There was a knock at the door; Mae. She let herself in, sauntering in coolly and tossing me the clothes I had woken up without. The Priestess winced at this, for some reason, calming down only after I had caught my pants. Somehow, Mae had gotten the stains out. This was oddly impressive to me.
“Thanks. Sure took awhile for you to get back. What, is there no washing machine nearby?” She threw her hands up in a shrug, accidentally knocking over a cup across the room with her altered touch. This didn’t seem to faze her, though, and she replied.
“Nearest Laundromat is five blocks east. Glad there aren’t any MP checkpoints in Detroit like there were in Milwaukee. What’s up with that? I mean, not that I’m complaining.” I had no goddamn clue, and indicated as such to the Priestess, who restrained laughter at my perplexed expression. Both turned away as I stood up to dress myself (though I noticed that Mae took a few seconds before doing so) and the Priestess took a moment to answer.
“All the MP checkpoints in Detroit are at its exits. Few people are actually allowed in, and even fewer are allowed out. It is a…flimsy solution to the problem this city poses, at best.” Mae raised an eyebrow in curiosity. It’s like they don’t even have newspapers outside of the city, I remember thinking, rolling my eyes.
“The federal and state governments gave up long ago on salvaging this place. Easier to just make sure the city’s problems stay contained and occasionally let supplies in so that the ACLU doesn’t start throwing petitions at them. Wonder where those bleeding hearts were back in the nineties during Zane’s genocide. But I digress. See, Detroit is more than just a city, Mae. Specifically, it’s a verb that smartasses like me use when they need a more clever way to say ‘to turn into a shitstorm.’ As in, ‘if we don’t do something, this is going to go Detroit on us real fast.’”
“I’ve never heard you say that.” At this, I made a face and let out a high-pitched series of ‘nyeh’ sounds until the Priestess shot me a dirty look.
“Are you done?”
“In fact I was not, but go on anyway. Mae should be listening to this. Everyone should. Where did they get off to?”
“I saw them on my way back from the Laundromat, actually,” Mae answered. “French said that they were looking for some supplies. Not sure what for. To be honest, I wasn’t very curious. Had other things on my mind.” She punctuated this by nodding towards my injured leg.
“Don’t worry yourself, Mae, I’ll live. I don’t see that I have any other option.” The Priestess cleared her throat and the two of us snapped to attention.
“Listen, you two, if you wish to teach the world not to repeat the mistakes of its past.”
They found me when I was eight. I had a protector, then, another Alter who had evaded extermination and found me a few years back. An old friend of my father’s, he had told me. A brave warrior. Even he was not enough to stop them, clever though he was. Zane had decided, as I learned later, that he was expendable. They already had captured other Alter with similar abilities. Though he was not unique, he was a brave and selfless man. Robert was his name, and that was all I ever needed to know about him. Every contour of his face still survives in my memory, every kindness he ever showed me, the exact tone of his voice…but what I will always and forever remember most about him was the look in his left eye as a high-caliber bullet blew off the right side of his head. Every day he would tell me to never lose hope. That it was the one thing they could not take from us. But in his left eye that day, I saw no hope. All I saw was blood dripping into it as he lay on his side, the residual air in his lungs escaping in a low moan. Before I knew what was happening, the men who murdered him slipped a hood on over my head and jammed a syringe full of tranquilizer in to my arm.
What happened next is rather foggy. Upon my awakening, though, I was able to piece together what had happened to me through the pain that I felt…and through a noise in my head. Do you know the sound a prepubescent girl’s femur makes as it snaps? I believe I do. The surrounding flesh muffles the noise so that it ends up sounding like a shotgun being cocked through earplugs. Two clicks. The first as the bone breaks, the second as it breaks in two, separated by a split second. A friend told me years later that hate must be taught in order to be felt. I respectfully disagreed. Up to that point, I had not the slightest idea of what I had been running from, what my parents and Robert had tried protecting me from. But as my eyes opened for the first time as an adult, at eight years, three months and six days old…I knew of fear. Of pain. Of burning anger, the blackest despair, of festering madness. And I knew of hate.
Zane was there the moment that hood was pulled off of me. He was a bit of a younger man back then. V-M Day was only a few years behind him, but stress and hard living had aged him a couple years past how old he actually was. His voice, though, has stayed the same for years. It’s always had that distracting softness to it, masking a smoldering malice only the initiated can spot. For a brief moment, I thought that he might have been a doctor.
“That was quite the incident back there, Ms. Mathis. I’m so glad you’re all right. My name is Simon Zane, I’m a friend of Robert’s. I’ll be taking care of you from now on.” My abilities had always been able to numb any pain my body might incur, but his poison was in me now, and no one had bothered to set my leg. On top of that, waves of nausea flew through my body like echoes in a cave, and throbbing pain climbed across my skin. I had no response but weak, exhausted sobbing. He went on, sounding bored.
“When you’re done, there are a few things I’d like to ask you. These are some very important questions to us and your honesty and forthrightness will be rather essential to your continued wellbeing. So if you’re quite through…” I didn’t even know what the word forthrightness meant. Not that I was paying much attention. From behind me came another voice with an accent I could not place.
“The other leg, sir?” At this, I screamed until my voice went hoarse and my throat burned red.
“Go ahead, Mr. LeMal. We’ll start fresh in a few hours.” I felt a vice-grip close around my upper leg, rapidly increasing in pressure. Before Zane’s goon could break it, though, I ceased my screams.
“NO!” This was much more coherent than my earlier blubbering, and got Zane’s attention. He gestured for the goon to stop, and he did, immediately.
“She learns quickly. I’m afraid we won’t require any more use of your services right now, Mr. LeMal, but stick around anyway. You may learn something from this one.” There was a grunt of acknowledgement from him. Now feeling a touch safer, it seemed appropriate to beg.
“I want to go home. Please, let me go home.” Zane seemed disappointed by this.
“My dear, you already are home. Camp Lhord welcomes you here, Yvonne. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy your stay, but I can say that we will keep you safe, warm and healthy for the duration. Just so long as you cooperate with us.” If I had known what a half-truth was, I’d have demanded that he kill me right there. As it stood, I had no choice but to believe him.
“O-okay.” He lit up like a Christmas tree, astounded to be making headway with the child he had kidnapped, beaten and drugged.
“Splended. The first thing I’d like to do is just go over your talents. You’ve been able to see how different you are, right?” I nodded meekly. “Good. Now, from what we’ve gathered, you’re quite the natural healer, aren’t you, Yvonne? All those scrapes and boo-boos clear up double-time on you, don’t they?”
“Mmhmm.” This was the most I cared to give him, but he just seemed satisfied that I had confirmed his reports.
“Good, and you can help your friends get better a little bit more quickly too, can’t you?” The first time I had done so came back to me. It was a couple years back, and my mother had twisted her ankle as we trudged through the forest. Afraid for her, I had buried myself in her arms and made a wish that she could stop hurting. It was to my great surprise that she did. I nodded at Zane.
“Yes, I can.” He patted me on the cheek and smiled warmly. I had never felt so cold in my life.
“And do you sometimes have strange dreams? Dreams that come true?” My eyes widened as I realized that this was true. Robert…I had seen Robert, a few nights before, and in my dream he had begun to fade away, starting with the right side of him until he had disappeared. Unable to stop myself, I began to cry again. Zane nodded.
“Yes, then. Very good. Very good indeed. Yvonne, I need you to listen to me very carefully, okay?” Through sobs, I nodded, still listening.
“Sir, do you want to take a break?” That same accent, that same voice. The man Zane had referred to as LeMal.
“What? Why? We’re getting much further than I thought we would. She’s not gone catatonic like the last one.”
“I know, sir,” the voice replied. “But maybe that was because you pushed him too hard. She’s still in quite a bit of pain; maybe we should send her to Dr. Ushino to get her leg set before we continue.” Zane furrowed his brow at this, obviously annoyed.
“Do your job, LeMal, and I’ll do mine. She can go on,” he said, bending down to my level. “Can’t you?” Terrified of what would happen if I said no, I nodded vehemently. Quite satisfied, Zane gave LeMal a smug glace.
“As you wish, Sir. But my report will state that I don’t think this is a good idea. I’ve seen this sort of decision backfire before.”
“Duly noted, Lieutenant. Now,” he continued, turning his attention back to me, “I need you to help me test something.” Without another word, he pulled a butterfly knife from his pocket and made a small nick on the back of his thumb, just big enough to be noticeable.
“Why did you do that?” It came to me that I had been the one asking this question, and I silenced myself quite quickly for fear that I may be punished for speaking out of turn. Zane seemed to welcome my curiosity, though.
“That’s a very good question, Yvonne. You see, we’ve been working on a medicine that helps kids like you feel a little bit more normal. It hasn’t always worked, though, so I need you to try and heal my thumb. Can you do that for me?”
“Okay,” I replied, relieved that Zane hadn’t punished me for my question. Still distracted by the pain in my leg, I took a deep breath inward and tried as best I could to push it from my mind. It didn’t work very well, but I was able to compartmentalize the pain at least a little bit. Next, I focused on Zane’s thumb, which he had brought up to my face. Typically, all I had needed to do was fill my head with warm thoughts and the healing would begin. But it was hard to do so in the state I was in, and even when I managed that, the wound on this thumb refused to even stop bleeding. Distraught, I forced myself to focus even harder until I grew purple. Before the stress knocked me unconscious, though, LeMal shook me from behind and I snapped out of it.
“Success!” Zane’s excitement took me by surprise, and I yelped in dismay. He laughed at this, as did LeMal, though the latter tried to contain it.
“Should I inform Ushino, sir?” Pondering LeMal’s question for a moment, Zane finally shook his head.
“No. No, I’ll tell her myself after I write my report. I bet she’ll be happy to hear that this strain is working. We’ll put a monitor on Yvonne for the next few days. Hopefully it doesn’t end up killing her or do any permanent damage. If the Formula-12 works on the healers, it’ll work on the rest of them.” I whimpered impotently at the words ‘permanent damage.’ At this point, though, death was slowly becoming more and more attractive to me as an option. LeMal grunted his acknowledgement.
“Understood, sir. May I take her to surgery, then?” Zane was hardly paying attention anymore; having pulled out a tablet he was now poking around with.
“Hm? Oh, yes, by all means. Stay with her, LeMal. Give her the tour, if you have time. I don’t.” With that, Zane left the small room the three of us had been sitting in through one of two doors.
With powerful hands, LeMal picked me up off the floor, careful not to put any undue pressure on my broken leg. It was then that I got a good look at him. He was a tall, athletic looking man of about six feet, with tanned olive skin and thick brown hair combed back. He wore a grim expression, as if he’d just been told his men had been killed, and though it took me a couple seconds, I realized that the colors of his eyes were mismatched. His black uniform covered everything up to the top of his neck, but I could see a surgical scar extending from underneath it up to just below his left ear. It left me curious, but I dared not ask any questions.
“Thank you,” I said instead. “You didn’t want to hurt me.” LeMal frowned, uncomfortable with what I had just said.
“Don’t thank me, Ms. Mathis. I cannot protect you from Zane’s cruelty. Nor can I promise an end to your pain. But, if you wish, I can help you keep yourself.” His offer confused me.
“What do you mean?” He turned to me; briefly, as we headed out the second door and down a narrow corridor.
“When it becomes too much for you – and it will – I will do what I can. Camp Lhord will try to break you, and it will succeed, but if you let me, I won’t let the pieces of you become scattered.” Perhaps, had I been older, I might have questioned his motives or pushed him away. It was lucky, then, for me that I was not. Instead, I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried into his chest. He did not react to this, but neither did he push me away.
“I miss Robert.”
A year is a long time to spend with one’s own thoughts. For all I knew, Camp Lhord was just a small collection of labs, cells, and hallways: I had not seen daylight once since my arrival. It was hard for the first two weeks. Every night I would cry myself to sleep, and it would take hours. Every night, though, I cried a little bit less than the night before. After a fortnight passed, I would just lay still in my cell, silent as the grave. I’d discovered that when one is close enough to sleep, they might take themselves away from the world to a place where hope yet lives. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I could stay there till morning, when a fresh set of injections came.
Zane’s scientists had not perfected the poison at that point, yet. From what he told me, it had just as good a chance of killing the Alter it was used on. As he explained, though, I was different. The poison could never quite conquer my extraordinary healing abilities, and for that reason there was never any risk of it ending me. This was not to say, though, that I didn’t feel it try. The nausea would come first; a harbinger of the pain to come. Next were the boils. They would begin to rise up on my skin starting with the point of injection and then spread across my body like a convincing lie amongst the poor. Each one was about an inch across and, at its worst, about a half an inch high. They would start out as red, then harden and turn purple, then black. Dr. Ushino would slice off one boil at each stage to run tests on. After seven hours of this, I was given an antidote and a glass of water. After seven months of this, I came to understand why people feared God. I would spend the rest of my day in searing pain as my flesh died, fell off of my body and then replaced itself in the span of about four hours. By then, the pain and nausea left me too exhausted to do anything but nurse a nutrient-rich shake they’d give me and wait for darkness to fall so that I might leave this world for a few hours. Every couple of weeks, though, LeMal would visit me.
“You are no longer afraid of Zane, Yvonne. This is unwise, I feel.” The two of us had been conversing for a few hours one Sunday when he brought this up.
“There’s nothing left to fear. Every day he does the same things to me and every day it hurts just as much as the last. Once, the poison hurt me so bad that I passed out. That was different. Fun.” There was a pained expression on LeMal’s face that would always creep to the surface at least once every time we had these chats.
“Do you want to know something about him, Yvonne?” Almost curious, I looked to him and nodded before a twinge of pain reminded me not to move unnecessarily. LeMal smiled sadly.
“He has himself convinced that he’s a hero. So did I, once. A lot of us did. Most of us still do.” Something inside of me got very hot all of the sudden. It began to vibrate outwards until my body craved violence, violence of any sort. But I couldn’t move without it hurting. So I screamed.
“Why?! It hurts so bad, Gerard. It always hurts. Robert said that heroes didn’t hurt people! Not like this. He said they protected them. Who is Zane protecting, Gerard?” He was silent for a long time.
“I don’t know,” he finally replied, “and my opinion doesn’t really matter. I’m to carry out Zane’s wishes. I have no other authority than that.”
“Your opinion matters to me, Gerard,” I responded; faster than he was ready for. There was a water pipe running through the wall of my cell that I would listen to whenever he didn’t have an answer. I still hear it sometimes when I feel lost. This time, though, I wasn’t listening to it for long.
“It started out nobly enough. The world was a dangerous place. Still is, just in different ways. But in those days, Yvonne, there were Alters all over, and some of them thought that they could rule with their powers.” This was known to me.
“But there were heroes, Gerard. They kept those supervillains from destroying the world.”
“There were, yes,” he replied. “But we didn’t like that. We felt that we should have been able to protect ourselves. So a lot of people got together and decided to form a group that could fight these…supervillains whenever the need arose.”
“Why didn’t they work together with the heroes, then?” LeMal laughed mirthlessly, his body barely moving despite the laughter’s volume.
“Now there’s a riddle for the ages.” He had to go after that. Ushiro said something about a development with the Postscript. I didn’t care what she was talking about. LeMal, though, he went running.
One day, after far too long, the only thing that hurt was the injection. After that, there was just an unnerving numbness. And a smile. Zane’s smile. He looked like Michelangelo must have looked, his Sistine Chapel finally complete after years of toil. And I was his canvas, marked by thousands of his horrid brushstrokes until perfection had at last been achieved. I felt inside me the death of thousands and the enslavement of a hundred thousand more. There were no tears left for them.
“I think we’ve done it, Dr. Ushino.” She threw the syringe that had just sealed the fate of an entire race into a receptacle and nodded, proud.
“This,” she replied, “was the six hundred and twentieth variation of the fifteenth strain.”
“Just shorten it to fifteen,” Zane said. “Formula-15. Humanity’s future on a molecular level. Is it not beautiful, Yvonne? You’ve given birth to a revolution.” Had he tried to take blood from me at that moment, he would have received sulfuric acid instead.
“Fuck you.” He almost seemed disappointed that I didn’t share his vision. Rolling his eyes, he gestured to LeMal.
“Take our friend back to her room, Lieutenant. I’ll have received new orders on what to do with her by tomorrow morning.” LeMal nodded and handcuffed me, as he did every day. Zane, unwisely, had strayed to close to me while I was in a bad mood. Before any of the three could react, I had leapt off of the examination table and onto him, wrapping my cuffs around his neck and pulling him against a wall. He lost his balance, and suddenly I had a very nice position of cover behind him. I didn’t think I would need it, but I hadn’t expected to be looking down the barrel of LeMal’s gun. Zane, who had just been grunting in pain and exasperation up to now, started barking orders.
“Shoot her! We’ve gotten what we wanted!” I tightened the choke, and he was silent. LeMal shook his head at me.
“You don’t want to do this, Yvonne.” I had no immediate response to his betrayal than an inarticulate scream of rage. Dr. Ushino bolted out of the room, probably to go get security.
“Why don’t I, Gerard? Why don’t I? This piece of garbage has just killed countless innocents. I’m of no more use to him. For all I know, I’ve got hours left to live anyway.”
“Seconds,” Zane choked. If I held him any tighter, I might have been able to kill him. Break his neck, maybe. At he time, I thought that LeMal might have been reasoned with. Now, I just wish I had gone through with it. Yes, I’d be dead, but it would have meant nothing next to Zane’s death, I think.
“Yvonne, let him go. I don’t miss.” Every word out of his mouth was another reason to kill Zane. And another reason to die.
“You hate him just as much as I do! Let me end this!” Zane tried to say something but my grip on him was too tight. LeMal shook his head calmly.
“My orders and my feelings are segregated. You’ve got one last chance, Yvonne. Let him go.” There was a period of time that was probably only a couple seconds. Five decades passed in that time, I think. No way out. No purpose to killing him. Even a man like LeMal would jump to defend him. What was the point? I couldn’t kill his poison. He’d likely die a martyr. Another reason to kill Alters. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me either way. My mind couldn’t convince my body to keep going. I relaxed my grip on Zane and took the chain out from around his neck. This was a mistake.
In the space of an instant his left hand was on my hair and his right was at my throat. I was too startled to fight back. Not sure if I was even physically or mentally capable at the time. Probably should have. But before it was even apparent what was happening, he had pulled me into the air and driven my face through a mirrored medicine cabinet. I could feel shards of glass biting into my flesh and staying there. Blood was in my eyes, my nose, my mouth. And suddenly I was flying across the room into the examination table, which collapsed under the force of the collision. My collarbone shattered. It made his grabbing me by the hair and slamming my face into the ground hurt even worse. Then the beating started. He must have stomped my left elbow to dust. The trauma became less audible as it went on. There was less and less to break. But there was new ground to explore on me. My viscera. Zane turned me on my back and laid into me with both fists until everything beneath my ribcage was a gooey mess. At least, it felt like it. After awhile, I stopped screaming. What point was there, anymore? Even as he put his foot down on my femur and brought the lower part of my right leg up until he heard my knee snap, I had far outreached the threshold where new pain mattered to my nerves. A few minutes more passed. I was swallowing blood as fast as I was coughing it up. It was an exaggeration to say that I had a skeletal system. If not for my accelerated healing, I would have had permanent nerve damage all across my body. When he brought his heel upon the shards of glass still embedded in my cheek and drove them deep into my face, my mouth: this is when it went black. I could still hear for a few more seconds.
“If she lives, we’ll know that it cannot fully suppress an Alter’s abilities. At least not those of a healer like her. Oh, and get Ushino back here. I’m going to need some gauze for the neck wound.” Fucker.
I lived. Barely. The pain didn’t fade. Not for a week. And even then, it only went from unbearable to excruciating. It no longer mattered to me. Nothing mattered to me anymore. LeMal’s betrayal destroyed everything left in me that wanted out of this place. It’s important, I think, for you to know what it means to give up. Sure, you could decide to stop when the going gets tough. Or if you get scared. Or if you’re just too lazy. I envy the people who think that this is what giving up really means. They haven’t given up. Not really.
It’s a misnomer, really. Giving up, it isn’t an action as much as the term implies. Rather, it is a result of an action taken against the self, whether self-inflicted or not. In this case, not. Giving up is a death you die on a scale others may call small but is larger than anything from the vantage point you stare at it. Like a wall shattering. No, that’s not actually right. One may rebuild a wall. A closer comparison would be to that of a tree in the middle of the desert. Despite everything, it has managed to grow and, perhaps, flourish. But this does not make it a special tree. It is no more deserving of life, in the eyes of the world, than anything else. And in a time of drought, a time of plague, it grows sick. The colors fade from its leaves. Its branches droop down until they touch the soil, too weak to support themselves. You might watch this tree and attempt to heal it. Give it water. Newer, richer soil. But it is still a tree in the middle of the desert. This is not the place for it to grow. It cannot survive. And so it dies. You watch it wither, you watch the dead leaves blow away in the desert wind, and what’s left is a skeleton; mocking the life that once flourished inside of it. Losing hope is like falling asleep after the longest day of your life. You can put it off for only so long, but it will take you sooner or later.
LeMal ceased his visits after awhile. Though it took a month for me to regain my speech capabilities, I think he figured out beforehand how little I wished to speak with him. The only thing I would have done is begged for him to kill me. Though I tried willing my life to end, it refused. I began thinking of it as a separate entity. As long as its grip on me persisted, the pain would never end. The mark on my face is a reminder of that, to me and to everyone else.
Another year or so passed, and one afternoon, LeMal took me from my cell and into the yard. It was vast; the rows of long, gray bunkhouses and dirt paths seemed to go on forever. Scattered around were countless Alters. All wore the same, drab looking uniforms: gray jumpsuits buttoned up from the back. No shoes. All had the same look of defeat on their faces. All looked unhealthily gaunt. I took a whiff of the air. There was a stink, a new stink. It was impossible to place, but it made me think of Robert for some reason. Despite all this, it was a very pretty, very warm day. I wondered where we were. The light was beyond blinding, though; I had not seen the sun for what must have been ten years. He uncuffed me, patted me once on the shoulder, and then let his arms fall to his sides.
“I’ve convinced Zane to let you join your brethren. Perhaps you can find something among them, something you couldn’t find alone. This is…my apology to you. I could not help you keep yourself as I thought I could.” He would get no forgiveness from me. I walked off, not even looking back to see him trod back into the main building.
It was dizzying, the uneven ground. I had forgotten it; I had forgotten a great many things, including what people other than Zane, LeMal and Ushino looked like. To find six or seven of them sitting on a bench together outside of a dormitory was…surreal. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Bewilderedly, I stumbled over to the bench and sat down next to a slight looking man, perhaps a few years older than me, with olive skin and thinning dark hair. He turned to me.
“The food doesn’t get better, newbie, so don’t get your hopes up.” Though unable to laugh, I hid my lack of a sense of humor and smiled.
“It won’t be a problem. I’ve found my sense of taste has left me in the years I’ve been here.” He raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Years? The ‘hell have they been keeping you? Is there some high-roller suite in Zane’s little fort I should be made aware of?”
“A cell. It’s quiet in there, but dark. Gets cold in the wintertime. Probably won’t miss it.” I don’t think he really knew what to make of this. He looked like he was about to end the conversation right there when a thought occurred to him.
“So, what do you do?” The question confused me. I did nothing.
“Think about things. Read, when I can. I like to sleep. Dream.” He laughed nervously and shook his head.
“No, I mean, you’re an Alter too, right? I mean, why else would you be here? What I want to know is what you can do.”
“Since they started giving me those injections every morning, I can’t do anything. But before that, I could have interesting dreams sometimes. I could heal people. And even with that poison in me, I still can’t die. Evidence has been collected.”
“Alright, let’s start over. I’m James Alessi. Once upon a time, I could see through walls. Sometimes, when I squinted, people in my line of sight got itching fits. What’s your name?” I contemplated his question. Certainly I had been Yvonne Mathis, at one point. But she died, I think. Now, the only people who called me that name were my captors. Shrugging, I picked a stick up off the ground and began breaking it apart.
“Call me what you like. My name means nothing to me anymore. I doubt that it’d mean much to you.” James rolled his eyes. Self-pity is hard when you’re the only one who takes it seriously.
“Alright, if you insist on being like this, then what can I do to cheer you up, Fyodor?” I was confused.
“Fyodor?” He seemed almost taken aback.
“What, you’ve never heard of Dostoevsky? Jesus, kids these days. No regard for the classics.”
“You don’t look much older than me.” He leaned back, grinning.
“But I bet you feel a lot older than I do.” I glared at him for what seemed like a very long time.
“It was my mistake for sitting down.” As I picked myself up, preparing to wander off to god knows where, I felt him put his hand on my arm.
“Wait.” His touch felt strange. Over the years I had come to associate human physical contact with pain, but there was a strange tingle as he grasped my forearm. It reverberated throughout my body before making its way back to his hand. I froze.
“Let go of me.” Turning, I saw that he was just as shocked as I was. There was an uncertainty in his eyes; it bothered me.
“You felt that too.” To me, it didn’t warrant thinking too hard about. Another side effect, perhaps.
“Let go of me.” It was at this moment that we both realized how much his grip had tightened. Shaking his head to expel the chills he had gotten, James released my arm and brushed the sweat off of his brow.
“Sorry, sorry. Lost my head there. But that wasn’t normal. I don’t know what you did, but it was-”
“Shut up,” I hissed, looking around to see if anyone had been paying attention to what had just happened. The other Alters were still going about their business (which is to say that they were waiting around to die) and the guards who dotted the camp seemed not to have noticed. A sigh of relief made its way past my lips, and I realized that a spark of hope had been ignited inside me.
“There are no guards inside the bunkhouses,” James said, having caught on. I nodded, only half paying attention. The right side of my face betrayed a smile. Due to nerve damage, the left side could not muster up the same amount of expression. It still felt good, though. The first thing in a long while to do so.
The bunkhouse that James led me to was really just an empty, long house whose doors locked from the outside. There were no windows, only a florescent light with no visible means of activation. The floor was made of uneven, knotted wood, but at least it was smooth.
“Where do you sleep?” He gave me a smirk from underneath his brow. I nodded, feeling quite the fool. A couple of seconds passed in silence before he started asking questions.
“So did you know you could do that? Even on the drugs? Could you do it before? And what does it mean? What did you do?” After a little while he caught on to the fact that I was in no way able to keep up with him. He stopped, though his impatience was palpable. “Well?”
“If you keep talking, you might eventually arrive at the right combination of words to answer your own questions.”
“Forgive me, I’ve just discovered the first ray of hope in my life since I got here. Enthusiasm tends to be a typical reaction to something like this, you may wish to take note.” For some reason I respected this answer.
“I can’t honestly tell you what happened. This sort of…thing, whatever it was, it’s new to me. Can’t even be sure if it signifies anything.”
“It has to. You don’t have magic massage powers, you’re a healer and a seer, and that didn’t look a lot like clairvoyance to me.” He had a point, but I was at a loss for where to go with it.
“What if I tried it again? Maybe something would have happened had it gone on for longer.” His answer was a smarmy grin.
“See? You perk right up under the correct circumstances. Guess you just needed a muse.” I rolled my eyes.
“Call me Erato. Well, don’t, actually, because I’m not really that into poetry. I do enjoy the odd filthy limerick, though.”
“Just be quiet and let me focus. It can’t be long until someone wanders in.” Meditation was a skill I had picked up trying to distract myself from pain. It also seemed that when my powers weren’t being suppressed, a meditative state helped them find the bridge between another and myself. Calming down, I let the void wash into me as all feelings, both positive and negative, left my body. For all anyone cared, I was the size of the universe itself and the size of an electron all at the same time. At this moment, I laid my hands upon James’ face and pictured my energy flowing into him through them. For a few minutes, we stayed like this. After about ten, I brought myself back.
“Didn’t feel it again. But, I should mention, my head has been clearing up a bit since you shocked me outside. Guess I should thank you for that, at least,” he said. I was unsatisfied.
“Maybe the circumstances weren’t right. What if-” I was interrupted by the arrival of several other Alters and a guard herding them in. He looked at the two of us.
“Alessi, maybe you should tell your new friend here that no one is allowed inside the bunkhouses during daylight unless we decide otherwise.”
“Sure thing, sure thing. I was just-”
“I don’t care,” the guard barked. Quickly, the two of us hustled outside, shutting the door behind us. After we were a safe distance away, I turned back to the bunkhouse and crossed my arms.
“What was that all about?” James seemed apprehensive. He shifted his mouth around before answering.
“A few days ago, someone escaped. He didn’t get very far until they found him and shot him, but Zane is still pissed. The guards have been narrowing down who could have helped him since then. Those last few must be the final suspects.” Truth be told, I had stopped paying too much attention after the word ‘escaped’ crossed his lips.
“So it can be done?” He grimaced. Obviously, I had gotten out of his explanation exactly what he had not wanted me to. Putting a hand up in ignorance, he answered.
“I’m really not the person to ask about this. Haven’t even been looking for an escape route since I got here. And might I remind you of the whole ‘they shot him’ part?”
“That doesn’t matter. There’s a way out of here. We’re finding it.” James now looked supremely nervous.
“Okay, okay, back up, McQueen. First off, keep your voice down. Second, you seem to be forgetting the whole ‘they shot him’ part. And third, they shot him.”
“You said that already.” James sighed.
“And you don’t talk to many people, do you? Listen, I want to go. Believe me. I have a family in New York, a son who is going to grow up without me and a laundry list of things I still wish I could have done. But I’m going to need a bit more to go on than this grim determination thing you’ve got going on. It’s inspiring, really, but I value my own life a bit too much to throw it away on some half-cocked un-plan cooked up by a traumatized teenager. We’ll get facts first.” I saw his point, disappointed to do so though I was.
“The facts. Yes.”
The Priestess leaned back against the wall, clearing her throat as I burned through my last cigarette. It became apparent after a few seconds that she was done.
“That’s it?” She took a very long breath and picked herself up, patting Mae and I on the shoulder as she headed out of the room.
“For now. The others are back. Remember: facts.” Incredulous, I threw my hands up in the air.
“Unbelievable. How long did that take for just a lesson in prudence? And where was your damn lesson when you were going to go rush off with a gun to your death two days ago?” She took a sharp breath.
“You wanted the story, remember? It just happened to end with a lesson, and will continue with others in time. And you are right, I admit I was compromised. But I see an opportunity now where there was none before. We have now a city full of resources for us, a city unbound by our enemies’ rule. Would it not be a good idea to utilize these resources? It’s doubtful that they’ll find us unless we do anything to draw attention to ourselves. In that time, we may focus on regrouping. Building ourselves.”
Mae said nothing but looked to me, her eyebrows raised. In the corner sat the gun I had taken off the dead operator. There sat a mirror mounted on the wall, and for the first time in far too long, I took a very good long look at myself. Gingerly, I walked towards the mirror, careful not to put any undue stress on my leg. Staring back at me through that looking glass was a person I had never met. His face was dirtied. His hair was now past the point of manageability and crudely slicked back. In his eyes I beheld the death of gods. His smile told me all the gory details.