I commented.

“They’re very eager,” he said wearily. He wrote down the details on a piece of paper, then deleted the email. “You’ll only get one chance to impress them, so…”

“Leave this part to me,” I said. “This is my business, remember?”

He didn’t say anything in response to that.

 

Next Week: I Just Want Him Dead

Chapter 46 – Willing To Die For Her

Rachel, Six Months Before Impact Day

We arrived late in the day, with only a few people left in the cafe. Wendy noticed us immediately, as expected. She was sharper than she gave the impression of being. A quick glower at me, unnoticed by the others.

“You’re Wendy, right?” Aidan asked, with his usual friendly charm.

“That’s me,” Wendy replied, with just a hint of venom in her voice. It was clear she knew why we were here.

“We need your help,” Aidan asked, and I bit my tongue. Don’t say anything, I told myself. She won’t respond if you’re leading the charge.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a sudden movement. Two high school students, wearing Charlie’s uniform. Neither Aidan nor Liz responded to them, but there was a strange energy to them.

“You need help from a barista?” Wendy asked, playing coy. She did have an audience, after all.

“Not exactly,” Aidan said.

“We’re looking for a different kind of help,” Liz said, with a surprising lack of tact for a trained assassin.

“Well, I only have the one kind available,” Wendy said, with forced ease.

Aidan sighed, and pulled the envelope I’d given him out of his pocket. Charlie’s letter. Our trump card. If that didn’t work… Well, we weren’t out of options. It just made it trickier.

“You might change your mind when you see this,” he said.

“What’s this?” She took the envelope from him.

“Open it, and find out,” he said.

Despite the awkwardness to him, there was an underlying confidence, a sense of control that put me off. Like the awkwardness was a front, an attempt to seem more accessible, more harmless.

“Okay…” Wendy said, glancing over the letter. I watched her eyes as she read it several times in the space of only a few seconds, growing more and more tense each time. By the time she lowered it, she was practically shaking with anger. “Ah,” she said. “That clever little…”

“So?” Liz asked, a little too smugly. We haven’t got her yet.

“Back room,” Wendy said sharply.

The four of us moved quickly to the back room, the secret one beyond the kitchen. Liz and Aidan reacted with surprise. I remained silent.

“Wow, Charlie was right, huh,” Aidan said, glancing around.

“How much did she tell you?” Wendy asked sharply. Her demeanour had changed dramatically. We were seeing the colder, more guarded Wendy now.

“Not everything,” I said. Wendy relaxed slightly, while the other two looked at me carefully.

“What do you want?” Wendy demanded.

“Your help,” Aidan said. “We need to save Charlie.”

“Save?” Wendy asked.

“She’s been taken,” I explained. “Vengeance, we think.”

“I warned her,” Wendy grumbled. “What are you worried about, though? You know what she is, don’t you?”

“We know she’s immortal,” Liz said. “That doesn’t mean she’s not in danger.”

“Not my problem,” Wendy shrugged.

“Bullshit,” Aidan said. “We read that letter. Something is going to happen if you don’t help her.”

“So Charlie assumes,” Wendy said easily. “She assumes a lot about her own importance. That doesn’t make it true.”

In that moment, I was struck with a realisation. Wendy doesn’t know. She had some idea, certainly more than either of the other two in the room, but she didn’t know.

My brain whirred, filling in some of the blanks. Wendy had seen beyond the world. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but she had experience beyond that of a mortal. Beyond that of any of us. She understood, intellectually and instinctively, more about the world, and the metaphysical scaffolding behind it, than she should. But she didn’t know.

What did that mean? What had she seen, and how? She wasn’t from here, I knew that much. I’d assumed she’d time traveled, given the advanced technology required to create something like her. I understood now that that was wrong. She wasn’t from the future. She wasn’t avoiding involving herself from some fear of creating a paradox.

She came from an alternate reality, then. The very concept struck me like a bolt of lightning. More realisations flooded in, one after another, as my perception shifted violently. Multiple realities changed so much about… everything. Literally everything. I couldn’t make sense of it yet. Too many missing pieces. I needed more.

“The terms of your agreement,” I said. “What are they?”

“Do no harm,” she said. “I do not hurt anyone. I do not change anyone. I just live.”

“Change?” Liz asked, as my brain already began planning what came next.

“Never you mind,” Wendy said.

“So you won’t help?” Aidan asked. “You’re happy to let a teenage girl be tortured by a cruel gang because you made an agreement?”

Wendy faltered for just a moment, but held strong.

“Charlie’s tough,” she insisted. “More than you know. I told her not to play with fire, and she ignored me.”

“And when she breaks?” I asked.

“She’s strong,” Wendy said.

“Everybody has a breaking point,” Liz said. “What happens when she reaches hers?”

“Ask your friend,” Wendy said. Liz and Aidan looked at me.

“I don’t know,” I said, and it was the truth. I had fears, but nothing I could say for certain. “But it’s bad. For everyone.”

“This was a waste of time,” Aidan said.

“Sure seems like it,” I said, glaring at Wendy.

“You know the way out,” Wendy said.

“What happens if you break your word?” I asked Wendy, one final ditch attempt.

“I end,” she said.

“And that’s worth more than the sanity of an innocent girl?”

She didn’t say anything after that. The three of us left, walking through a now empty cafe. Once we were out, Aidan slammed his fist into a nearby wall.

“What do we do now?” he asked, shaking his wrist.

“We take care of it ourselves,” Liz said.

“How?”

“We find her, we get her out,” Liz said. “And I kill everyone that gets in the way of that.”

They were determined. That was good. I could use that.

“I have something of my own I want to work on,” I said.

“You’re not gonna help?” Aidan asked.

“I didn’t say that. But you two have a flow that clearly doesn’t need me. I’m going to try a different approach, and between us…”

“What are you going to do?” Liz asked.

“Work on Wendy,” I said. “Without her, we don’t have a chance.”

“Great,” Aidan said, sarcasm dripping off his tongue.

“Look, I love the optics of three teenagers taking on the largest gang in the city, I do. It would make a great comic book. But the three of us, we’re mortal, and we’re not exactly experienced. We will die, and we won’t achieve shit. And hey, if you’re willing to die for her, great. I’m not. So we need this, whether you like it or not. Whether you like me or not.”

“That’s not—” Aidan began, but Liz cut him off.

“Do what you want,” she said sharply. “Aidan, we have a lot of work to do.”

“I guess so,” he said. “Bye, Rachel.”

“Have fun, you two,” I said.

As they left, I glanced up at the security camera watching us. Good. I needed Wendy to hear that. I needed her to believe that what I really wanted to do was save Charlie. I needed them all to believe that.

 

Next Week: Shades of Grey

Chapter 45 – Too Bad We Don’t Have Superpowers

Liz, Five Months Before Impact Day

“This is impossible,” I moaned, staring at the mess of paper sprawled out across the table.

“I hate to admit it, but I think you’re right,” Aidan agreed.

Rachel glowered at the two of us, but there was resignation in her eyes. Her shoulders slumped.

“There’s got to be something we can do,” she said. “We can’t just give up.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” Aidan said.

“Even an army couldn’t take that place,” I muttered. “No wonder they’re the largest gang in the city.”

“What if we drop a bomb on it?” Rachel said. “Blow the whole thing to pieces.”

“Charlie would survive that?” Aidan asked.

“Almost certainly,” Rachel said.

“It’s designed to be bombed,” I pointed out. “Even a nuke wouldn’t get through.”

“I could build something bigger than a nuke,” Rachel said indignantly.

“Yeah, and you’d take half the state with it,” Aidan said. “I don’t think that’s an option.”

We all sighed, racking our brains for inspiration. None of us were willing to give up, but it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

“What would Charlie do?” Aidan asked.

“She’d try and punch her way through,” I said.

“She’s reckless but she’s not stupid,” Rachel snapped.

“I could try and buy her,” Aidan said. “But I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to get them to give her up.”

“It’s too bad we don’t have superpowers,” I muttered.

Rachel’s eyes lit up.

“What if we did?” she said.

“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” Aidan said.

“You don’t have some weird comic book power machine, do you?” I asked. “Because I don’t think I’m willing to take that risk.”

“Even I couldn’t build something like that,” Rachel said, sounding a little disappointed. “But I know of the next best thing.”

“Wendy,” Aidan said.

Charlie had tried to explain how Wendy was important, but neither of us had really put much stock in it. A weird video from an anonymous source did not prove that Wendy was anything other than a normal barista.

“I guess it’s worth a shot?” I said, not really feeling it.

“She already refused to help once,” Rachel said. “She might again.”

“At this point, I’ll try anything,” Aidan said. “Even if I am skeptical.”

“Do we have any proof she even can help?” I asked.

“My hunch says she can,” Rachel said. “And my hunches are never wrong.”

“We’re building a whole plan off a hunch?”

“It’s not like we have anything else,” Aidan said. “Why not try?”

I didn’t have an answer for that, so I just shrugged. Rachel gestured for us to stay put, and disappeared into the bedroom. A minute later, she emerged, holding an envelope.

“Charlie left this with me,” she explained. “Just in case.”

“A letter?” I asked.

“To Wendy. Said it might help convince Wendy to help, if something happened.”

“That’s… vaguely suspicious,” I said.

“You don’t give Charlie enough credit,” Rachel said. “She thinks things through, she’s just more willing to take risks. Especially when she has back-up plans.”

“What does it say?” Aidan asked.

“You want to read it?”

“Is there any reason why we can’t?” he asked.

“Not at all.”

She handed it to him, and he opened it. I read over his shoulder.

‘Wendy.
I know what the cracks mean.
If you’re reading this, it’s only a matter of time.
If they break me…
Well, I think you know better than I do what happens then.
Make your choice.
Live with the consequences.
After all, they don’t really matter, do they?
Help me, Wendy. You’re my only hope.
-Charlie.’

“What is she talking about?” Aidan asked. “What cracks? What consequences?”

“I knew there was more we weren’t being told,” I said.

“She didn’t want to tell anyone,” Rachel said. “She’s been seeing cracks that nobody else can see. Even I don’t know what it means.”

“And the consequences?” I asked.

“Wendy wouldn’t tell us,” Rachel insisted. “Just that she couldn’t help because there would be ‘consequences’. I think Charlie is calling her bluff.”

“So even you don’t know what this means,” Aidan said.

“Not entirely,” she said, shrugging. “But I think it’ll help.”

“So that’s it?” I asked. “This is what we have? A hunch that Wendy can help, a vague letter from Charlie, and your word?”

“A general goes to war with the army they have,” Rachel said. “This is what we have.”

“This is stupid,” I insisted.

“It’s not the strongest plan,” Aidan said. “But at least it’ll get us out. And who knows? Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it’ll lead us to something better. Maybe it’ll distract us for a few hours. But at this point, we have literally nothing to lose.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go talk to a barista.”

“I could use a coffee, anyway,” Rachel said.

As we packed up and got ready to leave, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more Rachel wasn’t telling us. I made eye contact with Aidan, and he nodded.

If Rachel thinks she’s playing us, she’s got another thing coming. Once we’ve rescued Charlie, everything changes.

 

Next Week: Willing To Die For Her