Emsada barely remembered being able to go with her family to another state, spend some time at the zoo and the aquarium, then going home the same day. If she focused, she remembered that the car rides were agony, taking forever. How her parents put up with her and her siblings was an absolute mystery.
These days, it was a much, much longer journey to the nearest zoo.
The orphanage liked to run various contests to go all sorts of places during the summer. Once kids became teens, it had become custom for them to enter at least one of the contests. Anybody who didn’t was either looked at oddly or was labeled a tryhard as they took extra classes. But Emsada honestly loved it. She loved the opportunity to take them out to see something or go somewhere that they otherwise wouldn’t.
This year, she’d volunteered to be one of the six chaperons for the first load of twelve students (plus one) to travel from the Orphanage in Earth Gimmel to New York Bet to see the zoo. Most of these kids had never seen an elephant in their lives, let alone penguins. It had been delightful to see the looks on their faces. Now, after nearly two weeks heading back, they were still abuzz with it, barely able to contain their anticipation over getting to tell the other kids all about it and show off their souvenirs. Even if the zoo had to be maintained by parahumans, it was nice to have something normal in the universe.
Mandy sat in the seat next to her, her head tipped back as she slept. She was one of the lucky ones — as soon as the carriage was in motion, she was passed out, yet could still sleep through the night. Emsada envied that skill. She’d give anything for these trips to move faster. Mandy had won her right to go on the trip by a combination of cleaning most of her floor every day for a month and successfully learning the names of all the former presidents. To most people Emsada’s age, that didn’t seem like much, but Mandy had put more effort into it than most kids put into learning anything.
The girl had just turned fifteen right before they’d set out, and it was the first time she’d seen captive animals that weren’t domesticated. That was… sad on so many levels. Emsada tried not to think about it, but there were times where what had been lost haunted her.
Across from Emsada, David was looking out the window lost in thought. He hadn’t actually entered a contest, but had earned his space on the trip due to the progress that he’d been making. He was one of the “special needs” kids; too much stress and his mind tended to collapse in the most horrible of ways. Anybody who knew even a portion of his history had a vested interest in finding his father and gutting the bastard as slowly as possible.
But David was doing better. He was better at hiding it, too. The entire trip, he’d seemed a little odd, but mostly normal. These days, odd was normal. He’d quietly slipped back to his hotel room a few times, no doubt to rest and recharge, but he’d done it easily enough without drawing attention to himself. She could almost forget about his problems. He’d probably wear long sleeves and keep his dark hair shaggy for the rest of his life, though. There were reasons they kept his fingernails as short as possible. How he managed that getup in this sweltering heat was beyond her.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked quietly.
He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “I see green grass, you see green grass, but we probably don’t see the same thing. Color is an illusion created by the mind from neural impulses transmitted by the optic nerve. Everything we see is simply our brains imagining those signals. People who are color blind don’t see in black and white, they see altered color as their brains interpret signals that are warped and corrupted, or lacking in the necessary cones. Hyun-mi has an extra cone type in her eye, so she sees colors that we can’t. It’s all an illusion. But I also worry about her. If the genetics that allow her to see an extra color eventually creep up in a male and they have a kid, it could create more and more cones through generations of evolution. And I worry about that. The mantis shrimp has far more cone types than us and will kill anything put in the same area as it. Does that speak about the nature of the universe and what seeing more colors does to a species?”
Emsada opened her mouth, but Tony cut in before her. “Or it could be that the shrimp’re just massive jerks because they’re massive jerks.”
David grinned a little without looking from the window. “I like that one better, yeah.”
Tony’s face split in two. “When someone asks you that, just say ‘colors’ man. That’ll make you sound deep. Instead, you sound like you’ve been a student of Lovecraft or something when you do that.”
Surprisingly, David’s grin didn’t fade. “Sorry.”
“It’s cool.” Tony paused, then chuckled softly. “Gotta admit, those mantis shrimp were really awesome looking. Flamboyant little murder machines, man.”
Tony was the plus one of the group. He hadn’t entered a single contest, but everybody knew that wherever David went, Tony wasn’t far behind. He was a stabilizing factor for the other boy. It wasn’t uncommon for kids at the orphanage, sadly. A person comes to them at the lowest point in their lives, having lost their previous lives, and needed to find something to give them courage and strength. A buddy provided that. Some of the old pre-collapse soldiers explained that it was well-known in the military: you stayed alive to keep your buddy alive.
Not that being triggered did Tony many favors, either. With his particular powers, the only real options for him were either as a mercenary or as a Warden posted to a community. But he was also that blessed rarity — the losing his family the way that he had hurt him deeply, but he refused to let it destroy him. He still flung himself into life as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
It was a pity that he didn’t look like Warden material. He was tall, six and a half feet, and disturbingly thin to the point where he looked skeletal. Emsada knew he was self-conscious about his looks; David might wear long sleeves to hide the scars, but Tony wore them to hide his scrawny arms. If he weren’t nearly blind without his glasses, he could shave his head and make a passable grim reaper for Halloween.
She noted that their clothes were practically identical today. Were they going to do the brothers routine again when dealing with strangers? Maybe.
Despite his power, Emsada thought he’d do well. Tony was the kind who dealt with the world by assuming it was absurd and embraced it like that. When he hurt, he looked for the things that were silly about what was hurting him. Maybe that’s why he and David were such a good match. One knew the gravity of every slight action, the other knew the insanity of it all. There were days where she wondered which was which.
The carriage slowed enough that Mandy stirred, opening her eyes with a yawn. “We there?”
Emsada glanced out the window, seeing the open gates. “Yeah. One more day until we’re home.” Two days rest, and then she got to go with the next group out. More kids on that one. Not everybody who tried got to go on these trips, but those who didn’t still got to have plenty of fun at home. The staff made sure of it.
“Thank god,” Tony said in an exasperated tone. “I gotta piss like a Russian race horse.”
“Ew,” Mandy said, making a face. “Can you be any more crass?”
“That’s not the only thing about me that’s like a horse.” He flashed them a grin, and the younger girl rolled her eyes. He laughed in that weird soft, wheezing way of his, apparently getting the reaction he’d wanted. That was enough to set everyone else off with at least a small chuckle. It felt good to laugh, even over stupid things.
Finally, though, the caravan pulled up to the station. Letting the horses rest, the passengers bailed out like the bundles of energy that they were. Bundles of energy that had been stuck in a box without anything to entertain them for far too many hours.
As soon as David was out, gingerly closing the door behind him, she addressed her group of three. “Alright, here’s what’s going on. You’re going to stay here for a few minutes, no wandering off.” She shot a look at Tony, who mock sighed. “I’m going to doublecheck that we have rooms, then we’ll hit the public restrooms and will get something to eat. Alright?”
Mandy squared her shoulders back. “I’ll sit on the dork if I have to.”
“Promises, promises.” Tony was all smiles.
Emsada didn’t even bother rolling her eyes before heading off to Richard’s group. He nodded once before taking up position next to her. “How’s David?” he asked quietly.
“Bringing him was a bad idea. He’s spending too much time in his own head again, twisting his thoughts to think that humanity is going to turn into murderers.” Which was typical — his paranoia was a self-fueling beast. His flawed logic ‘knew’ that everyone was going to turn against him, to hurt him somehow. It was all too easy for him to fall into those traps. How Tony was able to get past them was beyond her. She’d rather hoped that the wonders David had never gotten to see before this trip would help, but sometimes…
“If you want, I’ll trade you. I kind of let myself miss that Chad had a knife. No idea where he got it, though. He kept fingering it, but he kept trying to force himself away. I think he’s actively resisting the urge.” Which was a good sign. For how many kids suffered from depression of some sort, they just didn’t have the resources to offer all of them antidepressants. And while self-mutilation was a high-priority, if he could keep on resisting the need to actually feel anything, even pain, it was a sign that they might not have to medicate him.
“Chad for David and Tony?” She thought about it for a moment. “I’ll talk to him about it in the morning. Abandonment issues that I’d rather avoid. I’d have to approach it carefully.”
“Play it off as my suggestion. We both know he’s smart, play on that. Say that tonight I approached the topic, wanting to talk about morphology with him. Let him know that he can say no if he wants to, but play up the fact that I’m excited to talk with him about it. I’ll break out all the complicated words I can think of and keep him distracted from whatever’s going on in that head of his.”
Richard did have a point. Emsada was an art teacher, not a science or math teacher. There wasn’t a lot that she could do to keep David’s mind engaged. Richard, though, could keep the scientific part of David’s mind at the forefront, preventing him from going into a bad headspace. “I like it. We’ll talk more after dinner, alright?”
All the teachers converged, as they had so many other stops, while Calvin talked with the station operator. Almost immediately he returned to the gathering, a pleasant smile on his face. “Same rooms at the hotel as on our way out. Just stop by the front desk and let them know who you are so you can get your keys. We’ll be up and leaving at eight tomorrow and should be home by two, so feel free and let the kids enjoy themselves a little tonight… until curfew at least. If there’s any questions or concerns, feel free and grab me. Kathy and Nate could stand to see the process a bit more.”
He gave them all a brief nod before heading off to his pair of students. Emsada had to admit, it was nice for someone to take the lead on these little excursions without any headbutting or jockeying for position. One could hardly believe that Calvin was just a maintenance man at the college given how easily he took charge, delegated tasks, and handled whatever needed to be done.
She made her way back towards the kids; Tony was doing a little bit of a potty dance, shifting from foot to foot as subtly as he could, David and Mandy talking. As she approached, she could only make out a little of the conversation.
“…but it’s actually corrosion.”
“Yeah. It’s actually the third of five stages of corrosion, but I think it’s pretty.”
Mandy smiled a little. “I think it’s pretty, too.”
“What’s pretty, now?” Emsada asked with a grin.
“Bronze,” Mandy said, pointing to a sign on the station. “The way it discolors. I thought that it was because of gunk and crap growing on it, but he said no.”
Emsada blinked. “Well, it could partially be-”
David shook his head sharply, not quite looking directly at anybody. “Brass and bronze are antimicrobial. Simple organisms can’t grow on them. That’s why I keep on asking if we can get bronze door handles for the orphanage. It’d help cut down on people getting sick.”
Mandy grinned a little. “Plus it’ll end up looking pretty.”
He chuckled a little. “If something can look pretty while still being helpful, why not do it?” he asked in a sing-song voice.
Emsada grinned a little. If you ignored the fact that he always looked like he expected to be hit for something, David was actually fitting in pretty well. She turned her attention to the taller boy. “I’m pretty sure there’s a set of public restrooms that are a bit more secluded. Think you can hold out until we get there?” She could have chosen a closer one, but the less strain she put on David the better.
Tony paused before responding. “I got a half an hour before I need to change my pants. I can wait a few more minutes. But, uh… Can we get something to eat soon? I’m starting to get a bad headache.”
Of course he was — if he went more than a few hours without eating, he always started complaining about headaches. “We move just a little faster, then. This way.”
As they walked, Mandy quickly fell into step next to her. “Are you going to be my charcoal instructor again this year?”
She smiled down at the girl. “I could put in a request if you’d like.”
“I’d like that.”
Mandy didn’t have a lot of skill, but that wasn’t the point. If there was one thing besides orphans that they had an abundance of, it was teachers. These kids sometimes needed an outlet, so when the orphanage was founded, they’d done everything possible to get as many teachers as possible, including artists. These days, they were considered one of the top academic centers on the East Coast, and there were more applicants to the college than any other university. Where once almost all of their costs were covered by communities paying a tax to have a place for any orphans they might have, now almost two-thirds was paid by families wanting their children to have an excellent education or the industries that rich kids going to school there demanded.
Mandy might not have the talent that some of Emsada’s students had, but she had passion and a desire to improve. That counted for a lot. The ability to express her demons through art was another good point for the girl, a path to recovery and improvement as a person. A healthy outlet. That counted for even more. Plus, she liked the girl’s oddly elegant spunk.
Emsada grinned. “Then it’s done. I’ll put in the request tomorrow.”
“Charcoal, huh?” Tony looked curious. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mandy shot back, glaring.
He was quick to put up his hands defensively. “Nothin’! Nothin’ bad, I swear! Just… Y’know, I didn’t see you as the art type. I thought you’d be more, I dunno, social circle and stuff, not art stuff. You’ve got the looks and personality of one of the popular girls, but you manage to pull it off without being a total bitch, y’know?”
She blinked at him. “Um… Thanks?”
He grinned a little before shrugging. “Hey, just the truth. From the moment we shipped out, I thought that you were one of the cool kids who didn’t let it get to their heads. Kinda girl that I could hang out with, if she woulda had time for me.”
“Yeah?” She grinned a little. “Then how come I never see you around back at school?”
It was a loaded question that Mandy already knew the answer to. An especially dangerous one that could go badly, what with David trailing behind them.
“I’m earmarked for the Wardens. Most of my classes focus on that. Parahuman Theory, law, public speaking, martial arts, that sort of thing. Stuff so I can speed through my training when I sign on, so I miss out on a few of the normal classes. But I think we had one class together, um…”
Tony laughed, snapping his fingers. “That’s it! Yeah! Geometry. Been a couple of years. But yeah, see? Totally don’t move in the same circles, so how would we know? Kind of a pity, now that I’ve gotten to spend some time with you.”
“Careful,” Emsada said, teasingly. “It sounds like you’re flirting.”
Tony scoffed, but Mandy turned around, walking backwards to address David. “Who’s he got a crush on, hmm?”
The shorter boy’s grin was vulpine. “He thinks that Geeta Belsaree is the cutest girl in the orphanage-”
“-but he’d rather date Kate Severson.”
“Oh, dude,” Tony groaned. “Uncool!”
“Revenge for telling Kari how I felt.”
Emsada couldn’t help but grin. She had no idea which Kari he was talking about, but it sounded like a story. If he was doing well tomorrow, she might try and con it out of him on the trip back. If he didn’t go with Richard, of course.
“So,” Mandy drew the word out as long as she could. “Geeta Belsaree?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on. She’s got that whole Indian beauty thing going–oh hey look at the restrooms!” With that, he picked up his pace, going past them towards the small building by the city wall as fast as he could without running. Anything to preserve his dignity… and avoid the subject. He slipped inside the men’s side and, a moment later, stuck his head back out to wave. David hurried to join him.
Emsada waited a few moments before snickering. “So, who all are you going to tell?”
“Oh, nobody. She’s way out of his league.” Mandy flashed an impish grin. “But I’m going to give him hell in private.”
Emsada smirked a little before nodding towards the restrooms. “Do you need to go?”
She snorted softly. “Unlike some people, I went at the last rest stop. I’m not-”
Her words were cut short by three rapid-fire heavy impacts with the wall. The two turned to look at the source of the noise, their eyes wide. A moment later there was another impact followed immediately by the log wall splintering open.
“Wildlings!” Emsada screamed, drawing her pistol.
The beast that had made it through was large, impressively so, larger than most dogs. A dull flat head with recessed eyes looked around hungrily, reminding her of a buffalo somewhat. Its muscled green body seemed well-suited for both running and power. The most interesting feature, though, was the mouth. As it made a sound that could theoretically be called a howl, Emsada could see two sets of teeth. The outer set of teeth consisted of one wide, curved tooth on the top and bottom that seemed to encompass the entire mouth, and she would be willing to bet they were razor sharp. The set behind it seemed to be full of nothing but fangs. No, not fangs. Not with the way that they were… undulating.
She’d never seen a breed like it before. But that was nothing new with wildlings.
There wasn’t a moment’s pause before she raised her gun and pulled the trigger. The kick in her hand was heavy, but she remained focused on her target. The beast staggered, shook its head and looked directly at her. A small trickle of blood ran down its face.
Of course. Anything with a skull thick enough to let it plow through the wall wasn’t going to go down to a pistol round to the noggin. As the beast ducked its head, she still fired another shot. It went wide as stark terror made her hands tremble. Another that seemed to do jack all as it started to charge towards her. As it leaped, time seemed to slow to a crawl, but all that she could see was the wildling’s eyes.
Those eyes seemed to explode along with the rest of the creature’s head and body. The muscles were rent into long strands and the bones were pulverized into streams as she watched in slow motion. Veins were taken apart wholesale, strange webs hanging in the air for what must have been a fraction of a second. As those strands and streams and veins moved, she became aware of an outstretched hand. Everything flowed over the hand, arm, and body, coating it with living flesh.
Like that, as soon as she recognized that time was moving slowly, it resumed its normal flow. Standing before her was Tony, his posture aggressive. His power at work — turning living things into a form of armor. She’d heard that he could turn an entire tree into nigh-impenetrable armor at the sacrifice of not being able to move. Animals provided more mobility and strength, but with much more gruesome effects. Like she’d just seen.
Another one lunged for him, and this time she got to see its effects normally. His hand barely touched the wildling’s head and it exploded into a cloud of viscera that enveloped him in less than half a second, adding to the living armor he’d already created. Already, though, two more beasts were pushing through the gap, widening it. How many were there in this pack? At least five, but she was willing to bet there were more than that.
Always bank on pessimism. Then worship when you’re wrong.
Emsada glanced back. Mandy hadn’t moved more than a step back, her face pale. “Run,” she barked. No response. Damn. She moved quickly to try and urge the girl away. If Tony could at least be an active target for the wildlings, then she might be able to shoot them in the side, where she hoped there would be less protection. That might do the job. They just needed a few more minutes, and the guards would be here.
There was a scream, getting her to look back. A boy dropping to the ground, while the brutishly armored youth kicked viciously at the wildling, sending it flying. Damn. She’d moved to protect one kid, and another gets hurt.
But that seemed to knock Tony out of collection mode. He let out a primal scream, but he charged the next one silently, slamming his fists into it with enough strength that she could hear bones snapping. Hopefully, he’d get back into collecting their flesh quickly — there was less chance of him getting hurt that way.
Another lunged at the armored boy, and she fired three times into it. It didn’t kill the beast, but it was enough to drop it for a moment. Long enough for Tony to stomp on its neck with another satisfying crunch. But more were pouring through the hole in the wall already. She fired her pistol again.
Less than half a second later, there was a burst of gunfire from her right. Calvary at last. A Desert Eagle might have damn good stopping power for a pistol, but the guards had rifles. By the way the flesh exploded, she was guessing the rifle was a healthy caliber, making it even better for the task at hand. Maybe overpowered for human targets, but she wasn’t complaining in the slightest.
Two more wildlings pushed their way through the hole, only to instantly meet a quick hail of bullets. Another tried pushing past their corpses, only to fall over and begin twitching spastically. Most likely one of the Wardens using their power. She could hear the guards on the wall firing, presumably taking out the ones still outside.
Emsada waited, keeping her pistol trained on that hole. It wouldn’t do anybody any good if she took her eyes off the immediate threat only for one to slip through. It wasn’t until the guards on the wall stopped firing completely that she took stock.
Mandy was in shock, but unhurt. No fault of her own; if Emsada hadn’t been armed, she might have been in the same state. David down on the ground, curled into a tight ball. She couldn’t see his face, let alone where he was hurt. Tony standing above him, shaking in his strange reddish armor that covered him from head to toe. That was her priority now. The two boys. Simple priorities. Quick comfort for Tony, then address whatever David’s wounds were. How had he gotten hurt anyway?
No matter. She hurried over, reaching out to Tony’s shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll take-”
The moment her hand touched him, the armor seemed to lock up. The boy stood rigid, arms straight at his sides, as a scream escaped him. It wasn’t like any scream that she’d heard before — it seemed to pierce straight through to the soul, making her take a step back and her heart break.
Almost immediately, the boy on the ground forced himself to uncurl, lanky legs moving to get under him. Almost in slow motion, he rose to his feet, straightening up over six feet tall, and wrapped his arms around the armor.
Tony whispered something into the armored figure’s ear with lips that were turning quickly blue. One arm ended in a bleeding stump as he weakly held the armored boy.
Wait. Emsada let out a shuddering breath, trying to make sense of it all. Tony was standing? Then the person in the armor… Was that David? Could Tony transfer his armor to someone else? She locked eyes with the taller boy’s, but he wasn’t seeing her. Already, he was looking through her.
It hit her that Tony was just the sort of idiot who would assume that he could just make more armor for himself, and instead focus on trying to help his friend. And it had cost him his hand, just above the wrist. Seeing his friend hurt had thrown David into action, but had left him hanging on by the sheerest of threads. A thread that she’d inadvertently severed by touching him from behind, sending him into another seizure-like fit.
And it had been such a nice day.