“That’s it. If I do another, I’ll be spent. Let’s move on,” Lucio held his hand against the wall, his outline just distinguishable in the darkness and his breathing coming heavy. Around us, the fresh Bottoms slept, though they slept more fitfully than the batch the night before. The air was thick with increased of groaning, while stirring, tossing, and turning occurred throughout the night. And with increased care, Lucio had entered the minds of each, removing the song from Siri and planting a fresh memory.
The memory unique to each individual, but each concerning Siri. In one, an image of Siri spitting in their food before dumping it into the trash, then sending the student to bed teary eyed and homesick. In another, mocking a student in front of the entire auditorium for the shape of his ears, until the rest of the students joined in laughing. Every time the memory was personalized, Lucio rooting the memory to match the target’s own personality. The first student was known to seek the largest portions in the cafeteria, and Blake had once made fun of the second student’s ears until they could no longer be found in the same room together.
But no matter what the imagery, they shared a common goal- to breed resentment.
“Look, in the real world these students would be angry at having lost their match. They would lash out, a little disrespect would be expected,” I had said to Lucio as we prepared for the coming long night. “But in Siri’s world, that doesn’t happen. They should bow their heads and continue moving forward like good little citizens, perhaps losing hope but never dreaming of lashing out. It’s time to give her a dose of reality. It’s time to make her panic.”
That night, Lucio had completed half of the Bottoms, adding to the new Averages that he had completed the night before. And now, we had one student left to turn. One who would solidify the doubt in Siri’s mind that something had gone drastically wrong in the academy. One who would be impossible to ignore.
We knew where their rooms were from the time we spent cleaning their bathrooms, and we knew who slept where from fetching their laundry. And now we crept out of the Bottom’s sleeping area, then climbed the stairs to the Upper rooms, taking care to keep our hands off the creaking hand rail.
“Which one are you thinking?” whispered Lucio when we reached the top of the stairs but before we entered their hallway.
“Let’s try Connor first,” I said after a moment of thought. “If we turn him, then others might pick up on his emotions and create more panic.”
“Deal,” answered Lucio. “Just know if he wets his bed during the procedure, we’ll have a hell of a mess to clean up tomorrow. The entire Upper floor would be dripping. And SC, this won’t be easy. I’m not sure how much I can clear away. These Uppers, their minds have been affected deeper than any of the other students.”
“At the very least just piss him off then,” I responded. “Siri will already be suspicious. We just need to cement doubt in her mind.”
We opened the door to the Upper hallway and slid inside, walking to Conner’s room at the far left, and pausing just before the door. But before opening it, Lucio placed a hand against my chest, and hissed a single word.
Raising an eyebrow, and my feet glued to their position, I followed Lucio’s other finger as he pointed down the hallway. There, at the end beyond all the Upper rooms, a door was cracked open. The week before I had tried that doorknob out of curiosity during chores. But I had found it locked, made a mental note to return and investigate, and had deprioritized looking into it after Darian escaped. Since the door was rickety, not the type to use if you were hiding something significant, the thought had slipped my mind.
For a moment, all was silent. Then I heard the sound that had stopped Lucio, a voice that descended from the spiral staircase I could see just through the crack, accompanied by the faint glow of moonlight.
“Damn, I’m starting to think she sleeps less than we do,” I muttered, and started towards the door.
“What the hell are you doing?” Lucio demanded, and pulled my arm backwards, “If she sees you, the entire plan will be ruined.”
“If she sees me, it will only further convince her that this school is out of her control,” I responded. “Besides, every clue I’ve gotten so far has been from being in places I don’t belong. Who knows what she’s doing up there.”
“Probably just hypnotizing some Upper,” Lucio said, still attempting to drag me backwards but following. “Like she does every night.”
“Then it would pay to hear what she says, wouldn’t it? We’ll get the scoop straight from the source.”
We reached the door and I pushed it open further to fully reveal stairs. To my relief they were stone, meaning that they would make no creaking noises, and that I could continue to approach. For at the bottom, few of Siri’s words were distinguishable, and the ones that were shed no light on her conversation.
As I climbed, reaching near the top of the stairs but not daring to look over the edge, I heard my first sentence in her seductive voice, just as a blast of fresh air hit my face.
“Go on, go on,” she crooned, the voice spooling down towards me. “It won’t hurt but for a second. Jump.”
“Just a single step,” Siri continued, the her breath just barely carrying her voice. “No, no powers now. You needn’t worry about that. Just a step.”
“But-” came a slurred voice that lost itself before the word had even finished. “But-”
“But nothing,” Siri interrupted, eager. “Sweet nothing. Go on, just a bit closer. Let your toes curl over the edge.”
Lucio and I were crouched just where we could see shadows dancing on the ceiling, but neither of the bodies that they represented were visible. And from our position, crouched just low enough on the stone stairs to be hidden at the back of the room, we could see the shadows looked away from us.
Holding my breath, and moving so slowly that my muscles quivered with the effort of holding the position, I rose until just my eyes peered over the ledge, my pupils level with the floor. And I stifled a gasp.
The room itself was small, the size of a study with a stack of old boxes piled in the corner to store teaching materials. Siri sat in an old rocking chair at the center, tilted so far forward that it rested against its curved points, her elbows on her knees and her fingers steepled between. Her eyes were alight and pupils wide, so intent upon the scene before her that I could have walked directly across her gaze. She bit the tip of her tongue as the figure before her bent beneath her command, her ankles bouncing with anticipation.
The figure stood in an arched window, his head barely brushing the top of the opening and his hands at his sides while he balanced on the thin frame. He wavered with each of Siri’s words, edging forwards, his knees shaking and jaw clenched. Moonlight silhouetted him as a light breeze ruffled his shirt, and I caught a glimpse of his face as he leaned backwards to compensate for the shuffling of his feet forwards. Until only his heels remained perched on the frame.
“Go on,” whispered Siri, relishing the words, her hands now clasped across her knees as her voice took on a musical quality. “Just a bit farther. Take the step, right foot first. So easy, and you want to so bad. Don't you want to make me happy, to be the best student? My best student?”
For a second, I almost echoed her words as Blake lifted a heavy ankle, stepping forward into nothingness. Without his power activated, he was defenseless, and the fall of three stories would leave his face in a far more agreeable condition than the sneer that constantly occupied it. A tear slid down his cheek as his weight slid forward and his fall began, a slow tilt that started him in a dive, and ensured his nose would reach the ground first.
“Yes,” whispered Siri as he started to lose control, her bottom lip quivering. “Oh yes, dash yourself upon the shore. Do it for me, give yourself up for me.”
Blake’s other heel started to lose its grip as panic combined with guilt surged through me. And I realized that he was prepared to commit, to follow Siri's words over the edge and into nothingness. He would die if I did nothing, if I just watched. And even Blake didn’t deserve that fate.
I raised a hand, preparing to yank him back inside the building with a force point, just as Siri’s sharp voice rang out.
“Stop! Catch yourself!”
Blake’s hands shot backwards without a second bidding, the fingertips just barely catching the sides of the window as they turned to diamond. He nearly slipped once as he propelled himself backwards, catching himself just in time to regain balance. His chest heaved as he recovered then jumped backwards off the ledge, hugging the window frame as his feet met the floor, his face a pale white. As his hands left the frame they revealed hundreds of fingernail marks in the wood, deep gauges that could only have occurred as a result of his diamond power.
“So close,” Siri said, twirling her hair, “Oh so close, but not quite there! You didn’t. I know you would have. You know you would have, for me.”
She laughed as Blake shrank backwards, trying to become one with the shadows.
“But you didn’t. I took care of you Blake, just like I always do. And I always will. Now, that’s enough fun for today- go on, time for you to retire. Without any memory of this in the morning, of course. You did well, Blake, you pleased me. Just like you will again.”
A half smile formed across Blake’s face, Siri’s words pushing it upwards and the events of the last few minutes weighing it down, forgotten tracks of tears still streaking down his cheeks. I ducked away as he turned to walk back to the stairs, descending in silence, and following Lucio as he threw open the door to Conner’s room below. We slipped inside, frozen until we heard Blake’s door click shut, and then Siri lock the far door moments later before leaving the Upper hallway.
In the darkness, I could just make out the whites of Lucio’s eyes, and could tell the words were building inside him to near overfill about what had just transpired. But I shook my head, nudging him in the direction of Conner, whose snores created their own Gregorian chant.
“Seriously, it was sadistic,” Said Lucio to Slugger as we waiting in line for lunch, his face still stuck in the horrified expression it had adopted since the night before. “Psychotic. I’ve never seen anything like it. Explains a lot though, if that’s where she gets her kicks.”
“Oi, yeah it does,” mumbled Slugger, the dark rings under his eyes more prominent than ever, and his attention wandering.
“No man, you don’t get it.” exclaimed Lucio, throwing open his hands for emphasis. "It was absolutely insane, like-”
“Aye now, I get it. Your lad SC here just has me on night watch. You’re practically speaking gibberish, not that it’s much different from normal,” he yawned, tapping his foot as the line slid forward a single person, then halted again.
“Apparently night watch makes you into a total prick as well then!”
“Nah lad, I’ve always been that,” he craned his head, looking to where the front of the line was loading up their trays. ”Speaking of pricks, looks like it’s an optimal time to put my abilities to good use. You two better prepare yourselves because this is going to be some real craic.”
Slugger stepped to the left and out of the line to where he had a clear line of sight to the front, and raised his voice just as the line shifted again, and the next person started loading up their food.
“Oi, Wendy!” he shouted just as she reached for an apple, then changed her mind and took the one next to it. “Think you can speed it up a bit, or is that too much cardio for your fat ass? We’re hungry back here and frankly you could do with a smaller lunch. Back home we had potato famines for the likes of you.”
“You, you-” Wendy stuttered, whipping around as a few in the line smirked, particularly those Lucio had worked on the night before. “You jackass!”
She threw the apple at him but it missed, sailing a few feet to the right and bouncing off the shoulder of an instructor across the room. Slugger laughed, widening his stance and throwing back his shoulders, before retorting.
“A few more minutes outside a day might fix that aiming problem of yours. Want to try again? I made myself a bigger target, but not as big as you’re used to, though.”
He winked, nodding at Conner who was now walking over from the Upper table, just as Wendy’s face turned a deeper shade of red than the next apple that found her hand. More laughs erupted along the length of the line, but were extinguished out like a campfire in a tidal wave as Conner reached the group.
“What the Hell was that about, Slugger?” Demanded Conner, and the smiles as laughing faces around him hardened to snarls.
“Just speaking the truth big guy,” Answered Slugger. “You got a problem with that? Too bad I haven't challenged you yet in the Arena, or I’d have your position by now.”
For a second, the old Conner shone through as his mouth fell open- the Conner from before he had been an Upper, when he struggled in the outdoor exercises, from before Siri’s song had instilled enough pretentious ego to answer Slugger with aggression. The Conner that would rather back down than maintain confrontation.
“Lucio, a little help?” I whispered, nudging him in the ribs as the conversation stalled.
“Already on it,” he whispered back, his eyes on Conner. “I’ll push him right over the edge.”
A moment later Conner puffed out his chest, and his voice turned to a shout as his fingers clenched. His eyes narrowed, the vein in his neck throbbed, and I heard his knuckles crack.
“I’m sick of your attitude, and your remarks,” Conner took a step forward, shielding Wendy behind him, while Slugger held his ground. “And I’m done with ignoring it, especially when it’s coming from a someone who was recently a filthy Bottom. Time to put you in your place.”
“Damn, what’d you show him?” I hissed to Lucio, and we stepped backwards to avoid the brunt of Conner’s power as I felt anger wash over me.
“Heh, he thinks Slugger hooked up with Wendy before he did. Nothing like a little jealousy to spur him forward.”
Before Conner, Slugger raised his hands and curled them into fists, hopping back and forth as he punched air.
“Bring it, big boy! Put em up if you’re gonna protect your wagon!”
Conner lumbered forwards, but before he had the chance to strike Wendy threw another apple, this time hitting Slugger square in the chest. Conner hesitated, his face still seething, while the students around him with trays looked down at their food. Then the first plate was launched, a combination of spaghetti and meat sauce that splattered down the front of Sluggers shirt and rained down onto the floor. The second plate followed shortly, then a third, this one coming from a maniacally laughing Lucio who whipped it off the nearest table. It missed, landing among the crowd by Conner, and fueling the pulsing anger that emanated from him.
Though Slugger was still at the center of the brawl, side arguments fueled by Conner’s power broke out in a wide radius around the duo, spurring on the chaos until pockets of food fighting filled the entire lunch room. Those whose minds had been cleaned by Lucio were the most eager, with little left internally to remind them to be good citizens, while many of the Uppers looked on in horror before trying to stop the escalation. Their interaction, however, only added more food to be thrown as they brought the fullest plates to the fray, providing more ammunition for those already knee deep in meat sauce.
“Halt!” Commanded a voice from the entranceway of the cafeteria. “Stop!”
Even without the usual sing song quality, the words chilled the room, freezing students in various positions of the assault. Siri looked over them, her eyes livid, her blue suit the only piece of clothing not tainted by the remnants of the lunch.
“He started it,” Shouted Conner, pointing to Slugger, who was now little more than a mountain of spaghetti, “He made us-”
“Dare you speak out of turn to me?” Demanded Siri. “Dare any of you to shame yourselves like this? Have you forgotten your reformation?”
She turned to the instructor who had fetched her, the one who Wendy’s apple had first struck, his face white as her words struck him like a whip.
“I want a full assembly called, it’s time to put an end to this. Ensure every student is there, perform a full count. Bottoms, Averages, Uppers, I want them all. Now.”
“And so,” I whispered, as she stalked from the room and the instructors began to herd us together, “We begin.”
The instructors corralled us towards the auditorium in three lines, each carrying a clipboard with names and marking them off as we passed by, checking for each student. All but three were present. Arial, who received a check mark despite her absence, and was being fetched from the nurse's room to join us. Mason, whose name had been whited out long ago. And Darian, which the instructors had not yet removed, but had a single line through the lettering.
Adrenaline flooded through me as we walked and as I reviewed what was about to happen. Thinking back to when Lucio had first scrubbed my mind, and he had made a comment that stuck with me ever since about Siri’s power. A comment hat formed the foundation of our plan.
From what I can tell, she could enchant someone in a single session, but it would be dangerous. Basically, she would have to rip open their subconscious, and at that point she would have far less control of the outcome. It’s much safer to gradually take root.
And now that we had forced her hand, I twisted my fingers for luck, praying that Lucio was right. Knowing that as we entered that auditorium, and the instructors filled us into the bleachers, that I had one chance to turn the facility into my greatest weapon and asset. I nodded to Slugger from where he sat across from us, wisely having chosen an aisle seat nearest the door, and he winked back. Thanks to him, we had convinced Siri that the only way to ensure the entire school was under her control was to see it with her own eyes. To ensure no one escaped her power by being personally present.
Slugger looked exhausted, his eyes barely open, but we would only need him for a few minutes more. Out of everyone in attendance, he was the only one I could trust with what had to happen next. For in his exhausted state, understanding the words of Siri's song would be near impossible.
“You ready for this?” I asked Lucio as the last of the students ushered in.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he answered. “It’s either freedom or I become one of Siri’s minions now. Can’t say I’m happy with those odds. Hell, I’d rather bet on an ass at a horse race than this.”
“I’m just hoping we can shake it off,” I responded. “What’s your take on that? Once we’re under, is there no coming back?”
“If she does it right, she’ll be stripping us down to our subconscious first. Classic mental technique- lure the victim into a state of security, then set your agenda. With Siri, she has enough experience to know the ins and outs of mental gymnastics. Otherwise, if she attempts to rush the job, she’ll risk her commands not taking root or eroding away too quickly. So long as we escape before she gets to the actual brainwashing part, we’re home free! I’m more worried about how fast Slugger can run.”
“If we’re anywhere as near disoriented as the first time I went under, he might have to slow down on purpose,” I answered. “Besides, you’ve seen him fight. He’s crafty enough to hold his own.”
“Fine,” Lucio said, and pulled a face as Siri entered, and walked towards the center of the room. “And when this is over, SC, don’t just disappear on me. I have nowhere to call home.”
“When this is over, Lucio, that will change.”
I patted his shoulder, then watched as the auditorium doors shut and were locked as each of the instructors departed, leaving us alone with Siri. In the pocket above my wrist, I already had two black orbs generated but hidden. And I stared at the spot where I would throw them, repeating the location over and over in my mind, knowing it would take every ounce of mental strength I had to use them.
State champions, state champions, state champions.
Those words would form my target, and I knew I must not forget them.
Below, Siri began to sing, spinning in a circle, her voice loud enough to fill the auditorium without a microphone. Each of the words stuck heavier than before, lulling us into a trance, like a heavy lead blanket placed over reality. I smiled as I drifted away, and I realized that perhaps I had been wrong this entire time. That perhaps all I had to do to be happy was listen to Siri sing forever. That her voice not only made my problems seem minuscule, but removed them entirely. Like turning off a horror movie.
Good citizens, good girls and good boys,
Let your stress fade away,
Listen now, my pride, my joys,
Forever here you’ll stay.
Siri continued to sing, her meaning lost as I was lulled under. And my smile grew deeper, more content, more relaxed.
Ball’s in your court, Slugger, I thought, the words coming slow as I looked towards him, half forgetting why my heart was still pumping so fast.
And I saw that he had fallen asleep.
Wake up, I thought, my inner voice screaming, Wake up!
But the thoughts faded as Siri’s voice continued, removing any concern that they carried with them. And even if they had mattered, and I had wanted to move, I wouldn’t have been able. It felt as if my mind had sunk deep within itself, that the part that controlled muscles was far away, unreachable. That if Siri kept singing forever, I doubted I’d ever be able to raise my consciousness enough to move a finger- and if she left me in that state, I doubt I would ever have escaped without outside interference.
The same feeling flooded through the rest of the auditorium- from Bottom to Upper, all gathered in one place. As Siri attempted to sweep any thoughts of rebellion away from us.
As the minutes rolled by I forgot why I was staring at Slugger- and in part, I looked through him, and not quite at him. He looked as peaceful as I felt, his breath coming and going slowly, his head tilted back. But then Siri’s voice changed its tone, wrapping up the first part of her procedure to expose the subconscious and preparing for the second part. To plant the seeds of obedience.
And when it morphed, Slugger stirred, opening one eye. Then he jumped to his feet, shaking his head, and his expression panicked.
“Damn!” He shouted, the words distant, Siri’s voice faltering from shock, “Damn, what was it? What was supposed to say?” He paused, thinking, casting his gaze around the auditorium for inspiration. But besides him the entire school was stone, their eyes straight ahead, their expressions unchanging, as if he were a ghost.
“To your seats, and back to sleep!” Sang Siri, her voice increasing in volume and determination, her stare focusing on Slugger. His face scrunched in annoyance and he shook his head, inserting his pinky into his ear and twisting as if to remove a lingering bit of earwax.
“Oi, stop that racket. And that’s it!” He hit himself on the head, laughing, “Almost forgot. Wendy waddles!”
He scanned the crowd, then found Wendy, though she gave no inkling of having heard him.
“Wendy,” He yelled, jumping down from one bleacher to the next, being sure to stomp with each change of level. His own voice took on a mocking songlike quality as he pointed a finger at her. “Waddles! Wendy waddles, like a walrus!”
“I-” started Wendy, drawing a sharp breath like she had risen out of frigid water and her voice slurred, but Siri’s song cut her off. And Siri walked towards Slugger, removing a small metal baton she kept on the inside of her suit, her voice growing louder and more commanding. More desperate.
“Wendy Waddles like a fat Walrus!” Belched Slugger as he darted away from Siri and danced towards Wendy, reaching out to give her a small pinch on the cheek, “The fattest one I ever did see!”
“I do not Waddle!” Screamed Wendy, shooting upwards, her fingers curled and voice so sharp it pierced through Siri’s command. It knocked the song construction down like house of cards, shattering Siri’s progress. She stomped her foot, narrowly missing Slugger’s toes, and the auditorium floor rebounded in a wave away from her. Wood splintered and cracked at the crests and troughs, utterly destroying the finish. The reverberation shook the bleachers like an earthquake, knocking over dazed students still partially eroded to their subconscious in a mess of tangled limbs.
Wendy stomped again, her face furious, bouncing the bodies of confused students a foot in the air as she rounded on Slugger a second time. In this state, straight out of Siri’s hypnosis, she lacked any ability to govern herself. She felt, not capable of thought, moving and acting on instinct. Like an animal.
Behind her a figure stood from the mess of bodies and howled, his eyes bloodshot and teeth showing in a snarl. Raw rage rolled over me as Conner leapt towards Wendy, a boiling emotion that erupted from me as my voice matched his, my vocal cords burning as I roared, the blood vessels feeding my muscles popping as I flexed. As I rose to my feet I felt the sheer power for destruction at my fingertips, my vision laser focused upon the object of my hate that continued to taunt Wendy.
The ferocity infected the auditorium, intoxicating the other students as Conner’s power flooded forwards again, turning them all towards Slugger. Alone he stood against the mob, Siri fallen near his feet from where Wendy’s power had knocked her over, his chest puffed out and fists raised in defiance.
“Oi, ya pissed?” Taunted Slugger to him. “Come and get me then, let’s scrap!”
Connor and the crowd started forwards in a rush, and my anger congealed in the black orb that rushed to my palm, ripping away at the edges of my shirt and whistling as wind rushed into it. I aimed as Slugger started to run towards the wall of the gym, leaping over the fragments of wood flooring that had popped loose, cornering himself as the rabid students rushed in a horde from all sides. And I threw the orb as hard as I could, a voice jumping into my head just before I released, speaking the words I had repeated just before succumbing to Siri’s voice. The words that reminded me of the plan. Not destroying my anger, but directing it.
Just before I released the orb I tilted it slightly to the right, curving mere feet from Slugger’s body to intercept the State Champions banner hanging from the auditorium wall, carving a hole directly through the names of the team members who had earned the honor years before. Cinderblocks gave way as I propelled the orb forwards, powering it to pull the wall inwards until it caved in, leaving a hole the size of a door that Slugger leapt through before the dust had a chance to settle, tossing loose sections of wall behind him as if they were made of marshmallow. And through the dust were rays of sunlight stretching inside, illuminating the path to freedom.
Brianna reached the hole first just as the black orb exploded, blowing her backwards and into the crowd as the rest of the stampede arrived, each trying to fit through the hole at once with Conner at their center. The wall formed a bottleneck that only allowed a few through at once, giving Slugger a few precious seconds head start before their powers enlarged the passageway, a torrent of wind from Antony clearing the dust while Miles pounded away at the outer edges.
With Connor farther away across the room, my emotions dulled- though still present, I now felt enough control to hold myself back from joining the rush. Knowing the plan had helped- without the knowledge of what was going to happen beforehand, I surely would be among them, rushing along as a slave to impulse. Following anger instead of rationality.
Instead, I walked away from them towards the far corner of the auditorium. And I began to carve another hole through to the outside.
“Take me with you!” Shouted a voice behind me as I broke through to outside, “I can catch him!”
I whipped around to see Arial still handcuffed to the wheeled nurse bed where the instructors had dragged her prior to Siri’s singing. She strained against the metal links as she rose into the air, dragging the bed underneath her at a crawling rate as the legs skittered across the floor. Her eyes were crazed with the same infectious anger that had possessed the other students, but due to her constrained angle from the handcuffs her power was at only partial capacity.
“I can catch him!” she repeated in a hiss, “I just need to be free! Help me SC.”
“And that,” I said, walking over to her, “Is precisely why I can’t let you go. Sorry Arial, you need to stay here.”
I took off my belt as I walked, then looped it around the leg of her bed before running it through a metal grommet on the bleachers. Out of reach, it would stop her from following, effectively tethering her to a foot radius of where she was now attached to the thin bed frame.
“You jerk!” She said, writhing in an attempt to escape, swiping at me and catching my shirt before wrapping the fabric twice around her wrist to yank me towards her. I stumbled, prying her fingers away as my knees knocked against the bed frame and she collapsed onto the mattress, unable to keep flying at that angle. I succeeded in breaking her grip just as her fingers latched onto my own, interlacing, as she pulled me closer.
For a moment we stared at each other, the rational region of our minds still slow to regenerate after Siri’s song. Our emotions jumbled, her mouth slightly open as she hesitated, my heart beat accelerating. And I felt myself drawn forward, the plan forgotten, just as I heard a crash from outside followed by a chorus of angry shrieks.
“I- I’ll be back, I promise,” I stuttered, turning towards the sound and breaking my gaze. “Soon, this will all be over.”
Then I pulled her fingers away, leaving her wide eyed and shouting, and returned to my fresh hole in the corner of the auditorium to jump out into the afternoon sun. I blinked as my feet hit grass, the brightness temporarily blinding me, my pupils shrinking just in time to see Slugger whipping around the corner to my left, barreling along at full speed towards the front of the school. He burst out laughing as he passed me, smacking my shoulder with enough force to spin me in place and face the stream of student’s forty feet behind him.
“Oi, the hunt is on!” he whooped, running backwards to goad the others. “Slugger rounds second, and is picking up speed! He’s halfway home, and the other team is too fat to follow!” Then he kept sprinting directly towards the gate of the school, where the force field met the gate. A few seconds later the front runners of the crowd started whizzing past me, their powers activated but still too distant to utilize them accurately. All except for Anna, who spewed lasers from her fingers with each step aimed at Slugger, each striking him in the back. But by the time the light covered the gap, the colored dots were too diluted and fuzzy to cause anything more than slight warmth.
I felt the rage surge up in me again as Conner neared, his weight keeping him in the middle of the pack though his power spurring them forward. And I reached into the pocket above my wrist to remove the second black orb I had prepared, launching it high into the sky before I started to run with the group, blending in among them.
The orb connected with the top of the force field dome high above us, ripping a hole into the apex and reeling the remainder in like a sheet thrown into the sky as purple sparks fluttered down the entire length. They leapt like flames from the ground as the force field disconnected, tatters of it splitting away to dissolve in air, and Slugger leapt over the remains with a triumphant jeer.
“And he’s out of the park!” he bellowed, pausing just an instant to rip the facility’s brick mailbox from the ground and launching it towards the forerunners of the pack. They scattered as it gauged the earth, spraying dirt and bricks in its wake as Slugger cackled. Then he started sprinting again, pausing only to scatter massive objects behind him, leaving a trail of garbage bins, air conditioning units, and motorcycles for the rest of the students to dodge.
Josh the flamethrower launched an arc of fire to clear the debris but succeeded only in heating the asphalt to melting temperatures, widening Slugger’s lead as the road gripped our shoes. And now the rest of the objects were no longer simple obstacles, but red hot flaming barriers to our path.
“Going to have to try harder than that!” Slugger yelled over his shoulder, and lobbed a portable toilet from a construction site towards Josh, the plastic box splitting to shower him in blue liquid. “Seems to me like I’m beating you all at once! I should be the only Upper of the lot!”
The he reached an intersection and turned, weaving among the light midday traffic as sirens started to sound in the distance. Heading deeper into the city.
Directly towards Crescent street.
Shop owners gawked and passerby fled as the solo escapee darted down the street like a pinball, tossing anything from flowerpots to manhole covers over his shoulder at the growing horde following him. In return they scarred the street, unleashing fire, cars, and other projectiles in his direction, though he continually danced out of their reach. Fortunately for Slugger, he did not have to outrun all the students chasing him- rather, he only had to outrun Conner. Anyone who rushed too far ahead left the radius of Conner’s power and forgot the purpose of why they were running, and all those next to Conner were too far from Slugger to inflict damage.
Several students were fully powered. Blake dazzled like a diamond, his skin throwing rainbow patterns over the others. Waves of heat ebbed and flowed from Fino, forcing a ring of space to form around him as the other runners avoided becoming burnt. And Wendy carved a fresh rut into the road with each step, creating countless potholes that would surely take months to be filled under the city budget.
Spewing fire hydrants, shattered windows, and uplifted trees were left behind with bewildered citizens. In the distance sirens sounded, followed by the flashing of blue lights playing against the windows of skyscrapers and reflecting into the street.
Slugger rushed past light after light of intersections, pulling the crowd behind him, taunting them with every chance. And in minutes we were at Crescent street, the homeless scattering before the rampage, leaving behind mounds of blankets and smashed bottles on the sidewalks while the doors of the building lining the street slammed shut. He whooped as he zig zagged, stopping at the entrance of the abandoned subway station, then turning back and searching through the crowd, his chest heaving. Then his eyes found Connor and he bent over, pulling down his pants to moon us before taking a celebratory jump worthy of a ballet audition into the station.
I felt a new surge of hate well up within me as Conner shouted profanities, spurring us forward, and we flooded into the station like bees into a hive just in time to see Slugger taking the escalator stairs two at a time. Down we followed, our voices echoing off the barren walls, the lights above us flickering. The was floor scuffed and unkept, litter covering it like autumn leaves, fast food wrappers a primary offender around trash bins that had never been emptied.
The station seemed to suck us in like a vacuum, pulling us deeper as we nearly fell through the levels. And I recounted the route that Darian had taken, the one I had relayed to Slugger, instructing him to avoid the maintenance tunnel and take the main path to the terminal. To ensure that we would arrive at the bottom using the quickest route possible, and that there would be no opportunity for him to be cornered. Even if that meant we would be spotted.
But the hallways were nearly deserted, the sentries likely fleeing to alert the guards below.
The ceiling arched high overhead as we broke into the terminal, sculpted concrete decorated with a carved map of stops that the finished subway would have taken, including one just outside my old apartment. Windowless, no natural light entered the vault, the only illumination originating from the florescent lights high above that dangling from swaying chains bolted to the ceiling. Graffiti covered adverts that spanned the walls, and only the shell was left of ticketing machines looted long again in hopes of finding spare change.
The subway track flowed through the center of the station, dividing it like a river, and disappearing in a tunnel at one end. Separating the flood of students from the tunnel were fifteen figures, each with their shoulders squared against us and dressed in the ragged clothes of the homeless. But their eyes were too alert, their stances too confident, and their frames too muscular to fit the demographic. And each displayed a characteristic of a Special, something that would never be found in the city slums.
Frost covered the ground in a radius around one, his bright blue eyes as cold as the icicles growing along his fingers, his breath visible as he exhaled. Three dust tornadoes swirled around another, gaining speed and size as he watched us with a cocky grin. And other displays of power were exhibited down their line, from balls of white hot fire to electricity that crackled eagerly to be released.
“Halt!” shouted one of them, the Electrospark, a spray of lightning erupting from his hand to catch our attention. And we hesitated as he continued to speak.
“Turn back! This is our territory, and you see us as we are- high powered Specials. You will go no farther, whether you turn back now or we stop you with force. Deadly force.”
The horde of students hesitated, spilling over one another as they waited for a decision. A decision none, in their reduced state, could make. One that I made for them.
“They’re protecting him!” I shouted, pointing behind the line to where Slugger had just crawled out of the track behind the guards, his laugh magnified in the space of the chamber. The line of guards whipped around at the sound, while Conner’s power provided the goading to spearhead the students forward, their logic forgotten as emotion took control once more.
In my hand, I held a dark orb that I had prepared on the trip into the station, helping it grow by feeding it as we descended. And I threw it ahead of us, releasing it just as the high powered specials turned back to face us, and letting it explode in a violent combination of light and sound mere feet in front of the Electrospark.
The explosion blew the Electrospark backwards fifteen feet while scattering his companions, their faces shell shocked and eyes blinking away the flash. They struck out blindly, slashing out with their powers as their vision returned, two of them incapacitating each other with misdirected blows. But Siri’s training had prepared the student’s well, and those without protective powers wove among the mayhem, diving for cover as arcs of fire and lightning spewed over the station.
From behind trash cans, the doors of side hallways, and benches the students returned blasts of their own powers, counteracting the guards through their sheer numbers. Antony conjured a bellowing wind that swept away fire before it had a chance to reach any of the students, redirecting it upwards to splash on the ceiling and rain down along the edges of the station. Blake charged forward in full diamond form at the Electrospark, absorbing bolts of lightning that fizzled through his feet into the ground, slashing and advancing at a pace too quick to allow for a planned counterstrike.
After disappearing for a few moments, Miles returned with arms laden down with unused cinderblocks from the incomplete construction of the station, then started lobbing them like hail, preventing the enemy from creating any organized front as they continually skirted the artillery fire. Taking cover on opposite corners of the students, Josh and Fino combined forces to dampen the effect of the Blizzarder, negating the icy projectiles and arctic wind that threatened instant frostbite.
Had the guards been prepared, the students would have had no chance fighting against them. But the combination of my exploding orb and their expectation that the students would back down left them in complete disarray.
After only a minute of fighting the guards retreated to find cover, driving Blake back to the ranks of the students with the use of tornadoes combined with fire, the heat and force giving him no option but to flee. The tornadoes raced across the gap between the two forces, spewing black smoke that formed a deceptive haze to turn bodies into shadows. With the weaving fire tornadoes, lightning that crackled through the darkness, and needle like ice shards that descended in volleys, no student dared cross the center. In return, no guard jumped the gap across their defense, instead forcing a stalemate.
But there was another force that kept the two sides separated, warping any powers that came too close to the students. Through the smog I directed my dark orbs, their explosions pushing against any advance, preventing both the students and guards from moving due to a fear of the unknown power. For if either side gained ground, it would only endanger the students. And this was a battle that did not need to be won, but only prolonged.
I maintained my position until I heard shouting coming from the above levels and saw the first of the police poke his head through an opening, then immediately swear and fall back as a fireball singed away half his thick dark mustache. Launching two more particularly large black orbs into the center of the fray, I darted sideways as they erupted, darting down onto the track just as more of the police arrived on the scene. And with the distraction at its peak I sprinted down the track towards the tunnel at the end, keeping my head low to stay hidden.
Slugger appeared at the entrance, slack jawed as he watched the scene unfold, and I kept running past him, stopping only for a moment to speak.
“If you see anyone come this way,” I said, panting. “Give me notice if you see anyone. I don’t know what I’m going to find down here and the last thing I need is someone sneaking up behind me. And if the fight starts to die down, stir it back up. Don’t let the students become any more endangered though, we want them in foxholes.”
“Sure thing boss,” said Slugger, and whistled/ “They say Troy was fought over Helen, but damn. To think I started all this by calling one girlfriend a wagon.”
He smiled, then nodded appreciatively as I started into the tunnel, speaking a final sentence.
“Empowering, is what that is.”
I spooled light outwards from a dark sphere as I ran, the rays dancing across unfinished concrete and gravel. Ahead, the long shadows of rats scurried in search of dark corners and crevices, their squeaks echoing as a herald to my arrival. Every fifty feet the roof leaked, droplets or streams of murky water saturating my hair when I failed to avoid them, and leaving mud colored trails along my shirt. Drafts passed by me in a rush, carrying with them whiffs of familiar scents- mildew, sewer, and stale air.
Even with my light it was impossible to see far ahead, the path blocked by turns of the tunnel and overlaid with sheets of cobwebs. I squinted, wonder what exactly I was looking for. And realizing I had no inkling what awaited me at the end of the tunnel. Only the unknown.
That perhaps there were more high powered Specials waiting for me in a trap, already alerted by their cohorts in the station and ready to spring the instant that I appeared. That their powers might turn me to ash and bone before I could react, and that I would never see my mother again. Or perhaps they were working on Peregrine’s project and, whatever it was, I doubted that it would play to my advantage.
But I noticed no aspect alien to the subway as I trotted- rather, there seemed to be nothing particularly spectacular about any of the features, my eyes gliding over them as if they were a blank canvas. It was a familiar feeling, like an old smell or hearing an old tune played from years past. And I realized that I did not need to sense anything at all.
Rather, in sensing nothing, I had found everything.
I nearly kept running through the next station as I exited the tunnel, my eyes straight ahead, my brain not comprehending the change in scenery as the roof and walls expanded upwards or the empty train car I edged around. After all, there was nothing special about the opening, nothing that I was looking for here. Except for a single word, shouted by a voice that shattered the illusion around me, and hurled my mind into the current setting.
I knew it was her before I turned- to her child, the call of a mother is unforgettable, impossible to erase from the soul. While faces can be forgotten without pictures, and personalities altered in retrospect when reviewing fond memories, that voice never changes within memory. And I slid to a stop, gravel skidding before me to form a mound and kicking a thick layer of rock dust into the air that surged into my nostrils. To my right, the ledge of the platform occurred just above shoulder height, and I searched over it for the origin of the voice.
She was at the far end of the platform, near the entrance and exits, had they existed. For the doorways had been filled with cement, cutting off any access to the station except through the tunnel that I had just taken, including the exit tunnel at the opposite end of the station.
She had lost weight since I had seen her last, her cheeks hollow, the mass instead migrating upwards to fill the bags under her eyes. And one of those eyes was bruised, the green and purple remains left over from a black eye forming a crude circle, accented by scratch marks that grazed across her jawline. Her clothing was ripped along some of the weaker seams, my fists closing when I realized that she was still wearing the same clothes as the day she had left. A fresh tear stain formed across her shirt as a she pinched her lips together in an effort to keep them from trembling, and when she stood I saw a chain link drag across the ground to her right wrist.
“Mother!” I shouted, vaulting up the edge of the platform, renewed energy powering my sprint. With each step I caught more details about her appearance that made the muscles in my jaw clench- that a host of other cuts and bruises occupied her skin. That her hair, usually kept and neat, stranded in multiple directions from lack of care. And that the shackle around her wrist had cut into the skin, dried blood fusing to the metal to give it the appearance of rust.
We embraced, my face digging into her shoulder as she held me close. And for a moment I was no longer the leader of a small rebellion, or a student at the rehabilitation facility, or a Special with an unknown power. Rather I was a child again, and nothing more.
“You shouldn’t have come, Star Child,” she said, her voice soft as I looked over her shoulder and saw a long table on the platform, with the space around it shimmering. And not only did I see it, but I felt it. “You should have stayed hidden.”
“Yes, boy,” said a voice behind us as we stiffened/ “You really should have.”
I whipped around to see Peregrine alone on the platform, ten feet away, his chin raised as he stared, his eyebrows raised.
“I should have noticed the resemblance,” he remarked, studying us. “The facial features are quite similar. Not that you can notice much about your mother at all, but that’s why I brought her here, isn’t it? And I suppose that makes me directly responsible for bringing you to the academy as well, by effectively orphaning you.”
“What are you doing with her?” I demanded, stepping forwards as my mother’s hand restrained my shoulder. “Why did you take her from me in the first place?”
I stopped myself as my fists clenched tighter and black orbs threatened to spring into existence. First, I had to extract more information from him, to find out who might pursue us if we escaped. And second, though Peregrine was a seasoned fighter, there was one advantage that I possessed over him. A lesson from Instructor Lynns when I had just started at the facility.
The strongest power is the unknown power.
“Boy, I wouldn’t have taken her from you if I knew you existed, rather I would have taken you with her. She hid you well. But it was necessary, absolutely necessary to steal her for her abilities. She’s incredibly unique- I could not have picked a better candidate if I tried.”
“So you shackled and beat her?” I shouted, watching as he walked in an arc around us but maintained his distance.
Peregrine shrugged, his expression unchanging.
“She’s a Snuffer, and Snuffer’s powers are saturate. They emulate nature. The opossum plays dead when it is afraid, the hedgehog balls up, the chameleon blends with its surroundings. Pain and fear drive a Snuffer’s power,” he frowned, looking over my mother. “If your mother had cooperated, we wouldn’t have had to rely upon such methods. But the risk of discovery was too great. So we activated her powers ourselves.”
“By torturing her?!”
“By stimulating her abilities, boy.” His tone was corrective, as if he were teaching a lesson, “SC, we would never cause anything permanent. No, we need her too much for that. But now that you are here, why hurt her at all? There’s no greater fear to a mother than the harm of her child- by keeping you here, I maximize her powers without laying a finger on her again. Think on that, SC- stay here with us, and you will be remembered when this is all over. When our side has won the war on the horizon.”
“And is that side Siri’s side? How many have died at the rehabilitation facilities over the years, and how many now live as your slaves? Why would I ever join her, or you, after what you’ve done?”
“Because, SC, we’re going to win. No price is too steep for that!” A smile widened across his lips as he spoke, and his eyes glinted, “Ask any war general. Besides, we have already won, because my project is practically complete. My weapon, the ultimate advantage.”
“Who are you even fighting against?” I asked, watching as he continued to walk so we now faced the table we had seen earlier, with the shimmering air above it, “And you can’t force students to fight against their will just to win a war.”
“Is that not what you just did tonight, SC? Are you not any better than us, after leading the charge of your friends without their consent, after you somehow managed to shake off Siri’s influence?” He tilted his head, his eyes scrutinizing me, and continued, “But I’ll let you answer that one on your own, you’ll have plenty of time to think on it down here. I’ve fought many wars, and I know the nature of people. Those in power act like we do, using others for their own gain, pitting them against each other. Sacrificing lives for trivial matters, whether the motive be for minute differences in opinion or ownership. And I, along with many others, came to a simple conclusion- that the only way to eliminate those who do not deserve power is to unify under a common front. To have one last war, a terrible war against all, against the police, our government, corruption. To command afterwards. A war won with my weapon, which brings us back to why you should consider fighting alongside us, and why your mother is so necessary.”
He gestured, then held up three fingers.
“Optimal because, first, she has the power of a Snuffer, which was required to hide the weapon.”
He ticked down a finger, and continued.
“Second, because of her past profession. A nurse, particularly a delivery nurse, someone with experience in the field. That could enter that role again.”
His second finger collapsed, until only one was left.
“And third, because she has seen the insides of the space station high above us. And she can direct me there.”
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