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Tag: Haylie

Part 1 – Deus Et Machina

London, 2173 – 312 Years Before Impact Day

Charles Mason stood outside, waiting for someone to let him in. While he waited, he admired the architecture of the place, hands in his pockets, wandering aimlessly. It was definitely the sort of place he could picture himself working, if his application was accepted.

And why shouldn’t they accept him? His work was years ahead of anyone else in the field, promising to change the world forever. Who would reject a man who could single-handedly save the human race?

As his route took him back by the front door, there was a soft chime, and they slid open. He noticed the thickness of the door, deceptively heavy-duty, and approved. Security was important, and he appreciated the combination of aesthetic and function.

A man walked out through the door, slightly older than he was, with a sort of gentle handsomeness and inquisitive brown eyes. Mason smiled automatically at the man he recognised from photos, James Buttersworth, owner of the facility.

“You must be Charles,” James greeted him warmly, offering his hand. Mason took it, feeling a slight tingle as their palms touched.

“I hope I’m not too early,” Mason replied, the reflexive smile still on his face.

“Not at all. I’ve been looking forward to showing you around.”

Good sign. They were taking him seriously, genuinely interested in supporting his research.

James stepped aside, allowing Mason to enter the facility. The two of them walked together, at a casual pace, as James talked about the features of the facility, and the laboratories contained within. The deeper they got, the more excited Mason became. As far as he was concerned, the place was perfect.

Security far above anything he’d seen anywhere else. Access to resources he’d never imagined possible. Complete privacy and secrecy. State of the art technology. It was almost too good to be true.

“This is the empty lab,” James said, once they’d looped all the way around, and arrived near the entrance again. “Does it look big enough?”

“Plenty,” Mason replied, without a moment’s hesitation.

“It’s yours, then,” James said.

“Just like that?”

“Well, there’s paperwork to fill out, of course. But if you want to work here, you’ll find our doors open.”

“Why?” Mason asked. “You haven’t even asked about my work.”

“I’ve been paying close attention to it,” James replied. “It seems the perfect complement to my own. To be honest, I never expected to find anyone interested in the same work as me, let alone with the level of innovation and genius you’ve been applying. It’s not just interesting, it’s exhilarating.”

“That’s… beyond flattering,” Mason said, astonished. Buttersworth was an idol, an inspiration. The opportunity to work in proximity to him had felt like a dream come true. For Buttersworth to take an interest in his work, to praise it so highly…

“To be perfectly frank, I was planning on demanding to see the prototype before making the offer, but… Well, I think it would be a mistake to risk letting you walk way.”

Buttersworth smiled at him, a staggeringly sincere smile that caused a flutter in Mason’s heart.

“I… I would love to show you what I have, of course,” he said. “I would be honoured if you would give me an honest appraisal.”

“And I absolutely will,” Buttersworth said. “Just know that it isn’t a condition of entry. Now, let’s get the logistics sorted, shall we? Let me introduce you to the lifeblood of this facility.”

Mason just nodded, still overwhelmed. Buttersworth tapped his watch, and a few moments later, the elevators opened. A young woman stepped out, fair-skinned with long auburn hair and intense yellow eyes. She walked over to them, and Mason couldn’t help but to notice a weight to her motion that seemed strange, almost… inhuman.

“This is Haylie,” Buttersworth said, introducing her. “She’s the logistical supervisor of the facility, and… I suppose a kind of communal assistant? There’s very little she can’t do.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, extending a hand to Mason. He shook it, surprised by the weight and strength of her grip. She had a pleasant, American accent. “I’ll help you get set up.”

“I’ll leave the two of you to it for now,” Buttersworth said. “But Mason… Uh, Charles, would you like to get dinner tonight? I feel as though we have a lot to talk about.”

“I’d love that,” Mason said. “Thank you, uh…”

“Call me James,” he said, repeating the same sincere smile. The effect wasn’t diminished the second time.

* * *

It took almost no time for Mason’s lab to be set up. Haylie moved astonishingly quickly, having everything ready to go within days. Almost immediately, he fell into his work, overjoyed to have the opportunity to do so. Everything felt perfect, in a way he hadn’t ever expected to feel.

Buttersworth… James, rather, was tremendously helpful. He came in practically daily, poring over Mason’s notes, offering feedback and opinions, and generally making small talk. They ate together once or twice a week, and before long, Mason really started feeling at home.

Haylie proved to be incredible, too. She was always around, and always available. Mason suspected she didn’t actually sleep.

Despite her introduction as an assistant, it was obvious she was brilliant. She knew everything he needed her to, confirming formulas, concepts and past studies faster than he could have looked them up. Why she wasn’t a researcher herself was beyond him.

He discovered why one night, after several months of work. He’d stayed back late, as was common for him. Haylie stayed with him, assisting as she often did. They didn’t talk much, but that seemed preferable for both of them.

All of a sudden, she looked up at him, a concerned look on her face.

“There’s been an intrusion,” she said.

“What? Where?” he demanded, looking around the lab.

“Front entrance. They seem to be headed this way.”

“How many?” he asked. “Is security on their way?”

“Just one,” Haylie said. “I’ve called security, but they won’t be here in time. This intruder is—”

At that moment, the entrance to the lab was blown open in a powerful but controlled explosion. Mason whirled, wishing he carried some form of weapon.

“Get behind me,” Haylie instructed.

“Are you mad?”

“This is part of my responsibilities,” she insisted, stepping in front of him.

A person emerged from the smoke of the explosion. Mason was surprised to see they looked young, with thin limbs and gentle, emerald eyes, dark skin and light hair in an asymmetrical cut.

“Who are you?” he demanded, but the intruder ignored him.

“It’s you,” they said, staring at Haylie. “I can feel it.”

“Security’s been called,” Mason said, irritated and slightly scared.

“Don’t care,” the intruder said. “I’ll be quick.”

“Stand back,” Haylie instructed, and Mason obeyed without thinking. “You’re not from DARPA,” she said, addressing the intruder.

“DARPA? No, of course not,” they said.

“Who are you, then? What do you want with me?”

The intruder shook their head.

“Not me. I’m not the one who wants you.”

“Then who?”

“The other me,” the intruder said. “My reflection. Glory.”

“I don’t understand,” Haylie said.

“Me either,” the intruder said. “But I need to do this.”

With that, they launched themselves at Haylie, moving faster than any human should have been able to move, with a grace that terrified Mason. From somewhere, they pulled out a weapon, a shimmering dagger, and drove it into Haylie’s chest!

Mason screamed, but Haylie didn’t even react. She just stood there, staring down at her chest. Then, carefully, she grabbed the intruder’s wrists, and effortlessly twisted them around, pinning them to the floor. As she turned, Mason saw her chest, dagger sticking out of it, no blood to be seen.

“What…?”

“Security is nearly here,” she said, seemingly unfazed by the wound in her chest. “Mason, I… Can I ask for your help?”

“Of course,” he said, his whole body shaking.

“I need you to lie,” she said.

 

Next Week: Nothing, From Nowhere

Interlude #5 – Vignettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“According to who?” she demanded.

“Child…”

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A spark of light,” Lucy said.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Outside,” Rachel said.

“What does that mean?” Sadie asked.

“Not sure yet.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

She missed Felix.

* * *

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

“How does it feel?” she asked.

“Painful.”

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Haylie said.

“Don’t mention it,” Alice replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, if you ever need assistance…”

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

 

Next Week: Until You’re Dead

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 – 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?

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 50b – You Should Have Joined Me When You Had The Chance

“You go on ahead,” I grunted, summoning all of my strength to toss her across the room. She crashed through the fire stairs door. Close enough. “I’ll take care of this clown, then catch up with you!”

She didn’t respond to that. Just took off. That was fine. Wasn’t exactly in the mood for conversation.

Electrified spikes? Not a bad tactic, I had to admit. Might have even worked, if he hadn’t already played his hand by equipping street thugs with a similar design. Should’ve been more creative. I’d already made sure my body could channel excess electricity into a safe outlet.

The poor boy twitching at my feet clearly didn’t have the same advantage. He was already done. Not that it mattered, the temporary boost he got from Zoe’s blood would burn up within minutes. They couldn’t have collected that much, and I doubted they’d waste it all on an untrained brat like him.

Still, it had gotten rid of Sabrina, and that was what I needed. By the time she got all the way up to his office, he’d be long gone. There’d probably be a trap waiting for Sabrina. Not my concern.

I’d already done the math. His only escape from that office was with Miss Murder’s blinking. Her range was limited, and she needed to reorient herself before teleporting again. Given the limited time frame before her needing to be back to ambush Sabrina, she’d only be able to get him a short distance away. There was only one building that made sense.

I left the boy twitching and convulsing on the floor. He might follow later, but he’d already proven he wasn’t a threat. No instinct, no fighting experience. Not a problem.

The second I left the building, I felt a dozen weapons pointed at me. Reinforcements. God, but he was annoying.

“I don’t have time for this,” I muttered.

A dozen thugs, all armed. I had approximately zero time for their shit, but they weren’t exactly going to let me just walk away. Time to weigh up the risks.

My clothing would protect most of my body from bullets. There’d be bruising, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The only place I was vulnerable was my head. Even there, bullets would rip up the skin and muscle, but wouldn’t penetrate bone. Unless they hit my eyes, the damage would only be cosmetic.

I could cover my face with my arm and run, but I didn’t want them on my tail when I confronted him. The damned floor spikes had ruined the propulsion systems in my boots, so that wasn’t an option.

Had to take them out.

Killing them would be so much easier. Physically, at least. Emotionally, I wasn’t comfortable with it. They didn’t deserve to die. But disabling them was a lot more work.

Inventory. I had a flashbang, two foam grenades, my shock baton, a shock gauntlet, a pistol with non-lethal rounds, a small supply of plastic ties, Miss Murder’s knife and an untested venom dart gun. Theoretically, that one would induce a process that mimicked that of Zoe’s blood, but in reverse, making them weak and close to useless, temporarily. Unfortunately, my abilities as a tinker were limited when it came to biochemistry, and I wasn’t entirely certain how accurate my formula was.

“Fuck it.”

One arm in front of my face, I ran into the nearest cluster of thugs. I had very little time to put them all down. No pulling punches.

Stun baton to the throat. One down. Draw the pistol, two headshots. Probable concussions, but they’ll live. Three down. Trip the next up with the baton, kick them in the side of the head. Four down.

Drop the baton, throw a foam grenade. Two more headshots, then the grenade explodes, catching three in the blast. Nine down.

A hail of bullets hits me in the back, staggers me. Drop the pistol, vault over cover. Punch to the sternum, enough force to crack ribs. Ten down. Grab their gun, snap it in half. Twist their arms behind their back, tie their wrists. Eleven down. Shove them into the last remaining thug, gauntlet to the face, deliver a strong charge.

No time to waste.

I ran towards the building I’d marked off beforehand. Motion sensors I’d planted confirmed something was happening there, but that was as much as I’d been able to set up. It was enough.

It was possible he’d set another trap, but paranoid as he was, I didn’t think he was that prepared. Not for this.

I crashed through the entrance, disregarding subtlety entirely. He was no threat to me, and he had nowhere to go. Better to intimidate than to surprise.

He was waiting for me, still in his chair, a pained expression on his face. Haylie was nowhere to be seen. It was annoying that he’d already found time to stash her, but I could beat the information out of him if I had to. I wouldn’t torture his thugs, but him? He deserved it.

“It’s good to see you again, Rachel.”

“You’re awfully chipper for someone who’s about to get flayed alive,” I snapped. “Where’s Haylie?”

“Right behind you,” he said, smirking.

I whirled around, and clichéd as it was, she really was standing right behind me. How long had he been waiting to pull that trick?

More importantly, she was awake. That changed everything.

She was beautiful, with long, wavy red hair, fair skin, and a smattering of freckles. Her eyes were yellow, almost luminescent, and just slightly vacant. She was taller than me, but not by much. Dark jeans, combat boots, a white shirt, all kind of worn and dirty.

Just one look at her set my mind ablaze. Concepts, ideas, schematics and blueprints formed in my head, distracting, disrupting. Stop.

“You’re awake,” I said, nearly stumbling over my words.

“I’m alive,” she corrected, though I didn’t understand the distinction. Surprisingly, her accent sounded American. Gabriel and Zoe had British accents, Ami’s was… surprisingly neutral. I could never pick it.

I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t know what she wanted, or who she was. I knew she was dangerous, but not if she was a threat.

“I’m honoured to meet you,” I said carefully.

“Are you,” she replied, no question in her tone.

“A lot of people have been looking for you, you know.”

“I don’t. And I don’t particularly care.”

There was no life in her. She seemed half-baked, distant, unfocussed. It was disappointing, but it also seemed wrong. Like she wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not that I had any idea what she was supposed to be like…

“What do you care about?”

“I haven’t worked that out yet,” she said. “I might have a better idea after killing you.”

“Why do you want to kill me?” I asked, feeling a pang of genuine fear. She was an unknown, a potential enemy I knew nothing about. The small fragments of data I did have suggested I probably didn’t stand a chance.

“Because he wants you dead.”

I glanced back over my shoulder. The satisfied, smug look on his face made it really difficult to resist the urge to punch him.

I had to resist, though. Haylie seemed to have latched onto him, and I needed to know why if there was any chance of detaching her from him. Until then, if she was protecting him, he was far less vulnerable than I thought.

“You should have joined me when you had the chance, Rachel,” he said.

“Fuck off.”

Haylie reacted to that. Her fists clenched, and her body weight shifted. Crap. Did I upset her-

She hit me before I had a chance to brace myself. The impact sent me flying across the room, right over the Celestial’s head. I slammed against the wall, and she was already right there in front of me, her expression still completely blank.

Her next hit threw me sideways, the shock resonating through my entire body. If not for my reinforced skeleton, I’d have been borderline liquefied by that. She hit harder than Zoe or Sabrina could. And she was every bit as fast. That was intimidating.

I was ready for the next blow. I managed to block it, absorbing the force of it and counterattacking with Miss Murder’s knife. The blade didn’t even pierce her skin. Her fingers wrapped around my throat, and she tossed me across the room again.

“Stop playing with her, Haylie,” the Celestial ordered. “Just kill her.”

“Your wish is my command,” she replied.

She began walking towards me, her expression completely neutral. Her right arm stretched out, and the air beyond her hand began to shimmer and warp, forming the shape of a blade, barely visible.

Panic flooded my system. My tinker brain was already analysing what I was seeing, and though I didn’t fully understand it, I knew that blade was dangerous.

She swung at me, and I hurled myself sideways, out of the way. I wasn’t fast enough. The blade sliced right through my left arm, completely severing it at the elbow. Even my reinforced skeleton didn’t offer any resistance.

I screamed, and scrambled backwards, holding the stump of my elbow. She attacked again, but something knocked her out of the air, throwing her backwards. She recovered quickly, but her assailant was already dashing towards me.

Zoe picked me up with one arm, and carried me out of the room. She moved quickly, bouncing between buildings, staying away from street level. Haylie didn’t follow.

We didn’t slow down until we reached her base, our home. She dropped me gently onto a bed, took one look at my arm, and swore.

I glanced down. The wound had cauterised, which was probably good for me, but it was a horrific sight.

“Thank you,” I said, looking up at her.

“Any time,” she replied.

“Where’s Sabrina?” I asked.

“Here,” Sabrina said, entering the room. She looked a little shell-shocked, but her expression turned soft when she saw my arm. “What happened?”

“Haylie’s awake,” I said.

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” Zoe said.

 

Next Week: She Was The First Voice I Ever Heard

Chapter 50a – What Are You Doing Here

“So this is it, huh?” I said, a little impressed. We were standing outside one of the fanciest-looking skyscrapers in the city. The Celestial’s lair.

“Be careful,” Envy cautioned. I ignored her.

“Little over the top, don’tcha think?” Rachel replied, hands on her hips. “I don’t remember him having this much of an ego.”

“Seriously? I can’t picture him with anything but a massive ego,” I said.

“I’m not kidding, this is dangerous,” Envy said. “Just let me help. All you need to do is touch the glass, close your eyes, and listen to me.”

Fine. I walked up to the glass doors, and reached out, pressing my fingers against them. Nothing happened, so I closed my eyes.

“What, uh, what’re doing, there?” Rachel asked.

“Not sure,” I confessed. “Give me a minute.”

“Whatever you say…”

“Good,” Envy said. “Now, envision a ripple that starts at the very centre of you. Let it grow, until it fills your entire body.”

Ripple, ripple, ripple… Ah, there it is. Feels… warm? Should it feel warm? That’s weird…

“Now, let it grow beyond you. Let it flow into the glass. Feel the glass vibrating, until the rhythm is in sync with your own.”

Sounds like some hippie bullshit… Oh! Okay, no, I can feel the glass. It’s… rectangular. Cold. What does this achieve, exactly?

“Got it? Now keep pushing. Match the rhythm. When it pushes out, push harder, until you can feel more glass.”

Push! No, missed it. Wait for it…

Push! Got it! Okay, I can feel the other door. And the windows on either side? And there’s a row of small windows, just above. I can feel all of it. Still not sure what good this does, though.

“Keep pushing. You can go further.”

Another push, and… is that the second floor? It is! And there’s a mirror inside on the first floor, too. Okay, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Push! Another floor. Brilliant. And the shape of the first floor, and some of the second.

Push! Oh, it’s like a 3D map of the building. Or at least, the glass. And wait, is that… It is! Polished metal! So, anything with a reflection?

Oh, this is how Envy was moving around, before she could move in the real world. However she’s doing that.

Push!

Alright, I’ve got most of the building now. I’m still not sure what the point of this is.

“Now that you’ve got the resonance down pat, it’s time to open your eyes. Just think about it first, imagine opening your eyes, without actually doing it. Trust me on this.”

Okay… Opening my eyes…

OUCH. What the fuck am I looking at?

Without physically opening my eyes, suddenly my vision was bombarded with colour. It was like my eyes had fractured into a kaleidoscope, fragments of scenes overlapping and moving about. It was impossible to focus on anything, and already my head was beginning to ache.

“Breathe. Relax. This is normal. Your vision has been expanded. You’re looking through every clear and reflective surface in the building, all at once. It will take some getting used to.”

No kidding.

“Try to find something moving, and focus on that. Push everything else to the side.”

I tried to follow her advice, but it was like being in a room full of TVs, all showing different programs, and trying to focus on just one. Oh, and they all switch around what show is on what at random intervals.

Wait, right there!

Something moved, and I instinctively followed it. As soon as I did, the rest just fell into place. All of the surrounded images parted, creating space for me to focus on the movement.

Him? What the hell is he doing here?

Inexplicably, the boy from months ago, the one who’d seen me transform, was sitting in an empty office, idly tossing a ball against the wall. I could barely remember his name, but his face was familiar.

It didn’t make a lot of sense. He had nothing to do with… anything. Except that one encounter we’d had. Had the Celestial found out about that? Did he think I cared about this boy? Or was that encounter not a coincidence?

Either way, it didn’t matter. I’d found the Celestial.

He was on the fiftieth floor, with two others. One, I recognised. Miss Murder. The other, I didn’t, but I could guess. A young-looking woman, with long red hair, fair skin, freckles. Unconscious, it seemed.

The Celestial was… not what I expected. He was young, same as Miss Murder. Equally familiar. Another classmate? White, skinny, sitting. No, that was a wheelchair.

I opened my eyes. The rest of the vision faded a little, but it didn’t leave. It felt weird, but somehow manageable.

“Fiftieth floor,” I said. Rachel raised an eyebrow.

“Just like that, huh?”

“Just like that,” I said. “Got a problem with that?”

“Nope. Just insatiably curious, as always.”

“Anyway, he’s probably waiting for us. We shouldn’t be rude.”

“You first,” Rachel said, taking a small step back.

I rolled my eyes, and walked up to the glass doors. They were locked, so I decided to just smash through them. The second I did, an explosion tore through the lobby, sending my flying backwards and singeing the front of my costume.

“Motherfucker,” I growled, picking myself up off the ground. My flesh was already healing, but it stung. Rachel laughed. Worse, my weird mirror-vision was severed, and there was no glass left to try the process again with.

We walked into the ruined lobby together, certain the Celestial knew we were there, even if I couldn’t see him anymore. Well, it hardly mattered. It wasn’t like he could go anywhere.

Glass crunched underfoot as we walked. The elevator light activated, the number counting down from thirty-four. The floor that boy was on. What was his name? Qiu? Qiu.

“Looks like we’ve got company,” Rachel commented. “Got any more omniscient insight for me?”

“It’s just one person. Don’t know much more than that.”

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened. Qiu stepped out, but he looked different to before. A little bigger, a little older. Almost like he could have been his own older brother.

He’d bulked up, with toned muscles that were very much on display thanks to the tight vest which was the only top he was wearing. His hair was a little longer, and he’d learned to apply eyeliner. His thin smile oozed confidence. Inappropriate as it was, part of me was a little distracted admiring him. Or it was, until I noticed the black star tattooed on the back of his hand.

Traitor.

“Ladies,” he said, sizing us both up.

“Nice of you to join us,” Rachel said. “Your boss must have a lot of faith in you, sending you in alone.”

“He’s just a delaying tactic,” I said.

“I see you’re still rocking the white girl look,” he said.

“Not like I have a choice,” I muttered.

“You two know each other?” Rachel asked.

“We met once,” I said. “He saw me… change. He was different, then.”

“It’s Zoe’s blood,” Rachel said. “They must have taken some when they raided our old facility. Now that I think about it, that’s probably what they were after.”

“Why are you here?” I asked him.

“Why do you think? After we met, the Stars approached me, made me an offer. A chance to be like you. Special, you know? Make a difference. All I had to do was sign up. And, well…” He held up his hand, showing off the tattoo. “I couldn’t refuse.”

“You’re an idiot,” Rachel taunted.

“We’ll see,” he retorted.

Envy appeared again, a look of concern bordering on panic spreading across her face.

“Jump,” she said.

“What?”

Too late, I processed what she meant. All across the floor, inch-high spikes emerged, puncturing the soles of my feet. I heard Rachel swear, and knew they’d got her too.

The following electrical surge shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. Rachel and I were brought to our knees, all but paralysed by the current. Qiu just laughed, walking casually over to us.

“You know, he told me you’d be this arrogant, but I didn’t quite believe it,” he said, carefully extracting a long, thin blade from the back of his boot. “You really did just come barging in the front door, though. But I’m the idiot. Sure.”

I couldn’t even reply. The current had rendered me completely incapacitated. Envy had vanished.

“You’re such a waste of superpowers. Both of you. I’m honestly a little disappointed.”

He stood over me, blade pointed at my throat. In that moment, I was genuinely frightened. I hadn’t really considered myself vulnerable before, but the Celestial clearly knew how to hurt me, how to weaken me. What if he knew how to kill me?

Qiu thrust the blade forward, but it never reached my skin. Rachel’s hand wrapped around it, snapping it in half. A small amount of her blood dripped to the floor, and Qiu took a step back, clearly surprised.

“Don’t compare us, kid,” she grunted through clenched teeth. “You’re just some brat who got handed a step up on a silver platter. You’ve got a long way to go before you’re on our level.”

“Yeah, keep talking,” he snapped, throwing a punch that looked like it would have knocked her flat. Instead, she twisted and grabbed his wrist, using his momentum to slam him face-first into the spiked floor. His entire body convulsed.

“You go on ahead,” she said to me, lifting me up off the spikes. Almost immediately, I felt my body relax. She bent her knees, then hurled me across the room. I crashed through the door to the fire stairs, landing on a concrete floor that was thankfully devoid of spikes. “I’ll take care of this clown, then catch up with you!”

Just leave him, I thought bitterly. Then again, the Celestial could probably disable the electric floor, and we’d just have to deal with him again. Maybe it was better if she put him out of commission first.

I raced up the stairs, leaving her behind. On several levels, I nearly tripped over explosive traps, but Envy was running ahead, pointing them out to me. Without her, it would have taken me twice as long to get to the fiftieth floor, and a whole lot more pain.

By the time I kicked down the door to his office, I was primed and ready to beat the living daylights out of him. After everything I’d just endured to get here, I was going to make him pay. Then I was going to take Haylie, grab whatever it was that Envy needed, and track down Charlie.

Except he was gone. Somehow, almost inconceivably, he was gone, and Haylie with him. The only person left in the office was Miss Murder, apparently waiting for me, a grim look of determination plastered across her face.

“Where is he?” I snarled, knowing she wouldn’t answer.

She drew a knife.

Have it your way, bitch.

Speed was the key. I knew that. I could move faster than she could react. So long as she couldn’t predict my movements…

I dashed across the room, fingers locked into a claw shape, ready to rip her open. She was quicker than I’d anticipated, almost as if she’d know exactly what I was going to do. I felt her pop back into existence behind me, already turning, ready for the trick.

The world warped and twisted around me, and I realised she’d teleported us both. Everything was far away, and cold, and windy…

Fucking bitch!

She disappeared, leaving me along in the air, fifty floors above the street. I was falling, and I had no way of knowing if I’d survive. Even if I did, it was definitely going to hurt.

Fuck!

A black-clad figure collided with me, the momentum carrying us both back into the side of the building. I twisted to resist, but they were surprisingly strong. They hit the building feet-first, kicking off and sending us flying in the other direction, landing crudely on the rooftop of a shorter building across the road.

As soon as we touched down, they ran, leaping off the side of the building and disappearing into the night. I was too surprised to even consider following them.

Who the fuck…

I knew that smell, though. It was familiar, even if it had changed a little. Once sweet, almost floral, now tainted with a vague hint of rot.

“Veronica?” I said aloud, to somebody who was already gone.

 

Next: You Should Have Joined Me When You Had The Chance

Interlude 3

XO sat on the edge of the craft, staring down at the city below, racing past in the dawn light. The closer they got to the city centre, the greater their sense of unease. There was something about this city that just felt wrong.

“This feels like a trap,” they said, feeling the need to voice their concerns.

“It probably is,” Ami agreed, leaning with her arms folded. XO met her eyes, and saw the same concerns, only better hidden.

In her armoured bodysuit, she looked so tiny, but she more than made up for it with presence. A natural fit for the group’s second in command.

“So of course we’re going straight in. With no backup,” XO complained.

“Whatever it is, we can handle it,” Gabriel said, speaking from the back of the craft. His easy confidence, once inspiring, now just grated on XO’s nerves.

Unlike Ami, his bodysuit only served to make him look bigger, grander. His body language was regal, bordering on arrogant. If they were being honest with themselves, XO might have admitted they really didn’t like Gabriel, didn’t trust him, but even then, they’d have to admit he was the right choice for leader.

“That’s what you said last time,” they pointed out.

“Last time was different,” Ami interjected. “She had her attack dog with her.”

XO shuddered. Tyson Briggs was a man who was terrifying just by virtue of his presence. The fact that he’d been re-creating and upgrading himself for the past, what, two centuries? Purely for the purposes of destroying Gabriel? That made him an incredibly dangerous man.

“And how do we know she doesn’t this time?” XO asked. “Or worse?”

“She doesn’t,” Haylie said, surprising them. She didn’t usually weigh in on these conversations. “And it’s not a trap.”

Haylie was the only of them them not wearing combat gear. Instead, she wore a plain white shirt under a long red coat, the colour chosen to compliment her long auburn hair. Her yellow eyes, vaguely luminescent, were fixated on XO.

“You’re sure?” Ami asked, clearly as surprised as XO was.

“I didn’t say she’s unprepared,” Haylie clarified. “But she’s here for a reason, and it’s not us.”

“She’s been here for weeks, right?” XO asked. “I don’t see how she can stand it. I hate Melbourne.”

“None of us feel that quite as strongly as you, Exxo,” Gabriel said diplomatically.

“It’s not nothing, though,” Ami contributed. “Especially close to the Tower…”

XO twitched involuntarily, an instinctual reaction to a troubled memory. They didn’t know what was in the Tower, nobody did, but whatever it was, it radiated discomfort. The last time they were anywhere near it, they were overcome by feelings of rage, to the point where they nearly attacked their teammates.

“The screaming?” they asked, shaking the memory from their head as best they could. Ami’s experience was arguably worse; a never-ending tirade of psychic screams.

“I can’t hear it from this far out, at least,” was all she said in response.

The four of them were silent, as they flew closer to the city centre. XO knew the others would be going over attack plans, memorising street and building layouts, rehashing previous encounters. For their part, all they did was try to stay calm.

“I don’t believe the Tower is her objective,” Haylie said, breaking the silence.

“Any idea what is?” Gabriel pushed, trying and failing to disguise his desperation. His hunt for his ‘sister’ had been his focus for as long as they’d known each other, some eighty years.

“She’s building something,” Haylie said vaguely.

“Alone?” Ami asked. It was a good question. Zoe had access to nearly all of the resources Mason could provide, which was significant. She could have had an entire construction crew, a contingent of soldiers, a temporary base of operations.

“It’s odd, I’ll admit,” Haylie said. “But there’s no-one else nearby. Only humans.”

Xo cringed again. Humans were the last thing they wanted to deal with. Vicious pack hunters, with the strength and cunning to make them dangerous even to someone like Gabriel.

“Exxo,” he began, the discomfort in his voice alerting XO to what he was about to ask. “Are we close enough for you to use your… ability?”

XO closed their eyes, blocking out all stimuli. Slowly, silently, remaining completely still, they reached out, searching. It didn’t take long to find.

Most of the mirrors in the city were broken, shattered. That was okay. They were only relays. XO kept reaching, kept searching. Found more, used them to reach further.

They inhaled sharply as the world burst into light and colour around them, as they attuned themselves to the mirrors, seeing through the reflective surfaces. As they focussed, glass and polished metal began to resonate as well.

It was’t quite a complete picture of the city, but it was a lot, massive amounts of information that threatened to overwhelm them. It took a few more moments of calm, and forced breathing, before they were able to open their eyes again, adding their normal vision to the supernatural expanse their power provided them.

“Not yet,” they said, replying to Gabriel’s question. “But it’s always weaker here.”

“She’s set up a large number of traps,” Haylie said. “And she knows we’re coming.”

“We stick to the plan,” Gabriel said, clearly frustrated. “We can handle this.”

“That’s what you said last time…” XO repeated. Gabriel said nothing.

“We can’t fly any closer,” Haylie announced. “Setting us down on the closest rooftop.”

“I still can’t see her,” XO said.

A 3D holographic map of the city materialised in XO’s vision, through the visor across their eyes. Another layer of vision to try and wrap their head around.

A symbol lit up a particular building in the 3D map.

“She’s here,” Haylie said.

It was within XO’s range, but in the middle of a black spot.

“No mirrors,” they said. “Right.”

“Don’t be reckless, Exxo,” Ami cautioned. “Gabriel, stay focussed.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said coldly. “Everyone ready?”

“Ready.”

“Ready.”

“Ready.”

“Then let’s go,” Gabriel said. “Don’t let her get away again.”

XO waited until last to move. They weren’t as strong as the others, not as fast or as durable. In a one-on-one fight, Zoe would tear them apart. Chances were they wouldn’t even make it that far, with all of the traps.

Gabriel and Ami were Inheritors. In addition to everything else, they could heal almost indefinitely, from all but the most grievous of wounds. Haylie was, well, Haylie didn’t need to worry. There was a reason she didn’t need to wear armour.

Through the reflections, XO watched as Gabriel descended with an almost ethereal grace. His body moved so quickly, his weight placed on surfaces that shouldn’t support it just long enough, from just the right angles, that he wasn’t even slowed down.

Gabriel was known for being strong and fast, and he certainly was those things, but they weren’t what made him dangerous. He was able to process and analyse information as fast as any computer, able to make thousands of tiny decisions in fractions of a second, and his body was fast enough to keep up. Brilliant, analytical, and a master strategist. Just like his sister.

Ami was far less delicate with her descent, but no less graceful. She leapt off the side of the building. The fall wouldn’t have killed her, would barely have slowed her down, but she didn’t hit the ground. Telekinetic forcefields bloomed around her, providing platforms for her to leap across the air, covering ground almost as quickly as Gabriel.

It was a facade, XO knew. Ami presented her telekinetic abilities as large, brutish even, even claimed fine control was impossible. The reality was that she could sever every major artery in a person’s body from across the room in a single instant, without so much as blinking. If you were alive in her presence, it was because she wanted you to be.

Haylie was slower, more methodical. She was capable of moving as quickly as Gabriel, had the mobility of Ami. She didn’t need it. Haylie was patient, and nothing would slow her down.

As XO watched, a pack of humans, roused from sleep, snarled and snapped and took off, chasing down Gabriel. XO considered a warning, but Gabriel’s senses were sharper than most, and he doubtless already knew.

Eight of them leapt from the shadows, each one a biological machine of destruction, all muscle and bone and fury. Gabriel tore through them, not even bothering to use a weapon, barely losing any forward momentum. Blood dripped from his boots and gauntlets.

In any other team, XO’s ability would have been useful. Awareness of an entire battlefield, a subconscious ability to process it all, they’d have been able to coordinate, to direct and control the flow of battle. Instead, they’d been teamed up with three people with absolutely no need for their ability. With Haylie on the team, XO was almost redundant.

XO knew why they’d been assigned to this team, though. Everyone else was frightened. XO was an anomaly, an impossibility, and Genesis only felt safe with XO being watched by the most powerful, dangerous people they had on hand.

Eighty years ago, they’d woken up with no understanding of the world. No language, no memory, barely able to control their own body. Genesis had found them, an infant in an adult’s body.

Genesis had experimented, of course. It would have been foolish not to. Had XO understood enough to consent, they’d have given it. That they couldn’t, and didn’t, was a minor issue in their mind.

The more Genesis discovered, though, the less warm and welcoming they became. XO learned quickly, absorbing language, culture, history in days and weeks. It didn’t take them long to be able to differentiate between the lies and the truth, the subtext and the stated facts.

Gabriel, Ami, Haylie, the many other superhuman entities in Genesis’ employ, they were all understood. They could be explained, if not replicated. They knew their own origins, the ways they functioned. XO defied all reason.

When their powers had begun to develop, it had gotten worse. There was no reason, no science behind what they could do. It broke their laws of physics, where the Inheritors just bent them. XO was impossible, and therefore, XO was dangerous.

Back to the present. XO leapt off the building, activating a gravity distorter before they hit the ground. It provided only a second’s reprieve from gravity, warped it, and they landed softly.

Like Ami, the fall wouldn’t have killed them, would barely slow them down, but it felt unnecessary, brutish even.

With their ability to see almost the entire battlefield, it was easier to avoid the humans than to engage them. XO wasn’t fond of violence, another thing that set them apart from the others. Gabriel could almost sadistic in combat, Ami was cold, unaffected. Haylie was a mystery, but she certainly didn’t seem adverse.

Without warning, six humans materialised in Ami’s presence. That didn’t make sense. There was nowhere for them to have come from.

The moment they appeared, they’d entered the field of Ami’s telekinetic awareness. She knew about them, no need to warn her. Within a second, they were dead, torn apart from the inside out.

Five more appeared, around XO this time. How? There were none nearby a second ago. No, there was something.

Through the mirrors, XO could only see. Complete sight, but no other senses. They could lipread, but they were still limited. Now, with the humans appearing so close, XO’s other senses contributed.

A sound, soft, like a distant crack.

A smell, metallic and acidic.

A taste in the air, chemical.

A feeling, a disturbance in the air, like a brief gust of wind.

And XO knew. The humans had been teleported.

“Haylie. Teleporting humans,” they said, activating their mic. “How?”

“Not sure,” came the response, almost immediately.

The humans attacked, and XO was forced to respond. Leap over that one’s head, only just agile enough to avoid being torn in two. Gun drawn, safety off.

The humans were fast, vicious, coordinated. Not just that, they looked different. Slimmer, sleeker than they should have been. Their eyes, eerily focussed. Calculating.

XO fired, a headshot, right between the eyes. The human was knocked backwards, but stood back up, the wound closing over, the grey skin knitting together.

Impossible.

What about Ami’s lot?

They’d stayed down. Why were XO’s different?

Another group appeared, teleporting around Gabriel.

“They heal, even from a headshot. And they look different. Almost like-“

“Zoe’s blood,” Gabriel interjected. “She’s injecting humans, turning them into soldiers. And teleporting them right to us.”

Another human attacked. XO twisted out of the way, holstering the gun, pulling out a short blade. A press of a button, and the air around the blade began to twist and distort. Gabriel had pulled out a pistol.

“But how?” Ami asked. “We can’t even manage teleportation, how did she figure that out?”

A human lunged. XO moved in, running on instinct, slicing through the chest. Human physiology wasn’t that different. The blood should have crystalised in the same place…

“It’s not a technological limitation,” Haylie said. “We understand how to do it, but the energy required makes it unfeasible at best, impossible at worst.”

The human collapsed, twitching but not getting up. Gabriel unleashed a barrage, still not breaking his momentum. All of his humans were hit, right in the chest. None of them got up.

“So where’s she getting the energy from?”

XO dispatched the rest of their humans in the same way, taking a hit to the shoulder in the process. The human’s nails, elongated and hardened like claws, tore through XO’s armour. Blood splashed, but the wound began to heal, the suit injecting localised painkillers that wouldn’t interrupt motor functions.

“The Tower,” Gabriel answered. “Now we know what she’s doing. And we’re a test run.”

“She lured us here?” Ami asked, suddenly angry.

“It’s fine,” Gabriel said. “We can handle this.”

“I can’t see where the humans are coming from,” XO said. “They must be gathered in my blind spot. She has an army protecting her.”

“So we dismantle the army,” Gabriel said simply. “I’m not letting her go. Not this time.”

“We should call for backup,” XO insisted. “Aaron, Mia…”

“No time,” Gabriel snapped.

They’d nearly reached the building Haylie had identified as Zoe’s base of operations, right in the centre of the blind spot, each approaching from a separate angle. None of them slowed down.

Ami, still about ten stories up, simply through herself through a window, forming a spearhead of telekinetic energy around her.

Gabriel leapt up the side of the building, magnets in his gauntlets and boots allowing him to ascend rapidly up the smooth exterior.

Haylie simply sauntered in the front doors.

As soon as they entered, they disappeared from XO’s sight.

XO reactivated the gravity distortion bubble, much weaker, attaching it to a grappling hook they fired up at the top of the building. With weaker gravity, the hook flew much further, hitting the top of the skyscraper easily, and latching on. Moments later, XO was pulled up into the air.

They smashed through the ceiling entrance, still reaching out with their power, but it seemed as though every reflective surface in the building had been removed. There was nothing to reach out to. They were going in blind.

A trap, placed in full knowledge of the approach they would use. XO knew the others would be facing something similar. Specimen Z knew them too well, had the same analytic capabilities as her brother. An explosion tore through the stairwell, filling the space in an instant. Nowhere to go.

Tech solution? Kinetic shielding, only good for projectiles. Gravity distortion field, no use against this. Weapons, useless. Comms? Stupid to even consider.

Doing nothing? The explosion would incinerate their armour, including the comms systems. They’d be even more blind, without being connected to the others. Their body would burn, but it would recover, back to the same state it began in, just like always. Zoe knew that. Wanted that. Not an option, then.

In the split second before the explosion reached them, they’d considered all the possibilities, but come up with no solution. That was the difference between them and Gabriel. He would have had a solution. Then again, his trap would have been different, taking that into account.

XO just stood there, letting the explosion knock them backwards, slamming them against the wall. Their armour withstood the impact, but not the heat. It melted, twisted, broke apart. XO’s body was already gone, reduced to nothing more than ash.

The next moment, time had passed. They didn’t know how long. They were naked, but unharmed. The stairwell was scorched. No mirrors. No way of seeing. They ran.

Without their helmet, and the HUD that it provided, XO had no concept of the interior of the building. They hadn’t memorised the layout, didn’t even know what floor Specimen Z would be on.

Down. They needed to descend. Keep going down the stairs, listening for any sound of fighting, or Z’s army, or her device. Anything.

One floor below. Two. They kept going, ten stories down, no signs of anything but calm and quiet.

There was a sound. Above them, somehow. They heard shouting. A familiar voice. Ami’s?

“Found them!” she shouted, to whoever was behind her. Then she dropped. A forcefield caught her, and she landed gracefully, reaching out to XO.

“Let’s go,” she said gently.

They took her hand, and she pulled them onto the forcefield. It rocketed them both upwards, back to the ceiling.

Ami and XO walked out onto the ceiling. Haylie had moved their transport to this roof. XO blinked, not quite believing what they were seeing.

Z was captured. Alive, furious, restrained. Gagged, because even letting her speak was dangerous.

“We did it?” they asked, in awe.

“Mostly Haylie,” Ami said. Gabriel glowered at her, but didn’t say anything. His anger was tempered by victory.

This was what he’d wanted, what he’d been working towards for two hundred years. He didn’t seem happy.

Both Ami and Gabriel’s bodysuits were wrecked. Whatever had happened, it had been one hell of a fight. XO had missed it entirely.

“Where is Haylie?” they asked, looking around.

“In the ship,” Ami said. “She took some damage, more than us. She’s resting.”

XO breathed a sigh of relief. Haylie was the closest thing they had to a friend. They respected Gabriel, liked Ami even, but the two of them were cautious, distant. With orders to keep an eye on them, it made sense. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.

Haylie was always kind, gentle. Understanding, even. She wasn’t frightened of them, not even concerned. Maybe she sympathised a little. Those who knew what she was, what she really was, tended to treat her similarly.

“Let’s go,” Gabriel said, tense, almost hostile. He disappeared onto the ship.

“What’s with him?” XO asked, once he was out of sight, knowing he’d hear anyway.

“They talked,” Ami said, shrugging.

“They..? Oh. Oh.

Gabriel and Z, they weren’t accidents. Every part of them had been designed, for very specific purposes. Of all their siblings, living or dead, they were the two that had the most in common.

Part of their design was a vicious social cunning. XO had seen it in Gabriel, knew Z was capable of the same. He picked up social cues, processed and analysed them like combat data. He was an expert on knowing exactly what to say and how to say it, to get the exact outcomes he needed.

Z had needled him, gotten under his defences. The only way he was really vulnerable. Gabriel must have reached her first, and she’d been prepared.

XO didn’t even want to think about whatever she could have said to get to him.

Ami climbed into the transport, offering her hand to XO again. Once on board, she handed them a spare bodysuit, unarmoured. They’d forgotten about being naked. It didn’t bother them, but for modesty’s sake, they dressed.

The ship took off, rising into the air. In the distance, XO could see the Tower. It sent a chill down their spine, unsettling in a way they didn’t understand.

“I can’t believe we did it,” XO said.

“Believe it,” Ami said, placing a hand on their shoulder. “We-“

She didn’t finished whatever she was going to say. A scream filled the air, deafening, painful. XO dropped to their knees, clutching their head, trying in vain to block out the sound.

Ami collapsed to the floor, eyes glazing over. Not an audible scream, then. A psychic scream. One they could all hear.

Gabriel was frantic, panicking. XO had never seen that before. He looked at Zoe, accusatory, but she looked as bad as he did, overcome by fear.

No, not fear. Pain. The scream was one of pain, and they all felt that pain. It overwhelmed them, filled every part of their being, threatened to tear them apart.

XO staggered to the cockpit, looking for Haylie. She looked unconscious, slumped in the seat, eyes closed. XO looked ahead, saw the sky tear open in front of them. Another world expanded, unfolded before them.

No.

The voice filled their head, alien. It was their voice, but it wasn’t.

You cannot enter.

I don’t want to enter, XO thought in response.

The ship kept flying straight ahead, right into the tear, almost as if it were opened just for them. XO tried to seize the controls, but they were non-responsive. Nothing they could do.

The ship hit the tear, began to pass through it. XO did not. Like hitting an invisible wall, their forward momentum was arrested.

The ship continued forward around them, and they were torn out of their seat, thrown to the back of it. The momentum of the ship kept pulling it forward. XO became an immovable object. The ship strained, but it was more than its own engines pulling it forward. The tear had a sort of gravity of its own.

The back of the ship tore apart, rent in two. The ship launched forwards, and XO fell, reaching helplessly.

As they plummeted back towards the ground, knowing the fall would rip their body apart, watching their teammates disappear through a tear in reality, into another dimension, they felt something else. Something new.

Something gone.

A tiny sliver, barely noticeable. Almost nonexistent. They were aware of it, until it passed through the tear. The moment it did, it disappeared from XO’s awareness.

Part of them, gone forever.

Their team, gone forever.

They fell.

They hit the ground.

They died.

They returned.

The sliver was still gone.