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Chapter 34 – Collateral Damage

Seven Months Before Impact Day

“So,” Aidan said, acting casual. “Did you catch whatever that thing was in Fed Square today?”

“I was there,” Mark said. “It was quite the spectacle.”

“What even happened?” I asked, wondering how much Mark suspected. There was a good chance he knew about my immortality, possibly had before I ever did. If that was true…

“A lot of unnecessary drama,” Mark said disdainfully. “Some fool just painted a target on their back, and every gun in the city is going to be pointed at it.”

“Isn’t that a good thing for you?” I asked. “This could keep you in work for, well, however long it lasts. And then some. Everyone loves a retrospective thinkpiece.”

“That’s certainly an optimistic perspective,” he said carefully. “Personally, I’m a little more preoccupied with the more direct consequences of the stunt.”

“Consequences?”

“Some of the most powerful criminal organisations in the city, possibly the world, have just been publicly challenged,” he said. “By someone claiming altruistic intent, no less. An anonymous hero, with no obvious vulnerabilities. Now, how would you respond to that?”

My gut twisted and my heart sank as I processed immediately what he was suggesting. Aidan looked at me, a casual glance that belied the same grim realisation.

“Collateral damage,” I said. “They’re gonna go after civilians.”

“I certainly would,” Mark agreed. “Punish the altruist, reinforce their power, reassure the less confident among their own numbers.”

“That’s a scary thought,” I said weakly.

“It’s a scary world,” he replied wearily.

“I wonder if they think it’s worth it,” Aidan said. “The vigilante, I mean.”

“Oh, almost certainly,” Mark said. “They’d have to convince themselves it’s worth it. That they’re fighting some kind of noble war, and the end justifies the means. They’ll feel guilty about the consequences, but the cost isn’t theirs to pay, not really, so they’ll push through. Eventually, they’ll fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy, and every casualty will reinforce the need to continue, so the lives already lost won’t be in vain. Both sides will push harder and harder, escalating until one side loses or the city is consumed.”

I felt a chill run down my spine. Mark didn’t make eye contact with me once, but I knew he was speaking to me. Somehow, he knew, and he’d seen right through me.

Was that just paranoia? Would he have said any different if he didn’t suspect me? Probably not. Maybe he had no idea at all.

“Sounds like you’ve got your first article already written,” I said with forced joviality.

“I suppose so,” he said. “And write I must. When words are all you have, all you can do is share them with the world, and hope that they resonate. In a world such as this, what else could I contribute?” With that, he pushed out his chair, and stood. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”

Aidan and I exchanged worried glances.

“Do you think he knows?” Aidan asked.

“I can never tell, with him.”

“He was right though, you know.”

“Maybe,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t do nothing, and I can’t allow their poison to go unchecked.”

“Have you ever considered that maybe they’re not the problem?” Aidan asked. “That it’s the system that’s failing us, and they’re just a symptom?”

“Maybe,” I confessed. “But I don’t know how to fix the system. All I know how to do is fight the disease.”

“Right,” he said solemnly. “Well, I’m going to bed. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Charlie.”

“Sure,” I said, feeling a little hollow.

Two Months Before Impact Day

“Ahh, yes, your big public entrance,” he said, sneering at me. “If we’d known then that you were just a teenage girl and a few friends…”

“You wouldn’t have taken me seriously, and it would have bitten you in the arse,” I said. “Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened.”

“I don’t think you caused quite the amount of damage you think you did,” he scoffed. “And look at you know. You’re in here, alone, and we’re still going strong.”

“How foolish of me,” I said dryly. “Guess you’re right. You’ve won, I lost, end of story.”

“Do you want another month in concrete?”

“This time, I’m calling your bluff,” I said. “I know you’re running out of time.”

“What makes you think there’s a time limit?” he demanded.

“Because my friends are still out there, and they’re a lot more dangerous than I am,” I told him.

“You’re the only immortal,” he pointed out. “Them, we can kill.”

“And yet you haven’t. And you won’t, because they’re not just a few teenage brats. And I know for a fact they’re still causing you one headache after another.”

“They’re a manageable concern,” he insisted.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I asked. “Liz and Aidan are tools, very dangerous tools. There’s no secret Aidan can’t uncover, and no back safe from Liz’s knife, and they’re not the ones you need to be worried about.

“You haven’t been listening. Rachel will stop at nothing to get me back, and she’s not just clever. She’s a tinker. Do you understand what that means?”

“Your girlfriend is a nerd,” he said dismissively.

“My girlfriend is supernatural,” I said. “Given enough time, she can build anything, and so far, she’s had four months. What do you think she’s got waiting for you?”

“Bullshit,” he snapped. “You really want me to believe there’s another supernatural human out there, that you just magically found each other, and fell in love?”

“Don’t forget Wendy,” I said.

“Right, your café” owner. We looked into her. Nothing came of it.”

“She scared your men off, huh?”

“I think you’re just full of shit,” he said.

“Well, you’ve got one thing right,” I confessed.

“Oh?”

“The idea that the only supernatural people in the world all live in the same city, all know each other, purely by coincidence, is bullshit. So what do you think that means?” I asked.

“That you’re a liar.”

“Dude, I am a literal immortal. I actively defy understanding or explanation. Do you really want to hang your hat on that being the only one that exists? That I’m lying about everything except that?”

“What’s your explanation, then?”

“You’ve only just started to scratch the surface of what I really am,” I told him. “And I promise, you’ll be dead before you’ve figured me out.”

“I thought you were against murder,” he said.

“Oh, I am,” I said. “Ethically. I genuinely believe there isn’t a person alive that deserves death, no matter their choices.”

“Then I’m finding it difficult to understand why I should take your threat seriously,” he said.

“Because you’ve spent four months torturing me,” I said. “Everyone has their breaking point. You found mine when you left me trapped in a block of concrete for a month.”

“Ah, so I am getting through to you,” he said.

“Rachel, I really need you to hurry up,” I muttered.

 

Next Week: Everything’s Gonna Work Out Just Fine

Chapter 21 – Sort Of A Girl Problem

Part 3 – Wendy

10 Months Before Impact Day

I knocked on the door to Mark’s study, heard a gentle grunt of approval, and let myself in. He was sitting at his desk, both monitors suspiciously turned off, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. I shut the door behind me.

“Hey, got a minute to talk?”

“For you? Always,” he replied pleasantly, though he looked a little impatient.

“Okay, well, I kind of have a problem,” I began, treading carefully. What I was going to tell him was a big deal for me, and I didn’t necessarily trust him not to use that information against me.

“What sort of problem?”

“It’s sort of a… girl problem,” I said vaguely. He immediately got that uncomfortable expression that men get around anything to do with feminine hygiene. Probably could have chosen my words better.

“Well, I’m no expert, but I’ll help however I can,” he said carefully.

“Not like that,” I told him, turning a little red. “I mean like… like a boy problem, except, well, she’s not a boy.”

“Oh!” he said, sounding immediately relieved. “Well, that I can probably help a little more with.”

“You don’t have a problem with that?” I asked, a little surprised. Maybe Sadie’s reaction had put me on edge.

“Why should I? It’s perfectly natural,” he said easily.

I breathed a sigh of relief, realising for the first time what it really meant to be queer. A constant question of safety, trust and respect. Never again could I assume people wouldn’t turn my love into something ugly.

“Well, that makes that part a lot easier, I guess,” I said.

“I’m assuming the issue of gender is not the problem,” he probed.

“No, it’s not that. This girl…”

“Might I ask her name?”

“Oh. Um, Rachel,” I said, blushing again.

“From your jujitsu classes?”

“You remember that?” I asked, surprised again.

“I do pay attention, you know,” he said, with mock offence.

“Evidently so.”

“As I recall, her family situation was a little complex. Is that part of the problem?”

I actually didn’t know what to say to him. It was almost like he was having the conversation for me.

“It’s most of the problem,” I said. “It’s why I’ve been sneaking out at night. She can’t leave, and isn’t allowed guests, so I have to sneak in once her mum is asleep.”

“That seems less than ideal.”

“You’re telling me. Unfortunately, her mum has gotten even worse lately, and she’s locking the doors at night, so I can’t even sneak in. So, we don’t even have any way of seeing each other.”

“I am beginning to see the problem, but not the solution.”

I took another deep breath, knowing the next part was the tricky part. I didn’t want him to feel like the only reason I was talking to him was because I wanted something, even though that was technically true.

“She doesn’t have a phone, so I can’t even talk to her,” I said slowly.

“And now I see where I come in,” he said, sounding amused.

“Sorry. I really don’t think of you as just a walking bank account, I just don’t know who else could help with this, and there aren’t a lot of people I can tell.”

He smiled reassuringly, folding his hands in his lap. I looked down at the floor, embarrassed.

“I understand, it’s okay,” he told me. “I take it you haven’t spoken to Aidan or Liz about this?”

“Not yet.”

“Fair enough. They are good friends, but this is a sensitive topic. I assure you, I will maintain the utmost discretion on the topic.”

“Thank you,” I said meekly.

Mark spun his chair around and slid it sideways across the room, stopping in front of a filing cabinet. He pulled a key from his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and pulled out a small, plastic-wrapped box.

“Here,” he said, tossing it to me. I snatched it out of the air.

It was a box containing a brand new, unopened phone. Nothing particularly fancy, but far from the cheapest model out there.

“You just happened to have this lying around?” I asked, incredulous. There was no way things were going this well.

“I’ll thank you not to repeat this information to anyone, but I keep a small supply of them,” he told me, in a hushed voice. “Occasionally, I need to make calls from numbers other than my own. Mine can be an awkward profession, at times.”

“My lips are sealed,” I said, looking down at the box again. It still felt too easy.

“Then we have an accord,” he said. He reached into his pocket again, pulled out his wallet, and handed me a small wad of cash. “For your first credit recharge. And if your own phone bill happens to be a bit higher for a little while, I might just look the other way.”

“Wow,” I said, still waiting for the rug to be swept out from under me. “Um, thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Charlie, I love you as my own daughter. It is my genuine pleasure to be able to help you when you need it,” he said sincerely.

Why didn’t I feel this two months ago? Was my depression really that bad?

“You’re amazing,” I said, blinking back tears. “Thank you.”

I wrapped my arms around him, hugging him fiercely, and he gently hugged me back. Then he shooed me out of his room, claiming he had a lot of work to get back to, and that I had a girlfriend to spend time with.

* * *

That night, I arrived at Rachel’s with a slight spring in my step, almost giddy that I got to see her again. It wasn’t just the phone I was excited to give her, though that obviously didn’t hurt my mood at all.

I rapped on her window, which she’d left slightly open. I added a quiet ‘psst’ to get her attention.

“Hey,” she said, her face appearing in the window. She reached out of the window with her hand, and I grabbed it happily.

“I brought you a present,” I told her, producing the box with a flourish.

“What? How did you…”

“Mark was surprisingly cool about it all,” I said, smiling. She took the box and managed to squeeze it through the window, turning it over in her hands a few times.

“Wow.”

“I know it won’t be as good as being in the same room, but…”

“But I won’t feel anywhere near as isolated,” she said, reaching out and grabbing my hand again. “You have no idea how much this means.”

“I have some idea,” I said, squeezing her hand.

“Thank you, Charlie.”

“Eh, it was mostly Mark,” I confessed, turning a little red.

“No, you made this happen,” she insisted. “And it means a lot to me. It really does.”

Though she kept smiling at me, and didn’t break eye contact, her free hand kept fiddling with the box, turning it over and tracing the lines in the plastic wrap. I laughed.

“You really want to open it, don’t you?”

“Opening is the best part,” she admitted, embarrassed.

“You’re supposed to say talking to me is the best part,” I said, with mock offence.

“That’s totally what I meant,” she said, sticking her tongue out, then biting her lip and smiling at me. It was like an arrow right to my heart.

“Go ahead and open it,” I said. “Oh, and pass me the rubbish. We don’t want your mum getting suspicious.”

“Good thinking,” she said before ripping off the packaging greedily.

I watched as she meticulously took apart the box, then removed all the different components one by one. I could tell by the hungry look in her eyes she wanted to take the phone apart just to see if she could put it back together again, but she was resisting. She grinned at me like a kid on Christmas.

“We’ll find a way to make this work,” I promised her.

“I know,” she said, reaching her hand back out to grab mine. Then she stopped and pulled it back in, an excited look on her face. “Oh yeah! I got something for you, too.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised.

“I’ve been working on some of the stuff we took,” she explained. “I managed to figure out how to make a few things work better for you.”

“You did?”

“Hey, don’t sound so surprised. I can be helpful,” she said, crinkling her nose and frowning at me. It was entirely too cute.

“You are indispensable,” I told her, trying hard to keep a straight face.

“That’s more like it. Okay, so for starters, I modified this bulletproof vest a little, so it would fit you better.”

She passed it through the window to me, and I held it up to the moon to get a better look at it. Already I could tell that it was lighter than the one I’d been wearing, and it did look like it was more suited to my body shape.

“Wow,” I said, genuinely impressed.

“Also, any chance you know how to fire a pistol?” she asked.

“No, and I don’t want to.”

“Well, you might wanna reconsider that, because these rubber bullets will make things a lot easier for you,” she said, passing a box through the window. I took the box and looked at it.

“Rubber bullets?”

“They’re like a really hard punch,” she said. “At worst, there may be some broken bones or internal bleeding, but nothing worse than what you’ve already done.”

I cringed at the thought. Grievous bodily harm had never been my intention, it had just been my only option.

“I am trying to avoid that, you know,” I told her.

“And I’m trying to avoid you being locked in a cellar and cut up for fun,” she said bluntly. “And speaking of getting cut up, I also modified these for you.”

The next thing she passed out to me were was a pair of high-grade armguards, a lot nicer than my own ones. Instead of foam, they were a hard plastic, with a sort of ridged texture, and a thin layer of padding underneath.

“Armguards?”

“They should be knife-proof, and the ridges should stop a knife from sliding off and cutting you anyway. It’s kind of crude, but it should do the job better than what you have been using.”

“Wow…”

“Oh, and also this,” she added, passing me a limp pile of black fabric. “It’s a harness, but I made a few changes so you can store a bunch of your stuff on it, so you can take more with you.”

“My very own Q,” I said proudly, blown away by how resourceful she was. When she wanted to do something, it was very rare that she couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. I had definitely considered the possibility that she was a real, bona fide genius.

“I just want you to be safe,” she said solemnly.

“Thank you.”

“So, tomorrow, after school, I want to teach you to shoot,” she said. The tone of her voice told me she was not going to take no for an answer. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to give it anyway.

“But if you don’t go straight home…”

“I’ll deal with that,” she said, brushing off my objection. “How much worse can she really make things?”

“I don’t want you getting into trouble for my sake,” I said.

“Charlie, it’s worth it. So let me do what I want, okay?”

I sighed. I didn’t want to agree with her, but I did want to be the sort of person who would respect the choices that she made, and the reasons she made them.

“Just promise me you’ll find a way to get away from this,” I said, gesturing towards her house.

“I do. Constantly. But she’s still my mum, and I can’t just run away,” she said. I felt my heart break a little.

“She treats you like crap. You don’t owe her your loyalty,” I protested, and I could see from the look in her eye that I’d annoyed her.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” she said, a heavy dose of finality in her voice. “And she’s family, no matter how unwell she is.”

“I just hate seeing her treat you like she does,” I said, looking down at the ground.

“I know you’re only looking out for me. But we’re both doing what we think is right, you know?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I conceded. “I’m sorry.”

“Shit, I think I heard her,” Rachel whispered, shrinking down. “You should go.”

“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow, after school,” I whispered back.

“Okay. Goodnight, Charlie.”

“Y-yeah. G’night,” I said back awkwardly.

 

Next Week: Adult Supervision

Chapter 17 – You Will Be Safe, Won’t You?

Ten Months Before Impact Day

Aidan and I ate dinner together most nights, but it was rare for Mark to join us. Usually he ate much later, reheating whatever was around and taking it back into the study with him. Whenever he did eat with us, neither Aidan nor I really knew what to do.

The three of us sat in relative silence, Aidan and I glancing over at each other every so often, just to confirm that yes, it was awkward, we both felt it. Mark seemed completely oblivious to it, though with him it was always difficult to tell.

I’d always thought of Mark as a strange-looking man. He was kind of elongated, thin and long without being particularly tall. His short hair was starting to turn grey, and he looked perpetually tired, but never weighed down by it. His mannerisms were almost always slow and deliberate, as if he were making a point of every slight movement.

“You’re in a much better mood today,” Aidan said to me, trying to break the silence.

“You think so?”

“You do seem a little less dour than usual,” Mark chimed in.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Aidan complained.

“He’s calling me gloomy,” I translated for him. Aidan nodded, then snickered. I glared at him.

“I would say more melancholic,” Mark said, as if they were radically different concepts. I think he was just trying to annoy Aidan.

“Dad, we’re having dinner, not writing an article,” Aidan snapped. He was always a little touchy about vocabulary.

“And you have done a wonderful job with it once again,” Mark praised him, diverting the conversation.

“Oh, it was nothing.” Aidan was suddenly embarrassed. He was easily the best cook in the house, and even though he clearly enjoyed it, he always treated it like a chore.

“So, Charlie, what brought on this sudden shift in persona?” Mark asked, surprising me.

My mood had improved, that much was certain. A couple of months ago, I’d been depressed to the point of being suicidal. A lot had changed since then. Mostly with Rachel, and with my burgeoning scheme to make the city a safer place. Neither of those were things I was comfortable discussing with my adoptive family.

“I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied.

“Well, you definitely seem different,” Aidan said. I really wished he’d just keep his mouth shut.

“Perhaps a special someone has entered the picture?” Mark ventured, his probing grey eyes locking onto mine. It took all of my self-control not to react at all.

“We tried that angle already,” Aidan said.

“We?” Mark asked, his curiosity shifting.

“Liz and I already asked, I mean,” Aidan clarified, embarrassed again.

Opportunity.

“Don’t you think it’s weird how he says ‘we’?” I asked. Aidan glared at me, so I smiled sweetly back.

“Weird? Not at all,” Mark said, and Aidan’s sigh of relief was almost audible. “Noteworthy, though…”

“What are you trying to get at?” Aidan snapped, shrinking down in his chair.

“I believe Charlie is trying to deflect the focus on the conversation onto you.”

Dammit, he’s right.

“Y’know, if you and Liz are like, dating or anything, you can just say so,” I said.

“We are definitely not dating,” he said.

“Well, that is disappointing,” Mark said indifferently. “You two always look so comfortable together. And how about you, Charlie?”

“How about me what?” I asked, wondering if I could get out of this without lying. Mark could always tell when I was lying, and beside that, I didn’t want to lie about Rachel. I just wasn’t ready to have a coming out conversation with two straight men.

“Do you have a boyfriend at all?” Aidan pressed, tasting revenge. I’ve told him too much.

“No, I don’t have a boyfriend.” And if you keep pushing, I’ll punch you so hard-

“Well, it’s better for both of you to focus on your schoolwork, of course,” Mark said. “But do remember to enjoy your youth before it gets old.” He chuckled at his own joke; he was the only one.

“Why do you always talk like such a weirdo?” Aidan demanded.

“He doesn’t want anyone to forget that he’s a writer,” I offered.

“Doth my tongue offend thee, dear child?”

Aidan just rolled his eyes.

“So, what about you, Mark?” I asked, changing the subject as far away from Rachel as I could. “You don’t often have time to eat with us.”

“Well, I just so happened to have wrapped up another story. And besides, if I didn’t eat with you both once in a while, you’d forget what I looked like entirely.”

“Would that really be so bad?” I asked, my smirk challenging him to fight back. Amusement twinkled in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything.

“Working on anything interesting?” Aidan asked.

“I like to think everything that I work on is interesting,” Mark replied vaguely.

“Interesting to us, he means,” I clarified for him.

“Ah. Well, no, not unless either of you have suddenly developed an interest in local politics.”

“Nope,” I said flatly.

“Not really,” Aidan added.

“Then I am no good to either of you, I’m afraid,” he said solemnly.

“Aww, don’t say that,” I comforted him. “You’ll always be good to us, so long as you keep paying the bills.”

“Charlie!” Aidan cried, mortified. I just laughed.

“Well, I am glad to be of use in some way, at least,” Mark replied evenly.

“Dad, she’s only joking.”

“A lot of truth is said in jest,” Mark said, feigning offence, then lightened his tone. “Truthfully, being able to provide financially for the two of you is very important to me, so I’m not in the least offended.”

“See? He’s fine,” I said, vindicated.

“Well, now you can make yourself useful, and clean up,” Aidan said, scowling at me.

“Ugh, fine,” I grumbled. It was only fair.

“And will tonight be another late night out for you, young Charlotte?” Mark asked, making me freeze up.

I regained my composure, twisting around to glare at Aidan. He threw his hands up in a display of innocence, a look of genuine surprise on his face.

“I didn’t say anything!” he protested.

Crap. Left with no way to avoid it, I decided to opt for playing it cool instead. Maybe if I acted like it was a totally normal thing to do, he would believe it.

“I might step out for a bit of fresh air later, I guess,” I said nonchalantly.

“Well, be sure to take your phone with you, just in case,” he replied mildly.

That’s it? That was almost too easy. It seemed suspicious, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Seriously?” Aidan asked, clearly unimpressed.

“I trust her,” Mark told him.

“I don’t think it’s about trust,” Aidan argued.

“And when you’re a father, your opinion on the matter will carry an equal amount of weight,” Mark replied dismissively.

“Hah!” I laughed victoriously at Aidan.

“But you will be safe, won’t you?” Mark said to me, his tone and expression serious.

“Yes, Mark.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it.” He pushed his chair back, and stretched out. “Now if you’ll both excuse me, I still have plenty of work to do.”

 

Next Week: This City Isn’t Yours Anymore