The Near Now
Supper had consisted of a brief, quiet meal provided by the local greasy spoon and packaged in a brown paper to-go bag. Afterwards, everyone found themselves extremely tired. Their investigation into the secondary facility and subsequent escape from the complex had happened over the previous night, and then they’d spent the day fleeing through endless forest until they found the small town of Concrete. It had been two hard days since anyone had a full night’s rest and now with full bellies, sleep was a priority.
Feral, Presto and Gemini had retired to one room while Storm Witch and Electra settled into the bedroom across the hall.
Electra had gone to sleep quickly. It was a fitful one given the images of carnage and the horrific discoveries made the previous night that would haunt her rest. But for Storm Witch, Betty, sleep was not within grasp. In her mind she kept seeing her own corpse, the “her” that the scientists at the facility had murdered and that she had discovered in the most shocking way possible. The scene kept playing over and over in her mind; she could feel it eroding her sanity. The only thing she knew to do was to write it down and begin sorting it out. Only then could she rest.
She’d purchased the journal and pen at the bed and breakfast’s gift shop along with a sweatshirt and one of those trendy, plaid skirts that looked like a woman’s kilt but weren’t. All of it paid for with money that Presto had tricked the B&B’s owner into giving them, so she felt terribly guilty about it. It was just that they had no way to provide for themselves without drawing the attention of authorities.
So, while she’d shopped in the gift shop she had turned a knickknack into gold. It was difficult, making a change to reality permanent. Reality didn’t like being altered. It resisted. And she had to do it by brute force since training in the use of her power was always lacking compared to the training her friends had received. It had always been as if they didn’t know what to tell her to make her power work.
But the result was worth it; sooner or later the owner would find the tiny golden statuette she’d put behind the counter. Whatever losses the B&B might have incurred because of the trickery her friends had needed to employ would be more than covered by this small gift. Leaving it for the sweet old lady had done Betty’s conscience a world of good and she planned to tell the others what she’d done to give back tomorrow.
Betty picked up the pen and journal and quietly tip-toed out of the bedroom she was sharing with Electra, then peeked out into the hall. Little night lights provided enough illumination for her to find her way downstairs to the sitting room that also served as a lobby for the B&B. She found an overstuffed chair, turned on the lamp next to it and settled down to write out what had happened.
After Phil — Presto — had led them all to the secondary facility, they all witnessed first hand where they had come from. Vats held older but dead versions of Presto, Electra, Feral and Gemini (who was just one person). All had looked military — or at least had military hair cuts. All looked like they had died of wounds you only get in a serious battle or firefight. But her own body, Storm Witch’s body, was not among them. At the time, with the shock and everything, she couldn’t process what she was seeing. It was because only minutes before they’d walked into a room and found a body that had been hers only the previous day. It was a young woman’s body, not like the older corpses that had sustained battle damaged; her body had marks on her temples and nothing else. It was as if someone had come upon Storm Witch and sent a deadly current of electricity to quietly but very effectively burn her brain out. With enough electricity, she’d be dead instantly.
The horror of it had at first paralyzed her. Then it enraged her. She’d trusted them. Presto said she’d begun questioning the reasons they were mostly confined to the facility. This was the response their “foster family” had for her.
Betty gripped the pen hard as she relived the rage of the moment she understood the scope of the betrayal. She kept writing. In the journal, she wrote of how angry she was that these people they’d known all their lives could murder her in cold blood, how it hurt her to know they had all just been lab rats to those people.
Eventually, the therapy of writing helped the rage to subside. That pain was there and it might remain for a long time. But at least she could think past it now.
That’s when the first flashbacks really hit. But through each shocking, almost paralyzing, fragmented memory, she kept writing.
Feral was snoring again. It was difficult enough to find one’s balance after such a confusing and terrible past couple days.
Gemini sat up. Since his male side had won the cosmic coin toss when he’d last Joined, he’d ended up in the guys’ room with Presto and Feral. Looking around he saw the hump snuggled under a heap of blankets where Feral slept, but the bed that Presto had been using looked like it hadn’t been used. Gemini quietly got out of bed and looked around. It occurred to him immediately that the master of mind and illusion had likely tricked them again and left.
Not good. Gemini had strongly disapproved of what Presto had done to the marines. Yes, the marines were sent to kill all of them, but Presto had the greater power. He could have done any number of other things to neutralize the threat the marines had posed, but instead he’d chosen to kill them. Very… colorfully.
This wasn’t what they were taught. They’d been taught to become good people. Yes, it might appear they had been betrayed in some sense, but how did they know they hadn’t signed up for this? What if, in a previous life they’d been soldiers who willingly signed a “In case of death” clause that allowed experimentation later? What was going on here was unethical, perhaps immoral, but it might not have been actually illegal or even against their original wishes.
Well, except in Betty’s case. While there was strong evidence pointing to military backgrounds for Presto, Electra, Feral and Gemini, Storm Witch did not appear to have come from the same background. In that sense, he understood Betty’s rage, why she must feel so betrayed. Even so, when Betty wanted revenge on those marines, Gemini had talked her down, made her understand they were right at that moment choosing the kind of person they would be forever. Betty had stopped, recanted, and had been ready to follow Gemini’s lead when Electra finished off those marines with a very final, very violent result.
Feral’s snore threatened to drown out his thoughts, so Gemini pulled on a shirt and shorts and set off for the lobby, padding along with a silent, barefoot gait that only a highly trained martial artist could pull off. He was certain his movements would disturb no one.
So he was surprised when he found a light on in the lobby and Betty quietly crying by herself. She was curled up on a La-Z-Boy with pen and journal clutched in her hands. She looked up at his approach, startled a little since she hadn’t heard him coming. She made half an effort to wipe at her tears, but knew it was far too late to hide her emotions from him now.
Gemini wondered briefly. How do you comfort someone when you know they are not okay and have every right to feel that way? What do you say to help them find balance when their entire world, his own included, had just been pulled out from under them?
As it turned out, he didn’t need to say anything. She stood up and grappled him in a desperate hug. He could feel the way her silent sobs shook her body. “I… remembered things,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Like… flashbacks.” She let go and put her journal in his hands. “I wrote it down. Some of it.”
She clearly wanted him to read it. He found a seat on the little couch at the other side of the lamp and sat down, staring at the closed cover. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. But then when she sat down next him and leaned her head against his shoulder he realized that sharing was her way of finding peace, something he could see she desperately needed.
He patted her shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring way, then settled back and opened the journal.
The first part was about the previous night. The Presto had tricked them all into going into the secret, secondary facility that changed everything. This stuff he already knew, though reading her words did give him more insight into how she felt about it. She’d been really angry. It was no wonder she’d done what she did as they had left. The electrical surge she’d send down the rails of underground tram had probably caused a blackout and maybe a lot of damage, too. From reading the journal, he understood she had meant it as a message — don’t follow us. Don’t even try. She’d hoped it would be a distraction that would delay those people long enough for her friends and she to escape. So far, Gemini had to admit, it seemed to have worked.
The journal went on to speak of things that Betty was seeing when she thought of her past. What she wrote didn’t always make sense and he could see she was attempting to put words to scenes, sights, and smells that often had no frame of reference. But here and there it did make sense.
The most extensive flashback she recorded was of a man apparently composed of iron. His eyes glowed the red-orange color of molten metal, as did his mouth when he spoke. She named him the Iron Annihilator in her notes and said that he was in a lot of pain. She remembered telling him that it was the pain that made him strike out at people, that she could change that, take the pain away. Her journal spoke of how this Iron Annihilator had stopped fighting. He reached out to her.
But then the next flashback showed a city in the middle of a dense jungle. Betty recalled standing on a pyramid like they have in Central America next to this Iron Annihilator, only she called him Ben. There were lots of people in fatigues and Betty remembered being nervous. People were talking with Ben and he was getting angry, the glow in his eyes growing brighter. A jet flew overhead, some kind of military one Betty thought, and Ben struck out, emitting a beam of pure, red heat that sliced the jet in half and caused it to explode. Betty got angry at Ben and they started to fight, but that’s all she got from the flashback.
Another flashback she mentioned was about studying at a huge, dark tower that seemed to exist in completely different dimension. There was some kind of demon there, though Betty didn’t describe it as a dangerous or frightening thing to her.
Other flashbacks were like snapshots of a former life. A man’s face and feelings of love were remembered, but she had no name for him. She seemed to remember working with a pair of FBI agents once to capture a criminal, though she couldn’t recall their faces. The last fragmentary flashback described in the journal was of meeting a young woman who looked like a street urchin. She made a gesture at Betty and suddenly Betty found herself folded in half in the most excruciating way possible as her bones shattered one by one. She remembered thinking she would die here alone, but worried if “they” would find her. She described an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss.
Gemini realized it was when those feelings were overwhelming her that he’d found her. He closed the journal and was about to ask her a few questions when he realized she’d fallen asleep.