If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
“They're fighting,” Pete said, shaking his head. The lab was dark, lit only by the emergency lighting. They'd been meaning to leave for a half hour. “It certainly calls into question the idea that we're the next stage in human evolution when our favorite pastime seems to be rolling around in the mud. Did I ever tell you that when I was growing up, we used to do that? Except it was essentially football, only everyone had to tackle the person with the ball. But they didn't turn it over merely by falling. You had to take it from them. So long as they held on, they maintained possession. I was a stubborn little bastard, so I was pretty damn good at it- which made me think it was a pretty good game. Only we called it 'smear the queer.'
“None of us knew what homosexuals were. I knew I didn't like girls, even had an inkling that maybe I liked men, but 'queer' was not a part of our vocabulary. Yet somehow, almost through osmosis, we knew that we had to punish people for being different. I think maybe we understood it to mean nerds, not that I think any of us had really ever seen a nerd like they had in movies like Revenge of the Nerds.”
“I'm not sure they're wrong,” Cris said. “What the humans did to Mayumi-”
“We're human, too,” Pete interrupted. “People do awful things to each other without needing arbitrary differences.”
“Maybe. But don't you think the differences make it easier? I got beat up when I was just a little kid. He called me a faggot. I'd never so much as held hands with another man who wasn't an adult using it like a leash. But somehow he knew, and somehow that was threatening enough for him to blacken my eyes, nearly break my nose. I don't think he would have done it if he didn't think I was different.”
“You're right,” Pete said. “But I still don't agree that the solution to people who want to hurt us should be us preparing to hurt them; even trying to 'defend' ourselves, that's fraught. The history of militias isn't exactly stellar; they're not dissimilar to guns, in that having one makes violence more likely, not less.”
“I don't know that I know the answer,” Cris said, sliding closer to Peter.
“I don't either,” he admitted. “I think I might just be frustrated at how often it seems like we aren't even really trying to ask the questions, we're in such a rush to get to the solutions. And this isn't helping,” he gestured at the room filled with petri dishes and microscopes.
“The problem really has become that I'm too smart for my own good,” he continued. “A lot of scientists are religious. They can either compartmentalize, so there are things they know about the physical world, and then things they suspect about the metaphysical one. Or they just specialize to the point where even though there are aspects of dogma that might not gel with the physical sciences, everything else is fair game for their God to control. I can't do either anymore. The more I learn- and I can't seem to stop from learning more and more and more- the less room there is for God in my world. The less space there is for reasonable doubt, or even faith.”
“So?” Cris asked. “I knew I was gay by the time my first pastor told our church that we ought to stone gays, despite what the laws said. The church can be wrong; it has been, demonstrably, in the past. And even if you believe in an infallible scripture, that doesn't mean that any given interpretation is perfect.”
“My church didn't even accept that the Bible was interpreted. Every passage was to be taken literally.”
“But even taking scripture literally, there's plenty of things that are at best ambiguous. There has to be interpretation, even if you choose to ignore it.”
“We did,” Peter said with a smile.
“But faith, at its purest, isn't about truth, or proof. Who cares if whole passages of the Bible are made up, or forgeries, or whatever-”
“Which, paying even a little attention to the actual history of the Bible is all but a given.”
“Right? It was essentially religious politicians who decided what made the cut; it's really hard to pretend that at every step of that multi-century process there was divine intervention at every turn. But my point was, who cares if the Bible is fallible? Who cares if there are bits of dogma that don't work stood up next to science? The only thing that says you can't believe in science and religion at the same time is a voice in your head- and I can say from experience that that isn't the voice of God. And I know you're smart enough to know that you don't want to be in the company of people who hold science and religion to be fundamentally incompatible.
“And for me, the only faith you really need is that there's a reason to be good, to try your damnedest to be better than you would be otherwise, to make a positive impact on your fellow man. To care for your fellow man, and to love.” He brushed his hand across Peter's cheek, and kissed him.
Mikaela's fist went wide, just over Mayumi's shoulder. Drake teleported in behind her, and wrapped his arms around her waist. She elbowed him in the ribs, bent at the waist to push him back, then used her momentum to roll him over her shoulder. Demi feinted, and let Mayumi's fist land against her chest. She grabbed the smaller woman by her belt loop and flung her over her shoulder. Demi spun, smiling in her triumph, only to find Mayumi had landed on her feet. She crouched, wrapping her legs and arms around Demi's right leg, then rolled backwards, carrying Demi forward, face first into the grass.
Mayumi stood. Iago narrowed his eyes at her, then through up his hands. “Nope.”
“Come on,” she said.
“Nope,” he said. “You just took them apart.”
“That's smart,” she said. “He's thinking tactically. That's the first step. I'm better trained than all of you. You have numbers, but as you've just seen, numbers aren't enough to rely on. You need to think.”
“It's cold,” Demi said. “And late. And dark.”
“Do you think those give me an unfair advantage?” Mayumi asked.
“No. Just make me uncomfortable. And whiny. And curious when we can all go home.”
“When one of you puts me down,” Mayumi said. “You don't have to beat me. For tonight, all you have to do is land one good, clean hit. No mitigation, not a throw I roll out of. One moment where you control the fight and I don't.”
“Shouldn't be hard,” Demi said. “We batted you around like a really aggressive cat toy the other night.”
“But you weren't fighting me,” Mayumi said. “You were lucky then. I was out of my head. So you were fighting a wounded animal. Tough and aggressive, but dumb. You aren't going to get in any easy shots. So come on.”
“Team huddle,” Mikaela said.
“Take your time,” Mayumi said. “I'll just be basking in the glow from your prior defeat.”
“She's gotten a hell of a lot cockier, hasn't she?” Iago asked.
“I think Tucker was right,” Mikaela said. “I think that implant was playing havoc with her hormones- that she was flooded with adrenaline 24-7. She spent most of her energy just trying not to murder people, and barely had anything left to let herself shine through. So this is a bit more of the real Mayumi, for lack of a better word.”
“I like it,” Demi said. “I mean, right this second I want to knock it to the ground and choke her out while electrocuting her... but overall I like it.”
“She's going to expect that. Demi's the one who wants to hit her the most, and because she's got a strength advantage, she's also the one who's most likely to succeed. Which is why I want you working support. Keep her busy with electricity at her feet. Iago. Ice up the sidewalk. Drake-”
“I can get in close.”
“You can, and she'll expect that. But I think I might have a way you can distract her...”
“Time's up,” Mayumi said, pushing through them. She shoved Drake backwards.
“Damnit,” he said. He teleported, so that he was able to roll when he landed, but there was still no canceling out his momentum.
“I said I'd give you time- not how much,” she grabbed Mikaela by the neck and through her over her shoulder. She landed painfully, as the air was knocked out of her lungs. “And this time you're participating,” she said, turning towards Iago with her fist balled. She threw the punch. As it was flying towards his face, Drake teleported in behind him, then teleported him away.
“Good,” she said, turning in the direction they teleported to. “You should know, that when you teleport, you take in a lot of extra oxygen. The rush of air tells me where you are-” She reached out behind her the instant he appeared there, and caught him by the throat.
“I know,” he said, wheezing around her grip. He put his hand into her belt loop, and teleported away again, this time taking her pants.
“See,” Demi said, “told you it was cold.” She threw a punch at Mayumi, but the smaller girl bent backwards, then rolled into a backwards somersault. “Shit,” she said.
“Lightnight,” Mikaela wheezed, brushing herself off from a crouch.
“Right,” Demi said. Electricity arced from her fingertips, striking around Mayumi's feet.
“Ice!” Mikaela yelled,
“On it,” Iago said, as a spiral of cold coned from his hands, coalescing as frost on the sidewalk beneath Mayumi's feet. She stepped more softly, but between the lightning and ice, she had difficulty keeping a step ahead of Demi.
Drake teleported beside Mayumi and grabbed her wrist. She rolled, using his grab to throw him. He teleported the moment she let go, and appeared on the other side of her, using the momentum she gave him to shove her down the icy incline before disappearing again.
“I've got the rest,” Mikaela said.
Mayumi stopped spinning, only to see one of Mikaela's doubles waiting for her. She had too much momentum, and couldn't stop, even as she watched the double rear back to throw a punch. The strike hit, knocking her back onto her rear on the ice. “That was nice,” she said. “Now can I have my pants?”
“I had promised to let Iago keep them,” Drake said, teleported to where he was, then back to Mayumi, with her jeans in his hand. “But you look like you need them more.”
“And that better be the only time you take a woman's pants like that,” Mikaela said. “At least without permission.”
“Of course,” he said. “It's also the only circumstance I'd be trying to hit a woman in the face. I don't know why you're more concerned about the distraction.”
“Just don't be creepy.”
“Like you've never used your powers to be creepy.”
“Not creepy. Some women just like the idea of being with more than one of the same woman.”
“I'm tapping out,” Iago said, yelling to make sure they heard him. “I do not want to hear about Tucker's sex life. Or his prior sexual exploits, either.”
“Prude,” Mikaela said, and laughed.
“Why are we always meeting in my office?” Linc asked.
“Because I've got a key to yours, but not vice versa,” Anita said. “And you've got a bigger television. Now hush.” Linc recognized himself on the television, even if he was wearing a full face mask. Of course, the footage was shot earlier in the day, so it wasn't surprising that he'd recognize it.
Then Rox burst into the room on the screen. She downed the first two men she saw in the room, before taking cover against the doorframe. Then Ben followed, took another, by shaking the floor, then shot him when he fell. Rui came next, and set the couch on fire for a distraction. The footage was cut together from a variety of different angles to obscure the fact that nobody was getting hurt, and that the guns weren't live.
“There were cameras?” Linc asked.
“Yeah,” Anita said. “I didn't see them, initially, but when this hit, I stopped by the cabin. It was rigged the entire time.”
“It was just a worthless old cabin on the back end of the campus,” he said. “Why was it wired up?”
“You might have to ask the Dean that,” she said.
“It looks bad,” Linc admitted.
“Yeah,” Rox said, folding her arms.
“The spin's worse,” Anita said, turning up the volume.
“The footage appears to show mutations running wild, preparing an attack on a VIP, preparing to take down their security as well as kill or capture them. Again, we warn viewers who are easily shocked or don't wish to see extreme racial violence to turn away-” she muted the television again.
“What are the saner outlets saying?” Linc asked.
“Mostly the same,” Anita said. “One of them at least got it right, that it's a rescue op, but most of the rest are running wild with the Cox version. It's sexier, so it'll sell more... ads, I guess. I was going to say papers, but how the hell old am I? It was rhetorical, in case anyone was feeling brave.” Mikaela shrugged.
“So that's you?” Mikaela asked Rox.
“Do they know that?” Linc asked.
Anita shook her head. “Tape cuts out before anyone takes off their mask. Mahmoud is the only one identifiable on the tape, but so far nobody has made that connection.”
“They won't,” Mahmoud said from the back of the room. “I couldn't damage all the footage, but I was able to pixelate my face. I found out early enough I don't think anyone has a raw copy. Well, anybody but whoever leaked it in the first place.”
“You don't know?” Rox asked.
“I tried to find out,” he said. “Whoever it was covered their tracks. I don't think they were human; they were either someone like me, or working with someone like me. It would take a technopath to hide from me.”
“Or a telepath to make you think they were,” Mikaela said.
“Jesus,” Linc said. “You're thinking transhumans did this?”
“You heard the man. It would have to be. If it was just a garden-variety, run of the mill hacker, he'd already know their mother's social security number by now.” Linc dropped down on his couch. “So how does that play with your desire to train all of us to defend ourselves?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I think it makes me glad we've already started,” Linc said. “Vanilla human beings, even ones with guns, they're an inconvenience. But if other transhumans are working against us...”
“What if this isn't against us?” Mayumi asked.
“This footage is scaring the hell out of people,” Mikaela said.
“Yeah. But what if that was the intention? What if whoever leaked it wanted people afraid- to think twice before trying to hurt us?”
“She may have a point,” Mahmoud said.
“She might,” Linc said. “But intent is meaningless. Even if this was a misguided attempt at helping, it's more likely to cause more strife, more violence. That's why I think we should all be ready. And in the meantime, try and stay in groups, stay in public places. Don't do anything to make yourself a target- and if you feel like you might become one, make sure at least that you're not making it easy on them.”
“And where does that leave us?” Mikaela asked.
“Wherever you want to be,” Linc said. “If you want my help, I'm here. If you want Mayumi to train you in self-defense, you can go that route. But we're on the same team, here. Even where we disagree, we support each other, we protect each other. That doesn't just go for those who are part of this program- that's all of us. All of our kind. Until someone proves they're against us, they're with us. Because if we let the bigots divide and conquer, we won't stand a chance.”
“We'll hash it out,” Mikaela said. She nodded for Mayumi to follow her, and they exited his office.
“How are you holding up, Rox?” Linc asked.
“Kind of freaking out,” she said. “But now I know how Mahmoud felt.”
“And I'm...” Mahmoud paused, contemplating, “I'm oddly getting used to being on the evening news. At least this time it kind of feels like I earned it. I mean, I was just kind of standing there, but at least there was a sliver of something people might feel intimidated by.”
“This was supposed to be a safe place,” Rox said.
“Yeah,” Linc said. “I need to figure out why it wasn't. But we're going to take care of this. I promise. I know this is scary. But you're safer here than you could be anywhere else. The entirety of the US Armed Forces wouldn't stand a chance at this school, and I'm pretty sure the Chiefs of Staff know it. Just keep each other safe. Do that, and no one can hurt us.”
“I was going to ask if you'd walk me home,” Mahmoud said, “but then you'd be walking home alone.”
“I'll give the two of you a ride home. I'll be out in just a second.”
“Kay,” Rox said, with Mahmoud trailing behind her.
“How is it you're always the one telling me when bad crap happens?” Linc asked Anita.
“Just lucky, I guess. Or I have fewer extracurriculars keeping me from the news.”
“Or you know more than you're telling.”
“Every woman does. Stop trying to poke holes in my mystique. And please don't point out the unintentional en tendre. I'm an English professor; I noticed.”
“Lock up on your way out, Anita. And thanks. Hell of a strange day.”
“Hell of a strange life. And I don't see it getting any less weird any time soon. And I wouldn't want it to. Good night.”
“Thanks for this,” Linc said, biting a piece of steak off his fork.
“You said you were the one paying,” Mikaela said. Mayumi grinned at her.
“I meant thanks for coming. I know we've been at odds. I know my first inclination; I'm a military guy. My gut tells me to bring the bigger gun, always, then negotiate a peace over the barrel of it. And in the old world, I don't think that was a terrible plan. But this is a new world. People like us, we've changed the rules. There may not always be a bigger stick- or worse, the girl on the other side of the table might be the bigger stick.
“So I think you're right. Militarizing transhumans... it just moves us one step closer to a civil war. But Mayumi and I were talking... you know what, would you like to tell her?”
“I think you should train,” Mayumi said. “Not in offensive tactics. But defensive ones. Specifically, I think you should train with me.”
“In case you have another episode?”
“Yes. But also, you should train with me. I wasn't a soldier. It's true, some of what I was taught was how to kill, quickly and efficiently. But the bulk of my training was defensive. When you can survive most any attack, oftentimes your best offense is a good defense. Even if we wanted to avoid guns, even if we wanted to focus on harm reduction, subduing someone with the least amount of force or damage possible...
“Mayumi's the tip of an iceberg. Right now, most transhumans are too freaked out to let the world know what they can do. But what happens when someone's powerful enough they don't feel afraid, or are tired of being made to be afraid? You stopped Mayumi because the cops would have put a bullet in her. With her... I don't know if that would stop her, even. But there are a lot of us out there, more every day. So we need to be ready to handle it, when trouble comes, even if it's only to protect those around us.”
“I'm not an island,” Mikaela said. “So even if you did convince me...”
“You may not be a monolith,” Linc said, “but your friends listen to you. I got shut down before I could even try to convince them, because you already so 'no.' But I think we both want the same thing, namely to keep as many people safe as possible, human and transhuman alike. The moment you think that isn't true, you can walk away- hell, you should walk away.”
“I didn't say I was convinced.”
“No. But you're listening, now. And we've still got a hell of a lot left to discuss.” He smiled, but it turned to a frown. “Damnit.” He retrieved his phone from his pocket. It was vibrating. He looked at it, then answered. “Crap, what's wrong?”
“Hi, Anita, it's great to hear from you. I'm glad you're thinking about me and really appreciate you calling.”
“You never call me for anything good. And no, the time you drunk dialed me doesn't count; I don't care how big the chimichangas were, it was 3 am.”
“Well we'll just have to agree to disagree, there. But it's worth leaving your fancy dinner. In fact, I called ahead, and told them you'd need boxes, arriving now.” He looked up and saw their waitress carrying a stack of to go boxes.
“Okay, but why?”
“Because I can explain what I'm seeing on TV, but I'm not sure you'll believe it. And either way, you'll want to be here for it.”
Mahmoud tried to slow his breathing. The press of the gun barrel in his neck was cold and hard, and he couldn't help but imagine the scorching lead firing out of it. Sweat dripped down the back of his shirt, but he dared not move, not even to breathe.
The door into the room burst open, and two people in tight black paramilitary gear, including full face helmets, filled the doorway. One knelt down, low to the ground, and used the door frame for protection as she lined up a shot. The other tried to aim with one hand while holding the other palm down towards the floor.
Suddenly the floor beneath them bucked, and Mahmoud felt his legs go out from underneath him.
The red dot from the two intruder's pistols danced over the gunmen flanking Mahmoud, until they found purchase above their body armor. Both intruders pulled the trigger, and the gunmen fell.
“Check your corners,” the female intruder said, remaining crouched,” I'll cover you.”
The large man made it to the first doorway and posted to one side of it. Another man filled his spot at the entryway, then the woman stood up and entered the room. She snaked around the couch, then pointed her pistol at Mahmoud. He put up his hands. “Don't shoot,” he said.
“On the floor,” she said. Mahmoud slowly lowered himself to the ground.
Then she proceeded to flank the opposite side of the door as her partner.
Two more people filtered into the room. “Saw something,” one of them said, pausing at the end of the couch to peer into the adjoining room. “Movement in the dining room.”
“Want to clear the room?” the first woman asked.
“Gladly.” She held out her hand, and concentrated, until she was holding an explosive. She flung it inside, and put her hands on her hips. “We've got three, two-” The dining room table flipped over as explosives upended the room.
But something had also rolled back to them. “Grenade!” the first woman inside yelled, leaping onto the small gray cylinder. It didn't detonate.
“Here,” another intruder said, giving her a grenade pin.
She slipped it into the grenade. “It's deactivated,” she said.
“Stairs!” The last woman said from the entry.
A gunman went rolling down a flight of steps on the far wall. When the gunman reached the ground floor she kicked off the ground, falling back into a darkened room at the foot of the stairs.
“Anybody get off a clean shot?” one of them asked.
“I'm not sure,” one of them said.
“No,” Mahmoud said from the floor.
“Shut up,” the big man said. “You're dead, and the dead don't talk. Unless you're a zombie.”
“I'm not dead,” Mahmoud said, “you haven't gotten me killed yet.”
“Either way, shut up,” the first woman said. “We need to split. You're with me,” she said, nodding to the skinnier of her two male partners. They snaked along the wall. “Cover the stairs,” she said, focusing on the doorway where the gunman disappeared. “Can I get a light?”
“Sure,” her partner said. He held out his hand and it caught fire, He flicked his fingers, and flecks of fire rolled off. They caught the carpet, and smoke started to roll off the places where they smoldered. “Crap,” he said.
“No,” she said, “it's good. The light wasn't enough. Maybe we can smoke her out. But you're on the stairs. Open doors to clear, but don't go inside.”
“But there is the other problem,” she heard from inside the room, “that it craps on your visibility, too.” The woman rolled low out of the dining room, sticking a knife in her shoe. She pointed her sidearm at the intruder on the stairs. “Cool it, hot foot,” the woman said from the floor.
“Bang bang,” the woman behind her said.
“You're a casualty,” the other woman said from the floor.
“Take out your knife.”
“And free you?”
“And see that there isn't a drop of blood on it. You hit between the toes. Might hinder my mobility a bit, but not so much I can't shoot you.”
“Shit,” the woman said from the floor. She pulled her knife out of the floor and slipped it back in its holster against her thigh.
“You're dead,” the man said from the stairs.
“I'm going to go put out the fire you started, before this place burns down.”
“Probably a good call. How's the dining room?”
“Smoke's clearing now,” the big man said. He stepped inside. There were two bodies on the floor. “Check for casualties. Weapons up.”
He knelt by a woman, and checked her neck. “Casualty,” the woman said.
The woman with him knelt beside a man. She checked his neck. The woman beside her raised her pistol, lined up a shot and pulled the trigger. “Casualty,” he said with a smile.
“Got movement in the kitchen.”
“We're with you,” the larger woman said, standing. They got into position around the doorway.
“I don't see anything,” he said. “Cover me, I'm going in.” He rolled inside, and the women took either side of the doorway.
“There,” one of them bellowed. “Right side.”
“Pin him,” the large man said. The two women fired, trying to keep from exposing themselves while they did.
“Let us know if we get a hit,” one of them yelled.
The man crawled around an island filled with cabinets. Then he saw the gunman, unable to move because of the suppressive fire. He sighted the gunman in, and pulled the trigger. “You're dead.”
“That everybody?” the gunman asked.
“Yep,” Mahmoud said, standing. He walked over to a laptop on a small desk in the front room. There were images taken from the 'guns,' the gunman with red dots where shots would have been had the been using live firearms.
Linc, the final gunman, pulled off his own mask, and walked into the front room. “That was some surprisingly adept maneuvering, Ms. Fessuns, as well as some excellent firefighing. Are you sure you didn't do a tour with us?”
“I'm sure you'd remember if I had,” she said, sheathing her knife.
“That was a live smoke grenade you hopped on,” Linc said with a smile, nodding to Rox.
“Live?” Ben asked.
“It wasn't going to hurt anybody, so long as Tso didn't try to eat it.”
“Which is saying something, if you know Tso,” Rox said.
“But she effectively made it a dud. But I'm impressed. That's the first time one or all of you hasn't ended up dead.”
“A stopped clock,” Raphael said, peeling off his mask.
“No. This wasn't luck- at least, not inordinately,” he smiled at Rox. “They did things right, were cautious, protected each other. It's one of a dozen- and that's a good number to dwell on. Right now you've got a one in twelve chance of not getting your friends killed. It was good, Not great."
"Seems a little harsh..." Ben said.
"I suspect you got a little assist," Linc added, looking at Rafael.
"Hey, I told you, it isn't always conscious. I wanted them to win, so maybe that helped them."
"But it's a start," Linc said. "A good start, but a beginning, not an end."
“Let's roll it again,” Rox said, circling her finger in the air.
“I was promised pizza,” Ben said, and his stomach gurgled.
“That growl is definitely going to give his position away,” Rui said.
“All right,” Linc said, “You sweep us again, I'll double the pepperoni.”
Ben's stomach gurgled again. “That wasn't hunger, that time. He's afraid.”
“He should be,” Rui said.
“What happened to Mayumi?” Linc asked, still trying to catch his breath. He'd run halfway across campus from the nearest parking lot.
“She's fine,” Mikaela said. “But right now you've got something else you should be focusing on. Because I need you to tell me the truth.”
“I've got a lot of lies in the fire,” Linc said. “You'll have to be more specific.”
“Mayumi. She's not just some Japanese exchange student, is she?”
His eyes got wide. “Fuck,” he mumbled. “She was the one, last night? I heard about the incident, but I never... is she okay?”
“She's not seriously hurt,” she said. “I'm not sure she can be seriously hurt. But okay? That's a different question entirely.”
“Christ, the protest. She got hurt, didn't she?”
“And she lashed out. Violently.”
“What is she?”
“Your phone,” Linc said. She frowned. He took his out of his pocket, and then removed the battery, and set it on the table. “Your phone. There's no such thing as too much caution, here.” She removed it from a pocket, then slid out the battery, too. “I don't know everything.”
“Start with what you do know, then work out from there.”
“I met her in Pakistan.”
“We weren't exactly supposed to be there. But there was a high value target we were stalking, pretty sure he was hiding out over the border. So we went in to find out. And that's when we stumbled into her. She took out a dozen terrorists in under thirty seconds with her bare hands; and I don't mean the usual, dumb as an inbred post underwear bomber, but guys with military backgrounds. But then she turned on us. We'd stumbled onto an operation that wasn't supposed to exist. And as a contingency, she tried to wipe us out. Actually, she succeeded.
“I can restart my day. It's about 24 hours back that I can go. She killed my entire squad. I was one of the first she downed. She killed our medic while he was trying to get my intestines back inside the wound. Then she started towards me and I knew that there wasn't any way in hell I was going to win the fight. Of course... it isn't that simple, either. I couldn't just flip a switch. I had to sit there and wait while she pulled out my intestines, then she looped them around my neck, then that around a doorknob.”
“She lynched you by your own guts?”
“Yeah. But it was what I saw after that made me try to save her. She started crying. She stopped being the cold, emotionally dead killer who tore through some of the best soldiers we've ever trained, and went back to being a teenaged girl. Not that she is, mind you; she's probably my age. But her cells repair with such efficiency that she basically doesn't age.
“But she was a tough son of a bitch. It took me fourteen attempts to take her down- knowing in advance where it would go down and how.”
“We all but had to drop a house on her last night to get her to stop Terminating. How'd you stop her?”
“What finally worked? A hell of a lot of body armor.”
“That doesn't seem so bad.”
“I wasn't done. I wore layers of body armor, then goaded her into attacking me. And while she did, my team peppered her with blasts from shotguns. I can't tell you how much buckshot I took; but I can say I don't get through airport metal detectors without incident.”
“So you 'saved' her.”
“Yeah. Though... I almost went back on it. Because until we captured her, my only thought was on getting her free of the people controlling her. But once I had... I realized I didn't know any better what to do with her.”
“But just like that, she was normal?”
“Hardly. She was definitely trained. Name, rank and serial number. She went days without saying anything else. I was beaten up bad enough I took a medical leave, and smuggled her back to the States.
“A buddy of mine in the reserves works Justice in his civilian life, has some experience in deprogramming, cults and the like. We took her out to this little cabin his family owned, and spent a month with her. She was trained in SERE or some equivalent- Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. She played for time, manipulated us, and at every opportunity tried to get away. But at night, when she thought we were asleep, she'd cry.
“Then one night she started talking. At first I thought she was talking to herself, but it became clear she knew I was awake. Maybe she'd always known. But at night, she was vulnerable, she was human. And I got the sense that that was who she really was, that she was trapped in that programming, but that she was chiseling her way out, slowly. Matt and I started working her in shifts. He'd take days, I stayed up with her nights.
“And eventually, we had a conversation. That she wanted us to let her go. Not so she could go back, but because she was going to need to stand on her own feet. We couldn't keep her under lock and key forever. She was right. So we let her loose. She was good most of the night. Then when morning came, she knocked the both of us out clean, and ran. I was out most of the day, and was getting ready to wind back the clock when she came back in, and sat down, and asked what was for dinner.
“The programming was strong enough that she had to run. The next day we gave her a wide berth. We figured there was no reason in getting another concussion. And ultimately, she'd been right. She was going to have to be able to do some of this on her own, or we might as well start looking for a way to put a bullet in her. She came back again, an hour earlier.
“The strangest part, was how much she forgot. She remembered me and Matt well enough to respond, know we were friendly and have that kind of familiarity with us. But the further she got away from her training, the more about her past she forgot. I suspect- I've always suspected- that the training's still there. But her memory of her mandate, her missions, faded; probably by design. The best operative in the world is the one who can't remember their last mission, or give up any useful intel if they're compromised.
“She's even forgotten her capture, me smuggling her into the country, even deprogramming. She remembers the general ideas, that I 'saved' her, that she owes me some modicum of allegiance, maybe even deference. But she's mostly a blank slate.”
“I think you're right,” Mikaela said. “About her training. She kicked the hell out of us last night- and a cop before that.”
“Cristobal set him right,” she said. “But it took six of us to stop her little rampage- nobody seriously hurt. But there was more to her rage than met the eye. She had an implant, meant to work like a beacon. When it couldn't phone home, it flooded her system with adrenaline. Maybe she's been fighting it for months, I don't know, but when that piece of shit policeman hurt her- it flipped a switch. We unflipped it,” she said, and handed him the implant.
“What the hell?” he asked, rolling it around in his hand.
“That came out of her skull.”
“You said she's all right,” he said.
“She is. We had breakfast this morning. She's back to her old self. Hole in her head already closed up, there isn't even a visible scar.”
“You should have called me.”
“For all I knew, you put that thing in her skull.”
“And if you'd lied to her about it,” Tucker said, coming out of Mikaela's bedroom.
“We'd have been very unhappy,” Demi said, following behind.
“So it was the truth?” Mikaela asked. Tucker nodded.
“Too bad,” Demi said. “I really wanted to punch somebody about it. May?” she called back into the room.
Mayumi appeared in the doorway, and Linc ran to her and scooped her up in his arms. “I was so worried,” he said.
“Me, too,” she said, and her voice quavered. He set her down.
“Look, I know we don't see eye to eye. But I think this underscores why you and your friends should be tactically trained.”
Mikaela's jaw tightened. “And I took the opposite message. The police have been militarized. That's a large part of the aggression that came out last night. Without that, Mayumi never would have lost control. If we militarize, we're just going to meet aggression with aggression. You're wrong.”
“I always hope I am,” Linc said. “But I prepare in the event that I'm not.”
“I've never seen him drunk,” Mira said.
“I've never seen him drink,” Sonya said.
“I do slash am both as often as I feel like it,” Cris said.
“You sure about that?” Ben asked. “Cause last we saw, you were running off to see Pete, and...”
“Okay so maybe I'm feeling like a crusted kleenex in that first year or so after discovering my own budding sexuality.”
“Used up and thrown away?” Mira asked with a grimace.
“Ding ding,” Cris said, clinking his beer to his nose. “Ow.”
“And you're sure your uncle don't care that we're drinking here?” Sonya asked.
“My family's philosophy is that kids our age drink. So long as we do it responsibly in his home, he'll cope. If we take a bottle of vodka and go for a swim... well, he'll make sure nobody will ever get the deposit back on that bottle.”
“Washington doesn't do deposits,” Rui said, and belched loudly.
“You know that knowledge is antithetical to humor. Why do you hate humor, Rui?”
“Because my dad would prefer I be intellectually superior than liked,” Rui said with half a smile.
“What about mom?”
“Mom loves me for who I am. Mostly because who I am eventually stopped needing her to wipe me.”
“Eventually?” Sonya asked.
“After an appropriate but not overlong time. Unless I've been drinking. Then all bets are off.”
“Not it,” Ben said.
“Ladies?” Rui asked.
“We're so not it we're not even deigning to acknowledge it,” Mira said. “And we're more focused on Cris. What happened, hon?”
“Ooh,” Cris said. “Am I that bad? Do I really warrant a 'hon'?”
“Unless you had some bad pork today,” Mira said.
“Ouch,” Cris said, grabbing his chest. “But I guess it both was and wasn't all that bad.” He sighed. “It's, it's my own damn fault for getting my hopes up. You know, I knew that there was somebody hurt. I just kind of also believed that it was at least partially pretext. If not a booty call, per se, at least a spooning and cuddling call. But he was all business, and not the sexy, fetishized kind, just, distant, dickish.”
“You deserve better than that,” Mira said.
“Maybe,” he said, and took a sip from his bottle. “No, probably. But knowing that he doesn't appreciate me, or isn't interested or some combination, that doesn't change the fact that he's the one I want, and even if it's never reciprocated, that's still how I feel.”
“Yeah, but this isn't a John Hughes movie, so it's maybe bordering on no longer cute and healthy.”
“Or,” Ben started, grinning too wide to contain himself, “maybe you lean into the John Hughes thing. Get a boombox and show up outside his window. Or make a giant flapjack. Ooh, my vote's for pancake.”
“Tso, you don't need a giant pancake,” Sonya said. “And you especially don't need to pressure Cris to make one for you.”
“I'll spoon you for a pancake.”
“Pass,” Cris said. “You're so much bigger than me it'd be like tossing a spoon in the toilet; it's more enveloped than spooned.”
“So I'm a toilet to you now?” Ben asked, feigning anger.
“Well,” Sonya said, “you are full of shit.”
“I walked into that, didn't I?”
Rui grinned to himself, then said, “You walked in, dug a hole for a fire, laid out your sleeping bags, gathered sticks and used them as a support with rope and tarp to assemble a crude tent, then stayed there for a year like Thoreau.”
“I think when Rui sobers up we'll have to explain metaphors again.”
“It sucks,” Cris said, and set his beer down noisily. “Like, I can take rejection. I can even take hate. But he's interested. That's not my ego. It's not delusion. I really can tell. But when it comes to anything more than two men platonically hanging out, he steers all the way around it.”
“Maybe it's the age thing,” Sonya said.
“Nah. Really?” He frowned. “I'm pretty sure we're close enough that the Romeo and Juliet laws apply.”
“You should ask him,” Irene said softly. “Let him know how you feel.”
“Yeah,” Mira agreed. “Lay it out, and make him respond to it. Better to at least get an affirmative 'No,' than to keep getting a soft one.” She chortled.
“Because there are few things in life more worthless than a soft one?” Sonya asked with a giggle, and they clinked beers.
“Am I the only one weirded out that we're not the ones making the dick jokes?” Rui asked.
“Sorry,” Ben said, beaming, “I couldn't hear you over the sound of how damned proud I am.”
Mikaela's hand accidentally brushed Tucker's as they walked through the cold night air. It wasn't snowing, but there was enough wind that it was kicking up the snow that was still unpacked on the ground. It made her remember the plans they made, visiting the campus together. She remembered nuzzling into Tucker's neck.
“You shouldn't,” Tucker said.
“Neither should you,” Mikaela said coldly.
“Sorry. It's... not a conscious thing. It's not like flicking a flashlight on and shining it into somebody's eyes. It's... it's like looking at them. Not even staring, but it's a reflex; the moment someone gets near me, their thoughts become a part of my thoughts. I miss you, I do, and what we had. But it's also not healthy to dwell on it, either. Because we aren't who we were, then. Me moreso, but you, too. We couldn't go back to that even if we wanted to, and as much as what we lost hurts, we don't.”
“You shouldn't speak for me, either.”
“Am I wrong?”
“To do it? Yes. About the sentiment... no.” Mikaela sighed. “I know I haven't been the best ex. And I'm sorry for that.”
“And I was?” Tucker asked. “I practically begged for us to stay friends, and the more skeptical you were about it, the more adamant I got. And I knew even then I shouldn't have said that. I didn't want to hurt you... but I see now that lying to you just meant that you got left in this limbo where neither of us could get what we wanted from each other. And the moment you even got friendly with me I pulled away, fast and hard. I can't blame you for taking it like a punch to the guts; hell, I felt it just as acutely as you did, only all I had to do to get away from that feeling was walk away. But I'm sorry, too.”
“But what I'd wanted to say, before, getting distracted, I know our relationship can be...”
“I was going to say contentious. But I really appreciate you helping tonight.”
“Tonight wasn't about me, or you. One of us needed help. It needed to be done. I'm just glad I got a chance to be a part of it.”
“Yeah. I didn't just lose you when we split up. I broke up the band. I know our friends try not to take sides- especially since you weren't even up here, yet, but things have been different. Pete, Drake, even my brother, it just hasn't been the same.”
“I'm sorry,” Mikaela said. “You shouldn't be punished for us not working out. You want me to say something?”
“What could you say? I don't even think any of them are consciously aware that they're treating me different. And truth be told, I think I've been treating them differently, too. And some of it's this,” he smoothed down his clothes. “They don't have a problem with it, exactly, but I don't think I was terribly gentle with them about it. It's an adjustment for them, too. I think maybe all of us are transitioning in some way, figuring out the kinds of adults we want to be, I guess.”
“I've kind of been dying to know,” Mikaela said. “Acknowledging that I have no right to know, even given our history, but where did this come from? I mean, you were always on the Tomboy spectrum, but...”
“I'm not sure, you know? I think I've always had... issues. Growing up, the way I looked, the way I dressed, people always thought I was a boy. And I don't think I ever really got past that. It made me feel bad, not because being a boy was bad, but because I knew I wasn't supposed to be, so I was failing at being a girl. And wasn't pretty- which is about the worst thing we can say about a little girl- fucked up as adult me recognizes that is. So I think most of my adolescence was a response to that, trying to be as much of a girl as I could, despite growing up with my parents in Alaska. It feels like my whole life I've just been trying not to be a boy. And coming up here... I guess I just realized I didn't know why I was fighting what I was- what I always felt I'd been. And I realized I wanted to at least see what it would be like not to be fighting that particular battle anymore.”
“How are you liking it?”
“I mostly like not getting hit on as much. Except every once in a while, you know, especially in a dry spell, where I start to worry it's because I've lost my, whatever, appeal, I guess. It's made me a little more confident, but not so much that I'm suddenly an island. But what about you? Still bagging dudes?”
“Still bisexual, if that was the question. Not currently or even recently bagging anybody. Not since...”
“We've really got to get you laid,” Tucker said, as Mikaela slid her key into her front door.
“You know, under the circumstances, that sounded very misleading.” Mikaela took out her phone and dialed Drake. The phone rang once, before hanging up. Suddenly, Drake was behind them, kneeled on the ground where Mayumi was laying in a pile of towels.
“Demi said she knows of a coffee place that's open all night. They even have stale donuts, too.”
“Good,” Mikaela said. “We've still got a long night ahead of us.”
“I don't feel right about this,” Mahmoud said into Rox's headset.
She walked past the nurse's station trying not to be noticed. The pen slipped off the finger of the nurse sitting behind the desk, and she bent down to retrieve it. Rox lowered her voice, and waited until she was well past to say, “He's in the hospital; he tried to put me in the morgue. And from the sounds of it, he was trying to do the same thing to somebody else, in front of witnesses. He's got brazen, which means he's not backing down, but also thinks he's so right he can do that shit in public.”
“I don't disagree that this cop's a monster. But if we replace this fucked up world with one just as fucked up, only in a slightly different direction, is that really any better?”
“Have you got me a room number yet?” she asked, ignoring his question.
“How is he?” she asked.
“What you overheard was right. He's concussed, but the rest of his injuries? He seems to be fine. No, fine doesn't tell the story. He's perfectly healthy. If he didn't have witnesses to his injuries, they would have tossed him in the psych ward because he doesn't appear to have been injured at all- except the concussion. Doctors even entered in a note, 'Transhuman?'.”
“Good,” Rox said. “I'd hate to feel like I was picking on an invalid.”
A nurse was inside 213. Rox took out her phone and pretended to swipe through a few screens, until she pushed her cart down the hall. Then she went inside, and shut the door behind her.
She had never seen her attacker in even passable light. The room wasn't well lit, since the overhead lights were off, but even the low track lighting showed him better than she'd seen. Somehow, despite rifling through his belongings, she hadn't paid attention to the man in his photographs. She wondered if it was because she didn't want to humanize him.
He resembled her father enough that she wanted to hit him in the face- and immediately felt badly about the sentiment.
He stirred, and her fists balled without her thinking about it. He blinked a few times at the world, as his eyes adjusted. Then he seemed to recognize her. Instinct carried her to within striking distance. He recoiled, holding up his arms pitifully. “Don't hurt me,” he said.
“Don't hurt you?” she asked incredulously. “You followed me into an alley and tried to shoot me.”
“I,” he started, but didn't have a follow-up.
“Why were you stalking me?” she asked.
“I was afraid.”
“I know girls can be intimidating, but there've got to be easier ways to meet women.”
His eyes narrowed. “Freaks.”
“Okay. So you got hopped up on bigoted sentiment, then decided to stalk a high school girl, hoping to show her your pistol?”
“Just wanted to scare you. Show you how it felt.”
“Is that why you pulled the trigger?”
“I was scared. It got the better of me. But I only wanted to scare you back.”
“You wanted to show me how it feels to be scared?” she asked, leaning over his hospital bed. “Do you have any idea what it's like to be different?” she asked. “Try growing up Latina- or even as a woman. Or better yet, try being both, while being terrified that bigots like you would find out that you've got an ability. This country was built on a history of discrimination; but being transhuman you aren't just a slightly different color, you're different, down to your DNA. I've known since I was 10 that people like you were just itching for an excuse to come for people like me- that the breed war you're so stoked to start was coming. You know who I identified most with growing up, who I knew I was all but destined to be someday? Anne Frank. You don't know fear,” she said.
She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “But you know what? I don't care. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that you know two things. We aren't here to hurt you. We're just normal people who want to live our lives in peace, without being threatened or bullied. Having said that, if you push us, we will make you regret it. Maybe not me. Maybe not whoever put you here. But one day, one of us will fuck you up in a way there's no coming back from. I could personally make your life hell. Your entire life will become a worst-case scenario- literally every bad thing that could happen to you would. I can do that.
“But I want you to recognize the distinction. You tried to put a bullet in me. I'm not here to return the favor; I'm not even here to threaten you. You were wrong about me- about my kind. We're like just about any other animal, human or otherwise- we don't lash out unless we're cornered. So stop trying to corner us. Go back to living your life. Because all I want is to feel safe in mine.”
She walked out of the room without another word.
“How'd that feel?” Mahmoud asked in her ear.
“Like preaching to a two-by-four. I don't know if he heard a single word I said.”
“But you tried.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks, for staying up to keep me safe.”
“It wasn't you I had to worry about. I just wanted to make sure you didn't do anything you might regret tomorrow.”
“Well thanks for that, then.”
“You're sure these are sterile?” Peter asked, looking at the light reflecting off the scalpel in his hand.
“Freshly stolen from the hospital,” Drake said.
“Stop stalling,” Mikaela said, “or hand me the knife and get out of my way.”
He sighed. “I'll do it.” He brushed Mayumi's hair back from her forehead, and made an incision at her hairline. “This is insane,” he said. “I'm scalping a Japanese exchange student.”
“That's probably good,” Mikaela said. “It would seem racist if you were scalping an Indian student.”
He continued the incision down to her temple, then peeled the skin back, exposing Mayumi's skull. “Ryan?” he asked. A red dot from the pointer attached to Ryan's chair illuminated a spot on her exposed skull. “Drill,” he said, and held out the scalpel. Mikaela took the blade, and handed him a drill. “And you're sure this bit is the right size?” he asked, pulling the trigger on the drill long enough to know it was charged up.
“Yes,” Ryan said. “The implant should be about the diameter of your pinky.”
“You're sure she's out?” Peter asked Tucker. She closed her eyes, then nodded slowly. “Here goes, then.” He pulled the trigger on the drill, and it whirred to life. It didn't bite into the bone, and instead pulled to to the side. It caught on her skin, and tore a bloody gash above her ear. “Shit,” Peter said. But already the bloodflow was slowing.
“It's fine,” Mikaela said, and used one of the towels to dab at the wound. With the blood out of the way, he could see that the wound was already healed.
“I guess that was a freebie,” he said. He repositioned the drill on Ryan's red dot.
“Let me help steady it,” Mikaela said.
“Demi might have been useful,” Tucker said.
“Only if necessary. The fewer people here, the less the chance of infection,” Peter said. He locked eyes with Mikaela, standing on the opposite side of the table, the both of them holding steady to the drill. She nodded, and he pulled the trigger. The drill bucked against hem, but they held fast. The bit found a small purchase, and began to tear into it. Shavings of bone started to peel off, into the bit jerked forward, and blood began to bubble out of the hole.
“Tweezers,” Pete said, holding up the drill. Tucker switched out the drill for a set of long tweezers. Then she took a towel and shoved it against Mayumi's cranium, sponging away as much of the blood as she could. Pete peered into the hole. “Damnit. Didn't see it. Again.” She pushed the towel into Mayumi's skull again. “Light,” he said to Mikaela, and she shined an LED flashlight where Tucker was pressing. There was only a fraction of a second where the head wound wasn't covered in blood.
“Headwounds are like a fountain,” he said, “but I think I saw it. Nobody move.” He slipped the tweezers through the hole. “Damnit,” I brushed it,” he said, because something in the skull was harder than the rest. “Come on, give me something to grab onto. Damnit,” he retracted the tweezers. “I don't just want to go jabbing around in the dark.”
Tucker raised an eyebrow at him.
“Found it,” Drake said, teleporting into the room. He held the telescoping rod to Peter.
“Sterile?” he asked.
“Um,” Mikaela nodded for him to follow her to the sink. She used a solution of alcohol and a swab to clean the end of it, then carried it over to Peter.
“You think it will work?” Ryan asked.
“Worth a shot,” Peter said. “Hard to know if it's metallic enough unless we try.”
Pete lined up the telescoping magnet with the hole in Mayumi's skull like he was playing pool. Then he slowly slid it inside. “Got it,” he said, when he felt the implant grip to the magnet. He tugged to pull it out, but there was resistance. “It's caught,” Pete said.
“Of course,” Ryan said. “It's got an artery fed through it. Or a vein.”
“Vessel's the collective term,” Pete said. “Veins go to the heart, arteries away from it. But in this case it really could be either, since all they needed was a steady stream.”
“The only way out is through,” Ryan said.
“Heat the coat-hanger,” Pete said.
“Um. We didn't get a coat-hanger.”
“On it,” Drake said, and was gone. He came back a few seconds later. “Sorry, Kae,” he said. “Wasn't one in my place or Pete's.”
“S'okay,” she said, “under the circumstances.”
Drake unraveled the hanger until the hook end was a point several inches long. Mikaela lit a Bunsen burner. “Get it good and hot. In case we have to cauterize.”
“Wait,” Ryan said. “I found an article online about electrocauterization. Might give us more control.”
“Tucker, would you bring Demi in from the hall. And her temperature's rising. It might do to have Iago cool her back down.”
“So the gang's all here, anyway?” Demi asked. “How's she doing?”
“She's got an extra skylight,” Pete said. “Do you have enough control you could zap her brain through it.”
“I thought that might set off the device.”
“It might. But when we pull it out, it's going to tear away a blood vessel. We need you to cauterize it. Or we might, if she can't close it on her own.”
“I could maybe push my fingertip through the hole. Otherwise electricity is fickle. Anybody who's seen lightning knows it doesn't usually just go point A to B in a straight line.”
“Noted,” Pete said. “Tucker, you're on towels. Mikaela, you've got the light. Iago, be ready. Once that vessel's no longer gushing, we want you to cool her down. It will slow any damage, and give her body a better chance to recover. Everybody ready?”
He was answered by a chorus of variations on “Yes.” He closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, then opened them. “Cris?”
“Still not answering,” Demi said.
“Probably passed out. Patching up the cop seemed to take the wind out of him. Plan B it is.” Pete pulled. The implant pulled against the vessel, then started to give. “It's tearing the vessel,” Pete said.
“We can tell,” Demi said. Blood bubble out of the hole in Mayumi's skull.
“It's almost,” Pete said, then the rod came out. He could see the tiny metal and plastic implant clinging to the end of the rod. “Clear.”
Tucker leapt on Mayumi with the towel, pressing it against the headwound. She soaked with the towel, before dodging out of the way. Mikaela leaned forward with the light, blood continued to percolate out of the hole. “Damn,” Pete said, “still gushing. Towel.”
Tucker pressed a fresh towel into the wound again, then moved. Blood was still flowing. “Towel again,” Pete said. “Then Demi, cauterize it.” She nodded. Tucker pressed another towel against the wound, then stepped out of the way. Demi reached forward, then stopped.
“Damnit, you need to close that artery,” he said.
“Look,” she said. The flow of blood was slowing.
“Towel,” Pete said, and held out his hand. Tucker gave him one, and he soaked up blood. “Light?” he asked, and waited for Mikaela to get into position before removing it. He could see into the hole, and even make out the vessel. It had two tiny puncture marks, mottled by scar tissue. “I'll be damned.”
“Hmm?” Ryan asked.
“It was directly built into the vessel. They siphoned flow off; so it tore, but it didn't sever the vessel. And now it's sealed. Her vitals?”
“She's stable,” Ryan said.
“We'll need to clean up, while monitoring her. Demi, Iago, you're the two best-suited to putting her back down if she wakes up feral. Peter's going to need to monitor her, as well as being ready with more anesthetic. Drake and I will launder towels and get them back to the fitness center before they open. We can do them at my apartment.”
“You can do a load at my place, too,” Pete said.
“Which reminds me, everybody strip.”
“Okay,” Iago said, and pulled off his shirt.
“I meant everybody who's got blood on them, not everyone who wanted to show off their abs.”
“Oh,” he said, and held his shirt to his chest. He lifted the shirt to slide back over his head.
“You can leave it off, if you want,” Demi said.
“And you can perv later. Drake, how much more teleporting have you got in you?”
“I'm not sure. It's taking a toll, but this is already more than I've ever done in a night.”
“Okay. We don't want to overwork you, then. Tucker and I will walk back to my apartment. When we get there we'll call. I'll grab doubles along the way from every mirror we pass. When we're ready, we'll have you teleport Mayumi to us. I should have enough extra mes to handle her until everybody else can catch up on foot.”
“And while we're waiting,” Drake said, “we can mop up as much blood as possible here, first.” N
“What do you need from me?” Ryan asked.
“Keep campus security busy until I can get back with some of my doubles to finish scrubbing the place clean.”
“Like I have been?” he asked slyly.
“I had a suspicion.”
“They've been having phantom alarms on the other side of campus all night. And I've got the cameras for this building looping footage from last night; they have a time-stamp, but not a date-stamp, so they'll never know the difference.”
“Everybody know what they're doing?”
“Yep.” Iago said.
“And if my brother's got it, you know everyone else does,” Tucker said with a grin.
“So what's the plan?” Mahmoud asked from the phone.
“Planning was never my strong suit.”
“You're stalking towards a volunteer police officer's home.”
“I need to know why he was following me. I got away because my powers let me. Just about anyone else- yourself included- wouldn't be so lucky. I can't just let him try again.”
“Just... be careful. I know that's... hard for you.”
There was light in the living room. From the way it flickered it was clearly a television.
Rox prowled around to the rear of the home. There was a door looking in on a study with a computer. There wasn't a bolt, but there was a lock on the knob. She tried it, but it wasn't open. She jiggled the handle, and the lock slid. The door opened.
She stepped inside the study. The door in from inside the home was ajar. She approached it with soft steps, and peered through the opening. She couldn't see if there was anyone on the couch watching the television. She pushed the door so it was flush with the frame, without closing it. Then she turned on the light.
“I'm in,” Rox said into her headset.
“Anything you need from me?”
“Just monitor that police band. If he's not a total moron he'll call for back-up before confronting me.”
“And if he is a moron.”
“Gun'll jam, and I'll feed it to him sideways and in reverse.”
“Ow. And I thought you had his gun.”
She looked at the walls of his study. There were several pictures of him hunting, showing off rifles. And even one framed picture of just an old west style revolver. “He's got more. Probably lots more.”
She started rifling through the drawers in his desk. She wasn't sure what she was looking for. If he was a member of the KKK or some equivalent group that had it in for transhumans, he wasn't likely to keep a receipt for dues, or a signed picture of him and the other dragons.
She pressed a few keys on the keyboard, and the monitor came back to life. She opened a browser window, and navigated to his history. It was empty, not a visit to single web page. But there was one other possibility. She started typing in the search bar, and the autocomplete filled in several suggestions. The first few were internet retailers or porn. But then she came across one that she didn't recognize, and followed it. It took her to a message board belonging to the Human Purity League.
She found a local board for Whatcom county. Stickied to the top was a suggestion to board members to ingratiate themselves with local emergency services, police, fire, EMS, by volunteering, so that when the inevitable breed war happened, they would be in a position to get help for 'their kind.'
Another post followed a man who said he'd been stalking transhumans. Other board members were egging him on, pushing him towards doing more than just follow people around. Her hands clutched into fists unconsciously as she read. It was damaging evidence, but not damning. All she was doing was pissing herself off more.
What she needed, she needed from the horse's mouth, even if in this case the horse was a jackass.
“Everything okay?” Mahmoud asked.
“What are you going to do?"
“I just need to have a talk. Stay on the line, though, just in case I need you.” She pushed open the door into the main room. She crossed the room with wrathful purpose. The chair was empty save for an old gray tabby curled up in a large man's butt groove.
Then she heard keys in the front door, and dropped to her knee. “No, he was working that protest,” a woman said into her phone as she pushed the door inside. Around the edge of the couch Rox could see the woman's service revolver in its holster, and a blue policeman's uniform. “One of those freaks attacked him.”
She strode across the carpet, and Rox had to crawl along the edge of the couch to stay out of site. “They 'fixed' him up to cover their tracks, but god only knows what they really did to him, internally. Poor guy. Who knows if he's even human anymore. Doctors don't know when he's going to wake up. That's where I am, Dowell's place; feeding his cat, getting some personal items.”
She stopped to pet the cat. “Hi boots. Muff? Mittens,” she said, and nodded. “Want some food?” The cat looked up at her for a moment, before putting her head back down and ignoring her. “Yeah, so you're about as interested as the rest of the men in my life.”
The policewoman walked into the other room, and started opening cabinets, until she found a bag of food. Upon hearing the bag rustling, Mittens stretched, stood, and slowly wandered into the kitchen. The cop was making enough room Rox snuck back into the study. She heard the policewoman talking to the cat as she closed the door. “And just like the other men in my life, the moment I cook for you, then I exist again.”
She left out of the study.
“How much of that did you hear?”
“Enough to know that woman has trouble with the opposite sex. And maybe cats, too.”
“But about the cop.”
“He's at the hospital. So where does that leave you?”
“Trailing her back to the hospital,” Rox said.
Demi grunted as she shifted Mayumi's weight. She was a tiny thing, but she weighed more than she looked. In fact, she weighed more than a couple of her should have.
“So what was with all that face-stroking stuff?” Mikaela asked Tucker.
“Jealous?” Tucker asked.
“I'd like to know, too,” Demi said.
“I've been working with the Dean. He's been teaching me how to do more than just hear a person's thoughts, but to be able to sense the mechanisms of their thoughts. And there's something really screwed up about the way this girl thinks.”
“I could have told you that,” Iago said.
“Is that you're way of saying she's your type?” Tucker asked. Iago stuck his tongue out at him. “Careful, it'll freeze that way.” Panic filled Iago's eyes as ice crystallized on his tongue, and he tried to yell through a mouth that was frozen shut. “I still have trouble believing that doesn't hurt,” Tucker said.
Iago sucked his tongue back into his mouth, breaking the thin layer of ice away. “Kind of like a brain freeze, but I wouldn't say it hurts,” he replied.
“But I'm not just talking about divergent thought patterns, or abnormal psychology. There's something in her head that shouldn't be there. I can't be sure, but I think it was spiking her adrenaline, making her more aggressive, even feral.”
“And you tried to shut it down,” Mikaela said.
“I did. But that didn't work. Or maybe it did, but there was a lag before we saw the effects.”
“But that's why you said it wasn't over.”
“It isn't. She took enough of a beating that I was able to convince her to rest. But I don't know how long she'll stay out.”
“The thing making her crazy. Is it biological?”
“You think maybe somebody did this to her?” Tucker asked.
“I think somebody taught her to fight. If she's an attack dog, maybe that's her leash.” Mikaela took out her phone and dialed. It rang, but no one was answering. “Shit, Mahmoud, pick up,” she said. She hung up, and tapped out a message.
“I think I might know somebody. Pete introduced me. But we'll have to take her to a building with a ground-floor lab.” Tucker took out his phone and started texting. “I'll have them meet us there.”
“If there is a piece of machinery in her skull, Ryan can help with the tech; but for the brain parts we're still likely to need Pete.”
“And Cris, who's pretty likely to be in tow,” Demi said.
“In here,” Tucker said, opening a door into Onslow.
Most of the building was lit only by emergency lighting.
“I wouldn't have thought the buildings were opened this late,” Demi said.
“They aren't,” Tucker said.
“The locks are electronic,” a computerized voice said from down the hall. “I asked them politely to open, and they did.”
The source of the voice rolled out of the shadows and into the light immediately under an emergency fixture. He was short, though it was difficult to tell how short, because his limbs were shriveled, and nearly tucked up underneath his torso. He was sitting in a motorized wheelchair, a bulky one the length of probably four people standing in a line.
“I told you,” he said, or, more accurately, the voice from his chair said, “that I don't do late night booty calls.”
Tucker smiled. “And I told you you're not my type,” he said. “Mikaela, this is Ryan, Ryan, Mikaela.”
“That a group name? Are they a band.”
“I don't know everybody's name,” Tucker admitted, “and we're on kind of a time crunch.”
“Maybe not,” Pete said, exiting out of the same lab. “I've mixed up a sedative that should keep Sleeping Beauty resting peacefully into tomorrow.” He raised a syringe into the air.
“She's got the metabolism of a team of elephants,” Mikaela said.
“Okay, so maybe just resting long enough for us to chat leisurely,” he said. He stuck the needle into Mayumi's arm and pushed in the plunger.
“Ryan's a technopath,” Tucker said.
“I met one of those just the other day,” Mikaela said.
“Quite a few of us around, actually,” Ryan said.
“Huh,” she said. She liked having her own unique ability. “How do you feel about that?”
“Gives us a sense of community. Like the telepaths tend to pal around- something about being able to read people's heads makes it harder to cope with everybody else. Technopathy is similar; if you don't know which cell tower you're pinging off of, or more importantly, know every single thing available on the internet about someone the way they do about you, it's difficult to relate. But there's also just enough variation in how our powers work that I still get to feel special- and not just because I get better parking spots. Incidentally, you can set her on my chair.”
“She's not so heavy,” Demi said, “I've got her.”
“Besides, we should come and put her on the table in here,” Peter said. He disappeared into the lab, and Demi filed in after. She set Mayumi down on one of the lab tables.
“So what are we doing?” Demi asked.
“We need to get a look at her,” Pete said. “Ryan?”
“I thought he was mostly a technopath,” Mikaela said as she entered with the rest of the students.
“I don't think most people understand the extent to which the human body is a machine,” Ryan said, “the brain in particular.” He closed his eyes. Then a little laser pointer on an arm mounted on his chair lit up a spot on Mayumi's skull. “There. It's a device, inorganic, an implant of some kind.”
“Can you shut it down?” Pete asked.
“Unfortunately, no. It's been damaged beyond repair, at least remotely. It's designed to use bloodflow in the brain through it to crank a miniature engine for power. But it wasn't designed to be able to shut down or allow blood flow through it otherwise. It'll always be on so long as it's in there, and even if you could turn it off, it would block the flow of blood, cause a bleed in her brain, and eventually a stroke- and even fast as she heals, I don't know if she could come back from that.”
“Can you tell us what it does?” Drake asked.
“I can try.” Ryan closed his eyes. He furrowed his brow, then scowled, grit his teeth, and eventually grimaced. “Damnit.”
“What's wrong?” Mikaela asked.
“It's too much to hold, too much to map. Even tracking down which part of the brain is impacted and narrowing that down... it's not enough. It's like trying to hold a beach in your hands, it all just trickles through your fingers until you're grasping at a few grains of sand.”
“I have an idea,” Tucker said. “If what you really need is more RAM-”
“And processing,” Ryan said.
“Right. But what if I could give you access to all of our heads- networking our brains, essentially.”
“That... could work.”
“It's something I tried with the other telepaths, just screwing around, crowdsourcing, really,” Tucker said. “We'd probably need to meditate. No stray thoughts. All it takes is one person thinking about what they want to eat to derail the entire thing.”
“My god I could eat,” Demi said.
“Okay. Everybody, circle up, and hold hands.” They did. “You're lying in a warm meadow in the summer sun. There's a breeze on your skin, just the right temperature to cool you without a chill. The smell of flowers surrounds you, but it's faint, not overwhelming. Your eyes are closed butt you can still see the sun through them, a reddish orb on the other side of your eyelids. The warmth on your skin is making you drowsy, but not sleepy. You're so comfortable that the only thing on your mind is those sensations, and even they are fading away.”
“I have it,” Ryan said, opening his eyes. “It's designed to stimulate the fight or flight responses. There's a GPS and timestamp in there, too. The ability for the device to echo out its location is damaged. It's supposed to let an extraction team find her, but as a failsafe, it stimulates adrenaline and aggressive tendencies- turns her into a human time bomb- if they can't find her through technology, they'll find her when she creates an international incident loud enough for them to find her. She's an asset, belonging to the intelligence agencies. Specifically, to Japan, though she was on loan to the United States.”
“You got all that from a device?”
“The device has some proprietary tell-tales, patents the Japanese government doesn't license to anyone, not even Japanese companies. But the chip was last interfacing with a computer using American English. The rest is supposition, but mostly backed-up by information that can be gleaned from the internet. But beyond that, I have no idea what's going on in this girl's head."
"Women, right?” Iago said with a grin. “Unless you were making a sly racist remark about her being Asian."
"No, I mean structurally, it's all wrong. Some structures are larger, others smaller. But the biggest question mark by far, is I'm fairly certain she has two brain stems. Incidentally, thanks, Peter."
“Huh? I don't think I did anything.”
“While we were networked... I was able to use your biological knowledge as if it were my own. It was unfathomably helpful.”
“How can she have two brain stems?” Iago asked.
“That's the operative question, yes.”
"What if it isn't just that she can heal quickly?” Mikaela asked. “What if she can control her body on the cellular level? If I had to guess, either she got a performance boost from this configuration, or her handlers decided this was the way to go, that this was the optimal brain for an operative."
"So what the hell are we doing, here, then?" Peter asked.
"The implant was designed to clip her wings,” Mikaela said. “I think we should cut her strings."
“I'm a genetics student. Gifted, to be sure, but that's a far cry away from a neurosurgeon.”
“We can't take her to a hospital. They'd refuse to operate on her without talking to her. And there's no way she can talk- she'd attack them and we'd be back at square one- provided we could even recapture her.”
“Isn't that making a bit of an assumption?” Peter asked.
“It would be,” Tucker said, “if I wasn't able to read her mind. She's still fighting, even unconscious. Her brain-”
“Her entire body,” Ryan interrupted, “is flooded with adrenaline. The implant is making it impossible for her to have a rational conversation. Her every fiber tells her to kill everything in her path to be able to get away. She's practically feral.”
“What if we don't have to cut her open,” Iago said. “Could you just zap it?” he asked Demi.
“I wouldn't suggest it,” Peter said. “It's possible, that her brain is where her advanced healing is seated- so if you blast her brain with electricity, you could kill what lets her heal faster. Not likely, I'd say, but it's more dangerous than going in more surgically. That, and who knows if there's a fail-safe to the device that might react violently with being zapped.” He turned to Ryan.
“I'm not sure. There's nothing active in the device that would indicate a failsafe. But that just might be part of what's broken. And electricity could bring that back online. Removal is the better option, of the two.”
“Look, even if I'm the lesser of two evils, I don't think I want to try my hand at an amateur lobotomy,” Peter said.
“One of us has to,” Mikaela said. “If you know somebody pre-med, we can give them a call. Otherwise you're her best bet.”
“And she can take it,” Drake said. “You should have seen the beating she took without even slowing down.”
“I can still see part of it,” he said, nodding in the direction of the branch protruding out of her chest.”
“Let me,” Demi said, and wrenched on the trunk sticking out of Mayumi's torso.
“Jesus,” Peter said, at the sound of wood grinding against bone.
Blood bubbled out of the wound like oil from the ground. “That's a lot of blood...” Drake said.
“Why isn't she healing?” Demi asked.
“Towels,” Peter said, “We'll need towels, as in all the.”
“On it,” Drake said, and teleported away. Thirty seconds later he appeared with a stack of towels nearly as tall as he was. “Crap,” he said, as they started to fall. Iago managed to catch the stack and steady them long enough for them to set them down.
“Everybody start mopping up,” Peter said. Iago handed out towels as the rest circled around her, trying to contain the flow of blood. Peter put pressure on her chest. “Someone's going to need to lift her and get a towel beneath her so we can stop the...”
“There it is,” Mikaela said, and pulled his towel away. She mopped up the remaining blood with her own towel, exposing a circle of freshly regrown skin. “It was a bad enough wound it took a second to fully heal.”
“That was a lot of blood.”
“Too much,” Ryan said with a grin. “Average human being stores about a pint of blood for every 10 pounds. So does she, but... she weighs somewhere in the range of 500 pounds.”
“Jeez,” Demi said. “I thought I was just tired.”
“So her blood pressure?” Pete asked.
“Is variable. Her body's already adjusted to being a quart low. If I had to guess, she stores extra blood for occasions when she has to bleed a lot, without losing functionality. And on top of that she's got extreme bone, muscle and skin density.”
“Explains why we had such a bitch of a time putting her down,” Demi said.
“And why we'll have such a hard time if we have to do it again,” Mikaela said. “We have to help her. And it looks like the only way to do that might be an amateur lobotomy.”
“You had me at amateur lobotomy,” Ryan said.
“Christ,” Pete said with a sigh. “Okay. But somebody take my phone and try to hunt down Cris.”
“I don't know how I feel about this,” Mahmoud said on the phone.
“Why's that?” Rox asked, trying to make her steps quieter as she stepped through the lightly staffed lobby. Like most things in Bellingham, the police all but closed at eight, too. The man at the desk was paying more attention to his log book than her, but something told her she couldn't just walk past without arousing his suspicion. So she planted herself on a small bench enough to the side that he wouldn't give her more attention when she did. “You already helped me track down a cybercriminal.”
“Yeah. In another state. And even that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. But this guy's a cop.”
“A volunteer,” she corrected him.
“But he's got friends on the force. He could make life for both of us intolerable- if not downright dangerous.”
“And that's why you're cloistered safely away in a dorm room, which, by the way, how do you like it?”
“It's weird. But at least I talked my parents out of moving up here so we could share an apartment. That would have been intolerable. Oh, shit; I'm sorry. That was insensitive.”
“What was?” she asked.
“Oh, crap,” he said through a sigh. “I may have done a little snooping on you. It's kind of a habit. Not even one, exactly so much as if I think about someone- anyone- any connection within wifi range bends over backwards to find information out about them. And it's hard to have self-control when it's all right there. But I know, about your parents. I'm sorry- both for knowing, and because of what happened.”
“You don't know shit about what happened,” she said.
“I don't. You want to talk about it?”
“People get hurt when they upset me. It's a reflex; I don't control it. So don't push.”
“Absolutely. Sorry. You're right. Even luck powers going wrong on you is irrelevant. If you want to talk, I'm available, but otherwise, I'm dropping it.”
“So what have you found for me?”
“Not much. That's why I'm glad I sent you with that dongle.”
“And you're sure it's not just because you like saying 'dongle.'”
“It is a fun word. And that's only 75% percent cause it sounds like a euphemism. It's the 'ongle' that's fun.”
“Mhmm,” she said. “So why's the dongle necessary?”
“The police, their files, their network, they aren't online- no remote access at all. This town's kind of...”
“I was going to say 'quaint.'”
“No you weren't.”
“No. I was trying to figure out a nicer way to say 'hillbilly.'”
“I've found banjos help.”
“I'm pretty sure if I take up the banjo on top of all of my typing, I'd get arthritis by age twenty. So where are you?”
“Waiting for my opportunity.”
“Seems like waiting around a cop shop that's about to close is a great way to get noticed.”
“Hey, do you want this done, fast, right, or with a low body count. You can have two.”
“That isn't funny.”
“Who was joking?” she said. The desk sergeant ducked under his seat. She stood, and walked past the desk briskly.
“Plug it into any computer. Provided it's hooked into their network I can get in through there.”
“How long will this take?”
“As long as it takes,” he said. “Why?”
“Because I probably shouldn't leave your dongle here.”
“Probably not. Though I wouldn't lay odds that anyone involved with their ancient network could do anything more than marvel at its technological prowess.”
“Just hurry. My powers skew odds in my favor. That doesn't mean I can get caught conducting espionage in a police station without consequence.”
“Okay, they opened up an investigation. Linc does have some pull... but it's already closed. They bought what the officer said, that he had his gun stolen.”
“But you've got a name?”
“And an address. And a bad feeling about all of this.”
“I'd feel better if Pete was here,” Demi said as they walked down the darkened street ringing the southern edge of the campus.
“Because being an overachiever in genetics is a useful skill when tracking a potentially homicidal Japanese schoolgirl?” Iago asked.
“No. Because she fucked up that cop, and where Pete goes Cris is pretty likely to follow. And I'd feel better having a walking emergency room with us.”
“I wish I wasn't here,” Tucker said.
“Thanks for coming,” Mikaela said.
“You said this girl needed our help- and you needed me to find her.”
“We do,” Mikaela said. “And that's why I'm glad you came.”
Tucker closed his eyes. “This would be easier if I knew Mayumi,” he said.
“The important thing to know right now is she's dangerous, so be careful. When she ripped into that cop, she was wailing like a banshee, like an animal. But there was something to the violence, something... practiced about it. Like, I dated a dancer, years ago. And everything in the way she moved was more deliberate, just walking around had a fluidity to it. Mayumi's had a lot of practice hurting people- though I don't understand how.”
“I'm sure I'll be fine,” Tucker said.
Demi noticed the tension between them, and tried to intervene, stepping so that she blocked Tucker's view of Mikaela. “So what's telepathy like?” she asked.
“Have you ever struggled to hear yourself think while someone obliviously drones on? Strikingly like that.”
Demi stopped walking, and glared daggers into Tucker. “You've got to forgive Tucker,” Iago said, slowing down to stay with her. “He was born without a sense of humor. Or the ability to not be a dick for more than five minutes at a time.”
Tucker spun around. “Has it been five minutes?” he asked Iago.
“Don't think so.”
“Tell me when it has,” he said, before spinning back around.
“Okay, so he has been known to deadpan. But other than that, no sense of humor.”
“You'll have to forgive my brother,” Tucker said, stopping to let them catch up.
“For?” Demi asked.
“His personality, mostly.” Demi stifled a laugh. “But I'm sorry. I wasn't exactly keen on coming out for a protest. And you can imagine I was even less thrilled to get a call from my ex trying to help her find a girl. But cunty though my answer was, that is what telepathy's like. Think about your own internal monologue. Disjointed, abstract half-sentences. The one thing that really makes one person's thoughts recognizable is their voice- we all have a rough approximation of our voice that we hear in our own heads. Telepathy is like hearing someone else's thoughts in your own head- on top of your own. It's disjointed and disorienting.”
“And it's probably worse with someone chatting you up while you're doing it.”
“But it was still crappy of me to take it out on you, so, sorry.”
“It's okay. You might see this as mostly a favor you're doing for an ex. But Mayumi's my friend, too. And she needs us.”
“What happened to being afraid of her?”
“I'd probably say I was more intimidated than afraid. But honestly, I think I'm the heaviest hitter here. If I can't take her... well, that's not very likely.”
Tucker closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side. “You said she's Japanese, right?”
“Yeah,” Drake said.
“Well either somebody's watching Naruto reruns or I think I've found her. And she's back to not saying anything.”
“Does that mean you lost her?” Demi asked.
“Not. She's not saying anything. But that doesn't mean she isn't still making noises- a lot of noises. Growling, mostly.”
“That's our girl,” Mikaela said.
“I'm not going to have have to get a rabies shot come the end of the night, am I?”
“Almost certainly not.”
“It feels like it's coming from that park up there.” She pointed weakly. “There's some ugly shit going on in her head, though. Almost like it isn't her head.”
They heard a scream. “We should hurry,” Mikaela said.
“So what do we know about Mayumi, then?” Iago asked.
“She takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” Mikaela said.
“I don't think that was supposed to sound erotic...”
“Not even remotely what I meant.”
“It seems obvious she's got some superhuman durability,” Demi said. “And the way she hucked that guy, it's equally clear she's got enhanced strength. And she likes cocoa.”
“I'm kind of regretting turning down the training,” Mikaela said. “Though this is about as far from where I thought we might use it as possible.”
They heard another yell. “I'm checking it out,” Drake said, and was gone.
“Damnit,” Mikaela yelled. “We should be sticking together.”
“I didn't miss anything,” Drake said from behind her. “Just popped up a couple hundred feet ahead. Trees are too dense in the park to see anything.”
“And he got scared,” Iago said.
“No. I didn't like the idea of getting ambushed alone there. Plus, I couldn't see very far in to teleport.”
“I'm glad you came back,” Mikaela said. “We shouldn't separate.”
“I'm pretty sure this isn't a horror movie,” Drake said.
“But if it is, since Mayumi's our 'monster,' it's a Japanese horror movie.”
“Yeah, we need to be careful, I say, as the closest thing to a man of color as we've got in this oddly lily white brigade. Not counting Mikaela.”
“Hey, I'm at least as Latino as you.”
“But I've also got some Native American, maybe.”
“Yeah, like a pinky toe's worth- presuming your great grandmother wasn't BSing to get street cred.”
“I'm not sure how you spend your time that promiscuous grandmother equals 'street cred.' Also, saying 'street cred' automatically made you the whitest person here. By a wide margin.”
“Idiots,” Mikaela said, and nodded in the direction of the trees. “Stick close.”
“Buddy up,” Tucker said, stepping closer to Demi. They took the left side of the park, while Mikaela went with the other two right.
“Tucker'll find her first,” Iago said, but there was a tremble in his voice.
“You okay?” Mikaela asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I've seen people fight. But most of the time, even when it's a bigger guy picking on somebody way smaller, there's usually some contention. But she was so fast. I think she meant to kill that cop.”
“We'll find her, and we'll stop her.”
“I kind of wonder if we shouldn't. Let the cops handle her.”
“I don't know what's going on with her. If this is maybe a part of her ability, or maybe the way an underlying mental disorder reacts with it. But I don't think she meant to hurt that cop. And she's one of us. If we give her over to the police... well, you've seen what they do to people who aren't a serious threat.”
“And who knows how many of them she'd take with her,” Drake said. “No, we have to do this. Because it's what the rest of us would need, if whatever's happening to her happened to us.”
Demi suddenly snapped into the tree just beyond Drake, wrapping around it like a flag around its pole.
“Iago, take care of her.”
He knelt to check on her, as Mikaela stepped forward. Tucker was lying against a tree. “You okay?” Drake asked.
“Demi took the brunt of it. Though I still I'm concussed.”
Then they spotted Mayumi. She was hunched over, breathing heavily, with her hair over her eyes.
“May,” Mikaela said, approaching very slowly. “We're your friends. We're here to help.” She put out her hand to touch Mayumi. The slight girl responded by punching her in the eye. The blow sent her stumbling back towards Iago.
“On the bright side,” Iago said, trying to contain a smile, “at least now you'll match, you know, from when she hit you earlier in the other eye.”
“You could make me some ice,” she said.
“Oh, yeah. Where is my sense of chivalry?”
He held out one hand, and clawed the fingers of his other. The air swirled around between his fingers, collecting moisture in the air into an elaborate snowflake, and when it was formed he handed it to Mikaela.
She pressed it against her eye. “It's cold.”
“Damn. I left all my warm ice at the apartment.”
“Little help?” Drake asked, appearing between them, before disappearing.
“Happy to,” Demi said, grunting as she stood. “Just getting my second wind.”
“Think you've got a bird's nest in your hair,” Iago said.
She ignored him, and started marching in the direction she'd been flung from.
“Iago?” Mikaela started. “Can you slow her down?”
“I can try,” he said. “Just don't let her mangle me.”
Demi and Mikaela stood on either side of him. Mayumi was still preoccupied with Drake, who was teleporting in and out of range too fast for her to catch. Or at least he'd thought so. She feinted to the left, then struck right, and her fist hit him in the throat. She immediately grabbed his neck and squeezed.
Iago held out his hands, and swirls of cool air formed a small spiral towards Mayumi. Ice crystals formed on her feet, cementing her in place. She tried to reel backwards to throw a punch at Drake, but with her feet stuck she lost her balance. As soon as her grip slackened, Drake was gone.
Mayumi howled, thrashing her legs. The ice cracked. “Can you fix it?” Mikaela asked.
“Probably not as fast as she can break it,” Iago said. A crack opened down the center of the ice, and her foot slipped out, leaving her shoe embedded in the ice. Her other foot came out with her shoe still laced around her foot.
She snarled, glaring at all of them. “I could teleport us out of here,” Drake said.
“No,” Mikaela said.
Mayumi cradled her left hand, like she was about to pop her knuckles, but instead shoved the fingers down into her hand with a sickening crack. Then the finger bones began to elongate and taper. “Did she just make claws?” Drake asked. “Escape?”
“You're welcome to run,” Mikaela said.
Mayumi shrieked, and charged at them. “Let me,” Demi said, and and took a step forward. She threw a haymaker that caught Mayumi just under the chin, and lifted her up off her feet. She fell backward, landing face-first against a tree root. Blood flooded from the wound at the speed of a drinking fountain as Mayumi rose, but by the time she was to her feet the flow had stopped entirely.
“There's no way she's clotting that fast,” Mikaela said.
“Well, we know what her ability is, now,” Drake said.
“I'm going to try something,” Demi said. “I'm going to tase her. Can I get a distraction?”
Iago shot a column of cold from his hands into her eyes. Mayumi roared as her eyes froze. Still she leapt at him, knocking him to the ground beneath her.
“Let me,” Demi said, and tackled Mayumi off him. “Couldn't shock her while she was straddling you, without it all going through you. But now, Demi put her hand on either side of Mayumi's ribs and arced electricity through her torso.
Demi stood up, and brushed the leaves off her chest. She sighed triumphantly.
“Um,” Iago said, pointing over her shoulder.
Demi turned, and as she did, Mayumi threw a punch. Demi managed to get out of the way, but a second landed in her stomach. “Son of a cunt,” she yelped.
“I think electrocuting her only made her stronger,” Iago said. “Or at least more pissed off.”
Demi held out her hands, and electricity arced between them. Then it leaped out at Mayumi, striking her arm just above the elbow. The muscles in the path of the electricity from the strike down to the ground tensed, and Mayumi fell awkwardly to her knees. But the moment the shock stopped she started to stand up again. The charred skin around the electrical impact was already taking on a flesh tone again.
“Is she part fricking terminator?” Iago asked.
“Think I might have something,” Drake said. He teleported behind Mayumi and grabbed her shoulder, then they were both gone.
They heard screaming in the air, before the tree nearest to them shook. “The hell?” Demi asked.
He reappeared. “I'm going to need to borrow you,” he said, and took hold of Demi's hand.
Suddenly she was near the top of a tree, balanced on a tiny branch. She reached for the trunk to steady herself, to find it was slicked with warm sap. She heard growling above her, and realized it wasn't sap.
She looked up to the top of the tree and saw Mayumi impaled on the tree. “That's why I needed some help,” Drake said. “I mean, we could probably just leave her there, but that seems cruel. But I'm pretty sure if I just teleported her off that she'd be back to mauling in a matter of seconds.”
“Give me a second,” Demi said. She positioned herself so that most of her weight was on her hands wrapped around the bloody trunk. She put her heel just under her foot, and pulled. The trunk gave away, and she felt the world falling towards her. Then the air rushed around her, and she was aware of Mayumi smacking into her in mid-air. Then an instant later the ground rushed up to hit her.
Even with a large chunk of tree sticking out of her, Mayumi struggled to her feet. “Hold her,” Tucker said, stumbling forward. Mikaela pulled a mirrored compact from her pocket and pulled a double from it.
“Got it,” she and her double said in unison. They rushed forward and grabbed Mayumi's wrists. and held her against a tree. “Iago?” she asked.
“On it,” he said. He froze Mayumi's feet back to the earth.
“Hold her,” Tucker said forcefully, walking around the two Mikaelas. He stroked his fingers along Mayumi's hairline. “I've got it,” he said. Mayumi started to shriek at a deafening volume. “Shit. Thought that would shut her down.”
“One side,” Demi said. “I think I know where her off switch is.” She reeled back, then threw a punch into Mayumi's forehead. Since she was held in place, unable to disperse any of the force either by stumbling or falling back, the blow landed with a surprising amount of force, and she went limp.
“Iago?” Mikaela asked.
“Yeah, I'll slow down her metabolism,” he said, holding out his hands. Air swirled around his fingers, and frost began to collect on Mayumi's skin.
“Let me,” Tucker said. He stroked Mayumi's face again. The Japanese girl's breathing started to slow, and her eyes closed. They waited for another move from her, until she started snoring loudly.
“Is it over?” Iago asked.
“Hardly,” Tucker said.
“I've got to go,” Cris said.
“We aren't done,” Rox said, clearly running out of patience.
“I sort of am. Look, it's one thing for the rest of you to be considering this. But I don't have offensive capability. If I manage to get myself shot, sure, I can probably make sure it isn't fatal. Which completely sidesteps the fact that I think you're wrong. I want to be better at using my abilities. I don't want to try to use them to hurt people- even if they're the right people to want to hurt. And lastly, somebody needs me, right now. Not to hurt them, but to help them. And that seems like it's a lot more important than whatever the hell this is.”
He stormed away.
“Is he wrong?” Ben asked. “We're kids. I'm as full of fury as any of you- and it's righteous, too. But we aren't talking about venting, or even finding a typical teenage rebellion. We're talking about- should we be worried about our phones?”
“No,” Mahmoud said. “They're dead, I saw to it. They'll ping the towers for signal and for incoming calls, but they're otherwise off the grid- no remote spying.”
“But see, that's kind of the point. We're in a position where we have to worry about the government spying on us. We aren't old enough to vote, but we're talking about committing treason.”
“Treason feels melodramatic,” Rox said.
“You want to break into a secretive government facility specifically run by the National Security Agency, then destroy government records, and make enough of a mess in doing it to convince them that it isn't a wise idea to keep trying to track transhumans. 'Treason' seems almost quaint by comparison.”
“This shit can't stand,” Rox said. “Transhuman spying. We aren't enemies of the state- they are. They're declaring war on people who just want to live their lives in peace.”
“Surveillance isn't war...” Mira said.
“Isn't it? Isn't it the very first stage in war. And isn't sharing reasonable information given to the government in confidence with an organization whose mandate is basically to stop domestic terrorism essentially declaring that we're worthy of suspicion?”
“But we aren't terrorists,” Mira said. “So does the extra scrutiny really matter?”
“Yes,” Rui said. “Both because of the principle, that you can't just search through everyone's records to make sure they're on the up and up, and because similar laws have a history of abuse.”
“He's right about that,” Sonya said. “The vast amount of arrests under the PATRIOT Act were drug offenses, not terrorism.”
“So?” Mira asked.
“So drug charges are disproportionately filed against minority offenders, and stiffer penalties are disproportionately given to them, too.”
“And the drug war has largely been a farce for years, a national game of chicken where no politician wanted to be the one to admit that it's stupid, pointless and expensive. Prohibition drives prices up, which consequently makes drugs- or any industry- more profitable. It pads out drug peddlers bottom lines.”
“But I think Rui's first point is the important one,” Rox said. “Because the government shouldn't be able to go phishing in our lives for dirt without cause. A transhuman venting after his boss says something bigoted shouldn't be subject to arrest. And they've already shown they can't be trusted with our information, so not only shouldn't they have it in the first place, but they're leaving that information vulnerable, so even if you trust the government implicitly- which I don't imagine any of us do after Mahmoud and Eljah- but even if, they aren't the only ones you have to worry about.”
“But breaking in to an NSA site,” Ben said.
“I know. It sounds insane. But what we learned today is we can be a force to be reckoned with.”
“We kicked our own asses at a game of improvised touch football.”
“We learned to work as a team, organically. Imagine what we could do with time, and actual training, rather than just whatever comes to mind while we're winging it.” Rox paused. The air was still, and her friends were looking at her like half of them wanted to check her into an institution. “I'm not saying we have to. But I do think it's something we have to consider, and talk about. Because I honestly do believe that Elijah is the tip of a very long spear, one that's only going to be driven deeper into our collective skin. If we don't pull it out of the wound now, we may not ever get another chance.”