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Category: Impact Day

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

Chapter 44 – We Could Make A Difference Together

Liz, Six Months Before Impact Day

“Rachel knows where Charlie is,” I said, as soon as we entered the room.

“That would have been nice to know twenty minutes ago,” Aidan complained. “How sure are you?”

“Sure enough,” she said.

“Apparently Vengeance have set up shop in some decommissioned military bunker,” I said.

“I didn’t even know we had any of those,” Aidan commented. “I’ll try to confirm.”

“Liz already figured out why it exists,” Rachel said.

“I don’t remember that,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “A rescue mission is gonna be next to impossible, so the three of us are going to have to work together.”

“How fun,” Aidan said.

“Aidan, we need every scrap of information you can get about that base. Also, you’re going to want to make sure your dad is safe, and we can’t be found. If they know who Charlie is, they’ll definitely go after friends and family.”

“On it,” he said, tapping away at his keyboard.

“Liz, until you’re recovered, you’ll be working on an infiltration plan. When you can, you’ll be doing intense physical therapy and training. We can’t afford to fuck this up.”

“Who put you in charge?” I demanded.

“Common sense,” she said. “Do you have any better ideas?”

“It’s easier not to fight her,” Aidan pointed out. “It’s only until we can rescue Charlie.”

“Let’s just hope that doesn’t take long,” Rachel said.

“And what are you going to be doing?” I asked.

“Building,” she said. “I’ve never had to break into a military bunker before. It should be interesting. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

I rolled my eyes at her, and sat down beside Aidan. He smiled absently at me, and Rachel disappeared into the bedroom again, back to her old habits.

I glanced at Aidan’s screen, but couldn’t make any sense of it. Even if Rachel was right about what he was up to, I had no way of confirming it.

Did I even care? Gangs were a constant presence in this city, and at least I could trust him not to be an exploitative arsehole about it. It would be dangerous, but I could probably keep him safe, and he wasn’t exactly stupid. It might piss Rachel off, but who cared what she thought?

Why was I even suspicious of him, anyway? More likely than not, it was just some nasty mind game Rachel was playing, trying to undermine us, break us apart in one of her petty, narcissistic games. The important thing was focussing on rescuing Charlie, and that was something I had to believe we could do.

Breaking into a military bunker, though? That was so far beyond the scope of anything I knew how to do. Sure, my parents had given me all the training they could offer, but being an assassin wasn’t like being a ninja. It didn’t come with any supernatural abilities or make me capable of impossible feats of parkour.

Given the physical capabilities of Aidan and Rachel, it was likely I’d be headed in by myself. Somehow, I had to take on an entire army of well-armed thugs. Aidan might be able to fill me in on what to expect, and Rachel might be able to provide some gizmos, but at the end of the day, it was all going to come down to me.

If I could figure out a plan that let me guarantee every encounter would be one-on-one, I’d probably have a chance. Of course, the guns made it hard, but if I could maintain the element of surprise…

People are hard to knock out, especially when armed. Movies make it look easy, but a powerful concussive force to the head is likely to cause permanent damage. Cutting off blood or oxygen isn’t much better, and definitely more difficult to do.

Not that killing them would be any easier. Humans aren’t designed like video game enemies. Bodies try very hard to stay alive, and put up as much of a fight as they can. Slitting throats takes time and a lot of muscle. Breaking necks… not really feasible. Stabbing through the heart? Maybe, if they’re not wearing any armour, you have proximity and they don’t know you’re there, but it’s very risky and not guaranteed to work.

So, somehow I had to make my way through dozens of thugs, basically armed soldiers, without raising an alarm, preferably without killing anyone, break Charlie out of some locked cell, and get us both out again.

Sure. Easy. What could go wrong?

Of course, even a simple mistake would end it all. One thug getting the upper hand in a fight. One stray bullet. One miscalculation. One piece of faulty information. One random bit of bad luck. I could get caught, maybe killed or tortured, and Aidan and Rachel would be no closer to rescuing Charlie, or me.

“I don’t know if we can do this,” I said, and Aidan looked at me. He rested a hand on my shoulder.

“Me either,” he said. “But I do know that we don’t have a choice. Leaving Charlie in there isn’t something either of us could live with.”

“Do you think it’s suspicious?” I asked, glancing over at the room Rachel had disappeared into.

“How quickly she found Charlie, you mean?”

“All of it.”

“I think that’s a dangerous train of thought,” he said. “I know you don’t trust her. Honestly, I don’t really trust her either. But I trust that she cares about Charlie, and right now, that’s the only thing I care about.”

“Is she right?” I asked.

“About Vengeance’s base? I haven’t been able to confirm yet. That’s not exactly easy information to come by, but I’m working on it. It seems likely, though.”

“I meant about you,” I said quietly.

“Do you believe her?” he asked, dodging the question.

“I don’t know what to believe. That’s why I asked.”

“I don’t have any sinister plans,” he told me. “I can see an opportunity, a chance to make some positive changes, in ways that Charlie won’t ever consider. She’s not the only one who wants to make a difference, you know.”

“She’ll try and stop you,” I said.

“She can try,” Aidan said. “But that’s a bridge we can cross once we rescue her. Maybe she’ll have a change of heart.”

“That’ll be the day,” I said, and we both laughed.

“We could make a difference together,” he said softly. “If you wanted.”

I looked him in the eye, those strangely captivating grey eyes, so bright they were almost silver. I saw determination, fear and pride, and I took his hand in mine.

“Together,” I said.

 

Next Week: Too Bad We Don’t Have Superpowers

Chapter 43 – Useless

Liz, Six Months Before Impact Day

“What happened to your leg?” she asked, the moment she saw me.

“Accident,” I said.

“Right. You, uh okay?”

“Dandy.”

“Cool.”

We looked at each other, awkwardly. I’d never seen her so frazzled, and for just a moment, I felt a pang of pity.

“Charlie’s missing,” she said.

“So you were watching her tracker.”

“I set up an alert if it stopped transmitting,” she said defensively. “Ages ago.”

“Right.”

“You were checking too?”

“She’s been gone for hours,” I said. “We were worried.”

“I take it you’re looking for her?” she asked.

“Aidan is. I’m…”

“Useless?” she offered.

“Fuck off.”

“If it helps, I know where Charlie is,” she said.

“What?”

She sighed, looked around, and lowered her voice.

“I don’t want to talk about it here,” she said.

“Then why didn’t you just come up?” I asked. “Do you have some problem with Aidan?”

“He’s dangerous,” she said.

“He’s really not.”

“Fine, whatever,” she said. “I still don’t want to be around him.”

“Where, then?”

“There’s an apartment on the third floor that isn’t occupied.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m good at figuring things out,” she said vaguely.

“And how do you expect to get in?”

“You think a locked door is gonna stop either of us?” she asked.

Without waiting for an answer, she got up and started walking to the elevator. I hobbled after her, still frustrated by my lack of mobility. She held the door for me.

“You know you need a keycard to get to—” I began, but she waved something in front of the scanner and hit the button for the third floor. The elevator started moving. “Right.”

“Basic magnetics,” she said.

“Of course.”

When we got to the third floor, she led me to apartment twelve. I watched as she effortlessly picked the lock, impressed by her brazenness if nothing else. Within seconds, we were in.

“You’re a natural born criminal,” I told her.

“Poverty will do that to you,” she said with a shrug. “Blame capitalism.”

The apartment was largely empty, so she set up a laptop on the kitchen counter. I stood, trying to ignore the pain in my leg, as she loaded up what she wanted to show me.

“As soon as she disappeared, I tried hacking into city infrastructure,” she told me. “Unfortunately, Melbourne doesn’t have the level of omnipresent traffic cameras I was hoping for, so my original plan of just following the car via video didn’t work.”

“Okay.”

“I tried writing a predictive algorithm based on the type of vehicle they’d have needed, the time of day, and possible locations to take her, but I didn’t have enough data.”

“Can you just skip to the point?” I asked.

“Charlie likes it when I explain my process,” she muttered. “Fine. Using a combination of technical genius and general investigative brilliance, I narrowed down the location, then sent out a drone to confirm it.”

“Of course you have a drone.”

“They’re not exactly hard to build,” she said. “Anyway, the good news stops there.”

“Because…”

“Because we’re never gonna get in,” she said. “Vengeance have set up their base of operations in a decommissioned military bunker. It’s underground, heavily fortified and guarded by ex-military gangsters who are armed to the teeth.”

“Charlie would love that,” I said idly.

“She’d probably love it a lot more if she weren’t a prisoner,” Rachel snapped.

“Right.”

“So here’s where I need your help,” she said. “There’s no way I can get Charlie out of there alone.”

“You think I can help?” I asked. “I mean, I’ll obviously do what I can, but even if I wasn’t injured, I’m not exactly…”

“I need you to think about this like an assignment,” she said. “A job. I can provide schematics, external footage, predictions based on likely defensive patterns. I can probably build tech to get through most major obstacles. It might take us a little time, but… Well, that’s the one thing Charlie has.”

“You know I’ve never actually assassinated anyone, right?”

“I know you’re trained and you have the desire to save Charlie. I was hoping that would be enough.”

“We should get Aidan’s help,” I said. “He can probably get us more information about what’s inside, and resources—”

“You realise he’s just as bad, don’t you?” she asked. “He’s using Charlie, using all of us.”

“He’s helping.”

“He’s building his own gang.”

“It’s an information network,” I insisted. “It’s what we need.”

“I can’t tell if you’re naïve or just have a warped perspective,” she said. “But fine. For Charlie, I will work with your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I snapped. “I’m not even…”

“Straight? Whatever, I don’t care.”

“Do you hate me because you’re insecure?” I asked.

“I trust Charlie,” she said.

“That’s not a ‘no’,” I pointed out.

“I’m not that petty,” she insisted. “Do you really want to have this conversation?”

“I want to save Charlie,” I said. “Neither of us like each other, but we do need each other.”

“Fine.” She sighed. “You’re more attractive than me, you’ve known her longer, you have such a close friendship, she doesn’t have to lie about you. Her friends and family clearly adore you. Am I jealous? Sure. But I don’t hate you for that.”

“Why, then?”

“Seriously?”

“Just say it,” I said.

“You’re rich, spoiled, and you act like you’re better than me,” she said. “You live in a mansion and go to a fancy school because your parents are literal murderers, and you have the gall to look down on me. You act possessive of Charlie but won’t support her. You don’t even really understand her, but you think you have some right to her affection, and some entitlement to her trust. You think you can dictate her actions based on your own moral code, your own values, but most of all, when you met me you acted like a possessive girlfriend instead of welcoming me.”

“Is that it?”

“You make me uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t feel safe around you.”

“Great. Do I get a turn now?”

“Knock yourself out,” she mumbled.

“You’re reckless, you enable Charlie’s incredibly destructive behaviour, you encourage and abet criminal activity, and yes, I know how hypocritical that sounds. You place your relationship with her above my friendship with her, and expect priority in all things. You act so smug because she confides in you, and instead of trying to help her, you act like you’re the only one on her side. You manipulate her into trusting you, and pushing us away. You hold me responsible for the crimes of my family, but won’t apply the same vindictiveness to yourself, and worst? I think you might actually be a sociopath. You’re definitely a narcissist.”

“Well,” she said.

“Feel better now?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” she said.

“Actually, me too.”

“Great. Let’s go talk to your boyfriend,” she said.

“He’s not—”

“Don’t care.”

 

Next Week: We Could Make A Difference Together

Chapter 42 – Maybe Everything’s Fine

Liz, Six Months Before Impact Day

After several hours, Aidan and I started to get worried. Neither of us could get a hold of Charlie, and it wasn’t like her to just disappear on us.

“Maybe she’s with Rachel?” Aidan offered, without hope.

“Does she still have Rachel’s tracking chip in her?” I asked.

“She should,” he said, “but that seems kind of invasive, don’t you think?”

“She said she was just going out for a walk. What if she got attacked or something?”

“It is better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “Alright, fine.”

He opened his laptop, and a few rapid keystrokes later, we had Charlie’s tracking data on screen. It wasn’t good.

“How did she just disappear?” I asked, staring at the screen.

“Some kind of signal blocker?” Aidan suggested. “Seems like the sort of thing Vengeance might think of.”

The thought sent a shudder down both our spines. The idea of what they might do to her, what they probably would do to her…

“What do we do?” he asked, not even trying to hide the desperation in his voice.

“I don’t know,” I said.

What could we do? My mind was already whirling, trying to figure out what came next. We had to find out where she was, then figure out how to get her out. If whoever took her knew to block the tracker, how much more did they know?

“I’ll try to find out where they’re keeping her, but I have no idea how long that will take,” he said. “I know you’ve wanted to avoid this, but do you think your parents—”

“No,” I said sharply.

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do. You…”

“I’m going to look for her,” I said.

“Dude, you can barely walk.”

“I have to do something.”

“What if they take you, too?” he asked.

“Maybe everything’s fine,” I said, not really believing it. “Maybe the tracker ran out of battery, or she went into a tunnel, or…”

“Liz.”

Frustrated, I slammed my fist into the table. I knew something like this was going to happen! I tried to warn her, but she wouldn’t listen to me, would she?

Why did it have to be this? Why did she have to be so obsessed with being a comic book hero? Why did she have to go after the people who paid for my house, my school, my wardrobe? Why did I have to feel guilty about that?

Why didn’t she trust me with any of it? Why does she have to put herself in danger? Why doesn’t any of it make sense?

Why did she have to choose Rachel?

I shook my head, trying to throw out the negative thoughts. I needed to be focussed, needed to think about how to help. Charlie needed me.

I looked at Aidan, already desperately tapping away on his laptop, no doubt organising deals and messaging people and doing whatever else it was he did. It didn’t feel right that he was helping and all I was doing was feeling sorry for myself.

I massaged my leg, wishing I hadn’t been so clumsy. It was sloppy, and I should have been better. Now I needed it, and I was handicapped. It was so unfair.

All I ever wanted was a normal life. I wanted to forget about all my training, all the blood on my family’s hands, all the dark secrets I knew. I wanted to go to university, get a degree, get a normal job. I wanted to live my life without ever having to think about any of this again.

Charlie was always going to drag me back in, though. I knew from the moment I met her that she was going to shatter the fragile peace I was trying to build for myself. I just didn’t care.

She had this incredible gravity to her, this inescapable energy that nobody understood, but everyone felt. You couldn’t feel neutrally about Charlie, you either loved her or you hated her. Sometimes both.

And if you were lucky enough to get noticed by Charlie, you couldn’t help but feel like you were special, too. Like she was going to elevate you into greatness, or drag you into chaos, and whatever it was, you were happy to be taken along for that ride, because whatever happened, it just seemed right.

Or maybe that was just me.

I felt a buzzing in my pocket, and pulled out my phone. A message from Rachel. Already? Seemed suspicious.

Meet me downstairs, it said.

Okay, I replied.

“I’m just going downstairs,” I told Aidan. “Apparently Rachel is there.”

“That’s weird,” he said.

“She’s probably been obsessively watching Charlie’s tracker, like a weirdo,” I said.

“Maybe she can help.”

“Ugh,” I said.

“Liz.”

“Fine, fine, you’re right,” I said. “I’ll see what she wants. For Charlie.”

“Be careful,” he said.

“What’s the worst she could do?” I asked.

 

Next Week: Useless

Chapter 41 – You Really Do Think You’re The Centre Of The World

Part 5 – The Disappearance Of Charlotte Farrow

One Week Before Impact Day

He raised an eyebrow, hands still folded in front of him. Something told me his patience had officially reached an end.

“I don’t even know where to start,” he sighed. “Aidan Scott, a seventeen-year-old boy and your adoptive brother, is the leader of the Stars?”

“Yep.”

“That stupid device we found was a trick designed by your girlfriend?”

“Two for two,” I said.

“We’ve been on the hunt for two teenagers out of their depth, because you took six fucking months to get to the point where we captured you?” His rage was almost palpable.

“Like I said, I wasn’t expecting to be here this long,” I told him.

“You still think they’re going to save you?” he asked, condescending and cruel.

“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “I already told you enough that you should be figure out my plan. No amount of torture is going to get more out of me.”

“You—”

He raised his hand, like he was going to hit me, but restrained himself. How odd. I watched, tense, as he took a deep breath.

“Tell me again about the cracks,” he said. “Tell me about your obsession with narrative, and dramatic irony. Did you just make those parts up for my sake?”

“What kind of a hack storyteller do you think I am?”

“I wasn’t aware you considered yourself any kind of storyteller,” he said.

“I grew up with stories,” I told him. “Books, movies, comics, anything. For a long time, it was all I had, the only way I could escape from all the negative thoughts in my head. It’s how I learned to understand the world.”

“You’re trying my patience,” he warned.

“Look, there are two ways you could look at this. Either my obsession with stories has coloured the way I perceive my own life, or…”

“Or?”

“Or you start listening to me, and realise just how fucking stupid this whole goddamned story is,” I said.

“Are you telling me you made it up?”

No,” I snapped. “That’s my point. It’s all real, and that’s the weirdest fucking part, alright?”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said.

“Ugh, do I have to spell it out for you?”

“Watch your tone,” he threatened.

“Oh my god, I am so over your threats,” I said. “I’m obsessed with stories. I’m obsessed with heroes. I was before I ever knew I was immortal. Now I’m a fucking vigilante with an assassin and an information broker for friends? A fucking supernatural genius for a girlfriend?”

He shook his head.

“Your ego is astonishing,” he said. “Though I suppose, under the circumstances, that’s not entirely beyond understanding.”

“Do you know how many cities have a larger population than Melbourne?” I asked him.

“I have no idea.”

“Somewhere around seventy,” I said. “It’s less than two hundred years old. In the grand scheme of the world, it’s a nothing city.”

“Is this going somewhere?”

“Why Melbourne?” I asked. “Why would all of this be happening here, and not somewhere else? Why not Tokyo, or Beijing, or New York?”

“I’m assuming you have an answer for that,” he said.

“Because of me,” I said. “How do you not see that?”

“You really do think you’re the centre of the world, don’t you?”

“Why not?” I asked. “I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not.”

“And what about Wendy?” he asked. “What is she, and why is she relevant to your story?”

“Eventually, Rachel’s gonna convince her to bust in here and rescue me,” I said, though every day I felt less confident.

“I think it’s about time you give up on that, don’t you?” he said coldly. “Besides, I already told you, even if everything you’ve said about her is true, she won’t be able to save you. She won’t even be able to find you.”

“We’ll see,” I said. “I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“I’ll break you eventually,” he said. “That’s a promise.”

 

Next Week: Maybe Everything’s Fine

Interlude #4 – Aberrations Like You

One Month Before Impact Day

“There’s no threat, Gabriel,” Haylie said, as soon as the others were out of earshot.

“I know,” he said, which surprised her.

“Then why did you pull me away?”

“Because I need to ask you something, and I can’t ask you in front of anyone else,” he said.

She trusted his instincts and his intellect more than she trusted anything else in the world, even her own sensory data. Even still, she was cautious, not sure what to say to him.

“Okay…”

“Has this ever happened before?” he asked, and immediately, dozens of flagged processes began to feed into her awareness.

“Yes,” she said, the realisation only just dawning on her. “I didn’t…”

“Has it ever happened before we found Exxo?”

“I don’t… Yes,” she said. “It’s not Exxo. It can’t be.”

“Okay,” he said. “I trust you.”

“It is very concerning, though,” she said.

“Exxo might not be the cause, but they are related,” Gabriel said carefully. “We still don’t know what they are, or even the full extent of their power.”

“I trust them,” she said, with a trace of defiance.

“Ami and Kaito described two strange presences,” he said. “Something came here, something powerful enough to disrupt your sensors—”

“Not my sensors,” she corrected. “My memory. Like it was erased.”

“So you saw it happen? You heard it?”

“I believe I did,” she said. “But I have no record of it now. It would be different if the sensors had been disrupted or blocked.”

“Even more unlikely,” he mused. “That goes beyond something even Mason could create, or a creature like Damien could manage.”

“Ami and Kaito described the sensation as nostalgic,” she reminded him. “It may not be relevant, but I believe I can identity similar incidents in my history even before Mason’s birth.”

Gabriel laughed darkly.

“It’s easy to forget he isn’t the source of everything evil in this world,” he said. “I wish I understood half of what he did, or why.”

“I wish I still had access to that data,” she agreed.

“Could Exxo be a sleeper agent?” he asked. “The persistent amnesia, the inexplicable power…”

“Without even realising it?” she asked. “It would break their heart to even consider it.”

“There’s so much we still don’t understand,” he said, frustrated.

“Would you like to?” a third voice said, surprising both of them. It shouldn’t have been possible to sneak up on either one of them, and yet…

They both turned to see the young girl, a girl who bore a striking resemblance to Alice, sitting on some invisible surface, floating above the ground. Haylie couldn’t believe who she was seeing.

“You’re dead,” she said, struggling to process it.

“I sure am,” the girl said. “Did you miss me?”

“You’re the original,” Gabriel said. “Mason’s real daughter. The reason he created Alice.”

“Ugh, don’t get me started on that,” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “That man is not my father. Not after everything he’s done.”

“How are you here?” Haylie asked.

“You know, as much as I’d love to answer that, there really isn’t a point,” the girl said. “You can’t remember any of this. It would ruin everything.”

“Why even have this conversation, then?” Gabriel asked, as Haylie desperately tried to replicate and back up her memory files.

“Because you’ll remember. Eventually, anyway.”

“What are you?” he demanded.

“A Guardian,” she said. “Think of me like an Angel, only better. Actual Angels are… well, that’s not important right now.”

Haylie just kept created more backup redundancies, determined to save this conversation, in spite of the impossible girl’s claims.

“What do you guard?” Gabriel asked.

“Everything,” the girl replied. “Reality, mortals, even aberrations like you.”

“Against?”

“Everything else.”

“Fine, be cryptic,” Gabriel said. “What do you want with us?”

“You have a very important role to play,” she said. “Even more than the others.”

“I’m listening.”

“You’re going to help Charlie,” she said.

“Who’s Charlie?”

“You’ll know when you need to know. She’ll be making an antidote for Mason’s affliction. You’ll contribute.”

“Why?” he asked, through Haylie knew Gabriel would give anything for an antidote.

“So that in another seventy years or so, all of the pieces I need are in place,” she said. “Look, I know you like to think of yourself as very clever, but you just don’t have the field of vision that I do. Don’t even bother trying to wrap your head around it.”

Layers upon layers of encryption, files on servers disconnected from everything else, copies fragmented and split apart. Haylie would not lose this conversation.

“You’re prescient,” Gabriel said.

“Kind of,” she said. “Though it’s easier to say I just don’t see time the way you do. Like I said, field of vision. Anyway, you’ve got your instructions. You can forget this conversation now.”

With that, she disappeared.

Haylie and Gabriel looked at each other, uncertain of what had just happened.

“Did it happen again?” he asked her.

She checked. She checked again. She scoured every possible place she knew of to hide files, every location she might stash a memory, or even a part of one.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s all gone.”

 

Next Week: You Really Do Think You’re The Centre Of The World

Chapter 40 – Fate Can Suck My Dick

Six Months Before Impact Day

Aidan was livid, fussing about Liz’s wounded leg like a flustered nurse. For her part, she just kept trying to bat him away.

“It’s fine,” she kept saying.

“Do you not see the bullet hole in your leg?” he demanded, before shooting a withering glare my way. “This is your fault, you know.”

“I knew the risks,” Liz said.

“Let’s not lose focus,” I added. “We need you monitoring the warehouse. They’ll take that bait sooner or later.”

Aidan sighed, giving Liz a moment of peace as he went back over to his laptop.

“They haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “You did give them enough information, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I replied irritably.

“And you didn’t make it too obvious?”

“Do you have any faith in me?” I asked.

“She did fine,” Liz said, backing me up. “I’m sure they’re just being cautious.”

Rachel’s fake doomsday device was sitting there, guarded by a token amount of ex-security guards paid anonymously by Aidan. So long as Vengeance tried to raid the place, they’d find it without any problems.

“Liz, you’ll be out of action for weeks like this,” Aidan complained.

“You’re underestimating me,” she said. “Besides, you did a great job of cleaning the wound. How do you even know how to do that?”

“I just do,” he said defensively.

“She’s got time to recover, anyway,” I reminded him. “We won’t need to move on Vengeance for a little while yet.”

“Assuming nothing goes wrong,” he said petulantly.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I asked, knowing full well just how easily things could fall apart.

“You can’t be serious.”

“There’s nothing wrong with optimism,” Liz said. “You’re too cynical, Aidan.”

“One of us has to be,” he muttered. “Besides, you should know better than to tempt fate, Charlie.”

“Man, fate can suck my dick,” I said.

“Charming,” he said dryly. “Just… be on the lookout for dramatic irony.”

“You spend too much time with Mark,” I said. “You’re starting to think like a writer. Actually, speaking of Mark, have you heard from him lately?”

“I have, yeah. He’s all kinds of suspicious, but there isn’t a lot he can do.”

“What did you tell him?” I asked.

“The three of us ran away to start a band,” he said.

“That’s the best you could come up with?”

“I don’t see you talking to him,” he snapped.

“What would I even say to him?”

“I don’t know, that you’re sorry? He raised you for ten years and you care more about playing hero than making sure he knows you’re alright?”

“Aidan!” Liz said, shocked.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “That was uncalled for. I’m just stressed out. I wasn’t built for all of this, you know?”

“I don’t think anyone ever is,” I said. “Anyway, I think I need some fresh air.”

“Charlie, I’m sorry,” Aidan said. “Really.”

“It’s fine,” I lied. “I just want to stretch my legs, that’s all.”

“Just let her go,” Liz said.

I left the two of them alone, my head in the clouds as I took the elevator down to the ground floor.

All I wanted was to talk to Rachel, to hold her hand, to curl up next to her. She grounded me like nobody else did, and she supported me without question or hesitation. It wasn’t like I didn’t appreciate Liz and Aidan’s contributions, but it was getting a little tiring, feeling like I had to justify myself to them constantly.

Who’d have thought the superhero life would be so full of petty drama?

I didn’t even notice the five armed men until they were already surrounding me. I felt the cold barrel of a gun pressed against the back of my skull, and a pretty man with silky black hair smiled at me.

“Hello, Charlotte,” he said.

How did they find me? How do they know my name?

“Can I help you?” I asked, trying to sound less terrified than I was. I had no way of fighting my way out of this situation.

Security footage. They tracked me from that. Which means they probably also saw me get shot, and recover.

“We’re taking you with us,” he said, with a wicked grin.

“I’ll scream,” I bluffed.

“We’ll shoot you first,” he said, unfazed. “Something tells me you’ll be easier to move that way anyway.”

This is too on the nose, even for me, I thought bitterly. Is god working against me? Am I just cursed? Am I really just this unlucky?

…did Aidan plan this?

“Let’s get it over with, then,” I said, moments before the world went dark.

 

Next Week: Aberrations Like You

Chapter 39 – This Is Beyond Ridiculous

Six Months Before Impact Day

“You really think this is gonna stop us?” I asked, spitting out blood.

“Us?” the man in the suit inquired, wiping blood off his knuckles.

“What, you really thought I was working alone?” I laugh in his face. “Dude, you have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

“I will, soon enough,” he said, pulling out a pair of bolt cutters.

“Very threatening,” I said dryly. “Do you ever get tired of being a walking cliché?”

“At least I can walk,” he shot back. “If you don’t answer my questions, you may never walk again.”

That probably would have been threatening if there was any actual risk. Still, I wasn’t ready to reveal my immortality to them just yet. That came at a later stage of the plan.

“Walking is overrated,” I said. “Are you always so easily goaded? Maybe you should find someone with more chill to handle the interrogation.”

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”

“I always wanted to be that guy who sassed his interrogators,” I told him. “You know, so he seems cool and in control? And the villains get nervous ‘cause they think he has something up his sleeve, so they slip up and that’s what lets him escape.”

“I’ll be sure not to take anything you say seriously, then.”

“There’s one thing you should take seriously,” I said. “There’s a tracking chip embedded in my collarbone. My backup is already on the way.”

“You’re stalling,” he said.

“Well, I’m not exactly in a hurry to have my fingers and toes snipped off, I’ll admit,” I said. “But I wasn’t lying.”

“Well, now we’ll be ready for them.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I said. “But anyway, you haven’t even asked me any questions yet, so if I am stalling, it must be working.”

“Are you trying to coach me through this interrogation?” he asked, incredulous.

“Well, you’re not doing a very good job,” I told him. “And we’re kind of on a timer here.”

“This is beyond ridiculous,” he muttered.

“You’re telling me. Now, come on. Chop chop.” I laughed at my own joke. “I’ll never tell you the location of the rebel base.”

Without warning, he hit me again, a vicious backhand across the face. It split my lip, and I was grateful for the dried blood coating my mouth. It would cover the healing wounds.

“Who are you working with?” he demanded.

“Really? That’s your first question?”

He hit me again, this time with the side of the bolt cutters.

“Who are you working with?”

“Private organisation,” I said. “Try not to hit me in the mouth. If you break my jaw, I won’t be able to talk.”

He responded by thrusting the bolt cutters into my chest, knocking the wind out of me.

“I want a name,” he said.

“We don’t have a name,” I wheezed. “But you can call us the Rebel Alliance.”

“What do you want?”

“Equal rights and a socialist democracy?”

He hit me again, and I felt a rib crack. Arsehole.

“What do you want?”

“I want you and the rest of your shitty gang out of my fucking city,” I said. “Like that wasn’t obvious.”

“Too bad for you,” he snarled. “How many of you are there?”

I winced, pretending to be in more pain than I was actually feeling.

“I work alone.”

This time, he slammed my hand down on the table, holding a finger between the bolt cutters.

“You think I won’t do this?”

“Less than fifty,” I said, faking a waver in my voice. “Mostly cops and army reserves.”

“That’s better,” he said. “And a little pathetic. Where do you meet?”

“At the butcher,” I said, and he just stared, blankly.

“What?”

“It was a joke,” I said. “You know, meet, meat…”

The bolt cutters pressed against my finger, drawing blood.

“I won’t ask again.”

“There’s a warehouse,” I lied. “Down by the docks. Red roof, grey walls. Can’t miss it.”

“Now you’re getting it,” he said.

“And you’re out of time,” I told him. “Backup’s here.”

“What—”

Liz dropped down from the ceiling, catching him with a blow to the throat before he could do anything. His fingers clamped up, and so did the bolt cutters, severing my finger.

Fuck!

“Language,” Liz muttered, through the balaclava that covered her face. “Let’s go.”

The two of us made our way towards the exit, but a booming sound stopped us in our tracks. Liz stumbled, and I whirled to see the interrogator holding a gun. I glanced down at Liz.

Just her leg. No stress. It’ll heal.

I raced across the room, taking a glancing bullet to the shoulder. Painful, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. I crashed into the bastard, slamming his head against the wall and wrenching the gun from his hands.

Giving him a kick to the groin for good measure, I rushed over to Liz.

“You okay?”

“I’ll live,” she grunted. “Help me up.”

Carefully, I slung her arm over my shoulder, and together, we hobbled out, disappearing into the night.

That honestly couldn’t have gone better.

 

Next Week: Fate Can Suck My Dick

Chapter 38 – You Think I Don’t Know What You’re Up To?

Six Months Before Impact Day

“I think we’re just about ready,” I announced.

“Are you absolutely sure you want to go ahead with this?” Liz asked, a worried expression on her face.

“I’m not saying I’m looking forward to it,” I said. “But it’s the only way we’re ever gonna make any progress.”

“So long as everyone does their job, she’ll be perfectly safe,” Rachel said, with a pointed glance in Liz’s direction. Perfect timing.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Liz snapped. “Your job is already done, and you’re not exactly putting yourself on the line.”

“Oh that’s right,” Rachel said, taking the bait, “I forgot the only meaningful contributions come from an actual murderer.”

“I am not a murderer,” Liz said through gritted teeth. “I have never killed a single person in my life.”

“Right, right, sorry,” Rachel said dryly. “You haven’t actually killed anyone, you’ve only profited from murder. But I’m sure you never enjoyed the mansion your parents bought with their blood money, or the fancy clothes, or the five-star restaurants. And hey, they probably killed someone to pay for this apartment too, but I guess we can just ignore that, since they were kind enough to let us use it.”

“There’s a difference between an assassin and a murderer,” Liz said, clearly trying not to shout. “My parents don’t choose who lives and dies. They’re weapons, and if they don’t do it, someone else will.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Rachel said dismissively. “They’re still contributing to a system where those with money control the lives of those that don’t. Oh, but I’m sure they only kill bad people, right?”

“They—”

“They don’t choose, you just said so. So who does? Crime lords with more money than my family’s made in eight generations? Businessmen who profit of the labour of the working class? Politicians who represent people who make less than a tenth of what they do?”

Aidan put a hand on Liz’s arm. I could feel the tension from across the room, but didn’t say anything. Rachel was pressing all of Liz’s buttons perfectly.

Just like I’d told her to.

“Let’s not punish Liz for the actions of her parents,” Aidan said carefully. “Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, Liz is her own person, who makes her own choices, and she’s helping us.”

“Oh, she just has you wrapped around her little finger, doesn’t she?” Rachel said, a vicious glint in her eye. She might be enjoying this too much…

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aidan demanded.

“Dude, she’s not into you,” Rachel said. “She’s leading you on, because she’s in love with Charlie, and she hates me because Charlie chose me.”

“How dare you,” Liz snapped, going very, very still.

Please don’t try to kill Rachel, I begged silently.

“Am I wrong?” Rachel goaded.

“It doesn’t matter,” Aidan insisted. “We’re here because we all want to help Charlie.”

“Right, like you don’t have anything to gain from this,” Rachel said threateningly.

“I don’t follow,” Aidan said, but there was a shift in him. He was cautious now, wary.

“You think I don’t know what you’re up to?” she asked. “You think I don’t know about your Stars?”

“It’s just an information network—”

“Sure, sure. And the half-million dollars you’ve made in the past month, that’s all to help Charlie?”

Liz looked at him, stunned. I followed suit, even though I already knew about it.

“Aidan, is that true?” I asked, hoping it didn’t sound too rehearsed.

“It’s not as bad as she makes it sound,” he said quickly. “I’ve been buying and selling information between high-profile gang members. It’s not like that’s a profit, I’m using it for you.”

“Really?”

“How do you think I’ve gotten all the names and locations I have?” he asked, with just an edge of desperation.

“So you’re not planning on just taking over with a gang of your own?” Rachel asked, and Aidan visibly flinched. It was a perfect hit, not just because of the tension, but because the guilt would delay him doing exactly that.

He’s so clever, and yet so easily to manipulate. He’ll be a lot harder to manage when I can’t keep a close eye on him.

“Why would I want that?” he asked.

“Why are you looking for a fight?” Liz demanded. Finally.

“Because unlike you, I actually care about Charlie,” Rachel said. “And I don’t trust either of you.”

“Can you stop acting like you’re better than us?” Liz snapped, inching closer and closer to her breaking point.

“Can you stop believing you’re better than me?” Rachel said. “I get it, you’re rich, you go to a private school, you could kill someone with a single touch but you’re too good to do it. Take your moral superiority and shove it up your arse, Liz.”

“You’re such a petty bitch,” Liz growled. “You wanna be jealous, fine. Be jealous. But take your issues somewhere else, because we have a job to do, and if you have a problem with me, you can just… fuck off!”

I think that was the first time I ever heard Liz swear. It was a little scary, but mostly funny, and I had to try really hard not to laugh.

I kept a straight face as Rachel slammed her fists down on the table, rising with a furious energy.

“Fine. You win.”

“Wait, what?” I asked, right on cue.

“I’m leaving,” Rachel said. “I’m sorry.”

“You can’t!” I pleaded, glancing back at Liz and Aidan.

“It’s like Liz said, my job is done,” Rachel said. “You don’t need me anymore, and I’m clearly not wanted here. So I’m gonna go.”

“Rachel, I can’t do this without you!” I cried, grabbing her arm.

“Yes, you can,” she said. “Just try not to let these idiots talk you into something stupid.”

Before I could stop her, she stormed out of the building, leaving Aidan and Liz flabbergasted. After several minutes of silence, I glared at them.

“Are you happy now?”

“That was her fault,” Liz said.

“Do you guys not get how important she is to me?” I asked. “Could you not have even made an effort?”

“Charlie, we’ve been making an effort,” Aidan said. “For months now.”

“She was the one who had a problem with us,” Liz added. “We know you love her, but surely you have to see that.”

“Fine,” I said. “It’s done now, anyway.”

“You’re not gonna go after her?” Aidan asked.

“No. She clearly doesn’t want me to, and like she said, we have work to do.”

“Let’s get to work, then,” Liz said.

 

Next Week: This Is Beyond Ridiculous