Rebecca sat in a dusty room. Some large attempt had been undertaken to clear it out, but it still looked dingy and dirty. The medical equipment wrapped around it like a snake, leaving very little room for anything other than the doctor and a single examination table. Her eyes flicked over the readouts on a cracked screen.
“Glad you finally made it back,” the doctor said, only looking up when I hopped onto the table. “Did you find what you needed to?”
It wasn’t a hard decision that I made right there.
One part of me cried out about morals and meanings and what I’d seen in the depths of hell. Told me that anyone involved there should be drug out into the street and shot.
The other recognized that she was a doctor, and her continued presence here meant more people stayed alive.
Was an easy choice to say we needed more doctors than we needed justice at the moment.
When had my morals shifted that much? When had my beliefs in good and evil switch over to the great good and the greater evil?
My left hand remained pressed against the table, twitching, useless. Putting weight on it made me hurt, but I didn’t stop, letting the sensation wash over my nerves at what I was doing.
My right hand reached into my pocket and withdrew a single dust encased flash drive. It hadn’t fallen out in the escape. “You mentioned you lost the majority of your research?”
Rebecca’s eyes flicked up properly from the read-outs and machines and settled across the data drive. Then she took a long, drawn breath and pulled herself away from it entirely.
“There’s something timeless about our mistakes, isn’t there?” Rebecca asked, curiously, walking over to my side. Her fingers leapt from injury to injury, prodding them closed, coaxing skin to fix back together; scars to never heal, muscles to never ache. Like hop-scotch, only with all the tension of the world across her shoulders.
“There is,” I agreed. Not because I knew what she meant (because I did) but because I didn’t want to think about my mistakes either.
“You would think that after decades of making them, I’d make a few less,” The doctor said, his fingers trailing up my arms, fixing puncture words and abrasive tears, before finally, with marked hesitation, snatching the drive up and setting it to the side. “So you saw the lab.” She turned away.
I stared at her back. She blew dust off of the drive. “No telling which bit is on here… I can only hope…” Rebecca looked up. “Go on, ask questions.”
“The hell… was that place?” I asked.
Her shoulders slumped a bit as the drive failed to read. She pulled it out and gently dabbed at it with another napkin, the bone-witch tittering at another port on the laptop to get it to work. This time it clicked, and the scan started.
“Would you believe it if I said it were a rehabilitation center?” she asked, her voice low.
There were miles between anything therapeutic and the dead I’d found.
“Not particularly,” I said, flat. I brought my hands down across my body, touching where I’d been injured. The deeper wounds still ached, but they wouldn’t for much longer.
“It was. Ask your friend Colton,” Rebecca dismissed, watching the screen intently as her computer read the dusty surface. “Come on…”
“There were monsters there,” I said. “And you knew about them.”
“The end stage of hero evolution,” Rebecca said. I would have liked to see her face, to see if it was just as flat and lifeless as her explanation. “Anything that works on the beasts… we’d just have to figure out the different dosages for heroes. Anything,” She made a vague gesture, then flicked her gaze over to me.
Her eyes were watery, bright, shiny, and she rubbed them against the collar of her coat. “Anything to cut down on infant casualties.”
Thought about the lost boy.
Thought about the sea of skin.
Thought about the gods we’d made in the dark.
“You were researching them?”
“I am somewhat of an expert in the field,” Rebecca said, hissing as the drive failed to load again. She pulled it out, then gave me a long look. “Get the dust off of this.”
I roused a breeze in the room, trying to get the drive fixed. A few particles of dust flew away and fell to the ground. Rebecca squinted at it and slid it back into the drive.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, not really,” I said. “Those were monsters. Surely the genetic sway would stop any tactics you adapted that worked on them from working on heroes?”
“Rehabilitation for monsters,” Rebecca said. “The idea that we could learn how to revert those processes. Figure out how to control them.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Those sorts of genetic changes… there shouldn’t be any logical way to revert them.”
“There shouldn’t be any logical way that I or IronMarrow can revert, either,” Rebecca pointed out. “If we could just… figure it out… perhaps it is entangled in the MRNA, or perhaps it is from…” Rebecca sighed, tapping her finger tips against the desk. “There are more than one sets of logic at work here. There is the logic of sciences, and how those processes happen, and then there is the logic of heroes and villains. We of the scientific community have been blessed with the unenviable task to get them to work together,” She paused. “Are you aware of the deeper Ontological theorems developed in the 90s?”
“I am not. That sounds like something a researcher would know.”
“And sadly you’re a hero,” Rebecca said. “Again, what a waste.”
“You’re alive because I’m a hero,” I said.
“What a waste of a good death,” the immortal said.
“Your researchers thought differently,” I said. “They made pacts in the darkness with what they were researching. They thought…”
“They thought they could avoid death, like that creature had for years,” Rebecca laughed, then glared at her computer, daring for the drive load to error out again. “Idiots. I told them there was nothing to envy about immortality. All of your traumas build up. All of the places you used to know aren’t there anymore. Entire facades of reason disappear into the night. Tears fall from faces that nobody else remembers. All those…”
Gently, I reached out and touched her shoulder.
The doctor jumped, and stared at the hand, her eyes narrowing.
“It’s bad,” Rebecca finished, shortly. “Human life spans weren’t really designed to last past sixty, anyway, why on earth would anyone want to live past a hundred?”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“90, perhaps.” The doctor said. She didn’t look a day past 30. She didn’t look younger than that, either, a vague ageless air to her severe features.
The computer blipped behind her.
The drive loaded, and the entire screen went dark as association protections took over. Rebecca sighed, placed long fingers across the keys, and went to work entering in password after password, numbers, symbols, letters, whirring about fast enough that the clicking drowned out the screams from the base.
“I think they’re dead,” I said. “Down in the lab.”
“They made their pacts with the damned,” Rebecca intoned, grimly. “They’re no longer my colleagues. Just memories trapped in someone else’s flesh.”
“I’ll get a memorial to them,”
Her eyes flicked over to mine as the screen whirred and ached with strange images. Out of the corner of my, I saw them whirr with thousands of images I instinctively knew not to stare too closely at.
“Would you?” Rebecca asked, inquisitively. Blindly, she fumbled for the pockets of her coat and pulled out a small piece of folded papers and held them out. I took them and brought them up over the screen so I didn’t have to look at it anymore.
Nomination for best Lab Head. Rebecca Hawkins.
We, the scientists of the Dauphin Island center for rehabilitation would like to submit for consideration our Lab Head for this prestigious award.
Then it was signed with more than a dozen names. Rebecca’s eyes remained locked thoroughly on the screen.
“Their names. For the memorial.”
“Are you sure I should have this?”
“I made copies,” Rebecca said, vaguely. “Many copies.”
My eyes flicked back over to hers, keeping the flickering screen away.
The laptop clicked once, and the flashing stopped.
Rebecca’s eyes softened as she copied the files over to her laptop. I watched them scroll over, countless in nature, file names heavily encoded with flickering sigils.
“Has someone ever looked at you, Gale,” the doctor said, softly. “And admired you for what you chose to be, rather than whatever natural talents you possess? To remark upon what you trained to do, what you spent hours grinding against so you could do it, instead of looking upon whatever facet of your existence is most evident?”
My fingers clenched, and my left hand spiked with pain. The doctor’s left hand rose up and flicked through the air, poking at the nerve in my arm to get it to soften up.
“I found something like that here,” I said. “Found out they needed a leader more than they needed another hero.”
“And you’d kill for them, wouldn’t you?” The doctor spoke, flicking her fingers.
“I have.” I admitted.
“But you lied to get there,” Rebecca said. “Would they have followed you if they’d known about your powers in the first place?” Calm, cold. What I’d come to expect from her, more than anything else.
The computer blipped as the files transferred.
“You managed to get a doctorate,” I said. “Someone ignored your abilities for that.”
“I left the program in retirement. Swore to never return,” She said, faintly. “Went and got properly educated. Like I’d told everyone that I’d do. So I could try and fix this. Could try and…”
Rebecca sighed and stood up, fetching me a look in her cold eyes. Appraising perhaps. “And you, you…” She laughed. “You did the same thing. Went about your entire life pretending that you were to be defined by just your abilities, and then, and then.”
I held up a hand. “I’m beyond that now, aren’t I? I didn’t go to Dauphin island because of my abilities. They don’t remark on my competence.”
“The world has always judged people by that,” Rebecca said. “Isn’t it every kid’s dream to become a great hero?”
And somehow that dream had never left my heart. The world was getting more complicated, but something deep inside of me said that I still wanted to try and fix the world. Staring at Rebecca, who was trying to fix it through science, to come up with a cure that the world needed so badly.
“What was on the drive?”
She tugged a single file up and slapped it across the screen. Labelled Colton. Complicated sprawl of code and genetic information.
“My database,” She said. “You found a partial copy of my data base. I don’t have to start from scratch comparing people and powers and families.”
“And what will you do from there?”
“Hopefully determine what interaction creates heroes in the first place. Create a vaccine parents can take to nullify that chance, if their genetics should forecast it’ll be a monster. More effective than testing after the fact…”
“Does that help us here? In this crisis?” I asked.
Was I the leader or a bully at this point?
“It might. It depends on how the next few weeks go, really.”
“One day, I’ll figure this all out,” I said, faintly. “I’ll figure out all of these stupid secrets, and everything you’ve been hiding from people.”
“Oh, I hope you do,” Rebecca said. “It’d be nice to have someone else who knew how screwed we all are.”
The transfer complete, she plucked the drive between her fingers and skewered it between dozens of bone claws, thin as nails.
Then relaxed her hand, the data destroyed.