Snow, grey and rough, drifted down from above, piling on the shoulders of man making his patrol round a makeshift wall of logs. His footsteps were heavy and made with wrenching effort as they fought to make their way through the four feet of snow. No, the man thought to himself, not snow. Four feet of frozen ash. Grey as dust, it clung to him and left black streaks where it melted.
The man’s clothes, a form-fitting undershirt and shorts were pockmarked with bullet holes and black with scorch marks. He had never needed them in the first place, the clothes offering him no protection to the cold. He still wore them for no reason other than the fact that it felt important. Shedding his clothes felt too much like a loss and the man had already lost too much.
The metal man kicked at the snow in front of him forcefully and it puffed into a thick cloud in his face. His jaw clamped, frustration welling in him and he plowed through. Stomping a circuit around the wall of logs, more in his thoughts than in his supposed duty, he would not have noticed the shadow of movement off in the trees. Silent as the night, the shadow darted away and disappeared.
“Weld.” A hand settled on his shoulder and Weld flinched. The hand pulled back just as quickly and Weld looked up to see a small blonde girl by his side. Small and blonde. Weld relaxed a hair. The blondeness could have been faked but shortness would have been tricky to pull off.
“Weld, you need to rest,” the girl said firmly and Weld was finally able to place her name. Missy. Vista. She looked better than she had yesterday. Her eyes were no longer red, though they still bore the dark circles of the restless.
“No, I actually don’t,” Weld corrected her, “I don’t need sleep, remember?”
Missy blinked slowly, her eyes closing for a solid second before opening again. “I remember,” she said with more patience than any thirteen year old had a right to, “But you’ve got to take a break. You’re going to lose your mind if you keep this up.”
Weld shook his head, “Not happening.”
“Not happening as in you won’t lose your mind? Or not happening as in you won’t take a break?”
“Both.” Weld stood, flexing his shoulders. His eyes were fixed on the wall outside, a ramshackle stack of logs, hastily erected to circle a cluster of squat buildings. It made sneaking into the base a little harder. Just a little.
“Weld, you need to take care of yourself.” He looked back at Missy and saw her eyes wide, her brow etched with worry.
“You’re looking pretty tired yourself,” Weld commented wryly.
“I’m exhausted,” she said with an enormous sigh, “I’ve spent all day moving people and supplies, the whole time watching my back and I’m just about ready to collapse. I’ve done enough for today.” She put a hand on his arm and this time he didn’t flinch. “And so have you.”
“You don’t understand, there’s… there’s still more things I can do. I can’t just sit around.” His fists tightened, “I need to do more.”
The only surviving member of both the Brockton Bay and Chicago Protectorate gave him a rueful smile, “Believe me, I know the feeling.”
Weld grimaced, feeling like a fool. “Of course, you’d know. I didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t-”
Missy’s grip on him tightened and shook him slightly. “Weld, listen to me. Don’t worry about it. I’m not the only one who’s lost people, you have too.” Not as much as you, he thought grimly. “Everyone here has lost someone. We’re all hurting, but we can’t kill ourselves over it. We need to rest, Weld.”
The look in her eyes didn’t offer much room for rebuttal. She was nearly the youngest of all of the survivors and yet she had seen more than most. In a sick way, she was the only one of them with any experience dealing with an apocalypse.
With more than a little reluctance, Weld nodded. “Alright. Let’s go back.”
Missy smiled and together they walked back to the dorms.
The pianist began strongly, announcing himself to the world and then in sharp succession, his fingers rolled over the keys in a flurry of notes and sounds. Rising, falling, the song moved in waves and the listener felt himself carried along. As the pianist increased his tempo, the waves grew larger and larger until suddenly it stopped. The silence hung from the peak and then with a resounding crash, the pianist’s fingers dropped down again. A wild medley of notes rained down like a furious storm. Wave after wave struck, rocking the song further and further off course, until it resembled nothing more than horrendous chaos. The notes grew louder and louder, until suddenly they stopped. As the song returned, it continued on lethargically, like a man ready to drop dead. Now the waves were as gentle as a lullaby, and slowly, but surely the song returned to port.
Weld tapped the rewind button on his phone and let the song play again.
Music more than anything else kept Weld sane. Losing himself to the flow of the notes eased his stiff body. Though Weld had never slept, he imagined that maybe this was something close to it.
The lullaby of sounds was interrupted by the most obnoxious blaring. A wailing klaxon that swallowed all other sound. It reverberated through Weld’s skin and he stood ramrod straight, the wire of his headphones whipping wildly as his phone unhooked and clattered to the floor.
Weld ignored it and tore the buds out of his ears as he ran for the door.
A variety of men and women met him in the halls, haggard, tired and half-dressed. Most were still pulling on costumes or the many layers of clothing necessary to stay warm in the frigid weather. They were just as lost as Weld was and so he pushed on, his feet coming down against the concrete floor with a heavy clomping sound.
He burst outside, cold air immediately clinging to him in a ghostly fog and he had to wipe at his eyes to clear them. He whirled around, looking for the breach in the walls. Weld had nothing like adrenaline to push him forward, but the cold fear of what was to come was more than enough. He turned and turned, expecting each time to see a tall brown-haired girl step out of the shadows. Each time there was nothing, but as the alarms continued it was getting harder and harder to feel assured.
Something was wrong. And not knowing what only made it worse.
Grunting his annoyance, Weld turned to the command center, the squattest, thickest building in the area and jogged his way to it.
Halfway there, a woman stepped out of the command center, waving him down. “Weld!” She called to him.
Weld picked up the pace and as he drew nearer he recognized the woman. He hadn’t seen her for more than a year and though there was little chance of him ever forgetting her. She had slimmed down a little, the effects of rationing and stress, but the tightly bound blonde hair and the stern face were unmistakable.
“Director Piggot,” Weld said, slowing as he neared her, “What’s the situation?”
“I’ll explain in a moment.” She waved him inside and he followed. The building was busy, but not as busy as he would’ve thought. He had expected packed hallways and soldiers marching this way and that, but for the most part anyone who needed to be somewhere was already there. They walked past rooms and rooms of people manning monitors and displays reading incomprehensible numbers until finally they reached what seemed to be a conference room. The table was lacquered wood, polished to an impeccable shine, there were a dozen seats but only three of them were occupied. Two of them were men dressed in stiff military uniforms and the other was a dark-skinned woman in a lab coat.
“Take a seat, Weld.” Piggot said pointing to a chair. Weld only had to take one look at it, fine leather and rolling wheels, to know that it wouldn’t hold him.
“I’ll stand, if that’s alright,” Weld said as patiently as he could, “So. What’s the situation?”
Piggot sat next to the two generals, the three of them on one side, the woman in a lab coat on the other. In lieu of answering directly, she reached over to the table and set a device down. A holographic image sprang up into the air, hovering in the center of the room, an image of a figure standing out in the snow. Bundled up for the weather in a heavy coat, scarf and mittens, the figure held over its head a sign bearing only one word: “TALK?”
Just the image of her made Weld tense.
“This is a live feed just outside our main gate. Her face is too covered to get a positive ID, but we don’t have to rely on our thinkers to know that’s Narcissa,” Piggot said dryly.
Weld grit his teeth. “She wants to talk.”
“And we’re going to.”
Weld looked at Piggot. “What.”
Piggot sighed, leaning forward in her chair. “If she is willing to negotiate we have to take her up on her offer.” She spread her hands out. “We can’t keep doing this Weld. We need time to rebuild. And unless she gives it to us, we’ll be dead before spring comes.”
Weld’s eyes wandered back up to the image of the sign-holding girl. Though the snow was no longer falling, she was still waist-deep in the grey mush. A heavy wind buffeted her, making her scarf flap wildly.
“You want me,” Weld said, his voice oddly devoid of emotion, “To go out there. And talk. To her.”
“Yes.” Piggot nodded.
“The last time I saw her, I pissed her off,” Weld frowned, “And then not a day later, I watched her home city get burned to the ground. I’m pretty sure she hates my guts.”
Piggot shrugged, “I really doubt she likes any of us.”
Weld’s mouth opened, searching for a retort, but nothing came. He knew the real reason why he was being asked to do this. It was the same as it had been last time. He was someone that could go out there, meet the monster face-to-face and actually come back. Narcissa wouldn’t be able to subsume him and anyone else that went was in danger of betraying every secret and vulnerability they knew.
He was the safe choice. And, in terms of firepower, expendable.
“Fine,” Weld said grudgingly, “I’ll do it.”
The gates opened with a lazy groan, almost as if they were demanding to be left alone.
Behind Weld was all the Protectorate had to offer. Vista, Revel, Rime, Myrrdin, Chevalier and many more. In total, they numbered hundreds, a decent showing for an Endbringer showdown, but not enough to take on the world. To his side, was the last of the Triumvirate, Legend.
Legend spoke quietly, his words meant only for Weld, “Good luck.”
Weld nodded as the gates parted fully. Directly before him, some hundred yards out was the girl standing in the snow. She was longer holding her sign up. She simply stood there, waiting.
Letting his thoughts drift with the fall of snow, Weld went to her.
“Hey,” she greeted him, her face still covered by a scarf, but her voice too familiar.
“Hey,” he replied.
She put her hands together and peeled a mitten off one hand before offering it out to Weld. He stared at it for a long time.
After several seconds passed, she started to pull back, but Weld caught her in time. Taking her hand in his, he shook her hand gently, but firm.
She nodded at this, passing silent approval and pointed behind her where the forest lay. “Follow me, please.”
Having come this far, there was no other choice. Weld followed her.
He had expected an army. An encampment of thousands of soldiers, instead he found a lone tent. Spacious and well put-together, a generator hummed at the tent’s side and as he stepped inside, he could immediately tell it was heated by the way his skin fogged up. The tent was empty save for a small circular table, the sort you’d find at a cafe. Suitingly, on the table was a teapot and already full teacup, steaming and ready to be drunk.
The girl took her clothes off, each piece coming off like layers of an onion until finally, the girl was left with just a sweater and snowpants. It was a face Weld had seen a thousand times and the little differences popped out at him as clearly as a stranger’s face. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and her face was marked by a scratch here and a cut there, punctuated by a large scar that ran down from the top of her cheek all the way to her jaw. She sat on a brittle fold-out chair and gestured for Weld to take the large plastic armchair
It was not the same one as Brockton Bay’s, but it was close. Weld settled down, the contours of the chair fitting to his body snugly. It would be perfect for listening to music or meditation. But that wasn’t what Weld was here for.
“So,” he looked to her, his expression grave, “What do you want to discuss?”
The girl took her teacup and blew gently on it before taking a small sip. She closed her eyes, taking the time to savor the taste before swallowing. She set the teacup down and then with a clear voice, she asked, “What do you want to talk about, Weld?”
Weld raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one who called for this meeting.”
She looked up, locking eyes with him, “Yes. To talk.”
“Well, wasn’t there something you wanted to talk about? In specific?”
“Something I wanted to talk about? Yes. Specifically? No.”
Weld frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sorry,” she smiled apologetically, “Communicating with words can be difficult sometimes. It’s so easy to lose your meaning with these…” she gestured to her mouth, “With this.” She set her hands down on the table and faced him directly, “But sadly, you and I have no other way of communicating. So to clarify as best I can, my intentions are: To talk about whatever you want to talk about, Weld. You and the rest of humanity. I’m sure you all have a lot you want to say.”
“I…” Weld blinked and shook his head, “I’m not sure if I speak for all of humanity. Just the Protectorate and the US.” Or what’s left of it.
“Then you speak for a significant portion of humanity.”
“Did I offend you, Weld?” The girl leaned forward, her eyes wide with concern, “Did you mean your form? Do you not consider yourself human? Because I do, Weld. I consider you the most human person I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of people.”
“No, but thanks, I guess,” Weld said, feeling awkward at the unwarranted earnestness, “I just meant I’m here on behalf of the Protectorate and the US.”
“Ah,” she sat back down, frowning, “My mistake.”
“It’s, uh, not a problem.”
“Hm.” She murmured, clearly unsatisfied with herself.
A quiet fell over them, the girl taking another sip while she stewed over her thoughts. Weld watching her bemused.
“So,” he said, his voice straining against the silence, “You don’t actually have anything you want to talk to me about?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Did I not convey that clearly before? No, Weld, I’m here to listen and respond to you. I anticipated that you would have a lot of things to discuss with me?”
Weld overcame his confusion. If this was how she wanted their meeting to go then that was fine by him. “Okay, sure.” Weld sat a little straighter in his chair, “Sure, I have some things I’d like to discuss.”
“Excellent.” She set her teacup down and leaned forward, rapt with attention.
“Well, let’s start with the basics. What should I call you?”
She spread her hands out. “Feel free to can call me whatever you like. Taylor. Narcissa. Samar. Sarah. Whatever you like, it’s all applicable.”
Weld smiled as politely as he could. “Taylor, then.”
“Taylor it is.”
“Okay, Taylor.” Weld folded his hands neatly in front of him. “What is it that you want?”
Taylor shook her head gently, her ponytail swishing behind her. “I want a lot of things, Weld. Too many to count. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Then I’ll be more specific,” Weld said plainly, “What is it that you want with us? With humanity?”
Taylor smiled wryly, “Well, that is more specific. But that’s a very complicated answer that has changed quite a bit over time.”
“I’m mostly concerned with the now and the future.”
“Hm,” Taylor mulled over the question while she poured herself a fresh cup of tea. When she filled it about halfway, she set the teapot down and addressed Weld very simply with the words: “I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Weld forced a smile as he asked, “Do you have any inclinations? Leaning one way over the other?”
Taylor sat back in her chair, drawing in a large breath and then letting it all out in an equally large sigh. “I suppose by the virtue of this meeting, I’m leaning towards not adding what’s left of humanity to myself.”
Weld nodded curtly at this news, though on the inside he was dancing with joy.
“But like I said before,” Taylor added, “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Weld spoke carefully, enunciating each word as formally as possible, “We’ve already fought enough. Why not end the war?”
Taylor leaned back in her chair and sighed. “Many reasons, Weld. Fear. Pain. Knowing that the only way people can peacefully coexist is if they’re a part of me.” Taylor smiled as a misty-eyed look came over her, “I wish I could show you, Weld, I really do. Within me is a world where hate and fear don’t exist. A world free of pain, disease and unfairness. A world where there’s no reason to fight or steal because we’re all in this together.”
Her smile shrank as she went on, “With humans on the other hand, there’s always something to fight about. Always some injustice. They’ll draw lines between one another, screaming ‘this is mine!’” She shook her head, her smile gone. “It’s nonsensical. The only times people cooperate is when it puts them ahead of someone else. They refuse to just... progress together. They have to beat someone. Somebody always has to be the sacrifice, somebody always has to be exploited or abused or left behind. No matter how hard you work as a ‘hero’, Weld, you’ll never be able to stop basic human cruelty.” Taylor looked at him, pity in her eyes, “It’s simply a part of who you are.”
Weld opened his mouth, but quickly closed it again. He had clenched his teeth as she spoke, clenched so tightly that he had cracked a tooth and now a metal shard hung on the roof of his mouth. With conscious effort, he swallowed it and began reforming a replacement. It was, he realized, a blessing in disguise. He had almost spoken too quickly, but now he had been given a moment to gather his thoughts.
Taylor stared at him expectantly, but patiently. She was almost serene, as if she had all the time in the world.
Finally, with a new tooth in place, Weld made his reply, “I think I figured out why you wanted this meeting. I think I know why you don’t know what to do.”
She humored him with a smile, “Please, do tell.”
“You needed perspective. You wanted a second opinion.”
Taylor blinked, “I’d say I have more perspective than anyone who’s ever existed. I have the memories of billions.”
“The memories,” Weld pursed his lips, “But of all those people you’ve taken, is it their voice you hear? Or is it your’s?”
She frowned and that was answer enough.
“Taylor,” Weld said, his voice as soft as silk, “You’re an echochamber. You have billions of voices in your head all with the same opinions and views because you’re all the same person. You’re talking to yourself. And you wanted to talk to me because not a single part of you can imagine what life is going to be like when you’re the only one left.”
Her tea had gone cold, but she made no move to clear it out.
“The truth is, Taylor, your perfect world could just as easily exist if it was just one ordinary person completely alone on the planet.” Weld leaned forward, his words deliberate, “And although there wouldn’t be anything like injustice or cruelty, I think at the end of the day, that one person would be very lonely.”
She stared at Weld, but otherwise she was expressionless. Her eyes searched him, but there was little Weld would reveal from his exterior. He would not tremble or jitter with nerves, his body was honed steel and he met her gaze unflinchingly.
“And that’s why I should let you live?” Taylor asked, her voice quiet, “To keep me company?”
“Well,” Weld sat back in his chair, exuding a confidence he didn’t really feel, “If you want my company, you can start by not threatening me.”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re done here.”
And Weld hadn’t even been torn apart or thrown into a giant magnet. A wave of relief struck him, but he kept his poker face intact as he stood. “I guess we are.”
Taylor waved a hand at him dismissively. “You can go.”
He didn’t. “What should I tell everyone else?” Weld asked.
“What?” She asked irritably.
“Should I tell them to get ready for war? Or to start rebuilding?”
Taylor scowled. “I’m still making up my mind. Now get out of here before you tip the balance.”
“Sure,” Weld said as he stepped out of the tent, “See you later, Taylor.”
Taylor didn’t respond, watching silently as he left.
The trek back to base wasn’t long and Weld took his time.
"And do you remember the look on Pastor Davis' face when he stumbled in on us?" The old woman asked, already giggling like a schoolgirl.
"He was as red as a tomato," the girl replied, sharing the old woman's smile.
"Oh, I thought we were gonna get it then. He just about ready to whip us good and then you... then you said..." The old woman clapped her hands, snorting with laughter, unable to get the words out.
"'She was choking, sir! I was just performing CPR,'" the girl filled in.
The old woman pulled back in the bed, her giggles intensifying and she had to fight to breathe again. Gasping, she set a hand on her chest and calmed herself down. "Oh my, I haven't laughed like that," she wiped a tear from her eye, "In a long time."
The girl smiled patiently, letting the old woman settle down.
It was quiet in the hospital, a respectful silence that was only disturbed by the gentle murmur of life outside and the old woman's laughter. The machinery that monitored her vitals were silent and reported that the old woman was, for the time being, safe.
Safe and as healthy as she could possibly be at her age, which was to say, not very. Her eyes still carried a sharp light, but she was above all else, old.
The last of her giggles subsided and slowly all that was left of her smile was a small turn at the edges. The old woman looked out the window, watching the silent picture of the city. Cars humming along, people going about in the street, dipping into shops and restaurants when the urge filled them. It was only barely a city, the number of people not enough to fill the hundreds of buildings that still stood. But despite all else, it was peaceful.
"Tell me," the old woman spoke up, the humor in her voice faded, "Will I see him?"
"No," the girl answered.
The old woman turned to face the girl who sat at her bedside. "Then why even bother?"
"Because I remember him." The girl held out her hand. "And if you let me, I'll remember you, too."
The old woman looked down at the girl's hand and stared for a long time.
And then with one last smile, she touched the girl's hand.
The girl made her way to the park, mindful of crowds, taking the long way around each time. It wasn't strictly necessary, the girl was covered head-to-toe, but it was safer this way. The clothes she wore were normal albeit overly warm, high-tops and jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves. The only item truly odd was the mask she wore, it was sculpted to resemble the face of a sleeping woman. Every inch of her body, save for her hair was covered.
As the girl entered the park, people took notice of her immediately, some watching her every move, others quickly picking their things up and walking the other way. It wasn't the worst welcome she ever had.
The girl made her way up a winding path, and began climbing a hill. The steps were uneven in places, the stonework damaged to nubs and she had to skip more than a step or two. Halfway up, she could hear the pleasant melody of a piano, dancing through notes. The song was like the call of a siren and the girl increased her pace.
By the time she reached the top, she was, to her embarrassment, a little winded.
"You sure took your time," a voice called out.
The girl looked up and saw a metal man sitting on a stone chair. Beside him was a small circular table, complete with a radio, tea set and an open chair.
As the girl took her seat, he picked up the teapot and filled her cup.
She pulled off her mask and smiled. "You know how it is."
He set the teapot down and sat back in his seat. "I suppose I do."
Nothing more was said. Nothing more needed to be said. As sunset came, they enjoyed the view together.