“I’m sure you’re all wondering why we’re on this little field trip,” Dean Gravitas says. Zhi’s right. Even I’m not sure why we’ve been hurtling through the air in a Slider the past hour and Zhi’s mind is being kept carefully blank. I don’t understand how someone can even keep that kind of mental control. I don’t sense any outside influence like when Blue’s thoughts skip out. Gravitas has just been…meditating.
Or maybe I’m just not focusing enough. A little over two dozen of us sit in the Slider, close quarters that make it hard to fully distinguish the swirling thoughts and emotions. The girl sitting across from me, Miss Sedrick, is a noticeable exception. She has a very high power resistance and her mind gives me nothing, which is a large part of why I chose this seat. Miss Sedrick has a very peculiar appearance, multiple skin tones blending artfully together.
Miss Sedrick is quiet, and even without being able to read her emotions it was clear to see that flying is causing her anxiety. It doesn’t help that the floor of the Slider is clear and we can all see the world hurtling past us faster than any passenger plane could possibly manage. I didn’t even know anti-grav technology could work this effectively. But I’m sure whole libraries could be filled with the technology that Tech Geniuses have made and not broadcast to the public at large. I see logos on the seats saying Mirkoff Technologies and have a sense or recognition I can’t quite place. The Slider slides to a stop more gently than I would have thought possible with little sensation of deceleration. It hangs in the air.
“In the coming days,” Gravitas continues, dragging my attention back to zhi’s colorful form. Zhe is lounging in Zhi’s seat, facing the rest of us, who are arranged towards the back of the Slider in a V shaped configuration. “We will ask you do horrible things. Some will be simulations. Some will be… practice. We will help desensitize you so that in a moment of crisis you can do what is necessary without hesitation. And despite all our screening, and all of our testing, there will probably be a few of you who walk away by the end of the week. Not many, but a few. There would be more though, much more, if we did not help remind you why you are needed. Why you cannot hesitate, no matter the target. The first reminder is right below us.”
We look down and see nothing but ocean. There’s confusion at first, and then I feel realization snap into place a couple seats over where Blue sits. His thoughts are skipping like mad, a nice change from the motion sickness he’s had most of the ride despite the Slider’s smoothness, and he speaks up “The Emerald Isles. These were the Emerald Isles.”
“Very good B.B.,” Gravitas says, clapping. I notice moon shaped designs on Zhi’s long nails. “Visually this is the least heart-wrenching of our stops today. The ocean is beautiful. The bodies are gone. But it is also one of the most important stops, if for no other reason than the casualty count. Thirty-three million people died that day because of hesitation. Because The Butler had to kill Tidalerror due to the confusion between on-site heroes and military personnel. Because of their interference with the Executioner on site. It was the trigger for the Rules of Engagement to be accepted by most nations. Now, if a Hero, if a soldier, if anyone gets in your way, everyone else will let you kill the damn idiot and carry on with containment.
“Tidalerror is portrayed as a monster, because that is what she became. An out of control monster, insane at the drowning of her child. Less known to most civilians is that she was a beloved wife of one of the Emerald Isle’s greatest heroes. He tried to stop the Executioner, one of the first, from slaying his wife before the ocean swallowed his nation. Rather than assisting the Executioner, or even just getting out of the way, the island’s military force further hampered our agent. All of them drowned, along with the rest of the country. Had The Butler not arrived and dealt with Tidalerror, it is estimated she would have wiped the Consolidated Empire’s entire Eastern seaboard out of existence within an hour.”
The Slider had begun moving again, flowing over the ocean at a rapidly increasing speed. The mood in the cabin was solemn, though a few were untouched. Emilio is sitting in the back, well technically the front but behind the rest of us, with a boy named Joker, making wisecracks. Two girls next to him, Jira and Leila, found the jokes funnier than Joker does and stifle laughs. If Gravitas is bothered by their behavior, I’m not able to sense it.
It takes thirty minutes to reach our next stop, flying over land now that blurs below us, and once again I barely notice any sort of deceleration. Thoughts of inertial dampening echo from Alexandra Tech’s mind a few seats down, but I don’t know what the words mean. I’m not sure she does either; the machines are just spitting out information to her.
This time we’re landing, and the floor has become opaque. “Okay, time to get out,” Gravitas says. “Out, out, try not to trip and die or anything.”
His words don’t make much sense to me until we’re outside of the Slider and I stare at shock at the destruction around us. Before us lays a collapsed skyscraper, its body twisted, broken glass and rebar sprawling out across the ground toward us.
“Good grief,” Ray whispers, pointing behind us. I turn around, looking behind the Slider. We have been set down on a street, torn in two, the other half continuing a hundred meters over our head. The earthen wall rising above us isn’t solid though. I can see where the sewage infrastructure was ripped in half as the earth moved, pipes sticking out above us. But the worst part is where, far to our right, I see the vivisection of a subway station, including the crushed remains of half a subway car.
Its above ground twin lies twenty yards away in the form of a bus, broken and shattered beneath a rock. And the reality of how bad things really must be here settles in as I see the small hand bones, sticking out of the window. This city was so torn to pieces that the government condemned the land to the point that not even all the dead were retrieved.
Now that I’m looking for them, I spot more bodies, bent and broken skeletons beneath fallen walls and cars.
“What happened here?” breathes a husky boy. He holds a book in his hand and the only thing I’ve heard him called is Reader. It’s how he thinks of himself as well. He has spent the entire plane ride reading some book called Superpowereds that I’ve never heard of. I think his power brought it into our world’s existence, as his book flickers from time to time with other book titles I don't recognize. War and Peace, The Three Musketeers, Superman. His exact power eludes me, but it’s tied to the books, and must be considerable as he ranked in the top ten yesterday.
But right now, he’s in shock as he realizes the devastation around him, as he processes it and internalizes that these were real people with real lives in our world. His mind lives in his book, but these are the people he needs to save, and it’s a daunting realization.
Mary Lou gets sick. “So many,” she breathes out. “I can see so many.” Lines of green are shooting across her glasses like crazy as she looks across the landscape. Names, faces, times of death are flowing from her mind. She can’t take it anymore and takes her glasses off. Blue puts a comforting hand on her shoulder and leads her back into the Slider.
It’s not safe to venture far from the Slider’s landing pad, at least not for everyone who can’t risk a random building falling on them or the ground collapsing out from under them. So soon the rest of us re-board the Slider. Gravitas sits, meditating again. Zhe opens zhi’s eyes once we’re all back on board.
“Tremortize killed over a million people and made Calamity City an unlivable wasteland,” Gravitas starts solemnly. “He was two, throwing a tantrum. The threat was identified within seven minutes. An executioner arrived on scene ahead of The Butler by five minutes. Their hesitation is why most of those bodies lay out there, unburied but not unforgotten. The price of failure.”
Even Emilio’s little group is shaken and there is not much talking as we move on. An hour later we’ve landed again. But this time as we get out nothing really looks amiss.
There is no destruction here. The buildings are a little rundown, the sidewalks overgrown, but the only thing that is wrong is the lack of people. I don’t sense recognition from anyone yet. Gravitas shouts out from the Slider that we should explore a bit. But also, that anyone who isn’t back in thirty minutes will be left behind. Zhi’s normally controlled emotions burst out with a seriousness that lets me know it’s not a joke.
I split off with my more amiable dorm mates and we stroll along a park sidewalk. We begin meandering around the park, beautiful green trees growing up besides us.
“This seems like a pleasant enough place,” Blue says, stretching his hands behind his back. “What are the odds this is just a little break from the doom and gloom slideshow?”
“Zero,” Mary tells him. I notice she took her glasses off before even stepping out of the Slider this time. She doesn’t want to know all the horrors this city holds and after the last one I can’t blame her a bit.
“Was afraid you’d say that,” he says with a grimace. “This one’s going to give me nightmares, isn’t it?”
“The last one won’t?” I ask him.
“That one I knew what to expect. The second I saw the building I had an idea of what we’d be seeing. I could prepare myself for it. But here? I’m having a hard time thinking of anything, which means when we figure it out, it’s not going to be pretty.” Ray nods his head in agreement.
Still, there are no bodies in the streets. No damage from anything but neglect. It’s…tranquil. So much so, that I don’t fully piece it together when we come across the truth.
We nearly stumble over the outline. At first I think it’s a piece of art, a black chalk dusting scattered over the sidewalk. But Blue’s heart darkens with recognition. It’s like the sun going out, even more so than when he figured out The Emerald Isles. His mind flips from enjoying our company, enjoying the weather, looking for the silver lining in our dark little field trip, to skipping like crazy again between barely contained terror. His hand flexes in agitation, searching for his weapon, which he left behind at the Academy. It’s an unconscious effort that he knows wouldn’t do any good anyways.
“It can’t be. That crazy bastard brought us here?” We have to get back to the Slider, now. Mary, I’m sorry to ask, but can you put your glasses on and find us a short cut?”
“Why are you so worried?” I ask him, not able to lift the cause from his skipping thoughts. “It’s only been ten minutes. Gravitas said to be back in thirty. We can just turn around and walk back.”
He looks back the way we came and struggles not to bolt. “Okay, fair enough. But it would be better if we ran.” He looks at me and there is a pleading look in his beautiful blue eyes and I realize his terror isn’t for himself.
It’s for us. I nod and begin running back the way we came. I have to go slower than I usually would, as none of my companions are particularly fast. Still, within a few minutes the Slider comes back in sight, as does the backside of the building it parked next to.
I nearly stumble. There are dozens of the ashen outlines against its concrete side. It was a thorough fare. The outlines aren’t art. They’re all that’s left of the people.
And I understand Blue’s terror as I realize where we are. “Downtown Cistern,” I breathe. Within a couple more minutes we’re on the Slider. I see Allie sitting alone, calmly in her seat. She knows what the danger is, but trusts Gravitas’ timing. Strangely, Blue’s terror diminishes greatly when he sees her. He breathes a sigh of relief. It’s puzzling, because despite the large gaps in his thoughts I would swear he recognizes her, while her thoughts hold no recognition at all for him. There’s no explanation for why his fear has diminished.
Forest is a lot less trusting of Gravitas, and his expression is dark as he sits antsy in his seat. “When is the next flash?” I ask Gravitas. Zhe is meditating again and does not bother to respond other than to raise a wrist with a count-down on it. It is set for two minutes after the deadline he set.
We wait, and several more of my classmates trickle in. But not all of them. We’re missing almost half the class when the countdown finishes. Gravitas sighs.
“I expected more than this,” zhe says in exasperation. “Oh well, time to leave.”
My eyes widen in shock as the doors close, leaving behind the tardy. Genevieve and Emilio are among them. I may not be fond of them, but we can’t just leave them to die either, and I try to stand back up, intent on making Gravitas go back for them. But we shoot upwards so quickly even the inertial dampeners can’t fully adjust, and I’m thrown back in my seat.
Before I can get up, Mohinder materializes in his seat.
“Mohinder, can you please be a dear and retrieve all of your idiot classmates?” Gravitas says. “You have roughly thirty seconds. Try not to miss any.”
Mohinder disappears again and our classmates begin showing up in their seats, second by second. Genevieve and Emilio are among the last, but they are safely back in their seats a couple seconds before when the floor becomes clear and we all witness the downtown area of the city beneath us engulfed in a brilliant white light.
“El infierno?” Emilio curses in confusion. “What just happened?”
“I just saved your life, dumbass,” Mohinder says coldly.
“Well done, Mohinder,” says Gravitas. “As well as to the rest of you who made it back on the plane on time. Those of you who didn’t are lucky you have such a powerful teleporter in your class. Not all classes do.”
The implications horrify me and I do a double take to make sure all the seats are filled. The entire class appears to be accounted for, even the ones I still don’t really recognize. I breathe a sigh of relief.
“As to what just happened, Mr. Garcia, all human life in a roughly quarter mile radius was just wiped from existence. Turned to ash. Hopefully, during this particular flash, no one actually died. Unlike in the first one, where twenty thousand people lost their lives because, like you, an executioner was not on time. His tardiness was, as with Tremortize, in the form of hesitation. Because when he received his target, the target was on a school bus. Instead of wiping out all possible candidates, our agent tried to figure out who the right person was. We know from the transmitted footage that it was the driver. This fact was lost on the Executioner as both he and all the children on board the bus were dead, along with a significant portion of this city’s workers, and many of the rescue workers that went in to look for survivors before we figured out that Mr. Hendrick’s ability outlasted his death. Every two hours the flash occurs, killing everything in its radius, and this piece of the Earth is forever lost to humanity. So in the future, Mr. Garcia, I encourage you in all things, to be on goddamn time.”
I didn’t think the day could get any worse after that. But by the time we get back to the Academy, we’ve seen from the Slider the quarantined souls of the Dead Plains, the wastelands of Redarctica, and the outskirts of Hope’s Bastion. We’ve landed to see what few survivors of The Plague are clinging to life. We’ve made pit stops at half a dozen other catastrophes and buzzed over mass graveyards made after massacres.
These are the failures. The fuck-ups. The times when people like us were needed, but the people like us were too late, too weak, or not there at all. Even with Untouchables like The Butler swooping in from afar to finish off the monsters, many of the things we’re shown today could have been stopped, could have been contained, if the people already there hadn't screwed up. If they had been willing to kill their targets, no matter the consequences.
This is what the world will become, city by city, country by country, if we make the same mistakes.
The dorm is filled with muffled sobs through most of the night.