It took me a week to get out of the ICU. Days of local physical therapists forcing me to work my hand, prying it open, prying it shut, surgeries again and again. Faded rooms covered in x rays., followed by Rebecca trying her best to heal me. Days of cutting with knives, trash cans filled with my null-irradiated flesh. Metal fragments left too close to bone.
Then more physical therapy, X rays, cutting.
Even in the super hero era, dealing with radiation was a pain. I was lucky to have Rebecca there to fight it off, chunk by chunk. I was even luckier than anesthetic worked on me, so I didn’t have to witness the specifics. The deep punctures left behind by the gauntlet, down to the bone were even harder to deal with, and my left hand was covered in fractures and complex bone aches, dirty infections and horrible things that I didn’t want to hear about. Could barely move it. It shook. Tremors.
There was a hope it could be fixed later, that physical therapy might restore most of the movement to it, but for now it was a bumpy mess of healing scars and trembling nerves.
But I made it through better than Mary, who hadn’t been kept far from me.
“I can’t fix nerves, Gale,” Rebecca said, pointedly, as we both stared at the wall keeping us from Mary. We could see through the glass at the sleeping hero.
“You can fix bones, and muscles. Why not nerves?”
“Nerves are finicky,” Doctor Hawkins confessed. “I can regrow my own, because it’s my own body. But I’m not a neural specialist, I am a geneticist. You can hardly expect a psychiatrist to pull off a brain surgery. It’s an entirely different field.”
I breathed out, squeezing my left hand around the weight and testing my fingers.
My left hand had always been weak, but now it felt more like gelatin than a flesh and blood hand. It wobbled and bobbed poorly as I clenched the muscle, trying to pull more, trying to make it obey my commands.
“It’s the same reason why I can’t really fix your left hand. There’s a good deal of therapy that will need to be done there before you’re back to working condition.”
She sat down next to me and joined me at staring at Mary, watching her chest bob to the beat of her lungs.
“She did well,” I said.
“She won’t run again unless she uses her powers, and now she’s ridiculously anemic, her osteoporosis has only intensified, and she’s got hairline fractures all across her body that are resisting healing.. Doubt her bones will put up with that much more. I don’t think doing well is going to make it up to her,” Rebecca sighed.
“So we retire her,” I said. “Reward her by saying she never has to do that again, and she can go back to being a civilian.”
Rebecca shrugged. “If you think we can keep someone from fighting if they have the ability to… if only in theory… Sure. Hasn’t worked when I’ve suggested it, but sure, let’s see how it works for you.”
I swatted her shoulder. “Stop being so pessimistic.” My left hand stung from the contact, and I rubbed it with my right, dropping the weight.
“There’s no room for pessimism in science, Gale. Not really. I’m a realist, and the world is an awful place.”
“Try optimism then. There’s still room for it.”
“If you say so,” Rebecca said. “Almost time to attend the other funerals. Doesn’t look like she’ll wake up in time. You got your clothes?”
I took a slow breath and stood up. My vision swam and I jerked forward, but Rebecca caught me, keeping a firm grip on my shoulder. “Keep upright, Gale.”
I laughed, but it was quiet, and it hurt my throat, still sore from screaming. “How can I do anything else if you’re all trying to catch me?”
Then we left the hospital on Spring Hill.
The graveyard was the site of the next great cleanup efforts. Downtown Mobile had been trashed, but there were far less casualties. Far less hearses piled up while people dug through wreckage for loved ones, far less laborers picking through office buildings.
It didn’t mean there were less people there. To the contrary, there were more people there than even for Faraday’s funeral.
Twenty One coffins stretched out in front of us, each marked with a plaque. I recognized the old father from the church among them, caught by the beast while helping with the evacuation up north. His face seemed peaceful. Some were open; those who were intact enough. Others were shut. It depended on what the family wanted. It depended on wills, and other complicated matters.
There was no different between capes and officers, there was no difference between bystanders and those that had stood up to it.
In the distance, a bonfire raged, stoked high to cook the Lost Boy’s flesh into thick ash in the air. It painted the sky with black smoke and went against regulations, but the fire department was nearby to smooth things over, so what did it really matter?
The priest said quiet words, but they disappeared to the afternoon rains, falling softly over the desecrated fields. Limestone powder mixed with gravedirt to form a chalky mixture that would later dry and make everything a milky brownish white, grass sticking up through the ground like blades through flesh.
The graveyard looked less like a place for the dead and more like some ancient and destroyed monument; chunks of white marble and pale crude stone tossed to the side by great winds. The rain pattered on.
Each one carried the Association symbol for death in the line of combat; against a villain.
It wasn’t entirely untrue, not really.
But how could I articulate the difference to the mourning crowd?
Hospital lobby. Waiting to get properly dismissed; for someone to show up with a car. Slow thoughts; the buzz of painkiller and the ache of mending bones. Things itched under my skin.
“Yeah, I’m not letting you go back to the Motel,” Colton said. “Hands, you got a place for Gale?”
Hands grimaced. “Not really, we’re out of room at my place.”
“Gale can stay at my apartment, then,” Colton said.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” I asked, holding up my hands. My left one was scarred from Rebecca’s recent treatments to carve the radiation out piece by piece. Reconstructive.
“Nope,” Colton cut in.
“I’m with Colton, you can’t just stay at a motel the entire time,” Hands agreed. “You’re a hero now, you at least deserve a bed that’s been changed in the last decade.”
I made a face. “But what about Excelsior? Where is he going to stay?”
“He’s an A ranker, and he’s active. He’s literally made of money,” Colton dismissed. “And I haven’t really seen him around your bedside lately.”
“He’s been busy taking over my job,” I said, just as harshly. “Let him do it, I want a break from getting my teeth bashed in.”
There was a bit of silence, and I stared at the two of them, wild eyed. Colton had gone through a bit of physical therapy, but I knew, offhandedly, that he was seeing a therapist to sort out what having lightning shoved through his thoughts did for him.
I didn’t know what Hands was up to in the week I’d been in and out of trying to save my hand, but I knew they’d been hard. It was etched in every inch of her face that it had been hard.
“You were doing a good job,” Hands said.
“Probably too soon for that,” Colton muttered, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, let’s stand up.”
“I don’t want to stand up,” I said, stubbornly, sullenly.
“You’re twenty, Gale, you don’t get to sulk like that.”
“Heroes don’t really get days off, do they?”
“Then we need a cake,” I said, slowly staggering to my feet. Balance was still off, and the tinnitus hovering in my ears would only abate with further time. It was better than being dead, at least.
“For saving Mobile again,” I said. “We should get a cake every time we come home from something like that.”
“That’ll just get us fat,” Colton muttered.
“Why?” I asked, looking at him. “You really think we’ll come home from that many missions?”
“Now who’s being morbid?” Hands asked, tugging my arm over her shoulders. Colton joined her, though it was far more awkward for him as he had a few inches on me. “Come on, let’s get moving. We’re getting debriefed on what we’re allowed to say.”
A frown joined my lips, but I kept walking forward anyway.
Excelsior stood in front of the makeshift headquarters we’d constructed out of molded brick and tattered carpet. He peered inside, then offered us the door.
The heroes scurrying about inside, submitting their patrol requests and their ideas, sharing photos of the Lost Boy, the deaths, what had been allowed, what had been seen, abruptly stopped and stared at Excelsior.
“Don’t let me stop you,” Excelsior said, calmly, sweeping into the middle of them. “But know that outside of the room, not a soul is to know the specifics of what happened in the graveyard.”
“That’s fine,” said one of them. “All we have is grainy footage anyway.”
Excelsior smiled slightly and bowed his head. His sword swung on his back as he made his way through. “Operational security needs to be maintained, as of this moment. Nobody ask questions about what happened in the graveyard, and nobody will go searching for those answers either. It is for your protection, more than it is for the protection of security, that if you are taken captive by the forces in this state, that they can not extract anything from you.”
The morose and strict tone to his voice caught me off guard. What had he seen, really that made him that severe?
“If you have any questions or concerns about something you know, or something you’ve seen, it’d be best if you took it to me. If I am not around, then Gale, Colton, or Hands will take care of it. This has now been classified to those three and those who are B rank or higher in the city. Understand that I make this decision as the ranking hero in Mobile, and I make this as a matter of protocol, not as any sort of punishment for what you all have done here,” Excelsior’s lips twitched into a smile. “But know that I am surprised, and impossibly proud to find this place still standing after the total collapse of the neighboring Association base.”
Something flickered in my heart, underneath of the nervousness and anxiety winding across my ribcage, cats cradled with threads of guilt and the images of more coffins. He was proud of me. He was proud of us. He was proud.
There was silence in the room after he finished talking, and he slowly looked back into the hallway. “Gale, your office?”
“Of course,” I said, following after him. The sword clicked against his body.
Then they stepped inside the gloomy room where I’d kept up on emails and triangulated affairs. We stole a chair from the front lounge for adequate seating, then took up audience around the desk.
“I apologize for not briefing you on this earlier,” the swordsman said, grimly, steepling his fingers together. “And I apologize even more for not being here.”
Colton opened his mouth to say something, and I put my right hand on his shoulder.
Which surprised me when Hands spoke up. “Sir, did you leave us here to die?”
“No, no, I had full faith that Gale would make contact with the Dauphin island base, and be able to arrange protection from their ranks, eventually. I… did not foresee that the base would fall.”
“To the Cuban Patrol,” I muttered.
His head snapped up and he stared at me. I held his gaze, though my mind was elsewhere, thinking of broken noses, and gunshots and the inky smell of blood and ruined bodies.
“Bizarrely, I was under the impression that you weren’t involved with the fall of the base, seeing as you’re still alive,” Excelsior said. “And you say the Cuban Patrol was involved?”
“They’ll disavow it,” Colton grunted. “And we don’t have proof.”
“Don’t have proof?” I hissed. “They killed Gunze. They killed all of those heroes there! We could have a graveyard all to ourselves of all the fucking people who died!”
Hand on my shoulder, slowly pushing me back into my seat. I blinked.
I couldn’t remember when I’d started to stand up.
“We can’t take revenge on them,” Excelsior said, mildly. “Not yet, and not for a long time. More likely… there’ll be a reckoning, but…” His face slid into a grimace. “It confuses me on why the Cuban Patrol is reinforcing our bases in Mississippi if they sacced our bases here.”
I stiffened and my teeth clicked together, muscles strained, teeth ground against each other pointlessly. “Patrickson.”
Excelsior’s eyebrows raised higher, but he said nothing.
“Briefing, sir?” Colton asked.
“If anyone asks you what happened in the graveyard, there was a villain attack. Same with the Dauphin island Association base. Same with anything else you’ve seen so far,” Excelsior cut in, placing a hand on the desk. “Swear to me that you’ll follow that order.”
“But, that’s not true. Doesn’t the public deserve to know what’s happening?”
“What the public doesn’t know won’t start a riot. It won’t threaten the working action of the city, and it won’t cause people to fight against us,” Excelsior said, leaning back in his chair. There was a nervous tension to his muscles I didn’t remember being there. “These are the terms that I am offering to keep me here.”
“To keep you here?” I asked. “Are you planning to leave?”
“They’d like me back in Montgomery as soon as possible,” My mentor threw it out there. “I am not supposed to be here, and they’d like to see action and results from my little venture down here, or else they will order me back.”
“Is the Association that strong?” I asked. “We’re cut off out here.”
“It’s not that the organization is that strong,” He said. “It’s that the situation is simply that bad. I shouldn’t’ve left,” he held up a hand to hold off the words on my tongue. “I’m not upset that I left, I would do it again to save you all, to save this city, but I should not have left when things were so sensitive. I left my partner in that mess, and I intend to return as soon as I have stabilized everything here.”
“What the hell is happening out there?” Colton hissed. “What’s actually that bad?”
“Do we have coffee?” Excelsior asked. “Coffee, and then we’ll talk about it. I haven’t had coffee in a while, we’re out in Montgomery.”
I stood up and made some coffee and returned, handing it to him. He sipped it while it was hot, scowled, and set it down.
“Almost every single major association base on the south and eastern coast has suffered a critical failure of some type. Criminals were let loose that shouldn’t’ve been threats, but were. Reactors went critical. Villains,” he looked at me. “Attacked when we were vulnerable. And in some places, weirder things have been happening. The Weird are what we’re worried about here. Montgomery is…” He frowned.
“What’s wrong with the capital?” Hands asked.
“In need of normalizing,” Excelsior said, flatly. “I won’t bother you with the specifics… lord willing, there will never be a need for people to know the specifics.”
I knew when information wasn’t being given to me, but didn’t ask more. There was a glint in his eye, there was a shake to his hands, there was something there that I didn’t want to see or touch. I’d known him as a gallant figure, and this spread of operational procedure reeked more of the military.
“Manny the Faces got that far into our security?” I asked.
“He got the main database at the capital and leaked about half of it,” Excelsior said, sighing. He took another swig of his coffee. “Then stole the rest. We’re operating half cocked, half aware, and we don’t know what all’s been taken.”
“So they’re running in the dark?” I asked. It made sense. Try to minimize the damage done by not giving people what they needed to take advantage of the breach.
“Every active system is a system that can be tracked right now. I’ve heard, from the pilots, that there are places on the west that are fully active, but they can’t do anything on the east because of the black out,” Excelsior explained. “But it’s better this way.”
“In what world is this better?” Colton asked. “We’re blind, people are dying, and there are things on the roads.”
“Because if people knew how bad things were off, there wouldn’t be a civilization left to save,” Excelsior said, grimly. “That Lost Boy was the third I’ve had to pleasure of dealing with in a month. The other two had to be firebombed to the ground.”
“They were human,” my voice cracked.
“They were human,” Excelsior agreed. “But you still kill a man when he has rabies to put him out of his misery. Same idea here.” His voice turned into steel. “And if you want to stay alive, until the crisis is over, you’d do good to keep the same ideals. While the civilians might not know it, we’re essentially at war with those that want the Association in the grave.”
“Extent of the damages?”
“Information travels slow, but so far as the last couple of months, major population centers are mostly intact, if heavily monitored and cordoned off. Birmingham being the exception…” he trailed off, looking at the wall. “There’s little to be done there.”
“Do you have any good news?” Hands asked.
“We’re alive. We’re kicking back, and we’re going to open up supplies from Pensacola into Alabama, and we’re going to link the gulf coast back together, piece by piece.” Excelsior clapped his hands together, grinning. “Which’ll save Mobile, make retaking everything else easier, and hopefully, just hopefully, save our lives.”
The three of us in the room proved remarkably immune to his cheer. Silence hung in the room awkwardly.
“What is Fafnir?” I asked.
The smile dropped from Excelsior’s face.
“I was obliged by your father to not introduce you to that,” Excelsior said.
“Where’s my dad?” I asked.
“Probably enforcing order in Florida,” he replied, easily. “When you meet him again, you can ask me about Fafnir.”
“I don’t like being blown off about that, Excelsior,” I said, flatly.
He took a slow, long breath out. “They were homeland Security units designed to quell places that were considered too far gone for traditional interventions, and I’m not allowed to tell you more than that.”
“What does that even mean?”
Excelsior smiled grimly. “They’d be doing our jobs, a lot better, and without alerting people that the problem had ever spread this far.”
I blinked at him, and looked at Colton and Hands. “And where are these Fafnirs?”
“Dead, mostly. They were cold war units, mostly disavowed and killed one by one in various accidents, various missions. If there are any left, they’re with the senators, the representatives, the president; in bunkers far away where nobody can touch them. If I were to guess, it’s been under attack for quite some time now, and the media’s hush about it,” Excelsior stood up. “You won’t be able to pry much more out of me, I’m afraid, no matter how hard you try.”
“Any other innocent secrets like those?”
“I just told you the Association had a secret police force, Gale,” Excelsior breathed. “I don’t think I need to tell you anything else for you to figure out a couple of secrets.”
The capital was under attack, Fafnir was busy, and I was no closer to solving that mystery than I’d been when we started.
Remembered how short it had been since Negalli had told me Manny was responsible. Hadn’t met the man, but there was a burning hatred that sparked fires across my finger tips. Brought pain to my head, clouded thoughts.
“Why did Manny do this? Shatter us like this? Kill all these people?”
“Easy,” Excelsior said. “He wanted something more than he valued the life of all of the heroes in the Association. Something he valued more than life itself. I think, more than anything… he wants revenge.”
I took in a long breath. “Revenge for what? And doesn’t he already have it? We’re in lock down. People are dying. Maniacs are out enforcing petty vendettas.”
“Making him into a murderer,” Excelsior said, flatly. “We taught him to kill and how to lock his heart away in a box. We shouldn’t be surprised when the best of us turn against us for it. I just hope that we can recover in time… and it can get worse, Gale. It can get far worse. It can turn into Mexico.”
Excelsior sighed. “The world isn’t ending, Gale. Not so long as there are people like you, and people like me. And in all of the states, there are people like you and me.” He paused, shaking his head. “I should go. I need to figure out where I’m staying.”
Then he swept out, leaving the three of us there.
I breathed out, my arms shaking as I tensed them, fingers curling into fists, nails biting into flesh.
“Gale?” Colton asked, giving me a look.
I’d lived through a Lost Boy murdering its way through Mobile, from some secret place up north. Seen it twist through people I’d fought for, fought to put in its way, and I was still getting the damn run around of things.
When was it supposed to end? When would I get my piece, my break, my dreams filled with something other than eyes and screaming hands and clawing skin and broken bones.
I slammed my fist into the wall and my skin broke. I stood there, staring down at the blood, shuddering. I just… I just…
Hands wrapped her arms around me and I stiffened. “Calm, calm.” She whispered.
My face paled, flushed, confused, fingers shaking. Colton swept to the side and leaned against me. “Come on, come on, we need to keep moving, alright? Big leader, pick something for us to do.”
I hissed out, but there was a bizarre pressure on my chest I couldn’t shake, and my head was filled with memories of broken bones and strangled screeches.
“Gale,” Hands said again.
“We need to…”
My head swam and I stumbled back into a chair, breathing out. “Need to keep Mobile intact.,” Objective, focus back on that. Tear away the buzzing uncertainty, the obsession with detail. Breath in, breath out. My gaze slowly flicked up to Hands, then Colton. “…I need an assistant.”
“Woah,” Colton breathed out. “Alright. How long have you been having attacks like that?”
I breathed in. My chest was still tight, and like too much weight was on it, and breathed out.
“Since now, I guess,” I said, though I knew the indecision and the flagellation had been bad before. I just… Breath in.
“I had a teacher like that in Dauphin island,” Colton said. “Took too many hits, and he just reacted weird if anyone made any sudden moves.”
Breathed out. “What’d he do to help it?”
“Meditation,” Colton said. “It’s why I had him, actually.”
“Right, for focusing,” I said, looking over at Hands. “That’s not that bad an idea, honestly.”
“What’s not?” Hands asked.
“Could get everyone together and meditate for a bit. Colton can teach us.”
Colton blinked. “You want me to teach people?”
“You’re the one who does it on the daily. I mostly use it when focusing on my powers…” I trailed off. “Do you think it’s too much of a burden?” I closed my eyes. Vision was swimming, and my head was buzzing. Had to focus too much on the conversation, though the words all sounded right, I was afraid.
“No, I’m just surprised you’re asking the hothead to teach people how to calm down.”
Cracked open an eye and looked over at Hands. “What do you think?”
“If you think it’ll help people, we should all do it,” Hands said.
Wondered if she had the same thing, but in bed, in the throes of a night terror, stuck in that burning city while the sea of skin roared in the distance. Or perhaps she had joined me in the graveyard, thrown against the wall, cracking bone. When we were supposed to have died.
“Fine,” Colton said, and my eyes fluttered back open. “We’ll set up a sign up board out front, and we’ll see how many people are interested.”
It was all I could ask for.
Colton found himself a full class. Whether it was because he was popular, the most powerful direct hero in our roster, or because people really recognized they needed a way of calming down after the things that were rocking the city, it didn’t matter. We’d have our time, and we’d learn how to calm ourselves from someone whose very life revolved around being as sure as possible.
It made sense to develop another system for it.
Meanwhile, I found myself booked to the local hero therapist.
As I mentioned before, there were a large variety of occupations that popped up after the spread of capes. While the Association was down in the area, not all of those inside of the network were down.
All that was left was the operations, the cutting, and the slow moving certainty that things weren’t going to get better on their own.
We’d have to take matters into our own hands.