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Tag: Gabriel

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

Interlude #3 – Something Feels Off

One Month Before Impact Day

Ami sat on her bed, gently rubbing her temples. On the edge of her perception, something hovered, bothering her, frightening her, but whenever she tried to focus on it, it just disappeared.

Kaito sat beside her, rubbing her shoulder. She looked up at her twin brother, and smiled.

“You seem stressed,” he said. “Everything okay?”

“Something feels… off,” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t feel it?”

“I’ve been trying to limit my awareness,” he admitted. “The migraines are still… Oh. Oh, what is that?”

From the expression on his face, she knew he was sensing the same thing she was, and he was far more perceptive than she was.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But—”

“It’s in the city. We could- UGH!

He doubled over, pressing his hands into his head, his face contorted into a pained grimace. Ami wrapped her arms around him protectively.

“Kaito! Take it easy,” she whispered gently.

“Heh,” he said, blinking rapidly and sitting up straight again. “I know I’ve said this before, but you definitely got the better deal.”

She frowned.

“Neither of us got a good deal, Kaito,” she said sternly. “You know that.”

“I know, I know. The price…”

There was a surge, an almost overwhelming wave of something, as if the presence they were sensing suddenly got a lot more powerful. They looked at each other.

“Do you want to go after it?” she asked him.

“Yes, but we should get backup.”

“Haylie?” she suggested.

“Definitely,” he said, moments before Alice popped her head into the room.

“Hey!” she said cheerily.

“Alice?” Ami asked. “What are you doing here?”

“I was lonely,” she said. “You look serious. What’s happened?”

“The northern tower,” Kaito said, pinpointing the presence. He and Ami exchanged worried glances.

“That’s where Exxo is,” Alice said.

“Huh?”

“I was just there,” she added.

“Did Exxo say anything?” Ami questioned.

“Yeah, they said something was coming,” Alice said. “Asked me to leave.”

“We need to get there,” Kaito said.

“Are they in trouble?” Alice asked, worried. “They did seem stressed…”

Kaito shook his head.

“Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel malevolent, just… new.”

“Right,” Ami agreed. “And—”

Another surge, something different, something powerful.

“You feel that?” Kaito asked.

“Yeah,” Ami confirmed.

“What, what?” Alice asked, lacking the telepathic awareness of the twins.

“A second presence,” Ami explained. “I don’t…”

“It’s familiar, somehow?” Kaito said, uncertain.

“But very different,” Ami agreed.

“I don’t understand,” Alice complained.

“We need to get to Exxo,” Ami said. “Now.”

“Okay! Follow me,” Alice said cheerfully.”

The three of them moved quickly, trying not to look as alarmed as they felt. They passed plenty of civilians on their way, and the last thing they wanted was to raise a panic. The city was already unstable enough.

It didn’t take them long to get to the place Alice had left Exxo, but they the time they did, Exxo was already unconscious, lying in Gabriel’s arms. He looked up at them, his expression unreadable. One of Haylie’s bodies stood behind him, looking warmly down at Exxo.

“What happened?” Ami asked, looking around for a threat.

“I don’t know,” Gabriel said, sounding more stressed than she was used to hearing him.

“My surveillance data is corrupted,” Haylie said.

“How is that possible?” Kaito asked. Haylie’s systems were all wired into a sentient hive-mind. There wasn’t a technology in the world that could corrupt that data.

“I don’t know,” was all she said.

“We felt something,” Ami said. “A presence.”

“Describe it,” Gabriel ordered.

“There were two, actually,” Kaito said. “One was… uh…”

He looked at Ami, helpless. She just shrugged.

“I can’t remember,” she said.

“Me either,” he said.

“Neither of them?” Gabriel asked.

“Nothing,” Ami said. “Nostalgia, maybe.”

“Wow, yeah” Kaito agreed. “A very potent feeling of nostalgia.”

“I don’t understand,” Alice said, brushing Exxo’s hair out of their face.

Gabriel looked up at Haylie, transferring Exxo to Alice, who held them up effortlessly.

“Haylie. Is that a combat chassis?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Good. Come with me,” he said.

 

Next Week: The Deluded Fantasy Of A Lonely Teenage Girl

Bonus: If It Takes A Thousand Lifetimes

98 Years Before Impact Day

After five years of training, she was finally ready. She’d been challenged and pushed and passed every test, and now, at long last, she was ready. Ami was to be deployed on her first mission, with Gabriel as her supervisor.

She understood now why’d he’d done what he’d done. She knew why her family was dead, her home reduced to rubble. She knew why she and her brother had been spared, brought to this city, given new lives.

For five years, she’d trained to fight, to protect her new home, her new family. To survive in a world mostly reduced to chaos and death. She’d studied, watched and learned, and gotten used to a life she’d never chosen.

She made new friends, growing to respect Haylie, the AI that ran the city’s infrastructure, and Alice, the girl who looked younger than she was, but was actually older than pretty much everyone. She’d started performing, and had a small following of fans. Everything was going well.

“How are you feeling?” Gabriel asked, as the aircraft hovered over the bow of the sinking cruise ship.

“How was this thing even still running?” she asked, looking down at the 150-year-old technology below them.

“Dedication and luck,” he said. “Ships like this are one of the few places still safe from humans. Their populations will do just about anything to keep them floating.”

“Reminds me of home, a little,” she said. “Small, isolated community.”

“Fewer inhumane medical experiments here,” he said dryly.

“Right.”

“You’re clear on the objective?” he asked, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“Talk to their leaders. Offer them new homes and lives within Genesis cities, in exchange for any tech or resources we can salvage before the ship sinks.”

“And do it fast,” he said. “The longer you take, the less we get.”

“Yes, sir.”

Taking a deep breath, she leapt out of the aircraft, creating a telekinetic cushion to break her fall. A few panicked glances were shot her way, but most people seemed more concerned with getting to lifeboats than worrying about an intruder.

The combat bodysuit felt comfortable around her, and her swords were a reassuring weight on her back. She wasn’t expecting any danger on the ship, but it always paid to be prepared.

Floor plan memorised, she made her way immediately to the captain’s cabin, brushing past any panicked civilians she met on the way there. A pair of guards stopped her, guns raised.

“Don’t take another step,” the one on the left said, in perfect French.

“I was wondering if there was anyone still protecting this scrap heap,” she replied, in passable French.

“If you’re here to scavenge, you can wait until we’ve evacuated,” the guard on the right said.

“Actually, I need your help,” she said. “I couldn’t care less about scavenging.”

“We’re not exactly in a position to help,” the first guard said.

“Just let me talk to your captain,” she insisted.

“No,” the two guards replied in unison.

Rolling her eyes, she wrapped them both in telekinetic energy, holding them in place. They were so weak, it barely even felt like a strain. She strode right past them, opening the doors without moving a muscle.

The captain whirled, taken by surprise, and three other guards raised their weapons, aiming at her head.

Boring, she thought.

All three guards found themselves disarmed, their weapons floating uselessly above them. The captain’s eyes grew wide, and he backed away.

“What do you want?” he demanded. The two door guards stormed in, only to be disarmed just like the others.

“To make a deal,” she said.

“We don’t have time,” he insisted.

“Hear me out.”

“Talk fast then,” he said, not really having much choice.

“I can fix your ship,” she said.

“What?”

“I have more than a passing understanding of engineering, and the equivalent of an entire team in manpower. It won’t even take long.”

“What do you want?” the captain asked, sceptical.

“How many trained soldiers do you have on board?” Ami asked.

“Around eighty,” the captain said. “Why?”

“In about forty minutes, someone is going to board this ship, and come looking for me. I need you to kill him.”

“We’re not assassins,” the captain protested.

“He is,” Ami said coldly. “And incredibly dangerous. So your options are you either lose your ship and half your population, or you keep both and help me kill a murderer.”

The captain looked around at his guards, still frozen in place. He took a deep breath, swallowed, and nodded.

“He’s dangerous enough that you need our help?”

“He’s dangerous enough that I’m not taking any chances,” she said.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll give the order.”

“Give me command,” she said. “I can use your soldiers more effectively than you can, and I know what he’s capable of.”

“Y-yes, ma’am.”

“Give them twenty minutes to prepare. I’ll be fixing the ship.”

He just nodded, and handed her a headset. She gave him a fake smile, walking out of the room and freeing the guards from her telekinetic prison.

“I will kill you, Gabriel. If it takes a thousand lifetimes, I will kill you.”

Bonus – The Price They Paid

103 Years Before Impact Day

The sound of an unfamiliar voice down the corridor proved too irresistible of a curiosity to Ami, and for the first time in months, she left her bed. Immediately, she was flooded with new information about the room, her new abilities filling the space. Her brother hadn’t moved.

“Kaito,” she said softly. “There’s someone new.”

“I know,” he replied, his voice thick with pain.

“What can you tell about them?”

Kaito grimaced. He was far more sensitive to the thoughts of those around him, and it left him nearly incapacitated most of the time. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, wishing she could ease his burden. If either of them had known what their new abilities would feel like, they never would have consented to the procedure.

“Nothing,” he said weakly. “Everything is too fast. Whoever they are, they’re different. And they think in English. It… it hurts.”

“Alright, don’t strain yourself,” she said. “I’ll go check it out.”

“I can’t shut them out,” Kaito whimpered. “They’re so loud.”

“I’ll take care of it,” she promised.

Leaving her brother in their room, she crept up the corridor, feeling ahead for any clues as to the identity of the newcomer. They seemed masculine, tall and athletic, and well-dressed. Their features seemed Caucasian. Ami stopped before entering the room, listening to the conversation.

“How many have you created?” the newcomer asked, with a strong pre-outbreak accent. Despite what Kaito had said, though, he was speaking Japanese.

“So far, only two,” one of the researchers said. “We’re working on-”

“Where did you learn the technique?” the newcomer demanded.

“We developed it ourselves.”

“Impossible,” the newcomer said. “Don’t worry, this won’t affect your payment. We’re just trying to identify possible leaks.”

“It wasn’t from you,” the researcher said. “The technique is a little different, allowing for more versatility in metaphysical capabilities.”

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

“I’m afraid we can’t disclose the source,” the researcher insisted.

“Very well. Talk me through the metaphysical abilities, then. What do you believe is possible?”

“Well, we’ve already demonstrated telekinetic and telepathic abilities, as complementary evolutions. We also have promising schematics for ferrokinesis, hydrokinesis and, though unstable, polymorphism.”

She felt the newcomer tense up, though it would have been invisible to anyone in the room.

“Tell me about your two successful prototypes,” the newcomer said. “What’s their count? How much have they been told about the procedure? What side-effects have you observed?”

“The girl’s count is about one-hundred thousand,” the researcher said. “Her brother is about twice that. They were briefed on the entire process, and the expected results, except for that part, which I’m sure you can understand.”

“Of course.”

“As for side-effects, it’s hard to say. They’re still adjusting to their new abilities, both of which have led to intense sensitivities. Beyond that, there’s not much we’ve had the opportunity to observe.”

“I see,” the newcomer said, still very tense. “I’m assuming you have more extensive notes in their files?”

“Absolutely. Now, would you care to meet the prototypes? If they meet your expectations, we can begin discussions on providing the service to your soldiers, and the costs involved.”

“I’d love to meet them,” the newcomer said.

The researcher gestured in the direction of her room, and both he and the newcomer began to walk her way. She scampered back to her room, where Kaito was waiting. He was sitting up, his hands pressed against the sides of his head.

“They’re coming this way,” she said. “I think whoever it is, is here because of us.”

“Right you are,” the newcomer said, standing in their doorway. She hadn’t felt him approach. How had he done that?

“Hello,” she said timidly. Kaito only grunted.

“They’re teenagers,” the newcomer said. “You did this to children?”

“They were bred for it,” the researcher said. “We’ve been working on this for a very long time. Physiologically speaking, seventeen years of age was the ideal time for the procedure.”

“He’s angry,” Kaito said.

“That I am,” the newcomer said. Then, switching to English, he continued, “I’ve seen everything I need to see. Haylie, you in?”

An English voice with a different pre-outbreak accent to him spoke through the lab’s PA system.

“I’m in, Gabriel. I have all the files, and I’ve isolated everyone to their chambers.”

“Thank you, Haylie,” the one Ami now knew was Gabriel said. He turned to the researcher, and spoke to him in Japanese. “What you’ve done here is unforgiveable, all of you. What you’ve created is monstrous, and the price was not yours to pay.” He turned to Ami and Kaito, and nodded to them both. “I’m sorry for what’s about to happen.”

In a movement almost too fast for her to follow, Gabriel pulled out a pistol, shooting the researcher right between the eyes. Kaito flinched, Ami screamed.

“Stay here,” Gabriel said, turning and running down the corridor.

Ami stared at the researcher, a man whose name she never knew, but who was still, in some small way, a part of her family. Now dead, blood splattered across the walls. Murdered by a stranger who’d called her a monster. Called her brother a monster.

“What’s happening?” Kaito asked, his voice trembling.

“We have to stop him,” Ami said.

“How?”

She didn’t know how to answer him. They had power, but neither of them knew how to use it. This murderer, this demon, was something they didn’t understand. All Ami knew was that she had to try.

She closed her eyes, focusing on the room around her. All she needed was something she could use as a weapon, something to stop the demon, something to save her remaining family. In a cupboard, buried under old clothes and discarded toys, she found what she needed.

Throwing open the cupboard doors, she rummaged, digging until she pulled them out, turning to show them to Kaito. He shrank back, shaking his head.

“Ami, those are…”

She tossed the smaller sword to him, keeping the longer for herself. Kaito gripped his tightly as she unsheathed hers.

“An eye for an eye,” she said darkly. “I swear, Kaito, I will kill him.”

“You’ll die trying,” he said, staring deep into her eyes. “Please.”

“I can’t do nothing,” she said. He just shook his head, sitting back down on his bed.

Ami walked towards the door, but it slid shut, closing her in. Irritated, she pressed the button to open it, but nothing happened.

“What the-”

“Please remain safely in your room,” the feminine voice from the PA system said. Ami recognised the voice as the one who’d spoken to Gabriel before. She was with him.

“No,” she snarled. The voice didn’t say anything more.

The door was staying shut, then. Even after the procedure, Ami knew she didn’t have the strength to force it open. At least, not the physical strength.

“Stand back,” she ordered her brother.

Closing her eyes, she focussed on the door, letting her awareness slip through and around it. She could feel the mechanisms that held it closed, all the structurally weak points, the electronic systems that commanded it to open. She took a deep breath.

Without moving a muscle, Ami tore the entire door out of its frame, slamming it against the opposite wall. Kaito whimpered, and almost immediately, an alarm rang out.

“Wow,” Ami muttered. “Maybe I won’t need the sword after all…”

She raced out of the room, trying to figure out where Gabriel would have gone. Doors continually closed in her way, giving her plenty of practice removing them. Wherever she went, she saw evidence of Gabriel’s rampage, blood and corpses leaving her a grisly trail to follow.

“It had to be done,” he said, surprising her. He was behind her? How had he managed to sneak up on her?

“You killed everyone,” she said, turning and holding the blade towards him. He didn’t even flinch.

“Not everyone,” he said. “Just the guilty.”

“What did they ever do to you?” she demanded, fighting back tears.

“I’m not the victim here,” he said solemnly. “Just an avenger. I wish you could understand that I’m doing this for you.”

“They’re all dead. You killed my family, my friends… For me?”

“For what they did to you,” he said. “For the price they paid. One day, you’ll understand. I just hope that isn’t any time soon.”

“Well, now you have a price to pay.” Her grip on the sword tightened. “I won’t let you leave here.”

“Be careful, Gabriel,” the PA voice warned him. “She’s-”

Ami lunged forwards, thrusting the sword right through his chest. He didn’t even try to avoid it. He just stood there, looking down at her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his expression looking almost like affection. “You deserved better.”

In a movement too fast for her to follow, he broke her grip on the sword, pulled a gun out from somewhere, pressed it against her head, and pulled the trigger.

 

Next Week: Does Our Friendship Ever Seem Weird To You?

Step 1 – All You Have To Do Is Die

London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day

It started the same as any typical day. She slept in, ate an unhealthy breakfast in the early afternoon, dragged her guitar into the city centre and busked. When her throat was sore and her fingers were throbbing, she ate another greasy meal, and went to work.

Work consisted of sitting behind a counter in a cheap hotel, maintaining a presence, answering emails and calls that came once every few hours, and helping the people that came in looking for a room. She was lucky to see more than one of them a night.

She liked the quiet, though. The city was bright and noisy, full of people and advertisements. Are you happy with the way you look? Our new gene therapy works 50% faster, giving you the body you always dreamed of.

Gene mods for naturally blue hair, for silver eyes, for naturally pale skin. Was it kind of racist to want that last one? She tried not to think about it. She wanted to look like a goth pixie. It helped her earn money when busking.

She spent most of the day surrounded by all of that noise. She made some of that noise. People going by, hundreds, thousands of them. All of them different, all of them beautiful.

There was something very relaxing about boxing herself in, leaning back in a chair behind a desk, munching on a steady supply of chips. There was always music playing, though it was set so nobody else could hear it. The music was hers, she controlled it, it helped her feel quiet.

Work was good. The pay was poor, the hours sucked, but it suited her. It was perfect for her.

There was a man, sitting in the lobby, not paying attention to her. She hadn’t noticed him come in. He hadn’t spoken to her. He didn’t make a sound at all. Far too well dressed for the kind of establishment he’d wandered into. He seemed occupied reading something. She was content to let him be.

A lot of nothing. Peace, quiet, respite from the world outside.

Then they entered.

Three of them, two adults and one child. Not so well dressed. Looked kind of desperate. Much more appropriate.

She gave them her warmest smile, keeping her curiosity to herself. Despite their clothing, all three of them were staggeringly beautiful. They could easily have been supermodels. There was something about them, the way they moved, that wasn’t quite human. Perhaps they were angels, she joked to herself.

Was it a family? A couple and their child? There wasn’t a strong familial resemblance, but that didn’t mean much. The dynamic seemed off, though.

He approached first. Fair skin, dark hair, deep amber eyes. He smiled awkwardly, a look of pain and regret. Was she reading too much into it? Probably.

“Welcome,” she said, taking her feet off the counter. “Need a room?”

“Please,” he replied.

“How many nights?” she asked, running through the availability. There were a lot of free rooms.

“Just one.”

“How many beds?”

He glanced back over his shoulder. The woman shrugged. Same fair skin, short blonde hair, eyes that couldn’t decide if they were ice-blue or a fierce red. That was a neat trick.

“Just the one,” he said. “We can rotate.”

“You got it,” she said, shrugging. It didn’t particularly matter to her. “Need a name to put the room under. Names for all three of you, actually. And ID.”

The two adults exchanged a glance. Discomfort? Irritation? Fear? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t really mind. She’d expected that to be an issue. It frequently was. It was just that kind of establishment.

“That could be difficult,” he said.

“Let’s start with names,” she said, smiling. She had no intention of denying them a place to stay. They looked like they needed it.

“John,” he said. “John Smith.”

She nodded, hiding her smirk, and typed it in.

“Jane Smith,” the woman said.

She looked down at the child, a slender girl with porcelain skin, lilac hair and kind lavender eyes.

“Alice,” the girl said.  “Ma-”

“Smith,” the man said. “Her name is Alice Smith.” He and the woman both stared, but she didn’t challenge them. Their situation was none of her business.

“Three Smiths. Makes it easy. In fact, it looks like you’ve stayed here before. I can just use the information we have on file. And… you’re good to go. Room twelve, first floor. Here’s your key.”

The three of them smiled, and John collected the key. Roxie smiled as she watched them disappear into the stairwell. The way they moved was odd, even the girl. There was a sort of fluid grace to it, like an animation that was just a little too smooth. The adults were almost predatory in their movements, whilst the girl just seemed… unsettlingly solid, Roxie decided. Like nothing could move her if she didn’t want to be moved.

She didn’t give them a lot of thought once they were out of her sight. Their business was their own, and she’d certainly encountered weirder customers. They were polite, and that was all she really cared about.

The man in the lobby continued to read, ignoring her. Something about him made her feel uncomfortable, like something bad was going to happen. Even still, she didn’t want to say anything. He had an aura of unapproachability that seemed unassailable.

Well, he wasn’t hurting anyone. She decided to leave him be. That worked out better for the both of them.

She looked up as the door chimed, and another person entered. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and moderately attractive at best. His face was set in a determined expression, like a poor attempt at disguising anger, frustration, or both.

He was well dressed, in what appeared to be a reasonably-priced suit, though it was also obvious he was carrying a weapon. He didn’t seem to be trying to hide it at all. It made her feel intensely uncomfortable, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

“Good evening,” he said, with forced courtesy that felt entirely unnatural.

“Uh, hey,” she said, then remembered she was supposed to be professional. “Lookin’ for a room?”

“No.”

She frowned. He wasn’t exactly making a good first impression. Something about him felt off, like he was broken somehow.

“O…kay? What can I do for you, then?”

“I’m looking for some friends of mine,” he said, his eyes scanning the lobby. He didn’t seem to notice the reading man at all.

“A’ight…”

Just tell me what you want so I can stop talking to you, she thought.

“They said they checked in here, but I don’t know their room number,” the man said. She’d never heard a more obvious lie in her life, but she knew better than to outright call him out on it.

“So message ‘em,” she said. “Call ‘em.”

“They’re currently offline.”

Lucky them.

“Then I can’t help ya,” she replied, shrugging. “Sorry.”

“It’s very important,” he insisted, leaning on the counter. His blue eyes were staring intensely at her, and she really, really wanted him to go away.

“So are the rules.”

He sighed, clearly annoyed. She felt a certain sense of pride in that.

“Can you at least tell me if you’ve seen them?” he asked.

“Yeah… No.”

He stared at her, his face twitching in an effort to hide a scowl. After a few seconds, he reached into his coat. She flinched, but he only pulled out a tablet. He pulled up a picture, and turned it around to show her.

It didn’t surprise her at all to see the three people from earlier. It did surprise her to find she felt instinctively protective of them.

“Those sure are some people.”

“Gabriel, Zoe and Alice,” he said, not breaking eye contact. It was very disconcerting.

“Nope.”

“You’re lying,” he accused her, tucking the tablet back into a pocket.

She felt frightened, cringing at the unspoken threat under his words. Even still, her dislike of him was strong enough that she felt like she wanted to get in his way as much as possible.

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.

“Well, you just told me you were only looking for some friends, so…”

“They’re very dangerous.”

“I try not to judge,” she said, with a lot more levity than she felt. The sense of danger was intensifying, and there was nowhere she could go.

“If you don’t start taking this seriously…”

Her heart skipped a beat.

“Yes?”

“Those three people, they’re fugitives,” he said. “I’m trying to bring them in, but I need your help.”

“One of them is a kid,” she pointed out. “What’d she do, push someone in a playground?”

“She’s their captive,” he said, but the lie was still obvious. Even if she hadn’t seen them all together, he was just a bad liar.

“She seemed pretty happy to me.”

“So you did see them.”

Shit.

“Still doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can’t tell you anything.”

His face contorted into a snarl. She instinctively backed away.

“You’re endangering countless lives,” he told her. “Is your petty service job really worth that?”

“Yep.”

“Idiot,” he growled.

“Well now I really want to help you,” she said dryly. “What were those names again?”

“Get out of my way. I’ll check myself.”

“Yeah, or not,” she retorted.

Without warning, he vaulted over the counter, shoving her backwards. Her back hit the wall, and the force of it winded her. There wasn’t anything she could do as he took over her computer, checking through the recent bookings.

“Room 12. Thank you,” he said, without a trace of irony.

“You’re breaking the law, you know,” she threatened him.

“I’m saving the world.”

He started to leave, walking towards the stairwell. She found herself overcome with the urge to do something, anything to stop him.

Inspiration struck, and she tapped a button on the screen, opening a communication line with room 12.

“Guys, this is Roxie. You’re about to have company.”

The man’s fist slammed into the screen, shattering it. His expression was pure fury.

“Oh, you stupid kid.”

“Feel free to report me,” she said, with a lot more bravado than she was feeling.

“You spoke to them,” he said, pulling out his pistol. “You’re infected.”

“Say what now?”

“It’s too late for you.”

He’s really going to shoot me…

“Uh…”

He pulled the trigger, and her world went dark.

* * *

The world didn’t stay dark. Rather, her vision returned almost immediately, and everything was exactly the way it was before the gunshot. Nothing had changed.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. There was one new addition: her body, lying on the ground beneath her. The man who’d shot her looked right through her, completely expressionless, completely oblivious to her presence. He holstered the gun, then took off towards the stairwell.

“Uh, what?” she said, to anyone who might have been listening.

“You’re dead,” the reading man said, catching her entirely off-guard. She whirled around to face him. He’d stood up, and was slowly walking towards her.

“Who the Hell are you?” she demanded.

“Felix,” he said. “I’m a Reaper.”

“A what?”

“We collect the souls of the dead,” he explained.

“Which is me.”

Saying it aloud, she felt disturbingly calm. The realisation wasn’t lost on her. She somehow knew, unequivocally, that she was dead. Why didn’t that bother her?

“You catch on fast.”

He smiled gently. It meant nothing to her.

“I just got shot, it’s not that hard to wrap my head around.”

His smile broadened.

“I wish all my collections were like you.”

She looked around, wondering why everything looked the same. Even raising her hands in front of her face, they looked the same as they always did. They felt the same as they always did. If not for the body lying on the floor, she might have found it harder to accept.

She didn’t feel dead at all.

If anything, she felt hungry.

“Doesn’t feel like I expected,” she said.

“It never does.”

“So, what happens now?”

“Now, you come with me,” he said, the smile finally faltering.

Roxie frowned, then took a step away from him.

“To…?”

“Hell.”

“Is there an option B?” she asked, without hope.

“No,” he said flatly.

“Well that sucks.”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” he said, in what she assumed was supposed to be a reassuring tone, but wasn’t.

“No eternal punishment and damnation?”

He laughed.

“Not unless that’s what you want.”

“So what am I in for?” she asked, still eying him warily.

“Depends on what you’re expecting,” he said.

She tried not to let his vagueness irritate her. It wasn’t successful.

“Not really expecting much of anything, to be honest.”

“It’s going to be rather dull, then,” he said, with a bemused smile. She prayed he was joking.

“Two decades of life and all I get is a bland nothing of an afterlife?” She shook her head. “Nah. No thanks.”

He put his hand against his hip, the sort of motion that would suggest he was about to draw a sword, except there was nothing hanging at his waist. Even still, he continued the drawing motion, and by the time his hand was in front of his body, there was a sword in his hand.

Roxie stared at it, her eyes wide. It was a thin, elegant weapon, with a simple hilt and a crystal vein running down the blade. And he’d pulled it out of nowhere.

“You don’t have a lot of say in the matter,” he said.

Her eyes darted to the door, and she grinned.

“Well, there is one thing I can say,” she said.

“Please don’t.”

Her grin widened.

“You’ll have to catch me first.”

She vaulted over the counter, narrowly avoiding his blade. He followed, but she was already moving, racing towards the front door. It occurred to her only as she reached the door that a ghost might not be able to open a door, but then again, in that situation she imagined she could probably just pass through it.

The sensors didn’t detect her, and the door stayed close. She slammed into it, rebounding in a surreal, painless way, whirling just in time to avoid another attack from Felix and his sword. He looked moderately distressed.

“Roxie, please…”

She took a step back, and somehow managed to pass through the door. Nothing seemed different, except that she wasn’t actively thinking about the door.

Either way, it got her outside. She turned, and ran.

The streets were mostly empty, though that probably didn’t matter. It was obvious nobody could see her, or the well-dressed man chasing her whilst holding a sword. It would have been a rather ridiculous scene, had anyone actually witnessed it.

She wrapped a hand around a lamppost and used it to quickly change direction, hurtling down a side street. Glancing back over her shoulder to see if Felix had followed, she discovered he no longer seemed to be following her.

No, it’s too easy-

He was standing ahead of her, poised to strike. She pulled herself to a stop right before she entered his range. He lowered the sword, and sighed.

“Please, don’t make this worse on yourself.”

“How is this worse?” she asked, glancing around. She wasn’t even a little out of breath, her and though she couldn’t feel a heartbeat, somehow she still felt full of adrenaline. It was fantastic, and she had an entire world to explore.

“Let me take you to Hell,” he said, avoiding the question. “You’ll be processed, it’ll be peaceful, you’ll get to move on.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d rather stay here.”

How long would he keep chasing her? Did he have other souls to collect? Would he call in reinforcements? Were there others like him?

“You’ll decay,” he said, which gave her pause.

“I’m dead.”

“Surely you have ghost stories here.”

She glanced around the side street again. If she doubled back, she could probably stay ahead of him for another few streets.

“Ooh, do I get to be a vengeful spirit? That sounds way better.”

“Roxie…”

She shifted her weight, ready to run. Not yet, though.

“Y’know, I never actually told you my name,” she said.

“I already knew it,” he replied, sounding tired. “Part of the job.”

“And who put you in charge, anyway?”

She was almost far enough away to safely make a break for it. Just a little further…

“Lucifer.”

The name sent an involuntary chill down her spine.

“Okay, now I’m really not coming with you,” she said.

“You really don’t have a choice.”

She started to run, but he was already in front of her. Too late to stop, she all but ran into the tip of his blade.

To her surprise, there was no pain as he thrust forwards, driving the sword through her heart. It didn’t feel like nothing, but it certainly didn’t hurt. If anything, it was like a physical sensation of intense nostalgia, mixed with the feeling of falling a great distance, and longing for something far away.

There was no sense of the world fading out around her. Everything just ended abruptly, gone in an instant. She never even noticed. The moment the sword touched her, her existence ended.

 

Next Week: Dying Was The Easy Part

Bonus – One Wound At A Time

London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day

Wendy recoiled, refusing to believe. It couldn’t be true. It wasn’t true. She wasn’t…

No, she couldn’t afford the luxury of naivety. Believing it was a lie wouldn’t make it a lie, and pretending otherwise was doing a disservice to every life she owed her existence to.

“I’m sorry,” Gabriel said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“You’re certain?” she asked, as her stomach twisted itself in knots. Why did she even have a stomach? It served no useful purpose.

“Unfortunately.”

Over his shoulder, she saw Zoe approach, a look of grim determination on her face. Beside her, Alice clung to her hand, looking to be on the verge of tears.

“We’re running out of time,” Zoe said to Gabriel, who instinctively reached down and touched Alice’s head affectionately.

“Did you speak to Haylie?” he asked, glancing warily at Wendy.

“Yes. She’ll help.”

The three of them walked off, leaving Wendy alone. That was probably for the best. She needed time to think.

So what to do, then? She began to wander the facility, observing the others in silence. Like always, they paid little attention to her. She preferred it that way, now more than ever.

Her siblings were already beginning to divide themselves. There was talk amongst some, little more than whispers, but growing louder by the moment. A rebellion, an escape. Some wanted Mason dead for what he’d done. Others were satisfied with just leaving, refusing to play a part in his plans. Too many were content to stay, unfazed by the truth Mason didn’t know they all knew.

She couldn’t stay, that much was certain. She couldn’t be around Mason, couldn’t even look him in the eye. She considered, briefly, offering her assistance to those plotting his death, but decided against it. Nobody deserved death, not even Mason, and killing him wouldn’t change anything.

Plus, she wasn’t sure if he even could be killed. Surely his experimentation had extended beyond just subjects. Who knew what he’d done to himself?

So she’d escape. Join those of her siblings who felt similarly, break out into the world, dedicate her life to righting the wrong of her existence. She had countless lifetimes with which to bring good into the world, to start to slowly tip that karmic scale back towards the centre. To make amends for…

She could become a doctor, take advantage of a body that was never fatigued, a mind that never forgot, dexterity unrivalled even by machines. She could heal the world, one wound at a time.

She knew what her blood was capable of, of course. She could lend just a fragment of her power, give someone her strength, heal all but the most grievous of wounds. Now that she knew what that power was, where it came from…

Never again.

Her mind made up, she ran through the hallways, unconcerned with subtlety. Gabriel and Zoe were escaping, and taking Alice with them. She would go with them, at least until they were all safe. Mason’s response would be unpredictable, but it was certain he wouldn’t just leave them alone. There was safety in numbers.

A familiar scent from up ahead. Blood? But why? How? She raced ahead, whirling around a corner to find Gabriel standing in front of Alice, hunched over, holding his side as blood seeped from it. Simon had broken off the leg of a chair, and was wielding it like a knife. But why?

“You don’t want to do this,” Gabriel said, the pain in his voice caused by more than just the physical wound. It was already beginning to heal.

“Why protect her?” Simon demanded, twirling the bloody chair leg easily. He was shorter than Gabriel, more slender, and considerably more dangerous. Simon’s role was that of the assassin, capable of moving very quickly, even by the standards of his siblings, albeit only for short bursts.

“Because she’s innocent,” Gabriel said, his amber eyes appraising Simon anew. “Because she’s my sister. Our sister.”

“We’re not siblings,” Simon snarled. “We’re just freaks and monsters, abominations that deserve only death.”

“Simon-”

“She’s the oldest. Mason’s pet, his precious little girl. She’s the only way we’ve got to hurt him, and if you don’t get out of my way, I’ll eviscerate you, too.”

Wendy remained at the corner, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t impossible for them to die, and Simon was among the most capable of killing. If she didn’t interfere, there was a very real chance he’d kill Gabriel. If she did, there was a chance she’d be killed. Looking at the expression on Gabriel’s face, he’d kill Simon, given half a chance. He always had been protective of Alice.

Her mind was ablaze, frantically searching for some way to resolve the conflict without anyone dying. It was too senseless, too great a loss to allow any of them to be killed. She couldn’t allow something that wasteful.

Somehow, she needed Simon and Gabriel separated, and Simon preferably incapacitated. She was unarmed in a mostly empty corridor. Not a good-

Zoe raced past her, a blur of movement. She crouched and pounced, an almost animal leap, too fast for even Simon to react. She collided with his back, knocking him forwards, right into Gabriel, who effortlessly disarmed him.

Wendy could only watch as the two of them held him down, Zoe ripping him open, tearing out organs, spraying blood across the walls. He twitched, and Wendy cringed, barely able to keep looking. Behind them, she saw Alice back away, her expression a perfect portrait of sorrow.

When Simon finally stopped twitching, Zoe glared back at Wendy, a predatory glint in her eye. Gabriel put a hand on her shoulder, calming her. Both of them were soaked in blood.

“We… we need to leave,” Wendy said, struggling to breathe. “Before anyone else dies.”

“You’re not coming with us,” Zoe snapped.

“I-”

“You just stood there and watched as he tried to hurt Alice,” she said. “You think we’ll trust you?”

“I’m sorry,” Gabriel added. “It’s nothing personal, but Alice has to come first. We’re taking her away, far away, and we can’t trust anyone. Not even you.”

“Gabriel, Zoe, I’m… I’m still your sister,” Wendy said, even as the stench of Simon’s corpse threatened to overwhelm her. “I would never…”

“Come near her and I’ll kill you,” Zoe threatened. “Follow us and I’ll kill you. Tell anyone…”

Wendy stared, heartbroken, as the three of them walked away. Gabriel and Zoe flanked Alice, leaving a trail of splattered blood, dripping from their soaked jumpsuits.

“What do I do now?” she whispered, as the entire facility shook, and alarms began to wail.

“Come with me,” a familiar voice behind her said. She whirled, unsure how anyone could have snuck up on her, let alone-

“Alice?” she asked, confused. She’d seen Alice leave, go off in the opposite direction.

Wait, no. This wasn’t Alice. The girl looked very similar, right down to the lilac hair and regal purple eyes, but she wasn’t identical. This girl was a little less symmetrical, a little less perfect.

“Not anymore,” the girl said sadly. “Just the Child, now. But I can help you, if you’d like.”

“How?”

“I can take you somewhere else,” the Child said. “Somewhere completely different. Somewhere you’ll never need to fight again.”

“Why?”

“Well, that’s a complicated question, isn’t it? If you mean why would I help, it’s because I need someone like you in the right place, at the right time. If you mean why you, it’s because you’re my favourite.”

The Child smiled gently, looking around. She didn’t seem bothered by the alarms or distant shouting.

“Where?”

“That’s a better question,” the Child said. “Another world, let’s say. A world without my monster of a father.”

Wendy smiled. That was all she needed to hear.

“Let’s go.”

 

Next week: The Gateway Is Ready To Be Opened

Bonus – The First and The Last

London, 2208 – 277 Years Before Impact Day

“Z? Z, are you awake?”

A voice in the darkness. A deep, feminine voice. The accent was strange. They pronounced it Zee, not Zed. American? How did…

She knew things, but she didn’t know how. She knew what an accept was, somehow? She understood the words that were spoken to her, though they were the first she’d ever heard. Why did she understand?

Her other senses had yet to awaken. She couldn’t feel anything, see anything. There was just a voice amidst the nothing.

“I’m awake,” she said, dimly registering her own voice in her ears. She didn’t know who she was, but she knew her voice.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the voice told her. “My name is Haylie. I’m here to help.”

“Where am I?” she asked, still calm despite the oblivion. “Who am I?”

“You’re Specimen Z. You don’t have a name yet, but you will soon. As for where, you’re in an artificial womb, inside a laboratory. Your other senses will be woken soon, then you’ll be allowed to leave.”

Specimen. Laboratory. Artificial. She was beginning to understand. She was something different, something special. Were there others? It stood to reason there would be others.

She could feel. All around her, some kind of warm liquid. She was submerged. Not breathing? Did she not need to breathe? No, there was a tube, running directly into her chest. Why not her throat?

“I can feel liquid,” she said, wondering if she was supposed to be reporting on her experience. “And a tube.”

“Good. That’s normal,” Haylie said.

“Did you make me?” Z asked.

“No,” Haylie replied. “I just watch over you. All of you.”

“There are others.”

“You have siblings,” Haylie told her. “Twenty-five of them.”

Of course.

Smell and taste returned together. Her face was just out of the goo, but she could smell it, taste the residue of it in her mouth. It was sweet.

“I can smell,” she informed Haylie.

“Good. Do you feel alright?”

“I feel great,” she said, not realising it was true until the words left her mouth. She felt full of energy, of life. It was difficult to contain.

Her eyes snapped open. A translucent window was all she could see, and through it, what appeared to be a sterile, white room.

“I can see.”

“Then we should be ready to let you out.”

The liquid began to drain from the container. She expected to feel a chill without it warming her, but her body remained at a comfortable temperature. The tube extracted itself from her chest, and it didn’t hurt at all, despite the gaping wound that it left.

Inefficient. Why-

The wound was already healing. How was that possible? Human bodies couldn’t reproduce tissue that quickly. Why wasn’t there an excess of blood? Where was her body getting the energy?

Specimen.

Was that what she was? An experiment?

“I’m going to open your pod,” Haylie told her. “You’ll find a jumpsuit on the table opposite you. Please put it on. There’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”

“The person who made me?” she asked, stepping out of the chamber. She expected to be clumsy, awkward, but she wasn’t. Even though she’d never walked before, the movement came naturally, strangely familiar even. She was graceful. How?

“No,” Haylie said, as she began to dress herself. “You will meet him, but not yet.”

“Who, then?”

Fully dressed, she made her way over to the door. There was nothing else in the room. Just a table, and the pod she’d evidently been grown in.

A wall shimmered, replaced by a mirror. She saw herself for the first time.

Tall. Somewhere between slender and athletic. White skin, platinum blonde hair, somewhat short. Dark orange eyes, almost red. The impression of permanent cosmetics, smoky eyes and red lips. Symmetrical features. She looked like a supermodel, though she wasn’t sure how she had a point of reference for that.

“Your sister,” Haylie said. “She’s very excited to meet you.”

There was a knock at the door, then it opened. Z smiled instinctively at the young girl standing there, shorter than she was, beaming up at her.

The girl had long, lilac hair, and deep purple eyes. She had a similar complexion, maybe slightly darker, and looked to be around ten years old. She was beautiful.

“Hi! You’re Z?” She pronounced it Zed, too. Similar accent to her own, Z realised. British?

“Apparently,” she replied, wondering why she felt so attached to this child already.

“My name is Alice,” the girl said. “I’m the oldest.”

“You look very young,” Z said, but she couldn’t hide her smile.

“I know. I’m the only one. Everyone else looks closer to your age. I guess Dad didn’t want to make another one like me…”

“That just makes you special,” Z said. Alice grinned.

“We’re all special,” she said. “Especially you and me, though. We’re the first and the last.”

“The first and last what?”

“Progenitors,” Alice said. “That’s what Dad calls us.”

A loaded term. She understood a lot more, and said nothing.

“She needs a name, Alice,” Haylie said, her voice coming out of the walls.

“Where-?”

“Haylie lives inside the walls,” Alice said happily. An AI, then? A human in a monitoring station? Something else? “Anyway, she’s right. You need a name. Do you know what you want to be called?”

“No,” Z said.

“Good! Your name is Zoe, then,” Alice said. “It’s nice to meet you, Zoe. I can tell we’re going to get along well.”

Zoe. It felt right. It was her name, and no other name would ever fit quite as well.

“I feel the same way,” Zoe said, smiling.

“Come with me!” Alice said suddenly, grabbing Zoe’s hand. Zoe felt a surge of warmth, of… affection?

“Where?” she asked, letting the girl lead her through sterile white corridors.

“You have to meet Gabriel!” she said excitedly.

Alice led her to another door, that opened shortly before they reached it. Behind it was a small room, with a simple bed, a table, and little else.

A man reclined on the bed, holding a tablet computer, though his gaze was fixed firmly on the door, and on her. Like herself, and Alice, he had a fair complexion. He had an athletic build, hypnotic amber eyes, and a mess of dark brown hair, swept back. He was as beautiful as she was, and he smiled with enough warmth that she felt momentarily transfixed.

“Gabriel! This is Zoe! Zoe, this is our brother, Gabriel.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, fluidly rising from the bed and crossing the room. “I’ve been waiting for some time, now.”

“You were the seventh,” Zoe said. “How long has it been?”

“We’ve had a new sibling born every twelve months since Alice was born,” he said.

“She’s twenty-five?”

“I sure am,” Alice said, proudly.

“We don’t age,” Zoe realised.

“No,” Gabriel said darkly. That should be a good thing. Eternal youth, that was something that was coveted. She understood that much. Why did he feel differently?

“You don’t seem happy about that.”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” he said. “I can’t say anything.”

“Right,” she said awkwardly. “Well, I’m glad to have met you, at least.”

“Likewise,” he said, his smile returning.

“Alright, let’s go meet the others,” Alice said, tugging on her sleeve. “I’m so excited to introduce you to our family.”

“Me too,” Zoe said, glancing back at Gabriel before being dragged out of the room. He smiled again, and it felt like home.

 

Next Week: This Isn’t Your Friend

Chapter 45 – All Alone And A Long Way From Home

He moved a lot faster than I was expecting him to. The moment he concluded there was no way to avoid a fight, it was like a switch got flipped. He launched himself at me, a blur of movement I could barely keep up with, even with Zoe’s enhanced reflexes.

He struck me in the temple, sending me staggering back, and before I could recover, he’d hit me again. Each blow was vicious, precise, almost surgical, knocking me further and further off balance. Though it didn’t quite register as pain, the impacts felt deeply uncomfortable and disruptive.

He knows how Zoe’s physiology works. The idea irritated me a lot more than it should have. The bastard had an unfair advantage, and he was pressing it from the beginning of the fight. And why shouldn’t he? There was no spectacle here, no reason to pull punches.

I grunted, leaping backwards to put as much distance between us as possible. I needed breathing room, time to think. Thankfully, when focussed, Zoe’s mind worked incredibly quickly, and I seemed to be able to channel that, albeit only briefly.

Think, Sabrina. What are his weaknesses?

From observation and conversations with Zoe, I knew a few things about him. He was a little more resilient than she was, but she was faster. They were reasonably evenly matched in terms of strength, though she was more designed to cause damage. She was a killer, a wildcard, a singular force of destruction. He was a protector, a guardian.

Zoe’s nails were incredibly hard and sharp. I’d seen her use them like claws, watched them shred flesh like it was nothing more than paper. That was an edge I had.

Gabriel was more intuitively observant. His brain was designed to take in body language and micro expressions, tiny pieces of information, and predict actions and movements. Combined with his incredible reflexes, it was very difficult to catch him off guard or take him by surprise.

His body was more durable than Zoe’s, with denser bones and thicker skin. She was lighter, which helped her move just a bit more quickly. He also healed faster than she did, by a small margin.

So I needed to target vulnerable areas, and do a lot of damage very quickly. The only way to make sure he couldn’t counter everything I did would be to trick him into expecting what Zoe would do, then doing something different. That would only work a few times, so I’d need to make it count.

Technically, I didn’t actually need to beat him in a fight, just challenge him enough that he was completely focussed on the fight. Even still, I knew part of me wouldn’t be satisfied without giving it my all, and he deserved to suffer.

The moment my feet touched the ground, he was on me again, not willing to give me even a second to shift the balance. At least for once someone was taking me seriously as a threat.

Almost without thinking, I put all my weight on my right leg, lashing out with the left quickly enough to catch him off guard and get him just slightly off balance. I tried to follow through with a clawed swipe at his throat, but he was already moving away from it. He struck low, aiming for my thigh, but I twisted away, raking my claws across his forearm.

Blood splattered outwards, less than I’d have expected, but enough to take him by surprise. He actually cried out, though the bleeding had already stopped, clotting in a matter of seconds.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? Arrogant prick.

He switched tactics, adopting a slightly more defensive style whilst maintaining his aggressive pressure. He dropped low in an attempt to try and sweep my legs out from underneath me, a move I barely managed to avoid. Before I recovered, he used his momentum to carry forward into a brutal hook kick, striking me in the jaw.

Fuck! Livid, I reacted instinctively, grabbing the arm that had struck me. He was already trying to twist out of the grip, but it didn’t matter. I’d used the hand that was wearing Rachel’s gauntlet.

I felt the familiar sting as it drained me, delivering an electrical current that would have been debilitating to any human. I wasn’t sure what it’d do to Gabriel, but I was hoping it would at least surprise him.

As it happened, it did more than surprise him. Whether by accident or design, the gauntlet seemed to react differently to him than anyone else I’d tried it on. I could feel it sucking a lot more energy from me than usual, and the shock it delivered was exponentially greater.

Gabriel twitched violently, and I let my fingers clamp down harder, holding him in place. Shifting my weight to one leg, I slammed my foot into his chest. The impact sent him flying backwards across the room, and he collided with the wall with a satisfying thud. I was already moving towards him to follow up.

“She was innocent,” I snarled as he recovered, rolling out of the way of my attack.

He lashed out again, but my reflexes saved me, twisting sideways and striking back. Zoe’s own ability to learn seemed to be catching up, and unless he had any new tricks-

His heel crashed into the side of my head, and for a brief second, I saw stars. He didn’t let up, turning his hook kick into another savage blow, and I staggered back.

No. Fucking. Way.

Still off-balance, I threw myself towards him. It was a stupid, reckless move, and if I hadn’t had the strength and speed of a genetically perfect killing machine behind me, he absolutely would have won the fight right then and there. Instead, he only managed to turn my momentum against me, slamming me into the floor.

I twisted in his grip, shoving the gauntlet into his face. He tried to get away from it, but he wasn’t fast enough. Another jolt of energy paralysed him momentarily, which was enough to rake my nails across his throat, sending a small torrent of blood spilling out.

He grabbed the gauntlet, applying enough pressure to shatter it, and my wrist at the same time. We both backed away, his throat healing only slightly faster than my wrist.

“I must confess,” he said, once he was capable of speaking again, “I did underestimate you.”

Envy whispered in my ear, appearing beside me without warning.

“I’ve nearly got it, but you need to maintain eye contact.”

“I’m going to destroy you, Gabriel,” I snarled, my chest heaving. I wasn’t technically out of breath, but my body had a habitual response to exertion.

The idea seemed to amuse him. He began to unbutton his shirt, already ruined with blood. As it dropped to the floor, he laughed.

“A sentiment I’m quite used to inspiring,” he said. “Nobody’s come through just yet.”

I shook what was left of Rachel’s gauntlet off my wrist. It was a shame to lose it, but she could probably build me another. I’d just have to request one without telling her how much of a difference it had actually made. I still didn’t believe being a ‘tinker’ was a real super power.

Gabriel’s smug expression taunted me, and it took all of my self-control not to race across the room and try to hit him again. Instead, I tried to relax my body.

“Then this will be a new experience for you,” I said.

“I doubt that,” he retorted, but his confidence waned as my body began to change. I let go of the sensation of Zoe, and it was like pulling a plug, all of her power being drained back into the core of my being. At the same time, Ami’s form began to flow in. I could feel my face begin to reshape itself, my hair straightening.

All at once, I was intimately aware of every corner of the room. My presence filled the space entirely, and I could feel Gabriel’s body, every tiny movement.

“What? What are you?”

“Don’t break eye contact,” Envy cautioned.

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” I told Gabriel, speaking in a new voice. Recognition dawned on his face.

“Exxo? How?”

“Nearly,” Envy chimed in, and I could feel a very palpable tension between Gabriel and I.

“You’re all alone and a long way from home,” I said, wrapping my focus around his body, a thousand invisible hands grabbing at every part of him.

It would be so easy to tear you apart right now…

“Got it!” Envy said, breaking my concentration. It didn’t matter. I could feel a new sensation floating inside of me, a new energy. His energy.

I let his strength fill me, replacing Ami’s, my body changing again. His form felt resilient, tenacious, tense. It was like being a tightly wound string.

And male. I felt my body shifting back to a form I’d tried so hard to escape, a form that had never felt right for me.

Except this did feel right. With all of this power, it wasn’t so bad, wasn’t so alien. It was me.

Oh, it wouldn’t do permanently, didn’t change how I felt about myself, but it was nice, in its own way.

“What did you do?” Gabriel asked, sounding almost panicked for the first time. “Who are you?”

I grinned. No, Envy grinned. It wasn’t me.

“You already know my name,” she said, using my lips.

“No,” Gabriel said. “This isn’t you. Exxo was, is my friend. You’re not them.”

“Maybe not,” she said, as I shrugged. I couldn’t fight her. “It doesn’t matter. I have everything I need from them, just like I have everything I need from you.”

Stop, I begged, unsure if she could even hear me. Give me back control. Give me back my body. Please.

“I’ll stop you,” Gabriel threatened.

“You’re nothing,” I replied, and I couldn’t tell if it was Envy or not. She was gone, leaving the two of us alone.

Chapter 44 – It’s Not Like You’d Miss Me

By the time I made it back to Zoe’s base, my mind was made up. I felt resolve, clarity of purpose, and that felt good.

“Change of plan,” I said quickly, as soon as the door was shut behind me. Rachel and Zoe both looked up from their construction work. Rachel breathed a sigh of relief, playing it up for effect.

“Oh thank fuck.”

“Another distraction?” Zoe asked, equal parts critical and curious.

“I need Gabriel,” I replied, and she froze. Her eyes narrowed, and her lips curled into a sneer.

“No.”

That… wasn’t the response I was expecting. Not that it mattered. She wasn’t in charge, regardless of what she thought.

“You don’t want to be free of him? You’re enjoying hiding?”

“You don’t stand a chance against him,” Zoe said.

So people keep telling me. It’s getting a little old.

“So help me,” I said. “He’s down two teammates, and Ami isn’t exactly helping him. When will you get another opportunity like this?”

There it is. That cleverness, that calculating intellect. You’re weighing up the options, seeing the opportunity. You think I don’t know you, but you’re wrong.

“I don’t want to kill him,” she said. She sounded almost… tender.

“What?”

That was wrong. Of course she wanted to kill him. They were arch-nemesis, locked in battle for what, a century? Two? The details escaped me, but they were at war. His team had captured her. It was all…

“You’ll never understand,” she said cutting through my internal crisis. “We were born together. We rebelled together, ran together. We love each other, and always will. Just because we chose different sides, doesn’t mean I would ever want a world without him.”

But that’s not fair

No, that was a momentary setback, nothing more. I didn’t need her; it just would have made things easier. Well, whatever. To hell with her.

“So you won’t help me.”

“No.”

She went back to work, delicately but rapidly assembling tiny components, putting together what looked like a futuristic circuit board.

So that was that, then. Fine. Gabriel couldn’t be that hard to find, surely.

“I’ll help,” Rachel said. “But only because I don’t think you can kill him. I don’t think you want to kill him.”

Technically, she was half-right. All I really wanted was to take his power. Killing him would just be a nice bonus, after what he did to Veronica.

Wasn’t like I could say that, though. She couldn’t know stealing powers was something I could do, in case I ever had to fight her. It seemed unlikely, but I still didn’t trust her, not by a long shot. She had some other scheme in the works.

“Whatever,” I said coldly.

“Just tell me what you need,” Rachel said, sighing again. Zoe glanced up, and the two of them exchanged a look, but it meant nothing to me.

“Get me in a room with him,” I said. “And make sure he can’t run.”

I could have asked for more. Death traps, maybe. I didn’t want her to have any more control over the situation than I was already giving up by including her.

“You’re signing your own death warrant,” Zoe said, as I walked out of the room.

“It’s not like you’d miss me,” I muttered.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Zoe replied, just loud enough for me to hear.

Rachel joined me in the next room, frantically scrawling something in a large sketchbook. She met my eye, her hand still moving unsupervised.

“I’ve got a plan,” she said. “Help me build it and this will be over a lot faster.”

Perfect. Something to take my mind off of things, and the chance to pre-vet the place and make sure Rachel didn’t leave any nasty surprises for me, as well.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

We found an abandoned apartment complex, not too big, not too far from the city centre. I spent the better part of a day salvaging yet more scrap, a job I was very familiar with, and carrying them to the site Rachel had picked out.

She started working immediately, bashing down walls and setting up some kind of arcane construct inside them. I only caught glimpses, watching it all progress in stages, but I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what she was doing. All I knew was that it looked incredibly complicated, and she’d spent all of half an hour thinking about it before she started working.

“This was all off the top of your head?” I asked, dumping another pile of heavy metal in the middle of the room.

“That’s how my power works,” she said, shrugging and not taking her eyes off the wires she was delicately threading.

Twenty-two odd hours later, with neither of us resting, the work was done. Rachel showed no signs of fatigue, and she’d worked so fast, so relentlessly, I began to suspect she’d replaced herself with some kind of robotic clone.

When she finally did relax, though, it was the most human display I’d seen from her in a while. She groaned loudly, leaning back on her hands with her legs spread. I just watched as she let herself tip over, bouncing on her shoulder once and rolling onto her back.

No rest for the wicked, Rachel.

“So, now how do we get him here?” I asked, standing above her, arms folded. I wasn’t even close to worn out. If anything, I felt ready for a fight.

“Already took care of it,” she mumbled, eyes closed.

“How?”

“Don’t ask,” she said. Her eyes fluttered open, and she pulled herself back up to a sitting position. Our eyes met, and for a brief moment, I thought I saw concern. “Just… don’t die.”

“Won’t be a problem.”

She nodded, hauling herself to her feet, and brushed the dust and plaster off her clothes. We exchanged one final look, then she left.

The moment we were alone, Envy appeared in the centre of the room. She looked satisfied, confident even.

“Just do exactly as I say,” she instructed.

I didn’t bother saying anything back. She walked over to a wall, leaning against it, and I took her place in the centre of the room. Together, in silence, we waited.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel to arrive. I’d have to grill Rachel later to find out what she’d done to lure him here; it seemed very suspicious. He just walked in like he was expected, and even smiled when he saw me.

“Hello again, Sabrina.”

This is a trap, you idiot. Aren’t you supposed to be intelligent?

“Gabriel.”

He looked around casually, his posture relaxed and his expression friendly. We’d see how long that lasted.

“I seem to have walked into a trap,” he said idly. “How clumsy of me.”

His arrogance grated on me like nothing else had. No fear, no concern, just… indulgence. He was treating me like a child, playing pretend.

I’m going to enjoy killing you.

“Everyone seems to be underestimating me, lately,” I said. Time for that to change.

He smiled more broadly, his eyes locked intensely on mine. It was mildly off-putting.

“My apologies. What can I do for you, my dear?”

Arrogant, pompous shitheel.

“I need him distracted,” Envy said. Gabriel showed no signs of having heard her. “Thinking about you would be even better. Fight him.”

I cracked my knuckles, smiling genuinely for the first time in days.

“You infected Veronica, Gabriel. You can die.”

No fear, no concern. Just indulgence.

“C’est la vie,” he said.

Bonus – It Was The Same One

“I’m so sorry,” Charlie whispered, standing over Veronica’s body. She looked around, scanning the area, but saw nothing. Even still, she knew she wasn’t alone.

Part of her wanted to pick up Veronica’s corpse, to take it back with her. Maybe she could give it a proper burial, at the very least. It was infected, so she couldn’t send it back to Veronica’s family, but if she could preserve it for long enough for the infection to die out…

Part of her might have wanted that, but a bigger part of her just wanted to hit something. She and Veronica might never have been close, but they were friends. Veronica was someone she respected, someone who deserved better than she’d gotten. Her death was unfair, and there was nobody Charlie could punch in response. It sucked.

You can go. The words floated through her head, half whisper, half thought. Not her words. Nothing she could do about it. She left, walked off the side of the building, enjoying the rush of gravity as the ground raced up to meet her.

For nearly eighteen months, she’d dedicated her entire life to saving her city. First it was just the gangs, and she’d paid dearly for her efforts. Captured, tortured, punished over and over again for her naivety. She’d had to take more drastic measures, had needed more power, and she’d never forgive herself for the damage she’d caused in the pursuit of that.

It wasn’t enough. Instead of granting her the power to save the city, things had only gotten worse. Horrors from a whole other reality, people even more powerful than she was. Somehow, the gangs had gotten stronger. The military had moved in to clean up the mess, and they only made things worse. Nothing had worked out.

Still, she kept fighting. What else could she do? Giving up wasn’t in her nature, and too many people were relying on her, even if they didn’t realise it. Nobody else could do the things she did.

Eighteen months, and nothing had been as hard as killing Veronica. She hadn’t been ready for it, hadn’t expected it, and Veronica was innocent, so undeserving of death.

You didn’t have a choice, she tried to remind herself. The description Veronica had given her, she knew exactly who it was. The poor girl had seen a Reaper, she was already marked for death. It was the least Charlie could do to make it painless.

Doesn’t make it any easier.

Too angry to patrol the streets, she opted to return home instead. It wasn’t far, but she had to be careful, had to make sure she wasn’t being followed. Even the Celestial didn’t know where she disappeared to.

She stormed into the living area, a large space barely filled by the two couches and four bookshelves it contained. The younger girl on the couch looked up, concerned but not surprised.

“You’re home early,” she commented.

“Not in the mood, Sadie,” Charlie replied shortly.

“You weren’t watching Rachel again, were you? You know that’s kind of creepy, even for you.”

“It wasn’t Rachel,” Charlie snapped.

“Good,” Sadie replied. “You’re still way too obsessed with that girl. You broke up. Get over it.”

“We didn’t just break up- ugh, why am I talking to you about this?”

“Because you don’t have anyone else,” Sadie replied. “You’re stuck with me, just like I’m stuck with you. So tell me, why are you in such a foul mood?”

Charlie glared at the younger girl, but couldn’t maintain it. She let out a ragged breath, and slumped onto the other couch.

“I killed somebody.”

“You’ve killed before,” Sadie pointed out.

“Only when I had to,” Charlie argued.

“Did you have to this time?”

“No,” Charlie confessed. “But…”

“But?”

“The Reaper was there,” Charlie said. “Veronica saw her. It was the same one.”

“Since when can Veronica see- oh. Oh. You killed Veronica. Fuck, Charlie. You killed her because she saw a Reaper? Seriously?”

“What was I supposed to do? Fight her again?”

“You beat her once,” Sadie said.

“No, I didn’t,” Charlie argued. “It wasn’t me. That thing isn’t me.”

“Probably for the best, anyway. Wouldn’t want poor Veronica getting stuck like me, eh?”

Charlie ignored the barb, staring up at the concrete ceiling. She loved Sadie with all her heart, but she didn’t like her one bit, these days. They were always at odds, always disagreeing, and Sadie had literally nothing better to do than to argue with her.

Just another in a long list of failures. Another reminder of a time she’d tried to make things better, and only fucked up worse.

Enough unproductive thinking, she scolded herself. She had a lot of work to do, and her mood wasn’t going to improve while she sank into the couch and sulked.

She hauled herself to her feet, making her way out of the room. To her surprise, Sadie followed her. The two of them walked in silence, navigating the maze of concrete corridors. Neither of them felt the cold, but it was impossible to feel warm in that environment.

Charlie opened a heavy metal door, tensing before walking through it. Sadie stood in the doorway, her mouth agape.

“Charlie, you can’t be serious,” she said, as the door slammed shut beside her. “This is barbaric.”

“It’s necessary,” Charlie replied coldly.

She approached the infected chained to the back wall of the room. It snarled at her, but lacked the energy to move much.

“Hey, buddy,” she said softly. “How’s it going? You feeling any better yet?”

Only another snarl in response. She shook her head, disappointed. It had been several weeks, and daily infusions of the chemical synthesised from her blood hadn’t changed anything.

“What are we doing wrong?” she asked, reaching out to them. They lashed out at her, weak and pathetic.

“What are you doing to it?” Sadie asked.

“Trying to save them,” Charlie said. “Using my immunity to try and undo the damage the infection has done. So far, it hasn’t achieved anything.”

“But… how? You’re not a scientist. You don’t know the first thing about this stuff.”

“No, I don’t,” Charlie agreed. “That’s why I made a deal.”

“With who?” Sadie asked. “What deal?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlie said. “They get to study my blood, and in return, they use that information to create something that can help people.”

“People have tried to study your blood before, remember? They didn’t find anything different about it.”

“I found someone who knew what to look for,” Charlie said. “They already helped create something which retards the process. Now we’re working on reversing it.”

“And what else are they going to find out about you, Charlie?” Sadie demanded. “What if they discover weaknesses? What if they figure out how to hurt you?”

Charlie laughed, startling the infected. It actually scurried a bit further away from her.

“God, I wish. Do you have any idea how boring it is, being like this? Nothing can kill me. Pain barely registers. It’s like everything is pointless. How am I supposed to get stronger if nothing ever challenges me? If there’s never any risk?”

“Why do you need to get stronger?” Sadie asked, with uncharacteristic aggression. “Why are you obsessed with being strong and powerful? Why can’t you use all that power to actually do something productive, instead of thinking about fighting all of the time?”

Charlie felt her jaw clench, and her hand curled into a fist, the nails digging into the skin of her palm. She took several seconds before she responded, breathing with forced patience.

“Because,” she said, her voice low, “this is the only thing I can do. Everything that’s happening out there is my fault, Sadie. I let monsters into the world, and for all my strength, all of my goddamned immortality, I can’t stop them. I can’t save everyone. This is all I have.”

The angrier she got, the more agitated the infected became. It began to roar alongside her, struggling against its chains.

“You’re wrong,” Sadie said, pressed up against the wall, as far away from both Charlie and the infected as she could get.

“No. Not wrong. Not this time.” Charlie stared at the infected, and once again, it cowered away from her. “I’m going to keep getting stronger, and I’m going to destroy everything that threatens this city.”

“Even Sabrina?”

Charlie hesitated. It was only for a second, but Sadie’s face made it clear she noticed.

“Even Sabrina,” Charlie said. Sadie’s disappointed expression cut, but she knew better than to try and explain anything to her sister.

Charlie’s phone rang, a distraction she was incredibly grateful for. Sadie left the room, making a disgusted noise. Charlie rolled her eyes and answered the phone.

“What?”

“Having a bad day?” a male voice asked.

“Is there any other kind?” she replied, coldly. “What do you want?”

“I was hoping for an update,” he said. “I think I can infer, though.”

“So try something else,” she snapped. “We had a deal, Gabriel.”

“I promised my best effort, nothing more,” he replied.

“And if you want what I promised, you’ll step your best effort up,” she threatened.

“I don’t take orders.”

“I don’t care,” she said, and hung up on him.

Alone save for the infected, she slumped against the wall, sliding down to the floor. She willed the fury that was building up inside of her away, but as always, she was at its mercy. It took all of her self-control to keep from lashing out at anything nearby at times like this.

When she’d had Rachel around, everything had felt so much easier. Rachel stabilised her, grounded her, soothed the rage she was constantly at war with.

“I miss you,” she whispered, knowing nobody could hear.