Author's Note: Double post today. Past the first ---- of this chapter is a hella dark scene. Feel free to skip straight to the following therapy session in chapter 14.
“So what fresh horrors do you think we’ll be in for today?” Blue says presently around a mouthful of bacon. Ray solemnly considers the question.
“Our very worst nightmares,” he says sagely.
“Oh good, so a step up from yesterday then?” Blue jokes darkly. “Because I think seeing some of that shit beats all my nightmares.”
I think of Johannes Barber holding Tiffany’s head by her hair, of my parents’ bodies lying on the ground. “You’re lucky then,” I say softly.
“Or you have no imagination,” Genevieve says coldly. I’m shocked by her agreement, and even a little surprised that she spoke at all. She’s stuck eating with us, as Professor Karim made it clear we were expected to take meals with our dorm mates. But yesterday she’d stayed completely silent through the meal, glowering at me. The glowering hasn’t really stopped.
Blue shrugs, “What can I say? I was sheltered as a child. It’s not something I’m proud of.” The moment his thoughts turn to his childhood the mental skipping begins and Mary Lou starts her active screen of thinking about lots of different heroes and executioners. She’s annoyingly good at it and I haven’t been able to piggy-back anything further from her power.
“Why are you here?” Genevieve asks him bluntly. I see Emilio and Ray’s eyes widen at the question. It isn’t a polite one to ask. In fact, during the on-boarding process it was specifically listed on topics we should avoid asking our classmates. Blue is not perturbed by the question, despite parts of his thought patterns hopping over details.
“Because I can help,” he says simply. “Or at least I can try. And it would be pretty shitty if the world ended because they told me I could help and I didn’t believe them.”
“Damn straight,” Emilio chimes in laconically. “It’d definitely be shitty for us to all die cuz’ you copped out like a little bitch. Though you got to do a little bit better in the fighting hermano.”
Blue cringes slightly, but bites off a reply as he pops a couple grapes into his mouth. A mental image of him thrusting his Pole-axe through Emilio’s chest flashes into my mind and I can’t tell if it’s just a daydream or if a hint about his power just slipped through the mental filter.
Genevieve searches Blue’s eyes, looking for a different answer perhaps. She won’t find one. I’m not sure it’s the full truth, but his statement is genuine. She looks away. There is no reciprocity. She has no interest in sharing her reason for being here. But despite her power resistance, I think I know what it is.
“That’s rather noble of you, Blue,” I say, reaching over and ruffling his hair lightly.
“I got to protect the ladies, as Emilio might say,” Blue says, winking.
“Oye, that’s racist hermano,” Emilio says glaring at him.
“You literally said that,” Blue tells him. “Yesterday morning. At almost this exact time. Word for word.”
“Just because I said some machismo comment when I was waking up yesterday does not mean you can throw it back at me like this. What do you got against minorities?”
Ray actually breaks into laughter at that. “B.B. hasn’t told you yet, has he?”
“Told me what?” Emilio asks in confusion.
“He’s half Redarctican. Your people outnumber his by 10 to 1 in the Consolidated States, and like a 100 to 1 in the Empire.” The table falls silent and Ray looks around, suddenly unsure of himself.
“Sorry, was I not supposed to share that?” he asks Blue.
“I don’t care,” Blue states. “Think everyone’s just carried forward your math. Outnumbered 1000 times in the world, after what happened in the homeland. Just reminds people why we’re here, circling back to wondering what’s on the agenda today. Doesn’t affect me personally though, my mother left way before the melt-down. Try not to mention it around Reed or Alexandra though. Might be a sore subject for them, going off their accents. Now speaking of the agenda, we’ve only got ten minutes before we start, and I need to make a pit stop. See you all in a bit.”
He flashes a smile and takes off from the table. Genevieve flashes off a moment later, super speed making her clean-up a blur.
Ten minutes later I suspect they really will be giving us new nightmares today. At the front of the room sits a small child. She’s curled up on top of a stool, arms wrapped around her legs, chins set on top of her knees. She is terrified, though her face is passive, tiny gray eyes set beneath brown bangs.
I cannot imagine anything good coming of this.
“Why are you here?” the child says softly, but voice carrying clearly through the room. A boy named Grant tries to answer but the little girl raises a hand to cut him off. The question is rhetorical.
“You all accepted your invitations for your own reasons. Yesterday you were reminded why the world needs you. And I’m sure most of you are aware of a certain minimum combat potential. But on a baser level, why did we invite you here? Why were you not recruited into Hero Guilds or military branches?”
My class looks around at each other. Some are unsure what answer the little girl wants to hear. Others are like me, certain of the answer, but dreading saying it aloud. I am starting to guess what comes next, and it sickens me. The words are the girl’s own, as far as I can tell. But they are so disjointed with the terror she feels. There is something familiar about the terror, but I can’t place my finger on what.
“Because we can kill,” I tell her. “You invited us because you believe we can kill and not break down under it.” Professor Karim had said us much in the welcoming ceremony.
The little girl smiles. “Yes,” she says, rocking back and forth on her stool. “You have all done so in computer simulations, at the least. Many of you killed your classmates, trusting we’d resurrect them. But some people are harder to kill than others. Some forms more difficult to dispose of in the flesh, no matter how necessary, no matter how many people may die if you don’t do your job.”
“No way,” Genevieve whispers to my right. “They wouldn’t.” She gets it. The attitude of haughty contempt I’m so used to seeing on her has cracked.
“You have to be able to kill anyone. Anyone targeted. Anyone in the way. Anyone you have to. You are not Untouchables, subject only to your own consciences and your own tolerance of a body count. You will be Executioners, the world’s swords. We have a support staff of thousands for analysis, hundreds of checks and balances to prevent abuse, oversight by multiple governments. None of that need matter to you. Your job will be to kill a target, to find it and kill it as quickly as possible, before it kills everyone around it. Before it sinks cities or sunders skyscrapers.”
The little girl says all this solemnly, with seriousness suggestive that her real age is far greater. It can’t be a simple illusion or it wouldn’t work on me. Shape shifter? It’s not some techie android or I wouldn’t be able to read her emotions. I don’t feel any indication that mind control is at work, but I’m not sure I would be able to tell. They wouldn’t send us a real child. Would they?
But if not, why is she so afraid?
“There is a particular group that causes greater hesitation than most. The Butler himself has hesitated on multiple occasions when faced with this type of person, only a couple times to the betterment of the world. More often to its significant detriment. We used to try and desensitize people through repeated electronic Sims or wait until the mental simulation training. But the effectiveness of this methodology was…inadequate. Further, if we are to lose anyone during the training program it is almost always when confronted by one of two things. So we’ve moved them up. You succeed, or you fail. Now.”
The group waits with bated breath for the girl to ask the question that everyone knows is coming. My heart is beating in my chest harder than when sprinting a hundred meter dash in twelve seconds.
“Can you kill a child?” the little girl asks. “Can you kill me?”
The room goes deathly still as columns raise out of the ground. On top of them are weapons of varying kinds. Most of us do not need them and I wonder if they are to help depersonalize the natures of what we’ve just been asked to do. I can feel the turmoil in my classmates’ hearts. Nobody moves.
“One hundred people dead,” the girl whispers. I know what she is telling us. That if she were a real threat, a real target, our hesitation would have already cost a hundred lives. Yet even despite the fact her face shows no emotion at all, her panic is almost palpable. She does not want to die. MediKate would bring her back, whoever she is. There is no risk here of permanent death. But I still cannot bring myself to cut her angelic face down.
“One thousand people dead,” the girl whispers, when still nobody moves. Then there is a dagger in her throat and she slumps over lifelessly from her stool. Little Mary Lou, lowest ranked in our class, stands in a throwing stance, breathing so hard that she’s nearly hyperventilating. She is horrified at what she’s done. What is more, there is a feeling of Deja-vu that her mind circles around, as if she’s done this before.
Bloody wisps of vapor rise up from the girl’s body and solidify into a classroom full of children, one for each of the remaining class members. They are of all different races, of hair colors, of genders, even ages, though the oldest could be no more than ten.
Many cry. There is nothing obviously dangerous about any of them, nothing that would make the slaughter easier. A small boy, one of the older of the bunch, trundles over to me, wrapping his arms around my waist and looking up into my eyes. My heart drops.
This is sick. This isn’t possible. Not him, anyone but him. How is this possible? But the details are perfect. I have seen this boy before. He was my light, when my parents died. In a way my first admirer, except that he never really admired me the way crowds do today. He taught me to accept myself, to accept my abilities. He understood me. Gabriel.
He’s as dead as my parents now. But somehow my teachers have brought him back, the same as the day I met him, nearly ten years ago. His mind is the same, his earnestness, his love of me, the determination that Blue reminds me of.
And they expect me to kill him. Anyone, the dead girl had said. We must be able to kill anyone. Be it a toddler or a loved one. Be it a bus full of kindergartners in the way.
Around me my classmates begin breaking out of their stupor and completing their bloody task. Miss Sedrick rips the throat out of a two year old. Shawnee Nephilim, a young woman with purple skin swirling with golden threads and bright blue hair down to her back, electrocutes a little boy.
Grant Li and several others do not use their powers at all, preferring quick shots to the skull. The deaths have all been quick and I sensed little pain in them. But each small mind ceasing to exist is like a hammer blow.
They’re not real. They can’t be real. It is a mantra that swirls through many of our minds, but some of us are still frozen, unable to act.
Intellectually, I understand why they’re doing this. I understand that most mass casualty causers are not malicious. They’ve been driven insane by their power or they just cannot control it. I understand that most of those who get abilities are young.
Our teachers are not doing this to be cruel. They are not even doing this to be cautious. They are doing this because, more likely than not, if we are needed at all, this is the type of work we will be required to do.
Intellectually, I understand it. But as I look at Gabriel’s trusting eyes, as I remember the dreams we shared, I stand paralyzed.
I am not alone in this. Genevieve and Emilio have not been able to kill the kids in front of them either. We stand here, top ranked of our class, unable to play the monsters we must be.
Blue is agonized by the prospect as well, but with an emotional blast of determination I’ve never felt the likes of he breaks the neck of the crying girl in front of him. His break was brutal, fast but ended in an embrace. He stopped moving, frozen, emotions going from the determination and anguish of twenty men to a silent absence more resonant of the dead and broken body he holds than his usual skipping.
It takes maybe twenty seconds before he starts to move and his emotions return, now a silent sorrow. He is not ashamed of the tears that flow down his face onto the body of the girl as he gently sets her down.
I am ashamed of my paralysis. How many would have died by now, if this were a real target? How many broken boned hands, clutching desperately out bus windows, would I have to witness? How many ashen outlines of families would be burned into my mind the way they were burned into the concrete?
I should not have to feel ashamed of being unable to kill a child. On some level, I know this. On some level I know that a normal person should be proud that their conscience would not let them do such a monstrous thing, no matter the reason.
But I am not a normal person. And I am not alone.
Drawing on my armor in a way I never have before, in a way I never realized I even could, a hatred that isn’t mine fills me. A hatred that gives me strength.
A hatred that lets me look at the face of a dead boy I once loved, and shove my armored fist straight through his chest.