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Tag: Veronica

Chapter 34 – There’s Still Time

A few days. Three days at the most, before I turned into a mindless pack hunter, inhuman and ugly and pointless. My impossible task had just become even more impossible.

How the hell was I supposed to manage this? Should I waste time looking for a cure? Gabriel had said that was impossible, but my brain refused to believe it. It had to be possible, even if he didn’t know how. Maybe he just didn’t care enough.

The problem was, even if a cure was possible, would I find it within three days? Almost certainly not. The chances were tiny. Infinitesimal. And if I wasted time on that, it was that much less time I had to dedicate to finding Sabrina.

There had to be another way. Something, anything, that could get me out of this situation. There was no way it was hopeless already.

You’re such an idiot, Veronica. Such a fucking idiot. ‘Oh, I know the risks. Sure, I might get shot or captured or infected, but that’s okay! I don’t mind!’ Fuck you, past me. This is not okay. I mind.

Had to think. Had to come up with a solution. Could someone help me?

Nobody outside the city. Hunter, my sister, Sabrina’s family? Not a chance. Someone in the city? Who did I even know?

Charlie wouldn’t help me, even if I did know how to get in touch with her still. Did I have her number? Didn’t matter. If she knew I was infected, she’d probably carry me off with the rest of them.

Desperately, I tried calling Sabrina again, but just like always, it rang out.

It was weird. Her phone should have run out of battery by now, if something had happened to her. So she probably was okay, right? Keeping her phone charged? So why wasn’t she taking my calls? Did someone else have her phone?

Another name showed up in my contacts. Ami. It was a chance. A slim one, but I’d take what I could get. She knew Gabriel, seemed to not want me dead. Maybe she could help. Maybe she could at least give me a clue. Anything, please.

Please.

I hit dial. The phone rang. On the third ring, she picked up.

“I met Gabriel,” I said, before she could say anything. My voice was still croaky from before. “I’m infected.”

A moment’s pause.

“I’m sorry.”

“Tell me there’s something I can do about this. Please.”

“There isn’t.”

Two words, and the last of my resolve broke.

Not fair. Not fucking fair.

“No,” I whispered. “That’s not fair.”

I hadn’t meant to say that. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care if she thought I was weak. I just wanted to live.

“Now that you’re infected, you’re a carrier too.” Her voice was hard, cold. “If you can, avoid others. I’m sorry, Veronica.”

She hung up.

I screamed.

I screamed until my body was physically incapable of screaming anymore, then threw my phone against the wall. It shattered. I didn’t care.

I ran. I needed to feel in motion, feel like I was moving towards something, even if I didn’t know what that something was.

Everything else felt cold. My body felt hot. My thoughts were distant, distracted, unable to focus. That was fine. I didn’t need to focus. I didn’t want to focus.

Straight ahead. Turn left. Turn right. No point to any of it. No idea where I was going.

If I kept running, I’d eventually run into the middle of a fight. Gangsters, soldiers, more infected. I didn’t care. There wasn’t anyone left in this city who deserved to be safe, and even if I wasn’t strong, now I was dangerous. They wouldn’t know, and then it would be too late.

The whole damned city could get infected for all I cared. Sabrina didn’t deserve it, Sabrina would be a tragedy, but who was I kidding, thinking she was still alive? Of course she was dead. She wasn’t strong, wasn’t resilient, wasn’t even clever. She didn’t stand a chance, never did.

So fine, let the whole city get infected. Then maybe the rest of the country, the rest of the world would give up on it, and nuke the whole lot of us. No more infection. Probably no more superhumans. Even they couldn’t survive a nuke, surely.

Something distracted me. A face, a reflection in a window. A young girl with lilac hair.

I ran headfirst into something, bouncing backwards. Pain shout through my chest and shoulder where I’d collided with it, and then in my butt and hands as I landed on them. Snarling, I looked up, and felt my blood run cold.

A long, flowing coat. Short brown hair. Piercing blue-green eyes. A look of surprise on her face, harder than when I last saw it.

“Veronica?” Charlie asked, reaching down to help me up. I slapped her hand away, scrabbling backwards.

“You,” I snarled. “No, not now. I cannot deal with you right now.”

I got to my feet, glaring at her. My thoughts were more present, more focussed, but they all revolved around violence. That wasn’t helpful. I knew better than to think I could win a fight against her.

“Veronica, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said, as if that was what I cared about. Couldn’t be less important, not anymore.

“Fine. Apology accepted. Now leave me alone.”

She looked concerned, and moved to stay close to me as I began to walk away. Her movements were fluid, controlled. She didn’t move like a human anymore. She moved like him, the asshole that did this to me.

“Veronica, you just screamed loud enough to stir a city block. You’re in danger.”

Stop saying my name.

“I’m already dead, Charlie. It doesn’t matter.”

Her expression softened. For just a moment, she looked like my friend, a little bit odd, the quiet nerd. It wasn’t her, though. That Charlie was gone. This one was just a pretender, a monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the mask was slipping.

“You’re infected,” she said.

“Yep.”

“How long?”

How long what? Until I turned into a monster? No, how long since it had happened.

“I don’t know,” I said. “A few hours, maybe.” I’d lost track of the time.

“Then there’s still time,” Charlie said.

My heart skipped a beat, and every thought process in my head ground to a halt.

Don’t get your hopes up, Veronica.

“What? Time for what?”

She didn’t have a cure. There was no way she had a cure.

“To keep you the same,” Charlie said.

This is a trick. She’s playing you. Manipulating you. Don’t trust her.

“There’s a cure?” I asked, despite my doubts. My brain was so desperate it was clinging to any chance of hope.

“No, no cure. At least, not that I’ve seen. But we can delay the symptoms.”

Delay? Time? That was all I needed. Could she really do that for me?

Could I trust her?

“Seriously?” I asked, trying to sound sceptical, instead of hopelessly hopeful. “How? And how do you know?”

“It’s a long story,” she said dismissively. “What matters is that I can help you.”

My resolve hardened. My feelings didn’t matter. Only Sabrina did.

Sabrina, who was definitely not dead. I refused to believe it.

“Well, I’ve got nothing left to lose,” I said. “Why not?”

“I don’t have anything on me,” Charlie said. “I need to…. You’re not safe here, and I can’t bring you with me.”

“I can look after myself,” I insisted, knowing full well it was a lie. It had been a reflex response, and I regretted it immediately.

“Not here, you can’t,” she said, irritating me and filling me with relief in the same sentence. “Hmm. Rooftop.”

“Fine. I’ll head to a-“

I was cut off as she wrapped an arm around my chest, bent her legs, and jumped. With only one free hand, she scaled the side of the building, driven by supernatural strength and agility. When we reached the top, she placed me down gently.

“What the fuck,” I said, a little out of breath.

“Stay here,” she instructed.

“Like I have a choice,” I complained.

She stepped off the side of the roof, disappearing into the growing darkness. Was it evening already? How long had my little breakdown taken? How much time had it cost me?

As the sky continued to darken, I listened to the sounds of the street below me. I heard infected snarling, snapping, but they didn’t seem to be able to find me. Or maybe they just couldn’t get up. It didn’t matter, really. So long as they didn’t try to take a bite out of me.

Would I stop seeming like food to them at some point? Would they realise I was infected, just like them, and lost interest? Would it happen before I changed, or after?

A soft thud alerted me to someone’s presence. I twisted, ready to complain to Charlie about leaving me alone on a rooftop, but a part of me already knew it wasn’t her.

They stepped out of the shadows, their gait somewhere between the supernatural elegance of Gabriel and a clumsy teenager who just went through a growth spurt.

A uniform? No, a costume. White and purple, with gold trim. Her face revealed, white skin and blonde hair. Bright blue eyes, long silver nails. She was tall, beautiful, just slightly unnatural looking.

What was she doing here?

How had Miss Melbourne found me?

Chapter 33 – I’m Very Easy To Talk To

Another week passed, and I found myself no closer to finding Sabrina. I had two leads, neither of which was at all easy to follow up on.

Miss Melbourne apparently hadn’t been seen in almost two weeks. Admittedly my information network was limited at best, and it wasn’t that long to go under the radar. Still, without anything to go on, it was basically a dead end.

The Stars were my other option. Not that I could work with them, but they clearly had the biggest information network across the city. If I could find a way to tap into that…

Risky, sure, but so was just being in the city. So was holding a conversation with two of the most dangerous people in the city. Danger wasn’t really an issue for me. I just needed to find Sabrina, and if could, find answers.

Obviously, I’d already checked the obvious places. Sabrina’s house, my house, Hunter’s house. All abandoned. Our school, establishments we used to haunt. Not a damn thing.

On a whim, I tried Charlie’s house. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. The lair of a supervillain, hidden beneath the basement? A garage full of evil schemes pinned to the walls?

It was as abandoned as the rest of the city. There was a brief moment when I thought I’d caught someone hiding in there, a kid with purple hair, but she ran when I saw her, and disappeared before I could catch her, leaving me doubting whether she’d ever been there at all.

I found myself gravitating towards conflict. It wasn’t exactly in short supply, really. Couldn’t go more than a few hours without hearing something in the distance. From what I managed to gather, there were three remaining gangs in the city, including the Stars. There was a military presence, though it was dwindling. The infected were growing in number, and they seemed to be grouping up, almost like packs. The lot of them seemed to be engaged in a perpetual turf war.

Then there were what I’d come to thinking of as the Independants.

Zoe was missing, so far as I could tell. Nobody knew where she was. Same with Miss Melbourne.

Silver was around, but nobody seemed to have any idea what she was up to. She seemed to be collecting electronic components, mostly.

Ami was searching for Haylie, I knew. Haylie was nowhere to be seen, but there was a good chance the Celestial knew more about that.

Charlie seemed to be hunting the infected. I rarely saw her from close up, but I’d witnessed her from a distance a few times, disabling groups at a time, then carrying them off, too fast for me to follow. Not that I wanted to get too close to them anyway, just in case.

Then there was Gabriel, who seemed to just leave a trail of corpses in his week. If anyone had survived an encounter with him, they weren’t talking about it. Was that necessary, in his apparently single-minded quest to recapture Zoe?

Once, I was nearly captured by a bunch of gangsters. Couldn’t tell who they were with, but they caught me watching them from a window, and made a beeline for me. I ran, and they would have caught me if not for the sudden appearance of a pack of infected. Luckily, the infected seemed more interested in tearing apart the people shooting them, not the teenage girl running from them. Still, it was a terrifyingly close call.

Undeterred, I kept pushing and searching. Every day I survived felt like another victory, another step closer, even if that wasn’t quantifiably true. For all I knew, whatever clues or evidence remained could disappear, and I was actually getting further from my goal. I tried not to think about that, as best I could.

My food supplies were running low. Thankfully, the gangs seemed to have their own food supplies, so despite the vaguely apocalyptic feeling the city gave off, none of the supermarkets I’d encountered had been looted.

I slipped into one, listening out for any signs of infected. It had been long enough that some things with shorter shelf lives were expiring, so I made my way right to the long life and non-perishable items were. Not as tasty, but better than dealing with food poisoning.

As I was grabbing cans of food, a voice behind me caused my entire body to seize up.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”

I hadn’t heard him approach at all. The supermarket was empty, how had he managed to move so silently?

I turned to face him, a man every bit as beautiful as his velvet voice. Tall, fair skin, dark hair, warm amber eyes. A shirt and slacks, just loose enough to look sensual. An amused smirk playing on his lips.

“You.” I choked out the word. “Gabriel?”

“You know my name? I’m flattered,” he said. I couldn’t help but notice how unnaturally still his body was. “Sadly, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of hearing yours.”

What did he want with me? He’d clearly followed me here, but why? Did I somehow release a pheromone that attracted all of the superhumans in the city to me?

Was I going to die?

“Maybe let’s keep it that way,” I said, feigning a confidence I certainly didn’t feel.

“Your confidence is refreshing, even if it is just a mask,” he said, chilling me. Another mind reader? Or just really perceptive? “Might I ask what you’re doing here, in the middle of what seems to have become a battlefield?”

No chance of escaping, not even a sliver of hope. It was difficult to even breathe.

“Trying to stay alive.”

“And you’ve done a remarkable job of that so far, considering your physical limitations,” he said, too gently.

“How do you know I’m not a superhuman?” I demanded, as if there was the slightest hope of deceiving him.

“The way you move. The way you smell. The way you speak.”

“I could be very good at hiding it,” I offered, and he smiled.

“No.”

Great. So much for that approach. Switch tracks, find another angle.

“Well, then you know I’m no threat to you, at least.”

Please don’t kill me.

“The thought never even occurred to me,” he said, still smiling. The way he looked at me, it was distant, indulgent. What did he see me as, a child? Less than that?

“Then what do you want with me?” I demanded.

“Curiosity, of course,” he said, as if that were obvious. “How have you managed to stay alive this long? What are you even still doing here?”

If I could keep his interest, would that save my life? Would it only delay the inevitable?

“I’m resourceful,” I said simply. “And curious,” I added, almost as an afterthought.

“A girl after my own heart.” Another indulgent smile. “I congratulate you on all you’ve achieved.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Tell me, how did you hear my name?”

There was just a trace of urgency to that question, like it was actually important. Could it be?

I’d heard his name from Ami. They were on the same side, more or less. Would that save me?

No, I had to play this cooler than that. He’d see right through something that obvious.

“From what I hear, you haven’t exactly been keeping it a secret,” I pointed out. I didn’t actually know if that was true, but Ami had implied it.

Gabriel nodded in agreement. I didn’t understand him at all.

“No, but there’s another name that seems to have taken preferential position in people’s minds. I’m curious as to why you didn’t use that one.”

Fine, have it your way.

“It’s what Ami told me your name was,” I said.

His expression was unreadable. Not quite a blank slate, but nothing recognisable.

“So, you’ve spoken to Ami? And survived? That alone speaks volumes. What else did she tell you about me?”

I really hoped I wasn’t getting her into trouble. A quiet corner of my brain began to wonder who would win in a fight between the two of them, but I had no way of knowing that. Not important. Focus on Gabriel, Veronica.

“Not a lot. You’re trying to recapture Zoe, she’s looking for your other teammates.”

“And why would she tell you that?” he asked.

Good question.

“I’m very easy to talk to.”

“Evidently.” There was that smile again, but it was tempered this time. Disappointment? Regret? “It’s a shame we had to meet like this. I apologise deeply.”

What?

A mental image flashed through my mind, of him killing me by simply reaching out and breaking my neck. I was a witness, and he didn’t leave witnesses.

“What for?” I asked, barely bothering to hide the lump in my throat.

“Have you not heard?” he asked, sounding genuinely surprised. Well, almost genuine.

“Clearly not.”

“The infection,” he said. “I’m a carrier. You’re almost certainly infected by now.”

What? Fucking what?

The lump in my throat expanded as a piece fell into place. He was the source of the infection? A Typhoid Mary for this plague of zombies?

It would explain why he killed everyone he met, to avoid it spreading. It seemed almost merciful.

Except I didn’t want to die. Being infected sounded worse, but a part of my brain was denying it, telling me it wasn’t true. It wanted a chance of survival, at the risk of turning into one of them.

“What?” It was all I was able to manage. The world was spinning, my chest tight, almost too tight to breathe.

“I’m so very sorry,” he said, and that did sound genuine.

“You didn’t touch me,” I said, grasping for any hope.

“It’s airborne.”

I could feel rage building in the back of my head. Was that a reasonable response, or was that the infection, already taking hold?

“What are you doing out here, then?” I shouted. “Why would you come talk to me?”

He was unruffled by my sudden outburst.

“It would be impossible to explain to you, child. Capturing Zoe is the most important thing. If I don’t, your lives would all be forfeit anyway.”

No. No, no, no. Fuck!

“You’ve… you’ve killed me,” I snarled.

Why me? What made him think talking to me would have anything to do with his stupid sister?

“I’m sorry,” was all he said.

“Sorry? Fuck you!

“You have a few days,” he said softly. “I suggest you make the most of them.”

I staggered back, my shoulders bumping against the shelves.

“There’s no cure? No way to stop it?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

That’s not fair.

“Well, fuck. Fuck you,” I snapped.

He just shook his head, turned on his heel, and began to walk off. He didn’t care at all.

“Again, I’m sorry,” he lied, calling back over his shoulder. “There’s nothing that can be done.”

I screamed at him, threw cans at him, knocked food off shelves onto the floor when he was out of sight. When my throat was hoarse and raw, my chest aching, I dropped to my knees, sobbing.

It wasn’t fair. I still had so much to do. I had to find Sabrina, had to figure out what was going on.

A few days? Not nearly enough.

Didn’t matter.

If I had to find Sabrina in the next three days, I would find a way.

Fuck you, Gabriel.

Chapter 32 – You Seem Honest

Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, I admonished myself. An explosive impact rocked the building I’d taken cover in, and I had to work to suppress a cry of fear. Outside, the fight carried on, oblivious to my presence.

I hadn’t intentionally gotten caught up in the middle of a conflict. It had just sort of erupted around me, and I couldn’t get away from it, not without going through the line of fire directly. Not that it was much safer inside, but at least they couldn’t see me.

Would they care? Would they perceive me as an enemy combatant? A spy? A threat? Even if they recognised me as a civilian, would they let me live?

Near as I could tell, the fight was between a group of soldiers, whatever that collective is called, and a bunch of gangsters. Not the Stars, one of the other ones. I hadn’t gotten a good enough look to know for sure.

Neither of them seemed likely to show mercy. The gangs were brutal, callous, driven by desire for power more than anything. The individuals seemed to have all lost their sense of, well, individuality. Was that normal, in situations like this? Was there a normal, for situations like this?

For their part, the soldiers in the city didn’t seem much better. They were desperate, cut off from the rest of the world, surrounded by chaos. Surrounded by madness.

I crawled over to the window, knowing it was a bad idea. My curiosity would be the death of me, but I needed to know what was going on. If I couldn’t get away, I could at least try and learn something. That was worth the risk of a stray bullet, right?

There were maybe a dozen fighters on each side that I could see, all armed to the teeth. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, machine guns. Not exactly easy stuff to come by in Australia. Who was supplying them? The gang’s gear was different to the soldiers’, so it wasn’t like they’d just looted army supply depots or something.

I thought I caught a glimpse of someone in a window opposite, doing the same thing I was, looking out at the street below. It was a young girl, with long, lilac hair, but as soon as I caught her eye, she disappeared, and I’d already forgotten what I was looking at.

I heard a loud crack, realised a sniper had taken a shot. I couldn’t see them, but I saw one of the gangsters’ heads literally explode. I felt sick to my stomach.

Then everything changed. Both sides stopped firing at each other, and starting attacking something else. No, someone else. She strolled casually through the battlefield, barely paying attention to them.

As she moved, people near her died. Decapitated by invisible swords, torn apart from the inside, shot with their own weapons. It was obviously this girl, but all she was doing was walking. Well, I could guess who she was, then. Didn’t know her name, but I’d heard about her. The girl from before, Silver, had mentioned her. Had she said her name? Couldn’t remember. Didn’t matter.

It took this girl less than a minute to take apart both sides, and suddenly, everything was quiet. I let out a tense sigh. At least it was safe to leave, so long as she didn’t decide I needed to die as well. I retreated from the window.

I waited for a few minutes, not sure how long the girl would be out there, no way of knowing without having any idea what she was doing here in the first place. Was it her territory? Maybe she was here for whatever the gang and the soldiers were fighting over.

When several minutes had passed without me hearing anything, I risked moving. Down the stairs, out the back door, away from the street. No sense taking any chances.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl said, surprising me. She was perched on a streetlight, and I had to crane my neck up to look at her. “The city was evacuated.”

I was surprised how gentle her voice was. Not her tone, that was hard, almost military, but her voice was soft. It was a little odd.

She dropped, landing elegantly beside me, looking at me curiously. Up close, I realised just how young she was. My age, thereabouts. Possibly younger, possibly older. Too young to have the sort of power she had.

She was pretty, too. That was even more unnerving. It didn’t fit, with what I’d just seen her do. Pretty, young, just murdered more than twenty people.

“I know,” I said, remembering she’d spoken to me. “I don’t want to go.”

“You’ll die,” she said, without a hint of emotion. Not a threat, not concerned. Just a fact.

“Or get infected,” I agreed. “That’d be worse. But I can’t leave.”

“Why not?” she asked.

What was with these people? These young, comic book supervillains, happy to just converse casually with me, it rubbed me the wrong way.

Not that I was complaining. Talking to me was definitely preferable to killing me.

“A lot of reasons,” I said, already looking for an escape. Not that I thought I had a chance of escaping her. Still, didn’t hurt to have an idea of where to run, if the opportunity did present itself. “I can’t find my friend. I need answers about what’s going on, and why. I can’t stand the idea of sitting out somewhere safe while my city burns.”

She nodded as if she understood. Did she? I doubted we had anything in common, she and I.

“Who’s your friend?” she asked.

How was I supposed to answer that? Give her Sabrina’s name, a physical description? What was she, the neighbourhood watch?

“I’d just as soon not say. No offence, but I’ve got no idea whose side you’re on,” I told her evenly, hoping I wasn’t about to be decapitated.

“I’m not on anyone’s side, but fair enough,” she said. Again, she nodded like she understood. “Name’s Ami, by the way.”

We were on first name terms, now?

“Veronica,” I said, after an awkward pause. “You’re okay telling me your name?”

Ami shrugged, and in doing so, revealed a pair of Japanese swords hidden beneath the folds of her clothing.

“What are you going to do with it? I’m not from here, I have no history here,” she said.

Well that was… completely reasonable. Damn.

“I’m just used to people keeping secrets,” I said. “Can I ask where you’re from? What you’re doing here?”

I mean, if she was in an expository mood…

“I don’t see why not,” she said, but didn’t answer the question.

I got momentarily distracted by her eyes. A vivid violet colour, unlike anything I’d seen before. My first instinct was to believe they weren’t real, contacts or something, but I reminded myself she was a monstrously powerful telekinetic. Maybe they were natural.

“So…”

She looked surprised, as if she hadn’t parsed the question until I prompted her.

“I don’t know where I’m from,” she said, sounding almost vulnerable. “A world like this, but different. The future, maybe. We got sucked through some kind of wormhole, and now I just want to go home.”

The future? I could believe that. Maybe a thousand years into the future, when they’d figured out how to make supersoldiers with psychic powers, and time machines.

Wasn’t any less ridiculous than any other ideas I’d come up with.

“We?” I asked, latching on to something different. I knew there were others, but I wanted to hear how she described them. If she described them.

“Four of us,” she clarified. “Five, if you include Zoe.”

Five superhumans parading about the city, wreaking havoc? What a nightmare.

I did a mental tally. I knew about her. Silver had claimed to be from here, not one of them. Miss Melbourne, she was a local. Miss Murder? Didn’t know anything about her. That those three existed was interesting, but not relevant right now. I knew about Specimens G and Z, and I could guess Z was Zoe. G, Zoe and Ami. Two others, I didn’t know about.

“I’m guessing Specimen G is one of your group?” I asked, trying to confirm the data I did have, hoping it would lead to something new.

“Gabriel,” she corrected, sounding irritated. “I don’t know how that name managed to proliferate again.”

I made a mental note. Gabriel, Zoe, Ami. They had names. Human names, not superhero names. Not code names.

“Why aren’t you working together?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t a sore subject. She frowned, and I flinched. Don’t decapitate me.

“We have different priorities,” Ami said, as if that explained anything. I cocked my head, trying to suggest curiosity. She got it. “He’s obsessed with Zoe.”

“Why?”

“It’s complicated. She was our mission. We’d captured her, then, well, this happened. he wants to recapture her before trying to get home. I just want to cause as little damage as possible.”

By murdering soldiers and gangsters in the street? You have a funny concept of minimal damage, lady.

So Zoe was aligned against the other four, but Gabriel and Ami had different objectives. What about the other two, though? Wait, that was a question for her, not for me.

“And what about the other two?”

“M.I.A.,” she said, spelling out the letters. Missing In Action. “Haylie’s the key, she’s the one I’m looking for. Exxo, I’m not sure about. I have a lot of questions, and nobody to answer them.”

Haylie and Exxo. Now I have a list of names. Haylie was normal, Exxo wasn’t. And Haylie was the key? What did that mean?

“I know the feeling,” I grumbled sympathetically. “Which makes me wonder, why are you answering mine?”

She shrugged again, a harmless gesture turned into incidental threat, as the swords came into view again. Was that intentional?

“I don’t have a reason not to, and I know you’re not an enemy,” she said.

“You know? How?”

She’d said it with complete confidence. Did she know who I was?

“There’s no hostility,” she said. “Only curiosity.”

Wait. She was telekinetic, could control things with her mind. If I knew my science fiction, and I did, did that mean-

“Are you telepathic?” I asked. “Are you reading my mind?”

She laughed, which was not the reaction I was expecting.

“Yes, and no. Reading human minds is almost impossible. Thought patterns are jumbled and disjointed and way too fast, and they rely on internal context to even make sense of them. I could open a channel to your thoughts, for example, but it would be an unfiltered mess of words and images and emotions, half of which I wouldn’t understand. And it would completely overload me. But, traces of emotions and motivations are easy enough to pick out, from the surface.”

I shook my head, trying to process all of that. I understood what she was saying, more or less. What I wasn’t grasping was why she was telling me.

“Wow, you’re just an open book, huh.”

“I’m pretty used to it,” she said, with the faintest trace of a smile. “Where I’m from, I live a very public life. I talk to the media all the time.”

Again, I didn’t understand. It didn’t fit with my mental blueprint. She was basically a superhero, or a supervillain, right?

“You don’t want a life of secrecy?”

“Not particularly, no,” she said simply. Okay then. Probably better to turn my questions towards something useful, while she was still being accommodating.

“So, who’s Haylie, and why is she so important?”

“Now that, I can’t tell you,” Ami said, her face hardening. “There are already too many people looking for her. But maybe you can tell me something?”

What could I possible know that would be useful or interesting to her?

“I’ll do my best, I suppose. It’s only fair, right?”

“Who is the Celestial?” she asked bluntly. “Do you know anything about them?”

The Celestial? Leader of the Stars? Why did she care about him, of all people?

“Had a few run-ins with the Stars?” I asked, fishing for clues.

“Something like that.” Nothing.

“I wish I knew,” I said, my shoulders slumping. “I mean, I know that he’s been leading the Stars for a couple of years now, and they’ve gone from some small street gang to one of the most dangerous militias in the city. Most of that changed after Impact Day, but even before then, they were powerful. They changed too quickly, almost like they were ready for it. It’s like they always know where to be, and when. My best guess is that he’s an information broker, and a very clever one.”

Ami nodded, taking in everything I was saying. Would she consider me useful? Would that be enough to spare me?

“You keep saying ‘he’. Do you know for sure that he’s male?”

The question caught me off guard. I hadn’t even thought about it.

“Uh, no, not really,” I admitted. “But I’ve heard Stars referring to him that way.” I think.

“Interesting,” she said, still nodding. “And his… assassin?”

“Miss Murder,” I said. “I didn’t come up with it.”

“Do you know anything about her?”

“Nothing that isn’t, you know, considered common knowledge,” I said, shaking my head. “At least among people sharing this sort of information. She can teleport short distances, kills without hesitating, can turn her body to smoke, and she never speaks.” Another detail occurred to me. “Oh, and apparently she’s like, a teenager. My age.”

I almost said our age, but I remembered something Silver had said. This girl could have been one hundred years old. Future anti-aging technology?

Ami just nodded again, as if what I was saying was useful.

“I see. Thank you. And you know nothing about their base of operations, or how I might find it?”

“Afraid not.”

She got a curious look in her eye, almost dangerous, but not quite.

“Would you tell me, if you did?” she asked, almost accusingly, but tempered.

“Surprisingly, yes,” I told her. “They’re, well, possibly the worst thing to happen to this city, if you don’t count zombie infestations and military occupation. And you seem… honest,” I finished, after struggling to find the right word.

“You have a phone?” she asked, and for the umpeenth time, caught me off guard.

“Yes?”

“Give it to me.”

I handed it to her, unlocked. She fiddled with it, then returned it to me. A tracking… something? She hadn’t changed the hardware. Downloaded a virus?

“I acquired a cell from from, well, I obtained one. It seems to function without issue. If you find anything, please, send a message to this number.” Wait, she’d just given me her number? “In return, I’ll keep an ear out for anything that might be useful to you.” She hesitated. “I’ll ask again. Your friend, the one you’re looking for. Who should I be looking for?”

Did I trust her more, now? Enough for this?

Well, what was the worst she could do, if I told her?

“Sabrina. Sabrina Labelle. She’s, uh, trans.” Would she even know what that meant? “You might think she’s a boy. A bit taller than me, a little chubbier, long dark hair, curly. Darker skin, too. Big eyes.”

Wait, I had a photo on my phone. Dozens, even. I pulled them up, and showed her. She nodded.

“I will relay anything I find,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Likewise.”

Chapter 31 – Are You Always This Frustratingly Vague?

Part 4 – Veronica

I never thought I’d live to see an apocalypse. Never really even bought into the idea, worrying about the end of the world. Nuclear wastelands, zombie hordes, alien invasion, global warming, it all seemed kind of silly to me. The realm of fiction and fantasy, something for nerds to geek out over.

Several months ago, I saw the sky above Melbourne torn apart. I saw a futuristic spacecraft fly through it and crash into the ground. I saw people turn into rampaging monsters, I saw men and women who could shrug off bullets walking among us. I saw the gangs seize control, saw the military move in, struggling to contain it all.

No, not struggling. Failing.

Somehow, Melbourne had turned into a place where it wasn’t safe to walk the streets, where monsters ruled and the rest of the world seemingly had no idea what to do. I was half expecting them to eventually give up and nuke the whole city, except I had a sneaking suspicion that wouldn’t do much to stop what was happening.

Technically, a few weeks ago, an official evacuation had been ordered, and the city was placed under quarantine. No traffic in or out, after the initial exodus, and anyone who left was kept in temporary housing just outside the city limits. I’d seen it, and it was terrible. Tents and preserved food and no electricity.

Somehow, still better conditions than our refugee camps.

I couldn’t stay, even though I knew sneaking back into the city was tantamount to suicide. I knew I wouldn’t survive more than a day, probably not more than an hour, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

Sabrina was missing. Probably dead, but my gut told me she wasn’t.

No, okay, that’s a cop-out. I just didn’t want to accept it until I saw it for myself. Which was stupid, because I was effectively scouring a dead city for a corpse. What if she’d been turned? I’d never know. Or blown up? Wouldn’t be a trace.

It didn’t matter. I needed to know, couldn’t give up until I’d seen something. Anything. She was my best friend. She deserved that much.

I’m not sure how I managed to keep myself alive for as long as I did. Avoiding busy areas, keeping an ear to the ground, rationing the food I brought with me. Staying out of open areas. Mostly, I think it was just luck.

It certainly wasn’t by being overly cautious. To a certain degree, I couldn’t avoid trouble completely, because trouble was more likely to lead me to answers. More than anything, that was what I needed. So, a little personal risk here and there, why not? What was the worst that could happen?

So when I saw a nondescript van driving down the street, what else could I do but follow? From a safe distance, of course, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous.

The city had been evacuated. That meant anyone left behind was one of the bad guys, probably gang members. Or, incredibly stupid and/or stubborn. Which still made them dangerous.

The next street over, I saw another van. Suspicious, which helped confirm my theory a little. Almost certainly a gang operation. Probably a big one. They were clearly trying to avoid moving a large number of people, or maybe a not lot of equipment, without looking like it. Having the vans take different routes would help with that. So where were they going?

I followed as best I could, but on food, I was admittedly a little slow. I managed to keep them in sight for a while, but they were apparently travelling for a while, and I eventually completely lost them. Dejected, I kicked the curb, then kept moving, knowing better than to stay in one place for too long. Besides, I rationed, if I kept moving, maybe I’d accidentally stumble onto where they were going?

Ten minutes later, an explosion shook the ground, and I stumbled. That wasn’t far at all. Was it related to the vans? Almost certainly. I had to find out.

Like an idiot, I ran towards the source of the explosion.

It took me another fifteen minutes to cover the distance. I nearly got lost, but I saw a young girl ahead of me dash down an alley. By the time I caught up, she’d vanished. It was mildly disconcerting, but any thought of her disappeared from my head as I saw a column of smoke up ahead.

From there, the location was pretty obvious. One of the vans was a smouldering wreck, bits of it scattered across the street. The others were missing, but there were tire-tracks on the road. They’d been here.

They’d all been parked in front of a slightly derelict-looking office building. The weathered sign was impossible to read, but it looked like it might have been some kind of clinic as well as an office building? Weird, but not the weirdest thing I’d ever seen.

The front door was blown open, a gaping hole surrounded by scorch marks. Obviously, I needed to get inside. Just as obviously, going in the front door was a monumentally stupid idea. I checked the windows.

Reinforced with bars and melted closed. Not gonna happen. I circled the building, looking for another entrance. There was a back door, in the same condition as the front one.

This building had been turned into a fortress. A fortress that someone had forced their way into. Which meant the only way I was getting in was to go in the same way. Fuck. Well, at least they’d done the hard work for me.

The idea of just walking away didn’t really occur to me until much later. I was too curious, too desperate for answers.

I walked through the back entrance, as quietly as I could manage, sticking to the wall. Not one metre in, I had to gingerly step around a grotesque splatter of blood. There was no body, that must have been cleared out, but with that amount of blood, there was no way whoever it belonged to survived. Unless it was one of the superhumans, I mused.

The further in I got, the uglier the scene was. Too much blood, and it was already starting to smell. At least it made an effective trail for me to follow? I held my breath, pushing through the worst of it.

The trail went down some stairs, and the almost claustrophobic hallways opened up into a large space, almost completely empty, save for more blood. A few doorways led out into other, similarly sized areas. They seemed to be just as empty, and with a lot less blood.

“You missed the party,” a voice behind me said, startling me. I turned, backing away from the stairwell. A woman was sitting on the railing, legs dangling.

She looked to be young, not too far from my age. Latina, with choppy black hair and large, sullen eyes. She was dressed all in black, with blood dripping from her hand and cheek. She looked about ready to murder somebody.

“Who’re you?” I asked. Asking questions was my default defence mechanism, I’d discovered. Since I was potentially talking to a supervillain, maybe it would help me. Get her monologuing, or something.

“That’s a good question,” she said, dropping down to land on the floor. The impact barely seemed to register to her, but the thud she made was significant. Was she heavier than she looked? “I need a codename. I’m sure someone will come up with something soon enough.”

That didn’t tell me anything, except maybe that she didn’t want me to know her real name. Maybe that was significant, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to put it together.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, looking around, trying to find any clue in the environment before I got chased out. Or murdered, that was always a possibility.

“Waiting for nosy kids to stumble into places they have no business being,” she said, with a sort of lopsided grin.

“You can’t be any older than me,” I accused, not sure why that was the first thing that came to mind.

“It’s getting hard to tell though, isn’t it?” the girl asked, looking irritatingly smug. A glint in her bloody hand caught my attention. I gagged when I realised I could see through to the bone.

Wait, no, not bone. It was silver. Metal? Was she an android? No, too much blood for that, surely.

Distracted by the sight, I didn’t answer her question. She didn’t seem to mind.

“Have you seen Specimens G or Z?” she asked. “They’re well over two hundred years old. The small Japanese girl with the psychic powers? Nearly one hundred.”

I vaguely knew who she was talking about. Sightings, rumours, news reports. The superhumans from the other world, if the stories were to be believed. I didn’t have a better theory.

“And you’re one of them?” I asked, aware that my heart was beating just a little faster.

“No, I’m local,” she said, with that same smug grin. “So now, you tell me, Veronica. What are you doing here?”

Panic flared up, felt like a knife in my chest. She knew my name? How? Why?

“How do you know my name?” I asked, trying to sound demanding, barely managing to hide my fear.

“I keep tabs on people who might be important,” she said, with a simple shrug.

“I’m flattered,” I retorted, slowly recovering my composure.

“You’re avoiding the question,” she accused.

“Maybe I don’t feel like answering it,” I said, hoping I managed to sound more confident than I felt.

“Ah, well, in that case, I apologise,” she said. There was an edge of danger in her voice. “I shouldn’t have given you the impression you had a choice.”

“What are you going to do, threaten me?” Wow, way more confidence than I was feeling there. Probably too much.

“I could,” she replied, smirking. “Physically, you’re no match for me. I’m not sure you’re the easily intimidated type, though.” She waved her hand, the one that wasn’t caked in blood. “And it’s not really my style. I much prefer tricking the answers out of people.”

I sighed. “So neither of us is going to answer the other’s questions.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.” She didn’t seem too bothered by that, strangely.

“Are you going to stop me from looking around?” I asked, carefully. All of a sudden, it felt like I’d lost my read on her.

“Wasn’t planning on it. You won’t find anything, though.”

I looked around again. The place had been stripped clean. Only signs that anyone had been here at all was the blood.

I thought back to the vans from earlier, the blown-open doors. I felt like I had a pretty good idea who was behind all of that.

“Are you with the Celestial?” I asked. “Are you one of the Stars, keeping guard on your spoils?”

She smiled indulgently. “That’s certainly an interesting theory.”

“Are you always this frustratingly vague?” I groaned.

“Almost always.”

I sighed, wandering away from her. If she wasn’t planning on killing me, she wasn’t worth my time. I wasn’t here for small talk.

“Looks like one hell of a fight happened here,” I mused, more to myself than to her.

“Who do you suppose won?” the girl asked. I needed a name for her, I decided. Silver. Like her bones.

“I don’t even know who the combatants were,” I said, wondering if she’d feed me a little information after all.

“Sure you do,” Silver prompted. “The Stars, and…”

“And the new super,” I finished. “The one that’s been fighting against the gangs, and the infected. Protecting people.”

She was the only one that seemed even vaguely heroic. Certainly more heroic than the Vigilante. Charlie. I felt my face twist into a scowl at the very thought of her.

No, this new hero wasn’t like that. Something about her was different. She was a real hero. She needed a name to suit that. Maybe if I’d ever picked up a comic book in my life…

I thought about the limited amount I’d seen her. Fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes. Like the other one, Specimen Z? But more human, somehow. More approachable? Supermodel good looks, but down to earth, so to speak. A hero of the people.

Miss Melbourne.

“You think this was her hideout?” Silver asked, a leading question.

“That’s what I was hoping to find out,” I said.

“So, assuming it was, who won?”

How the hell was I supposed to know that?

“If she did, she would have cleared out, tried to find somewhere new,” I said, thinking aloud. “So, it looks like she might have. But then again, if the Stars won, they’d have stripped the place, taken it back to one of their bases, before another gang or the military could find it.”

“So you have no idea?”

“So it would seem,” I confessed.

Silver sighed, seeming disappointed. Why did she care?

“And so the war continues,” she muttered.

“The city’s been evacuated,” I pointed out. “They can keep fighting over territory if they want, but eventually, someone will run out of supplies.”

Silver shook her head. “You’ve seen what the superhumans can do. Any one of them could just walk into a new city, and take it over.”

“They’re quarantining the city,” I argued. “Locking it down.”

“Again, you’ve seen what they can do. What could possibly keep them here?”

I had wondered the same thing myself. Nothing that was being done seemed sufficient to keep them here. For some reason, though, they did all seem to be staying put.

“Honestly? They seem to want to be here,” I said. “Otherwise, they would have left already. There’s something here they all want, that’s the only explanation I can think of.”

“And what happens when they get it?” Silver asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know. Probably depends who gets it. I’m guessing it’s not good for the rest of us, though, regardless.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” she asked, surprising me.

“Me? Nothing,” I said, almost argued. “I’m not a hero. Just… curious.”

“Well, you know what they say about curiosity,” she replied, that damned smirk returning.

“Yes, and ignorance is bliss. Seems like I’m just cut out for a life of misery, but at least it’ll be a short one.”

She laughed at that.

“I like you, Veronica. I hope you survive all of this.”

“So do I,” I muttered.

Chapter 15 – I Fucking Knew It

I felt Charlie’s hand on my shoulder before I changed. She leaned in, and whispered calmly in my ear.

“Don’t. You have a lot more to lose.”

Then she stepped in front of us, walking towards the charging infected. They snarled and tried to swipe at her, but she effortlessly ducked the blow, grabbing their wrist and twisting, slamming them against the ground.

Quicker than I could follow, she whipped out a syringe from under her coat. The same kind the Vigilante had given me. She dropped to one knee and drove it into the infected’s chest. It twitched, but almost immediately began to calm down.

“I fucking knew it,” Veronica nearly shouted, grabbing my arm.

Realisation washed over me like a bucket of icy water. Charlie was the Vigilante. That was why she’d taken such an interest in me. We were both different. We were both superhuman.

Charlie had just revealed herself to potentially the entire world. If that camera was still recording, and it looked like it was, there was definitely footage of what she’d just done, which was undisputably superhuman. No normal human could move like that.

She started walking towards the camera which was pointed at her. The cameraman started to back away, leaving his camera behind. Was she planning on destroying the camera? What if it was broadcasting?

She stopped about ten feet in front of it, standing there dramatically.

“Hello, Melbourne,” she said. “Hello, world. I am the Vigilante, and I’m here to let you know, this city will be safe again. No more soldiers, no more gang warfare, and no more infected.” She paused, seemingly for effect. “I’m going to save this city, and I’m going to do it without killing anyone.” Another pause. “Well, except for one person. Rachel, I’m going to find you. You can’t hide from me forever.”

With that, she turned and walked away from the camera, back to the infected she’d left lying on the ground, now completely unconscious. With no apparent effort, she lifted them up onto her shoulder, and then leapt up into the air, clearing the nearest building, three stories tall.

In the distance, several sirens blared to life. Veronica grabbed my arm, her eyes wild.

“We can’t be seen here,” she hissed.

The two of us ran, away from the cameras and the dead reporter and the scene of Charlie’s dramatic reveal. My head was whirling, and I could barely concentrate on where we were going.

“I fucking knew she was suspicious,” Veronica said, slightly out of breath. I didn’t say anything, not because I was also out of breath, but because I didn’t know what to say. “Oh, I just found these listening bugs in your room, Sabrina. Oh, I just somehow knew about the Vigilante before everyone else did.”

I’d known Charlie since long before Impact Day. How long had she had these powers? Her whole life? I knew the Vigilante had existed for over a year before Impact Day, but there were never any rumours of super strength, just that she was incredibly hard to kill.

Where had her powers come from? Could it be the same place as mine? Did she know? Would she tell me? Could she be trusted? And who was Rachel?

It was too much to think about, more than I was ready to deal with. Beside me, Veronica was still ranting, though it was hard to tell if she was genuinely mad, or just excited and scared and still full of adrenaline.

Eventually, we stopped running. I felt a little tired, but not nearly as exhausted as Veronica looked. Before she noticed, I tried to mimic her behaviour, just so she wouldn’t be suspicious.

“Can you believe this shit?” she asked me, determined to get a response this time.

“No,” I said truthfully. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“I’m so mad,” she continued, as if I hadn’t said anything at all. “There is no way I’m going to let this rest. I’m going to uncover every single one of her lies, if it’s the last thing I do.”

“She’s a superhuman vigilante,” I said absently. “It might actually be the last thing you do.”

“I’m not that easy to scare,” she snapped.

“Well, I am. I’m going home,” I told her.

“Will you be okay?” she asked, her tone suddenly soft and compassionate.

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. “Right now, I’m more worried about you.”

She waved my concerns away, accompanied by fake laughter.

“You worry too much, Sabrina. I’ll be fine. I’m not going to do anything too reckless… just yet.”

She smirked, then we hugged and parted ways. It didn’t take me long to get home, even without relying on any superhuman speed. I was suddenly very self-conscious of that.

“I’m home,” I called, as I closed the front door.

“Hi honey,” Mum called. “Your friend is in you room, I said that was fine. I hope that’s okay!”

“Sure, thanks!” I called back, even though it was completely not fine. I had no idea who was waiting for me in my room, but all I wanted was to be alone.

Grumpily, I ascended the stairs and pushed open the door to my room. To my surprise, a complete stranger sat on my bed, her dark, sunken eyes staring sullenly up at me. She looked frail, almost certainly sick.

“Um, hi?” I said, closing the door behind me. “Who are you?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice strained and weak. “I didn’t know where else to go. I need your help. My name is Rachel.”

Chapter 14 – What’s The Worst That Could Happen

“Are you sure it’s okay to be out here?” Veronica asked, looking around nervously. The entire city was eerily quiet, which as I understood it was the new normal, after everything that had happened. The city was generally safe during the day, but not many people seemed like they wanted to take the risk.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Charlie said, smirking.

“Don’t make me say it,” Veronica said, rolling her eyes. “We’d be here all day.”

“How long has it been like this?” I asked.

“Since day one,” Veronica answered. “Impact Day. Nothing’s been the same.”

“It’s a power struggle,” Charlie said. “It was bound to happen sooner or later. Impact Day, if that’s what we’re calling it, just sped things up a bit.”

“But, all of the factions that are fighting, they all came after the crash,” Veronica said.

“Not all of them,” Charlie said. “The gangs were a problem even before then, they just weren’t as public. The infected are new, and so are most of the superhumans, but not all of them.”

“What? You think we had those, whatever they are, before? How? And why are you the only one to know about them?” Veronica demanded.

Across the road, there was a minor disruption as a news crew began to set up. I guessed they were planning on shooting some kind of report, but I was far more interested in what Charlie had to say.

“Because I pay attention to this kind of thing,” she said. “And I’m not the only one who knew. But who’d have believed it?”

“Who was here before?” I asked. Charlie looked at me, curious.

“The vigilante, for starters. Surely you heard the rumours?”

“About him being immortal?” Veronica asked. “You mean that’s true?”

“According to several accounts,” Charlie said. “Then there was the superhuman shopkeeper, who actually appears to have vanished. Which is interesting all on its own.”

“You can’t actually believe that one, can you?” Veronica asked, incredulous.

“You’d deny it now? With everything else that’s happening? Surely you can keep a slightly more open mind,” Charlie scolded her.

“I saw the sky split open,” Veronica said. “I know the things I’m seeing now came from another world. Where am I supposed to believe a shopkeeper who could lift a car with one hand came from?”

“The same place? One of a myriad of other possible places?”

“You’re way too ready to buy into that crap,” Veronica said snidely. “You think they’ve been here secretly for, what, years? And only just started to act up now?”

“I think-” Charlie began, but was cut off by a scream from across the road. The news crew were backing away rapidly, though the cameras seemed to still be filming.

A second later, the reason for the screaming became apparent. One of the infected had burst out of the building, snarling and sneering in the sunlight. With one brutal swing of their arm, they knocked the reporter clean off his feet, and he slammed into a parked car with a sickening thud.

The expression on the infected’s face was more of panic and confusion than actual malice, and I was reminded of the Vigilante’s insistence that they were human, and could be saved. I think I was starting to understand her point of view.

The infected saw us, locking eyes with me from across the road. I knew instinctively they were going to charge, and the only one who could do anything about it was me.

One of the cameras was trained almost directly on us. If I transformed, or whatever it was that I did, it would almost certainly be caught on film. Not to mention both Veronica and Charlie would know, and I so wasn’t ready for that.

What would happen if that ended up on TV? Everyone would know. My parents would know. Plus, with all of the tension between the military and superhumans, I would probably become a public enemy.

What else could I do, though? If I didn’t change, Veronica and Charlie would almost certainly die. I had a feeling I would survive, but even that would be suspicious.

I could feel the beginnings of a panic attack forming. There was no good way out of this situation. Whatever I did, I was completely screwed.

I took a deep breath. If I was going to be revealed either way, at least that meant I could protect my friends without fear. Not that there actually would be an absence of fear, but I could talk myself into it.

I felt the familiar crawling of my skin, the tingle down my spine.

Alright, Sabrina. Time to reveal your secret to the world.

Chapter 11 – You’re The Suspicious One Here

Part 2 – Envy

“Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you still here?” I asked Charlie, who was sitting cross-legged on the end of my bed. Veronica was happily tapping away on my computer, engrossed in a match of some competitive game.

“I was waiting for you,” Charlie said, shrugging. “I’m curious. Sue me.”

“She’s been going through all your stuff,” Veronica said, not taking her eyes off the screen.

I glared at Charlie. She just stared back, blankly.

“What were you looking for?” I demanded. “And why didn’t you stop her?” I asked Veronica.

Veronica ignored me. Charlie held out her hand, held in a loose fist, before opening it. Half a dozen small plastic objects fell out, clattering across the floor.

I reached down to pick one up. It didn’t look like much. Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t mine.

“What are these?” I asked, holding one between my fingers.

“Bugs,” Charlie said. “Surveillance bugs. Somebody is very interested in you, Sabrina.”

I felt my skin crawl, and a shiver ran down my spine.

“What?” I dropped it like it was about to burn through my fingers. “Who? Why?”

Veronica turned away from the PC, a grim expression on her face. She reached out and grabbed my hand.

“It’s okay, Sabrina. We’ll find out who did this. I promise you, you’ll be okay.”

“I know who did this,” Charlie said, and Veronica stared at her.

“You what- who? Who did this, and why do you know?” Veronica demanded, almost spluttering. “How did you know to look for them, or where to find them?”

Charlie rolled her eyes, and stood up, her foot crushing one of the tiny microphones. A fleeting smile crossed her lips.

“Because that’s how I think,” she said. “Sabrina is interesting. She disappeared the night everything went to hell. She walked home, unscathed.”

“That doesn’t explain the who,” Veronica said.

“The who is the Celestial,” Charlie said. “I’d have thought that was obvious.”

“Who?” I asked, but Veronica stood, standing in front of me defensively.

“No,” she said, her voice full of venom.

“Hey, I don’t like it either, but you’re kidding yourself if you think he’s not paying attention,” Charlie said.

“Guys, who is the Celestial?” I asked, pulling away from Veronica.

“The leader of one of the most powerful gangs in the city,” Veronica said, her shoulders slumping. “They were big before, but now…”

“The Stars,” Charlie said. “Evidently, he has a sense of humour. Also, he’s more of an information broker than a gangster, but that only makes him more dangerous, really.”

I felt my body tense up, and realised it wanted to change. It wanted to be strong, to feel safe. I held it in. There was no way I wanted Veronica or Charlie knowing about that.

“I’m not special,” I insisted. “He’s wasting his time. Why won’t he just leave me alone?”

“He’s not gonna like having his bugs messed with,” Charlie said. “He’ll send people back with more.”

“No!” I shouted. “My family, they can’t, they’re innocent, I-”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Charlie said, her voice uncharacteristically soft. “He’s not going to hurt them. That’s not his style.”

“And how do you know so much about him?” Veronica asked accusingly.

“Personal experience,” Charlie said, her voice heavy. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“No, we’re gonna talk about it,” Veronica insisted. “You’ve been here every day since Sabrina disappeared. You’re the one who seems obsessed with her. You knew exactly where those bugs were. And where were you the past six months, hey? You’re the suspicious one here.”

Charlie’s eyes flashed, a brief moment of anger, but she calmed herself.

“I was in hospital,” she said evenly. “I tried to kill myself.”

“Wha- shit,” Veronica said. “Shit. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Nobody knew,” Charlie said. “That’s the way I want it. It’s not how I want people to see me, to think of me. I’m supposed to be strong, tough, in control, you know?”

“Why?” I blurted out, without thinking. They both looked at me, and I turned red. “N-not why did you do it. Why do you need to be strong?”

“I… don’t know, anymore,” Charlie said, staring at the floor. “Originally, it was for her. Now, I think it’s for me. Maybe it’s all I know. Maybe it’s the only way to keep myself from ending up back there again.”

“Her?” Veronica asked. “You never mentioned a her before.”

Charlie looked up, her eyes wet.

“Rachel. She was everything to me. I loved her so much, but I couldn’t…”

Veronica hugged her, clearly taking her by surprise. She stiffened, but slowly hugged back. The two of them stood like that, holding each other close.

I coughed awkwardly. The two of them separated.

“I want to sleep,” I lied. “I’m exhausted. Can we talk more tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Veronica said, rubbing my arm. “You still want us to stay over?”

“No, I’m okay,” I said. “Thank you, but I think… I think I need to wind down and just think, you know?”

“We’ll get out of your hair,” Charlie said. “Call if you need anything, yeah?”

“I will,” I said, lying again. “Thank you.”

I hugged them both goodbye, and saw them to the front door. As soon as they’d left, I turned back around, and rushed up to my mum’s sewing room.

I had a plan.

Chapter 5 – Either a Publicity Stunt or an Alien Invasion

I stood on my front porch, forcing myself to breath slowly. I found myself obsessively checking my reflection anywhere I could see it, worried I’d look and see blonde hair and pale skin. Thankfully, I was looking as normal as I ever had, except for the dishevelled school uniform.

It had been six weeks since I’d last seen my parents. I had no idea how they were going to react to seeing me. They’d probably feel some relief, but they’d also want to know what had happened to me, where I’d been, and I wasn’t ready to answer those questions.

Then there was the other thing I needed to brace myself for. My parents loved me, I knew that, but they also didn’t really know me.

I wanted to tell them, wanted them to really meet me, the real me, but I wasn’t ready. Meeting the real me would mean losing the me they thought they knew, and it would break their hearts.

Taking one last deep breath, I opened the door, and stepped inside.

“Mum? Dad? I’m home,” I called out, closing the door behind me. Almost immediately, my parents materialised in front of me, their expressions shifting from harrowed to overjoyed in less than a second.

“Oh my God, he’s home!” my mother crooned, throwing her arms around me.

“Seth? Thank goodness you’re okay,” my dad added, joining in the hug.

The two of them squeezed, almost crushing me. I make a weak gurgling noise, and they gave me a little space.

“Where have you been?” Dad asked, folding his arms.

“Uh, I don’t really know,” I said, which was mostly true. “There was an accident, and-”

“What matters is that you’re okay,” Mum said, squeezing me again.

Are you okay?” Dad asked.

“I’m fine, I promise,” I said, smiling weakly. Okay was a very subjective concept for me, but I wasn’t in the mood to discuss any of it.

I heard the door open again, much to my surprise. Then I heard a familiar voice, which only surprised me even more.

“Hey, anyone home?”

“Is that Veronica?” I asked, confused.

“She’s been helping us look for you, along with your…” Mum hesitated. “Other friend.”

“What other friend?” I asked, trying to figure out who they could have been talking about. It had to be someone whose name they didn’t know, but-

“Holy fuck,” Veronica said, appearing in the doorway.

“H-hey, Veroni-”

She practically tackled me, throwing her arms around me and squeezing.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said, refusing to let go.

Another person appeared behind her.

“She’s been running herself ragged trying to find you,” Charlie said, smirking.

Last I’d heard, Charlie had been missing for months. The rumours going around school were that she’d run away with a secret girlfriend. I’d never asked, but she did sort of have that vibe about her.

What she was doing at my house, I had no idea. It wasn’t like we hated each other, but we never really spoke.

“Charlie? What are you-”

“Part of the search party,” she said abruptly, cutting me off.

“Wha- where have you been?” I asked, as Veronica finally let go of me.

“It’s kind of a long story,” Charlie said enigmatically.

“Forget that, where have you been?” Veronica demanded.

All eyes in the room fell on me, and I felt my stomach curl into a knot. I had nothing to say, no explanation for my absence. At least, not one I could share with any of them.

“I… don’t know,” I confessed. “I only just woke up today.”

At least that part was true, I told myself.

“Where?” Veronica asked. “Hospital? On the side of the road?”

“Does it matter?” I snapped, surprised at myself. “I’m fine now. Just very confused.”

Veronica’s face fell. Everybody exchanged worried looks.

“Shit, you don’t know what’s happened, do you?” she asked, her tone almost apologetic.

“No clue.”

“We can do this tomorrow,” Mum said, pushing between Veronica and I. “After he’s-”

“No, I’m okay,” I said. “I want to know.”

“Okay, what do you remember?”” Veronica asked, much to Mum’s disdain.

“I left your place,” I said, painfully aware of how much attention was on me. “I heard a… a scream. The sky tore open. Something came through. I went to check it out, some part of it that landed near me, and then… nothing.”

“Oh, something came through alright,” Veronica said, her eyes practically sparkling. “A motherfucking alien spaceship came through.”

“We have absolutely no reason to believe it’s alien,” Charlie disagreed.

“What would you call it, then?” Veronica snapped, her hands on her hips.

Charlie shrugged.

“Could be a lot of things,” she said. “Military experiment, publicity stunt-”

“You think that was a publicity stunt?” Veronica said, sounding almost angry.

“No, but it’s more likely than an alien invasion,” Charlie said.

Veronica rolled her eyes.

“Okay, well some kind of flying ship came through. It broke apart in midair, and scattered all across the city.”

“There were people on board,” Charlie added. “Survivors.”

“Not people,” Veronica said. “Whatever they are, the three of them, they’re not human.”

I felt a chill run down my spine, knowing exactly what she meant. After all, I’d met two of them. I practically was one of them.

“Three?” I asked, wondering who the third could be. Neither of them had mentioned another.

“A blonde woman, a brunette guy, and an Asian girl,” Veronica said.

Two of those descriptions lined up with who I’d met. I was surprised with how curious I was about the third one.

“How do you know they’re… not human?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound offended.

“Caught on camera,” Veronica said. “The woman is fast, really fast. The guy is… I don’t even know how to describe it.”

I had to suppress a smile. I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“And the third one?”

“Looked like telekinesis,” Charlie said, as it that were a totally commonplace thing to say. Everyone looked at her, surprised.

“So the curfew is because of them?”

“No,” Charlie said, her expression growing dark.

“It wasn’t just them,” Veronica said, her own expression mirroring Charlie’s.

“Someone else?”

“Not exactly. People have been getting… sick,” Veronica said.

“A virus?”

“Zombies,” Charlie said, drawing more strange looks.

“They are not zombies,” Veronica said.

“Okay, probably not,” Charlie conceded. “But the result is pretty similar. Infected people become hyper-aggressive, their muscles expand, and their skin starts to lose its colour.”

“And that started after the crash?”

“The army moved in within like five days,” Veronica said.

“Wow.”

“Yep, you’ve missed all the excitement,” Charlie said.

“Well, it’s not over yet,” Veronica said. “Melbourne is still in complete lockdown.”

My parents frowned at each other, then both cleared their throats in unison. It was a bad habit they’d had for as long as I could remember.

“And now that we know Seth is okay, the two of you can stop going out on your own,” Dad said sternly.

“It’s already much too late to go home now,” Mum added. “You should stay the night.”

“Works for me,” Veronica said, shrugging.

“I have nowhere better to be,” Charlie agreed, nodding.

I looked at Veronica, concerned. Surely she wasn’t just going to let Ashley stay at home by herself.

“What about Ash?” I asked. “Will she be okay alone?”

“She’s been staying with Hunter and his family while I’ve been out, y’know, looking for you,” Veronica explained.

“Poor guy,” I said, laughing. I did not envy anyone who had to play the role of babysitter to her.

“Alright, let’s go to bed,” Charlie said, with an exaggerated stretch. “I’m exhausted.”

Bonus – Interview With A Hero, Part 1

Exerpt from Veronica's famous interview with Miss Melbourne, 2 years after Impact Day.

V: So what made you decide to do the whole ‘hero’ thing?

MM: That’s an interesting choice of words.

V: You don’t think of yourself as a hero?

MM: I was more referring to the word ‘decide’.

V: You don’t think you had a choice?

MM: It’s strange that you think I did.

V: Well, you could always just walk away, live a normal life, use your powers for personal gain, any number of things.

MM: I don’t think that’s true. I mean, sure, theoretically that would be possible. But honestly, it was never an option.

V: What makes you say that?

MM: Well, look at what I am. Who I am. And look at the state of the city. Think about all of the people who live here. How could I, being what I am, not do something about that?

V: Well, you weren’t the only superhuman in the city, and none of them really stepped up like you did.

MM: No, I suppose they didn’t.

V: And now you’re the only one left.

MM: Apparently.

V: Apparently? You think there are still others out there?

MM: I know there are.

V: Is there a sidekick or hero team up in your future, then?

MM: I don’t think so. I would love that, but… it’s not simple, watching over a city. It’s a lot like raising a child, you know?

V: I don’t think I follow.

MM: Everyone has a different idea of what the right thing to do is, what the best way to go about these things is. Teaming up sounds good in theory, but as soon as you disagree…

V: Is that what happened with you and the Vigilante?

MM: No.

V: Can you tell us what did happen there, then?

MM: I… It’s a long story.

Chapter 1 – The Scream Heard ‘Round The World

Part 1 – Sabrina

I couldn’t tell Veronica what I was doing on Impact Day, because I was with her. It was a Friday night and we were doing the same thing we always did, hanging out and playing video games. Her younger sister, Ashley, was asleep on the armchair.

Veronica and I both sat cross-legged on the couch, controllers in hand, furiously mashing buttons as we attempted to virtually murder one another through brightly coloured avatars. She was focussing intensely, determined not to lose to me. I was wincing every time one of the characters got impaled by something sharp, and marvelling at their ability to keep fighting.

“If it were me,” I said, blocking a barrage of punches, “I’d give up after the first hit. What do these people even have to be fighting about?”

“Oh, who cares?” Veronica asked. “Honour, love, a desire to rip their shirts off and punch each other?”

There was a bright flash of light as my character unleashed some kind of energy beam, knocking Veronica’s off the screen.

“I do not understand how you’re so good at this,” she complained. “You don’t even like video games. Or fighting!”

“Maybe I’m not good,” I teased. “Maybe you’re just really bad.”

She responded by having her character flip over the top of mine, and kicking her up into the air. I cringed.

“Have you ever been in a fight?” she asked, suddenly serious.

“No,” I told her.

“Huh.”

“What, huh?” I demanded. “You think I would?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t think you’d go looking for a fight,” she said. “Just, you know, I can see people wanting to fight you. Because of the-”

“Oh, right,” I said, deflating. “Yeah, I’ve had some close calls. I think I’m too much of a shut-in to really have much to worry about, though.”

“Ashley got into a fight once,” she said.

“What?”

“Mmm. Wouldn’t tell me what it was about, but apparently some kid said something that pissed her off, and she just, let him have it.”

I looked over at Ashley, still asleep on the couch. I could have sworn I saw her lips curl into a slight smile.

Ashley was only thirteen, and as a general rule, soft spoken and quiet. Excitable around Veronica and I, but the rest of the time, she was more of the quiet nerdy type.

“What could have set her off?” I asked, resting my controller on the floor and stretching out on the couch.

“I don’t know,” Veronica said, shrugging. She dropped her controlled, and pulled my feet onto her lap. “I can guess, though.”

“What, me?” I asked, looking back over at Ashley.

“You know she loves you,” Veronica said. “You might as well be her second bigger sister.”

“I guess that’s kind of sweet,” I said. “Still, I’d really rather she kept out of trouble.”

“You’ll never guess who her new idol is,” Veronica said, rolling her eyes dramatically.

I frowned, not sure what she was talking about. Ashley wasn’t the type to idolise anyone, except…

“Oh, no,” I said.

“Yep. It’s a good thing they don’t sell merch, the house would be full of it.”

“What appeal could a vigilante thug have to a teenage girl?” I asked, and Veronica laughed at the expression on my face.

“Hey, you didn’t grow up on comic books. She did. The vigilante may as well be Batman as far as she’s concerned.”

“Batman? They’re a skinny punk in a ski mask and a hoodie. Not exactly superhero material,” I said. “Besides, they haven’t been seen for like, six months. They’re either dead, or coming back as a supervillain.”

“This city has enough villains,” Veronica said, shaking her head. “Sometimes it does feel like something out of a comic book, y’know?”

“More like a fifties gangster movie,” I said. “At worst, West Side Story.”

“Hey, you know the rules,” she snapped, then grinned.

“No musical theatre in this house,” I repeated monotonously. “You have no culture, you know that?”

My phone buzzed in my pocket, surprising me. I dug it out clumsily, and realised my mum was calling me.

“Hello?”

“Honey? It’s getting late, are you coming home soon?” she asked, her tone more concerned than annoyed.

I pulled the phone away from my ear, and checked the time. It was a good hour later than I’d thought.

“Sorry, I didn’t realise the time,” I said. “I’ll start heading home now.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll see you soon,” she said, and made a kissing sound before hanging up.

“Gotta go?” Veronica asked, pouting.

“I think I pushed my luck a little tonight,” I said apologetically. “She’s still not cool with me staying over at girls’ houses.”

“If only she knew,” Veronica said wistfully.

“I am so not ready for that conversation,” I said, shuddering. “For now, I’m just gonna put up with it.”

I grabbed my blazer and pulled it on. Veronica leapt up from the couch, surprisingly graceful, and wrapped her arms around me.

“You know, whenever you are ready to talk to them, I’ll be there with you,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, hugging her back.

I hugged her once more at the door, then started my walk home. Thankfully, we didn’t live too far away from each other, and I knew it wouldn’t take me long to get home.

Except I never got home.

It started with a scream. A single, piercing, mind-numbing scream that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. The ground beneath me trembled and shook, and I lost my footing, landing hard on my butt.

All around me, everything seemed to warp and twist. I watched as cracks began to form, running through the ground, through houses and trees, even through the air itself.

High above me, in the sky, I saw the same thing that everyone else in the city saw that night. A massive tear, and a sparkling diamond sky beyond it.

There was a deep, sharp crack and some kind of silver construct came bursting through the tear, seconds before it sealed itself up again. The construct, looking like some kind of sci-fi spaceship, broke apart violently, pieces flying away in all directions.

A chunk of ship landed with a deafening boom a street away from where I was sitting, and I felt my stomach churn. Without even thinking, I leapt to my feet, running towards the billowing plume of smoke that had already begun to form.

By the time I got there, a crowd had already gathered around it, but nobody seemed game enough to actually step onto the property. I pushed my way to the front, and had to fight against my body’s urge to throw up.

The house had completely caved in, and parts of it were still burning. I couldn’t tell if anyone was inside it when the wreckage hit it, but there was definitely someone in there.

I could barely make them out, a silhouetted figure leaning against a wall, half surrounded by fire. Instinct took over again, and I ran towards them even as the crowd began to shout. I blocked them out.

I vaulted over the fence, stumbling but managing to maintain my balance. The heat and smell of burning wood hit me at the same time, and I covered my mouth with my elbow, squinting to see through the smoke that was making my eyes water.

The closer I got to the prone figure, the more I realised just how dire the situation was. Some piping had broken loose, and was currently jutting right out of their chest. I didn’t realise until it was too late that I was standing in a pool of their blood.

I staggered forward, and got a better look at the person who couldn’t possibly still be alive. It looked like a woman, possibly in her mid twenties, with short platinum-blonde hair. Her expression was eerily serene.

I’m not sure what came over me, but I found myself overwhelmed by the desire to touch her. I crouched beside her, my trembling hand reaching towards her face.

The moment my fingers touched her, I felt a painful shock race through me. My entire body spasmed, and I collapsed beside her, twitching, even as I saw her move.

Her eyes fluttered open, looking about curiously. If she felt any pain from the pipe sticking out of her chest, she sure didn’t show it. Her gaze fixated on me, and a strange sort of smile played across her lips.

She reached in front of her, her delicate fingers wrapping around the pipe, and effortlessly snapped it. I could only watch as she slowly stood up, separating herself from the pipe. She cracked her neck, her spine, her fingers, then stretched out like a cat.

The last thing I remember before I passed out was her crouching beside me, reaching out to touch my face, just as I’d touched hers, the same smile still sitting there.