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Tag: Rachel

Chapter 60 – Impact Day

Liz, Impact Day

Charlie’s scream pierced my ears, resonated with every surface I could see. It wasn’t a human scream, but then, Charlie clearly wasn’t human. I didn’t know what she was. A demon, maybe? Something unholy.

I held Aidan, his head resting on my lap, groaning in pain. I tried to say something soothing, but the burning sensation around my throat hadn’t passed. No sound came out.

All I could do was watch as Charlie dropped to her knees, the inhuman scream pouring out of her like a fountain of blood, so forceful I could almost see it. The air around her shimmered as her body vibrated, more and more violently.

On the other side of the room, I saw Rachel, barely able to move. I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad, after what she’d done to us. She had a look of horror on her face, mixed in with the pain she was feeling.

Regretting it now?

Charlie’s bones broke, over and over, repairing themselves before breaking again, and she kept screaming. She fell to her hands, blood dripping from every pore. The screaming was intensifying, like it was bouncing off itself, creating a violent echo that threatened to rip the room apart.

I could still see the shape of the demon around her, but it was vague, translucent. Was it weaker? Was it in pain, too? Was it different to her?

I was shaking, too. Not just from the pain, or the shock. Charlie’s screaming was reaching deep into my core, twisting me until I couldn’t feel anything else.

What is happening?

The walls of the house cracked more, bursting apart in to fragments and splinters, flying away from us. The pool of blood around Charlie was bubbling, almost like it was boiling. Her bones continued to break, and the air around her grew more and more distorted.

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t shake the sensation that something was wrong, that something didn’t belong.

As Charlie fell apart, I saw her look up, fixated on a spot right in front of her. I blinked, and there was a girl there, a child with lilac hair.

“What—” Charlie began, but her mouth was full of blood.

“I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t do anything with my email,” the child said. “I went through a lot of trouble to set this up, you know.”

“Who are you?” Charlie managed to choke out.

“Nobody~” the child said, in a sing-song voice.

“What’s… happening…?”

“Oh, this? Let’s call it an allergic reaction,” the girl said. “See, Wendy’s blood came from a different Shaper. They’re not supposed to mix, you know. Your body is rejecting it.”

“You… wanted this…?”

“Just one more step,” she said, shrugging. “We’re a long way from the end, yet. No, what I wanted was…” She glanced up at the sky. It looked as though the air above us was tearing apart, like God Himself had decided to rip open the sky. Through it, I could see a glittering night sky, so very different to our own. “There we go.”

As I watched, a futuristic looking plane emerged through the rift, spinning out of control, flames and smoke billowing from the side. I shuddered as it collided with somewhere far from here, causing a booming explosion.

“Finally,” the girl said.

“What…?”

“You broke the rules, Charlie. You’ve let something into this world that shouldn’t be here. Something very, very dangerous.” She rocked back on her heels, looking pleased with herself. “Well, you’ll forget we talked, but remember this. Get rid of them. Send them home. Stop at nothing. And trust the Destroyer. They only want to protect you.”

The entire world shuddered beneath us. The girl didn’t seem to notice.

“Hmm. I should go make sure Sabrina is where she needs to be.”

The girl was gone. She didn’t disappear, she just stopped being where she was. Charlie’s arms gave out, and she collapsed to the floor.

The screaming stopped.

The rift closed.

Charlie pulled herself up, slowly. The blood around her began to evaporate, and by the time she’d stood up, she looked entirely unharmed, save for the wild look in her eye.

Something about her was different. Actually, plenty about her was different. She was thinner, her skin looked softer. Her eyes were lighter, a blueish green now. Her nails seemed perfectly filed. She stretched out, then glanced around the room. Her eyes passed over me, and fixated on Rachel.

She rushed to Rachel’s side, moving inhumanly fast. As fast as we’d been able to move with Wendy’s blood in us, at least. She picked Rachel up like she weighed nothing.

“Rachel?”

“I’m okay, Charlie,” Rachel said, her voice weak. “I’m more worried about you.”

“I feel fine,” Charlie said, and she sounded it.

“What happened?” Rachel asked.

“A painful transition, I guess,” Charlie said. “Looks like I did some damage, here.”

“Looks like it,” Rachel agreed. “What are we gonna do about them?”

Charlie turned to look at us, and any kindness fell off her face.

“After what they did to you?” she asked. “I’ll kill them.”

I tried to speak up, to protest, but no words came out of my mouth. Aidan pushed away from me, tried to stand, but his legs didn’t move, and he fell over.

“Haven’t you done enough?” he asked, nearly spitting at her. “We sacrificed everything to save you, and you… All you did was use us.”

“I needed Wendy’s power,” Charlie said, as if that justified it. “She wasn’t doing anything to keep this city safe. This world safe. I’ve been fighting, every day. Now I can make a difference.”

“All of this, just to be a superhero?” Aidan asked, incredulous. “Immortality wasn’t enough?”

“You saw how little I was doing,” Charlie said. “And now, nothing can stop me.”

“I can,” he said, then glanced back at me. “We can. And we will.”

I nodded my agreement.

“You? What can you do?” Charlie asked. She sounded like a comic book villain. How ironic.

“You’ll see,” he said.

“I won’t,” Charlie replied.

“Liz, I need you to do something,” Aidan said, a quiet note of urgency in his voice. “Focus on somewhere down the street. Not too far. Hold on to me, and focus.”

Charlie loomed ever closer, not in any kind of rush, and more intimidating for it. I couldn’t see any way out, any way to survive. We didn’t stand a chance against her, not with the power she had now. Even still, I gripped Aidan hard, trusted him, and focused.

The world around us changed.

We were somewhere different.

“Again,” Aidan said, and I realised we’d moved to where I was thinking about. I did it again.

We moved again.

“Keep going, until she can’t find us,” Aidan said. I kept moving us, kept teleporting, until I was certain Charlie couldn’t find us.

I still couldn’t speak, but there was a pad of paper on a desk. We were in someone’s house, their office. I didn’t know who. It didn’t matter. I grabbed the paper, found a pen, wrote on it.

What happened? I wrote.

“Whatever happened back there changed us,” Aidan said. “I don’t know how. But you can teleport, now.”

How did you know? I wrote.

“I saw it,” he said. “I… I think I can see the future? No, possible futures. It’s… hazy. Hurts my head. But I saw you do it.”

You can’t walk, I wrote.

“And you can’t speak,” he said. “Seems like we’re being punished, by whatever that thing was. But Liz, we’re still us. We had something taken, gained something else, but we’re still us. And we need to stop her. You understand that, right?”

How? I wrote.

“We use my network. Between the Stars, and my new powers, I can build an army to stop her. And you, you’re an assassin who can get in anywhere.”

I don’t want to kill, I wrote, then underlined it.

“Liz, you know what Charlie is like. You know what she can do, now. I don’t want more innocent deaths, but we can’t let anything stop us. We can’t stop at anything.”

I understand, I wrote, but I didn’t believe it.

“Wait,” he said, holding a hand to his head. “I see something… There’s a way,” he told me. “A weapon that we can use, from the breach.”

What is it?

“Her name is Haylie,” he said.

 

And that’s it for Volume 2! Thanks for reading this far. I wasn’t sure if this format would work, setting an entire volume before the events of the first. I’m still not sure, honestly! But it was important to me that the volumes each have a different feel, and focus on very different events. Besides, it’s fun to mess with the idea of linear storytelling. After all, Impact Day isn’t a linear story. Anyway! As always, if you want to support the work I do here, you can jump on over to patreon and give me a dollar or more monthly. It means a lot. Also, you’ll soon be able to buy the eBook of this volume, which features not one but two bonus chapters that didn’t get published online. 

Next Week: We’re jumping into another mini-volume, just like Roxie! This one is called Glory, and I think you’re going to love it a lot. (Also, there will be an epilogue later this week!)

Chapter 59 – She Deserves This

Liz, Impact Day

Aidan and I arrived back at Wendy’s cafe, but she was nowhere to be seen. There was a piece of paper sitting on a table, with two seats arranged as though people had been sitting in them only recently. Next to the paper was a small case.

Aidan approached the table, opening the case first. He held up a syringe, and shrugged. I walked over, and picked up the note.

Liz, Aidan,

I broke the rules. The price has to be paid.

I’m gone now.

Rachel is clever, but she underestimated me. I should have realised sooner, though.

Still, it’s not too late to stop them, and believe me, you need to stop them.

Go to Rachel’s cabin. Take the syringe. It will nullify the blood of mine in her system.

Go quickly.

-Wendy

We read the note a few times, and Aidan looked at the syringe again.

“She tricked us,” he said, carefully, feeling out the words.

“They both tricked us,” I said. “Right from the beginning. This was a game to them, and we played right into their hands.”

“I loved her,” Aidan said, sounding stunned.

“We both did,” I said.

“We have to stop her,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I took a moment to be quiet, to let the knowledge sink in. Charlie hadn’t included us because she needed our help. She was building our attachment, so that when she let herself get captured, Rachel could manipulate us into going after her. Because Wendy saw right through Rachel, but Aidan and I, we were genuine.

We weren’t her friends. We weren’t even people to her. We were tools. Tools that she’d used. And why? For power?

“She’s not the person we thought she was,” I said, slowly, deliberately.

“She’s a monster,” Aidan said.

“They both are.”

“Maybe it was all Rachel,” I said, hopeful but not convinced.

“There’s only one way to find out,” he said.

“Let’s go, then.”

Aidan seemed fired up, but I just felt numb. I could barely believe any of it was happening. The one thread, the one thing that had been keeping everything together through my crumbling grip on reality was Charlie, and the hope that I could save her. Now…

We’d fought, but I’d never stopped loving her. I’d never stopped needing her. I would have done anything for her, and I had. I’d gone along with her reckless scheme because I was so caught up in my feelings for her that I…

The two of us ran. It was the fastest way to get there. We didn’t worry about people seeing us. We didn’t worry about anything, except getting there before Charlie and Rachel could finish whatever little plan they’d put together.

It all ended that night. That’s what I genuinely believed.

* * *

I kicked open the door, Aidan close behind me. Charlie’s head whipped around, taken by surprise at our entrance. Good.

“How—” she began, but we didn’t give her a chance to say anything more. We moved, and we moved fast.

Aidan went for Rachel, determined to neutralise the threat before she could retaliate. She was dangerous, but there were two of us.

I went for Charlie, hurling her across the room, away from Rachel. She cried out, but I picked her up, pinning her against the wall.

“Use it!” I yelled at Aidan.

“No!” Charlie screamed.

Rachel didn’t put up a fight as Aidan pinned her down. She seemed languid, almost weak…

It wasn’t until Aidan had stuck the syringe into her that I realised what had happened.

“You took it from her, somehow,” I accused Charlie. She just snarled at me, struggling to get to Rachel.

Rachel began to convulse, twitching and shaking beneath Aidan. Unsure of what to do, he held her still, trying to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. It seemed like the serum was doing a good enough job of that on its own.

It was supposed to counteract the effect of Wendy’s blood. We had no idea what it would do to somebody whose blood no longer contained that, but it didn’t seem to be good. Rachel started screaming in pain. Charlie fought harder. She wasn’t strong, though. She hadn’t taken it yet?

“Fuck,” Aidan said, looking desperately down at Rachel.

“She deserves it,” I said, trying to battle my own guilt. We’d acted rashly, and even if Rachel had played us, she didn’t deserve this. Nobody did.

“Fuck you,” Charlie spat, kicking me in the stomach. I barely felt it.

I noticed her left hand had been clenched the entire time. Was she holding it, somehow?

I pried her hand open, but there was nothing there. An empty hand? Why? I glanced up at her face, and she grinned. It was an awful, cruel expression.

Before I could stop her, she shoved her other hand over her mouth, and I caught a glimpse of a red crystal between her teeth. I tried to grab it from her mouth, but it was already gone.

“Aidan!” I cried, as Charlie’s grin faded, replaced with a look of increasing shock.

Her eyes darkened, turning almost black. Her veins bulged, also darker. That hadn’t happened to either of us. Something different was happening to her. Was it because she took it second-hand? Because she swallowed it?

Because she was different?

Her skin began to blister and break, blood seeping out, covering her. I pulled my hands away from her, and she dropped to the floor.

“What the fuck,” I muttered, as the blood began to peel away from her, floating in little flecks around her, picking up speed, creating the shape of someone, something much bigger.

She moved, and the shape moved with her. It was getting thicker, blocking out the person underneath. Before long, it was all we could see.

The creature, whatever it was, looked around the room, and saw Aidan, still hunched over Rachel, trying to control her seizure. It bellowed, a terrifying sound that turned my legs to jelly.

The creature moved fast, faster than even Aidan or I could. With a single hand, it grabbed Aidan around the waist, and hurled him off of Rachel. He hit the wall and crumpled, collapsing harder than he should have with Wendy’s blood in him.

He didn’t get up.

I tried to run to his aid, but the creature intercepted, grabbing me around the throat, slamming me against the wall. I tried to fight back, but all of the strength had left me. Is that what happened to Aidan?

“WHAT DID YOU DO?” the creature said, in a voice that wasn’t Charlie’s, and wasn’t human. It reached deep into my brain, triggering every fear reaction I had. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. All I could do was stare, and tremble.

It dropped me, and I nearly collapsed. Summoning the last of my strength, I crawled over to Aidan, who was barely moving. He groaned as I tried to check his body for injuries.

There was a grotesque hand print on his back, where the creature had held him. It was black, like the flesh had been burned.

The creature staggered back into the centre of the room, the visage of blood thinning out, revealing Charlie beneath, her eyes glazed and distant.

The blood vanished entirely, and Charlie stood there, unsteady on her feet. She looked down at her hands, looked through them, unable to focus.

Then, she tilted her head back, looked up at the ceiling, and began to scream.

 

Next: Inviolable

Chapter 58 – That Was A Horrible Experience

Rachel, Impact Day

Watching Charlie reassemble herself from a tiny piece was simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. It wasn’t like a body growing in high speed motion. It was more like each and every cell was comparing its current location to where it should be, and simply relocating itself in the world to be in the right spot. The visual effect was almost more like pixels appearing, one after another. The whole process took less than half an hour.

I sat over her, waiting for her to regain consciousness, hoping the others wouldn’t discover the ruse before she did. When her face was fully reconstructed, I reached out, and stroked it.

Finally, she opened her eyes. I said nothing as she sat up, holding her head, and looked around. Her gaze settled on me, and she smiled.

“Welcome back,” I said, trying to contain the rush of emotions I felt at her return.

“That was a horrible experience,” she said, but her hand found mine, and latched onto it.

“I wanna hear all about it,” I said. “Every gory detail. If you want to talk about it.”

“Man, I don’t even remember all of it,” she said. “They fucked me up so bad, I was certain the whole plan was gonna fall apart, and I was gonna regrow here early. I think something about the facility kept me there, though. I had to wait until I was outside to blow myself up.”

“We would have figured something out,” I reassured her. “But I’m glad we don’t have to.”

“You have it?”

“I do,” I said, before exhaling slowly. “But I also have some bad news. Well, bad news for me.”

Her face fell. Her hazel eyes scanned me, piercing right through me. It made me feel guilty.

I didn’t want the moment to end. I wanted for us to be happy together, to enjoy being reunited after six months. We couldn’t, though. We had to move quickly.

“What is it?”

“You’re going to have to cut me open to get it,” I said.

What?

“It’s crystalised,” I said. “Which is better than having to filter it out of my blood, but you are going to have to cut me open to get it.”

“Shit,” she said, looking away.

“Hey, it’s okay,” I said, grabbing her arm gently. “I was prepared for worse, and I’ve done the math. It works like a power source, providing the energy for my body to regenerate rapidly, without the need for organic processes. It also recodes the genetic material for enhanced strength and speed, but my body will replace all of that eventually. Still, I’ll be almost as strong as you for a while.”

“So it won’t kill you?” she asked.

“No. There should be enough left in my system to repair the damage of extracting it. It’s gonna hurt like Hell, though.”

Charlie made a face like she’d just swallowed something disgusting. I squeezed her arm.

“Anaesthetic won’t work while it’s in me, not that I have any,” I said. “We’re gonna have to do this the hard way.”

“I hate this,” she said.

“After everything you went through?” I asked. “This is nothing. Unless you’re saying I’m not as tough as you.”

“I think you’re tougher than I’ll ever be,” she said, leaning in. She kissed me gently, and it was very hard not to stretch that out.

Biting my lip, I pulled away, and extracted the scalpel I’d obtained for this very purpose. Charlie took one look at it, and gagged. I handed it to her, and she took it reluctantly, like it might electrocute her.

I pulled my shirt up over my head, and unhooked my bra, before lying down on the bed, face-up. There was already a plastic sheet over it. She stood over me, scalpel in hand.

“You really want to do this?” she asked, her eyes pleading with me to say no.

“Don’t be a wimp,” I joked.

“I just…”

“Charlie, as painful as this is going to be, as much as it’s going to suck, I’d do it as many times as you needed. You know I would.”

“I do,” she said, with a drawn out sigh.

“So cut me the Hell open,” I said.

* * *

“Welcome back,” she said, when I finally regained consciousness. Judging by the light, it couldn’t have been that much later. I smiled, and rubbed my chest. The pain was gone, the wound was healed, but the memory was very vivid.

“That was a horrible experience,” I said, completing the echo.

I noticed she’d dressed me again. I was still lying on the bed, but the plastic sheet had been removed. I saw it in the corner, crumpled up, stained with blood.

“I can’t believe you got through that whole thing without once asking me to stop,” she said, brushing my hair gently.

“If I’d asked you to stop, you would have,” I said. “Besides, tell me honestly you haven’t endured worse.”

“That didn’t make it any more tolerable.”

“Just please tell me it worked,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said, and I deflated. “I got it out of you, but I haven’t done anything with it yet.” She held it up, a strange red crystal that could have been congealed blood, or could have been a precious stone.

“Why not?” I asked, stretching out. My body still felt strong, but not as much as before. “I didn’t think you’d waste any time.”

“I don’t know what it’ll do to me,” she said, her eyes lowered. “How it will interact with my… with whatever I am.” She placed her hand on mine, and met my eye. Her gaze was intense, but I didn’t look away. “I didn’t want to risk it until I had a chance to say I love you.”

“Wow, all that time apart really turned you into a sap, huh?” I joked, as my heart pounded in my chest.

“Shut up,” she said, removing her hand.

“Alright, before I completely kill the moment, I got you something,” I told her. She raised an eyebrow.

“Something?”

“A present, you idiot.”

I reached into the set of drawers nearby, and pulled out a small box. I held onto it as she watched me suspiciously.

“Why?” she asked.

“You do realise you had a birthday while you were in there, right?”

Her eyes opened wide as she processed it.

“Oh shit, I did!”

“So, happy birthday,” I said, handing her the box. My heart continued to thud as she took it, and looked back at me.

I watched silently as she undid the ribbon, and slowly opened the box. Time felt so slow, and I could have sworn she was taking her time on purpose.

She pulled it out, turning it over in her hand. It was a ring, white-gold with a pink diamond inlay. I thought it was beautiful, but not half as beautiful as she was.

“Rachel, this is beautiful,” she said, her voice catching. “How did you… Actually, I don’t need an answer to that.”

“You really don’t,” I said, laughing.

“Wow. It’s… I love it. I love you. Thank you,” she said, pulling me into a tight embrace. I felt a warm tear splash against my cheek.

“I love you too, Charlie.”

She pulled back just enough to kiss me, a kiss I so wanted to melt into. We were still racing the clock, and I didn’t want to take even a single chance.

“Now, hurry up,” I chided her. “I need to know if all that pain was worth it.”

“Alright, alright,” she said, but kept looking at the ring. She slipped it onto a finger, the ring finger of her right hand. “Okay. Let’s see what happens, shall we?”

 

Next Week: She Deserves This

Chapter 55 – For Charlie

Liz, Impact Day

“This feels incredible,” Aidan said, flexing his fingers in front of his face. I just watched the rise and fall of his chest, wondering if he was feeling the same thing as me.

If I didn’t know better, I’d have described it as anxiety. My body surged with restless energy, discontent with simply standing still. It wanted to be in motion, to act, to live.

“What is this?” I asked. Wendy pushed her glasses up her nose, and smiled enigmatically.

“You don’t want to know,” she replied.

“Do you always feel like this?” Rachel asked.

“Yes,” Wendy said.

“No wonder you ran away,” Rachel said. Aidan and I swapped looks, but neither of us really followed.

“Don’t waste this,” Wendy said, ignoring Rachel. “I shouldn’t have done this, shouldn’t have given you… Just save Charlie. For all our sakes.”

“That’s the plan,” Aidan said, stretching his legs out. “Man, I could just run for days.”

“You could,” Rachel said. “Longer, even. Without eating or sleeping or resting.”

It seemed almost too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder about Rachel’s cryptic hinting, or Wendy’s deliberate avoidance of the topic. What cost had we payed for this power? Where did it come from?

Wendy wouldn’t tell us. Rachel might, but she was just as likely to lie. Asking her would be as useless as asking the internet.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The power was a means to an end, and the end was saving Charlie. And I knew I would pay any price for that, even selling my own soul. If we had the chance, maybe we’d find answers afterwards, but that wasn’t what was important.

“Alright. Are we all clear on the plan?” Aidan asked.

“We’ve been over it a dozen times,” Rachel complained. “We let ourselves get shot, but make it convincing. Make them think we’re immortal just like Charlie, so they take us to where she is.”

“And then we show them that we’re so much more,” I added.

“The more you use it, the quicker you’ll run out,” Wendy pointed out. “You should be strong enough to get out of any situation they put you in, but don’t push your luck. Be smart.”

“That’s why they’ve got me,” Rachel joked. Aidan scowled at her.

“Let’s just go,” I said.

We had the location of a Vengeance hideout, a perfect target for getting attention. We were all dressed in outfits that matched Charlie’s Vigilante wear, to really sell the connection. All we needed to do was convince them we were worth taking in.

I’d underestimated just how difficult that would be. My body was so overflowing with energy, it was a challenge just to move like I used to. With a minimum of effort, I found myself launched across the room. A simple movement of my hands carried more force than I’d ever been able to muster before. It felt like the rest of the world was happening in slow motion, and I had to struggle to match that speed.

How did Wendy manage it, when she felt like this all the time? She seemed so normal, her movements so gentle. She had a dancer’s grace, but it always seemed natural.

If we’d let loose, we could have run to the hideout in less time than it would have taken to drive. Instead, we used that time to walk, and get used to controlling our movements, making them convincingly ordinary.

“Do you think there are any others out there?” Aidan asked, as we walked. “Like, superhumans.”

“I’d never really considered it,” I replied. “But it stands to reason. One was an anomaly, but two…”

“Two starts to look like a pattern,” Aidan agreed.

“Takes more than two to create a pattern,” Rachel said. “And nothing about Charlie or Wendy’s specific circumstances suggest there would be more of either of them. Not in this world, anyway.”

“I dunno, Liz and I seem… Well, you wouldn’t suspect us from what you see on the surface, you know? Or you, for that matter.”

“Anything special about us is an extension of Charlie,” Rachel said. “We’re special because she wanted us to be special.”

“What are you saying?” I asked, pondering the implications.

“I’m saying too much revolves around Charlie to call any of it a coincidence,” Rachel said. “You can figure the rest out from there.”

“You can do that later,” Aidan said. “We’re here.”

The three of us were standing in front of a large, two-story house on the edges of a fairly well-to-do suburb. There was nothing about it aesthetically to suggest it was a gang hideout.

“You sure this is the right place?” I asked.

“Yes,” Aidan said. “Now that we’ve got the obligatory uncertainty out of the way, do we all know what we’re doing?”

I frowned, but Rachel grinned. She formed a fist, taking a step towards the house.

“We get this party started,” she said.

“And we don’t kill anyone,” Aidan said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

The three of us approached the front door, Rachel in front. She banged on the door, and a few moments later, it opened.

“What?” a surly man in a surplus army jacket asked, before taking in our outfits. “Oh, shit-“

“Surprise,” Rachel said, before breezing past him, twisting his arm and slamming him into the floor.

“Vigilante!” the guy shouted, before Rachel’s boot connected with his throat, choking him up.

All of a sudden, the house was full of the sounds of clamouring, dozens of footsteps pounding through doors and down stairs. Aidan and I braced ourselves, but Rachel just stood there, as if looking forward to the assault.

The first of the Vengeance thugs poured into the front hallway, and the three of us spring into action. We moved as a unit, taking them out like Charlie would have, with reckless abandon, agility and a better understanding of the weaknesses of the human body than any of our opponents. Within minutes, we’d bound nearly twenty of them, leaving just enough of a window for one of them to call for backup.

“That was almost too easy,” Aidan said. “Maybe Charlie’s job isn’t so hard after all.”

“Charlie doesn’t have Wendy’s blood making everything slow and everyone weak,” Rachel pointed out.

“The hard part is still ahead of us,” I reminded them.

Several cars pulled up in front of the house, and I felt my stomach churn. Gangsters poured out of them, brandishing automatic weapons they shouldn’t have had access to. Any sense of subtlety they’d been adhering to was well and truly out the window now.

“This is gonna hurt, isn’t it?” Aidan asked.

“Speaking from experience, yes,” I said.

“Wendy’s blood only accelerates healing and provides the energy to do it without demanding the tonnes of food that much healing would usually require,” Rachel said. “The pain will be exactly the same, only fast-forwarded. If anything, it’ll hurt more.”

“How comforting,” I muttered.

The armed men were making their way up the lawn, guns pointed at the house. If any of the neighbours noticed, they didn’t give any indications. Well, they’d notice soon enough.

“Charlie would do this for us,” Aidan said, reaching for my hand. I took it, and squeezed.

“Charlie does do this for us. Every time.”

“So let’s repay the favour,” Aidan agreed.

We both looked at Rachel, who only rolled her eyes.

“You two can make this as sappy as you want. I’ll save mine for Charlie.”

“Suit yourself,” I said.

“You ready?” Aidan asked me.

“As I’ll ever be,” I told him.

“For Charlie, then,” he said.

“For Charlie,” I agreed.

The two of us opened the front door, stepping out in front of the house. Almost instantly, the gangsters all opened fire, filling the yard with blinding flashes, deafening booms and enough bullets to shred every muscle and tendon in our bodies.

They’re not taking any chances, huh? I thought, as Aidan and I crumbled to the ground, searing pain threatening to overtake everything else.

Just before passing out, I noticed one last detail.

Rachel hadn’t joined us.

 

Next Week: Tell Me You Weren’t Expecting This

Chapter 54 – Charlie Can’t Know

Liz, Impact Day

It felt strange, being in the café with nobody else around. There was something strangely transgressive about it, like being behind the stage of a play. Wendy seemed different, too. In a sense, she seemed relaxed, as she shed the veneer of innocence and banality. In another, there was a different kind of tension filling her, like she was dreading a coming storm.

She sighed, resting her hands on the table. They seemed too delicate for her, somehow.

“I’ve done everything I can,” she said, her voice hollow, defeated. There was no soft, cute charm to it now. “I tried. I really, really tried.”

“Bullshit,” Rachel said, her voice full of venom. “You could walk right in there and pull her out. You could share your power with us, and we could do it. What have you done instead?”

“I’ve played by the rules,” Wendy snapped. “The one rule, really. The one rule that lets an immortal, superhuman abomination like myself live in a world like this one.”

“And how long have you lived in this world?” Aidan asked.

“Two hundred years,” she said, hanging her head.

“Six months,” Rachel said. “For six months, you’ve let her sit in there, being tortured and pulled apart and god knows what else, so you can continue with your two hundred year existence, as… what, a barista?”

“It’s not that simple,” Wendy said. “My life isn’t… It’s not just my own. It’s not something I can recklessly throw away. And I’m not just a barista. I’ve lived so many lives, trying to save as many people as I can, while still playing by the rules. With the time I have left, I could save so many more.”

“I think I understand,” I said. “It’s hard to turn down the chance to do good in the moment, so you can do more good later.”

“Sounds like a lazy justification to me,” Rachel growled.

“You’re not exactly neutral,” Aidan said.

“Let me make this as clear as possible,” Wendy said. “I owe my existence to more sacrifices than I’d care to count. To throw that away would be more than irresponsible. It would be selfish. What you’ve asked of me, without knowing, is so far beyond what I could ever do for you, I very nearly cast you out and ran so far away you’d never find me again.”

“Well, this is off to a good start,” Aidan said.

“Believe it or not, I actually like Charlie,” Wendy said. “Even before I realised what she was. And when I did…”

“You know what she is?” I asked, leaning forward.

“You wouldn’t like the answer,” she told me.

“I can handle it,” I insisted.

“You really don’t want to know,” Rachel chimed in.

“You know too?” Aidan asked.

“I have a pretty good guess,” she said, shrugging.

“I’m not telling you,” Wendy said. “And that’s that.”

Aidan and I both looked at Rachel.

“Hell no,” she said.

“Then why bring it up?” I complained.

“Because it’s important,” Wendy said. “It’s the reason I changed my mind.”

“You changed your mind?” I asked.

Wendy sighed, slumping in her chair. It seemed unnatural to see her without perfect posture, to look so utterly defeated.

“You’re missing the important part,” she said.

“You won’t tell us the important part,” Aidan countered.

“You know enough,” Wendy said.

“We know it’s enough for you to change your mind,” I said, thinking out loud. “Whatever Charlie is, that’s somehow tied into your desire to do the greatest good you can.”

“It’s important you understand that,” Wendy told us. “I want you to understand what I’m giving up, so you understand why I’m giving it up. Because I only get to do this once, and you’re the ones who will make it count.”

“Does Charlie know?” I asked.

“No,” Rachel said. “And it would be better to keep it that way.”

“Why?” Aidan asked.

“Let me put it this way,” she said. “If I put a button in front of you, and told you not to press it, what would you do?”

“I wouldn’t press it,” he said, though he didn’t sound sure.

“And how would that make you feel?”

He pondered that for a moment.

“Curious. Stressed, if I’m being honest. Tempted, too.”

“You would always be thinking about that button,” Rachel said. “And that’s why Charlie can’t know.”

“I don’t follow,” Aidan confessed.

“Me either,” I added.

“Good,” Rachel said. “For you, and for the sake of Charlie not finding out.”

“I have to agree with Rachel on this one,” Wendy said.

“Fine, Charlie doesn’t know,” Aidan said. “What happens now, then?”

Wendy held a hand up, delicate and graceful. She flexed her middle finger, and from under the nail, a small needle extended out.

“What the fuck,” Aidan said.

“Wow, that’s even weirder in person,” Rachel said.

Wendy gave Rachel a concerned look, but didn’t address it.

“Here’s how this goes. I inject you with the smallest amount of this that I can. It won’t last long, but while it does, you’ll be as strong and as fast as I am, and your body will recover from almost any wound as fast as Charlie might.”

“What if we got shot in the head?” Rachel asked.

“Huh?” Aidan gave her a confused look.

“A healing brain is a problem,” Rachel explained. “Thoughts and memories aren’t physical, they’re electrical patterns and signals. You can’t regrow those.”

“There’s a psychic web,” Wendy said. “Think of it like an impervious mental backup.”

“Impressive,” Aidan said.

“You have no idea,” Rachel told him.

“Alright, so it’s as simple as that?” I asked. “You inject us, we have superpowers, and we go rescue Charlie?”

“Pretty much,” Wendy said.

“And what about you?”

“In all probability, I’ll be gone by the time you get back,” she said. “If not… Well, I won’t have long, at any rate.”

There was a sad, hollow sort of smile on her face. Rachel and Aidan seemed oblivious to it, but I couldn’t look away. I wanted to know so much more about her, and I was only just realising I would never get that chance.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Rachel said.

“Maybe. But I’m not doing it for you,” Wendy replied. “Remember what I said, Rachel. Remember what’s at stake.”

“I know,” Rachel said. “Better than you give me credit for.”

Wendy just shook her head.

“So…” Aidan said.

Wendy stood, moving to his side so quickly I almost missed the movement. He jumped.

“Are you ready for this?” she asked. “The process is not pleasant.”

“How unpleasant are we talk-“

Wendy slid the needle into a vein on his arm, and his entire body just froze up, as if in shock. She pulled the needle out, and he started to convulse, as every muscle in his body contracted and expanded against his will. After a few seconds, he started screaming.

When he finally calmed down, he just lay there, breathing heavily.

“That did not look fun,” Rachel said. She held her arm out to Wendy. “Me next.”

She went through the exact same process, but didn’t scream like Aidan did. She grunted through gritted teeth, but she didn’t scream.

“Last one,” Wendy said. “Will you do this, seeing the results?”

I looked at the other two, sweating and panting, slouched in chairs, barely able to move.

I extended my arm.

“Anything for Charlie,” I said.

 

Next Week: For Charlie

Chapter 53 – Impossible Is Her Bread And Butter

Rachel, One Day Before Impact Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rachel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you my plan,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

A smile began to creep across my face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Sadie asked, squeaking in surprise.

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

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

Who is it?” Wendy demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s nice to meet you…” Sadie said.

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

“Twelve years,” Sadie replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Wendy replied, confirming my suspicions.

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

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

“Then what do we do?”

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

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

 

Next Week: Charlie Can’t Know

Interlude #5 – Vignettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“According to who?” she demanded.

“Child…”

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A spark of light,” Lucy said.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Outside,” Rachel said.

“What does that mean?” Sadie asked.

“Not sure yet.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

She missed Felix.

* * *

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

“How does it feel?” she asked.

“Painful.”

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Haylie said.

“Don’t mention it,” Alice replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, if you ever need assistance…”

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

 

Next Week: Until You’re Dead

Chapter 49 – This Is Brilliant, Even For Me

Rachel, Five Months Before Impact Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit,” I muttered. “Progress.”

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

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

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

“…wherever you are…”

Bingo!

“Wh-what?”

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

“She didn’t tell you?” I asked.

“Tell me what?”

I sighed. What are you doing, Charlie?

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

“Captured? Who are Vengeance?”

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

Silence for a few seconds.

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

I laughed.

“Of course she did.”

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

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

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

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

She left me alone!

The smile dropped from my face.

“She’s all you’ve got, huh?” I asked.

“Fuck you,” she replied.

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

“You don’t understand me,” she said.

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

More silence for a while.

“…Why?”

“Why what” I asked.

“Why did you do this?” she asked.

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

“But why?”

“Do I need a reason?”

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

Inspiration struck me like lightning.

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

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

“Don’t.”

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

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

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

“Great.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” Sadie asked.

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

“You’re not normal either, are you?”

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

“Yes?”

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Next Week: 

Chapter 48 – I Just Want Him Dead

Liz, Five Months Before Impact Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really the person Aidan was talking to?

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

“Yep,” I said, smiling at her.

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

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

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

“Whatever floats your boat,” I replied.

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

“Any special conditions?” I asked.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

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

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

“Cool.”

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

“Not particularly,” I replied.

“Right. Um…”

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

She visibly flinched.

“Okay.”

I rolled my eyes.

“You can go now,” I said.

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

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

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

“Yo,” he said.

“I met your contact.”

“And?”

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

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

“You’re kidding.”

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

“Alright. I’ll get it done, then.”

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

“Do we need to have this conversation again?”

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

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

“Is that not normal?”

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

“What if they’re a huge arsehole?”

“Statistically unlikely,” I told him.

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

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

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

“You got it, boss.”

“I’m not—”

I hung up on him.

Time to figure out what’s going on here.

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the connection?” I muttered.

Rachel would be able to figure it out.

“Rachel can fuck right off.”

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

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

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

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

You just wasted three hours.

~R”

“How did she—”

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

Just keeping an eye on you~”

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

I needed to talk to Aidan.

 

Next Week:This Is Brilliant, Even For Me

Chapter 46 – Willing To Die For Her

Rachel, Six Months Before Impact Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not exactly,” Aidan said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Open it, and find out,” he said.

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

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

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

“Back room,” Wendy said sharply.

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?” Wendy demanded.

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

“Save?” Wendy asked.

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

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

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

“Not my problem,” Wendy shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never you mind,” Wendy said.

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

Wendy faltered for just a moment, but held strong.

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

“And when she breaks?” I asked.

“She’s strong,” Wendy said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know the way out,” Wendy said.

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

“I end,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

“You’re not gonna help?” Aidan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so,” he said. “Bye, Rachel.”

“Have fun, you two,” I said.

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

 

Next Week: Shades of Grey