Chapter 61

“Whatever it is, I’m in. What was that, a practice round?” demanded Slugger as we walked back to our sleeping quarters, his voice too low to be heard by others. “When’s the real fun start, I'm always in for a good skirmish?”

“The what?” I asked, glancing left and right, making sure no one else was close.

“The big shebang! When we all get outta here, the home run outta the park! I want in, and I deserve it after sticking up to Siri.”

“There is no big shebang, we had no part in the escape,” I answered, speeding up my walk. “Darian acted on his own.”

“And my father really did get lost on his way back from a pint,” retorted Slugger. “That story would have been far more believable if it was a dozen anyways, he always was plastered.”

“Really, I had no part in it Slugger. You can ask Darian all about it when they catch him again.”

“Besides, where the hell did he get a power like that? Did you see it?” continued Slugger, completely ignoring my comment. “Like an Electrospark and a Hurricaner had a baby!”

“Will you shut up!” I hissed back, and he clapped his hands.

“Ha! So you do know something!” he exclaimed, and poked his index finger into my ribcage. “Don’t you worry lad, I’ll keep your secret once I find it out!”

He kicked the back of my shoe, and I stumbled forward as he ran down the hall cackling.

“Hey, get back-” I started before I tripped again, my foot held in place by a shoe that now had the mass of several bowling balls, and dragged behind me has my cheek smashed into the cold tile. I jerked my leg forward but my heel only moved an inch, the shoe dragging laces side down and refusing to release its grip.

“Damn Momentive,” I cursed as the mass gradually eroded and my mobility was restored, the feeling like if an overweight adult was slowly shifting his weight away. But by now Slugger would have made it back to the sleeping quarters, and any talk would be overheard by several pairs of ears loyal to Siri.

And once the lights were out, and I closed my eyes, I found it impossible to sleep. Thoughts of Darian and Arial rolled through my head- wondering the condition that both of them were in, joining the usual thoughts of my mother. As snores started to fill the room, I felt habit takeover, and I crept from the room, slinking down the dark hallways until I was in front of the nurses office. There, the door was closed, the lights appearing off from the crack under the door, and no sound originating from within.

But in front, sat a single guard, his head nodding every few moments but his chair directly before the door knob. Without waking him up, there would be no entering.

Tip toeing backwards, I started to make my way back to the sleeping quarters, but stopped halfway, taking an abrupt right. I exited the still air of the facility for the breeze outside, shutting the door behind me with a soft click, and making my way around the perimeter of the school. Sticking close to the bushes and shadows to keep from being seen, I listened for any sounds besides the noise of far away traffic, and kept a steady pace forward until I reached the far back of the school. And there, feeling my way through the darkness, I found the crawlspace door that Darian, Lucio, and I had entered only a day before.

Slowly I crept inside, removing a dark sphere I had kept in the pocket above my wrist ever since Arial had fallen in case I needed to make a quick escape. And I let the light play out within the crawlspace, edging my way forward on all fours, avoiding dark puddles and cobwebs that were woven thicker than some of the discount shirts from my childhood. There was no true path, and the going was slow- moving too quick would dirty my clothes beyond cleaning, meaning there would be suspicion the next morning.

After several minutes and side tracking around several wooden beams that jutted into the earth with no sense of purpose, I came to what I what I was looking for- six pipes that extended from the ceiling, marking the student’s bathroom above, along with a single pipe several feet away that indicated the faculty restroom just across the hall. And there, just a dozen feet to the right, was a smaller pipe- one that would belong to a single sink, and nothing more.

The single sink of the nurse's office, where Arial would be staying.

Orienting myself just next to the pipe, so that I would be under the sink itself, I raised the black orb to the barrier separating the crawlspace from the inside of the school. And I began to feed the orb pieces of the floor above.

Chapter 62

Splinters of wood ripped away from the floor above, disintegrating as they flew into the dark orb, followed by tufts of insulation that streamed into the darkness like a river of cotton candy. Then came more wood, then tile, the orb eating into the ceramic like a drill, microcracks splitting away as the gravity drew the tile into the center.

Fresh air rushed through the hole, just before a torrent of bandage strips and adhesives that scattered through the crawlspace as I guided the sphere in a circle, cutting out a space just large enough for my torso. And above, as the remainder of the material fell to the ground, two doors appeared through the darkness. Tucking the sphere in the pocket above my wrist, I reached upwards, and slowly pushed one open and climbed through the gap, extinguishing the light to be in full darkness.

I held my breath as I entered the room through the cabinet under the sink, the creak of the hinges the only noise besides light breathing, my knees dragging against the cold tile as I inched forwards. Slowly to minimize the noise I closed the door, then stood, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, staring for any shapes that vaguely resembled anything human. Seeing nothing, I released the orb from within the pocket above my wrist, teased out the light, and let it play over the room.

And there I saw her, sleeping the farthest of the three beds and the sole occupant of the room, her chest rising and falling in deep breaths, her hair tousled over half her face, her wrist handcuffed to the metal bed frame, and her clothes the same as when she had fallen. She stirred as the light fell over her face, and I quickly retracted it, my ears too aware of the soft snoring of the guard that had started from outside the door.

“Wha?” Arial slurred, her voice soft in the darkness, the sheets rustling as she shifted. “Who’s there?”

I crossed the room in three steps, practically leaping towards her, and dropping my voice to a whisper.

“Shh, Arial, it’s SC. Keep your voice down, others will hear. Are you ok?”

“Oh SC,” she giggled, turning in the darkness. “SC the Boreal, what strange dreams I’ve been having. Show me that light again, will you? It was so beautiful the first time.”

“Do you promise to be quiet?”

“Of course SC, no one can hear us in dreamland anyways.”

I cupped my hands, holding the dark sphere between them, and teased out light that projected onto the ceiling, streams crossing back and forth like shooting stars traveling from wall to was as if the plaster were the sky.

“I knew it was true,” Arial breathed. “I knew it. How can you do that, SC?”

“Soon, but not yet I’ll tell you Arial,” I answered, keeping her attention on the lights. “But first, how are you? Are you ok? Can you wiggle your fingers?”

“Of course I can,” she said, and raised a hand. “See? Why wouldn’t I be able to?”

“From your fall, Arial, I was worried," I whispered back. "I wanted to make sure you were healing.”

“My fall? What do you mean by- Oh God,” she gasped, and I saw one of her hands rush to her neck as the other reached the end of its handcuff restraint. “My mother! Where is she? Oh God, what have I done?”

Tears started streaming down her face as she looked left and right, straining to see through the darkness, and I put my hand on her arm.

“Arial, she’s ok, calm down. Quiet, keep quiet or we’ll have trouble!”

“You don’t understand, SC. That healing, it’s not free- not in the slightest! I’ve killed her, SC,” her fingers wrapped around mine, squeezing my knuckles so hard they hurt, her nails digging into my palm, and I resisted wrenching my hand away.

“It will be ok, Arial, she’ll come back! Just like when her hair turned grey after fixing the cup, when I saw her again it was gone.”

“No SC, you don’t understand,” Arial said, her grip growing even tighter, “She can’t recover from this. What she gave is gone. Do you know the truth about Menders? About what they really are?”

“What do you mean? They just have the ability to repair, right. That’s what makes them Menders!”

“No, it’s more than that," she answered, her voice too loud for comfort. "Menders aren’t created under very specific circumstances, Menders survive very specific circumstances. You see, SC, Menders do not fix items for free- they give up energy. That energy has to come from somewhere. And on their minute of their birth, Menders cling to life just by their fingertips.”

“Yes, I realize that. Then their doctor dies later, which makes them become a Mender.”

“No, SC, that part’s not true! They’re already Menders from the minute of birth, when they are born broken. And the first thing they have to fix are themselves! But as babies on the brink of death, they have no energy to give. So they borrow that energy, or rather take it, from a willing donor. From someone who would give their life to save them. From the doctor, who in the right circumstances, wishes their survival above all else in the world. That’s why the doctor dies- it doesn’t cause a Mender, it’s the effect of a Mender! And the Mender carries that energy with them their entire life, surviving off the coattails of their predecessor.”

Arial took a deep breath, a fresh set of tears flowing down her face, taking a minute to regain composure before continuing.

“SC, fixing things like a broken cup only takes the temporary energy that is used by everyone on a daily basis, and only lets the life force behind it, that of the doctor, shine through temporarily. But what my mother did for me,” Arial swallowed, fighting to keep speaking. “What she did for me was such an enormous fix that it went past it. Just as the doctor gave his life force for her, she gave it up for me. And in doing so, she lost years, decades, if she’s still alive now. Time that I stole away, that’s all my fault.”

Chapter 63

I stayed with Arial until she fell back asleep, the time short as the pain medication Siri had placed her on demanded back her consciousness. I wondered if she would remember me in the morning, if the comforting words I had given her after she revealed the nature of her mother’s power would remain, or if they would be washed away. And as I climbed back into the cabinet once I was sure she had fallen asleep, placing a pile of towels on top of the opening to seal it, I had one reason to smile.

That her mother’s mending had not only repaired her physically, but seemed to reach into her mind as well, pulling away the influence of Siri upon her.

I completed the walk back to the sleeping quarters quickly and in silence, the news of Arial’s mother only giving me more reason to hope that my plan had worked. That Darian would be traveling soon with the Hunter to whatever Siri didn’t want him to see, together they could expose her, and with her, the facility.

And everything would return to the way it had been before my mother had been taken.

It was Thursday before we received the signal from Darian. And at lunch, Lucio had started to doubt it.

“He’s probably gone,” Lucio had said, flicking a pea off his plate in an arc aimed for Blake across the room. “He wanted to leave all this time, there’s no reason for him to come back.”

“He’ll make it Lucio, we had a deal,” I answered. “Maybe he won’t stay afterwards, but we can at least trust his word until then. And afterwards, where else would he go?”

“Can’t say I know, but seems like he always wants to be somewhere else. So just not here, I guess. Besides, you're not the one who has to sleep each night with a towel wrapped around his head like a turban to drown out the singing,” he sighed and rubbed his temple, before continuing. "It won't work much longer, by the way. Barely works now. Every few minutes I get a stray thought about wanting to be a good citizen and it makes me want to puke."

“As long as it keeps it at bay for the next day or two, it's a success. By then Darian will make it, I promise. And afterwards, maybe we can give him a reason to stay,” I said, my voice far more confident than I felt. “Not just Darian, but you too, Lucio. This will all be for nothing if we just get caught again after and sent to another facility. Hell, if we let other facilities like this exist, we’d be guilty ourselves.”

“So what do you want to do about it?” he asked, leaning forward. "Infiltrate them from the inside too?"

“Let’s focus on scraping this one off the map first, then we’ll make plans for the others. Maybe they are better, but I have a strong feeling it isn’t the case.”

When Darian's signal came it arrived as a memory, one that flashed into my mind as I walked the inner perimeter of the force field after dinner, performing chores as near as I could to the edge of the facility. Lucio worked the other end, both of us having traded our dinners for the privilege of swapping chores with other students.

The memory was unlike any Lucio had sent- where Lucio’s were carefully crafted and implanted to flow with a stream of consciousness, this was jarring. A single red number that filled my field of vision, with a single word scrawled beneath it in Darian’s handwriting. Flecks of other colors and images floated in the darkness, pieces of intrusive thoughts or emotions from Darian’s own mind. And as it dissipated, it left a searing headache and red stars that crawled across my other memories for several minutes.

3, Tree

The remainder of that night passed at a trickling pace, the chores dragging along slower than I thought possible, and my eyes forced wide open deep into the night. Their lids dragged downwards with the weight of the prior night’s lack of sleep, each blink ascending at a decreased rate, and I wished for power of a Narcolept. The snores and uncomfortable bedding aided my efforts, and taking advantage of the cold floor combined with no pillow I forced my mind to stay conscious, biting my lip every time I felt a particularly strong wave of drowsiness. Pinching my leg or adjusting my breathing to stay alert.

Three was all I had to wait until- three more hours of putting off sleep until I met with Darian, then I could relax for three more hours after that. Perhaps feign sickness in the morning, though I doubted it would excuse me from classes. Under Siri’s influence, even those with strong cases of the flu dogged through workouts, the moisture on their skin a mix of sick clamminess and physically induced sweat.

All I had to do was stay awake until three.

And at four, my eyes shot open as I gasped, leaping upwards and rushing out of the room, nearly stubbing my toe on the other sleeping shapes in the darkness. I streaked out the door, soaking my shoes as I splashed through puddles from rain earlier in the night, praying that Darian would still be waiting. And knowing that if he had departed, he had still fulfilled his end of the deal, and he might be gone forever.

I reached the Rhododendron in seconds, staring through the fence to see only roots occupying the ground, with no sign of Darian. I cursed, a slight breeze casting the insult back in my face, my eyes watering with a mix of frustration and sheer exhaustion. Then I turned, kicking a rock so it skidded across the lawn and tapped the side of the school, and jumped as I heard a voice from the branches high above.

“You’re late!” chastised Darian, leaves shielding his body. “We don’t have much time, and there’s a lot to tell. Hurry- I’m literally half asleep. And I mean literally.”

Chapter 64

Darian groaned as he dropped from a branch high above, shimmying down until he reached the trunk and before jumping the rest of the way to the ground. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, stretching, and squinted at me before walking over.

“Thought the message didn’t,” he started, then paused, yawning again and shaking his head. “Didn’t get through. Damn, can’t clear my head. Listen SC, if you don’t understand any of this, just have me repeat it. Half of my consciousness is still at that hotel they have me holed up at- met a Doubler on the waitstaff a few hours back and picked up the power, so there’s another identical me sleeping in the hotel bed. Except I was supposed to stay awake, so I’m pretty pissed at other me right now.”

“I understand the feeling,” I said, thinking back to the reason I had showed up late.

“Yeah, well most Doublers are able to split their body without much consequence, but this one must have been a pretty-,” he blinked twice, his eyes moving out of focus, then continued. “Pretty low powered specimen. Only one of my ears works right now, had to leave the functionality of the other one behind. And other me is blind as well. Damn, no wonder the hotel service sucked, guy would have been better off sticking to one body. Probably would’ve remembered the no onions on the steak. Typical.”

“So it worked then?” I whispered, checking behind me to ensure the school yard was still empty. “They bought it?”

“Oh they bought it, alright. They bought everything. Top notch room, surf and turf, unfortunately the onions, the-”

“Not the hotel or the food- the rest of the plan! My mother! Did you find her?”

“Oh, that,” said Darian, waving a hand. “Getting to that now. Yeah SC, something's up. Something big, though we only caught a whiff. But it definitely smells.”

“And?” I asked, leaning forwards.

“Relax, SC, or I’ll think you left your patience behind just like I did,” continued Darian. “Anyways, here’s everything since the start. Ready?”

“Spill,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

And Darian started, pausing every minute or so to gain composure, and even letting a full snore out twice.

DARIAN

Last I saw you was when I was being carted away, with the tree limbs binding me, and slung over the officer’s shoulders. I could’ve broken free, as you know, but I didn’t- like you said, I let them take me. And when the inquisition started, I didn’t give up a word to the cops or the Hunter.

At first, I was afraid that they were going to try to use powers against me. But when I threatened to squeal if I ever made my way back Siri, they backed off real fast. Nothing like arming Siri with a potential abuse case, right? Anyways, I refused to talk, and the only relevant power in the room was a Truther.

After six hours they let me out of the room, finally agreeing to try to win me over instead of trying to scare me. That’s where dinner came in, as well as the room. And this morning I let them crack me. And this is where Lucio’s memories came in useful.

When I spilled that Peregrine had a top secret project in the same place he was keeping Arial, which was where he was keeping your power as well, the Truther verified my statement as accurate. After all, they were my memories, thanks to Lucio. Since all I claimed was that I remembered them, not that they happened, there was no lie to be found. And I claimed that only I would be able to recognize you, since Peregrine had several students loyal to him but I had been the only one to actually see you use powers. Because you were forbidden to use your powers, none of the other students actually knew you existed.

They left the room then, though I could hear them outside. Talking about how they knew that something was going on in the rehabilitation cents, how each year their recruits seemed less skilled than in the past. But none of them knew how to find out what exactly was happening. And none of them wanted to give Siri any means to suspect they were actively investigating- the police were adamant on this, some even suggesting they throw me back onto the streets and deny any interaction ever occurred.

It took them ten minutes to realize, however, that while your power couldn’t be traced, Peregrines could. And the Hunter verified that, at that moment, he could feel it- a trace, but still something, coming from the distance. Without a warrant, it would be unlawful for the police to track down Peregrine- but they came to the shaky conclusion Hunter was not employed by the police, and what he did without the police’s knowledge was his own decision.

So The Hunter came back in the room, and managed to bribe me to accompany him on a small trip. Kept promising me more and more if I came with him, and eventually I caved at a semester of college tuition he offered to pay because of the importance of a proper education to our city's impoverished youth. Doubt I’ll see a dime of that, but anyways, it worked. In an hour, the police removed my handcuffs and discharged me, something they later would chalk up to an accident and allow them to readmit me. Just outside the station, a car pulled up, one that would have appeared to any bystander to be offering me a free ride. Of course, it was a little nicer than any car that I should have stepped into, a lot nicer, but the police had given me fresh clothes to replace the uniform I wore. New, and provided by The Hunter himself, so I wouldn’t stand out as someone of low status as I stepped inside his car.

Then we started driving- and SC, no wonder Arial wanted to stay at the facility. Riding with that man for over five minutes was unbearable, and we drove thirty. Can’t imagine having spent over a decade with him. Sometimes makes you appreciate not having a father of your own.

Anyways, SC, we drove in circles for thirty minutes not because it was that far away - we could actually walk there from the facility without much difficulty. No, rather it was because the Hunter was lost and couldn't quite catch the full scent, for reasons I found out just afterwards. So remember, if you’re ever on the run again, we don’t have to put you in another facility to mask your power. There's another way.

We just have to bury you.

Chapter 65      

DARIAN

I spent some years growing up in the ghetto, so I felt at home as we investigated. But it became pretty obvious that The Hunter was getting nervous- he has this tick, you know, where he carries a folding comb and runs it through his hair. I swear, once we turned on Crescent Street, he was folding and unfolding it more times than I could count. Anyways, we circled Crescent five or six times, and with a car as nice as his we got plenty of stares. His hubcaps alone were probably more valuable than anything in that neighborhood.

He insists that we park five blocks away and walk the rest, and he’s zig zagging through main streets to avoid any side alleys. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if he’d had a run in with some of the Crescent Street inhabitants at some point while working with the police, so he was probably worried that one of them would recognize him. They are a really seedy bunch even by my standards- I’d say more people live on the sidewalks of Crescent Street than in the buildings, and they have their own economy based on cigarettes and shopping carts.

The Hunter pulled out a baseball hat and sunglasses when we finally had to turn onto Crescent street, and he combed out the ‘hat hair’ for a good three minutes when we returned to the parking garage later. Unlike the zig zags when we were in the car, he beelined straight to a gated off building towards the heart of the street, avoiding a herd of dumpster cats and beggars that started following us.

Not sure if you remember this SC, but around ten years ago there was a plan to develop a subway stop on Crescent and a few side streets. Anyways, when the new mayor was elected, the funding was pulled for the project when it was eighty percent complete- apparently, some of the more affluent neighborhoods didn’t want those people for Crescent having easy transportation into their side of the city, so a few lobbyists managed to nix the completion.

He leads me down into the station, and the first thing I notice is that the lights are on. Strange, since it’s supposed to be abandoned, but the escalators were broken so we walked down them like stairs. A few of the doors had been boarded up, but many of them were smashed through, and in some of the side shops street merchants had set up small operations moving illegal items. The Hunter and I couldn't have stood out more- with our clothes, it was pretty obvious we didn’t belong. So he finds a side hallway and we walk down that, then duck into a maintenance passageway which empties onto the track.

There was never any rail, and the siding isn’t finished, but the track is walkable. We took it through the station, ducking low since it was receded so no one could see us, and the entire time he’s moving like an arrow down the track. After a few minutes he stops, does a three sixty, and starts poking around the gravel under the track. But there’s nothing there, and he’s looking more confused. Keeps pacing up and down, muttering how he can feel it, but there’s nothing there but dark tunnel and rats.

Eventually he decides that wherever the power is coming from, it’s not that tunnel, but rather somewhere close. So he decides he’s going to check that and see what else might be next door- something like a basement or a sewer system, since he knows someone at the city permit office who has access to the blueprints of the infrastructure under the city. Based on how this city is run, I doubt he’ll have much luck, and he didn’t look happy either. I’d thought I heard some profanities on the streets, but that man knows how to curse. Eventually he gives up, and we backtrack, being careful not to be seen.

But here’s where it gets interesting, SC.

When I mimic powers, I get a sense of how strong they are based on how many I can carry at once. If there’s a stronger power, it takes up more space inside me, and pushes the others out. Things like Lucio’s or the Hunter’s powers take up almost no space, since those are more skill based, and much harder for me to replicate. But high power Flamethrowers, Electrosparks, Hurricaners, or anything that really has oomph to it weighs me down. Typically they’re easy to absorb as well, since they’re practically spilling over the edges of their wielders.

The powers I hold degrade overtime and I’d been looking to refresh some of my powers in case things got ugly again at the police station. And that’s when I noticed that one of the people we passed in the station used a spark from his finger to light a cigarette. So I picked the power up, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the strongest electrospark I ever felt. And I kept doing it- anyone we passed that showed any power I absorbed, and each time there was the same result.

That station, SC, is crawling with high powered specials like it has an infestation, dressed like they’re beggars or gang members. Somethings up, and there’s enough energy bottled up in there to turn that station to dust several times over, or blow it up to your birthplace.

Chapter 66

“Darian,” I said, the words coming slow as he finished his story. “What was at the end of that tunnel if you kept going?”

“Eh, nothing,” Darian answered, waving a hand, and squinting at me with one eye, “Just looked pretty dark and kept going. Nothing interesting at least.”

“But did you check?” I pressed, my breath quickening.

“Check for what? Looked empty from where I stood, couldn’t really see much. No reason to keep moving. We were busy, you can't expect us to check everywhere.”

I laughed, and he yawned before speaking again, his voice irritated. “What’s so funny? We didn’t find anything.”

“Oh, but you did!” I exclaimed, a smile wide on my face. “Because for me, you finding nothing where there should be something is better than finding something where there should be nothing!”

“I’m not following, SC. Break it down for me, I'm only half listening.”

“Get some sleep, Darian, and touch back with us soon. I’ll explain later. But what matters is we know where my mother is. Now all we have to do is fetch her,” I bit my lip to stop it from quivering with excitement, and paced, my mind racing with possibilities.

“You wouldn’t stand a shot down there, SC. Even with a power like yours, you’re sorely outmatched. It’d be like walking into a tsunami.”

“We’ll see. I’ve got an idea- I need to sleep on it, but I think it will work. Are you sure you weren’t seen going down the tunnel, by the way?”

“Certain,” he answered. “At least from what I could tell. Unless there was someone invisible or something, but typically I notice those powers if they’re around me long enough.”

“Good,” I answered. “Then surprise is on our side. And Darian, make sure you keep The Hunter busy. Drop some hints, or say you know more than you’re letting on. The last thing we need is for him to make it on the school grounds through legal action on his own. We only need a few days. Wait here, by the way- I'll fetch Lucio, you'll need to scrub the Siri from his head.”

“You wanted in?” I asked, sidling up to Slugger the next day as he washed the dishes after dinner, picking up a rag to dry and stack the plates beside him. Cleaning the Upper plates came first, and the amount left over on them was more than what had started on the Bottoms. The amount of waste was almost enough to dampen my mood.

“Well technically, I want out of here lad, I'm knackered," he answered, turning his face away as he hit the garbage disposal button and a small geyser of water erupted in the sink. “But yes, I do. You have a new plan? Hopefully your noodle came up with something better than the last, since only one of ya actually made it.”

“I do, but you’ve got a pretty strong role in it. I’ll need full commitment,” I dropped the dish I was drying on top of the pile, the clank adding weight to the response.

“Look, if you can get me over that wall, I’m all business. I’ll miss the dishes dearly, truly I enjoy being manky, but I think I’ll make it on the outside,” he stopped washing, turning to face me, his eyebrows raised.

“It’s more than just getting over that wall,” I answered. “If you’re joining us, you’re not just getting out. You’re sticking it to the people who got you in here, and it’s going to be dangerous. Real dangerous.”

“Oh no, you’re going to sweeten the deal with revenge?" he said and threw his hands up in mock dismay. "SC, shut up ya stook, now I’m doubling down. How do we begin?”

“Well, for starters, I’m going to need you to be an asshole. Like, even more of one than normal. Smartass levels will have to be off the charts.”

Slugger laughed and rolled his eyes, then stopped when he saw my face remained serious, and that I waited for an answer.

“Lad, in Ireland there’s a breed of dog called the setter. You know what a setter does? It’s bred generation by generation for a single specific purpose in hunting, for fowling. Each time it’s bred, the best of the past generation are matched up, over and over, until what’s left is tip top. The best genetics, all geared towards a specific purpose.”

Slugger puffed up his chest and raised his chin, then continued.

“See me? I’m like the setter, but my lineage trait is jackasses. You couldn’t have picked a better man. I'm bred for it, and I consider it an art.”

I hid a smile, fighting to keep my face businesslike, then made my final request.

“Perfect. And two more things, Slugger. I’m going to need you to stop being a Bottom, think you can win your next match?”

“I’ve challenged Brianna, should be over real quick,” he snapped his fingers. “Not like last time. No cheating this time around, and she can’t just blow me out of the ring. Does this mean I’m actually going to be able to get a nights sleep in this hell hole?”

“Actually,” I answered and paused. “You’re going to get less of it. A lot less of it.”

Chapter 67

“We’re planning on staying Bottoms?” complained Lucio as we prepared for bed. The next day was the tournament, and the other students had serious expressions on their faces, working to finish chores early and catch as much sleep as possible. Knowing that a good fight could completely flip their quality of life by providing warm dinners and a reasonable sleep schedule. And that a bad fight would erode the already microscopic amount of hope they had left.

“That’s right,” I answered. “But not for much longer. Think you can you manage that?”

“Since you don’t expect me to win a fight tomorrow I’m all game!” responded Lucio through a foam of toothpaste, flecks of it flying onto the mirror. “Because after this, I’ll be wiped. We’ll be lucky if I can stand.”

“Just do what you can, and remember, you don’t have to clean them as much as you did for Darian and me. We just need some original thoughts flowing through their heads again, just enough to peek through. Enough to make Siri nervous, and to force her hand.”

“I won’t have to fix any Uppers, right?" Lucio asked. "Siri has personal conversations with them, trying to clean their minds would be worst than a ballpark restroom neglected all season.”

“No, not yet at least. Just Bottoms for now. I remember when you did it to me, though- it was pretty unpleasant. Can you do it while they're sleeping?” I frowned, hoping that this minor detail I had overlooked would not have significance.

“As long as you only need a light brushing, and not a full sweep, it shouldn’t be a problem. Mind you, not easy, but after doing this for the last few weeks I know where the sensitive areas are. Besides, I’m much better than we started. This place may suck, and Darian might not agree with this statement, but I think I’ve actually learned something. And for that I commend them!”

He rinsed and we made our way to the sleeping quarters, watching as the students drifted off into fitful sleep. Some had their eyes closed to focus as instructor Cane had told them- planning each of their moves, running through potential scenarios, imagining the reactions of their opponents and then their own counter reactions. Repeating over and over again in their minds that they were better than their opponent- that if they couldn't overpower them, they would outsmart them, and if they couldn't outsmart them, they would try harder than them. But soon their chests eventually began to fall with the tell tale steady rhythm of deep sleep, and in the darkness Lucio, Slugger, and I stood and crept towards the back of the room.

“Look, like I said, I think I can do this without waking them,” whispered Lucio, rubbing an eye. “But in case I’m wrong, I’ll need you to restrain them. If everyone wakes up, the plans out the window, got it?”

“Understood,” responded Slugger, squinting in the darkness. “And I can help by making their clothes heavier, which will help keep them passed out. What’s the point of this, if they’re going to just fall under Siri’s spell again later tonight?”

“Siri doesn’t sing the night before fights,” I said, then glanced towards the door. “And anyways, once Lucio starts tidying a mind, it’s easier for him to do it a second time. Even if she were to sing again we would have the upper hand.”

“Just as it’s easier for Siri to rope them back in when bits of song are still echoing around their cranial chambers,” added Lucio. “Alright, let’s get started. It’s going to be a long night. Especially if I have to do this all again tomorrow.”

“Do it well enough this time, and you won’t,” I answered. “But my bet is on day three, she cracks.”

“Her and me both,” sighed Lucio, and bent over one of the sleeping bodies.

Slugger ran his fingers around the outer layer of their clothes and the breathing became slower, the wrinkles in the fabric disappearing as it stretched downwards. As I held my hand a few inches above the student’s mouth in case they awakened, Lucio started.

From the outside there was little to see. Every few seconds, the student’s face would flicker with an emotion, or they would draw a sharp breath, but Lucio would take a step backwards, waiting for them to make a full recovery, then start again. Pushing them right against the edge of awakening but never past it, though once or twice we had to wait a full five minutes for deep sleep to resume.

“Alright,” he concluded, his voice strained, a bead of sweat dripping down his nose to splash on the concrete floor. “That’s one. Best I can do, SC, before I start tugging at some deep memory roots. And now,” he continued, glancing around the room where the rest of the bodies waited, the corners of his mouth turning to a frown. “Only one dungeon left of Sleeping Beauties to go.”

Chapter 68

“Halfway there,” groaned Lucio as he straightened up over the most recent sleeping body. “You promised me a break SC, let’s take it.”

“Sure, it’s about time Slugger and I moved on,” I answered, stretching and yawning. “You have what I asked you for, Slugger?”

“Oh I do,” he answered, smiling. “Stashed it outside, right where it belongs. Now let’s put it where it doesn’t.”

Seconds later we were outside, creeping back towards the outside crawlspace, until Slugger threw upon the door and pulled out a shoebox taped along the seam and several small holes poked into the top. He shook it lightly, just enough so that I could hear small objects sliding around within, followed by a chorus of chirping and buzzing that lingered as we walked back towards the door. We waited a moment for the contents to settle before we re-entered the facility, moving slowly on a path that I hadn’t taken since I had been an Average.

Half the night had passed when we arrived at the door into the Average rooms, and I opened it slowly, putting pressure against the frame to prevent it from creaking. Tip toeing past each of the dorms, Slugger cracked open the box and gave it a hearty shake inside each of the doors, loosing a generous amount of the crawling, chirping, and flying contents into each. While the rooms were not tiny, they were small enough that the creepers would be noticed quickly. And Slugger aimed for the beds.

“I aimed for a good mix,” said Slugger as we returned to Lucio. “Some bumblebees, lots of ants, centipedes, crickets, katydids, and generally any other sort of nuisance. Almost had a mouse but they're better fed than the Bottoms, took off before I could get my hands around it. That crawlspace was a goldmine for the things. And it doesn’t matter if they don’t affect the entire dorm- they just have to affect one of the lads, and they’ll wake the rest right on up.”

“That’s the plan,” I responded, entering the Bottom sleeping chamber. “I don’t want any of them catching a wink of sleep. Now, Lucio, ready to start back up?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, SC,” came the voice from a figure crouched against the wall as he stirred. “Drying my power up like a raisin.”

“Just make sure you save enough to wake up in the morning,” I answered, and we started again, working our way through the remaining bodies and finishing without delay. Then we settled down to pass out, taking advantage of the few hours left until daybreak. And in my sleep, a dream began. One discussed by Lucio and I several hours before, featuring the means that each the Bottoms had to be promoted. And one that Lucio projected over the sleeping room like one of his movies, infecting the mind of everyone present with the same memory.

“Now listen up!” shouted instructor Cane in the dream, jabbing a finger towards me. “Look here, of all the Bottoms, I know you’ve got a damn good shot at becoming an Average. That's right, you in particular. Hell,” he said, with a trace of pride in his eye. “You might just ascend the entire way to Upper."

He paused, wiping away a tear, then continued.

“Now, remember, have faith in yourself. Remember the moves that I taught you. Remember your confidence, your strategy, and the weakness of your opponent. Walk into that arena knowing that you are the stronger player. That you are the winner. I know you are, but do you?

“So say goodbye to dishes and shit sleeping conditions. Say farewell to meals that barely fend away the pangs of hunger for an hour. And fight for all your worth. This is survival, and I know you’re ready. I know you'll win, that you're better, no matter what they say.

“So go out there,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder, and squeezing it with reassurance. “And prove to me that you’re the warrior I’ve trained you to be.”

In my sleep I smiled, along with the other Bottom students. And when we awoke the next day, there was a sense of purpose to each of them, a source of motivation that had not been there the night before. A sense of excitement rather than dread. A belief that, even as a bottom, they might just win. That the were worth far more than the label Siri had placed upon them.

We gathered in the second gym after breakfast, staring at the bracket posted on the wall, with energy from the dream still coursing through our bodies with each heartbeat. The Uppers arrived afterward, making their way to the cushioned seats, and looking at us down their long noses. And the Averages followed them into the room, with bags under their eyes and feet dragging on the ground, and several covered in red bumps that had not been present the prior day.

Anticipation filled the room as Siri and the instructors arrived last. And as Siri picked up the microphone, the Bottoms held their collective breaths.

“Time to prove yourself once more,” she announced, standing at the center of the arena. “You know the rules, and you know the challenge placed before you. And you know the consequences of inferiority, and the rewards of supremacy.”

She scanned the crowd, and rose the microphone back to her lips to speak once more.

“Time to prove to me what you're worth.”

Chapter 69

“Time to stop with all the chores!” shouted Anna, a low powered Laseret, as she pointed a finger at Siri that made a red dot appear on her blue suit, then immediately clapped a hand over her mouth. A smoldering spot the size of a cigarette burn remained just above one of Siri’s buttons, which was near the full extent of Anna’s power. Shock streaked across Siri’s face to match the stammering Anna, and the auditorium held its breath.

“I’m- I’m sorry,” managed Anna, tears brimming as she bit down on her lip. “I didn’t mean, I don’t know what happened, I didn’t-”

“Match one,” interrupted Siri, partially recovering but still appearing as if she had been slapped, and ignoring Anna’s words. “Fighters report to the judge table.”

No one stood as Siri backed away, her gaze lingering on Anna with eyes once solid steel but now shaken. Instead the silence descended like a blanket, holding the crowd still, and insulating any action.

“Match one!” snapped Siri, command returning to her voice, “Now.”

After the first week when several Bottoms fought each other before making their way into the Average bracket, the Bottoms had coordinated who they would challenge prior to submissions. And now, that meant that no Bottoms versus Bottoms fights would occur, and their bracket would be skipped entirely.

Anthony descended the steps to be met by Lola the Transient, her soles absorbing the sound of the loose wood planks, and her figure catching little attention. Eyes tended to look through Lola- not just for her small stature, or her tendency to avoid social contact, but for the appearance of her skin as well. Those parts that were visible were slightly transparent, taking on the hue of the objects behind her, almost as if she were a chameleon.

I’d been surprised to see Lola among the bottoms- with an immunity to the effects of a wide array of high power types, Transients typically floated towards positions at the top of society as surely as their wallets weighed them downwards. Their ability to walk unfazed through the hottest fires, or the coldest nights, or even a hurricane as if it were a cloudy day earned them their nickname as Ghosts, as energy simply passed through them. For the highest powered, it was as if they were not there at all.

I remembered Lola’s aptitude test given by instructor Lynns, and how pain had flashed across her face when he held any flame larger than a lighter’s lowest setting under her outstretched hand. And even Lynns found it difficult to hide disappointment when he demonstrated that Transients with brighter shadows were the strongest, and Lola’s proved near indistinguishable from any of ours.

But while Lola’s powers were ill suited towards any attacks of heavy substance, there was at least one material that they made her invulnerable against.

Air. Or more suitably, wind.

When Siri started the match, Lola walked forwards with steps timed as carefully as a metronome, her skin sliding into a more transparent state. She sank into the earth nearly to her ankles, or rather the dirt sank into her, as no footsteps followed behind. Anthony smiled from the other end of the arena, conjuring up his strongest blast of air, and following the same tactic that had won his match against slugger- to blow her out of the ring.

The torrent struck Lola head on, her clothes flapping while her hair remained perfectly still, and from my seat I could see the majority of her clothes had been turned into mesh. Hundreds of tiny holes peppered the garments, letting the wind pass through with minimal effect. And at Anthony’s second but more powerful strike her feet only paused for a half beat.

“Gives me the creeps,” commented Lucio, watching as Lola reached Anthony. “That’s one reason I don’t want to visit the mountains, SC. Dozens of those ghosts crawling over the peaks, blending in with the mist. Hell, I heard a story once there’s entire villages up there you can’t even see, because they’re so powerful you can’t interact with them. What’s worse, they can’t interact with you.”

“Oi, what if they’re here right now, just watching us?” added Slugger from behind us.

“Slugger does your power give you the ability for making conversations heavy too?” snapped Lucio as he shivered. “And here we go, looks like that’s point one!”

Lola reared back for a punch, and her hand was stopped well before the disbelieving Anthony by a guard's forcefield. But her fist slid through it, and the second guard raised his hand to generate another field, which slowed her fingers but stopped short of halting it. A third force field generated just in front of Anthony’s nose and stopped the her short, though by this point her momentum was so little it would have just brushed against the tip.

“Spoiled the fun, they should’ve let that one through, he deserves a black eye for the way he scrapped,” complained Slugger as the buzzer sounded.

“That’d be much more than a black eye,” I answered, watching as Lola’s arm retracted. “We’re talking severe internal damage. I bet her knuckles would have passed through his nose as if it wasn’t there. Makes you wonder, Lucio, if one of your village people could punch straight through you to come out the other side.”

Lucio shivered again before responding. “Doesn’t matter SC, if they punch through me they won’t interact with anything.”

“Won’t interact much with anything,” I corrected, as the match below continued. “But I bet you there's still enough force in that hit to scramble your insides like soup. Probably wouldn’t even feel anything, you’d just notice once your kidneys and liver put in their two week’s notice.” 

Chapter 70

Antony fell without scoring a single point- each time Lola approached no amount of wind could sway her, and two weeks of learning martial arts with Instructor Cane had trained her well enough to avoid any of the clumsy punches he lobbed in her direction. Five minutes later, Antony sat several rows ahead of us, several feet away from any of the other Bottoms and taking care avoid looking at any of them. Refusing to admit that he now was one of them.

The next few Bottom matches were close, but each time the Bottoms prevailed. With the advantage of choosing their opponents, as well as the fitful night of sleep that dulled the Averages reaction times, their chances of winning were severely improved. Averages steadily trickled into the bleachers to join Antony or take solidarity in other unoccupied regions, and the curse words soon became as ubiquitous as the hushed conversations in the stands.

“Well, here I go lads,” said Slugger when Siri called match five. “Don’t have too much fun without me, will ya? And SC, let me know when we’re ready to go.”

“Will do. And Slugger, no more than three hours a night, understood?”

“Oi, I got you. Just hurry up, won’t ya? Half the appeal of being an Average is scoring a damn mattress. Shame I can't even take advantage of it.”

Then Slugger descended, his match against Brianna beginning nearly as soon as he stepped in the arena. It was mercilessly quick, with none of the bravado of when he had faced Antony- picking up the same pylon, he defeated Brianna before she could approach close enough for contact, even tapping her ten feet upwards like a pop fly when she tried to jump him.

He nodded to us as he made his way to the Average bleachers, while a dejected Brianna resumed her position as Bottom. Several more matches passed, the outcomes still favoring Bottoms, until every bottom except Lucio and me had been replaced. Like Lucio’s match the week before, we had both let our opponents win, but had each scored two points and had chosen opponents from the upper end of the Average pool to make it believable.

“I’d call that a success,” remarked Lucio as the Average versus Average matches began, “Are you sure it was a good idea to stay Bottoms though?”

“Positive,” I answered. “We need to cycle through as many students as possible, and it's much easier once everyone is in the same room. This way, we can control it. And Lucio, save some energy for tonight, we’ll need one Upper as well.”

“Not a good idea SC, it’s going to get ugly.”

“It’s necessary,” I said, turning to face him. “We need to create a outbreak, a viral infection. And the only way we can do that is if it’s at all levels.”

“As long as I get the sleep you’re taking from Slugger, I’m in,” he answered. “Think you can get him to do my chores at night?”

“Might as well,” I said, cracking a smile as I looked towards Slugger. “Somethings gotta keep him up!”

We paid little attention to the remainder of the matches, Lucio and I taking turns napping between bouts, nudging each other if Siri’s stare turned our way. But she seemed too preoccupied to notice us- at the start of the matches, loud conversations had broken out among the Bottoms that Lucio had cleansed. And now, those Bottoms were among the Averages still under Siri’s control, expanding the disorder across two thirds of the bleachers. Bleachers that just the week before had been silent with every match, just like they had been likely every year since Siri started her rehabilitation facilities.

Her stare flickered back and forth between pockets of the outbursts, trying to track their origin so she could silence it with song. But with today being a tournament day, any song would affect the matches. And more importantly, if she used her power now, she might not find the source.

“Stop, now, or be demoted to bottom once more!” She nearly shouted when Slugger and a few other fresh Averages broke into laughter. Her voice had an edge to it- not the hard edge of ice that was typical, but now something more shrill.

Slugger rolled his eyes, and turned back to the arena. But Siri’s expression froze when she saw that not only Slugger rolled his eyes, but also the students around him. Students who, only yesterday, would have been terrified to take an extra breath without her permission.

“Let’s go already,” Anna had complained during a particularly long match, as Siri bristled.

“Bullshit!” Shouted another Average, after a near tie was decided on a technicality.

“Just stomp him Wendy, your feet are big enough!” Jeered Slugger during the final Average to Upper match, and Wendy’s face turned bright red. A few rows over from where Conner sat, several racial insults geared particularly at the Irish were hurled back at him, while Siri took a seat behind the judges table. And now, the surprise of the initial outburst over, she watched the crowd carefully. Trying to trace the origins backwards, a task nearly impossible after the dispersal of the Bottoms.

And a task that would prove even more difficult the next day.

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