Filth. Darkness. Bugs. I gagged and shivered, somehow aware of every single molecule around me. I must have blacked out at some point. The locker door I was leaning against gave out suddenly, and I fell forward to sprawl across the floor. I could just barely register the lockers in front of me, that something was wrong with them. Like someone had carefully carved bits out of it at random. It was all too much. The tile and concrete of the floor. The metal of the lockers. Even the air around me, though it was the least of them. It all pressed in, overwhelming my senses. Trapping me. I blacked out again.
I was paralyzed. No wait, I could feel my muscles straining to move, but they were held in place. Restrained. I tried to open my eyes, but they felt like they were glued shut. I could breath, but it was like I was under a thick blanket. I started to become more lucid, and I realised I had that strange new sense still. It was a lot less overwhelming now, which I was thankful for even if it confused me.
Through it I could not-see that some of the filth from the locker still covered me, and I gagged from the thought. I forced myself not to vomit, unsure if I would choke from it like this. Slowly my awareness spread outward. I was covered in a layer of thick sponge-y material, secured to the top of some sort of platform.
As I could "see" further everything became clearer. I was...on a gurney? In a room? No, not a room. A few feet under the "floor" were sections of material I could only sense for a brief time before we moved out of range. A car.
There were two masses on either side of me that were different from everything else I had sensed so far. Where everything else had this inherent inertness, everything about these masses was in a constant dance of activity. Alive. They were people.
I realised they were both covered in a thick shell of material, and holding a length of something metal. I paled. People with guns, and maybe body armor. I started panicking, unsure what was happening here. Was I being kidnapped? How did they even get me? The last thing I remembered was blacking out at school.
I heard muffled noises from the two people, they both shot up and moved as far from me as they could. One of them pounded on the "wall" they were against, and the vehicle came to a sudden stop. I still couldn't move, but it didn't keep the g-force from making things very uncomfortable for me. I tried to open my mouth to call out, figure out what the hell was going on, but like the rest of me it was stuck in place. As soon as we were completely stopped the two shot past me and out of the vehicle, and what I realised was the driver fled as well.
Just like that I was alone again. Trapped in darkness. Covered in filth. No one was going to save me. I knew it was futile, but I couldn't stop myself from trying to thrash around. Anything to try and free myself. Just like in the locker it changed nothing.
Except something was changing? I realised it had been happening for awhile before it came to my attention. Some of the matter I could detect was...disappearing? Being annihilated, some core part of me whispered.
The only reason it had caught my attention was because the scale had changed. Where it had been like a couple of flies buzzing around the room before, now it was like a swarm of them blanketed above me.
The wild eyed panic that had gripped me began to lessen as I realised the material holding me was being eaten through, only to spike again when the effect slowed. It hadn't stopped though, which was the only thing that allowed me to not drop back into that state.
The sensation it was causing was...weird, to say the least. Every bit of matter it happened to went through a strange process that couldn't have lasted more than milliseconds. I concentrated on it to keep my mind off of the fact that I still had no clue what was happening.
I was distracted when I noticed somebody approaching the vehicle. As they came closer I noticed they were in a shell too, but it was...weird. Like the matter it was made from wasn't acting quite right.
That didn't stop it from getting tagged by the effect though. A small nickel sized portion of the outside annihilated in a process only slightly longer than normal. The figure paused it's stride for a moment, before continuing on towards the vehicle. They climbed into the driver's seat and in a second we were moving again.
The sponge-y material was still being eaten through, but it had slowed down. The effect was more sporadic, and they had spread out to tag random matter sometimes. I wanted to scream in frustration, but even that was denied to me.
I couldn't tell how long it was before we came to a stop again. The figure exited and came around to the back doors. I didn't need my new senses to tell that the gurney was moving. They did tell me I was being wheeled into a building though. As we made our way through it, I couldn't make out much about the layout. The only thing I knew for sure is we didn't pass a single other living soul.
We reached what could only be an elevator, and after some fiddling from the figure we started heading down. Another corridor, this one different from the previous ones. Different layout, different materials. Another stop to fiddle with a wall panel again, and the room we were in front of opened up. I was wheeled in, and then left. They hadn't left completely, just back to the other side of the wall, door closed behind them.
A mist started spraying from some weird apparatus on the ceiling, and where it came into contact with the sponge-y material, it caused it to dissolve. Nothing like the effect, more like it was turned into a rapidly evaporating liquid. It struck me how odd it was that I knew that.
Even with how much had been eaten away, it still took an excruciatingly long time for enough to melt away so my face was uncovered. As soon as I could I gasped in a breath of air. It wasn't what anybody would call fresh, especially with the smell of chemicals in the air, but it was still a lot better than being stifled under whatever that stuff was.
For the first time since I woke up I was able to open my eyes and actually see my surroundings. What I saw didn't exactly comfort me. All white room, a plastic covered cot, a weird trench in the floor with a spicket above it. Not to mention all the things I could detect above me and in the walls. I had seen enough tv to know what a cell looked like.
I panicked, trying to stand but managing to fall off the gurney instead. I scooted backwards until I was in the corner of the room and hugged my legs to my chest. What the hell was going on? Why was I here? I had a sinking feeling in my gut that it had something to do with me suddenly having a sixth sense.
Distantly I became aware of somebody shouting. My eyes darted around my cell, looking for the source. Instead I gasped as I saw a black wisp blossom into existence before fading away. It was as if a flame made from the void had sparked to life. A split second glimpse into nothingness. It was beautiful.
Motion caught me eye. The wall opposite me was glass. No, wait. I had felt glass, and this wasn't the same. This was stronger, denser. Beyond the wall stood the figure, the one that had brought me here. They stood holding down a button, and their mouth was moving. My eyes widened as I realised the top portion of their face was covered with a helmet, and recognition dawned as I took in the rest of him. Armsmaster. Leader of the local Protectorate. What. The. Hell.
"Miss Hebert! I need you to pay attention to me. It is vitally important."
"Wh-" My voice was scratchy and whisper quiet. How long had it been since I last did anything but scream or cry? I cleared my throat. "What?"
"Listen to me: Can you stop it?"
"Your power. Can you stop it?"
My mind froze. I had already started to suspect, but it was almost impossible to believe. Me, superpowers? It was like something out of a poorly written tragedy, I thought bitterly. I know he had just confirmed it, but...I needed to hear it again before I believed it. "What are you talking about?"
"You have triggered, Miss Hebert. So far it's very lucky you haven't hurt anybody, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. We had to clear out a portion of the building just to bring you in."
I shook my head. "What do you mean stop it though?"
He gestured to where one of the void sparks was already fading. "What? No, I'm not doing that."
I assure you you are," he said in the driest tone I had ever heard.
I shook my head "No, I'm just sensing things! I'm not- I don't know what's causing that." I said, desperation creeping into my voice.
He gave me a long stare. "You can sense them?" I nodded. "Then concentrate on them. Try to control them."
Reluctantly I closed my eyes and tried to hunt around for sparks. It wasn't hard to track them, almost as if I instinctually knew where they were once I was actually paying attention. Logically I shouldn't have been able to follow what was happening, it went so quick. The visual effect was more like an afterimage than anything. Somehow my new sense let me process it though. It was like...A quick build up, and then something burst, and finally a flash-except-not as it bleed off into...somewhere. Trying to describe it in words was an exercise in frustration.
Still, that was as much as I could do. There was no instinct for stopping it, or causing it. At least, not that I could tell. Not in the little time I had been doing it. If I was doing it, like he said. I opened my eyes and shook my head at him. "I can't do anything, it's just happening. I'm telling you it's not me!" Frustration had bled into my voice, but I snapped my mouth shut when I realised the sparks were coming a bit faster.
He seemed to notice this too, and nodded as if I had confirmed something. A panel on his forearm opened, and he removed a small device from within. "The working theory is that your powers are somehow related to your emotions. This is a sedative. Will you allow me to enter and administer it to you without struggling or attempting to escape? The other options available are...not as pleasant."
I swallowed and hesitated only a moment before nodding. Just the idea made me vaguely nauseous, but I really wasn't eager to find out what those other options were. He entered the room and approached me slowly, as if afraid I was going to attack him. As if I could. No matter what he said I wasnt controlling anything. When he reached me he motioned for me to hold out my arm. Armsmaster pushed up my sleeve and stuck the crook of my elbow. It wasn't any more painful than any other needle, and when he pulled it back out it didn't bleed even a little.
Already I could feel my heart slowing, my breathing ease. I was getting a little sleepy, but otherwise it just seemed to be calming me. Miraculously the void sparks had slowed, and eventually I was even pretty sure they had stopped. I reluctantly conceded that maybe he was right. Maybe they were connected to me somehow. It just seemed so utterly foreign to imagine.
We sat there as Armsmaster alternated between observing me and the room for the next couple minutes. When there hadn't been any more void sparks he nodded in satisfaction. "That seems to have worked for now. Follow me." He led me out of the room and back to the elevator. We went back up, though I was pretty sure the floor we got out on wasn't the one we had initially entered on.
This floor too was clear of people, all except for the room we were approaching. Armsmaster held the door open for me, and I could finally lay eyes on the people in the room. One of them was immediately recognizable by her army fatigues, and the american flag bandana covering her face. Miss Militia. Next to her sat a sallow, unhealthy looking woman with hard eyes. Across from them were two others, one a woman in a fancy looking suit, and the other-
"Mom!" I stumbled towards her as she rushed out of her chair to embrace me. She wrapped me in a hug so tight I thought she would break ribs. I didn't care, I hugged back just as tightly. She leaned back and took my face in her hands, checking me over as if reassuring herself I was safe.
Her brows furrowed when she met my eyes. Mom tilted my head to get a better look, and then checked my pulse. Her head snapped to Armsmaster and when she spoke there was fury in her voice. "Did you drug her?!"
Armsmaster didn't even blink when he started to say "She consented to-"
"She is a child! She can't consent to anything!"
"She is a dangerous parahuman who can't control her powers, we did the least of what we could have done under the circumstances," The sallow woman snapped.
"She is still my daughter and she still has rights!" The sallow woman just sneered in response.
For the first time since I entered the room the woman my mom had been sitting next to spoke. "Annette," she said gently, as if afraid of spooking mom. "Sit." She motioned to the chairs next to her. Mom pulled me over to them, making me take the middle chair so that the two women flanked me. I was vaguely reminded of a meeting with my teacher in middle school, wedged in between mom and dad.
I looked at this other woman, curious as to who she could possibly be. I had never seen her before, that was certain. Her demeanor transformed completely as she started addressing the three across from us. "Let's cut the crap. You have no right to hold my client. "
"Criminal negligence with a parahuman ability. Damage to government property. Assualt with a parahuman ability," The woman opposite of me practically barked out.
"Please, we both know that the only one of those that has any hope of holding water is the property damage, and even that occured during a trigger event, under duress and in self defense. And trigger events are such a legal grey area that even that wouldn't stick."
Miss Militia cut in. "Even so, this could have all gone very differently. Someone could have been seriously injured. What if one of her classmates had wandered into the area before someone realised what was happening? We could have had a dead child on our hands."
I felt a hot pressure in my chest that I distantly registered as one part annoyance at being talked about like I wasn't there, and one part dread at what one of my childhood heroes had just described. It was disconnected though, like the feelings weren't quite mine. I belatedly realised that the woman in the suit was speaking again, and turned my attention back to her.
"What, so the solution is to press gang another child? No. You have no leg to stand on. My client will stay free and clear of the Wards unless she chooses otherwise of her own free will."
"You should reconsider," Armsmaster spoke for the first time since the conversation had started. Unlike Miss Militia and the woman with hard eyes, he addressed me directly. "The Wards can provide a safe learning environment, resources, a team to watch your back."
My lawyer actually scoffed at him. "It also puts her under the direct control of a government organization who you've admitted views her as a dangerous threat, with minimal oversight. And the Wards in this city are anything but a safe environment; they're practically child soldiers." She stood up from her chair, and gestured at me and mom to do the same. "Now, unless you're actually going to charge my client with something, we'll be leaving."
Mom put her arm around me and directed me towards the door, the other woman right behind us. I felt sunken eyes on the back of my neck when the sallow woman spoke up again. "We'll be watching you Miss Hebert."
My lawyer froze in place, and when she spoke her voice was tight. "Are you threatening to out my client?"
"Oh, of course not. Though with how...public her trigger event was I'm sure the rumor mill is already at work. Teenage girls do love to gossip after all." A brief pause. "Armsmaster will escort you out the building."
Without another word we stepped out of the room, and headed towards the elevator. It was an awkward silence all the way down to the front entrance of the building. Right before we reached the lobby, Armsmaster motioned us to stop, which earned him a raised eyebrow from my lawyer. In answer he pulled a black domino mask from another hidden compartment and offered it to me.
"At that dosage the sedative will last another half hour at most; I suggest you have her in a secure location by then." Mom gave him a sharp nod in answer as she helped me adjust the mask over my face. It almost seemed like he wanted to say something else, but he just watched silently as my mom ushered me away.
The lobby was mostly empty as well, though this time there were at least PRT agents and employees around. Guards, at what I assumed were their standard posts. Someone was manning the front desk, and strangely enough someone was working the till at the gift shop. I wondered what the purpose of that was. Just to keep up appearances? Or did they expect me to stop in for an action figure on the way out? I let out a huff. Not likely. Everyone always says not to meet your heroes; I guess that applied in general too.
The reason for the mask became abundantly clear as soon as we stepped out of the building. There weren't a lot of them, just two or three really, but their cameras made them beyond obvious. Mom and...I really needed to learn her name...shielded me as best they could, but the reporters were intent on snapping some photos of me regardless. Luckily a car was waiting for us, windows tinted dark enough that we hopefully wouldn't have to worry. Me and mom crawled into the back seat while the other woman took the front.
The driver wasted no time in getting us out of there, and soon the PRT HQ was nothing but a fading image in the rear view mirror. Everything was silent for nearly a minute before the woman up front started cussing up a storm so big that dad's old dock buddies would have been impressed. Or at least, from what I could hear before mom clamped her hands over my ears. I rolled my eye; like she hadn't had her moments before.
When her hands finally came off the woman was taking a deep calming breath. She turned to address the person driving. "Okay. Are we being followed?" They shook their head. "Good. We're going to have to burn a safe house here; Take us to Pike Street."
I felt like maybe I should have been alarmed at the sudden change in tack, but mom was still calm so I decided not to worry. Not that I could have done much worrying even if I wanted to. Instead I just watched out the window as the city passed by, absentmindedly picking at the information that came and went almost too fast to register.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing I knew mom was shaking me awake in the parking lot of an old warehouse. It was kind of creepy, one of those silent beacons of how much the city was falling apart that everyone ignored.
"C'mon little owl, let's get inside." She must have noticed how hesitant I was, because she ran a hand through my hair and gave me a tired smile. Just that was enough to sooth me. "It's okay, I know Rosalind from work. I trust her." I gave her a slow nod, letting her lead me out of the car and towards the building. The driver didn't come with us, taking off back down the street instead.
Inside the floor had mostly been cleared, with just a few randomly placed crates to hint at its previous function. I could see a set of stairs leading up to what I could only assume were once the foreman's offices. This is where Rosalind led us, across the floor and up the stairs. That it had been refurbished at some point was obvious. In it's current state it looked more like an apartment, albeit a sparsely furnished one.
Gesturing to the door that led further into the makeshift apartment, she looked at me. "There's a bathroom through that room, and you should be able to find some clothes that fit you at least nominally." Her face pulled into a grimace. "The fact that they made you sit through all that in the state you're in is a tragedy, not to mention gross misconduct." I had to look down at myself to register what she meant. While some had come off under that chemical spray earlier, it was still obvious I was covered in grime from the locker.
Just that simple reminder made me shudder uncontrollably, so I hastened to follow her instructions. The door led into a bedroom, complete with queen bed, dresser, and desk. I was tempted to rummage through the clothes to take stock of what they had, but that sounded like a bad idea with the state I was in. Instead I locked the door behind me and made a bee line for what I could only assume was the bathroom. Like everything else it was sparse, almost ascetic in nature. Still, it had everything I needed to finally clean myself of the nightmare I had endured.
I don't know how long I stayed in the shower. Long enough that I scrubbed my skin pink and the water ran cold. The whole thing had been the most bizarre experience yet. Some distance down and in the wall, I could feel the water come up through the pipes, then out the shower head, through the air, and down my skin. It pooled at my feet momentarily before flowing down the drain and back into the pipes to be carried away again, washing away soap and dirt with it. I found if I focused a little I could even see all of the particulates in the water, the bits of iron it picked up from the pipes and natural minerals I couldn't identify off the top of my head.
Being naked of everything but a towel in a strange place was nervewracking, so as soon as I was out of the shower I rushed to dry myself and head back into the bedroom. The dresser there was pretty barren, containing only a few sets of cheap department store clothes. There were sweats though, and underwear still in the packaging, which I was more than grateful for. Once everything was on I took a deep breath before heading back into the room where my mom and Rosalind were.
As soon as I enter the room, whatever conversation the two of them were having stopped. Mom looked slightly worried, which made me worried, but she seemed to relax a little when Rosalind reached out to pat her on the shoulder. The two stood up, and Rosalind beckoned to me. "Come, let's do this downstairs. Just in case."
It took me a minute to parse what she meant by that. We were about halfway down the stairs when Armsmaster's words came back to me; surely with the car ride and my shower we were well past the half hour the sedatives were supposed to last. But when I cast about with my new senses, I couldn't find a single spark. Why? This was all so confusing, couldn't these damn powers at least come with a manual if they were going to ruin my life? Well, if my life could get any more ruined than what the trio had already put me through.
There was a stack of plastic chairs near one of the crates, those type that schools pull into the auditorium for plays and stuff, ones you can just look at and immediately know they're going to be uncomfortable. Still, they would be a step up from sitting on the dirty concrete. We set up with me and mom next to each other, with Rosalind across from us. We all took our seats and for a moment just stared at each other.
"Perhaps we should start with a proper introduction. My name is Rosalind Sinclair, and my organization does a lot of activity around the university campus. It's very nice to meet you Taylor."
"Your organization?" I had to admit I was a little suspicious; with how unexpectedly my meeting with the so called good guys went, I wasn't sure who I could trust.
Her eyes flicked to mom briefly before she nodded at me. "Yes, my organization. We're called the National Animity Foundation, and we work on behalf of capes to ensure their rights are protected and their abilities aren't abused." She grimaced. "Especially since the government has seen fit to strip them of their ability to hold office entirely."
"So...why are you here? What does this have to do with me? Other than the obvious."
At that she smiled. "Well for one, because your mom asked me to. She may try to wave it off as nothing, but there have been a few times we've gotten into a pickle with the administration that she helped us out of. It was an easy choice to make, repaying her help a little."
Mom snorted. "We both know the University President is a pompous ass, and I'm more than glad to put him in his place every once in a while. Still, I am very grateful for your help today."
Ms. Sinclair sent me an amused look that almost said see? I told you. But then she fell back into a more somber expression. "The other reason," she said, "Is that we were hoping to make you an offer." Mom immediately went tense, and Ms. Sinclair held her hands up in a placating gesture. "Hear me out Annette. You saw how the PRT reacted to Taylor earlier. They're scared of her. They want to control her. They suspect she's powerful and they'll do anything they have to in order to use her like the weapon they see her as."
I felt my throat constrict, brought back to being covered in that foam, helpless and clueless as to what they were going to do with me. She was right, they thought I was dangerous. I remembered the look on Piggot's face, the venom in her voice and the implicit threat of her last comment. That was a woman who would rather see me dead than on the opposite side.
I blinked a couple times, realised someone was calling my name. My mom was crouched in front of me, shaking my shoulder gently. "I need you to breathe little owl, deep even breaths, okay?" I did as she asked. It took a few moments, but eventually my pulse stopped pounding in my ears. Almost all that work was undone when I realised motes on darkness danced around us, occasionally catching a crate or the floor. I scrambled out of my chair, away from my mom, sick with what could have happened.
She called after me, stricken, but Ms. Sinclair caught her arm and said something to her. I couldn't hear what it was, too far away at that point having backed up until I was sure I could no longer sense them. My mom looked torn, but stayed behind as Ms. Sinclair approached me. When she neared the edge of my senses I let out a strained "Stop." Surprisingly, she listened. Knowing she wasn't going to get any closer allowed me relax just the slightest bit.
In that same gentle voice she used when I first met her, she spoke to me. "It's okay Taylor, everybody is okay. I didn't mean to scare you, I just wanted to impress upon you the way the PRT views you. This lack of control must be scary, huh?" I nodded at her hesitantly. "We can help with that. The offer is this: a team. NAF is putting together a team to better oppose wrongdoings by the PRT and their Protectorate lackeys. We can offer the same protection, the same chance to learn and train as the Wards. None of the chains of being under government control, no contract to keep you from changing your mind and leaving."
I looked at mom, who was chewing her cheek. She had come up behind Ms. Sinclair sometime during her spiel. The worried look on her face told me she wasn't thrilled with this idea, but the fact that she wasn't speaking up against it said she wasn't entirely opposed either. She knew we both had a strong sense of justice, and more than anything else today the PRT's treatment of me had probably made her furious. Ms. Sinclair caught my gaze and gave me a small smile. "You don't have to decide now, you don't even have to decide this week; all I ask is that you at least meet the person who will be running the team, and maybe your potential teammates."
I stewed over the idea for a minute, processing. She wasn't asking for a commitment, or even an immediate answer. And honestly meeting this mysterious team leader sounded like a good idea. At the very least it might give me some insight on what kind of dynamic the team would have. "Okay. When would this meeting be?"
"Best to do these sorts of things as soon as possible. If you don't feel it's too soon, how about tomorrow."
I was reluctant, but I nodded. She was right, it would be best. Maybe it would mean getting home sooner too. Ms. Sinclair looked very satisfied as she had a short conversation with mom before bidding us a goodnight and heading out of the building. I had calmed down enough that my power wasn't firing off anymore by this point, and the exhaustion was setting back in. That was still weird to think about, 'my power.' If you had told me at the beginning of the day day that I was going to get bullied into becoming a parahuman, I never would have believed you. I was pulled out of my bitter thoughts by my mom calling for me.
"Come on Taylor, I think it's well past time for us to catch some sleep." She took my hand and led me upstairs, ending a day that I thought never would.