The Monoplex Hotel in Miami was a more than adequate rest stop for the Summers family. Abby's broad array of cousins, and their beleaguered service staff, now occupied the top twenty stories of the building. Coldwater had shipped in some fresh guards from wherever their headquarters was, and the paramilitary group had taken over security for the hotel. Things were, if not normal, at least settled for a time.
The hotel itself was a towering seventy-story case study of Dimension A's design philosophy. It was, without a doubt, a beautiful building. The base design was a tower, but its sides were adorned with a large, sweeping formation wrapped around the tower like a massive scarf. It had smooth curves and brilliantly carved patterns. It was painted in shades of red and orange and pearly white. Every so often, apparently at random, there were protruding ridges and bumps that disturbed the otherwise sleek surface. The entire structure was capped with a sharp point.
It was a fucking seashell. Someone had crafted a gargantuan seashell and bolted it to the side of a building. A few of the more expensive suites had balconies that ran along the inside of the shell's gentle curves, complete with railings and wind screens and very thick glass. Dan stood on one of those very platforms, looking at the street that was very far down. Abby stood beside him, both hands on the railing as she stared outwards, unseeing, towards the distant ocean. Merrill sat on Abby's head, the fuzzy mouse having hitched a ride from the mansion in Abby's pocket.
They hadn't talked much in the two days since Dan had returned. Dan had given a brief summary of his own conversation with Anastasia, and Abby had taken her grandmother's admissions with forced stoicism. Now she stood, and stared, and pondered, lost in distant memories of better times. Anastasia had raised her. She was more a mother to Abby than the long-dead woman who had birthed her. It was never easy to realize the flaws of the ones you love.
Dan watched the city move below. Cars came and went. The streets were emptier than any major city should be. Miami was in a state of apprehensive withdrawal. The rioting had dispersed within an hour of the mess in Austin. The UT Massacre had shocked the nation. The People had broadcast it live on a dozen different streaming websites. Thousands more college students had recorded the event, and posted those shaky, frightening videos online in the aftermath. It was the talk of every channel. Pundits argued about who was right and who was wrong, and the various technicalities of law. Politicians threw wild accusations at each other. Closer to the ground, citizens wondered if they would be next.
So the city was quiet. Dull and unresponsive, almost in shock. Nobody wanted to test the limits, now. Nobody wanted to stir the pot and catch a bullet, or a tank, or a fireball to the face. The fragile trust between protector and protectee had been damaged, maybe even irreparably. There would be consequences to that—there had to be—but for now the country was still reeling.
Oddly enough, the APD had come out looking like heroes; in part, because they had no involvement in any of the atrocities that the population had been subjected to. But mostly because of Gregoir. Over a dozen different people had recorded blurry videos of his moving battle with Coldeyes. While the FATs team who fought alongside him drew criticism for their disregard of collateral damage, Gregoir saw only praise. Every single recording clearly caught his bellowed demands to preserve civilian lives, that loud baritone voice carrying even through the thick layers of Coldeyes' power.
Also, he swung around a pillar of ice roughly the size of a skyscraper. The younger audience seemed to eat that image up. There was a GIF of it floating around on the internet, forever preserved.
The long and short of it was that Gregoir was a hero. The APD were pinning every accolade they could justify on his chest, and Gregoir had invited Dan and Abby to attend some kind of ceremony in Austin. Their friend had somehow found the time to commission the printing and delivery of an actual letter from some kind of specialty store in Miami. The invitation sat in Dan's left pocket, inside a gilded envelope and written on watermarked stationary.
"I think we should go," he said, breaking the silence. He didn't need to tell Abby what he was referring to. She had seen the letter, same as him. It was the last thing they'd spoke about, other than the weather and meal plans. That had been over four hours ago. Four hours filled with Abby's dark thoughts and the silence of a scared city.
His words reached her slowly. She turned, her eyes dragging away from the distant shoreline to find his own. There was a dullness there that made the world feel sideways. The good cheer that seemed to sustain her was buried under disillusion and a good deal of residual fear. It wasn't just Anastasia's failures that bothered Abby. Her brief, violent encounter with Cannibal had left its own mark.
Finally, she spoke. Her voice was quiet and subdued and grim as she said, "It seems inappropriate."
"Maybe a little," Dan agreed. He tentatively reached towards her, wrapping his arm around her hip. She leaned into his chest and he smiled. "Still, there are things to celebrate. Austin's two major gangs are basically gone. The NG have pulled out, the FATs with them. Maybe the city can put itself back together."
"A ceremony, though?" she murmured. "Don't you think that sends the wrong message?"
"Don't forget the party, afterwards," Dan added. "I think it sends a message. Not necessarily the wrong one."
"Find joy where you can," Dan stated simply. "Find a reason to celebrate in the midst of all this tragedy."
"That silver lining," Abby whispered. She leaned heavily into him, her body sagging with exhaustion. Dan dutifully supported her.
"Someone will take it poorly," Dan continued. "Someone always does. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It isn't hurting anybody. Gregoir did something good, and I want to congratulate him in person. I want to watch his peers acknowledge him. I think the big guy deserves it."
He felt warm air against his chest. Abby breathed in and out. Slowly, laboriously, she straightened. She turned to face him, putting both her arms around his neck and tapping her forehead against his own.
"I want to be there too," she said, "but it's not safe. The People could still be there. They could be waiting."
"Your grandmother seems to think they've fled," Dan pointed out.
Abby's arms tightened around him as she muttered, "Yeah, well she's been wrong before."
Dan sighed, then quickly dipped down and scooped his girlfriend into a princess carry. Merrill squeaked in outrage, diving across to Dan's shoulder. Abby yelped at the sudden movement, then rolled her eyes and shook her head as he carried her back towards their suite. There was a wry smile tugging at her lips. Dan deposited her on their massive rented bed. He jumped in alongside her, and she snuggled up against him.
He stared up at the ceiling, composing his thoughts. It was difficult to verbalize how he felt, but he did his best.
"I'm not ready to give up on our home," he decided with quiet fervor.
Abby said nothing, but he felt her attention on him.
"I loved what we had there," Dan said. Then he repeated, "I'm not ready to give up."
Her hand found his. Her response was not long in coming. "I loved what we had there too."
"The People are gone," Dan said. "Not forever, but for now. They accomplished what they came for in Austin, and they lost all their allies in the process. They won't stick around. And if they do, they'll lose. Even without the National Guard, or the Federal Assault Teams, they don't have the manpower to be a threat at the moment. They'll have to go recruiting."
"They'll be flush with volunteers," Abby muttered darkly.
"But it'll take time, and it won't be in Austin," Dan insisted.
Her head turned against his shoulders. Eyes, just a little brighter than before, regarded him seriously. "You want to move back. For good."
"Eventually," Dan admitted. "For now, though, I want to attend a party. And I want you there beside me."
She continued to watch him. Her eyes roamed his face, and like a flower blooming, she smiled.
"To find joy where we can?" she asked mischievously.
"It's a motto I can get behind," Dan confirmed.
Her hand reached up to cup his cheek. She was soft and warm, and she smelled like lavender.
"I know where we can start," she said, and she pressed her lips against his own.
Scritch scritch scritch.
A large man sat at a small desk, worrying at a stack of paperwork. His back was arched and he was bent forward, with elbows splayed sideways like a lizard and his head tilted down like a dangling grape. He peered down at the pages, a pair of small reading glasses perched on the edge of his nose. The light was dim. It was dark outside. The office was quiet and he was alone. His wrist twitched up and down and side to side, little motions from an otherwise stiff body in an otherwise still room.
Gregoir crossed out a long section of text with his fountain pen, then hastily scribbled out an adjustment. He crammed tiny, messy words into the space between two sentences. The ink ran dry halfway through, and he paused as his nib scraped against printer paper. Gregoir slowly straightened in his seat, his vertebrae cracking and popping like kettle corn. He reached one long arm down to the bottom cabinet of his desk. He unhooked the latch and pulled it open, reached inside and withdrew a bottle of ink. Sausage fingers worked to unscrew the cap, and Gregoir carefully dipped the pen's feed into the open bottle. He turned a mechanism near the top of the pen and watched as the ink was pulled inside. He turned it until it clicked, and he lifted the pen free. Ink dribbled down into the bottle.
Gregoir kept the pen there while he reached for another cabinet. This one had no lock and it slid open without complaint. Gregoir withdrew a roll of paper towels and used his teeth to peel off a sheet. He put the roll back into his drawer, shut it, then laid the sheet out on his desk beside the ink bottle. He carefully dabbed his fountain pen against the paper towel, until it left no patches of ink. Then he wiped it down and set it on the desk. He recapped his ink bottle, placed it back in its drawer, and shut it. The paper towel was scrubbed against his fingers, then balled up and tossed into a nearby trash can. It landed there, amidst several dozen identically stained and crumpled sheets.
Gregoir took a long, deep, steady breath.
His head drooped. His chin bumped against his sternum. He stared down at the pages of his speech and slumped as he noticed that there was more black than white on the page. Every inch of his handwritten speech was marred by his own revisions. Most of them were illegible, even to himself. Gregoir's hands were the size of dinner plates, and he ran them both across his face. The clock on his wall showed five in the morning. The station was empty and quiet and he was alone with his thoughts.
He was trying to accomplish too much, he decided. Gregoir had many gifts. Oratory happened to be one of them, but even he was struggling to formulate a speech that would mend his city in full. Not without castigating others, and that he would not do. Throwing around blame rarely made for productive discourse, and Gregoir was vastly more interested in solutions. He would be thrilled if the National Guard never appeared in Austin again, but he wasn't about to go and say that out loud. That would only create resentment. They had lost men too, and not all to mindless madness.
This would take more than a speech to fix. There was, though, a bright spot here! His remedial media relations class had become relevant more immediately than even the most prescient of his commanders had suspected possible. Gregoir had managed to avoid any interviews until his chain of command had been defrosted, and they'd briefed him on what exactly he was allowed to say.
Coldeyes was laying sedated in a room somewhere, secret to even him. The Natural's eyes had been surgically removed as soon as it had been practically possible, but nobody was sure if that would actually accomplish anything. Better to keep the man unconscious until he was ready to be interrogated. Captain Gable was in a protracted fight with the FBI over exactly who received that privilege. Nobody in the department wanted any more feds anywhere near Austin. Some were prepared to fight over that opinion.
He was drifting, Gregoir realized. It was late— it was early. He hadn't slept. There wasn't time for sleep; too much to do. But even Gregoir needed a break, sometimes. He checked the clock again, blinking as he realized he'd somehow lost an entire hour. Six in the morning. The next shift should be arriving soon. It didn't really affect him. Gregoir was off duty for the next week, until his awards ceremony. He had time to finish his speech. Time to himself, and his own projects.
He considered that. Rolled it around his head. Examined it from every angle. Then he scooped up the pages of his speech, neatly squared them, and placed them gently back down on his desk. He dropped his pen into an empty coffee mug filled with other writing utensils and unlatched yet another drawer. He reached in, drew out his badge and gun, and stood. The police-issue Glock slid into the holster at his waist, and his badge went around his neck, then tucked into his shirt. He straightened his clothing, stretched out his arms and back, then walked out the door.
He borrowed a squad car for the drive. Things would go more smoothly if he didn't putter in on his old Beetle, much as he loved it. The journey out of the city was a somber affair. The streets were abandoned and traffic was light. He could see flashes of the UT campus in the distance as he passed between buildings. The Memorial Stadium loomed like a specter over a graveyard. Gregoir drove on.
He took I-35 north towards Round Rock. He passed out of the city through an abandoned checkpoint, orange cones cast carelessly aside as manpower was distributed elsewhere. Gregoir made a note to pick those up on his way back. He watched city streets turn into country pasture. He watched cows feed in grassy fields and horses trot along dirt paths. He watched the sky shift from black to gold and the sun rise up over the horizon. Gregoir watched the world lighten, physically and mentally, and he smiled.
Castermann Juvenile Powered Detention Facility grew from a small dot in the distance, to a towering concrete cage. Gregoir pulled into the visitor's parking and locked his car. He pulled his badge out from beneath his shirt and arranged it to be obvious on his chest. He entered the detention center, and quietly, but firmly, spoke his request to one of the many guards. The man stared at his face with starry eyes and nodded without actually listening.
Eventually, Gregoir got what he wanted. He waited in a small visitor's room, seated in an uncomfortable steel chair. He heard footsteps from outside, and a young boy was brought in through the opposite door by a pair of armed men. The boy was handcuffed, hands and feet, and the guards quickly freed him. The prisoner was only just into his teens, with a skinny build and a short stature. His eyes regarded Gregoir with curiosity, then recognition.
His skin glowed like a second sun.
Gregoir stood up from the uncomfortable chair. He crossed the distance between them, and the child shrunk away. Gregoir crouched down, falling to one knee. He still towered over the young boy, but he schooled his features into something gentle and reassuring. He had made a promise, and he intended to keep it. He couldn't fix his city, not entirely, and not immediately. That didn't mean he would give up. That didn't mean he wouldn't try.
He'd start right here.
Echo picked at the remnants of his salad as he watched television. There on the screen, the current President of the United States busily decried the People's actions in Austin from a podium in front of Capitol Hill. Lights flashed and reporters screamed questions. There were more cameras and microphones gathered in the crowd than existed in most states. The President fielded a question about the National Guard, and his fiery defense of the troops sent an angry uproar across the plaza.
It was nearing the end of the man's first term, and everyone knew it would be his last. There would be no recovery from this. His only play was to take the lion's share of the blame, and let his party's anointed successor flay him in the press. Echo wasn't surprised at the tactic. Washington was very good at creating loyalty within its factions, even at apparent personal detriment. It was a multi-layered deception, giving off an impression of honorable sacrifice to anyone who saw past the initial façade. In truth nobody really left politics anymore. Echo was certain the current President would remain in some kind of shadowed advisory position, still within arm's reach of power.
He could respect the hustle.
There was a crackle of purple lightning accompanied by the sharp smell of ozone, and Gateway appeared in the doorway. They were at Echo's mansion in Connecticut, nestled in a private estate under a false name and a thousand layers of security. Here, the People regrouped and recovered their wounds after a mostly successful mission. Gateway had sojourned out of state only a few days prior, to check in on a few of their scattered cells. With the Safemaker compromised, the People would need new contingencies in case of discovery. Old contacts needed to be warned and moved. Any information that might have once been safely stored, had to now be considered at risk. The task would be a lengthy one, so Gateway's appearance was a surprise.
"Good news, I hope?" Echo greeted his second.
Gateway had put aside his garish cloak for a more practical leather jacket and jeans. He wasn't wearing a mask, and his hair was windswept and wild. His normally pale skin had managed to take on a pronounced tan in just a short couple of days.
The man shrugged. "Things are proceeding well. Still no news of Cannibal."
Echo grunted thoughtfully. "You'd think he would've stirred up some trouble by now."
"I visited the Summers estate in the Keys," Gateway continued.
Echo snapped his gaze towards the younger man. "That was very dangerous."
"It's gone," Gateway explained in lieu of defending himself.
Echo paused. "Gone? Gone how?"
"Gone. Missing. Removed," Gateway continued. "I talked to the locals. There was some kind enormous explosion at the Summers property, and when the dust cleared Key West had lost almost a square mile of landmass."
Echo cocked his head, considered this new piece of information. "Curious." Anastasia must have made it back in time. "Then we might not be seeing Cannibal again."
"That's not great," Gateway commented. "Manpower is critical right now. We lost basically all of our allies in Austin."
"We spent all of our allies," Echo corrected. "It was a good exchange. I think it'll be paying off quite soon."
"We need bodies on the ground," Gateway insisted. "Heavy hitters are at a premium. If Anastasia Summers can crack an island in half, we need something to match her. You barely made it out of Austin. Without Coldeyes around, we have no more expendable powerhouses."
Echo smiled shrewdly and pointed at the television. "The climate is in our favor. Coldeyes was never going to be a long-term ally. He was in it for the money. He'd turn on us as soon as it ran dry. Better to have recruits that come to us. We're trading sellswords for crusaders. I know which I'd rather have."
"When?" Gateway asked. "How?"
"No better time than the present." Echo considered his options. "Reach out to Senator Madison."
Gateway made a face. "That old creep? He told us to fuck off the last time."
"He was gentler than that," Echo observed, "and he didn't try to turn us in afterwards. Times have changed. I think he'll be more amenable, now."
Gateway seemed dubious, but nodded obediently. "What should I tell him?"
"Tell him..." Echo cocked his head in thought. A slow, confident smile pulled at his lips. "Tell him that Champion has called upon him. Tell him that the People have returned. Tell him that a new age is dawning, and it's time to pick a side."
"A little dramatic," Gateway commented dryly.
"He's an old man, much like myself." Echo chuckled. "He lived through the People's prime. He saw us at our best. Remind him of what we are capable of, and what we stand for. Let him know: this is only the beginning."
Four nights since the Austin massacre, and silence had finally blanketed the hospital. Night fell, and with darkness came rest. No more cries of the injured, no more rushing feet, no more bloody bodies rushed in for emergency surgery. The infectious disease ward had been all but abandoned in this latest time of crisis. Only a single doctor and single patient remained in the lonely, isolated section of the hospital.
Doctor Simon wearily organized his microscope slides, carefully labeling the latest samples of Burl Meyers' blood. Several x-rays were pinned to the lightboard on his office wall, and a time-lapse recording of an MRI played on loop on his computer monitor. An open medical text sat on the desk, its pages marked with sticky notes and the cramped scribbles of an impatient doctor. Next to the books, in Simon's own hand, were detailed drawings of interconnected neurons. He'd carefully labeled the various parts, and made notations where he'd found outliers. There were no conclusions listed.
Wrinkled fingers came up to massage a tired brow. Doctor Simon pressed hard against his own temples, ran his fingers down the length of his nose, and removed his glasses. He put the spectacles into his front pocket, closed his eyes, and sighed. Burl Meyers was dying, and there was nothing he could do about it. The man's brain had been altered by a process he did not understand, and could not repair. The involuntary functions of Meyers' body were slowly coming undone, as his brain forgot its own shape. It was almost like targeted Alzheimer's.
Simon was out of his depth.
He stood, letting out another harsh sigh. He moved to the door of his office, intent on checking over his patient in person. He had long since established the man's condition, so there was little point, but it made Simon feel like he was doing something. Meyers had no family, no friends, no life to speak of. Someone should be there, at least, to witness his decline. Simon's hand gripped the door latch, when he heard the strangest sound.
Whispers. Quiet, distant, yet right beside him. He reached for his ears, some instinct telling him that he was wearing headphones that had been turned down, but he found nothing. He turned his head to the side, trying to identify the direction, but the noise suddenly ended. Simon was left standing in his office, utterly confused. He shook his head violently side to side, and rubbed at his eyes. He hadn't slept in forty hours. Mild hallucinations were almost to be expected. He opened the door and stepped out.
The hallway was cold, and a soft breeze from the air conditioning rustled his hair and sent goosebumps down his spine. He fought off a violent tremor, and glanced at the nearby window. It was dark out. The window's angle gave him a clear view of the night sky. The city was quiet, and dark, and the stars were shining in a cloudless sky. They were beautiful, a spiraling aurora that split the night. He wished he was wearing his glasses. Without them, the light blurred his vision, smudging it. For a moment, it seemed like the starry sky had slipped past the boundaries of the window sill. For a moment, it seemed like the universe had seeped in through the cracks, leaving behind an encroaching trail of black pitch along the wall and ceiling. The night had widened its own viewport, and from deep within that void, lights twinkled from distant suns.
Simon blinked, and it was gone. The stars remained, but they were dimmer than before, and confined to the small window and to the night sky. He closed his eyes, then rubbed at his face. He needed sleep, his mind insisted.
When Simon's eyes opened again, a man was standing in the hallway. He was old, but not wizened. His back was straight and his skin was supple. His eyes reminded Simon of his grandfather's, shining with old intelligence, but his face was a well-preserved fifty. Wild, disheveled silver hair stuck up in every direction, and cascaded down past the man's shoulders. His hand was wrapped around the handle of a strange device that looked almost like a radar gun. The man was wearing a white lab coat.
Simon reeled at the sight. He needed sleep even more urgently than he'd thought, if he'd missed an entire person standing there. He cleared his throat.
"Can I help you?" he asked the man, his eyes searching for a visitor's badge. He came up short.
The man regarded Simon with curiosity. He waved his radar gun in Simon's direction, and it let out a short beep.
Simon blinked quizzically, just shy of delirious.
The old man leaned forward, his movements smooth and crisp. His sharp gaze bored into Simon's bleary eyes. "Have you had any odd patients, lately, young man?"
Tired neurons fired in a sleep-deprived brain. Conclusions were made, inaccurate but convenient. No badge, because one wasn't needed. The man had been invited. The hospital must have shown him in.
"Are you the specialist I sent for?" he asked the old man. "From Johns Hopkins? I thought you were held up." He staggered forward, holding out a hand. "I'm Doctor Simon. You're Doctor Augustine, right? Here to help me with Mr. Meyers? He's the odd case I emailed your hospital about."
"Not quite," the old man said, accepting the handshake. "Though I suppose I could be considered something of an expert in biology."
His grip was strong and vital. His eyes were clear. He smiled, wide and interested.
"So show me your patient, and I'll see what I can do."