It happened in a dream which wasn’t a dream. The city was a bombed out ruin, grey concrete splintered and broken, dark water lapping in the streets. I saw me, tucked away in a broken building, abandoned. And I had Victoria and she was hurt, Victoria was hurt and I raced to their side but I couldn’t speak couldn’t say anything as - as the other me began to change Victoria.
Not for the better.
Flesh sloughed waxy, new limbs. Hair unspooled obscenely golden, obscenely bright from bare scalps rising like growths from a contorted back. And the worst of it? The worst of it? Victoria wasn’t protesting. She wasn’t doing anything. Just staring up, glassy eyed. Like I - I had, hadn’t I. I’d done something to her brain and then I was trying to shout, to shake myself, to demand and my limbs passed through hers like smoke, like oil and water separating us and -
And then I was - I was in Victoria and seeing myself. The me doing this. Not me, it couldn’t be me, but it was it was wasn’t it I’d thought about it before not like this God not like this but was it different? Ragged, hollow-cheeked. Some fingers bloody, scabbed stumps. How had that happened? Had Victoria tried to fight back?
Would I have let her?
Things were bursting out of me, nervous impulses firing, and the other me’s hands were drifting to places they couldn’t she couldn’t I couldn’t. I felt every moment of it.
Then the way I was seeing her doubled. Another pair of eyes, sprouting. And again. And again. And - I woke screaming.
I didn’t know how long I’d been awake. Sitting up in bed, duvet rumpled around me, gasping for breath. Sweat puddling. That hadn’t been real. It hadn’t, I was at home, I was in my bed, I had my shelf full of stuffed toys and the little painting Victoria made me years ago. I was safe.
And Victoria burst in, flying.
I was safe. She wasn’t.
“Ames,” she said again, floating up my bed in her pyjamas and she was so beautiful and I couldn’t afford to think like that and how could I even think like that after what I’d just seen. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied, croakily, some part of my brain taking over where I couldn’t, where I failed. “Just a…just a bad dream.”
I could tell she didn’t believe me. Brow furrowed just slightly, just enough to let me know without making a thing about it.
“Yeah,” I said again. About all I could manage.
She hugged me, quickly, said, “Okay. See you at breakfast, alright? You know you can talk to me about anything.”
“Thanks.” I said. And then. “Yeah. Okay.”
After she was gone, I went into my ensuite and threw up until I could taste blood.
It followed me. A miasma, hanging. All through breakfast, Victoria definitely noticed and Carol didn’t and Mark wasn’t there. Pulled on my sneakers, put my robe on - as if I deserved it - mechanically, without thinking because if I thought then the memory-not-a-memory came back. It didn’t help, not much. It was different from anything I’d thought of before. Anything which leaked through into dreams. The sensations of it, oily and polluting and then - and then seeing it from her perspective.
It was a struggle keeping what breakfast I’d stomached down.
Just had to focus. Just had to heal. It wasn’t joyful but it was something I could concentrate on that wasn’t this, that wasn’t how fucked up I was and so I checked in, the nurse was waiting, taken through squeaky clean halls. Inpatient case, first up, nice and easy. Badly shattered shin, like a fragmentation wound. Rigmarole of permissions. Touched his leg, tried to change something -
Stumbled back, almost choking because I’d seen - I’d seen what I what someone had turned Victoria into. Not him. Not the leg. Not the injury. And he was looking at me confused and the nurse wide-eyed and I said, “Sorry I need - I need - “ and left. Hyperventilating, I observed. Some cool detached part. That wasn’t going to help. I knew it wasn’t going to help; couldn’t stop myself. Floating away, could feel it.
Storage cabinet. Door clicked shut.
Right. Right. Get a hold of - get a hold of myself.
Five things I can see. Mop, bucket, paint, blank sightless eyes.
No. No no no.
Five things I can see. Grit teeth. Mop, bucket, light, ladder, a pale - paint just paint there wasn’t anything there, anyone else there. Just me and my breathing and the fucking mop.
Came out after a bit. Apologised to the nurse who was looking for me. Told her I was having power problems and I couldn’t be sure I couldn’t make a mistake and she’d smiled tightly and said it wasn’t a problem and she was lying of course she was lying but I’d lied every day for years until now so - so it didn’t matter. Said I was going home. That was a lie. Went to the hospital roof, the old smoking spot.
Looked at the car park. Thought, is this how it starts? Then - it is. And it’s started already.
I didn’t jump. I was a coward like that. I should have. I didn’t. But I could do the next best thing.
It was easy after that. I went home in the end. Carol was in, working in the kitchen, didn’t bother asking why I was back early. Not like I would have told her. Packed what I could, covert as I could. Looked up train times, bus routes. Figured out where to go. It’d have to be in the evening, when Carol was on a call and Mark was asleep. Part of me was screaming, howling, get away, get away from them, you’re going mad and they’re in danger and - but I had to do it right. Otherwise they’d bring me back.
Victoria came by the moment she was back from class - college stuff. “Hey. Want to stay in tonight? Watch a movie?”
No. No and no and no and, “You’ve got dinner with Dean?” I asked.
A shrug. “He’ll get it, you’re more important.”
She hadn’t meant to hurt me. She never had and never would but if she knew the truth she’d be - I didn’t know what she’d be right to do. Anything. So I swallowed, and put on the bravest face I could manage, and said, “I just need to get to bed early. Have fun on your date.”
And she nodded and smiled and two hours later I ran away from home.
It blurred. Buses and trains and a hire cab. Wearing a hoodie so no one recognised me, thank God I didn’t know what I’d do if they did. The dream kept itching under my skin. Premonition. It had to be. In a better world I could blame it on a Master but it wasn’t that because it was all me.
Walked to the New York Protectorate HQ just after midnight. Far enough away they wouldn’t send me back. Far enough away that they didn’t know me, that they’d treat me like I should be treated. Like a threat. Front desk was manned, they always were. Receptionist looked up at me quizzically.
“I’m a parahuman,” I said, trying to keep my voice as even and level as I could. I couldn’t let them think - what, that I was mad? That I was going mad? Because maybe I was. But I couldn’t let them not believe me. “I’m a danger to myself and to others. Please help me.”
Script kicked in. PRT guards, faceless in armour with foam sprayers and rifles, closed in and escorted me - gently but firmly because I was a threat but I’d turned myself in and that counted for something - to a holding cell. Name: Amy Dallon AKA Panacea. Power Classification: Striker 9, biokinetic. Added, wavering because I hadn’t told the PRT this, Master 9. Because I was. That set them running, the wheels turning, armed patrols clattering up and down outside the cell until -
A man in a blue-white suit came in, medium height, floating a little off the ground. Legend. He didn’t extend a hand as he took the chair opposite me.
“Miss Dallon,” he said, and his voice was kind. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Yes,” I forced through an uncooperative throat. Then. “I can’t stay with my family anymore. My power is - “ prevaricated. They had to know. Surely. They’d be pointing all sorts of Thinkers at me, diagnostic equipment, brain scanners. But I couldn’t make myself say it so, “My power isn’t working right near them. I’m worried I could hurt them.”
Hurt. What a range of horror could be packed into four letters. One syllable.
He frowned and it was probably practiced. “I see,” he said. “How would you like us to help?”
“Keep them safe. Keep everyone safe.”
Power suppressor. Birdcage. Bullet. It didn’t matter.
“I see,” he said again. “Excuse me a moment.”
Stepped out. I heard through the door as it closed his phone going and, “Fortune, it’s Legend. I - “ and it clicked shut and there was silence. Table was stuck to the floor, four screws in each leg. Counted them on my fingers. Light came out through a grate in the ceiling, ten bars. Fixed on the smallest detail.
He came back in. Sat down. “Miss Dallon,” he said. “What do you know about the World Food Program?”
Not anything, I said, so they brought in a slide show. I watched. Incredulous, but I watched. A division of the United Nations working on food security, that I followed, and they had a lab in New York for parahuman cooperation on modifications to wheat, barley, sorghum. Right next to the main PHQ, where Legend was, where the Wards and all their security was.
It wasn’t anything I’d ever done before. I said that. Legend and it was still Legend, smiled and said he understood. And that they could explore other options with me. But that this was close, and it was safe, and I didn’t need to use my power on humans - not ever again if I didn’t want to.
So I said yes. At least maybe I could do something good here. And if I snapped then Legend was right there and he could deal with me - he could see the reasoning, I knew he could. Arrangements would be made for accommodation. I could get my phone back, out of the secure lockers, go wait in a sixth floor lobby.
The first light was drizzling in through the windows when I got there, a pair of PRT officers close behind.
Phone had exploded. All Victoria, texts and missed calls. My fingers hovered.
Then it rang again. Her, again.
Stabbed accept before I could tell myself not to. She deserved that at least, my sister who I didn’t deserve. Officers stepped back, gave me some space.
“Ames!” Stress permeated it. “Are you alright?”
“Weren’t you with Dean?” I found myself asking, anything to avoid and evade even though I knew shouldn’t, couldn’t.
“I came back early because I was worried and - where are you?”
Took a breath. Couldn’t lie. Hanging up would just prolong everything. So I said, “New York. I’m with the Protectorate and - I’m not in trouble or anything I just, I just need some space. Okay?”
Pathetic. Utterly pathetic, and the best I could manage, bile trying to claw its way up my throat.
“From mom?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to answer that.
“Okay,” she said, into the silence. “I’ll make sure mom and dad know you’re safe. Call me,” she swallowed, “Call me when you feel up to it, alright, Ames? Love you.”
She hung up before I replied, “Love you too.”
I got in-briefed with the WFP that afternoon. Some PRT suit told me I could take a day off, sleep. I spiked more caffeine into my coffee and said it was fine. Could do that, at least, without having a fucking panic attack. Got toured around. Woman called Jenny was the project lead and if I hadn’t been who I was I wouldn’t have noticed her musculature, even without using my power I could see it, the glint of circuitry in her cuff links. She didn’t say it and neither did I but I guessed the tinker-tech in the lab was at least half hers.
Brought me in to do some experiments. Modify germlines, more nutrition, less water. Trick was making something combining the two - for use in desertified areas, northern Africa, the Middle East, the Iranian Republic - without constant parahuman assistance, and doing it well enough to convince farmers to switch over. That was the thing, she said, smiling. She smiled a lot. These people are really smart and we needed to think of them as equals, not just things to exert our will over.
That phrasing made me shiver.
But for all that - interesting. It wasn’t healing. It wasn’t something I could do - had been able to do - instinctively. Something to work at, on. A distraction. I stayed late in the lab. My accommodation was right next to it, and the whole site was guarded, so it was fine. Within the pre-cog envelope.
Coffee shop on the bottom floor. Went down at, what, 10? 11? More in hope than expectation.
Found it staffed. An Asian girl, a little older than me, willowy, hair up in a bun.
“You look like a black coffee girl,” she said, cheerfully and - yes that was what I wanted. Stupid really. Running on that much. Did it anyway. Didn’t want to sleep. “Single or double shot?”
“Fair enough!” The machine rumbled at itself. She handed me the cup. That was that.
Therapy in the late afternoon of the second day. I’d had them before. Obviously. Carol wasn’t going to let either of us get away with not having one. But it wasn’t like I could really say anything about my actual problem. At least not then. Fucked up and fucked up. Now I was such a mess that I - I could explore it, at least a bit.
A bland white man in the room. Didn’t shake my hand - well-briefed, then. Settled in opposite chairs.
“How would you like to be called?” he asked. “Amy? Panacea?”
“Amy’s fine,” I said and hoped it sounded more resolute than in my head.
He smiled. “It’s good to meet you, Amy. I’m Stan. What do you want to talk about?”
“Aren’t you supposed to decide that?” I said. It would have been acerbic, cutting edged but I was running on a handful of hours of sleep - snatched, restless, not that nightmare again but nothing good, nothing good at all - and I just didn’t have it in me.
A shrug, half-shouldered.
Silence sat with us in the room, until I said, “I kept getting visions. Dreams. I don’t know. Of changing my family.” I didn’t say her name, couldn’t think about it. “They were so real, and it was so - so easy. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t, and I don’t but every second of the day, every time I used my powers, it came out. I couldn’t be near them. You can’t trust me, I can’t trust me.”
It was the closest I dared come.
He hummed to himself. Scribbled in his notebook. “Is that why you haven’t been sleeping?”
“How do you know that?”
“I have eyes, Amy.” Then. “What can the Protectorate do to help?”
And it went on and it wasn’t useless and at the end of it he gave me a tinker-tech box of sleeping pills. It only let one out a night and we both pretended not to know why.
They were useful, anyway.
The days turned into a week. And then another one. I didn’t fall apart at the seams. Didn’t break. Well. I had, already. I had, I fucking had, I’d run away from home and - but it was the right decision. Jenny got me set up on a self-study course for a GED, easier that way. Spent a lot of time in the lab. Figured something out, a twist in the helix on barley, which let it run off almost no water. It had to verify, of course, planting tests and trial fields but there’d be a lot of congratulatory pats on the back - all of them avoiding skin contact.
I liked my colleagues.
Then I was told I had the opportunity to brief the Assistant Secretary-General.
I didn’t like my colleagues.
Had a few days to prepare it. Spent hours poring over documents, contextual briefs, attempts at this sort of work in the past. Even Sphere - Mannequin, and I tabbed out of that quickly, fingers shaking a little because that was not who I was, it wasn’t, I had help now. I was doing something good.
Went down to the coffee shop past midnight for the change of scenery and -
“You keep really weird hours,” I said to the Asian girl behind the counter.
She quirked an eyebrow at me. “Says the girl staring at PowerPoint at o dark thirty.”
I snorted. “Point.”
“Please.” Then, because I was tired and I missed the friends I’d managed to scrounge. “I’m Amy, by the way.”
A smile. “Lily. I’ll bring it over to you.”
She did, a few minutes later. I didn’t really notice it, process it until after she’d left, absorbed in templates. Nor the croissant she’d left on a plate for me, either, and the post-it in loopy handwriting: ‘Good luck for your brief.’
It did go well. I told Lily that, the day after, and she said it was clearly down to her note, and I told her to fuck off, and she laughed like a bell. And things unrolled from there. It was nice. More time in the lab, I was really getting a knack for it, for using my power like this. Even played around a bit. Gave Saskia’s - one of the PhD students - cactus a smiley face. Didn’t use it on a person. The dream was still with me, clinging on like an oily film. I hadn’t gone mad. I hadn’t turned into some rogue nightmare but even despite that, I didn’t trust myself not to fuck it up. And then try to unfuck it and make it worse, and worse and -
Well. It was a good thing I had sleeping pills.
I worked. I read. Went to therapy, the gym a bit too. I watched crappy TV dramas. Spent tons of time in the coffee shop with Lily talking about all sorts of stuff. She’d moved around a lot, she said, then enrolled early at NYU - did this part-time, liked the odd hours for the extra pay. I didn’t tell her everything but I told her enough. She taught me how to make a couple of ridiculously sugary concoctions which I steadfastly refused to try, and she sighed, and then drank them herself miming regret and I laughed.
I socialised my experiment - because it was mine, Jenny said so, said I should be proud and I was - out to the wider UN, to the Protectorate, to the Guild and the Guild Apprentices. I didn’t call Victoria. She said to call her when I was ready. And maybe I was. But I knew, I knew, that the moment she picked up I’d fall over again. Separation. It was for the best, for both of us, and she’d understand.
And then I saw Dean.
I was in the cafeteria up on the ninth floor, east wing, near the Wards HQ. One of them, anyway, or the central one. Wasn’t sure - things were complicated in New York. A voice from behind me, “Amy?”
Turned. There he was, in all his dumb, shiny glory. “Gallant,” I said, and wanted to leave and I could tell he could see it, read it. Another girl was standing next to him, polarised visor, purple-silver costume. Flechette, I thought, it’d been mentioned in one of the awareness briefs.
“Are you alright?” he asked, walking round so I didn’t have to crane my neck. It was unctuous and I couldn’t bear it, get him away from me, why couldn’t he tell?
“Drop the moralising act,” I said, “Tell me I’ve made my sister cry so you can get on with your day.”
Words came unbidden, mostly unbidden, a punch in the gut to me as well but I just wanted him to fuck off and I thought that might do it.
“That’s not - “ he said, and broke off, and sighed pointedly. Dean was good at sighing pointedly. “Yes, she’s very upset.”
“Well she should tell me herself.”
“You said to give you space, and that’s what she’s doing, but that doesn’t mean she’s not - “
Flechette cut him off. “Gallant, our sync meeting just got moved up.”
He turned. “What?”
She shrugged. “Yeah. Exercise control wants a word before the next turn.”
“I didn’t get the alert?”
She guided him away, back towards the doors, chatting about IT integration and New York/Brockton comms kits. Looked at me as she did, and smiled, very faintly.
It took a chunk of the day to get back to normal. Back on track. Just luck of the draw. Thank God Flechette had made him fuck off when she did. Stayed later than normal answering emails, routine stuff to Amy Dallon, WFP. I had a filter on anything addressed to Panacea. That went to Stan.
Came down to the coffee shop. Lily wasn’t behind the counter, someone else - Robert, I thought, I didn’t know. Got my order off him anyway, settled in next to the window looking out at the traffic and - then someone settled into the seat across from me. I almost spilled my drink.
“Hey Amy,” it was Lily, smiling. Office casual, first time I’d seen her in it. Her shirtsleeves were rolled up to show muscles I hadn’t realised she had. She looked good. “Sorry I scared you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You didn’t - “
She gave me a sceptical look and I laughed, just a little. “Alright, a bit. I thought you’d be on the job?”
“Got the evening off, Bob’s covering.” A pause. Then. “There’s a new movie out, actually. That’s why I got the time.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And I was wondering if, um, if you’d like to come with me.” It came all in a rush, the last part.
I blinked. Looked at her - she was wearing nail polish, a light purple, I hadn’t seen her do that before either. Tried not to blush and failed. “On a date?”
“On a date.”
“It’s okay if - “ she began.
“No, no, I’d love to go,” I said, quickly. Too quickly. I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe I should have thought about in the gap between everything. But I - I liked Lily, I liked spending time with her, she wasn’t anything bad, she wasn’t a reminder of it, she didn’t look anything like - and it was just a date it wasn’t like I had to - “What’s the movie?” I made myself ask, to cut all else off. She explained.
It was a movie about parahuman cowboys and I laughed more in those two hours than the past two months, it felt like. It was so stupid, I told Lily, and so ridiculous, and just - nothing like what capes were actually like and that made it all the better. Came out in the semi-dazed, popcorn fuelled state you got after the cinema, blinking into the not-quite-dark-semi-darkness of New York. It wasn’t like Brockton, the day never really ended, not in the city centre.
“Want me to walk you home?” she asked.
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I don’t want you to go out of your way.”
“You’re sure? It’s not far from where I am.”
“It’s alright,” I said. Not because I didn’t like her but just - a bit of space. And, and not that I’d done this before but there were implications, a dance, to walking home. Or I thought so. And I wasn’t ready for that, not how I was. “I had a great time tonight. See you tomorrow?”
Her smile was soft. “Yeah. See you tomorrow, Amy.”
And I set off. Walked without really thinking, not about that, because I’d just been on a date, and not one Victoria had set up, those awkward half-formed things, a real date with someone I liked spending time with.
Steps behind me, running. Twisted. Two men, a knife and a gun and fuck.
“Don’t move,” said the one with the gun. “Toss your phone over here, right? Phone and wallet, nobody gets hurt.”
I couldn’t lunge and get them with my power. Not with the gun there. Even if - it didn’t matter what I would turn them into, heads and limbs unfolding under skin, bursting forth like pupae, it didn’t matter because it wasn’t going to happen and I gingerly reached for my phone and hoped, prayed, they wouldn’t try to take more of it -
A flicker. Another. Both men down.
Just like that. Steel needles jutting from their sleeves, pinning them to concrete. I stood, stock still for a second and that was all it took for the cape to descend, knock the robbers out with efficiency born of training - they were wearing chinos, a shirt - what -
The cape, the woman, turned. Took off a domino mask.
“Hey, Amy,” said Flechette, weakly. Said Lily. “Sorry about that.”
And then, “You know,” I said. “I really should have figured that out sooner.”
There was admin after that. Of course there was. She left the immediate vicinity, waited for PRT officers to come pick up the men - close enough to PHQ that it was them, not police - gave a statement, they offered me a lift and I declined and they went.
Flechette, Lily, hopped back down from the roof.
We looked at each other.
“You’re not mad?” she asked.
“No, I,” how could I be? “Just, just a bit confused.”
So she explained, as we walked. She lived on base, part of the Wards. Needed a cover story for why she was around so often - job at the coffee shop underneath the WFP offices that almost no one used. The rest of it? The other details? All true, she said, as best she could manage. She was at NYU. She had moved around a lot, transferring between different Ward teams. And she liked me. Really, definitely liked me. That got me blushing, which she said was cute, and it didn’t help the situation. Not at all.
Loitered outside the compound wall. Different buildings, after all.
A taut silence but not unpleasant.
“Can I kiss you?” she asked.
“No,” I said. Too quickly, I could see her frown starting, stretching her lips and, “It’s not that I - just with my power, I don’t want to screw up.” Don’t want to hurt you. Don’t want to do worse than hurt you. I wasn’t about to risk it on that.
“Alright,” she said, face clearing like the sun through clouds. “That’s not a problem.”
“It’s not?” I asked, and it was tremulous.
“Not at all.” Then. “I’m glad I asked.”
“A hug goodnight?”
“I think I can manage that.”
And I did, and she did, and it was lovely.
More weeks rolled by and they were brighter than before. My schedule, our schedule didn’t change much. But she’d come and sit with me in the coffee shop, or we’d go to my room - not hers, Protectorate stuff, I understood - and watch something. I’d missed her Wards graduation by a couple of days, but I went out and got her a cake anyway. Didn’t kiss or do anything like that because I was still afraid and I spent the first week, more, worrying she’d call it off. Worrying she’d stop caring. She didn’t, though, and when I screwed up the courage to ask, explained:
“I dated an asexual girl a few years ago,” she said. “Sex repulsed, and it didn’t matter because what was important was spending time with her. You’re not broken, Amy, and even if we never do anything like that, I won’t mind. Understand?”
I nodded, and hugged her, and that never stopped being nice. She was, and I told her this in a way which made her blush just a tiny bit, a dusting of a blush, very good at them.
Work kept going. The test results in the lab were in - a conclusive success. Smashing, said Saskia. I bought her a Union Jack bucket hat to wear the next day, which she complained about, until Jenny told her it was her fault for doing a year abroad and she should put the damn hat on. And then the news came down.
“Lily,” I said, one night. She turned on the pillow and I’d never get tired of how she looked at me. “My project, they might be sending me to Mali for it.”
“Yeah. A small team, but they need a Protectorate cape there as a security officer.”
She blinked. “Is this your way of asking me on a couples holiday?”
“I guess so.”
“Then yeah.” She yawned, long and loud and utterly at ease. “Yeah,” said sleepily. “Let’s do it.”
The day before we were due to depart, I looked at my phone. I’d been doing a lot. When I feel up to it. I didn’t know if I ever would. But it’d been months. I had a job, and a life far away from Brockton. I had a girlfriend I cared about a lot. I was doing, or I would do, so much more good than I’d ever done sloping through the rigmarole of healing.
So I pressed the button.
She picked up on the first ring.
“Amy?” she asked. Uncertain.
“Hey.” And then. “I’m sorry. About - everything.” No, that was too unspecific. Too much like a cop-out. I’d had therapy about, not this, but something like it. “I’m sorry about running away. And not reaching out sooner. You didn’t deserve it.”
I could hear her breathing. After what seemed like an age, “It’s - it’s not fine, but I understand. And if you need forgiveness, then I forgive you.”
I filled it. “I’m going out to Mali tomorrow.”
“I know,” she said. “I saw some of your work at a symposium.” Of course she had, and I choked back something which was a sob or a laugh or both or neither. “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing amazing work, you’re building the life you deserve. When you get back, maybe you can visit? Or I can visit you?”
And I smiled into the telephone and said, simply, “Yes.”