Heroes Fail

The Look in Their Eyes
Melody diary entry

Hi Diary

Yeah, it’s been a while since I wrote in you. A long while. Too much has been happening, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much happiness. I’ve fled Refuge Point with the Powers and then we’ve come back home, found out that my best friend’s Powers have returned like a spigot that she has no control over with a nice new finesse of vampire life sucking when her body draws down too hard and everything green around us has started mutating into Miracle Gro plants on steroids. My son has developed the mirror reflection of my old powers; organic manipulation with a twist of teleportation. And to add to the mess of those two, Maddy has hers back as well but is acting strangely, even for her, and Ang isn’t quite right either.

Langston, thank heaven, is still Langston. (Although how I find that fact calming, I don’t know. Tells you how messed up things have been, huh.)

We’ve got new people stumbling into the door every few days and although Nat has calmed down a bit, I was beginning to be afraid that she’d re-activate the whole damn group of us including the normals. As usual dammit it all, Langston’s theory of latent abilities being the key to how the survivors survived is correct I beginning to believe. Which means the whole planet is evolving or Nat’s lighting up and mutating genes in everyone she touches like no tomorrow. I’d prefer to believe Langston is right. . .I don’t think Nat’s sanity could handle the other.

You know, I cringed away from her, diary. Hurt her really badly in the way that heals the slowest. Emotional hurts are so slow to heal and I showed her how afraid of her I was. Not because of what I’ve seen her do. She is Nat. She is the most selfless person I know. I think that’s part of her fear. She could choose to give until she had no more to give but her power now says no. It has an almost cognizant realization that self needs to be preserved, even at the cost of undoing the good healing she’s done. That’s a lack of control that Nat’s never had. Hard to give everything if your power overrides that to take it back.

But that’s not why I cringed. She asked. Admitted I’d hurt her. I’m terrified she’ll heal me and re-activate me. I teased her about that when I admitted that was why I was frightened, told her I wouldn’t worry about her opinion because Toby and I would be able to re-make the world to what we wanted and have people who loved us unconditionally. And to my horror, I saw the unease in her eyes. (You know eyes, those lovely windows to the soul? I’m very aware of them lately, so very aware of looks, hidden and open, cut sideways to friends and allies as well judging and cold. Eyes of the crowd, eyes of friends, eyes of strangers, all showing something when their owner isn’t paying attention. I’ve become fascinated with them, how much can be gleaned.)

I couldn’t blame her at all. Nobody knows what happens when I come back online as it were. Langston seems to think I’ll be some kind of eco-warrior, healing the planet with Toby. But will we? What is matter, inorganic and organic but atoms, electrons, neutrons and fermions, all charged, all changeable with a tiny tweak of shells and spin. What happens if Toby can teach me what he can do and I teach him? What isn’t beyond our grasp but consciousness itself? And if consciousness is just the ordering of nerves and electrical impulses and re-arrangement of those nerves can make a new person, then well? What is the devils’ bargain that the world makes in being healed by Toby and I? He and I argued over the extent of what I could do. langstonseemed so very certain that I hedged what I could do. I’d never admit it to him, but he was right.

How did he know? Uncertain. But I’ve found out that Ryan kept secrets from me, so did Jared. (yes, he’s back as well) And Langston’s admitted circumspectly that he and the “others” kept metrics on us all. So, chillingly, I’m beginning to accept that “they” knew what I could do better than I did. I didn’t want to know. I knew what I could do holding back. I know what I could do when my powers first showed. I’ve never told anyone, not even Ryan. When you’re a tween, the world is a balance between wishes and reality and my reality was my wish in so many ways until I began to understand I shouldn’t do certain things. Thank God that children have such selfish little needs so easily fulfilled. No one knew what I could do until there was almost no world left to fear it.

You know I write around trying to avoid the most terrible of things.

Toby is frightened of me. He found Ryan alive and I felt the most joy I had since Toby was newly born and placed into my arms. . . and then he told me what I had done. . .Ryan is a coral at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Somehow, he thrives at that depth. I, somehow, made his environment and put him there, stable and stuck, against all laws of nature. Toby can’t figure out how to undo it. He tried to make light of it, asked me if I had ideas. ( I mean, the water pressure alone is a bear to figure out how to handle much less the transformation of the state.)

But he is scared, no doubt. Of losing his father to a mistake, of not being able to fix what I’ve done, frightened that time is running out since we don’t know how long this state of being for Ryan can last without my powers to sustain it. And of me. Because I did it and did it in a far too short moment of precious time. Oh god, oh god, oh god!! He’s scared of me. I saw it in his eyes!!!! My son! Of his mother! Dear God in Heaven, I never thought I’d see that. I never thought about what that would feel like. I hurt to the bottom of my soul. Awe of what I’d done and yes, fear. I couldn’t let him see what daggers that put through my heart. What will I see in Ryan’s eyes if Toby can get him back? So many eyes and so much potential fear.

I don’t know how I can take it when they really see the monster that I am inside, can become, was tempted with each day.

I found another minute piece of metal at the corner of my eye the other day. I’m not telling Langston or anybody. He’ll tell me my power is shifting and purging the nanobots, that if I work at it, I can force them to shift states like any other metals I played with before and be free of them. I can already see the unemotional appraisal in his eyes, the flat facts pounding their way to his wholly unarguable rational conclusion.

But I don’t want my Powers back. I don’t want that responsibility. I don’t want that temptation. I don’t have the strength anymore to resist. Not now that the world is like it is. Now that I have lived without the worry, without the fear of myself, I can’t go back. I like normal. I’m working myself to exhaustion and hardly sleeping. I can’t let my body have the energy to heal itself, can’t let my power do what it can. Jared talked of nanobots in a syringe for Toby. If I could, I’d inject myself. Those little buggers can’t lose because I can’t win. I know I’ve put a happy spin on it for Nat, but I’m scared and no amount of acceptance or planning will change that.

God forbid that I reactivate. Based on what I’ve seen of the others. . .well, hopefully Ang will just shoot me and put me out of their misery.

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Episode 33
Attack on Guardian Tower

The date: One year before Destruction Day, Jan. 27, 2019

It is winter and the team is just returning from a disaster mission — an avalanche rescue/recovery effort. Mosenthein Island, the island in the middle of the river where Guardians Tower sits, has its own landing pad for the several jets that are used for the teams, and as the group lands the landscape has been mostly plowed. There are 6-8" of snow in various piles where the plow left them after last week’s snow. The first three levels of the Tower house the Guardians Museum and the various and sundry employees who act as monitoring teams, legal teams, museum folks, accounting, requisitions, etc. Floors 4 through 13 are Guardians-Only and house labs, living spaces, medical bays, gyms, and so forth. All the teams have living quarters here, though a great many also have off-site homes (think firefighters — when they’re on duty, many like to stay on-site and in some cases are required to stay on-site).

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks and most of the team has been staying on-site for that time — When we’re not on a call, Maddy putters in her workshop/garage, Langston putters in his lab, Ryan and Melody tag-team who has Toby duty, etc. As they enter the building from the private entrance, Warden, the AI who runs the Tower, greets each team member by name. Maddy and Langston both head off to their private spaces, Melody joins up with her husband and son, and Natalie and Jared — who accompanied the team due to the disaster-relief aspects — agree to meet back up at her place after he heads for FEMA to give his report (and pick up pizza on his way back) and she catches a shower. As the evening progresses, Ryan’s team is called out and so Melody takes their son out to their off-site home to stay with the nanny/bodyguard. After Natalie falls asleep on her couch watching a movie with Jared, he heads off back to the mainland for the night.

And it is just an hour or later that odd little things start to happen.

Langston, in his lab up on the 10th floor, happens to notice one of the Guardians named Bolt as he passes the lab on his way (apparently) to the server room carrying something like a cylinder. Idly, Langston happens to check — Bolt has access to this floor, but he’s been up here exactly… never before. It piques his attention briefly, but it’s not really suspicious. Still… it also catches his attention that Warden’s response time on the query is sluggish.

At about that same time, Melody is returning to the Tower from dropping off Toby. She’s in her civvies, so she comes through the public entryway — and when the elevator arrives, she finds one of the admin assistants unconscious on the floor of it. She immediately rouses Natalie from a sound sleep because it’s around 7:30 at night and most of the Tower is not occupied by personnel at the moment. Natalie heads down in the other elevator and checks out the woman, Susan something. She seems stable, but they are heading for med bay anyway. Melody asks for video footage, and Warden’s response is both slow and unhelpful — the AI is missing about 10 minutes of security footage.

And then the Tower’s automated defenses lock the place down tight. Alarms start going off, all the blast doors come down, and there is no getting in or out. Mel and Natalie start making phone calls on Mel’s cell phone — first to security because the elevator’s internal phone is down. They get no one. Then Mel gets hold of Maddy and rousts her from her own little world where the darn alarms weren’t going off. Maddy cannot reach Warden OR any other machines right then, so she works on prying herself out of her workshop. Then they contact Jared, back at FEMA, and tells him that the Tower is having major problems — send Ryan’s team as soon as possible.

Langston works on extricating himself from his own lab by causing the fire suppression system to go off. His entire lab is doused in foam, but the doors do unlock and he’s able to get into the hallway at least. He finds, heading for the server room, that Bolt is unconscious on the floor in front of the open door and the canister is empty in the hallway. He contacts Maddy via the voice comms, but neither Melody nor Natalie have theirs on. He tells Maddy to round up whoever she can and get to the 10th floor.

Maddy heads for the elevator shaft on the seventh floor and pries the doors open to try to get to where Mel and Natalie are attempting to escape the stalled elevator down on the third floor. As they climb, the passive defenses are not on (thank goodness — those laser grids suck) but the active defense lasers start firing. Maddy is hit in the right arm when she pries open the doors up on the 7th, and Natalie’s hit in the left arm and begins to fall back down the elevator shaft, so Melody drops off the ladder and uses the air to cushion them both. Then as Maddy climbs from Floor 7 to Floor 10, Melody floats both herself and Natalie upward so that they all arrive at about the same time. Langston joins them at the elevator.

After a bit of a confab where everyone is brought up to date on what Maddy has sensed, Natalie has sensed, and Langston has learned, the scope of the situation becomes evident: The Tower is under attack by at least one, possibly more, enemies of unknown origin. At least one is a telepath of some form — Susan in the elevator is seemingly suffering psychic backlash of the sort that usually comes from telepathic possession on a non-Powered person. Maddy thinks someone is ALSO controlling the machines that she’s been able to scan — there’s definitely an intelligence there. We decide that the most likely target of these infiltrators is the Vault, where we keep all manner of confiscated items. A quick phone call back to FEMA to update Ryan’s team via Jared (the team is still mid-fight and can’t get to us yet) and to have his team come in from the landing pad up on the 14th floor (aka rooftop landing). The group heads for the Vault, up on the 13th floor.

On the way there, they detour to one of the embarkation rooms on the 14th floor near the landing pad to equip themselves with an anti-telepath device that is stored there for teams heading out to deal with potential mind-control villains. It’s about the size of a suitcase, and Langston carries it down as we head down the stairwell. Maddy reaches out mentally to a small Roomba-like robot in the main electrical room and has it go shut off the primary Kill Switch for the Tower’s power grid. We hope that it will at least momentarily kill the building’s security defenses so that we can actually get where we want to go. And maybe lock down the Vault even tighter because our infiltrators maybe can’t hack it if it has no power.

The group lets themselves quietly onto the 13th floor, but as they round the corner of the hallway near the Vault, they hear the sound of the massive steel door being ripped off the wall. Bolt is unconscious on the floor and a Guardian named MegaStar is standing in the hall holding the door — his power is of course superstrength. Entering the Vault is a black cloud of particles. MegaStar throws the door and a huge chunk of the wall at the group, who all scramble backward trying not to get hit. It crashes into the wall near Melody and disintegrates.

Langston opens the suitcase device and starts to try to power it up while Maddy slips back around the corner of the hall and tries to communicate with all the devices inside the Vault — she convinces them to help her fight back against the “bad guys.” There’s one object — an alien cannon of some kind — that is entirely unreachable. So her machines begin to fight that one. Something, or someONE, seems to come phasing out of MegaStar in the middle of this chaos, and Langston perceives that this may be the person we need to take out of the equation before he can possess anyone else. So he flashes a glance toward Natalie, who is basically just trying to stay out of the line of fire for now, and he lunges toward the guy coming into focus while MegaStar collapses. He grabs the unknown man by the head and SHOVES him into the wall, engaging him in the brawl.

Melody is slipping around the corner into the Vault itself by now, but she stops short when she sees the machines all attacking each other. She shouts back to Maddy, “Which ones are ours?!” Maddy replies, “Not the cannon!” So Melody makes an attempt to attack the cannon itself and change its molecular structure.

Natalie took over the task of getting the mind-control defense shield up and running. When the unknown guy groggily looks up and sees what she’s doing, his eyes go all glowy as he attempts to take over her mind. She fights back, but it takes a few seconds. And as soon as Langston realizes what he’s doing, he backhands him into unconsciousness, which completely frees up Natalie to slide the case across the floor right next to Langston so that this telepath is out of commission.

Melody’s attempts, unfortunately, fail spectacularly at that moment. Whatever she changed in the cannon makes it volatile. It explodes with little warning. Mel manages to throw up a shield over herself, but the resulting energy wave does reasonable amounts of damage to Langston (who was right by the door) and Natalie (who throws her body over the unconscious MegaStar to keep him from being hurt), and the mental shrieks of agony from the machines incapacitates Maddy briefly. MegaStar and Bolt are not injured. On the floor of the server room is a black pool of gooey liquid stuff that was probably the being possessing the machines, the particle-cloud guy.

It is now that Ryan’s team shows up to help. He peers down through the hole that was just blasted through the Vault ceiling up to the rooftop, both eyebrows raised as he asked rather casually of his wife, “Hon… what did you do?” Things are wrapped up pretty quickly from there. The two infiltrators, called Smoke and Mirror, are taken to the Powered Prison — Lockdown — and interrogated first by Ryan and Langston, and then by whoever else afterward (unbeknownst to the team at the time, that was Jared’s job). It’s discovered that Smoke and Mirror were contracted by some super-science coalition who wanted to steal some of the devices. They have some kind of plan, but the two are just mercenaries and were not interested in the details. They can’t tell us much more than that. And so everyone heads home, now aware that there is some group out there who wants the villain gadgets but with no idea who that might be. And anyway, it’s kind of above their pay grade, after all.

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Light in the Darkness

Approx. Nov 2

She woke from sleep slowly, uncertain what had roused her. The world was silent except for the soft sound of Jared’s breathing above her head. It was amazing, she thought, how very loud and intense silence could be. Before Destruction Day, she would bet that most people had no idea of how truly dark and silent the night was — the constant subtle hum of electricity or traffic and some amount of light pollution, even when you were out of the city. Now, though, the silence could be deafening.

Moving carefully, Natalie tugged the blanket down slightly to uncover her ears so as to be able to better hear what might be going on, but still nothing drew her focus. So she shifted just enough in her companion’s embrace to settle once more comfortably in the curve of his warmth and let her breath out in a contented sigh.

Awake now, though, she let her mind wander. Jared’s arrival had brought a great many things to the forefront of the community’s collective thoughts, not the least of which was the idea that although we were currently cut off from it, there might actually be something resembling a government out there. And how would that affect us? We’d spent the past two years building our own small fiefdoms with their own rules and governing bodies… would people just begin to fall in line if Army tanks started showing up?

Well… yes, Natalie thought. Of course they would. Might goes a long way in this world. The people who could enforce the rules of law they wanted to impose would invariably be the winners. And it was the thing that kept making Natalie practically break out in hives, even now that the communications gear was destroyed, when she considered that at some point, the ‘government’ — or at least Jared’s General and his version of it — might show up here. With her own powers active and a couple of other people able to use theirs… what would happen to her?

And selfishly she couldn’t help but wonder who would actually stand up for her. She knew she could count on Ang and the others. Knew she could count on a few people in Refuge Point like Wolf and Charlie and Santae… but that didn’t mean much if they came in force. And while she trusted Jared with her life, she wasn’t entirely sure that his General might not convince him somewhere along the way that it was in everyone’s “best interests” to have any Powers they located under the command of the “government” once more.

It wasn’t in her to not trust this man who had spent a number of years protecting her. Natalie couldn’t worry about what would happen someday when the government showed up. She could only worry about the here and now. And here and now, she wanted what she’d so envied Ryan and Melody — the closeness of another person who both could see you for who and what you were and loved you for exactly those things, good, bad, and ugly. She wanted … him. She was letting him see her… in bits and pieces. And he wasn’t turning away, even from the dark parts. She kept expecting him to, any minute. And it kept not happening. She wasn’t sure what to do with that — hell, she was pretty sure he was right. We, all of us, needed a shrink and some time on a therapist’s couch for PTSD and survivor’s guilt and anxiety and probably a whole host of other things.

Stroking her hand gently down his arm where it curved around her, Natalie smiled in the darkness. It had been a while since she’d woken this way — usually when she couldn’t sleep, she’d run. Tonight, she was merely content to lay here in the warmth of the cocoon they’d made under her blanket and contemplate the possibilities of the future.

And even as her mind wandered again, her power flared subtly. She could feel it reaching for… something. What the hell was she trying to heal?

Now that she knew what had awakened her, Natalie paid attention to that ephemeral pull on her senses. Did someone need help? No… it wasn’t strong enough for that, she didn’t think. Unless it was Jared. Was he hurt somehow and she was only just catching on because of the way they lay here? Struggling to follow that gentle tug, it didn’t seem to be that either.

It took her nearly ten minutes to work her way through the possibilities, and when the realization hit, she went stiff with shock. No fucking way. That’s…. No.

But she could feel… something. And it was something deep inside her own body. She could feel a difference. A kind of heaviness that wasn’t there before. And she realized that what had woken her was the nascent feeling of not being ‘alone’ in her own body. The implantation of a set of cells fully distinct from her own, one that her healing factor was apparently categorizing and identifying as ‘separate.’ She almost felt as if her healing ability was wrapping itself like a bubble around the microscopic form.

For a long time, she lay there marveling at the power and how it was reacting. It wasn’t until some unmeasured amount of time later that fear hit her. Holy shit. I’m… What the FUCK do I do now? She couldn’t tell anyone. Hell… if what she was sensing was right, she was literally barely past the implantation stage. Who knew what would happen? No one told people until the end of the first 3 months, right? Jesus…. That seemed a long time to wait. But … it wasn’t like they could test, scan, check on her, anything at all. Like every woman who ever lived before the age of electronics and DNA testing, she would simply… have to wait it out. See if it took.

But there was a level of awe as she slipped her hand down her side to rest just inside her hipbone, right over the spot she knew held the cells that might become her child. Maaaan… go big or go home, I guess, she thought on a stifled burst of amazed chuckles.

Jared’s arm tightened around her in response to the brief shaking of her body. His sleepy sound might have been a query, but when she simply nuzzled him, he relaxed immediately and his breathing resumed the cadence of deep sleep. She’d promised him she had no more secrets. But she supposed this one more secret could be forgiven … for a short while.

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Episode 32
Murder at the Bed, Bath, & Beyond

October 31

We begin our night in media res — The team of Guardians (and some other people) are standing over the dead body of a man wearing a wig and lovely Victorian garb in what used to be the Bed, Bath, and Beyond on the second floor of the mall.

Earlier in the day…

The Halloween party in Refuge Point has become something of a tradition. Although food is never an abundant commodity, this is the last real hurrah of the warm part of the year and the community has begun to treat it as a sort of tradition. The mood is generally very good at this time (just after most of the harvest is in), and people are looking forward to the costumes and such. Although the holiday was Natalie’s favorite before D-Day, she has never made an actual appearance at the party itself. This year, Jared manages to coax her into going to it, though she still opts not to dress up.

Everyone pretty much has the desire to be around, even Toby and the kids come from Harris Stowe. Toby goes looking for Ang, determined that she is the person who will have the best advice for him on how to prepare to do something that may well be an impossible task. Her ultimate recommendation is not exactly helpful (she’s a little bit drunk already by the time he locates her, IIRC).

Langston also has a desire to speak with Toby. He learns from the boy that Toby already knew something odd was going on with Maddy’s powers, but he cannot get a handle on it. His powers are life-based and Maddy’s are different. He gets annoyed and leaves Langston eventually, and when he finds Melody he tells her about a dead body up on the second floor. And here we caught up with our in media res moment.

The dead man is Adam Zimmerman. He was a proponent of the government coming in and being in charge of things but was outvoted. Facts of the case appear to be as follows: BB&B is a storage area that isn’t heavily used, so it makes a good place for a semi-private chat if you’re looking for one. The body is laying in a pool of blood, and it appears that Adam probably hit his head on the sharp edge of a shelf. There is a definite possibility that he could have tripped on his long skirt, but there is also a real possibility that he was perhaps pushed and fell. In her zeal to begin looking for clues, Melody literally trips over something and winds up disarranging the body somewhat. Natalie goes to fetch Liv (our only real detective) and Dr. No is brought in to verify the apparent cause of death. Olivia is six sheets to the wind and useless for our purposes.

Langston proposes that Santae and Ida should both be brought in at this point — because he’s still the mayor and she’s likely to become the mayor next. Ida is going to accompany members of the team on the investigation as an impartial observer so that no one can later say the Guardians were engaged in a cover-up. She also offers the information that Adam and Gordon have recently clashed, and Adam was seen arguing with Mary Fran tonight before the party kicked off. Everyone returns to the main concourse where Langston stares at Mary Fran until he catches her attention. She leaves the dance floor to come over and see what he wants. Natalie’s read on her is nebulous and not much use, and Mary Fran does inform the group that yes, she and Adam argued. It was a private matter. He stalked off still angry, and she didn’t see him after that — he was not in costume yet when it happened, and he was heading back to his room to get changed. So Natalie slips off to see if she can find out who might have seen Adam next – had anyone actually spotted him in costume tonight? But her queries are inept and his friends decide that she’s trying to make fun of Adam and clam up.

Langston suggests that Ida take Mary Fran aside — she doesn’t want to share with the group what the argument was about, but she can talk to Ida about it and if Ida feels it isn’t relevant, it can remain a private thing. Mary Fran agrees to this, and when Ida comes back, she says she does not believe that Mary Fran and Adam’s argument was relevant but that if Adam thought the consequences of this information they were arguing about — which came from Rhiannon, it turns out — were going to be significant, it is possible that it would have caused a violent disagreement even though he was not known to be violent.

Melody and Ang, meanwhile, are still looking in the BB&B. Melody locates the greasepaint stores near where Adam fell and notes that there is a container of it out of place. She also spots a small, trapezoidal piece of paper that appears to potentially have been part of a costume. Not very many people are wearing that greasepaint color, and she goes back to her face-painting stand to see if she can sort out how many people may be in the pool of potential suspects. It turns out that Mary Fran is the only one wearing that color of greasepaint at all, and Ang then wants to check out Mary Fran’s room. She doesn’t wait for Ida — the room is locked, but Ang does find some greasepaint on the handle, as if someone had it on their hands when they shut the door.

The group decides that searching Adam’s room may yield clues to the situation and so they head there. Maddy finds some hastily scribbled notes about confronting someone before she goes public. Another section of the desk has numerous displayed sketches of Rosalie and poems to her. He appears to have had a serious crush. And then Ang locates a massive stash in the closet of supplies that have never been reported — way more than the usual minuscule things that people will pilfer from an expedition: food, liquor, etc. Dr. No mentions at this point that some things have been going missing out of the medical stores, too — but Adam didn’t work in medical. She had suspected Rosalie. When her name crops up, it occurs to Melody that the trapezoidal piece of paper she found could have come from the paper doll costume Rosalie was wearing.

Hayley, the community’s “sheriff” brings Rosalie to talk to the group. Natalie coaxes her to speak up. She claims he was obsessed with her and wanted to talk, and when he got too hands-on, she pushed him and he fell. She didn’t mean to hurt him, she claims with tears. Langston, however, does not believe her and throws a huge bluff — “For the accident there would obviously be no punishment. But for stealing from the quartermaster and trying to frame Mary Fran for the ‘accident’ — well, those are big-girl crimes.” Ida speaks to Rosalie about the thefts, and she confesses to having taken the medical supplies to give to someone in the Dome — a man.

At this point, a full conversation ensues about the implications. Theft of supplies endangers the entire community in huge ways. But the bigger point is that framing Mary Fran speaks to a premeditated intention to cause someone ELSE to get in trouble for murder. If it had truly been an accident, any normal person would have panicked and hollered for help to see if he could have been saved. But Rosalie didn’t. This was a deliberate, malicious attempt to deflect blame, and the entire community could have literally been torn down around everyone’s ears. The punishment options are pretty limited: Do nothing. Exile with the potential for return later (only if some amazing argument and some reparations could be made). Permanent Exile. Or execution.

Despite the fact that exiling Rhiannon definitely bit us in the ass before, it is decided that Rosalie should be exiled with the very slim possibility of a later return. And as she is escorted out of Refuge Point’s main dorms and pointed on her way the next morning, the first snowflakes begin to fall.

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Santae's Workshop
Natalie/Santae RP

With the snow now falling at a decent rate, most everyone is tucked back into Refuge Point. Expedition teams will only make the most necessary runs after this, and so the duties of many people have shifted around. Natalie is one of the people for whom the duty roster changes are tough — the ability to get out of Refuge Point here and there, to get away from the crush of people and their emotions, has become an important thing for her mental health. Her shields are still not so good. And so it is in searching for a quiet place to hole up for a little while that she happens past the workshop and is stopped short not by someone’s voice but by the sensation of intensity. Someone’s emotions are definitely in turmoil, and without having to reach for the person, Natalie can feel who he is.

Pausing in the doorway of the workshop, she rested her her shoulder on the jamb. “Penny for those heavy thoughts,” she offered softly.
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Santae had been thinking those thoughts for so long recently, it was hard to remember when he hadn’t been thinking them.

In front of him, on the workbench was a single wood carving of a snowflake. He had spent the last few hours working on carving it out of the block of wood he had been saving for a year now. He had chiseled and carved and etched and all the things he hadn’t done in so long. He had thought it would make him feel more sure, more secure. Instead it had made him feel less so. Maybe he was, to quote Lethal Weapon, getting too old for this shit.

“Did I ever tell you what I did before Destruction Day?” It was rhetorical – he never talked with anyone much about what he had done before arriving in Union Station.
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“Nope,” Natalie replied, pushing off that door frame and walking further into the workshop. She settled onto a camp chair that’s not far from the bench he was using to carve, her gaze taking in the lovely piece of woodwork that he’s produced, and asked, “Was it boat building?” It was more a gentle tease than a serious query.
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“I was a construction worker, Natalie. A foreman, but I was a construction worker. And somehow I stumbled into this job. I never really wanted it, you know. But I knew it needed to be done.”

And it had desperately needed someone to steer back then. A group of shell shocked refugees all trying to figure out what the hell they were supposed to do with themselves. Santae had stepped up because no one else had. He knew how to direct people, that was something he had been confident about. Leading people on the other hand? That was something completely different. Now Ida was about to help him by taking that off his hands. So why the hell was he feeling so lost about the whole damn thing?
--
Nat nodded slightly, acknowledging his previous career as she listened. “You’ve done it well,” she offered. “I have always believed in the idea that people who want leadership roles really shouldn’t be in them. The people who step up because something is needed are the ones who really should have the leadership jobs, not because they will always have the right skills but because they will always have everyone else’s good at heart instead of their own aggrandizement.” She tilted her head, studying him quietly for a long minute. “So… what’s got you second-guessing the fact that you’ve done well?” she asked.
-
“It’s always Geetha, Natalie,” Santae said simply. “Other things flare up, but in the end, where I allowed myself to be is what keeps me up at night sweating.” He stood up and put some of his tools away, to give his hands something to do.

“As the election approaches, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, letting Ida take the reins. I feel relief and guilt and worry and about eight thousand other things. I think I’ve hated myself for so long now that I can’t figure out what not hating myself would feel like. Maybe this is it?” Santae looked at Natalie with a tired face, the look of someone who has been struggling with inner demons for a while.
-
Pulling in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Natalie considered her words carefully. “What happened with Geetha was not one person’s fault, Santae. You did the best you could under the circumstances — you managed to get them to actually take a vote. That the vote went a direction that you could not stop wasn’t your doing. And although I know at the time I must have given you the impression that I — maybe even that we — blamed you, no one did.” She looked around the workshop, adding in her quiet voice. “There hasn’t been a day since Destruction Day that we haven’t each considered the possibility that we might get lynched in the night. The sentiment wasn’t hidden from us. We knew in a great many ways, we were here on sufferance. It was why we very quietly went about and made that evacuation plan pretty much right after we got here. We all hoped it would never be used… but I think we all knew that there would have to come a point where it would be.”

She looked at him and told him in a calm voice, “Human nature is what it is. And the survivors have a great deal of rage still. There’s no good target for them, because for most of them… they understand it wasn’t our fault. Most people are good people - they don’t want to hate another person for something that wasn’t their fault. But down deep, the rage still burns. And it’s not any one person’s job to keep it in check. You stepped up when no one else could. You’ve given every bit of yourself that you can afford to give for the past two years. And if you need to step away, Santae, then you need to step away. There is no shame in needing to step back and salvage some of your inner Self.”
-
-
“Larry Kilmer.” He said, apropos of nothing. “He worked on one of my crews on a big building job. Smart, ambitious, capable, and new to a job this big. I kept handing him bigger and bigger tasks not because I knew he could do them but because I needed him to be able to do them.”

A sad look passed across Santae’s face, half remembrance, half guilt. “One day, he got crushed taking too big of a risk because I had asked him to take on something he wasn’t ready to take on. I had to explain to his family…”

“I’m Larry here, Natalie. Knowing too little for a big job. Geetha was me getting crushed. Maybe I should step away. Maybe you’re right. Or maybe I’ve not done enough to make up for it.”

He paused for a minute and said, “You want to walk for a little bit? I’ve been in this enclosed space for too long.”
--
Immediately Natalie got to her feet. She waited for him to head out into the open air, so to speak, walking next to him with a stride that matched his. She waited until they’d been walking for a minute or two before saying, “You don’t have anything to make up for. Geetha wasn’t you getting crushed - Geetha was… inevitable.” Her tone was pensive. “Regardless of why or how it happened, Santae, and regardless of who might have been mayor of this place… there was never any other way for that situation to go. All it was ever going to take was one spark. And maybe in part it’s our fault too. Maybe we should have all opened up and had a full-on community conversation between the former Powers and those who weren’t back when we were a smaller community. But I think… we were all just scared. And when Geetha blew, the lizard brain took over.”
-
-
They found themselves walking from the second floor workshop up the stairs to the roof. The air was chilly, but not crazy cold. Yet. The watch had shoveled the half melted snow either off the roof or away from the walking paths. It wasn’t comfortable, but Santae needed the chill in the air…wanted to feel a little uncomfortable.

He stopped at a point on the west side of the roof, looking across snow covered city in the direction of Harris Stowe.. “This is where I watched Ang shoot and kill Zach,” Santae said conversationally. He paused. “Can’t prove it (and why would I need to?), but I think she took out Faith too. I’ve wondered a lot lately whether I could’ve taken that shot. Or should have. “
--
There was a long moment of silence while Natalie pondered what Santae had just said. Did she…? Natalie would never be sure without asking outright… and as she stood there, she realized something else. She would never ask. Because Faith had been extremely dangerous to any community she landed in. And she felt a lance of self-hatred for that thought — because once again, judge, jury, and executioner. Where does it stop? she wondered.

With her hands deep in her pockets, Natalie told him softly, “I can’t answer that for you. But I can tell you … that I’ve faced those choices too. And I don’t like making them. Having someone that I acknowledge as the team leader makes it so that I don’t have to face myself in the mirror after a decision like that. And in some ways, it’s the coward’s way out. In other ways, it’s the only way to save my sanity.” She sighed heavily. “I had a similar conversation with a friend not that long ago. And his response was basically… you have to make the best choice you can with the information you have. And in a world like the one we are facing, where the choices are limited and some kinds of choices are a luxury… you have to not hate yourself when you make the hard one.”
--
“Do you wish I had made more effort to run? Are you going to be okay with Ida? She’s a good person, at heart. I just don’t know how flexible she is.” A wry look crossed the current mayor’s face. “Maybe less flexibility is a good thing.”
-—-
She was silent for a period of time, her thoughts disordered at the question. When Natalie finally spoke again, her reply might not have been what he expected. “No, not really. What I want for you is to be okay. And right now, I can feel the relief that you’re feeling about the idea that you don’t have to make those calls anymore. That you don’t have to take responsibility for the situation when shit goes south, which it invariably does.” She smiled just a little. “I’m going to do whatever I have to do, Santae. And if I can’t be okay with Ida, then I guess I’ll figure out what my options are and make a decision. Right now? We have the winter to allow us all to get a feel for how she’ll manage. It’s not as if change is something new - we all knew going into this that as the community got bigger and more settled, we weren’t going to just have the people who stepped up at first in charge.” She shrugged. “Life is all about change, right?”
-

There was a long pause as Santae stared off into the distance. Then he said, “I suppose so, if you’re doing it right.”

Then a small smile crossed his face and a chuckle escaped his mouth. “I wish my wife was here. I wish you had a chance to meet her. I married Nell to kick my ass and keep me in line when I got like this. She didn’t take navel gazing from anyone. ‘_Foot forward, mister, and keep stepping until you get where you’re going._’ She’d probably be surprised as anyone that I outlived her.”
--
Natalie couldn’t help the soft chuckle. “I think I would have liked her very much, if that’s the way she handled life. It’s something my parents always said to me, too - a little differently. That the only way out of any situation is by moving forward, through it, one step at a time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” She nodded a little. “I’ve tried for a long time not to think about the people I outlived, about what might have been. And then recently it kind of slapped me in the face, which has thrown me a good bit off-balance.” She looked at him. “But … change. No matter which way you want all this to go, I want you to be happy, Santae. You’ve done a really good job, and you have nothing to look back on and be ashamed about.”
-

“I didn’t have to be the one holding the gun, Natalie, but that’s not worth lingering on.”

He sighed. “I used to have a good idea where life was headed. Now I don’t have any clue. It’s how I know I’m getting old, that all I want out of my life is some stability and some idea that the next day will be like the last one.” Much like the President of the U.S., the stress of being mayor of Refuge Point had shown in Santae. More lines in his face, more white streaks through the dark short hair that he ran his hand over. “Oh well, at least I can have a drink and say fuck it.” Natalie’s not sure she’s ever heard Santae casually curse. “I’ve got some extra down in my room. You want to raise a glass with me to the end of one era, beginning of another? Or maybe just shorten that and have a drink to change, life’s constant companion.”
--
Natalie’s smile was amused, and she wrapped her arm around his. “Tell you what… I’ll keep you company while you drink yourself silly. But I’m going to stick to tea, I think. I never did much like the hard stuff, and the stuff we have around here these days is more like diesel fuel or engine degreaser in a glass.”
-
“But it does, at least, do its job. Or it will tonight, anyway.” He started walking them back towards the steps. “You can drink whatever as long as we do it somewhere warmer. I’ve decided it’s time to come in out of the cold.”
--

View
Looking for a Quiet Life
Natalie/Jared RP

Fighting a friggin’ DINOSAUR. What the hell has this life come to? Natalie remembered Spirit Girl and her very odd power, but only vaguely. Enough to know that she existed and hear the occasional outbreak, but nothing in depth. As she lay on her bed, curled up into a small ball and wrapped up in the sleeping bag she uses as a blanket, her brain was still too wired to sleep. Surgery on Elana went fine, but despite knowing that — dammit — Langston’s assessment was right, she still felt guilty about not healing her. The feeling was not unfamiliar, she would just have to relearn to do as her parents had taught her — to judge the situation and use it really only when it needs to be used.

Jared’s invitation to her room was an open one, and Natalie wasn’t surprised when she heard the door open. Though she didn’t look in his direction, she did scoot away from the center of the bed in a silent invitation to join her. She was not coming out of the blankets.

Jared came in and sat down next to Nat where she was curled up on the bed. They had argued earlier, but that didn’t matter in the moment. That was the kind of crap you had to put behind you when the person you loved was hurting.

“How are you, Nat?”

“I’m okay,” she replied quietly. “Just … thinking about what the next insanity will be, I guess.” She turned to look at him, curling up and tucking her hand under her cheek. “Telling them all was about as bad as I expected.”

“You’re still here and alive,” he said tentatively. “I’d consider that a win.”

Natalie laughed quietly, looking up at him. “I’d say that’s a huge win. Ang handled making that announcement beautifully…. and honestly, we couldn’t have orchestrated a better illustration about why it’s in people’s own self-interest to keep us around. So… there’s a lot of positives in that.” She studied him from her prone position. “You’re still welcome to climb in. Just because I was - maybe am still a little bit — mad at you doesn’t mean we’re over. We’re not 12,” she drily. She paused and added in a vaguely amused tone, “And it doesn’t mean I don’t see the point you were trying to make, even though clearly your Y-chromosome was interfering with your ability to communicate such concerns in adequate fashion.”

Jared wasn’t about to admit that he had been wondering privately whether they actually had somehow orchestrated that attack. He didn’t think so, but it had been awfully convenient. But sometimes coincidence was just that.

He climbed into bed with her, face to face and side by side. He reached out a hand to brush her hair. "Yeah, we’re a long way from being teenagers. On the other hand, I haven’t felt this tangled up since I was 15, desperately trying to figure out whether Susie Gilligan liked me liked me, you know? It’s a good thing, but I might still be cautiously easing my way in sometimes.

Jared also didn’t mention he hadn’t had a serious relationship since he had been made aware of what his powers could do. Hard to date someone when you’re not sure whether they’re making choices of their own free will…

“Glad I’m not the only one tangled up in stuff,” Natalie admitted, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the light touch of his hand in her hair. “Yes, Virginia, Susie like likes you. But it doesn’t mean we won’t yell at each other once in a while.” She shrugged a little bit with a smile. “Or at least… that I’ll yell and you’ll… be you.” It occurred to her she’d never seen him get angry. At least outwardly. “It’s going to take me a little time to get a handle on the power as it’s showing itself, and I don’t really want to rely on that to learn the things that make you angry or make you annoyed or make you want to throw your hands in the air over the fact I’m bugnuts crazy.”

“I’ve just always been outwardly calm, Nat.” He could read in between the lines. “That doesn’t make you bugnuts or me super sane. Would it help if I yelled sometimes? I do get angry.” He smiled briefly before making an exaggerated frowning face. “About all sorts of things.”

She laughed, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. “I know that much. I’ve seen you get quiet mad. It’s usually time to duck and cover. But… you’re even quieter than I remember. Maybe it’s just the being alone for so much. When I first got here, there weren’t but… maybe 40 people. And even that seemed like too much noise to me after weeks and weeks of hearing nothing but birds and wind.”

Jared loved it when she laughed. If the apocalypse had made him calmer, it had made Natalie more serious. Jared couldn’t deny that the apocalypse was serious business, but there had to be room for laughter. So he worked to try and make her laugh when possible.

He nodded to confirm her thoughts before elaborating. “Alone time is a big part of it, but I’m probably being…pulled in.” He pulled his hands tight in to his chest. “What I thought was just a dream to keep me moving suddenly is reality. Cautiously stepping to make sure I don’t knock the whole thing over.”

“Ah,” she murmured. “So… you’re afraid you’re going to wake up.” Natalie pulled in a slow breath. “Me too,” she admitted. “When you laid it all on the table and said you wanted to see if we could have this… it scared me. I was afraid to let you see all the parts of me — I’ve made some really ugly decisions, Jared.” Her eyes never left his face. “Our inner Self is all we really have left to call our own in this world we made. And I’m choosing to share it with you — good, bad, and ugly. So short of you saying to me flat out in words that you’ve changed your mind and it’s not working for you or me finding out that you’re some kind of spy for what passes for a government and that you’ve been lying again … you don’t really have much of a chance of destroying it right now. Knocking it slightly askew? Maybe.” Finding out he’d been a government agent assigned to her? That had been an askew moment. “But I’m willing to stick with it if you are.”

“I’ve pushed my stack all in, Nat. You’ve got me for as long as you’re willing to have me.” Jared was no stranger to having made some ugly decisions. But Nat was someone he was willing to share all that with. Maybe even about his powers. Someday, he thought. Just a little more time to ease in. Another shock to the system so soon and she’ll decide I’m not worth it.

“And btw, I know you weren’t accusing. But I’m not a spy,” he said, a lighthearted tone in his voice. “Unless you think that’s sexy.”

“Spies are always sexy, darling — especially if they’re on your side,” Natalie replied in a teasingly sultry tone. Then she ruined the effect by giggling. “Blah. Today was insane. Climb under this blanket with me and talk to me. I don’t want to think about dinosaurs anymore. Tell me about the other thing you said you would tell me later,” she invited lightly. Her assumption that it wasn’t something serious was obvious.

“Hmmm?” Jared lifted up the blanket and scooted underneath so he and Natalie were cuddled up together. “When did I say that?” There is some obvious confusion in his voice.

“I don’t know,” Natalie replied. “Something occurred to you when I asked if you knew where Spirit Girl or Gigantor were at the end of everything. You said you’d tell me later — it wasn’t something about her or that question.” She shrugged a little and as he curled up into her, she let out a slow breath while her body relaxed into his. She once more had the sense of a safe harbor, the wheels in her brain slowing as she unwound in his arms. “If you can’t remember what that was…. tell me something else. Tell me something wonderful you saw out in the world on your travels,” she requested softly. “And I’ll tell you one of mine.” Just something to take away the strain of fighting dinosaurs and telling the community that there were active Powers and having to do surgery on Elana.

Oh shit, yes. Jared remembered now – he didn’t know where Spirit Queen had been because he had been blacked out. But he couldn’t explain that without explaining that he had powers. And he couldn’t explain that without having to revisit all those dead bodies in the FEMA building. Those dead bodies that had been her friends…his friends. Jared knew in his head that Natalie would understand. But yet every time he thought about telling her, it was like the mental equivalent of running into a concrete wall.

Thankfully, Natalie had given him an out, which he gratefully took. “Something wonderful? I have just the thing. There was a little girl named Rian…” And he told her about Rian and her mother, who had been living in Denver. Rian’s mother spent her time scavenging, building, and creating a safe space for the two of them, a fight against all the ugly forces in this new world. While her mother was the kind of practical necessary for surviving the apocalypse, Rian, at the age of 8, was an artist. Origami art, to be precise. And she worked with the some of the most common and useless pieces of paper in the modern world. “Money,” he said, “she made an origami zoo with money. Birds made of one dollar bills, cats and dogs made of five dollar bills. Hell, she had a whole herd of elephants made with Ben Franklin’s portraits. Their apartment would have been a burglar’s dream pre-Destruction Day. I guess the Denver mint got opened up in the confusion.” Jared smiled at the memory of walking through the apartment, having Rian point out every single animal she had made. Hundreds of thousands of dollars filling every open space. “But post-Destruction Day, it was just turning something useless into something beautiful and amazing.” Rian’s mother had refused the offer from the government and he sometimes wondered how they were doing,

By the time he reached the end of the story, Natalie was laughing. “Jesus… talk about millionaires on paper. It might as well have been Monopoly money.” Her eyes sparkled and Natalie leaned back to look at him. “I had to take the long way from San Francisco. Came across to Reno and then kind of went cross-country north to somewhere north of Salt Lake City — maybe as far as Idaho, hard to tell — to avoid the deserts. Figured I’d be better set for food along the way if I stayed off the interstates. But I had to pretty much stick to the traveled roads coming over the Rockies, so I passed through Denver.”

She paused, thinking back. “By then I was on foot. The motorcycle I’d been using from California broke somewhere on the west side of the Rockies — I didn’t know enough about engines to fix it. It’s really rugged country out there. Coming across that part of Idaho or Wyoming, its stunningly beautiful. There was a guy up there who lived on his ranch. There were half a dozen people who had found their way to him — probably all from within a 20-mile radius. You know — the Montana definition of neighbors. I almost stayed there,” she admitted softly. “It was peaceful. But I figured I had a job to do… so he gave me his truck and a couple of gas cans. I got about as far as Fort Collins before I had to find new wheels.”

“I thought about stopping sometimes.” There had been that family in Kansas – he had felt at peace with the Anderson clan like no place he had since…before he had arrived here in St. Louis. “But like you, I had a job to do.”

Natalie scooted a little more, settling her head next to his shoulder though not right on it — she didn’t want to pin him down. She could feel the relaxing effect he was having on her, and she didn’t want him to worry about waking her if he chose to get up. “There’s got to be some point out there where we have to look forward… beyond our own survival,” she admitted softly. “I don’t think we will live long enough to see a full-on coming together of people under one umbrella. What do you really think the future will look like?” It was a deeper topic than she’d planned on, but… it was one that she was intensely curious about his perspective on. “Not what you think the General can do, what he may be promising… what do you really think is possible for us to achieve?”

“Big topic, Nat. And you know I tend to be more an on-the-ground rather than a big picture thinker.” Jared paused for a minute to think about it. What did he think they could accomplish? And he guessed that depended on your definition of they and how far ahead was the future, anyway? But he would go with his first instincts, which was probably what Nat was thinking about anyway.

“I think you and I can build ourselves a life. Maybe a family. Refuge Point can be a gathering point, if we work to expand out beyond the walls of the mall. A gateway for other survivors,” he said, thinking of the iconic arch a few blocks to the east.

“That all assumes no powers or limited. If we have a thousand Tobys or a hundred Melodys who aren’t afraid of their power, then there’s no limit, I don’t think. I don’t have the imagination to think that big though,” he admitted. “I’ll just settle for building the post-apocalyptic version of a big medieval city.”

“What do you think we’ll do?” Jared turned the question back around to her.

Natalie was quiet for a long moment, her attention seemingly turned inward. When she answered him, it was with a faint smile. "I think…. that there’s going to come a point where we have to look at a larger structure than we have now. Especially if people keep coming to us — the new refugees “heard” about us. But from where?" She paused, considering. “One of them seems awfully friendly with Mary Fran, which automatically makes me leery and suspicious. But… we’ll see. Personally, though….” She offered him a flirtatious smile from beneath her lashes. “I wouldn’t mind finding a quiet place, going back to kind of the pioneer roots, and just … building small communities. Letting big government and whatever take care of itself in the same ways farmers in the 1850s didn’t really give a damn what was going on back East.”

“There’s a certain appeal to that.” A quiet life, focused on the people around you. But he wondered…

“How much of the appeal is getting to slough off our big responsibilities for smaller ones?”

Was she really that transparent, Natalie wondered. But it didn’t matter. “Most of it, probably,” she agreed. “I don’t want to save the world. I want to keep my own corner of it safe. Regardless of why it happened, I was part of the team at fault for ending the world. I have no business doing anything more than protecting those that I can protect. My mistakes are too huge.”

Oh, Nat. “We’ve all made mistakes, Nat.” Jared leaned over and kissed her. Then he had a how-crazy-is-this chuckle. “In a normal world, we’d all be seeing counselors for PTSD. The Guardians, especially. Not wanting to take on that responsibility again…I think it’s completely understandable.”

Jared just wondered if it was possible to escape it. You don’t search for responsibility, it seeks you out and refuses to let go.

Natalie returned his kiss and then offered him a rueful half-smile in acknowledgement of the fact that a shrink would have been a necessity. “Understandable, yes. Possible?” Natalie shrugged a little. Her responsibility now was just to make sure that as many people as possible continue to survive." So that’s what she’ll do until the day she can’t anymore.

“I don’t think you’ll ever want to stop helping people, Nat.” It was too much in her blood, Jared thought. “But to take us full circle, I’ll be there with you helping people in whatever form you want until you kick me out the door.”

Natalie reached up to cradle his cheek in her hand and rested her forehead briefly against his lips. “I’ve pretty much decided that life’s too short to worry about how fast a relationship moves,” she told him softly. “I want the kind of emotional closeness you’re offering. I will promise you only these things: To share no one else’s bed for as long as we are both committed to this relationship. To talk out whatever problems come our way. And if we mutually decide that it’s over, I will not ever make things hard for you.”

When she looked up at his face, there was something elusive in her expression as she searched his eyes. And then she simply drew him in for a lingering, slow series of kisses that spoke more of love than lust.

View
Hope Survives
Ang/Spirit Queen

Predawn light seeped through the cracks in the window of the former REI outside Refuge Point. Phoebe, once known as Spirit Queen in another day and time, stared out into the shadows of a new day struggling to begin. Sleep had eluded her for most of the night but she wasn’t surprised by that. Before Destruction Day, she had battled insomnia regularly. Perhaps ironic that only after the world had been destroyed could she finally get regular sleep.

The sleepless night had been spent looking out into the dark and thinking about her options. Phoebe had been trying to avoid this situation by walking on the other side of the river. It wasn’t just that surviving Guardians might have ended up here (had she ended up here?). The reputation of the community that took survivors in had spread wider than they probably expected. She knew the citizens of this community might offer for her to stay and that could never happen. It might be named Refuge Point, but there was no refuge for someone like her here.

But the thought of things going back to the way they were before was almost unbearable. The thought of having to go back again, after almost two years of never seeing that foul place, sat in her head, a dark carnivore of thoughts that couldn’t be pushed away. She had met a few people over the last two years, times when social interaction couldn’t be avoided. Without fail, they always expressed concern about her wandering life. Isn’t it lonely? How do you manage by yourself? But what people didn’t understand was that even a mostly destroyed earth was better than the other side. Free of the fear that had gripped her for most of her life, she had a chance to truly experience the world, even if that world wasn’t the same as it had been. She had found peace in her own way. But now that chance was gone, peace ripped away from her by a random act of nature.

Phoebe heard someone coming into the building from the front door. Either coming in to invite her back or to tell her to leave. Either way, the end result was the same. Wandering a dead world, constantly afraid of being sent back to the only place worse than an apocalypse. Her hand trembled as she clutched on to the side of the window. “I assume it’s time,” she said, without looking back at whoever had come in.

“Phoebe? It’s Ang,” Ang announced, trying to hide the grogginess. After hours reporting had taken a while, but waiting up to make sure that her conversation with Phoebe was private and fighting the coma that the spent adrenalin wanted her to have left Ang weary.

Until Ang had heard the roar of Gigantor, she hadn’t realized how much she’d needed to see Phoebe again. Phoebe had been closer to her heart than most, and post-Destruction Day, those kinds of friendships were so tough to come by – and even harder to maintain. Ang did approach with trepidation, though. Being unable to train Spirit Queen to fully control her powers was Ang’s first failure as a leader. Although it wasn’t her biggest failure, it had hurt her worse, for reasons Ang didn’t fully comprehend. Still, she moved forward, and reached out to Phoebe like seeing a long-lost sister.

It felt surprisingly good to see Ang again. Phoebe hadn’t been sure how she was going to feel, but there was a moment of relief. She realized that it was because she could trust Ang to understand that staying wasn’t an option, that it wouldn’t do anyone any good. She wouldn’t have to argue with some well meaning Refuge Point member.

She hugged Ang gently, almost as if she was afraid one of the two of them would break. “Thank you for being the one,” she said quietly.

“Totally, Phee, of course,” Ang said quietly. The years melted away in the moments of the hug and it was like they were back on campus again. The rain outside was the only sound in the room for a while.

“I’ve missed you so much. I can’t describe how much. I’m so happy to know you’re alive,” And said.

“And, I don’t see any major injuries, so I guess things have been going okay for you,” Ang suppositioned, despite knowing that there were so many injuries possible in this new world that weren’t visible to a cursory inspection.

Phoebe just nodded slightly, any injuries external or otherwise not at the top of her mind. “Tell me who’s here? Tell me who made it?” As Ang began to talk a little about Refuge Point, Phoebe found herself drinking it all in, storing it all away somewhere in her head for pulling back out later. There would be so many quiet moments, the times where she would stand alone in the downpour amidst the ruins of the old world, the last person on the earth. She needed this now, this last chance to have human contact but she needed it more for those times. You never knew when it might be the last time.

For the next couple of hours or so, Ang began to describe what had happened since Kofi arrived. She didn’t hold anything back because she knew that, of all the people in the world other than probably Langston, no judgment would be forthcoming. Ang couldn’t remember the last time the truth flowed so easily.

“So, to wrap up, you can understand why it is I don’t want you to be here any longer than you have to be. I would’ve killed Gigantor had she made it to my gunline, as I promised I would if things ever got beyond your control. But I just can’t have you living in fear again. Hell, I should probably be fearing for the people here, but I honestly just want you to live with as much peace and solitude as you can.”

“Can you take away my powers again?” Because since D-Day was the first time Phoebe could remember having any true peace, any solitude at all….any escape from the fear that strangled her all the time. “I know I can’t stay. I could never stay. But…” The thought of going back out there, knowing that she might lose control again, go back to that hideous place that Gigantor came from…
It paralyzed her. She couldn’t find the words, couldn’t get her mouth to work the way it was supposed to. And she knew if she tried to walk away, she might not be able to find the ability. Can’t stay. Can’t go. What do I do?

Wait, what did Langston say? We’ve infested another world with the nanovirus? That would mean …

“Phee, if you stay out of storms, I think I can guarantee you won’t ever go to that place again.”

Phoebe wanted to believe Ang, maybe more than she had ever wanted to believe anything in her life. But she didn’t understand.

“I don’t….but I swapped. Only lightning that does it now?”

“Gigantor now has the same nanovirus as you do. Without something extraordinary, he’s just as restricted as you are. You have a double failsafe system.”

Ang wasn’t the scientist in this situation. She wasn’t going to get them involved. She was simply going to be the hope that Phoebe needed to survive this cruel world. And if she was wrong, she knew that Phoebe could at least clutch onto that hope.

For the first time in a long while, Phoebe could feel hope. Or at least that’s what she thought it was. It had been so long she wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, she still couldn’t stay at Refuge Point. Too much risk. She didn’t deserve it anyway. But maybe she could find a purpose for herself now. Or not. But at least she wouldn’t ever have to go back again.

“I…” Phoebe struggled with what she needed to tell Ang. It felt too big and too small at the same time. “I don’t know how to thank you, Ang. You saved me from a lifetime on the other side. You don’t…you can’t understand what that means. You deserve better than just a few words. But I..” And she started crying softly, overwhelmed by the events of the last eight hours.

Ang reached out and hung onto her friend. She wanted this moment to last for much longer.

After a long while, which felt infinitesimal, Ang pulled back. This was where it got difficult. Maybe she could hold off for a while longer? Ask some meaningless questions? It was worth a shot.

“Has there been a place you’ve enjoyed? Since, well, you know …”

Phoebe wiped her face clean of tears before nodding. “Now that there are no people, I could see all the natural places I always wanted to see but was afraid to.” She smiled unconsciously as she thought about all the sights she had seen, now free of the pollution of people. Nature had a way of taking back its own. “I spent a long time in Niagara Falls. So loud and yet so peaceful at the same time. And I spent some time in the Smoky Mountains. Lots of dangerous animals.” I have lots of experience working with dangerous animals though, Phoebe thought ironically.

“And did you make any friends?”

Ang’s thoughts drifted to convincing Refuge Point and Phoebe that she could stay. People listened to her, dammit. She’d stopped Geetha’s execution, and she damn near swayed the crowd to believing in the benefits of Powers earlier that evening. Having this friend with her, she could see her spirits lifted, and a smile on her face, after all these years of misery.

Ang looked at Phoebe, looking up at her. Keeping her here would be like caging a bird just to listen to its song. It just wasn’t right.

There was a longer pause before Phoebe responded, this time with a shake of her head. “I never really believed, you know. Or maybe I did, but not enough. I didn’t want to stay anywhere long enough to make friends and then have something happen.”

Another long pause. “I didn’t stay anywhere long enough to make new friends.” After what happened in Iowa, she didn’t deserve anything but the life she had, wandering alone. She didn’t deserve new friends.

“You’re still my only real friend, Ang.” A sad smile. “That’s why you have to let me go.”

“Will you promise me that you’ll come back here if you change your mind?” Ang asked, almost a beg.

This was the time for Phoebe to give Ang hope. Ang wanted it desperately.

“Maybe someday I’ll know for sure that he’s gone, that I’ll never go back again. I hope…” And for the first time ever, she really meant it. Phoebe really did believe that day could come. What had been impossible was now just merely unlikely. And there were whole universes between those two words.

She clutched Ang’s hands tight. “When that day comes, there’s no place that I would rather be than than with you. You’ve always been there for me. Maybe that day will come when I can start repaying the favor.”

“Then let’s get you on the road, before someone tries to stop us,” Ang said.

“Will you walk with me a little before…you have to go back?” Phoebe was ready to go, but she wanted a little more time, something to file away in her memory for those nights alone in the dark.

“I know where the guards can’t see. We can have a very long walk,” Ang said, smiling from ear to ear.

View
Episode 31
Is That a Dinosaur?

Although the Council originally gave Ang and Santae 24 hours to make their announcement, it actually goes a couple of days longer. Still, Ang’s full intent is to make sure everyone knows before the debate because what she sees happening is adding a new seat to the Council — liaison to Powers or something like it. Most of the seats are running unopposed, but there are two being challenged: Mayor (Santae v. Ida) and Expedition (Ang v. Eric). If Ang’s intention comes to pass, the seat for Mayor will be the only opposed seat, most likely.

Prior to the announcement of active Powers, Ang makes a point to speak to each of the known actives in the community and requests their permission to, if it becomes necessary, name names. Maddy, Elana, and Nat all give their consent. The announcement is set for the dinner hour.

As dinner progresses, a late autumn thunderstorm rolls in. It’s not exactly normal, but not entirely unheard of either. It’s a severe one with significant lightning. Ang waits until just before dessert to make the announcement (sans names) and, as expected, it’s a bombshell to the community at large so there is a swell of noisy chatter. Ang calls upon skills long unused and speaks to the community of how we voted at one point to take in people like <insert name="true">, a prior villainous Power. We had to grow and change, to become bigger personally to be able to survive — and she calls upon the community about the need to once more do some growing. She apologizes personally for Destruction Day, taking responsibility for what went wrong — it is something that though the group has each apologized for their part in over the past years (maybe not Langston, but the rest of us), no one has taken responsibility for the whole. In this, Ang steps forward, and she tells them that she is going to continue to step forward and take responsibility for protecting Refuge Point just as this team of Guardians always has because with the activation of some Powers within our community comes the awareness that it’s probably happening to others OUTSIDE our community too. And this could prove to be a significant threat. There was much applause to this, lead by none other than Ida.

And the announcement was conveniently timely because as the group is applauding, there is a sudden extremely loud ROAR!!!! from somewhere outside. The watches on the roof come pelting down to make sure we heard (we did!) and the community starts a mad scramble. Ang (and Langston?) heads for the rooftop to see what she can see with some others, Nat and Melody (and Langston?) begin attempting to herd the rest of our people deeper into the building to a sheltered location. Our friends from the motorcycle group race ahead of the danger to try to warn us, and they agree (somewhat reluctantly) to stay and fight.

Once Ang gets a bead on exactly who/what is out there, she tells us — Spirit Queen, aka Gigantor. You gotta be kidding us — an effing T-REX???? Langston knows the mechanism for SQ’s shift is likely not just a shift but a dimensional trading of places, but he has no idea on how to force her to shift back. The working theory is that she perhaps was near the river and got hit by lightning. While Melody attempts animal telepathy out in the rain, trying to contact the monster, Maddy hauls butt outside to try to build a T-Rex trap (wth her powers once again active through Sandra) and Ang rallies the rooftop gunners. Natalie races through the group to locate Elana and brings her to the rooftop, telling Ang that if lightning is what caused SQ to shift the first time, MAYBE Elana can corral lightning and force Gigantor to shift back. It’s a Hail Mary, but can we at least TRY to save SQ’s life? Ang agrees but if Gigantor comes within a certain range, it’s all over but for the guns blazing.

Melody has no luck communicating with Gigantor. He stomps on past her. Langston realizes that because SQ has not shifted like this since D-Day, Gigantor is probably being infected with nanobots even as we speak and he asks Maddy if she can communicate with the nanobots. She is going to try (with a Sandra-assist), but her main goal is to lure the T-Rex into a trap, which she does manage to do! Elana focuses on the storm and she starts to rise right into it. When Natalie tries to stop the levitation, Elana makes her let go — she has to do this. The others nearby on the roof see her rise up and disappear into the thunderheads above us. After a short time, Elana can be seen descending near Gigantor, who is doing his best to get free of Maddy’s traps. Elana does indeed conduit the lightning blast at Gigantor, who disappears amid Maddy’s rubble even as Elana plummets from the sky unconscious. Melody instinctively races forward to try to block that fall — and she does, though at predictably great cost to herself (because 20-foot fall on top of another person = damage on both sides of that equation).

The situation is over and contained. Elana is half-conscious; Maddy moves to help her get out of the trap, and she otherwise seems mostly unharmed. She is sequestered in the same place the refugees were originally held pending decision to let them stay. Melody is hurt (broken bone?) but stable, and Elana has significant internal injuries — a number of which are related to the lightning being channeled through her. She requires immediate surgery, which Dr. Nona and Natalie conduct — Nat feels a little guilty for allowing surgery versus attempting to heal her, but Langston and Nona both verbally swat her for that one.

The mood of the community following this event is fairly positive, and so far there has been no conspiracy theory rumored among them (that maybe the Powers set up this oh-so-convenient attack right when it was being announced that some Powers were active). That may still come. Before everyone wakes the following morning, Ang has helped Phoebe (Spirit Queen) get out of the community with no one the wiser.

Elections are still coming. Halloween approaches. And there is much to consider as the days march toward winter.

View
Second Date

Friday, 07 Oct 2202 (DD937)
Refuge Point
Early Evening

Just as she had the previous occasion, Maddy dithered a bit before joining Refuge Point at the dinner table. She checked herself head to toe: clothing straight, hair tidied, nails clean. A discreet sniff offered up nothing unpleasant. She frowned at herself in the scrap of mirror she’d hung in her cubby. The weather had held dry and the edges of her embeds were irritated and red, making the spidery silver and gold circuit paths contrast sharply against her skin.

Call it face paint and move on. It’s not like no one’s seen it before. What you see is what you get: take it or leave it.

Maddy decided against covering up with her cowl and instead quit her cubby in her thermal-knit shirt and trousers. Still, dissatisfaction dogged her footsteps. Beyond the visible marks of her otherness, there were plenty of things that couldn’t be seen, traps for the unwary and the unguarded … including herself.

Sandra had been compellingly vocal of late and the import of her recent statement—that perhaps Erik would be the perfect candidate to make Maddy her host—made Maddy uncertain of her own attraction to the man. After all, she wasn’t in the habit of throwing herself on anyone and yet, she had done so with him. It wasn’t something she could pin on Faith (and that was still an open wound, slow to heal). Her first disastrous date, such as it was, preceded Faith’s rescue and execution. However, was her attraction to Erik as false as hers had been for Faith? Was Sandra somehow influencing her toward Erik? After having Sandra as an internal companion for so long, Maddy found it hard to remember what it felt like to not have Sandra whispering in her ear, to have only her own voice for counsel.

Maddy shelved it for later. It was not a dilemma she could solve before dinner. She had more pressing matters to tend to: Erik caught her eye as she walked in and he patted the bench at his side. Saved you a seat, the gesture declared. Maddy gave him a smile, tried not to think of how she looked with the bits and circuits, and slid in place beside him.

“Thanks,” she said, glancing down, feeling suddenly shy. She looked up through her lashes at him, not wanting to leave it to a one-word greeting but unsure of what she could say that wouldn’t sound lame (and if she were honest, an echo of everything she’d said to Faith). “How was your day?”

Okie doke. Lame it is.

“Is that how you want to play this, Maddy?” Erik asked, not messing around with small talk. “Heads down shy Maddy is certainly not the same person that kissed me earlier.”

In his mind, Maddy was bigger and more capable than she wanted to be around him. So Erik kept poking her verbally, trying to force her out of the safe space she built for herself. Safe spaces were dull. And despite what she seemingly wanted him to believe, Erik didn’t think Maddy was dull.

“I’m not—,” Maddy said, stung. Duplicity wasn’t her nature. Oh really? said her conscience. Letting everyone think Sandra is dead somehow isn’t lying? “I’m not playing you. I just—I just don’t know how to be around you. One minute I’m myself and another, it’s like … I’ve been taken over by aliens or something. You shouldn’t … I don’t …” She expelled a pent breath and shook her head. A bowl passed her way and she took a little daub of whatever was in it, then dipped up a bigger spoonful and put it on the plate of the child sitting to her left. The kids come first. It was an action as automatic as breathing, but it didn’t stop a self-serving thought from surfacing: And when will you put yourself first, Maddy?

Saving Sandra wasn’t putting myself first? she thought back at it. Any way you choose to look at it, keeping her alive in secret is pretty damned selfish of me. Aware that Erik was still owed a complete answer, she passed the bowl down and looked him in the eye.

“You’ve been around the block a few times, Erik, but I haven’t. Not when it comes to this. I’m still trying to figure out the roadmap so I can get where I’m going, okay? Just know I’m going to be confused ’til then.” Even as she said it, Maddy knew she was giving Erik an unfair advantage by admitting her inexperience, but duplicity wasn’t yet in her nature. Save for one area, apparently, whispered her conscience.

“Just be. Don’t make it so hard on yourself.” Erik knew he was good looking and charming (and talented with a socket wrench too) but he didn’t think he was that intimidating. Maddy had been a Guardian—fought villainous powers and saved people lives. Erik hadn’t been out of Michigan before D-Day.

Looking at how little she was eating, Erik decided it wasn’t all that important they have this conversation at the dinner table. They needed a change of scenery. He stood up with a smirk on his face and held out a hand for her. “Come with me, if you want to live,” he rumbled in a fairly passable Terminator impression.

That Ahh-Nold accent teased a laugh out of her. Grabbing a carrot off a tray, Maddy let him pull her to her feet. She made the carrot disappear in a pocket on the way out.

“So, where to?” she asked. Despite her unfamiliarity with the dance, she was willing to learn the steps. It was one of her constants, one that even Erik’s unsettling effect on her insides couldn’t quell: learning was the axle on which her world turned, the fulcrum upon which she bent her mind. It gave her the confidence to venture, “Around the block, maybe?”

“If that means getting outside the mall wall for a little bit, then absolutely.” Dinner was, as usual, early, so they still had a couple hours of daylight left to work with.

“We can hit the roof,” she suggested. “There’s a lot of room up there. If you want to go outside outside, we need to stop by my cubby first.” She had been outside the walls more times she could count and there wasn’t much she was afraid of. The main reason she wasn’t was she rarely went out without taking proper precautions.

“A prepared man lives to see another day.” One of Larry’s many aphorisms. He had one (or more than one) for every situation. Many of them were pretty trite, but Erik found himself repeating them anyway. “In other words, to your cubicle, Maddy. I want to get my outside time in before it gets too cold to go.”

“Let’s go then.” It was a short walk to her cubby. It was last in a string set up in a side hall off the main concourse. She pulled aside the curtain that served for a door. “Mi casa es su casa,” she said as she waved him inside.

Opposite the door lay a cot with blankets tucked in tight. The walls on four sides were a two-by-four frame with a patchwork of corrugated fiberglass panels and OSB scraps nailed in place. Makeshift shelves bolted to the upright studs added stability. The shelves were laden with all manner of pack-ratty things: string, wire, folded bits of leather and rubber, cracked jars with nuts, bolts, and nails. A tool bag sat in a chair beside the door. A line of improvised coat hooks held her wardrobe off the floor. Boxes beneath held books and more scavenged materials. An old refrigerator from the 1950s, its red enamel chipping away in places, its chrome fittings incongruously pristine, sat in the corner at the foot of her cot.

“Make yourself at home.” Maddy opened the fridge and pulled her knife and wrist rocket from a wire shelf. She got a box of something rattle-y from the butter compartment in the fridge door. "I’d offer you a cold beer, but … " She smiled and shrugged.

Erik moved right over to the fridge, drawn to it like a magnet. He was fascinated by older pieces of equipment. The fact that it brought him close up to Maddy was just an added bonus. He ran a hand across the chrome. “Beautiful. Where did you find it?”

“Crazy thing,” she said, not quite sure what to do with him crowding her but the shiver it sent up her spine was an unexpected pleasure. “I was out on a scouting expedition and found it in a fountain between some stores in a shopping area near here, just sitting in the water like it was taking a shower or something. The stores were gone, of course, but I remember there used to be a vintage refurb place there.”

Maddy threw an arm over the curved top of the fridge and leaned on it, reminiscing. “Denton’s, that was the name of the place. Before D-Day, I would go there sometimes for the really old stuff. Vacuum tubes and Nixie tubes, ceramic fuses, wire recorders, Remington typewriters, zinc-lined ice chests, anything old really. I spotted a working gasogene, once, just gleaming away on a shelf up high behind the register. A gasogene. Can you believe it? He must have gotten it from the great grandchild of a Victorian. Huh,” she added, the memory triggering another and the resulting rabbit hole was pulling her in. "You know, I could really use something like that for a project I’ve got on the back burner … "

“Yeah, what the hell are you building that needs something antique like that?” The words were harsh but the excitement in Erik’s voice betrayed him.

“Well …,” she blinked, perplexed by friction between his words and tone. “It’s a low tech way to make carbonated water. It’s like the modern homemade soda makers. But if you can infuse liquid with carbonation, there might be a way to use it to infuse liquids with other sorts of gases as well. Or use it to create pressurized gas for other tasks. Dr. No might find it useful in her infirmary. Langston might need something like it in his lab. If we could get our hands on a cow, we might even be able to make whipped cream, though cleaning it afterward would be a pain in the ass.”

“Awesome,” he said simply. “This is the Maddy you should be around me. Crazy inventing Maddy.” Erik grinned at her before saying, “Ok, enough with the distractions. You ready to head out and go somewhere, anywhere? Light’s wasting.”

“Let’s,” Maddy agreed, glad he didn’t think her weird for going off on a tangent involving something most people didn’t even know existed. Gasogenes weren’t a dime a dozen, before or after D-Day. She realized Erik still hemmed her in. “Um … we heading out for the roof or …?” she prompted, hoping her request to give her room was oblique enough not to insult him. There was something about Erik that made her want to avoid making him angry. She had an impression of him that she didn’t want sullied. Not now, when their friendship was still intriguing and new.

“‘Out’ meaning outside the walls, Maddy. The roof is boring,” Erik pronounced, as he stepped towards the door. “We still have a few hours of daylight. Let’s go out the west entrance and wander for a little while.” He made an encouraging nod toward the door behind him. First step, he thought, was breaking barriers and boundaries. A trip outdoors in the early evening when everyone else was settling in was a perfect starting point.

“All right, then.” Maddy shrugged into the long garment she invariably wore when outside. Not quite trail duster, not quite Jedi robe, but possessing the qualities of both, it covered her from the neck down. It flared out as she strode for her door and slinging her staff across her back did little to confine it. She pulled her goggles and cowl from one of its inner pockets but kept them in hand instead of donning them. After patting another pocket to make sure she’d remembered to bring the ammo from the fridge, she gave Erik a grin. “Let’s go!”

Erik grinned with enthusiasm. “Damn right, let’s go.” He led them out from her cubby down through the mostly quiet main mall corridor. With dinner on, most people were eating or in their personal spaces, leaving only a straggler or two wandering around. They reached the west entrance and Erik just nodded at the person standing on watch guard (Victor?) as they walked through. “We’ll be back before dark,” he said, continuing on without stopping.

As they got some distance from Refuge Point, he started to steer them a little more north than west, trying to avoid the heaviest of the plant growth. He turned to Maddy and said with a knowing grin, “People just naturally assume you know what you’re doing and are going where you’re supposed to go, even when you don’t and you aren’t. All it takes is moving with confidence.”

“I’ll bet you snuck into a lot of parties and movie theaters as a kid,” Maddy said, her amusement clear, despite having to focus on the environment. Even though the plant growth was less heavy, she kept a sharp eye out for that weird palnt she’d stumbled into, the one that threw spores. She was still waiting for the other shoe to drop on that one. Maddy pushed aside a luxuriant branch of whatever-it-was with her staff and wished for her machete. Ideas on how she could modify her hollow metal staff into a sword scabbard tickled at the back of her head as she said, “So what was the best or hardest place you ever snuck into? And if they weren’t one and the same, tell me about both.”

Hmmm….how to frame that response without giving away too much? Thankfully, one of the unexpected benefits of being a full time thief was learning how to make what you did sound like a 9 to 5. People loved hearing work stories.

“I had to break into a pretty secure server room at one point. Trick, of course, with that is a good server room can be environmentally locked down, so combine that with a well trained private security force and a very nice electronic lock system and it was definitely a challenge. But much like leaving Refuge Point, some old fashioned hacking of human anticipation got me a lot of the way there and then I just had to work my magic with the electronics behind the lock.” He wiggled his fingers to imply a skilled set of hands, but of course, all he had needed to do was just merge with the lock system and pop! went the door. Made things so much smoother.

“Environmental lock down? How? Airlock entry? Halon?” Maddy pushed aside more vegetation and moved around the underbrush with care. “Were you working as a security systems analyst? What sort of human error did you turn up?”

“Human error is the same as it always is, Maddy,” he smirked. “People want to believe in what you’re selling. If you tell them it’ll get them something they want and give them some rope, they’ll tie the noose for their own neck.” He pointed to the building across the street. A rusted but still mostly intact sign attached to a a first floor of white bricks said, “Railton Apartments”. Beyond the first floor, the building stretched 13 floors up, made of mostly intact standard red brick. Overgrown by vegetation like most of the city, the building was still mostly there, minus a few holes and a tremendous amount of broken windows.

Erik looked at Maddy. “Would I win big money if I bet that Refuge Point had searched this building early? Not too long after Destruction Day?”

“Yup.” Maddy tapped her nose and pointed at Erik with a wink. “It’s one of the first places we stripped out.” She paused and sighed, casting an eye over the building with something like fondness. “I think it made a difference in surviving our first winter.”

“And there’s another human hack for you, Maddy. People like crossing things off their list…” Erik paused dramatically. “And then completely forgetting about them.” He moved towards the front door quickly, motioning for her to follow him.

“Who said anything about forgetting?” Wait. What?Maddy frowned and followed Erik. But did she follow slower? Yes. But perhaps she was also watching where she put her feet. “I remember this place well. You’ll want to watch your step on the third floor landing in the south corner stairs. It’s rotted out.”

“You can’t convince me you have perfect memory, Maddy.” He stepped through the empty door frame, the glass long since scattered to the winds. The lobby area, in its heyday would have been welcoming, if somewhat old fashioned. But in many ways, that fit the building. At least 5 decades old originally, the building looked like it had gone through several face-lifts before going through the ultimate remodeling on Destruction Day. “But it’s not about remembering the details that you saw the first time around. It’s about marking it as done and not having the time or interest to go back”

Erik knew the stairs were on the right through a still-intact steel door, but instead he walked to the left past the elevator into the first hallway. “And besides, we’re not going to the third floor anyway.”

All right," Maddy said, oddly stung by his answer. Though some of her memories gave her heartache, she preferred remembering to forgetting and Erik’s assertion implied a callous disregard she didn’t possess. And it wasn’t the first time he’d sent a subtle barb her way. So why are you here? What do you see in him? “So, where are we going?”

“Not far,” he said before stopping in front of apartment number 103. There wasn’t anything remarkable or different about the door, other than it looked like it had once had a nicer lock, which of course had gotten removed when Refuge Point came through. “And by the way, I wouldn’t expect you guys to come back to a building you cleared. Busy with the hard work of surviving and all.”

“And so he takes the girl to his place on their second date. Hmmm, so what’s it gonna be, Mister? Etchings? Trading card collection? Power tools?” Maddy grinned to defuse any possible innuendo even as she wondered why she felt the need to. She was still trying to get a handle on her feelings concerning Erik. He was talkative and charming, if in a bad boy sort of way, and he was definitely intelligent and had a lot of stories to tell. He was someone new, someone from outside the circumscribed world of Refuge Point and though Maddy knew that it wouldn’t be wise to get taken in so quickly by Erik, her thirst for knowledge urged her to befriend him anyway. What lay behind his expression? Was it genuine or a front? He’d already admitted having been here before. What lay behind that door? Did she dare find out? “The suspense is killing me. Shut up and open the door.”

Erik just got an amused look on his face and casually shrugged. “Shutting up,” he said, as he swung the door open to…an empty apartment. More in ruin than the last time Maddy had seen any of the rooms here, it was still reasonably intact, just with more water damage and plant growth than in the early days of the apocalypse. An open living room attached to the remnants of a galley kitchen also had two short hallways on either side that led to bedrooms. But on first glance, there was nothing particularly unusual about it.

“Just let me know when you’d like me to start talking again,” Erik teased before continuing, “I think we can both agree this is not the love shack of B-52s fame.”

“Okay, okay, you can stop shutting-up now.” Maddy ventured a few steps inside, looking at the place and comparing it with her memories. It had been a nice place before the world went sideways. With luck, it might be again. Maybe. Turning around to face Erik, she spread her arms wide to indicate the apartment. “What are we doing here? Poking around? Looking for something?”

“Back this way.” He grabbed her hand, taking the opportunity to enjoy the feel of it. He led her to the bedroom on the left. “See,” he explained, "I knew there might be stuff in an older building that people would miss because they didn’t know to look for it. Plus that whole crazy trying to survive things. But I know older buildings. This likely would’ve been the landlord’s apartment. "

The bedroom was small and filled with the broken down remains of office furniture: a wooden desk missing several drawers, a bookshelf bent over into two halves, exposing the wall behind it. Erik pointed to that wall. “Shelves were probably intact when your folks came through. It’s only after the passage of time that the clues become more evident. Or unless you know stuff about how certain apartments in older buildings might be structured.”

The wall should have been brick covered with plaster. But poking through a hole in the wall was a happily growing leafy vine. Looking through the hole was an empty space where there should have been more wall. “My favorite type of room,” Erik proclaimed happily. “Secret.”

“Hmmm ….” Maddy stepped closer, her curiosity overriding her caution, and looked through the gap. She shaded her eyes to see better through the murk. “So you’re a … puzzle seeker. A treasure hunter. Like Indiana Jones?” she added, looking over her shoulder at Erik.

“Something like that,” he said, grinning. He then put one hand on her shoulder and turned her towards him. “I do find treasures, sometimes,” he said seriously as he looked into her eyes, drawing her in for a kiss.

Perhaps it was the chilly autumn air that made his hand feel so warm on her shoulder, sending a shiver down her side. Every inch of her skin tingled and the heat she felt off him made her ache for something she couldn’t name. Unlike the kisses she’d laid on him, his was confident, passionate, and filled with possibilities. Erik’s hands were like his kisses, smooth and sure as they skimmed over her. Seized by a fierce desire for more, Maddy didn’t pull away but instead leaned into him, even as he pressed her against the wall. A stab in her lower back made her gasp and shift to ease the pinch of metal biting her skin, but that put her in contact with all sorts of interesting bits of him. Gasping for a completely different reason, Maddy’s eyes fluttered shut and she clutched Erik to keep from falling to the ruined apartment floor.

Erik leaned into the kiss for a minute more before letting go of Maddy. “Whew,” he said with a deep breath. “You kiss like it’s the end of the world, Maddy.” Erik had the feeling that if he pushed, even just a little, that Maddy might be willing to go a long way … but he didn’t want that. Like the best of heists, it was all about pacing and timing. Rushing in just got you in trouble.

“You … you’re …” Maddy locked her knees and gripped the wall to stay upright. Her blood was still singing from the kiss, her nerves shimmering with electricity, but now that Erik was no longer touching her, she could think again. She drew a long steady breath through her nose and pulled herself together. “For a minute there, yeah. So … um, where were we?” She ventured a push off the wall, found her footing solid, and turned for the hidden room. “Here, right?”

Erik was glad to see he had as much effect on Maddy as she had on him. He took a breath and nodded. “You wanna open it or shall I?” He was hoping she would. While he enjoyed showing off, Erik enjoyed watching Maddy in action more.

The hole was large enough to admit her head for a good look, but there wasn’t enough light coming in around the edges to allow her to see what was inside. Opening it up wider was really the only option. Glad that her leathers covered her palms, Maddy got a good grip on a section of rotting drywall and gave it a steady pull. It crumbled and cracked and a piece nearly a yard square came away in her hands. White dust sifted down, floating like fairy motes in the slanting late afternoon light. Maddy set her bit of drywall aside and cut a little grin at Erik.

“Wanna piece of this?” She waved at the hole. “No reason I should have all the fun.”

He had been wondering if she’d look for the latch or just rip out the wall. Now he knew. Erik smiled and started helping her rip out the drywall. “I think you’re going to enjoy what we’re going to find,” he said, smiling as he pulled out a section of wall.

“Won’t be long now …hey, wait.” Maddy belately realized there was a latch and managed to trip it before the demolition disabled it. There wasn’t much left. She kicked the debris out of the swing path and pushed the concealed door open the rest of the way. “I wonder what—_ATCHOOO!_”

Wide eyed, she froze and held her breath. Inhaling foreign dust particles without consequences was not something Maddy took for granted anymore. She counted to ten and when she didn’t fall into a coma or have her Power flare to life, she relaxed. Then she saw what the secret room held and froze for a completely different reason.

Crowded inside the narrow hidden room was what could only be described as a survivalist’s workshop. Peg boards filled with tools, electronics, and gun parts lined the walls. Two workbenches filled the center area, leaving only a small amount of room for Erik and Maddy to walk around. Up against the far end of the rectangular room was a series of shelves where used for dry goods and canned food storage. Those shelves covered one half of that wall. A large metal safe took up the other half. As Erik stepped in around Maddy, he said, “Welcome to my world is ending hidey-hole. Looks like this guy came and got a bunch of his stuff, but couldn’t come back for more.” He pointed to the empty spaces on the pegboard where tools had obviously been. “I also checked the safe—no guns to be had, alas.” That wasn’t completely true. The landlord had left behind a couple of handguns which Erik had pocketed for his own use. But that wasn’t something Maddy needed to know.

“My God, Erik …” she finally managed to whisper. “You really have found treasure.” Motionless on the threshold, her head going a thousand miles a minute, Maddy eyed the cache and ruthlessly inventoried it. Tools for Badia. All food and dry goods are going straight to the Quartermaster. Gun parts, Farringdon. Electronics … Badia could use those too but Maddy … Ohhhhh, she wanted them.

“Nothing seems very old.” Maddy stepped all the way inside to the nearest table and picked up a random bit of circuit board. No little hello chirped in her head. It was nothing but plastic and metal in her hand. Swallowing her disappointment, she turned it over to see if any printing survived on the back.

‘Nest, Inc.’ Hmmm …

Looking around, she nodded at the pegboard. “That cordless drill was new when D-Day hit. Is there a charging unit for the battery? If there is, see if it’s got a USB port. I have a crank powered radio that charges devices via USB.”

Most of the food was gone and what was remaining was stuff like dried artichokes, but Erik knew the apocalypse didn’t allow for picky. He helped Maddy with her electronics requests and her organizing for a bit before taking a moment to interject. “If we take this stuff back, I’d like to ask that you keep this room secret. I’ll repair the drywall and such, so no work on your end or on RP’s end.” He flashed her a winning smile. “If I didn’t want to get more involved with Expedition, I’d even let you take all the credit.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Maddy looked up from organizing her bag and gave him a slow grin. “One could say you’ve already got an in with Expedition.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Maddy started second guessing them. How far could she go with Erik? How much should she hold back? It was moments like this when she felt as if she were two people sharing a single body, attracted and wary at the same time. The memory of their kiss was still strong and while one part of her clearly enjoyed it, another wasn’t entirely sure she should have. “Kinda,” she added, biting her lip and shrugging. She didn’t want to him to expect anything she couldn’t deliver. On either count. “I’m on Expedition, true, but it’s not like I have the ultimate say or anything. I’ll definitely put in a good word. You can count on that.”

“I just like the idea of having a secret room. Doesn’t every kid want their own secret hideaway?” It didn’t hurt that Erik’s potential hideaway had a safe in it. Maddy probably didn’t realize how much he was trusting her by revealing the room in the first place. Some of it, of course, was trying to impress her. But he also missed having someone to share secrets with. Larry, you bastard, why did you have to go get yourself killed?

He walked over to her and leaned over to steal a kiss. “But I appreciate you being willing to put in a good word. Second date turned out better, yeah?” And he flashed that 100 megawatt smile.

The second kiss didn’t cut her off at the knees like the first, but it still had sufficient heat to make her follow after his lips a little when they came up for air again.

“Much better,” Maddy agreed, twining her fingers into his shirt to keep him close. “Secret hideout. Stolen kisses. What happens on the third date?”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied seriously. “The not knowing is one quarter to one third of the fun. The remainder, of course, is the kissing.” And he followed up with a third kiss, long and passionate as the sun set out of their view, leaving them alone together in secret darkness.

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Stronger than Fear
Natalie/Melody RP

“So you gonna talk to me or what?”

Melody leaned against the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. The events of two days before were still burning in her memories. She had hoped that Natalie would have come around and talk to her. But she respected that the other woman needed her distance and was willing to wait.

She just didn’t want to wait anymore.

Laying on the floor of her living quarters, Natalie was doing yoga when Melody’s voice sounded. She raised herself slowly to a sitting position and then looked at her best friend, a shadow in her gaze that has never been there before. “I’m afraid to,” she admitted in a quiet tone. “I appear to be a walking time bomb, activating anyone I touch. It’s bad enough I activated Toby and Elana and Maddy… but I know you don’t WANT yours. I’m afraid if I’m anywhere near you, I’ll accidentally activate you and you’ll never forgive me.”

She took a moment to digest that statement before giving her friend a wry smile. “Well of course I’ll forgive you. Between me and Tob, once I’m powered up too, we’ll just remake you all. Once you’re the person I’ve always wanted you to be, well. . .” She shrugged. “Make you all so forgivable Nat. Each and everyone of you. Bwahaha.”

Before Nat could respond, she pressed herself off the doorway and stepped closer. To be honest, she was a bit wary of being near her friend now. Okay, terrified. But there was no guarantee that her own powers would come back in a bad way or even at all. Melody forced a smile, knowing that Nat’s frown was mirrored on her own face. There was no getting out of the way of the freight train; they were already stuck on the tracks. It had occurred to her finally that there was no running away. So a wise person just figured out how to survive the hit. But she wasn’t going to make Nat feel like a pariah and she sure wasn’t going to deny herself her best friend.

“Bwahaha,” she added flatly with a raise of her eyebrows. “I really need to work on that, huh?”

Natalie couldn’t help the flinch that happened when the second ‘bwahaha’ happened, but she offered a cautious smile. “Maybe a little,” she conceded. “You can’t be an evil mastermind remaking the world with that lame excuse for a maniacal laugh.” She shook her head. “It just isn’t done, I tell you.”

Gesturing for Melody to pull up a patch of floor, the healer admitted, “I knew… that things were happening, Mel. I just… was scared of them. And I didn’t want to see your face when you realized what they meant.” Her tone held a depth of sadness that Natalie couldn’t hide. “Maybe Jared was right… maybe I need to be taken somewhere that I can’t hurt anyone again. I just don’t know.” Because so FAR she hasn’t hurt anyone, but will that keep holding true?

Melody sat down near her. “Maybe? But to let you know, I’m already totally using that lame excuse to avoid thinking about or planning what to do when I activate. In fact, I’ve been using it for a while so it’s mine, lady. And you know what else? I really should stop planning to run away far, far from home like a mad six year old and put some real thought on planning how to handle it when it happens. Because sometimes far isn’t far enough.” She gestured helplessly. “C’mon Nat, smile. Please. We’ve already caused the end of the world.”

Natalie snorted with a soft huff of laughter. “Yeah. What else can go wrong?” She rolled her eyes at her own sarcasm and sighed. “So much is going wrong right now… I think I may have sorted out how to tell my emotions from the ones coming at me. A little bit. But… the learning curve is steep, Melody. I want so much to be able to tell you I won’t activate you. Or tell Langston that I won’t heal him. But sometimes, like when I stole health from all of you, I don’t have that kind of control. I think I can get it. Maybe. But who the hell knows?”

“Well you don’t. But you were once a baby power. You make mistakes on the way Nat. But on the balance of things, you have done more good than bad.” Melody shifted, curling her feet underneath herself to get more comfortable. “Why do you need to reassure Langston or me?”

Natalie gave her side-eyes. “Oh, I don’t know…. because Langston was ready to shoot me if I got near him?” she said drolly. “And I think you might seriously consider bashing me over the head or throwing yourself off a cliff to keep from touching me?” She remembered the way Melody backpedaled away from her when they’d both been hurt. And it still stung.

Mel stared for a moment and then shook her head. “No,” she started and then stopped. Gathering her thoughts with a sigh, she opened and closed her mouth and then said, “Yes. Until a few minutes ago. Yes I would have. But it has finally occurred to me that instead of fighting destiny, I ought to embrace it. Plan for it and maybe it won’t turn out to be a disaster. Besides, I might not be fixable.”

Watching her as she struggled with the truth of the words, Natalie felt… sadness. She missed the days when she and Mel would take off and just do stupid stuff like shopping or having coffee at the bookstore after yoga. “It’s not about fighting or embracing destiny, Melody,” she finally said quietly. “And you don’t need fixing. It’s about the fact that my ability could hurt people just as easily as Geetha’s did. That’s not something I ever even thought was possible, but it’s been made brutally clear to me in the past week that whatever my healing ability was before? It is not the same now. Taking on psychological damage as if it’s my own? That wasn’t even in the same solar system as my power before. And people are right to be afraid. I’m afraid. Even with a plan that I think will work as I learn to build shields, it’s still terrifying.”

Melody nodded. She understood. There was no way for Nat to understand the deep-seated cold panic that what she casually joked about was potentially something that could be very true.

She and Toby could potentially remake the world if she were to reactivate. Fix the damage, reverse what was done. Erase the memories of the survivors even. She hadn’t dared ask Toby what he could do in that regard. She fought back a shiver. Shiny happy people, made to order in a world of clean air, clear water, and landscaping to her preference.

Almost every day of her past, she had fought not to extend and grow her powers. She still remembered the shrieking of the first and only villian she had sunk into the asphalt of the street, realizing too late that she had let him go too far when the screaming stopped.

She had never told Ryan. She knew he had known; the body had been hard to ignore. But she had known then that mistakes could be fatal. Great power, great responsibility. ‘GPGR baby’ as Ryan had always quoted short hand. And so she had worked hard to make sure her powers weren’t great because she knew she wasn’t strong enough to handle the responsibility.

Maybe it was a blessing that she didn’t remember what the nanobots had released. Maybe it had been Mr Hyde finally free from Dr Jekyll.

She realized she needed to say something to Nat, to reassure her friend. She had been quiet for too long. Reaching out, she forced herself to touch her friend’s shoulder. “I believe in you Nat. You’re stronger than you think. And you’ve got us.”

The silence went on, but Natalie didn’t seem bothered by that. Instead, her eyes remained on Melody as her friend dealt with the storm within her own thoughts. She didn’t reach out, not wanting to startle Mel… and with no knowledge of what exactly the other woman was thinking, all she could really do was remain present and focused in the here and now. When Mel reached the end of her reverie and reached out, Natalie reached up and twined their fingers together and held tight.

“I’ll get the hang of it. Let’s hope it’s before I activate anyone who REALLY doesn’t want it, you know?” She smiled a little. “So…. dish. What did the betting pool on me and Jared look like?” She needed to change the subject, needed a little bit of ‘normal.’

To her shame, she flinched the tiniest bit but she responded a fraction later with a tight squeeze of her own. Nat needed the reassurance that her simple touch wouldn’t break them. And Mel needed it too. Even more because she couldn’t lose her best friend. Jared could love her but she needed her in ways that only besties could. She sighed and shook her head mournfully.

“Odds are horrible. Couldn’t play Nat. Everyone bet on you two being a couple.” She winked. “Now as to you two fighting and killing each another, sure. I’m in that pool. Two stubborn, headstrong people like you two. Yeah, so took those odds. Other people were silly romantics. Bet on nothing but love and kisses.. But I know you guys.”

“This is why I love you,” Natalie chuckled, pretending not to see the flinch. It cut deep, but the return squeeze went a long way toward easing the hurt. “I guess we’ll get to the fighting part eventually — now that the sexual tension has somewhere to go,” she observed mildly. Wait for it …. the ‘about time’ … 3… 2… 1…

Melody nodded knowingly. “Yep,” she replied. “It is.” Tempting Fate, she gathered her friend into a hug.

Natalie laughed, hugging Melody tightly, relieved. Burying her face in her friend’s shoulder allowed her to hide the tears she had wanted to shed at the wariness. “I’m bummed — you didn’t even say ‘hallelujah’ or ’it’s about time,’” she quipped on a watery chuckle.

“Nah. I’m just happy he found you again.” She paused a moment and then softly added, “Don’t drop him in the Atlantic.”

Natalie almost chuckled again but something in Melody’s tone arrested the sound before it could escape. Holding her friend tightly she could feel the subtle tremor that went through Mel, and it didn’t take an empath to realize that she’d just been told something earth-shatteringly important. Natalie pulled slowly backward, looking at her best friend in shocked comprehension.
“Oh God, Mel…. I’m so damned sorry.”

There was nothing else she could say; all she could do was haul her friend back in for the tightest hug she could create. Her tears couldn’t begin to touch the ache she knew Melody had to be feeling, but they slid down Natalie’s face nonetheless as she mourned not only an amazing friend but the horror that Melody had lived with silently for more than two years.

“I don’t remember it. I’ve just been told. It’s on video apparently. I’ve always been honest that I most likely killed him. But now you know how.” She smiled sadly. “Thought you might have seen the videos too and just not mentioned it the whole time. Toby admitted he saw it. We’ve talked. A lot. But he hasn’t brought up his dad recently.”

When they finally drew apart, Natalie shook her head. “I never came across anyone who had video of anything,” she admitted. “When I woke in San Francisco, the cop who almost executed me … he told me a few things, but local to that area. The rest, I just… couldn’t ask.” She looked sad.

“I always knew you said you’d killed him, but…. I never thought about the specifics. I didn’t expect you would know them, and it wasn’t….” Natalie paused, searching for the words. “It wasn’t something I wanted to force you to try to talk about. We’ve all done unforgivable things. Maybe to people we love, maybe to strangers. I can’t imagine knowing the way you do. But what I do know is that you lovers Ryan more than anything. And he wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up for something you couldn’t control.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Melody admitted softly. “But I do and I will. Forever. I failed us both. And worst of all, Toby.”. She sniffed and then inhaled deeply. “We were talking about you tho’ lady.”

“Do we have to?” Natalie retorted, struggling to keep her emotions in check. Melody didn’t need to be trying to comfort her. She shook her head. “It’s still out of my control, Mel — I might be able to access it a little more readily than when I started, but when I do access it, I only have the barest of control of it. It maybe goes where I send it…. but then it expands and goes a hell of a lot more places too. What’s happening to me now is really no better than what happened when the virus hit. Except now I get a front-row seat and a remember what I’ve done. Oh… and I haven’t killed anyone. Yet. Which is sheer dumb luck because there were a half-dozen of you around me instead of only one or two when my self-preservation instincts decided to siphon off life force to heal me.” It was the ultimate fear for her — consciously she would never choose her own life over someone else’s.

Her shrug was casual even though her gaze was serious. “What’s a little life force among friends?” she retorted. “Look Nat, we’re all evolving in this new world. We could just as easily be eaten by a plant or a twisted animal. Or random person we meet. Or have an emo vampire suck us dry. But I have faith in you. And confidence in who you still are. Which is a good person.”

Natalie simply sighed. “Yeah.” Good person or not, like everyone who survived D-Day, she has her demons. She looked up at Melody and said simply, “Being an empath sucks. And it’s going to suck more when word gets out… because their fear is probably going to impact me. Your fear, Jared’s fear… those are the ones that cut the deepest. I need to know we’re still okay, Mel.”

Her smile came slow but blossomed into a bright grin. “You nitwit! Of course we are,” she exclaimed. “So now can we share clothes again?”

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