The Aftermath Academy - CH16 (Pyrrha)

“We have to talk,” I say. It’s been ten minutes since I got back to the dorm. Everyone’s just as silent as last night and I know it can’t continue. I don’t want it to continue. They might not all be here tomorrow night if it does.

“We’ve been talking chica” Emilio says. “Most of the day… to a therapist.” His take-away from therapy was a pretty effective compartmentalization. Or maybe that’s just a normal personality trait, but I can see why he wouldn’t want to drudge up what we did again. In his mind, it’s done, over with, until whatever sick thing they have us doing tomorrow. But this time is for playing holo games on his mobile.

It would be a good psychological strategy in the short term, and might even work long-term except for the fact that he was one of the last ones in class to complete his task. If he doesn’t really work through what’s being asked of him then it is going to be hard for him to get better at it, to get faster. To get fast enough.

“Maybe you don’t need to talk more,” I say. “But… some of us might.” I look towards Mary, huddled under her covers, glasses off. She’s trying hard to process something, circling around and around the hole in her memory, but unwilling to dive into it. She has suspicions though; she knows it’s there, that she needs to deal with it.

“I didn’t know it would be so hard,” Genevieve says softly, carefully not looking at me. “I thought I’d be able to, to not hesitate. Not like him.” Bitterness seeps into her voice. Even through her power resistance I glimpse an image, a memory of broken bodies and crumbling buildings. Familiar buildings.

Last night after the lights turned out she began sobbing. Not the only one, and the second quietest of the lot, too proud to let anyone know her pain. I couldn’t get a sense then through her power resistance and the other’s louder sorrows that her sadness was any different than the rest of ours. But she wasn’t mourning strangers lost, she was remembering as a toddler, the destruction of all she knew. She’s a survivor of Tremortize.

“If you didn’t hesitate the first time you had to do such a monstrous thing, even for a moment, how could you call yourself a human?” Blue asks. “This time, we all were too slow. We’ll improve.” His mind was active again. For a bit he’d been cycling ten seconds quiet to a couple seconds active, some weird meditation. He’s…bizarrely well adjusted. No compartmentalization like Emilio. He accepts the blood on his hands, doesn’t like it, but refuses to shirk his duty. I don’t know what it’s coming from. I sensed the first day that he’s suffered loss, but it was a personal one. If he’s ever experienced the terror of a mass casualty event, it’s hidden behind the mind block so thoroughly there’s no hint of it.

“It’s just… I know the cost of taking too long,” she says harshly, anger directed at herself rather than Blue. “I experienced it. The Butler took nineteen minutes to get to Calamity City. The first few minutes were just a rumbling. We were on a fault line, so they thought it was a natural earthquake. They didn’t have the quick scans then, no early detection for the most dangerous ones. It was five minutes before people started dying and President Hargrave ordered a deep ping of the area, just in case. Two more minutes before an Executioner was dispatched. Fifteen minutes total before The Butler was on route. He couldn’t teleport then. None of the Executioners could, and there weren’t enough of them to cover all the major cities. The Executioner made it to the scene by the time The Butler was even contacted and did nothing. The Butler got there in four minutes from contact. Tremortize’s power was growing exponentially. The Executioner’s failure had already cost half a million lives in four minutes. Three hundred thousand people died in the minute it took that asshole to fucking end it himself. I thought… I could do better. If I became an executioner, that I could suck it the hell up. But I… it was just a little girl. How, how did she do it so fast?” At the end she nods her head to Mary, small form still hiding under her covers. She is so quiet, tears even more silent than Genevieve’s were.

Mary says nothing, but there’s a flash of blood on her hands and the well-worn path circling the darkness in her mind makes an inroad. Experience, whispers a nagging thread in her head.

“This is why they have us practice,” Ray answers, throwing a ball in the air. He wants to bounce it off the wall, but resists out of respect for the rest of us. He keeps throwing it up and down, up and down. “If we practice being monsters, then we’ll be better at it. That’s the point. We kill, and kill, until we’re killed. I’m sorry you went through that, Genevieve. You seem like a nice person when you’re not being bitchy towards Pyrrha, and I can’t answer for you if you should become a monster. But if you do, get over the guilt, because if you know our expected survival rates then you already know we’ll get what we deserve sooner or later. Let’s just protect the world best we can until then, eh?”

And I see for the first time why Ray is doing this. It’s so ingrained a part of him that he doesn’t think about it consciously, it doesn’t rise to the surface like a normal thought. It’s not repressed like Mary’s past, but it’s like missing the forest for all the trees. His comment makes something click and suddenly the pieces fit.

Ray’s also a survivor. But he’s not the victim of a mass casualty bringer. He’s a survivor of an executioner. He carries the lives lost to his sword as a child, unable to control the power gifted to him. A moment, maybe two, before he could sheath the sword. And that was all it would have taken for him to carve a mile long scar into the land, killing all in its path.

Someone hesitated, or maybe they just failed, but he gained control and was spared.

“So that’s your answer, we can kill whoever we have to because we probably won’t live that long?” Genevieve asks incredulously.

“I only know my own burdens,” Ray says with a shrug, an odd little sight given he is still leaning back playing catch with his ball. “If I might save millions before my death, it would be preferable to living a long time. And knowing my intentions, I will try to enjoy the time that I have. But if you can live with yourself, knowing that you might have stopped what happened to you from happening to someone else, then you shouldn’t force yourself to become a monster too.”

He didn’t say it with any maliciousness. In fact, he meant it to give Genevieve an out. But I’m not sure there’s anything Ray could have said that would have motivated her more not to quit. Guilt flushed through her, anger at the failure of the executioner and The Butler who came to save her city and her own failure when she finally got a chance to be in their shoes. Annoyance that she could now empathize with the objects of so much of her anger, even a little.

“Can we circle back to the whole, ‘being a bitch to Pyrrha’ thing?’ Blue asks. “Not to make light of the gravity of our conversation, but I’ve been wondering what’s up with that for a while now. Were you that upset at getting beaten?”

“It’s fine,” I try to interject. “Please-“

“It’s not fine,” Blue says seriously. “We’re a team, and we can’t have teammates gunning for each other’s throats. Especially not over a meaningless rank.”

“That’s not why I hate her,” Genevieve says sourly.

“Hate? Damn, strong language chica,” Emilio says. He wasn’t paying attention to the talk of life and death, but I guess gossip is getting him back engaged.

“Seriously, I don’t…” I trail off, not sure how to finish. I would like to say I don’t mind, but that would be a lie.

“Why do you hate her?” Blue asks. He’s puzzled by why anyone would hate me, which is sweet if naïve. It’s not the same thing in Genevieve’s case, but plenty of people have hated me. Usually out of envy or because I wouldn’t date them. If there is anyone who has a good reason to hate me, it’s her.

“It’s none of your business,” Genevieve says snappishly.

“It is our business,” Blue says. “If you don’t have her back it could get us all killed someday. Assuming you’re planning to stick around.” Genevieve glares at him, but he stares her down. She could snap his neck in a literal heartbeat, but either he trusts in her restraint or he thinks he could beat her. I can’t get any sense as to which.

“She has part of my father’s soul,” she says darkly. There’s a thudding sound as Ray misses his ball and it slams down on his face.

“Ouch!” he yelps. “Agh, ok, you’re going to have to explain that one a little better.”

“Her father was there when I gained my abilities,” I say.

“That explains exactly nothing,” Ray says, rubbing his head. Blue’s mind has gone blank. It’s not the same as his meditative state, just a solid wall of protection. There is no skipping around this time, his entire thought process focused on something taboo to the mental block.

“It explains everything,” Blue says. “I’ve heard of you…”

“Of course you’ve heard of her. Winner of several sports championships, top of her high school class, first in the Youth Leagues like five years running,” Emilio lists out, bored. “Everyone’s heard of Pyrrha Valkyrie.” A look of puzzlement crosses Blue’s face.

“No, that’s not where I’ve heard of her from. My aunt told me about the only survivor of Barber’s final attack. She said it was a little girl with more potential than…well that doesn’t matter. She called her power-“

“The Souls of the Damned,” I finish for him. “My power is a shadow of those who’ve died in my presence, and that’s why Genevieve hates me.”