Unlike my first instinct, I didn’t spend the rest of the day training. There was work to be done before I did anything so selfish.
The de facto headquarters for the super heroes had been moved away from the center of Mobile and instead took up shop across the street from a waffle house pointed at the exit ramp to the city proper. It wasn’t centralized particularly, but we didn’t want it to be; if the place were to be attacked, it was safer there, just off the map from prichard, that it would be in any downtown areas.
My idea, though it was decidedly unpopular, if only because it was out of the way for people to pick up their nightly patrol.
Walking in, I saw the patrol boards had been set up. A goodly number of D and C ranks had been deployed to Prichard to make sure they understood the new way things worked out, and to keep the criminals on their toes; the impoverished city that sat in Mobile’s shadow had long been a source for unpowered crime, and their police department was suffering under the strain of keeping things out of anarchy. At the very top of the list sat Colton. Hands sat on the top of another list; they’d both had virtual upticks on their status after the rescue mission.
I had one as well, but when I tried to think about it all I got was a crushing wave of depression I hadn’t dealt with at all.
I gave him a look as I passed him. “Bloodying the new capes?” I asked.
He shot me a lazy grin, like we weren’t scheduled to duke it out at the end of the week. “It seemed like they needed a helping hand.”
I didn’t bother challenging him here, not inside of the base we’d set up. “We got a name for this place yet?”
“Naw,” The knife master said, his teeth showing in his smile. “I think we’ll figure that out after Friday, won’t we?”
“Crisis might be over by then,” I muttered.
“Exclusion zone expanded a bit more,” Colton reminded me. “Picked up a few farms, too. Whatever’s happening up there is getting worse and worse instead of better.”
“It can’t last like this forever,” I said.
“Course not. Eventually it’ll hit the ocean.”
“Has to go through us first,” I said, giving him a stern look.
He laughed until he started wheezing, then wiped his mouth off with the crook of his elbow. “Gale, we’re about as well put together as a damn pinto. Whatever they let through, I doubt we’ll be able to support, not with what we have set up.” his eyes glinted in a quiet sort of challenge, the same color, briefly, as the steel knives threaded through his fingers.
“I’m willing to listen to suggestions, Colton,” I said, looking around at the other capes. Not many of them, not enough for it to matter, but I couldn’t lose face. Not before the fight. “But not your orders.”
“There’s your spine again. Funny, how it only shows up after you’ve already lost.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “I haven’t lost yet.”
“You don’t even know it yet, Gale,” Colton said. “But you lost the second you accepted the challenge.”
Then the glint in his eyes vanished just like the knives did, spun into nothingness.
He stood up, and stretched, sending his locks of black hair sliding across his face, the scar crisscrossing the bottom of his chin suddenly visible. “Don’t stare too long,” He said. “I don’t want you to waste all of your attention here, when you should be preparing.”
Then he stood up and walked over to the board to get everyone’s contact information for the patrol.
Technically, I was on patrol as well, but it had been decided, by Hands (and against my will) that my patrol was taken up during the day as I collaborated with the various groups that had taken up running the city to make sure nobody stepped on anyone else’s toes.
Which all, in total, meant that I had an office that I had been neglecting, tucked into the mostly abandoned building (probably a work safety violation, but what did it matter when there was nobody to report it to?) and more importantly, an answering machine to attend to.
The place was dusty, with a school desk set up next to a beaten up laptop that had been scrounged up from someone’s closet. A far off copy of a proper base’s super computers, but it would do to check email and video conference, and I wasn’t exactly trying to run anything strenuous off of it. Cup of coffee sat on the desk, rapidly cooling.
I picked it up, sipped at it, and pretended to be an adult by turning on the laptop.
It took a minute to boot up, and then I was buried in logististics; organizations asking support, reports from citizens about possible crimes redirected to the system we’d set up, requests for presences, questions regarding the greater situations. Dozens of things we couldn’t deal with, and only a handful of things we could even hope to handle. The mayor’s office wanted a status report on the association. Didn’t have the words for it.
I felt a headache blossom in my head just staring at them, and languidly clicked through them, piece by piece, hoping that I could find something that was actually up the organization’s alley. We weren’t the police, and we couldn’t even hope to be the police.
Clicking through, I stumbled across an Email from Osteor. Well, Rebecca, her civilian doctor name.
Which should I refer to her as?
She wanted a meeting, at the nearest jail. I hadn’t even thought about the jail yet, but surely it was buried in the interpersonal emails that littered the screen. Didn’t know how to satisfy the systems yet, but looking at them all made something in my head click and turn. We shouldn’t be caught up in bureaucracy like this.
I COULD FEEL COLTON’S EYES ON MY BACK AS I LEFT.
Rebecca looked up from a phial of blood. Her eyes, grey as ever, stood out on her pleasant looking face. It made up for her dirty blonde hair tied back to complete the look of almost humanity that graced the bone witch’s features.
“Osteor,” I greeted.
“Rebecca Hawkins,” she corrected. “We’re in a civilian capacity, so address me as such, Gale.”
“Of course, Rebecca,” I said, not missing a beat. “You needed me?”
The prison medical ward was covered in notes, xrays, genetics result, anything that Rebecca could get her hands on, as I privately suspected that neither of us were supposed to be there.
“Why am I here?” Rebecca asked, gesturing around her. The vial of blood was delicately labeled O negative in tiny doctoral handwriting.
“In the prison?”
“No, here!” Rebecca said. “Why did you go to save me at all?” her voice was rife with frustration, her fingers dipping into little hooks in the air. “I feel like all I’ve done since I’ve gotten back is patch up fractured bone and knit together ribs.”
I stared at her for a long moment, and considered, not for the first time, that despite my IQ score that the doctor in front of me knew, I was an idiot.
Hands, Colton, I, we weren’t the only people who had watched people die. Rebecca had been at ground zero, and I hadn’t even considered her. “I’m sorry, we should’ve given you time off.”
“No, you should’ve given me another project,” Rebecca cut in. “I’m a doctorate in genetics, not… some doctor you can throw the sick at and expect me to treat them. I’ve helped deliver five babies since I came here. I’m not even qualified for that, but they expected… It doesn’t matter.”
“What’s the blood for?” I asked, sensing a shift from the previous topic.
“Testing. Have to make sure the new birth doesn’t have powers, have to track down the family…” She trailed off. “Half of it isn’t even my job, but now I’m…”
“What was your job?” I asked, steering it back to something more cheerful.
Rebecca leans back against the sink and sighed. “I was in charge of studying changes to genetic material as heroes develop. Wrote a number of papers on it… Telomere shrinkages among those destined to mature faster, Genetic fragmentation among A rankers. Helped author the new power ranking system…”
“There’s a new power ranking system?”
“Unused except in internal memos,” She said, bluntly. “They’re still clinging to their merit based system instead of using any hard science to predict power level. Can’t really blame them, moving around everything just because a few doctorates said it makes more sense…” She trailed off. “I did useful things like that. Improved how things worked not…” She gave a gesture at the prison clinic.
“Stitch things together?” I asked. I knew the feeling.
“There are elegant solutions to all of this, but I can’t make them appear fast enough! Not fast enough to matter, anyway.” She let out a tired noise and tapped the vial of blood against her fingernails. “But yes, I’m healing people. Against my better judgement, I suppose. I’m just enabling this system, anyway.”
I blinked at that. “If you don’t want to enable it…”
“Then I’m not really helping anything, am I? I’m just letting people die and hoping what comes next is better.”
“Back up,” I said. “How’re you enabling the system by healing people?”
Her fingers led the phial back and forth across her fingers, a slow dance that made me think of arachnids. “The entire hero system, Gale. It’s unhealthy. Everything we move to heroes to do cuts down on what we come up with by scientific methods. It’s bad.”
I cocked my head to the side. “It is?”
“Of course you can’t see it, you’re inside of it,” The Doctor said. “Think of your father,”
“No, no, this has nothing to do with you. Look at your father. Now that he’s been sworn to protect the gulf coast, Association funding has gone up-” She swallowed. “And funding for hurricane relief has gone down. Because your father is there, we are not advancing in methods to protect lives for when your father is not there.”
“That’s…” was that true? Were people relying on heroes that much? “That’s bad.”
“And look at what you’re doing. You’re… no offence, but you’re a nobody who by some quirk of genetics has gotten pseudo control over an entire city. It’s not merit based, or anything like that-” she held up a hand to forestall my complaints and kept going. “And you’re doing a remarkable job for someone with only a miniscule amount of disaster training, but … in no healthy system should we be placing the burden on you.”
“I’m doing my best with what limited supplies I have at my disposal.”
“I know you are, but it shouldn’t be at your disposal. There should be systems within systems. The world shouldn’t have things that crawl and stomp in the darkness, madmen with laser beams, child soldiers reaped from their mother’s belly on the belief they might be dangerous.”
The blood phial flicked about in her hands. She held it up to me. “Think about what a miracle it is that the majority of mothers accept the idea that their special children need training. That the government can take them away and train them in nice structures, covered with steadily increasing amounts of psychologists and psychiatrists desperately trying to balance against the human variations that lead to villains being born. How terrifying the world is, and how many pieces only work because we have taught people not think about them. What brilliant campaigns have been woven…”
I didn’t like thinking those thoughts, but there I was. How many villains were stopped only because mothers were willing to give up their children to be heroes?
“Someone like Negalli becomes a statistic too quickly if you widen your eyes enough. An unfortunate fluke to get through our systems, and these systems are imperfect, and those imperfect systems lead to casualties, and it is all an awful mess of sides and fights and pointlessness. Just utter pointlessness.”
“But heroes have led to advances,” I rebutted her. “You’ve come up with research.”
“Research about heroes!” Doctor Hawkins said. “The world shouldn’t revolve around heroes. We’re all humans, Gale, why should there be thousands of doctors like me, worrying about the chance of the Destroyer being born out of some womb that we don’t have access to? How pointless all of our research has been, when each theory we come up with has access to the most conflicted data set in human history?!” Rebecca took in a deep breath and stared at me. “We could’ve figured out what permutations led to the development of cancer, but the Association has us figuring out genetic templates to figure out powers to prevent the next villain from being born. Ideas of genetic determinism are being thrown about here, Gale! I hate it.”
She took a breath, then walked over to the sink, poured herself a glass of water, and downed it.
“Who said anything about genetic determinism? We’re obviously more than the context of our genes.”
“I am a scientist AND I am a hero,” Rebecca said. “There are very few people with my calibre of powers who are more than just a hero. We are moving towards a caste system where people of specific genetics are exalted just because they have special powers. Where those with heroic genetic potential are forced to be nothing but heroes.”
“I…” and then it hit me that there had never been an expectation that I would be anything except a hero. Assuredly, I had had options. The family’s wealth would’ve let me do anything I wanted.
“140 something, yes?” Rebecca said, stepping past me. “You would’ve done well in college, Gale. Might’ve done something for science. I could see you in biology. Maybe chemistry.”
“College degrees aren’t everything,” I said weakly. “Being a scientist isn’t everything.”
“No, but this is a world where anyone should be able to be anything. Not just heroes. Not just people enforcing imaginary laws on people in other imaginary countries with their fists because they need to dance around imaginary lines in the damn sand, while a thousand doctors watch in horror as the world shifts around them to the beating of a child’s drum,” Rebecca spat the last part with enough venom that I felt goosebumps raise on my skin. “I am unsure if I want to keep watching a world slide into a caste system while I still support that abysmal order.”
“What do you need from me?” I said, flatly.
“You?” Rebecca’s eyes swished across my body. “Why would I need something from you?”
“Did you just need to rant?”
“We’re both intellectuals in this room. You, untrained. You get by on intuition, instinct. Deeply messy. Many many bright minds among the newest generation, and yet…” Her eyes flicked over to mine and she read my face like a book. “It all goes unused, unharnessed. Have to rely on natural experiences instead of any sort of rigorous learning. It can be a good teacher, and yet… Blood.”
I blinked at the abrupt ending. “Blood?”
“I need your blood.” She repeated. “I was doing an experiment regarding the blood of heroes whose power never advanced past D class. I’m rebuilding the base set, and I need your blood to start.”
“Why my blood?”
She gave me an exasperated lookI was rather attached to it, considering how much I had lost just the other day saving her. “Because if I tell people that you did it, I’ll have far more volunteers. More than I need perhaps, but expanding the sample size is always better than not having enough of one.”
“…Are you okay?” I asked, feeling awkward. Soulcrushed, but awkward.
“All of my colleagues are dead and my most recent life’s work was poured down the drain. I am living a nightmare within a nightmare within a needle buried inside and iron chest, and I…” Her face was pale and her hands shook. “I am making this exercise disturbingly about me. Fine. Transaction.”
“I can agree to a transaction.” I hadn’t interacted with someone… quite… like her, and yet, she made a disturbing amount of sense.
“Information is all I have to offer, of course,” The doctor said, having another drink of water. “I worked many of the systems, and I can remember many things… and I can unlock some of the information on your com.”
My eyes flicked down to it. “It has information?”
“That’s Excelsior’s. It at least has the gulf coast database on it. Maybe you need it?”
A moment’s pause.
“If I get you the blood, can you get me Colton’s file?”
Her lips turned into a smile that looked inhuman spread on the bone witch’s face. I recalled the myths about her, and how many she’d killed in Mexico. What were her hero experiences like, that made her hate the system that much?
“It’s a deal.”