Heroes Fail

Episode 40
Peace Treaty with Odin and the Cult

Minor backscene — Natalie visits Ang about her power explosion out there in the snow, and Ang tells her what she already knows. She needs to see Langston. sigh So off she goes, in QUITE the mood, to stick her arm in Langston’s face and tell him to take her blood. She cannot look at Melody in the eye — she recounts for Langston what happened out there, and he makes thoughtful noises a lot. Melody tries to get Natalie to look at her, telling her that they will not lose their friendship, but Nat is clearly feeling very very insecure about that, as well as worried about what this explosion of power will do not only to the child she carries but to Refuge Point too. There’s a bit of chatter between Langston, Melody, and Natalie about that part – and Natalie does send Jared to go get his blood extracted by the resident vampire too.

A Science Montage happens. Langston is doing work on the protein marker previously noted in Ang’s blood, and he also notes it in Natalie’s blood. Still uncertain of exactly the link here, but there clearly is one. And whereas in Ang’s case when her power blew out and created the earthquake, the markers dropped very low… the indicators here are that whatever explosion happened with Natalie, EITHER she just carries more of the markers in her blood regularly OR … well, that massive blast she let off wasn’t the strongest she could have managed. Which is a concern as time goes on — if she’s overloaded in this way, she could prove dangerous to Refuge Point.

With the cultists’ arrival the next day, the plan is already in place for the group to travel aboveground (for a variety of reasons) to the Botanical Garden. There’s about 18 inches of snow on the ground, which makes travel hard but not impossible for everyone but Langston. A travois has to be fashioned — Maddy makes it look similar to an Eskimo sledge. During the course of the day and a half of travel time, the group does learn a little more from Calder. The cult’s attention, like Refuge Point’s, has turned from mere survival at this point to growth. To LIVING instead of existing. Calder has seen Odin in person, and we ascertain that it is NOT Franklin — so Ang warns the Cult about Franklin and the possible dangers he brings. We learn that in fact the people DO communicate directly with the tree through those vines about their neck and jacked into their heads. Langston engages them in a lot of conversation, and we find out that they consider themselves “better specimens” of humans — then no longer need medications. Plants, along the travel path, are not flourishing in the snow, but they are also not dying out the way we’d expect. As the group approaches the location of what we had thought was the World Tree, some of the travelers break off to stay there and we are told that although it is still a revered locale, it is not what they originally thought it was, so it is not quite as sacred a space.

When the group arrives to the botanical gardens, it is to see Mjoltivir (spelling?), the giant tree, is some 40 meters tall. This was not here before D-Day for certain. One of the primary features of the Botanical Gardens was the Climatron, a geodesic dome building that housed the tropical plants. Mjoltivir appears to be similar to a banyan tree, hollow at the center with massive vines that surround the dome. As we enter, we can see a man dangling far above at the center of the tree, facing down into the dome. Inside, the dome is still intact and there is obviously come kind of generator. The tropical plants are still growing. People dressed in jumpsuits walk around, giving the impression of “staff” from before D-Day, perhaps. They are definitely a little off — free will seems to be … missing?

When the group meets with the tree… it shapes itself into forms that we perceive as the Norn. It’s clear that the guy hanging up there has a worldview that is seriously impacting the tree-being. It speaks to us with a whispery kind of voice in the wind, with a telepathic component so that we can hear the words it speaks. It reiterates to us that yes, those connected to it are of a kind of hive mind, but that they cannot bring in the unwilling. It cannot be forced on anyone. And the level of free will each person retains is entirely up to them. Langston informs the tree that we wish to remain distinct persons in our own right, but we all do want to talk alliance. The tree agrees that as long as an accord doesn’t unreasonably restrict its growth, it is more than happy to have a relationship. Langston and Maddy volunteer to merge with the tree for a show of good faith — and what the tree learns from them is perhaps significant. Their worldviews on people are not exactly the norm, after all.

Through this merge, we learn that the Cult is some 400-500 people strong. That it is building a neural network, something that was speculated before and is very similar to Sandra’s intentions. It is just trying to “become.” We learn that the tree understands there is SOME kind of difference in the people it has connected with, but it’s only just barely beginning to understand the basics of the genetic differences — this could, in fact, be useful later. It doesn’t have enough knowledge right now to be helpful to us, but it learned some things from Langston. We also learn about the man suspended in the tree — he is the reason the tree is now sentient, and it knows that. It also knows that he is… completely insane. We have the conversation about that, and the tree definitely does not seem to have the intention of letting the man ever get down or be in charge of things. The symbiotic relationship works for them both because the man suspended there doesn’t want to give up the power and knowledge that the merge gives him either. We are able to hammer out the beginnings of a treaty, with resources as part of the initial agreement and boundaries defined and the understanding that some things over time will obviously be renegotiated as necessary. We may be willing to loan people in return for food, etc.

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Seekers in the Snow
Wolf comes home, but it's not without surprises.

She slept for a long time. 8 weeks into this pregnancy, Natalie is learning some things that no one can really prepare you for — they tell you you’re going to feel tired. They don’t tell you that you’re going to be so tired that literally all you really WANT to do is curl up and sleep all the damn time. Even now, Natalie feels drained and weary, though how much of that is just being pregnant and how much of is that her healing power is constantly running and food is short is really anyone’s guess. She’s not skimping, taking the protein bars being shoved at her at every turn by everyone on the team and by Jared, but even with that going on, she is still feeling lightheaded at times and exhausted constantly. It’s not something she’s advertising — her family cannot give up much more than they already do or THEY won’t be getting enough to eat.

That’s a worry for another day. Today’s worry is to see if she can locate Wolf before he spots Cult members heading toward Refuge Point and kills them. If she can. Trudging through the snow outside, Natalie makes her way toward the old den near the arch where she first met Wolf. It’s slow going, and she glances sideways at Jared as they go. “I’m not sure how feral he’s going to be, if we can even find him. But … I need you to trust me and not intervene unless you absolutely have to.”

Jared nodded. “I trust you, Nat.” Suppressing his innate need to protect the mother of his child wouldn’t be easy, but Nat had been taking care of herself long before he came around. He’d be happier if he understood the relationship between Wolf and Natalie or even exactly what or who Wolf was these days. From what he understood, the two of them had a strange, complicated friendship to start with. Now with Wolf gone feral and the Cult referring to him as Fenrir, Jared felt like he didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. And he hated being unprepared.

Even before her empathy had kicked in at the levels she now… well, enjoyed was not quite the right word. But even before they worked the way they currently worked, she would have known that he was irked. Now with her sense of him so completely ingrained and as natural to her as breathing, Natalie couldn’t help the faint grin she quirked in the cold, bright sunshine. Slanting him another look, she shook her head in amusement. “You know… I don’t think I ever quite realized just how much of a control freak you are. You hide it really well.”

“Would you say that I keep it…” he paused for dramatic effect, “under control?” Jared smirked at Natalie a little bit before answering her seriously. “I don’t know if I’d call myself a freak, but I admit to prefer driving the car over sitting in the back seat.” These days, of course, the car was flaming and barreling out of control down a narrow mountain path, but that didn’t change where he wanted to be sitting while it happened.

He looked up at the Arch, glistening with ice in the cold winter air. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me what your plan is?”

She chuckled at his pun, but was more serious when answering the question. “I would if I had one,” she confessed somewhat ruefully. “All I can do right now with him is follow my instincts and trust his.” Natalie paused, remembering back to her first meeting with Wolf. Knowing what she knows of him now, so much back then makes more sense than it used to.

“I didn’t know when we first met — which was in the FEMA offices, by the way — that he wasn’t human-born,” she told him as they trudged. The Arch was actually very beautiful. “But looking back, I’ve always sort of instinctively acted with pack dynamics in mind. Mrs. was alpha female. But she’s gone. Wolf’s pack was small – just Mrs., me, and to some degree the others on the team and in Refuge Point. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to find him. I’m not 100 percent sure that the pack dynamics will hold since he’s gone lone wolf on us. But when we lost Mrs., I read up as much as I could on wolf packs so I could at least try to help him in the ways he would understand and respond best to.I’m hoping that submission and scent — especially pregnant scent — will bring him far enough back to human to hear me.”

The green of Gateway Park was now covered in snow but it looked to Jared’s eyes that at least the river hadn’t frozen. They would know they were in deep shit if that happened. That gleaming white surface made it easier to see contrasting colors, which is probably the only reason he saw anything in the first place. Even that wasn’t much, just an impression of something gray and brown to their right, a little beyond the pond on the right side of the park. Unlike the river, the pond had frozen over, but it wasn’t likely to be solid enough to cross. They’d have to walk around. He pointed in the general direction of where he had seen him. “I hope you’re right, Nat, because I think I saw him over that way.”

Natalie stopped walking, her eyes shifting in the direction Jared pointed, and she pursed her lips. Then putting her two fingers in her mouth, she cut loose with the loud whistle that groups would use for search and rescue — which was something Wolf had also heard before. And then she called out for him. “Wolf! I need you… if you can hear me, it’s important!”

There was a long silence, nothing but the sound of the wind blowing tufts of loose snow off the ground. Enough time passed that it didn’t look like there was going to be a response. But then at the edge of their vision, Wolf appeared on the other side of the pond. His clothes were rags, what little were left. Wrapped around his upper body was the hide of some animal that neither Natalie or Jared could make out at distance.The sun glinted off a blade of considerable length that he held in his right hand.

“Natalie?” Wolf called out, his voice sounding rusty from disuse, much like he had sounded when Natalie first encountered him. Of course, then, he had never used it before. His voice sounded fragile, like even the single call of her name had cost him pain.

Pulling in a slow breath, Natalie didn’t hesitate to start moving toward the man…. No. The wolf in man’s form. “Yes!” she called back. There were many things she wanted to say, but fewer words were always necessary when dealing with Wolf, and quite honestly, at this moment Natalie wasn’t entirely sure how much he would understand or whether she can even explain what’s happening. Rehearsing how to say what she’d come to say the whole way here still hadn’t prepared her for the sight of Wolf gone nearly entirely feral.

She murmured to Jared as she walked, “He was willing to trust you when he met you. Just don’t startle him, okay?”

Jared just whispered in return, “This is your show, Nat. Just here for if things go sideways.”

There was another long silence as Wolf seemed to take in the response. Then he started trotting at a brisk pace around the north side of the pond. Eventually, he came within about 100 feet before coming to a halt. Now that he was closer, both Natalie and Jared could see how the wild had overtaken him. His beard was a long scraggly white, mixed with scraps of plants and dirt (and was that blood?). He didn’t look like he had bathed in forever and there was a wildness in his eyes, as they shot from point to point quickly. He stood there without making a sound, his attention solely focused on Natalie.

It made her heart ache to see him like this. Natalie had always tried to walk the fine line between treating him as human and not forgetting that he was more wolf than man. Now she held her position for a long moment when he stopped, allowing him the time to test the air between them. Then she moved forward to breach the distance. She didn’t stop until she was within two arm lengths of him, dropping her eyes and shifting her body slightly into a pose that one might take when asking permission to approach. “I need you to do something… that I don’t know if you’ll want to do. But I have to ask it.”

Wolf didn’t protest or make any effort to keep her away as she approached. His breath formed heavy mist in the winter air as he stood silently in front of her, waiting for her to ask.

When he didn’t retreat, Natalie looked up to meet his eyes. “If you’re still hunting down the Cult members, I need you to stop for the next several sunrises. Their pack has had a change in leadership. They want to make peace between their people and ours.”

“Why?” It wasn’t clear exactly what Wolf was asking about and he didn’t seem inclined to clarify. Words hadn’t tumbled from his mouth in mass quantities before the death of Mrs. Wolf, but now each one seemingly had to be pried from him.

Deep pain still bubbled below Wolf’s placid demeanor.

She didn’t stop meeting his gaze, and she moved just enough closer to put herself within reach of him. His pain was a constant rub on her senses and she hurt for him. “Why do they want peace?” Nat asked him quietly, making sure she understands what it is he wishes to know.

“No, Natalie,” he said, his deep voice craggy with pain. “Whyyyyyy?” The last vowel stretched out into a howl as his head tilted up to the sky, a cry out to the world about the unfairness of everything, an asking for an explanation of the unexplainable. As he called out, Natalie was overwhelmed by the sheer depth of the suffering, still as fresh as the moment as when it happened.

Oh. Oh!

Dear God, she had a moment to think as his anguish roared over her. His grief was so raw and her defenses against emotions still so precarious that Natalie couldn’t fend them off. In that instant of crushing pain, she had no ability to fight back and simply crumpled where she stood.

She had no way of knowing how long she might have been blacked out, but when she began to come around, it was with tears streaming down her face before she was even fully aware. “Wolf!” It wasn’t the shout that she might have intended… more a groan or entreaty.

Jared had never done anything in his life as hard as not rushing forward instantly to protect Natalie. In the moment, he felt almost as feral as Wolf looked, a man reverting to the basic instinct to protect what was important. But he managed to restrain himself, to take only the two, slow, cautious steps closer to where Natalie lay in the snow. She’s not physically hurt, he reminded himself. She’s strong and can handle this. If you rush in, Wolf may react and you’ll be sitting in the middle of a true cluster.

And his decision seemed justified. Wolf had made no threatening moves, just crouched down next to Natalie. Jared could see Wolf saying something to her, but he couldn’t quite hear what it was. It’s her show, he reminded himself. Jared just hoped that she could deal with that level of emotion.

As Natalie started to recover, she could hear the low growl of Wolf’s voice, not a whisper as much as an inability to say what needed to be said out loud where the world could hear. “Live…no. Die…no. Help?” The last word came out almost plaintive, a request from someone not used to asking for them.

She wasn’t fully conscious yet, acting entirely on instinct when she reached up and wrapped her arms around Wolf. Natalie’s power has always worked on her instincts to help those who hurt, and when her arms came up it was obvious what was about to happen. The soft golden glow flared to life around the two. But Jared was too far away to stop it.

Much as she did for Ang, Natalie reached instinctively for the source of pain — it didn’t matter to her power that it was emotional instead of physical. The person in her arms was in agony and it could not continue. But something unexpected happened at the same time. Nat’s eyes flew open and she stared blindly at the frigid blue sky. She gasped, her body arching off the wet snowpack beneath her, and her power did something she’s never felt… it shifts in her body. She doesn’t take Wolf’s pain into herself; instead, she could feel it passing through her and down a golden strand of… something. And into the person on the far end.

Jared only had a few seconds to think about he should have been closer, how he knew this was going to happen before Nat activated. But then he felt what she felt, all of Wolf’s pain, the incredible grief weighing on him like a boulder attached to his heart… the rage that was bubbling over, uncontainable and uncontrollable. And something else, something that he hadn’t felt in years. Oh god, she was healing his ability…she was going to turn his fucking power back on!

He shouted at her, “Nat, shut it down! Shut it down now!” But what good would that do? Once she started like this, there was no stopping it, even if she was capable of listening. She wasn’t doing it consciously. The emotional pain kept ramping up, driving him deeper into panic. He could feel that sensation in the back of his head, that twisty, tangling tingling that meant he was connecting to someone else’s mind. He did not want that back. He couldn’t have it back. It would destroy everything that he had gained since Destruction Day. And in a moment of panic and rage, with the power laced in his voice, he roared, “_*STOP!*_”

Where her power had sought him out to keep both her and the child her body harbors safe, his voice brought her fully back to consciousness and forced her to find another way. Natalie’s power shunted into something forceful, physically shoving Wolf from her embrace. She sucked in a breath, shocked at and disoriented, and her scream echoed across the frozen pond as she responded to the order.

Lying there on the wet snow, gasping for breath with wide eyes, Natalie could feel…. What the fuck was her power doing? The glowing golden aura was literally blazing around her, and she could feel… well. She could feel all the emotions that she did siphon off of Wolf; they were still there… but somehow …. Being released instead of drowning her? For now? Natalie had no idea whether that would hold for long and she gasped, “Jared… get him! Both of you…” She rolled to her side with some difficulty to climb to her feet and tried to put distance between herself and both men, watching them worriedly. “Are you okay?”

Jared felt the pain seep out of him. He could feel his own emotions again, not buried under the weight of what Wolf had been feeling. Mostly at the moment, those emotions were panic over what was happening with Natalie. And…relief? That back of the head sensation was gone…really gone. Maybe she hadn’t turned him back on after all.

He took a deep breath and took account of the situation. Wolf was lying prone near the pond’s edge, heaving with giant sobs. But more importantly, Natalie was still fucking glowing, although the intensity was starting to tamp down. But only, he thought, because she’s bloody well doing something impossible. The glow was crackling around her and dissipating into the ground, like electricity sparking off a wire. Had she turned raw emotional energy into actual REAL energy? They would never be able to tell Langston — he’d never let her out of the damn lab. Maybe, he convinced himself, it was just a display, an end result of an unusual situation. That had to be it.

Jared walked over to Nat carefully. “Are you okay,” he asked, “and what the fuck just happened?”

Standing, barely, bent double with her hands braced on her thighs, Natalie looked up at him. “Not … exactly sure,” she admitted between gasps. She felt sick to her stomach and shaky — she’d hit her limit and she knew it. It was obvious in her expression even as she glanced at Wolf. “I can… still feel it, but…. I think he’ll start to recover now.”

As she pushed herself fully upright, she wavered some and braced herself on his arm in an automatic movement. If nothing else, it was clear that she was not afraid of him and whatever he had done in the midst of the giant cluster they’d just been at the epicenter of. “I don’t think I feel so good, though. Can we sit?” She gestured toward Wolf. “I’d like to be able to touch him — I won’t activate again.” She was pretty sure she couldn’t even if she wanted to.

He just nodded and helped her walk over toward where Wolf had been knocked to by the force of Natalie’s ability. As they slowly walked over, he commented, “I thought you were immune.” He should have known that nothing seemed to remain the same these days.

After lowering herself to sit next to the sobbing man where she can stroke his head as she’s often done when he grieved before he left Refuge Point, Natalie was quiet for a long few minutes. When she looked up at Jared, her regret was so deep that she could barely speak past the lump in her throat and she couldn’t stop the tears that trickled from her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to reactivate your powers. I know you didn’t want them back.”

“I don’t think they are, Nat,” he said, a stunned but happy half smile on his face. He knew it wasn’t right to feel happy after the craziness that had just occurred. But he did. “I think I somehow short circuited it.”

Natalie looked confused. “I don’t understand,” she murmured as she continued to stroke Wolf’s matted hair and his shoulders firmly, offering him the only comfort she could as she struggled to make sense of what just happened. “I felt your power. I literally couldn’t disobey you when you told me to stop. And I … honestly can’t believe I didn’t just burn out my brain.”

Jared didn’t know what he believed, but he was indeed happy Natalie hadn’t burned out her brain… or hurt their baby. He tried to explain what happened. “They were on briefly, and then they went away, like your power didn’t have time to finish the job.”

Nodding slowly, Natalie considered what he thought happened. Pulling in a slow breath, she said softly, “Let’s hope that’s the case.” She wasn’t sure she could live with herself if she activated everyone … especially those who don’t want their abilities back.

Wolf’s wracking sobs were breaking her heart and she asked Jared softly, “Can you get the space blanket out of my pack? He’s going to freeze laying here like this, but I don’t think he’s ready to travel yet.” When she finally met Jared’s eyes again, she offered him a watery smile. “And if you don’t mind terribly… I really could use something to eat out of there, too. And a nap. A long one. But I think that part might have to wait.”

“Of course,” he said to all of it. “I won’t be too long.” But he also sensed that she and Wolf needed a couple of moments. He hoped that she could help him get through this. Jared could imagine himself being like that if Natalie died. Especially if he felt like he was at fault. So he understood.

It was one of the things that had drawn Natalie to Jared when they were simply friends — his ability not just to weigh the situation in front of him but to have compassion for the people they helped that was sincere. When he walked the small distance back to where their bags had been set as Wolf approached them, Natalie shifted to lay so that her body curved around Wolf’s shoulders and she could wrap her arms tightly around him. Never mind that she was soaking wet — her thermals would hold up a little longer. Please, God, don’t let me ruin the progress now. Wolf desperately needed bathing and the odor was turning her stomach.

There were no words that would soothe his grief, but she whispered in his ear, “You are not alone. I swear to you. You will be okay.” She wondered if perhaps once they got back Charlie might be able to reach him better than she can — Wolf had always liked the other man. And Charlie to this day missed his wife; Natalie had learned much about her in the nights that she spent with Charlie. If Wolf let him, Charlie’s ability to truly understand might help Wolf heal too. “Your pack still needs you. I need you, my friend. And my cub will need you, too.”

“Cub?” Where everything else seemed to slide past him, that word seemed to stick. “Natalie has cub?”

“Soon,” Natalie told him with a faint, teary smile. “In the spring.” She wasn’t sure if Wolf and Mrs. had ever had cubs before the world went crazy. But his pack ties were strong, and she’d hoped that perhaps something like a new addition might give him new hope for the future too. “Will you come home? The den needs Wolf… and I think perhaps Wolf needs the den, too.”

“Wolf still sad,” he explained, putting a world of emotion into three words. “But Wolf wants to feel happy again now. Wolf will come home.” He wiped some tears from his eyes, like he was surprised to see them there.

“Sadness heals slowly,” Natalie agreed. Her sense of his pain was muted, though she couldn’t tell if that was because her power levels were low or because he really didn’t hurt so much anymore. “Happy takes time.” She moved slowly, hugging him tightly and then drawing away. “Having you home makes me happy. Come on. My mate has some warmer clothing for you. Let’s go home.”

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Episode 39
Paradigm Shift

—Picking up where we left off, Ang has just gone blind.

A voice from the dark says, “Don’t move. Bowmen are trained on you.” Ang uses old Guardians code for specific Defensive Positions, and the team instinctively moves to comply. Everyone can hear the person speaking, but what’s happening back where they stand isn’t clear to anyone. Some lights come on, and Langston can tell something is wrong. He and Natalie realize at about the same time that Ang is blind, and Langston begins to move forward to flank Ang.

The adversaries LOOK like the Cult of Memory and Thought, but we’ve never encountered them in a way that wasn’t violent before. Ang comments dryly, “You have got to be the blondest, blue-eyed motherf—er ever to be with these guys.” The speaker/leader chuckled and agreed — although he points out that nowadays you don’t HAVE to be blond. They can fix that for you. He sets about attempting to recruit Ang (after using the word coinkydink, which totally threw the Guardians). Ang engages them in conversation and it comes about that they are recruiting because they need to grow their numbers, and Ang rather cattily baits, “Oh, you haven’t had any babies? Because we’re having kids.” It brings the leader’s attention more fully on the group, because he does answer that although they’ve been trying real hard, it hasn’t happened for them yet. Ang proposes an alliance.

The leader steps away to “consult” and that’s when some of the party notices that the vines that have been coating the walls are also wrapped around the cultists… and they look like the vines are jacked into the base of their brains. The leader comes back and says that the All-Father is interested in meeting with us. apparently the vine offers instant communication with Odin. A messenger will come to Refuge Point in two days. Ang also negotiates with them about the stash we’ve come to retrieve — we’ll take all that we can carry and the cultists can have the rest. They agree.

To try to keep her blindness a secret, Ang takes Langston’s hand and turns to walk back to the crevice saying, “Okay, honey, let’s go.” Langston goes “Huh??” But the cultists don’t seem to tweak onto the situation. As they make their way through the crevice, Natalie is able to coach Ang’s steps into the large cave and down the narrow path to the stash of supplies…. but Langston loses his balance and falls. Melody tries to catch him and misses. Both land at the bottom of the path, some 20 feet, and break bones.

Natalie plans on splinting them both, but the cultists offer help and explains that his link to the All-Father, the vines, should allow him to visualize the injury and heal it. Langston acts as a guinea pig, and the vine around the leader’s arm wraps itself around Langston’s arm. It takes about 10 minutes, but the slow warmth climbs through his arm and by the time it’s over, he’s healed. He feels a strangeness in his body, similar to when he first made the change to giant ape, something deep inside.

While this is going on, Ang (directing), Natalie, and Maddy are packing as much of the gear as they can manage. Natalie keeps an eye on this healing, and she is reasonably sure it’s the vine itself doing the healing; the man is just a conduit. But it’s nebulous. When it appears to be safe and works, Melody also agrees to be healed. She’s fascinated by the vines. By the time the healing is done, Melody is perfectly capable of helping finish the packing. Ultimately the group takes home about 40% of the cache — a lot of medicines and food.

Traveling home, the group stays below ground for a long while, but they choose to use steam tunnels and sewer tunnels a bit farther on so as not to lead the cultists (potentially) to the basement of Refuge Point. It’s a much longer trip back, and they take watches so that everyone gets a little sleep. Melody plays Whack-A-Vole during her watch and we’ll have some skewered vole for dinner at some point. The next day, the last part of the journey is made above-ground. In the daylight, Ang’s eyes are able to recharge (albeit a bit slowly because it’s cloudy) and she can finally see again.

They arrive home and Langston immediately requests the council’s attention. Natalie drops off her supplies to Dr. No to let her inventory them. A couple hours later, the council convenes to hear about what happened. Much speculation occurs and someone remembers that Toby mentioned to us a half-man, half-plant person up in the Botanical Gardens. So now we think we have a clue who Odin might be.

Everyone (maybe not Langston?) finally heads off to get some serious sleep. Melody spends the next day studying the samples she took from the tunnels — learns that the seed pods appear to have been engineered to do exactly what they’re doing, and they’re kind of an evolutionary dead end. Natalie sleeps for a long time and then she and Jared go late that afternoon to return with a very scruffy, smelly Wolf in tow.

The messengers are due the following day (Dec 13). Calder, the same man from the tunnels, leads them. Natalie asks at one point why the cultists had this change of heart about how to deal with us, and they said Odin had finally hung from the tree and gained wisdom — so we’re thinking SOMETHING has shifted up there. But we shall see….

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Episode 38
Spelunking in the Steam Tunnels

Dec 9, after All Systems Go and Marry in Haste

There is some brief discussion early that morning because the earthquake was definitely felt by everyone. Later in the day, when everyone is awake and sober and done fooling around, Ang asks everyone to join her at her quarters. As everyone enters, her recovered armor is in a prominent place. Natalie notices that the team leader is no longer in the high level of pain that has become the norm for her. Nonchalantly, Ang tells the group that she had this idea while she was drunk — to put on her armor and use it to perhaps alleviate the the power build-up in her body. And well… it DID do that. But it didn’t work like it used to. The earthquake was her power discharging in ways it has never done before and at levels it’s never been at.

Maddy inspects the armor and notes that it has built-in safeguards to prevent exactly that kind of explosion and the mechanisms are intact. It should have prevented it, but it didn’t. She might be able to tweak it to help lessen or ease the effect, focus it, something. Langston, of course, immediately wants blood samples. Drags Ang and Melody off to the lab. He notes an “element” in Ang’s blood — a protein marker or amino acid or something along those lines. Pre-D-Day it was there, so that’s not unusual, but according to all records, it was a LOT lower than it has been recently. The last blood test showed it very very high. Today’s shows it back down to much lower levels. Speculation on the possibilities include that it could be a waste byproduct of Ang’s Power and therefore normal for her to have in her blood and that it’s the physiological cause of the migraines (so there may be some kind of herb that we can work with to mitigate the levels so she’s not hurting so much).

While that’s happening, Eric comes looking for the group. Natalie takes the opportunity before the group gathers for him (it’s going to take them a little longer than she thought) and asks him his intentions for Maddy — because he’s coming across to her like a snake-oil salesman, and Maddy doesn’t deserve it if he’s going to be a jerk. And warns him that he better be sincere, or else she’ll do what’s necessary to protect her family. Melody wanders in at that point and catches the last of it, and she kind of has her say as well. Eric’s in the hot seat.

Once the group is able to gather in Eric’s office, he tells them that he wants to send them out on an Expedition. City View Apartments, just down the way, had a survival nut for a landlord. That’s where Eric’s been getting his stash. The earthquake last night has him alarmed that the secret room where the gear is stored — and the CAVE SYSTEM that it’s connected to under Market Street — could be in danger of collapse. So he wants the stash retrieved. These caves, he reveals, are extensive and do connect to the maintenance tunnels under Refuge Point (which means Defense needs to know about them; they are a strategic weakness). The small cache that Eric found and has already moved included some encoded noted and cases of supplies, and he knows of caches in other caves as well. Food, weapons, etc. He knows of two specific ones — one north and one south near the park. Refuge Point is already facing some shortages and this will help.

Those who’ve been in St. Louis are familiar with some of the caves. Lempe Cave/English Cave. There had always been suspicion that an entrance to this was under Benton Park or in a building on Wyoming St. On their visit to FEMA, Natalie had the forethought to grab all the maps that might be useful for use to know — mainly subway, steam, and sewer tunnel maps — and now these maps of the St. Louis underground are going to come in handy. They find a route that shaves off some of the distance.

It’s cold and snowy outside, and the group rounds up what winter gear they can manage. In the caves, there is general fungal growth on the walls, and heavy vine growth as the group moves west. There are cobblestones in strange places as they come across some places in the catacombs where new city was built atop old city or graveyards. Ang leads the way, making a path and using a communication system that everyone knows. It was very quiet for a good while but ahead in the tunnel, there was a really high-pitched sound. Nat initially sort of squeaks the word BATS, but it’s actually birds — Swiftlets. They come streaming through the tunnel like a horde of bats, though, and people fall all over themselves. Mel and Nat manage to keep their feet (they were near the back of the group). And a huge mole comes out of the darkness behind the birds. Langston manages to avoid the attack but is still stuck on the ground because it’s so hard for him to get up. It has something gross and bioluminscent covering it.

Mel fights it with a machete and chops hell out of it. Ang checks on whether it’s alone then does a pincer move with Maddy to flank Melody in the hopes that they can take it down faster together. No go. They get in one another’s way. But eventually it is in fact hacked to pulp. And the group moves on — Travel Montage!

They reach a point where the tunnel splits. The plant growth on the walls to the west looks strange and super creepy. It’s a T-intersection, but it’s not completely blocked… however the vines … blink. They have eyes. The long space behind the vines has some kind of luminescence on the walls. It’s kind of bright. Melody shines a light on the vines from about 6 feet away, and the pod that she illuminates bursts with a loud POP! It causes a chain reaction of popping pods, and seeds — not spores — are released into the air along with a loud keening sound. The group hightails it EAST very quickly, away from the seeds and vines.

Finally reaching where they believe the cave to be, they pause just outside the small tunnel that leads into it. In the quiet moment, Langston hears sound from behind the group and is reasonably certain it’s a voice. Ang stops the group and takes point, defensive positions. Langston sidles into the cave opening; the cache is still there. It’s a fairly large cave, too. Defensible of uncertain stability. The cache is on the path that appears to lead out, on the other side of a 60-70 foot depression in the ground.

Natalie slips backward with Langston. Ang coordinates the troops and then shifts to her night-vision — which flickers and dies. Just before she goes completely blind, Ang spots people from the Cult of Memory and Thought coming toward them in the darkness — wrapped in vines??


CLIFFHANGER!!!!

View
Marry in Haste
Will she be repenting at leisure?

Natalie had warned him that they would talk. She waited, patiently, for two days after the hangover passed before she brought up any semblance of the conversation, though. And as they spent a snowy afternoon on kitchen detail, she finally brought their casual conversation around to it. “You know…. I have a lot of questions,” she said as she wiped the dish in her hands clean.

“I can’t really imagine what it must have been like for you with a manipulation power. You had to have been terrified. I kind of thought there was a whole side of you I didn’t really know when the Homeland agent stuff came out, but… that particular power has to be a huge part of you, Jared. I’d really like to know … so many things. How you dealt with it. How you figured it out. Were you a lab rat for them?” Had he been a pawn as well as their spy in the Powered group? His feelings were real… she could tell that easily enough. And probably anything he had told her about his childhood or soldier days… but he’d often deflected personal questions, even before D-Day. She looked at him. “Looking back, knowing about it now, some things make a lot more sense.”

Her tone was gentle as she sought to learn about this man she’s decided to live out her life with, seeking a deeper connection than just their apparently superficial friendship. “I get why you didn’t want me to know. But now… I kind of feel like I don’t really know you at all. And I’d like to.”

“You know, when I first found out, I thought I was out of a job.” Who knew, he thought sarcastically, that being a mind manipulator raised your value in the eyes of the government?

Jared paused. “Most people come into their powers when they’re young. Or younger anyway. Not me. My boss told me.” He did a pretty good Director Glenn imitation, not that Nat ever knew him.

‘Agent Norris, you convinced someone on our side they were a terrorist from sheer force of mental will. You’re a Power, whether you believe it or not.’

He shook his head. “And that was the last normal interaction I had with people until they assigned me to you. I mean, I trained, I learned control… but it’s always in the back of your mind. Did I make them do that?” A small half smile crossed his face. “But I could never make you do anything you didn’t damn well want to, Natalie Tessier.”

Natalie couldn’t help the faint grin that quirked her lips, amusement at the chagrin in his tone fluttering through her. “That first rescue. The hike up into the mountains? I wondered why you were so shocked that I wasn’t willing to just wait like you told me to,” she said as she started laughing. “I remember thinking you were awfully bossy and awfully cocksure about me doing exactly what I was told, and you looked so surprised when I didn’t, I remember thinking Jesus, does everyone he knows kowtow to him? Ffft. Screw that.

Her eyes on him were intent, though. “It must have been really hard to feel certain of anyone or anything,” she observed.

“Yes,” he replied, the single word conveying whole swaths of emotion. “So much of the early stuff was just not knowing… influencing people without realizing. Making them change their lives to fit yours. Training helps to control but it doesn’t give you back what you lost, you know?” He hadn’t loved Cindy, not really. Or maybe he had. That was the other thing that was hard to explain. Someone doing what you want them to do can look like love. If you’re not familiar with the real thing.

“Then I was assigned to you. And that changed everything.”

Tilting her head as she absorbed the gut-punch of his roiling emotional state, Natalie was quiet for a long moment. As she set the clean dish down, she leaned back and rested her hands near her hips on the countertop. She would circle back around to that last comment in a second. First she wanted to be clear that she understood. “So you could… essentially force thoughts into people’s heads? Make them do anything you want?” There was no judgment in her tone, merely curiosity as she processed the information.

Jared shook his head slightly, “No. Well, yes, but no. There’s more nuance to it than that.” He picked up a fork from the sink, not really intending to clean it, but more to give his hands something to do, somewhere to focus his eyes while he thought. He was still ashamed of having kept it a secret from her – he wasn’t quite ready to look her directly in the eyes. Secrets had just been a part of his life for so long.

“It’s funny, in a way.” His thumb poked one of the fork tines. “Your new power and my old one had stuff in common.”

Poke. A slightly harder stab of his thumb.

“They both relate to emotion and desire. The more I wanted something, the more likely it was that I could make them want it too.”

Poke. If the fork was actually sharp, he might have a hole in his thumb.

“So not about putting direct thoughts in someone’s head, but about ideas and concepts. I couldn’t guarantee that someone would do something exactly the way I wanted. Just that they would want to do it very badly.”

Jared dropped the fork in the mostly empty sink with a clatter.

The shame rolling off him was hard for her; Natalie couldn’t help the tears that welled up in her eyes. But she let him talk, letting him tell her what he needed to say in his own way. “That must have played hell with your relationships,” she offered softly. Bringing up one hand to wipe her tears, she tried not to let him see how deeply affected she was by his emotional state. “You said meeting me… being assigned to me… changed everything. Just because I was immune to you?”

That made it sound like he was going to fall head over heels for the first person he ran into that was immune. But he nodded and said, “That let me be open in a way that I hadn’t been in a very long time. There was a reason that being alone cross-country wasn’t unusual for me. It was just a return to the way I had used to live my life. Not interacting unless necessary. Not letting people see me unless necessary. Before you, and by extension the Guardians, there wasn’t a lot of point in it.“ She had been like opening a door that had been closed for a long while.

“The more time I spent with you, the deeper and deeper I fell for you, the more I felt like the me that I had been, once upon a time.”

“The lure of being able to just be yourself and not worry about whether I was acting some way just because you wanted me to,” Natalie murmured with a slow nod. She could understand that. And she couldn’t help the rueful smile when she reached out to run her fingertips down his scruff. “Well… I guess you can’t really manipulate someone who already did all his falling,” she teased a bit. “Nice to know you understand why I was worried about the idea that I might be doing something to you. Although from everything we can tell, I’m a receiving empath, not a broadcasting one. Thank any deity you choose to believe in.” An eyeroll accompanied that, although the effect was muted by the fact that she still has silent tears streaking her face that she couldn’t seem to make stop.

“I don’t care that you were a Power. I’m a teeny little bit hurt that you were afraid to tell me about it, but I understand it. I’ll be worried now that I’m going to wind up reactivating you, but… we’ll cross that bridge when it floods out on us.” Nat sighed softly. “That being said… don’t you think you’re a more valuable asset to your general than you’ve really let on? I mean… he sent you out with comms gear that you let us destroy. You don’t think he’s going to come looking for you? Especially if any of his own pet Powers have managed to reactivate for some reason?”

Jared stepped a little closer, reaching out his hand to wipe a tear away with his thumb. “Hell, Nat, I hate making you cry.” He gave her a kiss on the forehead and then a soft one on the lips.

Once the instinctive need to comfort Nat had settled (he was still her guard, it seemed, for lots of things), he turned his thoughts back to the last question, the one that he had been trying to avoid thinking about. Mostly because he didn’t like the answers that kept coming up.

“I’m hoping that Gen. Mercator has more things to worry about than one single ex-Power, “ he said quietly. “They hadn’t figured out how to activate dormant powers, and I can’t imagine that they have jumped that gap during the apocalypse. He said he was sending out other people to different parts of the country. He would have had to have suspected that not everyone would survive that trip. He might think I’m dead.” Jared wished he could make himself believe that, like turning his former powers on himself.

“Well, then you’ll just have to stop feeling so ashamed… because I’m pretty sure these are your tears I’m crying, not mine,” Natalie informed him with a soft smile as she returned the gentle kiss and rested her forehead against his.

As he turned his serious regard to her other questions, though, she could sense both how much he wanted to believe and how much he worried. “He might,” she agreed mildly. “Or…. it could be that if he knew a large number of the Project New Guardians labs, he may have one of them that he’s reestablished or never lost contact with who has figured out by sheer accident that it’s possible. Like with Gigantor. There’s no more ‘classified’ here… the only people you’re on board to protect are your own.” With a soft sigh she pulled back and looked up to meet his eyes. “You need to read at least Langston if not all the rest of us into exactly what you know about it all. Because no matter what you did, babe… I have a feeling there’s going to come a moment where the only thing saving our asses is that we know what’s coming, we know you and your role in all of it well enough to trust absolutely that you’ll choose us, and there’s nothing that can be held over your head when they come. I don’t want anyone to have leverage on you.”

“I’ve told Langston what I know, pretty much. They used me to make sure everyone was on the same page, to make sure there weren’t leaks. But I didn’t really have a lot of deep information about any one particular part. I’m not sure how much they trusted me, if I’m being frank. Like anyone who knew what I could do, I think they wondered if I wasn’t manipulating them.”

Jared wasn’t always sure about trusting himself and his powers, so maybe not surprising the government hadn’t completely trusted him either. A fact he was sure hadn’t been improved with the events of D-Day. He was sure there were many people who thought no Power, ex- or otherwise, was to be trusted anymore. And thinking about D-Day reminded him. He had been wondering about something ever since he had come back to St. Louis, but he couldn’t ask when his power was a secret. But now he could ask.

He looked into her eyes and said, “Can I ask you a question? It’s off topic, sort of, but then again, maybe it isn’t.” Jared wasn’t sure he was going to like the answer to the question, but that didn’t really matter. He needed to know.

If she were surprised by his thoughtful consideration of the possibility that his own government and bosses might not have trusted him, it didn’t show. “You can ask me anything,” Natalie told him seriously. “You always could.” And did, if she remembered correctly — some really embarrassing questions had been asked and answered!

“You’ve been back to FEMA, right?” Jared watched the expression on her face. “Do you know what happened there?”

Enlightenment dawned as soon as he asked. “I thought you told me you didn’t want to know that — hypothetically if you’d been a Power,” she reminded him of their earlier conversation about that very thing. She had to think back over what she’d seen the offices, a gruesome task quite honestly. It was late enough in the day that her stomach was potentially going to get involved in this too. Okay, she warned it, knock it off. I refuse to barf if I have to relive what I found to give him a little peace.

Knowing what his Power was let Natalie focus a little bit on what she saw that long ago day with Wolf and later on their raid of the place, understanding what he was looking for — signs of his own involvement. “What happened with Torch was pretty clear to see,” she said slowly, swallowing hard. The burned body and the gunshot one — she hadn’t known who they were, but after he told her the story, she’d figured it out.

“The rest…. when I went down to the staging room, there were half a dozen people in there. It looked to me like they basically stayed at their posts, Jared. A couple people died with heads on their desks,” rather grotesque once they were skeletonized, “and it looked like a few in the lower floor might have been fighting … or hugging.” She shook her head. “As far as I could tell, aside from fire damage and physical damage to the building from whoever threw the tanker truck, it looked to me like all the non-powered personnel stuck to their posts until they keeled over. A lot of people just weren’t there, probably trying to get home to family.”

Jared imagined himself walking through the halls of FEMA, telling people that they needed to stay put, no matter what. In his mind’s eye, he pictured them screaming in terror, unable to move as Torch swooped through, only able to sit on their desk while their friends died. While they starved to death at their post.

He took a deep exhale. “That could have all been me,” Jared said with a surprising amount of calm in his voice. “And yes, I know I said I didn’t want to know. But part of keeping my power secret was not having to face what I might have done. I don’t think I can be honest with everyone if I’m not honest with myself.”

Natalie reached out and said sternly, “And none of that might have been you. Maybe those who didn’t have local family or were single kept to their posts and were overwhelmed by the illness, Jared.” She shook her head. “You yelled at me for wallowing in the ‘what did I do in those times I can’t remember.’ You can’t on the one hand tell me that it wasn’t my fault and then blame yourself for being in the exact same situation.” Her hand, already resting on his cheek, cupped his face and she kept his eyes on hers. “We all did at least one horrific, awful thing. I guarantee you. Maddy killed a bunch of people on a bridge. I did God only knows what, made other people’s injuries worse? Made them SICK? I don’t even know. Melody altered Ryan’s body into coral and he may not be recoverable. Did she melt any people into slag? Probably. We were none of us in control of it, and although we can live with the regret that it happened, we cannot keep living our lives in apology of the fact that we were susceptible and got sick.”

Good Lord. Pot, meet kettle. Natalie was not blind to the irony that she was the one defending him from himself this time. A wry expression creases her face as she twinkles at him. “Heal thyself, not just your wife, mister.”

Keeping his eyes locked on hers, he simply says, “I know. Not going to dwell on it. Just needed to own it before moving on. I still meant what I said the first time. I’ve made my look back. Now I can look forward.” He had long ago accepted that he might end up doing some unpleasant things in favor of a greater cause. It was just harder to accept that he had done a bunch of unpleasant things for no reason whatsoever. But he wasn’t lying to her. He knew they had to move on from it. It just felt very fresh right now, like it had just happened.

Touch had always enhanced her healing ability and the raw power of the emotion she was getting off him at this moment didn’t merely roll over her so much as it dragged her into its undertow. Her empathy flared, his pain creating in her the need to soothe. And she felt when her healing ability started to kick in. “No. No, no, no. Stop.” She yanked her hand off of his face and backpedaled away from him, one hand instinctively dropped to the not-yet-visible place where their child currently resides to protect it and her face turned a little green around the gills.

“Don’t touch me yet!” she ordered him in an urgent voice when he reached for her. “My power wants to heal you the way I healed Ang. To take away your hurt.”

Jared kept his hands to himself. He pushed that instinctive hurt feeling down deep in himself (she’s not trying to reject you, just protect herself) and worked on his mental techniques. Since he had lost his powers, he hadn’t needed (or so he thought) to be able to suppress desires, suppress emotions like he had before D-Day. If you didn’t want anything or feel anything, it made it easier to make sure that he didn’t influence anyone unintentionally. And going to that cool, calm place had made it easier to deliberately use his power, a thousand-foot flare of desire on an endless plain of nothingness. And now, he needed to use it again to protect the woman he loved. And his baby too, he realized suddenly. He didn’t have to go back to it forever, but just now and again. But even knowing that in his logical brain didn’t prevent his emotions from screaming at him as he locked them behind those steel bars of will for the first time in years.

The sensation of him literally locking down his emotions was actually worse. Natalie couldn’t think when she felt him becoming a sort of blank spot in her senses, and it upset the balance of what she was trying to lock down within herself because her healing power abruptly had nothing to heal. She dropped to her knees and lost what little lunch she’d eaten. Between dry heaves, she gasped, “What did you do? You’re… gone!”

“Just temporarily, Nat. Just some of the Homeland Security training.” He couldn’t decide whether it was good she couldn’t sense him at all. On the one hand, it meant that he was still in practice, no leaks whatsoever. On the other hand, Jared wasn’t sure this was better than before. He let his mind go from the still place and waited to see how she did.

He had never been just a blank to her before. Not like that. Her heaving slowed visibly as he eased whatever he’d been doing and she rested on all fours, trembling at the force of the physical response. Her breath came in gasps for a long moment before slowing to something closer to normal, and when she leaned back to sit on her heels, the hand she raised to wipe at her face (and rub on her pants leg) was shaking.

Looking up at him in shock, she couldn’t gather her wits immediately to say anything. It wasn’t that he was a blank or gone, she realized. “We…. might have a small problem, my sweet,” she husked in a raspy voice. “I don’t think I like it when you cut me off.”

Despite his every desire to go hug and comfort her, Jared kept himself restrained physically, if not emotionally. He didn’t want her to take his emotions, although he figured at this point, all the painful ones had passed, either due to his going to the still place or due to his panic over the reaction she had.

“You going to be okay? And how about little Jared?” Her powers were definitely different, he thought. She hadn’t reacted this way before D-Day.

Natalie blew her breath out slowly and began to climb to her feet. “I think so,” she replied. “We’re still not calling it that,” she added absently. Moving carefully, she walked to the sink to rinse her mouth out before finally walking to him to stand in front of him. As if afraid he’d reject her touch, she reached out to stroke his chest. “You’ve never felt that way to me… not before the nanobots, definitely, and not since you arrived.” She bit her lower lip as she looked up at him. “That’s where we go when we have to kill. And apparently feeling that from you, at least right now, makes me feel sick.”

It was the only explanation she could come up with… because she’s felt that emptiness within herself a few times since Destruction Day too.

“Well, I just can’t call the baby Mystery Fetus, so I default,” Jared said, letting the humor soften the worries he had. If he worried, then Natalie would feel it, and the vicious cycle would start over again.

Had he scared her? “You know I would never hurt you, right?”

“Of course you wouldn’t!” Her retort was so instantaneous and sincere, there could be no doubt that she believed that to the bottom of her toes.

“Don’t overthink it,” Natalie offered about his unspoken-but-felt worries. “Feeling everyone’s painful stuff is something I’m used to — it’s a different kind of pain, but it’s still the same way my power seems to have always worked in a lot of ways. I think that was a combination of the suddenness of your heartache, which made my healing want to suck all the hurt out of you, and then the rather abrupt cessation of all emotions from you. I think it made me dizzy?”

“That’s where we go when we have to kill?” He echoed her statement from earlier. So much that he needed unpacked in that sentence.

Oh boy… Natalie tilted her head, studying his chest instead of his face. This time she was the one unsure whether she could look him in the eye. “Isn’t it? The Quiet.” She had a name for it. “The place inside where you hide the fragile parts of yourself when you have to kill someone.” Her voice was low and a frisson of panic along her nerve endings gave her a small shiver.

“I think some people don’t have to go there for that,” he said, thinking of a few of the agents he had known during his career. “But yes, I guess that’s a way to think about it. I guess I just never made that connection. It was just where I needed to go to control my power.”

He tilted her head back up so she was looking at him. “We have hard jobs, Nat. We always have. We do what has to be done for the greater good, to protect those we love.” He didn’t ask the question. After all, it wasn’t really important.

Allowing him to tilt her chin up, she met his eyes and waited for the question. Instead he offered nothing more than unquestioning belief in the idea that whatever she’d done, she must have had to. “Like anyone else who has spent time traveling this world, I learned the hard way that it’s a dark place. And sometimes the choices aren’t for the greater good. Sometimes they’re just about survival. Or mercy.” And she’d paid the price for the latter in nearly, very willingly, losing herself to the vast Silence of the Plains states.

He had seen the dark places. Both before D-Day and after. “But there are light places too, Nat. I’m standing in one right now. Next to one right now. Kissing one right now.” And he leaned in for a kiss, a reminder that we survive the dark places so we can emerge out into the light again.

The soft kiss was returned, the reminder appreciated. As she wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her forehead against his jaw, Natalie pulled in a slow breath. “Light places are good,” she agreed. There were storms on the horizon, but for now she figured they could stay there. “Do me a favor, though?” She pulled back a little and looked up with a grin. “We’re gonna call that the Happy Place — cuz I’m pretty sure, for Ang, it is — and don’t go to the Happy Place on me without warning if you can help it. I would far prefer feeling everything out there and continuing to work on my own shielding, which is still just as woeful as ever, than to have the sense that it just gave me. I am finding out that there are significant downsides to full empathy.”

“I can do that.” In fact, he preferred to do that. He didn’t like shutting himself out. Best only in case of avoiding hurting Natalie. And now he knew he just needed to give warning. Another plank in the structure of the relationship they were building. He enjoyed seeing it build out slowly.

But he was going to continue to call it the still place in his head.

Natalie nodded, leaning up to kiss him softly. “C’mon — help me finish the last of these dishes.” The mix of mundane chore and conversation was just another way to keep building that structure. “I have so many questions still… you said your boss told you that you had powers. Was it hard to get them under control? It seems like if it’s tied to desire… it would be really hard to want to do something if every suggestion you made was agreed to.” She paused and grinned at him as she worked on the dishes, teasing, “Don’t worry, you won’t get that here.”

“I took a while to get them under control,” he admitted. “But having all the power and money of the U.S. government dedicated to helping me learn how to use them helped.”

Jared took the dish that Natalie had been washing and gave it a thorough drying with the bright yellow towel with a tomato vine pattern. He was guessing there had been a Bed, Bath, and Beyond somewhere in the mall. Most of the signs had come down or been taken down, but some things just transcended signs.

“Most of the times I used my power before I learned to control were times when I really wanted something to be true. Like how when you sense pain, your power starts flaring. For me, when that unconscious desire became a need… that’s when it would activate. Learning how to produce it on demand was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn.”

Natalie could relate, and she nodded while her hands kept up their rote movements. She found that it helped her think, to be doing this while they talked. “Learning how NOT to do it just whenever someone crosses my path is always my challenge,” she acknowledged. “Even before, I couldn’t just NOT help someone. Now it doesn’t even need to be physical pain. So I have to relearn how to box it in.” She shrugged some, glancing at him. “How badly did you screw up your life before they figured out what was happening? Because I assume that they set you up for some kind of test, what with your boss being the one who told you. Something must have twigged them… but that means you had to have been doing it for some amount of time before they caught it, right?”

He shrugged. “I always assumed they were watching me. Part of the life of working for Homeland Security. And it wasn’t my life that I almost screwed up,” he said with a tinge of regret/guilt. “There was a woman I was living with. Almost made her give up everything she wanted without realizing it.” Jared was thankful he had let Cindy go before too much damage had been done. Of course, he thought cynically, she probably didn’t survive D-Day, so how much harm could he have done? He was usually better than those sort of thoughts, but that was not a time in his life he was particularly proud of.

Natalie winced. There was a moment where she could almost taste the bitterness on her tongue, it came through so clearly. But she simply shook her head — we all had a right to some amount of bitterness over what could have been. “I’m sorry,” she told him simply. “That had to have killed you, to realize that you’d hurt her like that.” There was no question in her mind that it would have eaten at him — it was who he was. As she handed him the next dish, she asked curiously, “Why did you agree to be assigned to me? I mean… there were surely better things you could have been doing with your talents than babysitting a healer.”

“Baby, you don’t get to argue about that sort of thing. They tell you to go somewhere and you ask how fast. I mean, when they first assigned me to you, I didn’t even know you were a Power, remember? Shimmied down that fucking rope, despite me telling you to wait for the evac and healed that guy enough that you couldn’t climb back up.” That, he thought, had pretty much set the tone for the rest of their working relationship. “At least then I knew why they had assigned me to you. Babysitting some random FEMA member had looked pretty crazy. But jump, how high, etc.”

Natalie snickered. For whatever reason, that moment had stuck in her mind. Kowtow to a bossy guy? The hell you say! “That was …. Kind of funny,” she told him. “When I got down there, he was busted up bad enough that if I hadn’t healed him that much, he’d have died. I’m not even sure how he was still alive when we found him. My head hurt for nearly a whole day after that.”

“You were right. That was usually the case.” He smirked at her as he dried another plate. “Practice for getting married, I guess.”

“Oh, you think so, do you?” Natalie retorted with a grin. She splashed him with dishwater. “Seems to me, you spent most of the time hollering at me for being too careless or too reckless or whatever… when all the time, you were running about NOT being a FEMA guy. With a gun!” She wasn’t upset, though — more amused. The more they talked, the more she realized how much she’d apparently been willfully blind to. “I’m going to hold the fact that you told RYAN before you told me over your head forever, though.”

“RYAN,” he said, doing a fair imitation of Natalie, “had top secret clearance. I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t want to tell Ryan either, but there was no way around it at the time. He couldn’t tell Melody either because of the clearance. He wasn’t real happy about that either.”

Lies within secrets within circles within lies. It wasn’t until he was free of it all that he realized how much weight it had been on him. He never doubted what he was doing or the purpose of it all. But like the proverbial boiling frog, he hadn’t realized how hot the secrets had gotten.

“Ffft,” Natalie dismissed, clearly messing with him. “Well, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. Now you can pretend I have top secret clearance, and when Toby gets him out of the ocean, he’ll be all ‘holy crap, really?!’ - No, I take that back.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “How much you wanna bet she and Ryan had a bet on how long it would take us to figure out we liked each other?”

“Remember that Halloween? He kept asking me when I was going to tell you.” Jared had felt like a stupid teenager. She had a way of doing that to him. He had lived through some things that no person should have to live though. Almost died once. And yet, he had been more nervous than he had ever been, so damn afraid to say anything. Thinking about all that he had potentially missed out almost got him upset. But he was here with her now at the end of the world. That made up for a lot of stumbles in his mind.

Natalie slanted him another grin and passed the last bowl to him to dry. “See?” she opined. “I guess you were too scared and I was too clueless. It took all this to make us think about actually taking the chance.” She shrugged a little. “I’ll be honest, Jared… for a long time, I couldn’t really look at us in that light. Christ… I used to tell you things I was mortified to have anyone know. You saw me concussed and rambling more times than anyone EVER. I kind of figured you knew way too much about me, so obviously you weren’t interested.”

That last statement started him laughing, a rolling laugh of amazement that felt good to get out. “You have no idea how much I wanted to get in your pants, but figured with all that confession, you saw me as that guy friend who was safe. Complicating all that shit was the fact that you were still, technically, my assignment. I didn’t know how my bosses would feel about me stepping out of bounds.”

It was good to hear him laugh like that. “Well… I guess I kind of did. Put you in the friend zone. Not on purpose, but …” Natalie’s eyebrows both went up. “Come on… what woman is going to expect a guy who heard some of that to even remotely be hot and bothered? I swear to God, some of the things I woke up remembering talking about? I wanted to sink through the floor the next day. And I still had to see you and brazen it out, pretend I wasn’t blushing like mad.” She rolled her eyes. “It amuses me to think how frustrated you must have been when you figured out you couldn’t use your power on me — because I think I’d have never gotten anything done!”

Jared poked her in her side. “Definitely a challenge. You didn’t listen to a word I said, it felt like, and my tool of last resort was basically useless. And all the rest of the damn Guardians were too busy being fucking heroes to notice that you were going way too far or way too fast way too often.” Lucky he had any of his damn hair left at all, considering how much she would stress him out.

She’d listened… she just wasn’t willing to let him dictate her limits for her. “Are you sorry that your power never worked on me?” Natalie asked curiously, folding up the dishcloth and leaving it neatly on the sink while she waited for him to finish the drying. “I mean… there had to be plenty of times when you were cussing at me that you wanted to use it.”

He immediately shook his head. “You were my safe zone, Nat. Sure, I was cussing, but I kind of liked it. Sort of like I want to keep you safe, but I wouldn’t change the way you work because that’s one of the things I love about you. I worried, but a whole different sort of worry than the rest of my life. “

Natalie thought about that and nodded. “I’ll do my level best not to reactivate you, okay?” She looked at him seriously. “Just from the way you talk, the relief that you feel when you’re talking about all this, I understand that you’d rather not have it back. I can’t promise that it won’t happen by accident… but I promise I will fight not to if I ever have to heal you.”

“I’ve lived with it before and I’ll live with it again if I had to.” He had never liked his power but he wasn’t afraid of it the way he had always sensed Melody had been of hers. “I’ve got you to back me up if it happens.” And he casually kissed her on the cheek. They had been married for less than a week, but it felt so damn natural. That thought was strong enough to pop back up again. I’m fucking married! The world was still an amazing place, he thought as a stupid happy grin crossed his face.

The smile Natalie shot him was amused, as if she were mentally shaking her head at the silly expression on his face. “If you get them back and they actually work on me, I won’t give you any girly little slap into next week — I’ll punch you in the nose so hard our grandkids will be flat-faced,” she informed him on a chuckle.

Jared didn’t doubt that in the least bit. “If I get them back, I have a feeling they’ll get put to use in a lot of ways, none of which involve getting your stubborn ass to do what’s best for you.” His tone was joking, but there was a bit of a serious underlay to it. He had been used for most of his Powered life. For good causes to be sure, but he didn’t expect the apocalypse to have changed that any. If he got them back, there would be another cause, another need. And he’d answer the call. Because that’s who he was.

“I don’t care if you use them or if you lie to Mercator when he comes and tell him you haven’t got them so you don’t have to. Whatever you want to do about your powers is up to you. But understand something for me…” Natalie’s tone was serious. “Understand what having me to back you up means. And if that man fucks with you? I can’t promise that I won’t go visit the Quiet to keep him away from you and our child or children.”

“I wasn’t referring to the general, Nat. If I get my powers back, Refuge Point will put me to use. Our new mayor strikes me as practical as they come.”

There was a flash of something through Natalie’s eyes, that same flash that had shown when she’d told him about having someone dismembered for fertilizer. “We’ll see what happens,” she murmured. “I don’t know that I want to trust her yet — Ida’s not a bad person. She’s efficient and smart. But if your general comes knocking, I don’t know that she’d stand behind us. And that makes me leery of her.” She pulled in a breath and her expression cleared. “Let’s go for a walk outside? I could use some fresh air — and even though it’s snowy, it’s not so bad out yet.”

Jared had the feeling it wouldn’t be long before they had enough snow that casual strolls wouldn’t be possible. But they hadn’t gotten there yet. He grabbed her hand and intertwined his fingers with hers. “Let’s go make some people sick with how lovey dovey we are on the way there. Maybe even have some PDA in front of the guards on the way out.”

Rolling her eyes, Natalie held his hand and let him tug her out the door. Although PDAs weren’t her style, the good mood made her laugh. “You just want to show off that you got the girl or something,” she teased. “And I’m a hell of a catch, I tell ya!” One snowman, six snow angels, and a snowball fight later, she kissed him breathless under the clear blue sky in front of everyone who had been drawn into what had turned into an epic snowball fight.

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All Systems Go
Ang shakes things up...

Maybe it was the alcohol that finally gave her permission to do it. Her battle to remain stoic in the face of that never ending all-body migraine pushed past her good sense and she returned to her room while everyone was sleeping off the impromptu party.

It took her a few hours before she was capable. Mentally, she just didn’t want to have the hopes she’d built, the hope of her hands pulsing with her vital energy, the hope of being centered and right once again, the hope of being happy – she didn’t want those hopes dashed.

She slowly put the left arm’s armor on, and tightened the straps. She’d once been able to put the entire set on in under a minute while taking sitrep and possibly prepping a plane for launch. Now, her shaking hands spent what seemed like hours slowly and gently securing the defensive machinery. Slowly, surely, the arms were covered yet again.

How long had it been? She looked at the set she’d blown out years ago during Destruction Day, sitting on top of her foot locker. She barely remembered the frozen chill when she emerged from her somnambulant fury, but she remembered how the armor, once a source of reaffirming heat, was cold.

Her power had once again been lost to her because she pushed too hard. Her body, it seemed, was never up to the level that her brain had tasked to it. She sighed. She pushed her students too hard, too. “No matter how many villains we fought, the one named Mistakes was always the worst,” she said, out loud, to no one.

The time had come. She took off the bandages that she used to cover the four ports in her neck and injected the cables, one by one, into their port. A shiver ran down her spine. It was like reconnecting lost limbs.

Expectedly, but still frighteningly, her eyes’ HUD changed to show that she was connected and that calibration and diagnostics were running.

“After all this time,” she murmured.

She stared at the HUD for another eternity. No problems reported, ALL SYSTEMS GO had long since disappeared. Had they’d flashed before her eyes when she’d had biological eyes, the words’ halo would’ve been burnt into her vision for a minute. As it was, the eyes she had compensated for such silly organic limitations.

Finally, like the last step of a running leap, she pushed. She held onto the hilts and pushed like she had done hundreds of times previous. She pushed like her life depended on it.

She realized she’d closed her eyes when she suddenly opened them. She’d been startled when the tears had hit her hands. Nothing had emerged from the hilts and her hopes were cycloning into the abyss. She gripped the unresponsive hilts in grips that could bend metal, if she possessed such strength.

The hilts began to respond. Not in the way she’d wanted. Now, she realized, that the hilts were getting way too hot. Too hot to hold, as a matter of fact. She dropped them at her feet, impotent implements.

That was when she knew she’d done something horribly wrong.

The power was pulsing and flowing around her arms and torso, eventually flowing through her legs, as well. A crescendo was building, and she had no way to stop it. She tried to pull back, but the pain was worse than she’d ever experienced. Worse than that rebar she fell on. Worse than what Vector had done to her. Worse, even, than when she’d destroyed her eyes.

She fell to the ground, knees and hands on the ground, as nausea pulsed through her. She wondered if this is what other people felt when Toby teleported them, but the reprieve was only momentary.

Her power was going to leave her body, and she no longer had any say in it. Finally, after she felt like she couldn’t take any more, the pulsing nausea became ripples in the air in front of her, in the floor beneath her, in the building surrounding her.

Refuge Point shook like an earthquake had hit. It shook as a resonating cord in an instrument that Ang’s power was violently playing. Dust shook loose everywhere. Some ceilings began to crack. People huddled around each other, looking for a safe place. Fear once again reared its ugly head in their community.

And, as suddenly as it had hit, the power stopped and the shaking stopped. As Ang collapsed from the release of it all, she had but just a moment before she passed out to see that her eyes’ meter of her power level had finally gone back down to zero again, and gleefully blinked as it began to build again.

“Fuck,” she whispered, falling into the dark hole of sleep.

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Episode 37
Are you armed?

December 1, Orlando exploded all over his quarantine room. It took 2-3 more days before Nona and Langston deemed it “safe enough” for people to go in and start looking at the situation. With a full 5 days of science montage, Melody works out a fungicide to hose down that room yet again. Langston makes sure that the Council is alerted to blacklist the area in its entirety, publish the signs of the infection so that people can watch for it, and communicate the virus and its location, origins, and etiology (insofar as we understand it) to the other communities that we trade with.

Now, arriving on December 7, things have begun settling again.

There is a foot of snow on the ground, and Langston has been spending his time working on refining the nature of Power-activation triggers. He determines through his work that we will NOT just randomly trigger. His hypothesis is that the underlying trigger is the same regardless of the specifics of how the people who’ve regained their abilities actually manifested (drugs, being healed by Nat, lightning, etc.) — He believes that basically that people had natural blocks, put in place by their genes/Nature/whatever, that kept humans from reaching their full Powered potential — a self-limiter, if you will, to keep the population from killing itself. People whose limiter-gene or mechanism was malfunctioning would have died in the womb. The nanobots, he believes, are dampening or nullifying this natural block — D-Day ultimately destroyed it. This would explain why the people who get their powers back are initially without any controls at all. But all triggers thus far have been external and he does not believe we can activate ourselves.

Langston goes looking to have a conversation with Jared and invites him to Ang’s apartment to talk. The first thing he verifies is that Ang is armed before Jared arrives, because he’s not quite sure that Jared can be trusted. Once the man arrives, Langston bombshells him with the abrupt query, “How long was Mercator funding Franklin’s research?” Jared settles in to fill Langston in on what he does know: Mercator was involved in Project New Guardian, but Jared has no idea how. His own role, he states, was minimal. So far as he knows, Franklin is not still working with Mercator — until he came here, he had thought the man dead. Jared does assume some of the project is still ongoing, but no idea what parts. He has no idea what Powers other than perhaps Ryan were being used as guinea pigs. He does know there was an unsuccessful cloning project and a “superlove” project that never got off the ground.

In addition, he was able to list off some scientists’ names that Langston knew, so he could deduce what they were working on based on the fields those names were involved with. Jared tells him that the largest area of research, by far, was activating Powers, but this field was also being given (back then, at least) the least amount of attention and funding because it was the least likely to be under government control.

Langston went on to ask what Jared’s role in all of these programs was why was he involved in controlling Powered individuals or the research surrounding them? Jared continues to tell them that his job was simply to monitor for Homeland, but Ang knows that he’s hedging. Her suspicion is that he was a Power — he circles around explanations, leaving vague information about his involvement, who he knows and why, etc. She believes he’s far more involved than he’s led everyone to believe, and it would make sense if he were also a Power. She keeps this suspicion to herself for the time being, however.

Around the town, we’re all relatively confined and getting a little cabin fever. Elana has been a huge help, using her powers openly to help clear out paths in the snow, do recon, etc. Ed is still proclaiming his “Good Word.” Two more of his congregation go out and head west, and they come back with one person with a broken leg. So conversation is had about the fact that Natalie is not going to heal anyone if it’s not life-threatening (generally speaking) and certainly not if it’s their own stupidity that got them there.

A few hours after the two come back, Nona goes looking for Ang and finds her in the gym. She tells Ang that we’re short some medical supplies — and it’s becoming a regular problem. It’s mostly pain meds and opiates. It occurs to Ang as she listens that Judd had been acting somewhat ill during the Council meeting — she’d dismissed it at the time, but now she has to wonder if it’s more than illness and weariness. The signs of addiction are pretty similar. This, too, Ang keeps under her hat while considering what path to take.

Eric goes to see Maddy and brings coffee AND chocolate! Where the hell is he getting his supplies?? He tries to sweet-talk Maddy into helping him with something without really giving away what it is he wants her help with. There’s talk of how people are undermining his authority, mainly the preacher and his congregation, who keep going out without clearing it with Expedition first. She is beginning to get a little suspicious of him, because this is not the first time contraband has shown up in his possession. She goes first to Ang and then to Ida about it, but she is essentially brushed off.

Toby confronts Melody about the fact that she’s not sleeping. He’s worried about her, but he’s also distracted by his own thoughts. He gives Mel a nudge to get her to sleep.

The following day, although Ang doesn’t want to deal with the missing meds, she decides to confront Judd head-on with the fact that she knows what addiction looks like and she can see what’s happening to him. He tries to play it off, blustering and fuming, and ultimately tells her to do what she needs to do. Ang goes to get Haley, and while she’s gone Judd runs like hell to put everything he’s been hiding back in place. When Ang and Haley arrive, nothing seems to be missing… but Ang tells Haley that Nona has her books to back up the inventory discrepancies. At which point, Judd panics and bolts. Where he thinks he’ll go is anyone’s guess. He runs past where Nat and Jared sit (among many others) and he’s tackled by two of Haley’s security people. There is much staring.

Despite the craziness going on this day, Natalie asks the group to meet at lunchtime. In a surprise move, she tells the group that she and Jared are getting married. Right here, right now. There’s a bit of fumbling, don’t you want a big to-do or at least a celebration or something? Her answer is no — she wants to exchange just a few heartfelt words right here in front of her family. A party or whatever can happen some other time. Standing in this small group is everyone she loves, and that was what was most important to her. And so they do.

That evening, the Council has a meeting and deals with the situation surrounding Judd as well as the situation surrounding the preacher and his congregation’s tendency to get themselves into trouble. A decision is made — supposedly a temporary one — that anyone who goes out of Refuge Point without clearance from Expedition and gets hurt through their own stupidity is not necessarily entitled to use Refuge Point’s meager medical resources — emergency medical will of course still be provided, but not necessarily going to extreme lengths to save anyone while we’re so short on resources.

Natalie and Langston have a frank conversation about the risks of using her ability at all when she asks about the possibility of using it to help Judd — after all, if she takes the damage into herself, is she going to give the fetus a drug problem, etc? And he lays down to her that ANY use of her power, even to heal simple things, runs the risk of transferring harm not only to herself but to that developing body.

Toby decides that it’s time. He’s leaving to help his father, and he tells his mother and kisses her goodbye. It’s the hardest thing Melody has ever had to do, watching her boy go off and possibly not come back. She and Langston talk in the lab, and it is finally too much. It is time for the Guardians to have a good old-fashioned night of alcohol abuse. So Melody rounds up the group, we all hang out at Maddy’s because it has the still… and everyone but Natalie gets to drink! Ang proposes a game: What’s the best thing you can remember doing with your power?

Natalie: During a mudslide recovery operation in Mexico, she managed to bring a 2-year-old girl back from death itself (or the brink of).
Maddy: Remembers constantly setting off the fire alarms in third grade and how much fun it was to watch people be confused.
Langston: Misses his acrobatics. And being able to scratch that place on your back most people can’t reach.
Eric: Once, he got past this vault door by merging with a guard’s cell phone and having it text the guard that his girlfriend was pregnant. He had two of them.
Melody: Remembers vanishing a WHOLE BUILDING when Quake brought it down on top of civilians in the street. And she also remembers dulling 17 razor blades once when Ryan had a cute beard she wanted him to keep for a while.

Much laughter is had as we remember Ryan, who LOVE LOVE LOVED to throw buses. What was WITH that guy and the buses???

Ang: Remembers a girl named Krista. She spent a week working on a beautiful design and then used her power to carve it into a frozen lake for Krista. The women all melt and go ‘awwwww!’

And then Ang casually asks Jared what his was. Jared had deer-in-the-headlights face for a second and then slurred slightly about how he didn’t have one, but HYPOTHETICALLY if he did, there was this guy who phoned in a bomb threat. It was going to kill thousands of people. And he just looked in that bastard’s eyes and made him tell everything about the plan. Then he passes out.

In the cold light of the next morning, Natalie comes to wake them all up where they crashed on Maddy’s floor (except Ang. She was smart enough to get herself home first). The Hangover Wake-Up is quite amusing to Natalie… and there is some amount of discussion about the fact that Jared was still keeping one last secret. However, we will talk about it later. In the meantime, everyone go home. She brought oatmeal to tide them over and get something non-objectionable in their stomachs. She takes Jared back to their room and lets him sleep it off.

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Episode 36
Cultists and Contagion

Saturday, November 27, 2022 (DD 987)

Langston’s lab is set up, and although electricity is at a premium, it is being supplied. The community has already gone to half-rations in preparation for winter (and although she objects, Natalie receives a small amount of everyone on the team’s rations in addition to her own due to her condition. In order to both keep the peace and keep any one person from pushing too much of their own rations on her and therefore going too short, she shuts up and simply accepts it). Aquaponics and hydroponics are discussed regularly in the evenings, and a plan is slowly forming to take the team north a ways to get equipment for Sandra, as agreed.

Flashback: Shortly before initial return, Ang and Langston have a meeting — Langston is seeking Ang’s opinion on whether the initial decision to destroy Sandra was the right one. He is no longer certain. Ang’s take is still “why risk it?” It was a complication she didn’t and still doesn’t want to deal with. She also makes a point of warning Eric that due to the report that has to be filed with the Council, his status as a former Power is probably going to come out.

Because the electronics that Sandra has asked for are not run-of-the-mill items, it is determined that the only place we might locate them are in the industrial area to the north of Refuge Point — same place that Eric originally crashed. With all the dead people up there, the group is a little worried about the possibility of contagion, Langston and Melody finally have the equipment necessary to study the samples of fungus that were originally obtained up there. Their investigation produces the information that there are similarities in the fungal infestation to the nanobot virus and that infection by the fungus is likely to have about a 90% mortality rate. The other 10% of infected beings would “change” but he could only conjecture that it might create Twisted.

Lore: It was known that the nanobot virus killed non-Powered people outright. Twisted may have been Normals in that 10% who mutated, and it lends credence to the idea that anyone who survived without becoming Twisted was a latent Power. However, it’s also clear the fungus has been changed by the nanobot virus too — the original nanobot virus left scales on all the people it killed and on SOME of the Twisted but not all.

It is decided that because of the distance to the industrial center, we would travel the 3/4-day distance to City Museum and stay overnight there before continuing on the next day. City Museum is kind of creepy and the group sets a watch detail. Nothing remains of Sandra’s original machine, but Maddy did secret away some of the bits and pieces from that machine when we first encountered Sandra and she fetches them now. Meanwhile, Langston and Ang look around to see if there’s anything here that might assist them in destroying the AI. It takes a long time, but they do find some things that MIGHT work.

The next morning, it looks like snow is coming. The group completes their trip to the industrial center in about half a day. Once there, Natalie and Melody locate a good number of the pieces that Sandra wanted, and they also manage to locate a bunch of other useful things for Refuge Point. Maddy is thoroughly distracted by everything around her and gets completely derailed from the original search by equipment that would be perfect for hydroponics. Langston and Ang take up watch positions, and unbeknownst to everyone else, Langston falls asleep at his post. Ang, however, notices signs that there have been people here in the not-too-distant past. From her post, she thinks she hears someone in pain and goes to check it out.

Laying in the rubble of one of the buildings, Ang finds a single person laying under a shelf unit. The voice is familiar, but not so much that she can immediately identify it. The person is not thrilled about being “rescued” for some reason, if his voice is anything to go by. When she steps cautiously into the room where he lays, she identifies the man as Orlando Kelly, one of the religious folks at Refuge Point. Ang steps outside to summon Natalie by radio and everyone but Langston arrives. Ang gets them up to speed about what she’s found, and they step inside… only to have Natalie accidentally draw the attention of some unexpected company: The Cult of Memory and Thought have arrived from a rear door, past the sleeping Langston, and are intent on taking Orlando — who happens to be a blonde, Nordic-looking man — with them. Against his wishes.

Ang immediately steps in front of Natalie, shielding her, and pulls a gun on the Cult members. A brief moment of talk ensues where Ang informs them they’re not taking Orlando and they disagree before she goes ahead and shoots the lead one in the chest. Melody hip-checks Natalie still further to the rear of the group while she and Maddy spread out to flank Ang’s actions. The gunshot wakes Langston and he starts to make his way toward the sound. A firefight ensues between Ang, Melody, Maddy, and the cultists. Natalie slips out the side door merely to stand guard and be out of the way. Langston arrives and comes from the far side of things to make it sound as if Wolf may be coming to join the fray.

Ultimately, the battle goes badly for the Cultists. The leader and one of the others are killed inside the room where Orlando had been trapped. The other two cultists manage to extricate Orlando and themselves through the back door, and Mel and Maddy chase after them through that same door while Ang heads out the side door to flank the retreating kidnappers. Ang and Maddy fire on and hit the same guy, leaving only one remaining cultist holding a badly injured Orlando. He’s quickly dispatched.

During the battle, Ang is hit by friendly fire (Melody shot her inside the small confines of the room). Natalie handles binding up and treating Ang’s injury while Langston sees to Orlando. He has a broken leg and he is heavily infected by the fungus that seems to be taking over in the area. He’s covered in scales, and he claims to have gone through the infected part of the complex two days previously. Because we’re not sure exactly how long it is contagious, masks and gloves are donned by all. Orlando is taken back to Refuge Point with the group. The return trip is pretty uneventful.

Once back at Refuge Point, Orlando is quarantined and members of his (crazy) church are asked about whether they will care for him. They agree to, and a couple of days pass. Late in the day a volunteer comes to let Langston know that Orlando’s fever is spiking pretty severely. Langston has, in the meantime, learned a good bit from Orlando’s blood sample. The man is super-infected with spores of the fungus throughout his entire body — tissues as well as bloodstream. By all rights, he should not still be alive at all — he should have either healed it already or been dead already. This fact alone calls into question some of the original theories about survivors all being Latent Powers and/or about what effect the nanobot virus is having on the flora of the area and how it may be mutating. The volunteers from the church are pulled from their nursing duties and Ang stands guard. Heat begins to radiate from Orlando’s quarantine space, and he begins screaming. There is a sudden, loud whoosh and then silence. All volunteers are quarantined and Maddy rigs a bunch of fire extinguishers to hopefully corral and trap any spores that might be free-floating inside the room Orlando died in. It requires 2-3 additional days before Langston and Dr. Nona deem it “safe enough” to go in there in what passes for hazmat gear and check it out. There is nothing left of Orlando but bones and the spores that coat the place.

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These Eggshells Aren't Working For Me
She promised no more secrets.

Nov 20

After their return from the trip to Guardians Tower, Natalie had a lot to think about. Not only was the place inhabited by an AI with an agenda, it was potentially a weapon in and of itself. And she had an inkling that if they didn’t change their tune with the thing and at least attempt to keep a good alliance, things were going to go from dicey to deadly. And although tactical thinking wasn’t her forte, she was pretty sure Ang was already in the process of strategizing for the worst case. Or at least she sure as hell hoped so.

Meanwhile, Natalie had her own internal issues to deal with. Langston’s revelation that her power was not only on but constantly on and in use was …. overwhelming. Terrifying. And she certainly wasn’t feeling nearly as sanguine about the possibilities as she’d tried to appear. But she kept the information to herself, struggling to come to terms with it before sharing it with the man who lay curled around her in the bed. She couldn’t shut her brain off, stop worrying through the possibilities. Could she keep up this subconscious healing for nine months? Was it physically even possible, given the rationing that would be coming? Even now, she could feel the dread in the pit of her stomach.

Well, it might be morning sickness, she acknowledged silently. Whoever coined THAT term should be shot. It was never in the morning for her — usually mid afternoon or late evening. Sometimes the middle of the night when, like now, she couldn’t get the hamsters in her brain to stop their frantic running. She swallowed hard and burrowed a little deeper into Jared’s side.

Jared slowly drifted into consciousness. She must not be sleeping well. Jared was generally a deep sleeper. He would’ve thought all that time in the wild would’ve beaten that out of him, but instead it had only really made it a little stronger. These days it took Natalie tossing and turning to get him up in the middle of the night… and sometimes not even then.

His voice still gravelly from sleep, Jared said, “You okay, babe?”

She hadn’t meant to wake him — she’d learned over the past weeks that his instinct in sleep was to simply wrap his arm around her without waking when she moved, and that comfort was all she’d been seeking. Or at least she thought it was … but the truth of the matter was probably both more and less complicated than that. She took responsibility for so many things… this one she didn’t want to have to carry alone. She didn’t want to have to be strong. But would his reaction compound hers?

“I have to tell you something,” she whispered in the darkness. “But if I say it out loud, it becomes real.”

“It’s already real, living in your thoughts.” Jared wasn’t completely coherent yet. That statement may have made more sense in my head than out loud. “So go ahead and say it. I’m right here to help.”

She had no real idea how to explain it. “Langston was able to use the scanners at the Tower,” she finally began in a low voice. “He’s not exactly sure why…. but my power has …” Natalie struggled with how to describe it. “For lack of a better way to put it, my power has wrapped itself around the embryo, and it is apparently constantly on.” She was in some way gratified that her tone was calm and stable in the dark despite the unexpected trickle of silent tears that came out of nowhere.

“There’s a lot of good in that, right?” Jared’s tone had that question your first take element that he sometimes used. “What scares you?” He wanted to hear that from her point of view.

Natalie said quietly, “If I’m healing it, there’s something wrong with it. Wrong enough that my power didn’t simply fix it but is continually fixing it.” She swallowed hard. “We’ve got Twisted food supplies, we’ve been exposed to God only knows what kind of viruses, and our bodies are full of nanobots. Langston… seems to think that if my power stops, the probability is that it won’t survive. Which also opens up the possibility that maybe other people here in Refuge Point have gotten pregnant in the past two years. And that none of them survived.”

She hesitated and reached up to wipe her face, not sure she could push more words past the emotion clogging her throat.

“Won’t lie to you, Nat. When you lay it out like that, it sounds scary. But I also hear a lot of ifs, probables and possibles there too.” Which wasn’t surprising to Jared. Langston would never say something was a surety unless it had gone through all the proper research.

He cupped his hand against Nat’s cheek, letting the warmth of it spread across the coolness of her face. “If it was me, I’d say figure out which things we can control and then focus on them. But more important isn’t what I want, but what you need.” He moved his hand to rub her arm in reassurance. “What can I help with?”

“You’re not going to like my answer,” Natalie informed him in a soft tone. Her body had gone a little stiff at the words what you need, though the reason perhaps wasn’t clear until now. “I want too many conflicting things from you on this.”

Well… at least she could identify that much. But Natalie was hard-pressed to be amused at her own confusion just now.

“I want you to not make out like my feelings in any of this are the only important ones. Stop pushing off telling me what you want or what you think and focusing just on me — because frankly, it makes me feel like you’re more interested in being my shrink than my lover and the father of this child, assuming I can even keep it alive all nine months.” Despite being aware that she was probably being a bit irrational, the dam was now broken — it could be a little bit hormonal too, after all.

“I want you emotionally invested in this bullshit… which is totally not fair because at the same time, if I can’t keep up this healing, it’s just going to die anyway and I really don’t want you to have to feel that and deal with me on top of it.” She pushed upright on her arms to look down at him, though she couldn’t see him in the dark. “I damn well want to stop feeling like you’re tiptoeing around me — you’re too supportive!” And yes, she could totally hear the irrationality now…

Well, damn.

Jared remembering reading somewhere that nobody knew how to press your buttons more than the people who loved you. That was getting proven true in real time.

“What do I want?” Jared asked, a bit of growl in his voice. “I want you to stop fucking spinning out of control anytime you get a new piece of info. Maybe that’s what your power DOES with a baby. You haven’t been pregnant before. How would you know? But yet you jump straight to the worst possible outcome right off the bat. How the hell else am I supposed to react that?”

He took a couple deep breaths to try and calm down. He didn’t think he had been leaning over backwards. He just didn’t want to be acting like his opinion was the important one.

The tone was actually a comforting one. How many times in their relationship had he growled at her for something similar — usually over healing too many people at once. Or jumping feet-first into a situation. “_Thank you_,” Natalie breathed in relief. She settled lower, resting on her elbow and propping her head on her hand. “I get tired of you being nice to me,” she informed him. “I don’t need kid gloves. I have always done exactly what I’m doing now — plan for the worst case. Christ, WHY do you think I worked at FEMA??? It channeled that need. But I don’t need you babying me. I need you to be YOU.”

She paused. “And I have no idea whether this will be normal for my body — it does scare the shit out of me. And I am worried about what it means… and my empathy is not going to be a plus for this, because your emotions especially are going to be ones I can sense. So being careful with me and suppressing your own reactions is just going to make me cry more.”

HAD he been treating her with kid gloves? Did he think she was some sort of hothouse flower?

When he started replaying all their conversations, he could see the pattern. But the more Jared thought about it, the more he came to a different conclusion. It wasn’t Nat he was treating as fragile, it was the relationship. That despite having at least one conversation about specifically that. Damn, Jared, get your shit together, he scolded himself. He didn’t trust himself to do things right, it seemed. He just needed to treat this like anything else new he would do – step forward with the best of knowledge and intentions and understand there were going to be fucking mistakes. But none of those mistakes would kill this thing the two of them had. In fact, putting the relationship behind a steel wall to keep it safe would do more to destroy it than anything else he could do. When you think you’re playing above your level, you tense up and make it true.

“Alright, so let’s start figuring out what we can control. Gotta start somewhere.” Jared paused for a minute and then followed up with a simple, “And I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Natalie replied. Her tone was soft. “Looking back, you’ve always been my touchstone — the one I could count on to be not just the shoulder to lean on when I needed comfort when something went wrong but the one I could trust to give me swift kick in the ass when I was getting too lost in the power. I need you to keep just being the person you’ve always been. Even when… maybe especially when… we both know I’m being irrational.” She grinned a little in the dark, reaching up again to wipe her cheek. The tears had at least stopped for now. She laid all the way back down, resting her head on the pillow where she could nuzzle into the curve of his neck. “I don’t think there’s anything at all I can control in this — whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I’ll just keep doing what Nona and Langston tell me, I guess.”

“I call bullshit on whatever happens, happens.” Jared said it with a smile. “Lots of things you can control or work on controlling. Maybe with your power always on, we can get some ideas about what’s happening. Find ways to be proactive.”

It wasn’t always possible (or good, even) to be in control all the time. But in Jared’s mind, there might be nothing worse than conceding to the idea that you didn’t have any control in your own life.

“Well, let me rephrase that, then,” Nat conceded with a faint smile in the dark. “Obviously I’m going to do all the right things that I can do — eat when those bossy types tell me to, et cetera. Take care of myself. Maybe even be a little more careful on Expedition.” Tongue firmly lodged in cheek. “But I just meant that … I don’t honestly think there’s a lot that I can do besides just keep on doing the normal ‘right’ things. And I’m reasonably sure that even if I didn’t want him to, Langston is going to be all over the figuring out what my power is actually doing in there.”

Jared still disagreed but he knew instinctively when he could push and when he couldn’t. This was a couldn’t. So he changed direction.

“So are we having this baby out of wedlock?” There’s something we can control, he thought amusedly.

Talk about a change in direction! Natalie was caught flat-footed with the query. If he could see her face, he’d probably have roared with laughter at the rather comical expression of Great Big Anime Eyes. She pushed upright and reached over for the small LED light, tapping it on so she could see him.

Her voice was small. “What?”

“We don’t have to if you don’t wanna,” he said calmly. “I’m pretty sure Miss Manners didn’t survive D-Day, so we wouldn’t have to read about how improper we were being.”

He looked into her eyes, his face serious. “But I’m not going to love you any less as we move along and I’m pretty sure I love you as much as any one person could love someone else. So I’m guess what I’m saying, Natalie Tessier, is Will you marry me?

It was so far outside the realm of what she’d been thinking about or even expecting that she didn’t know quite what to say. He could see the uncertainty not only in the way she caught one side of her lower lip between her teeth but in the way she unconsciously curled inward just a little, as if to protect herself. “What if …” No. Stop. You don’t want an answer to that — there aren’t any. Pulling in a slow breath, she looked down at her hands where they plucked at the blanket covering them.

Instead of asking the questions that had no real answers, she thought about all that they’d seen — both apart and together — and all that could be coming. She could imagine a future without him around, sure. She’d lived a past without him just fine. But his arrival, alive and well, had brought a connection that she hadn’t shared even with her best friend. And she’d realized just before she’d gotten pregnant that she was allowed to be happy. He gave her that — the quiet place at the end of the day where she felt … content.

When she looked up at him again, she told him softly, “I have one fear. What if this empathy thing I have going on is somehow making what you feel stronger than it was to start with? I… would never want you to stay if I was influencing you. So … if it turned out that I was, would we… try to work it out?”

“Wow, you didn’t realize how head over heels I was for you well before the nanobots dropped.” Jared smiled to indicate he was teasing her just a little.

“I’ll take my chances,” he said, unconsciously nodding as he said it. “I’m pretty sure you’re not. And I would’ve married you before, anyway. Heck, if you were influencing, maybe I needed the push.” After all, Jared knew a little bit about giving someone that mental push. Days thankfully gone by, he thought.

Natalie laughed softly at his assertion about being head over heels. She studied his face and his listened to his tone, and she listened even more closely to her sense of him — trusting the feelings she felt off other people was harder lately, maybe because she was more aware of it when the emotion didn’t match the words. She couldn’t help the smile that lingered in her face as she looked down again. She wasn’t as certain of them as he seemed to be… but she was certain that she wanted to be. And so she nodded slowly, meeting his eyes a bit shyly. “Then yes.” It wasn’t what she’d really ever expected of life — then again, nor was destroying the world.

He hadn’t been worried…. ok, well, maybe a little. But when she said yes, Jared’s face broke into a big grin. “God, I love you, Nat,” he said before leaning into a big kiss.

When he pulled away, the big grin was still there. “So, where’s the big pile of rings you guys pulled from the mall stores? We got ring shopping to do.”

She squeaked before being tugged down into that somewhat lengthy kiss, relaxing and curling into his taller form as it went on. When they came up for air, she was giggling quietly and at his question she couldn’t help outright laughing. “I have no idea, but it’s not like we won’t have a billion choices,” she pointed out. Reaching up to cradle his scruffy cheek, she told him, “I don’t need rings or anything else. Just… us and the commitment to figure it out, no matter what comes at us. Okay?”

He nodded seriously. “I agree – what we have doesn’t need rings to be strong. We’ll hold tight against the storm and always be there for each other.”

A pause hung in the air before Jared grinned again. “But you’re robbing me of my chance to see you with three rings on all ten fingers, like whatshisname, that stupid ass villain. Ringmaster, that was it!” He smirked. That guy really was an idiot. The Guardians had gotten to make Barnum and Bailey circus references for weeks after they had captured him.

“Okay, you suck,” Natalie informed him on a laugh. Squeezing her eyes tight together to banish that image, giggling insanely at the memory. That guy had been a laughingstock. She told him when she opened her eyes, “KISS. I’ll be happy if we can keep it to relatively simple bands. I don’t really think more is better — just draws attention, you know? Not that diamonds have much value anymore,” she commented.

“No ring, no matter what gem, could be as valuable as you are, Nat,” he said, as he leaned in again to kiss his fiance.

Nose to nose with him, she whispered, “You should have told me ages ago how strong it was.” Her smile was tender. “I love you too.”

It was amazing how much a bout of world destruction increased your courage, Jared thought. Hard to worry about upsetting a delicate balance when the whole damn world had been upset. He didn’t say anything of that though. He just said, “Yeah, I should have. I love you.” And he kissed her again, never wanting to let her go.

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Episode 35
Returning to the Tower of Craziness

Nov 18

Elections having been duly held, the only new persons on the Council are Ida (mayor) and Eric (Expedition in place of Ang, who took Power Liaison — uncertain whether that’s a Council position).

In the aftermath of the attack by Gigantor, the Council has come to the agreement that equipment does need to be put in place for Langston to continue his research into the nanobot virus and the situation with burgeoning Powers. Toby has been sticking around in the hopes of learning everything he can about his father’s pattern scan, which was obtained on the last run to the Tower, and Maddy has been planning to return to Guardians Tower anyway. So a meeting commences in Maddy’s room.

Flashback: Ang learned at Guardians Tower what vehicles would be repairable and what was actually on hand. There were two boats, 1 jet, and 1 helicopter that might potentially be candidates for bringing equipment back with us.

The team agrees that returning to the Tower is in fact the best option. During the course of this discussion, Maddy attempts to explain singularity to those of us who aren’t sure of the meaning in this context; that she wanted a human host, but melding to Warden might just be enough to content her. Maddy offhandedly mentions that certain other bodies had been discarded as options, and although that is briefly queried, it’s not followed up on.

Flashback: After returning to Refuge Point from the Tower last trip, Ang checked on everyone who used to be a Power that we are aware of to see if any of them were experiencing power reactivation flares of any kind. The answer was no. Elana has continued to train with both Ang and Natalie, and she can control it pretty well when things are calm. Like most new Powers, when her emotions are heightened, control is inconsistent.

Ang approaches Elana in the garden about accompanying the team to Guardians Tower for a second trip. She agrees to go. Meanwhile, Langston talks to Toby about transport and Maddy goes to Eric to procure weaponry; we need heavier weapons for this trip just in case of a larger-than-usual threat. He agrees, but he wants to come along. He and Ang talk, and Ang eventually acquiesces. Toby teleports everyone to the outskirts of the Tower.

Maddy begins talks with Sandra about allowing us to enter. Sandra is fixing herself a new home in the building. Ultimately, a trade is agreed upon. In return for allowing us to take a list of equipment and a vehicle for transporting the equipment home along with access to our own quarters, Sandra wants Maddy (and the team) to retrieve some parts for her that she does not have access to in the Tower itself and cannot obtain.

The group is going to take turns hitting their quarters.

Maddy, Natalie, Elana: Vehicle team. These three head for the boats, one of which Sandra has agreed to let us have. One of the boats is in pretty decent shape but has no fuel; the other has fuel, so the women siphon it off into the good boat and that’s all set pretty quickly. The boat runs, but it’s really rough after sitting there for a couple of years. It’ll serve its purpose, however. Maddy dives into the water of the boat’s mooring to try to swim out to the tunnel that opens to the river, but she cannot swim! She starts going under, and Natalie tosses her a life preserver. Maddy misses the mild snark that comes with it. They let the others know that transport for equipment is set up and ready, and then they trade off to go to their own quarters.

Ang, Melody, Toby: First Quarters Team. While Melody and Toby go into their home to fetch personal belongings (pictures, music, clothes, some of Mel’s uniforms, some of the canned goods, etc.), Ang focuses on one item that she really wants — her armor. When she gets to her quarters, the armor pieces that she needs are not where they were left, and she suspects from the signs in the room that they were carefully removed by a robot. So Ang heads for the armory, where she is stopped by Sandra inquiring as to what she needs. When Ang states that she wants her things that were taken from her quarters, Sandra allows her entry to the armory and tells her where to find the gear in question. Along with her armor, Ang also lucks out and finds a couple of her hilts with her gear. Sandra even apologizes for taking it. It’s clear to Ang that Sandra is stockpiling weapons and equipment in the armory, and there are two new security cameras in addition to the two that already existed. She touches nothing except what she claimed she came for, and thanked Sandra for it (through gritted teeth) while making mental notes of offensive and defensive capabilities and placements, what gear is here, etc.

Langston, Eric: Medical and research labs. While they are in the medical lab sorting through the equipment that will be useful, Sandra offers her help to Langston as a gesture of good will. He accepts this offer so long as it’s not going to cost him anything, and Sandra reactivates Eric’s power. Come to find out, he’s able to merge with the tech in the room! This speeds up their ability to sort through the equipment significantly and they get to work trying to make sure they find everything on their list and get it into working condition.

The vehicle team and first quarters team finish up at approximately the same time and begin heading toward the labs to start transporting equipment. On the way up, the vehicle team makes their own stops off at their quarters to round up their personal gear. And Natalie is called specifically called to medical for Langston to scan her. Eric has to remain to power the machine while Toby and Langston deal with the scans.

The full-body scan verifies the pregnancy and its duration (roughly 6-7 weeks by now), that the fetus seems normal, and it also discloses something troubling — Natalie’s physical processes are going harder than usual for a normal pregnancy. Langston appears to have several thoughts on the process: 1) could be just what Nat’s body does when she’s pregnant, but there’s no way to know that because she’s never been before; 2) could be that there are some effects of the nanobots or viruses in the atmosphere that her healing factor is protecting the embryo from; or 3) could be something even worse, like the idea that maybe there HAVE actually been pregnancies since D-Day that no one knew about and whatever it is that Nat’s body is fighting off could be the reason no one’s had kids that we’re aware of (sample size admittedly confined to Refuge Point and allies). No real way to know anything about it as yet, but Langston does make a point of pulling Melody aside to tell her to make SURE that Natalie is eating — and eating even more than previously advised because her healing ability being constantly on could potentially be a huge energy sink and she’ll need the calories.

In addition, Maddy asks Langston to run a full scan on her as well for the location of all metal bits and pieces that are now bonded into her body. Up to this point, she had no way of knowing how deep within her body the machinery might have penetrated, so now that the scan is accomplished, she can better understand her own physical situation.

The last bit of information gleaned from Sandra is that she expects to restore the Tower to its full working potential.
The team is given leave to stay overnight at the Tower. Toby and Eric are sent back to Refuge Point to obtain the trucks and personnel, then meet the boat at the docks in the morning and complete transport of the materials. Lab will be set up in a conference room of the hotel.

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