I apologized to Ray, sitting in the back seat of my car, for all the shit he had to share it with. I hadn’t been expecting passengers.
“It’s fine, sir,” Ray replied.
“Sir?” I said. When had I become a sir?
“A well-mannered young man if I ever saw one,” Akma said. “I’m betting you weren’t like him at all when you were young.”
Akma had her feet curled up under her and her window down. Her hair whipped in the wind, across her face, and she didn’t seem to care. Ray sat upright in the backseat and his eyes roamed the interior of the car. I’m not entirely sure why I committed to helping him, but once I had, there was no going back.
“I had my moments. What were you like when you were young?” I asked.
Akma brushed the hair out of her face and wrapped it into a quick knot behind her head. “I was impatient, insistent. I wanted to be bigger. Wilder. It’s hard being able to grow things in seconds and not being able to grow yourself just as fast.”
“Is that why you left Sanctuary?”
Akma shook her head and looked out of the passenger side window for a while before answering.
“You have to understand that Sanctuary was different when I was younger. Yes there was a dedicated combat branch, but that was always for protection, not intimidation. I left because I wanted to do something big, something flashy. I guess I wanted to be a hero.” She shook her head again. “Sanctuary started changing right before I left. More money coming in from god knows where and more power being placed into the hands of people like Wyrm, that fire-vomiting freak-show, and conniving assholes like Jasni. I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry you had to fight him, Akma, I really am.”
“I’m not,” she replied. “Jasni came for me. His own blood. Whatever he’s becoming, it’s not the person I grew up with.”
The three of us were quiet for a while. I instinctively wanted to comfort Akma, but I didn’t know how much she actually needed comforting. She seemed OK for the most part. I was reluctant to stick my nose where it didn’t belong.
“So, Ray,” I said. “You can bend light, right? What’s that about?”
I saw him shrug in the rear-view. “I can…it’s hard to explain.”
“Aren’t they always?” I shot back.
He smiled a little. “I can show you.”
“You’re going to want to slow down for this. And Ms. Akma, you’ll have to roll up your window.”
There was nobody behind me as far as I could see, so I applied the brakes until we were crawling along the road. It started to happen slowly. At first it looked like I was seeing through a tinted window, then gradually, like my car had been plunged into complete darkness. Somehow a little residual light made it possible for me to see around the inside of the car, but outside was a different matter. I stopped the car to be safe and put it in park, then turned around in my seat. “How are you doing this?”
“I bent the light as it comes through the glass. It’s one of the things I can do. It’s easier to manipulate the light when it’s coming through something or bouncing off of something. Anyone looking into the car right now wouldn’t be able to see anything either.” Ray grinned and then fumbled in his pocket. He stuck out his open palm. There was nothing in it.
And then there was. It was a box just an inch on each side. Completely mirrored.
“I can hide anything with mirrors on it.”
“What’s in the box?” Akma asked.
His grin turned sheepish and he opened the box. The smell of marijuana permeated my little sedan.
I shook my head. “What else do teenagers hide?”
“Porn?” Akma said.
“Too small,” Ray shot back a little too quickly.
“Alright, Ray, I’d appreciate being able to see where I’m going if that’s alright with you.”
“Sorry,” he said, and in a few seconds the sun was again coming through the car windows.
We started driving and Akma rolled her window back down.
“Your weed is shit, by the way,” Akma said, turning in her seat to face Ray, “if you want good stuff. I mean, the best stuff, you should ask the woman who can grow things with her mind.”
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have been smuggling seventeen year-olds into my apartment, but when the hell has the world been ideal? We ended up arriving at nearly midnight and I promised to make all the necessary calls first thing in the morning, but we were all pretty tired.
I allowed Akma to have my bed and Ray took the couch, which left me the bedroom floor. Akma gave me a look that said I was being ridiculous.
“We can sleep in the same bed, Nick. I’m not worried that you’re going to take advantage of me.” Her eyes narrowed devilishly. “Though knowing what you can do, I’d consider it.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll pass.”
I changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt (in front of Akma, because I’m not that shy) and was ready to get into bed when my phone started ringing. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway.
“Nick?” the voice said.
“This is Taras, from the other night.”
Oh shit. “Hey. What’s going on?”
Akma began giving me amused looks, probably picking up on the awkwardness in my voice. I would have walk into the living room, but Ray was already asleep. Maybe, I thought, I need a bigger apartment.
“I hope I didn’t wake you. Can we talk?”
“No, I was awake. Actually, I have guests over…is tomorrow—”
“Actually I’m at the door of your building. Sorry if that’s weird. What am I saying? That’s definitely weird, so I’m sorry, but I would like to talk. Just five minutes.” He added, “please.”
I looked at Akma who was raising her eyebrows at me beyond the human limitation of eyebrow-raising. I shot her a scatshing look and slipped on some flip-flops. “I’ll be right down.”
I slipped out of the apartment without waking Ray and opened the door. There was Taras, looking as handsome, if not more than the night we’d hooked up. There was one glaring exception: he was wearing his uniform.
“Here on business?” I asked, trying to keep things light and frothy.
He looked guilty after that crack so I braced myself for bad news.
“You have to get out of here,” he said. He seemed serious.
“Why? What are you talking about?”
Taras clenched both fists. “Nick, you just have to—”
There was shattering glass above us and I looked to see where it was coming from, Taras was already moving into the apartment building. I kicked off my flip-flops so I could move faster and followed. We raced up the stairs and he seemed to know exactly where he was going. I got the sinking feeling in my gut that told me he was headed to my apartment, that something was happening and he knew what.
“What is this, Taras? What the fuck is going on?” I shouted as we ran.
“Sanctuary. The SLA. They’re done playing. This is bigger than you now, Nick—” Taras reached for the door handle leading out of the stairwell and onto my floor when someone came through the wall beside him.
I leapt back just in time to avoid the body that had been flung through the wall. It crashed into the stairs beside me and stopped. I looked down at the face as the person’s eyes fluttered open.
“Nick,” he said.
“Zashir. What the fuck?”
I tried to help him up, but he slapped my hand away and did it himself. He looked at the hole in the way and brushed the dust and drywall from his torn jacket. “This is your fault, Nick. If you had stayed the hell out of this whole mess, everything would have worked itself out!”
Zash was angry, I’d never seen him so angry. And he seemed convinced that I should be the target of his anger. Before I could say anything to defend myself he was standing and coming in my direction. He tried to punch me and I hormone-spiked my own adrenaline to give me enough edge to avoid it. After being thrown through a wall, who knew how much force he’d stored up? It turned out that dodging was the right answer because Zash put a fist through the concrete wall behind me. I was confused as to why Zash would come at me with an attack that could have killed me instantly, but then suddenly I had complete clarity: Zash was the enemy, that was why. He was working against my goals and I had to shut him down.
Zash threw another punch and I dodged that one too, but I caught his arm and with skin-to-skin contact I was able to pump a fuck load of nausea and vertigo into his system. While Zash was staggering away from me, I easily swept his legs out from under him. It was like knocking down a child. It felt wrong—no, it felt great. I was about to kick him down the stairs when a searing pain shot through my upper arm. I looked at it and found a wound: a bloody line where something very sharp had cut across.
It looked like a bullet had grazed me but there was no bullet, no sound of a shot. Then I looked up and saw Devon standing a few feet a way with a hand out toward me and another facing Taras. A few inches out from both his palms was a slowly revolving ball of water. Suddenly the wound on my arm made sense.
“The first one was a warning. Something tells me you won’t be so lucky a second time,” Devon said to me, and then to Taras, “and you better not move either. I have no idea what you’re doing here, but that we can discuss later.”
My first instinct was to listen, to calmly work things out, but that impulse was quickly overriden by the sudden need to fight, to dominate. I made a move toward Devon. It was ill-advised, of course, but I couldn’t stop myself. He looked surprised that I was coming after him, but that didn’t stop him from firing his aqua-bullet at me. I thought I was going to die.
I probably would have died, if not for the fact that I tripped. I dropped to the floor and the bullet sped right over me. I tried to break my fall with my arm and ended up skinning my palm for the trouble. I looked down at my feet. Before joining the SLA and the craziness that ensued, I might have considered myself a somewhat careless individual, but that had quickly changed. Tripping over my own feet was not something that I’d do. So I wasn’t too surprised that my feet had had some help in saving my life.
There was a thick and complicated knot of creeping vines sprouting from a crack in the concrete floor. Akma’s work, clearly. I looked up just in time to find her leaping through the hole in the wall that Zash had made when he came through. Her arms and legs were covered in wood like a living armor, but it didn’t seem to be slowing her down. She came after Devon in a flurry of blows which he blocked and parried with his own appendages and with watery supplemental arms and legs that he summoned and dismissed at will. Their fight was a battle of the elements: the generative power of nature versus the fluidity and force of water. At one point, one of Devon’s water-arms formed into a blade and nicked Akma’s cheek, but the cut reveal not flesh and blood beneath but bark. The wound quickly knitted itself closed.
“What the fuck are you?” Devon asked incredulously.
“Your worst nightmare,” she replied, coming after him harder than before.
Something was wrong, I could feel it, but as soon as I’d thought it, I lost the thought and immediately felt like what I was seeing was exactly what I should be. My mind rushed to make justifications for it: Zash and Devon were traitors, they deserved to be killed by their former compatriots, Akma was the only one I could trust, she would finally take Devon out and hadn’t I always wanted to see him broken?
“Everyone, STOP!” Taras yelled suddenly.
For a moment everyone did and that moment turned into another and another. My mind turned the instruction over and over in my mind: everyone, stop. Stop everyone. Stop every stop. stop. stop. stop. stopeveryone.stop.stop.stop.stop.stop…
I emerged from the loop breathing heavily and incredibly confused. I was sitting on my couch in what was left of my apartment. It looked like someone had back a truck through the front door and there was debris everywhere. Trees were growing at old angles all over and flowers were sprouting from the faucet in the kitchen. The fight between Zash, Devon, and Akma must have started in my apartment.
There were a bunch of people in my apartment, including members of the Ocelots: Justin and Ringo. Likely they’d responded to a disturbance at my apartment and found a cluster-fuck waiting for them.
I realized though that something was missing. Someone. Ray.
I hadn’t seen him since I left the apartment. I looked over at Akma and then back at the couch I was sitting on, the couch where Ray had been sleeping. She shook her head gently and flicked her gaze over at Justin and Ringo. She shook her head again for good measure and I relaxed a little. Akma had been hiding him for some time, I had to trust that she knew what she was doing.
I tried to move, but my arms were tied behind my back. In fact, all those involved in the scuffle were in a similar situation: Akma was standing against a wall with her hands in front of her, Devon was sitting crossed legged on the ground with his hands in his lap, Zashir was balanced on a bar stool from my kitchen. All of our hands were bound and judging from my inability to push myself, I would say that Justin was canceling all of our powers simultaneously. An impressive feat to to be sure.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That’s what we’d like to know quite frankly,” Justin asked.
“If it wasn’t for Boros shutting all of you down who knows how much damage you could have done to each other, not to mention the civilians that your little duel could have harmed,” Ringo added snidely.
I shook my head.
“What, why…” My head was pounding. “I don’t understand why we were fighting to begin with.”
“Some kind of psychic manipulation, I think,” Zashir offered. “Not outright control, but not the work of an empath either. It felt like someone was taking everything that I intended to do or think and flipping it into a perversion, into its opposite if that makes sense.”
“I agree. It was like I couldn’t stop fighting even though I wanted to. It was like not wanting to fight made me want to fight more,” I said.
“Ditto,” Devon said.
“That sounds about right,” said Taras. He was standing in my kitchen with his arms folded. “Jack Valence was playing in your heads.”
“From the Orthodoxy?” Akma asked. “The former rock star was trying to get us to fight each other? To what end?”
Devon narrowed his eyes at Taras. “Good question. Why don’t we ask one of his cronies? You’re a member of the Orthodoxy, aren’t you, Mr. Boros? So why’s your boss trying to get us to kill each other?”