Touching Zach’s skin to mine wasn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped; I felt the pressure of his hand pressed to my face, but texture was muted to nonexistence. I could all but taste the heat of his skin, however. I inhaled that energy, drew it into myself, and our contact vanished. The amount of warmth I gained from Zach was equivalent to when I drained Com’s power, which replenished all the resources I’d expended since I got here with room to spare.
Three or so days worth in a single draught, making it on par with a tank of gas for the grill I was using as an energy source, in a fraction of the absorption time. Fascinating, I hadn’t imagined that effect, perhaps my thermovore capabilities are intended for offensive purposes. I seemed to recall David saying something about tank powers like Zach’s coming with at least one other ability, and it seemed mine was to… eat… people… Oops.
All those thoughts happened in a period of time so short that the witnesses hadn’t had time to react. Zach stood in place, disgust and horror etched across he face as he saw the freak, the monster, that I’d become. The others stared, themselves unable or unwilling to act under these circumstances. With exception to Laura, they all seemed uncomfortable, like they were outsiders involved in a conversation which wasn’t their business and they didn’t want to be part of. Laura looked like she was about ready to grab something sharp and hope my eyes weren’t as tough as the rest of me.
No. I’ve done it again. I put so much reliance on my enhanced abilities to interact with these people, the ones who rescued me from Her, that I burned through my reserves and reverted to instinct and Hunger. Better to pretend it was intentional, rather than a series of idiotic errors on my part. I can’t let them know how pathetic I still am. “Tell me. Do you believe Kitten would have survived the carbon dioxide in her blood turning to ice?”
The look on Zach’s face didn’t change, but his stance shifted into a defensive posture. Before, he was afraid, but now he was intimidated. A step in the right direction, if nothing else. As much as it hurt to admit, I knew he hated me, I could tolerate his fear, but to imagine he pitied me was too much. Seeing how his sister and Anima tensed as well, prepared for this to become a fight, left me concerned I may have miscalculated.
“No, she couldn’t,” the other guy said. All eyes turned to him as he continued speculating. “Kitten’s power may insulate her, to the extend that any arctic fish can withstand those temperatures, but her power is still limited to emulating higher organisms. Maybe her regeneration could compensate and revive her as she thaws, but even in the worst case scenario she would be paralyzed for a period of time.”
Yes! Perfect! I’m good enough to–
He glanced around at the others, quite aware that he had gone against some unspoken rule when he said those words. “That’s why she’d never let you touch her.” His eyes returned to mine. “Killing touch isn’t that unusual an ability, and Kitten’s beaten more than one person with deadlier options than yours. You run on a battery, and that battery has limits. Kitten can go at full power for hours, perhaps days if she has to. You can’t beat her.”
Dammit, I’m still useless. Wait. “Can’t beat her?” My panoramic vision narrowed onto the man as a realization came to mind, one I would have missed as Cassie. “Present tense? Are you implying she’s not dead?”
He hesitated, while everyone other than Zach focused on him. Other than Zach, none of them knew. “We… I don’t know.” He looked away. “They never found a body, and without a body I don’t believe it.”
And now, thanks to me, everyone knows. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was a secret.” Even as Cassandra, I’m not good enough.
A low, deep hum rose up from the world around us, then manifested itself as an almost-human voice. “We would have figured it out, anyway, once the excitement cooled down enough for us to ask why you built an advanced warning device to find someone who’s already dead.”
I considered the pair of new details I’d discovered. First, there was another Imbued here beyond the three I knew about, and he had powers that seemed to be related to sound. My sense of hearing was about the same as before, but I didn’t know how my new body would handle sonic attacks. The second realization was that they built a Kitten-detector, and somehow my power set it off. Given the only similarity I could think of was ice powers, I assumed that was the key to the Tech.
The young man offered a smile that was handsome, in a girly sort of way that highlighted his Latino features. In a different time and place, I could see him filling the role of a model or actor who appealed to teen girls.
“Yeah, proverbial cat’s out of the bag.” He gave me an appraising gaze, which I noted didn’t stay on the usual parts for long. His examination was clinical, dispassionate, and without a hint of lust in any form. Or he could be a model who appeals to teen boys. “Though now I think you’re our evidence she’s gone for good.”
What. “Excuse me.” The way the others moved indicated that they were as confused as I was, so I was confident it wasn’t me who was the problem for once.
“Sorry, I guess you haven’t heard of the Mark of Cain, have you?” With those words, the others seemed to be drawing the conclusions necessary, as did I.
“Retributive Imbuement? I’m familiar.” Mark of Cain sounded cooler, but I opted for the term which showed I understood the science of the phenomena. I wasn’t spending twenty dollars of propane a night on superhuman online research for nothing. “Somehow, I don’t see myself being a valid target for Kitten’s Mark. We weren’t what I’d call friends.”
For once, my inhuman biology was a blessing rather than a curse. If I’d had tears to fight back, I would have failed. If my autonomic responses still allowed me to shudder, to become ill, I don’t know if I could have controlled them. Instead, my body weathered the ravages of my emotions with all the aloofness of a glacier. The boy didn’t do so well, flinching back in disgust, while Zach and the others looked at me with pity and regret. Stop. Stop looking at me like a victim. Can’t you see how it hurts?
“Sorry, I go overboard sometimes.” As he said it, he convinced me he was sorry, that on some level he even believed he understood. My hunches weren’t at Truthsayer levels, but even Cassie was always good at figuring people out, and Cassandra had superhuman intelligence and perception to bolster that natural talent. “But Marks don’t care about what the recipient thinks, only the not-so-dearly deceased. And you were closer to her than literally any other living human being who didn’t already have powers. Once you eliminate the impossible.”
“Then whatever’s left, no matter how improbable,” I continued the quote. Being at the receiving end of that psycho’s attentions still gave me what passed for nightmares. Meanwhile, I was still reading this guy’s body language, and connecting dots. He knew a lot about Imbued, and what seemed to be specific knowledge regarding Kitten. “You were there.” Reading between the lines, the statement was obvious. More, the statement didn’t shock anyone in the room, so I had a good idea who I was looking at. “Flux, right?”
“Guilty,” he said. “Sorry I…” He looked away and stopped talking; too many reasons to apologize to pick the one he wanted first.
When Kitten held me captive, she told me some things about Flux. Along with disturbing speculations of their respective sexual prowess, there were unflattering comparisons to Zach about how one was brave, if a little stupid, while the other was smart, but also a coward. I now saw her appraisal was uncharitable, but not untrue. At the same time, I would prefer not to allow that psychopath’s opinions to have any influence on mine, and I had a different first impression of Flux.
“You saved my life, back then.” Back when I was nothing but Cassie, running for my life as fast as I could, naked, that Christmas night. “She would have caught me, if you weren’t there.”
“I don’t deserve credit for that.” I could tell there was more to it than that, but I didn’t want to risk upsetting anyone further by pressing the issue. The pained look he gave me while doing his absolute best not to look at Zach suggested information which I lacked context for. To speculate now would result in assumptive errors and no actual facts.
More, I’d been running my perceptual and intellectual overclock for a while now and it was starting to near the point where I’d begin risking the return of the Hunger despite such a recent burst of energy. I could ask Zach to top me off again, but it didn’t require my powers of observation to guess how fast he’d shoot that idea down. Perhaps if I was willing to reveal just how fucked up I was, beg him to help me, but I would sooner be pathetic than act pathetic. It can’t happen. Never again.
I relinquished Cassandra, in order to conserve my batteries for a more important moment. I would have to trust Cassie to be enough, now that the ice was broken. As Cassie, I would have to trust Cassandra’s belief that I could be enough on my own. One last bit of insight informed my next bit of conversation, and then I was on my own.
“Well, too bad, you’re getting it,” I said. Without Cassandra, my vocabulary suffered, but also felt more natural. “I think I owe everyone in this room, one way or another.” I gave a look at Zach, a plea, that perhaps now he could stop pushing me away. He was standing there, holding his ground, but despite standing in front of her, it seemed like he was letting his sister protect him. The woman who, while having no powers, jumped into a superpower battlefield to protect him.
“You were all there. You all helped.” Cassandra was making an assumption when it came to the guy with sound powers, but she felt confident they wouldn’t have him with them if he wasn’t trusted enough to be at the battle with Kitten. More, she was certain they wouldn’t catch the error if she was wrong about him, and instead assume I was just talking to the four we knew were there at the battle. “Besides, if I really am a Mark of Cain, you know that means I’m going to be going after the killer no matter what, right?”
They all stayed quiet for a time, while I yearned to bring Cassandra back, to have her tell me how to make it work, where I screwed up and all the details I couldn’t spot without her. I knew she had good reason to leave at that moment, but sometimes I worried that for all her ability, she didn’t understand how it felt without her.
“Okay, let’s pretend that’s true.” Zach did believe me, I knew him well enough to spot his tells even without Cassandra. “Who do you think you’re meant to go after?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” It wasn’t, I only got the answer thanks to Cassandra. An answer that now made sense, but I never would have reached on my own. “Crucible. He’s the one who delivered the killing blow, right? And can you think of a better power than mine to go up against a pyro satanist gang leader?”
“The lady has a point,” Flux said. Nice of him to call me a lady when I wasn’t even human anymore. “Bulletproof’s a good start dealing with his gang, and she can straight up lulnope his power.”
Zach brought his left hand up, rubbed his face, then slid the hand up to comb through his hair. “Remind me to apologize to Com, one of these days.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to one of the others, or just himself, but it wasn’t directed at me. Cassandra got the impression that nobody here was a big fan of Com, or any of the police heroes, which was why she dropped the complaint about Sapphire earlier, and she judged from their reactions that it was a good choice to make.
I knew Zach hated them for as often as he complained about their incompetence and corruption, and it made sense for that to extend to his sister. Flux was a super villain, so it would have been weird for him to like the cops. The only mystery was Anima, and even Cassandra only knew that she despised Sapphire, not why.
“I’m going to give you a piece of advice I heard from, like, six different people I didn’t listen to.” Zach moved closer as he spoke. Close enough that if I could have grabbed him without Cassandra to boost my speed. Close enough that he was within inches of kissing me. I prayed he would, even if my lips could no longer enjoy the sensation. “Let. It. Go.” He stepped back. “Do yourself a favor and forget all about this. It’s not your fight, it never was.”
I’ve tried to forget. I can’t, and I’ll never be able to close my eyes without seeing Her face. Every time I’m alone in my room, I remember all the things She said, that She did, to me. I tried to die to escape, and I couldn’t even do that right. More, this is my way to stay close to you, and I won’t give that up so easily.
“So you do think I’m stupid and weak.” The guilt trip was one thing I was sure I didn’t need Cassandra to pull off.
The look on his face when he went on the defensive was priceless. “That’s not what I said.”
“Certainly sounds like it.” Now that I had the advantage, I was going to press it. “You don’t think I’m good enough to be a hero. In fact, I seem to remember you saying something about me only being good for eye candy.”
“What?!” Zach took a step back, and only his sister stepping out of the way in time kept him from stumbling over her. “I never said that!”
I would have rolled my eyes, but the solid eye color meant nobody would have recognized the gesture. “Well, which is it, then? Am I good enough to do the job, or not? Am I smart, or stupid? Strong, or weak? Make up your damn mi-”
“Okay, I think that’s enough.” Laura sidestepped between me and Zach. “While watching you prove my little brother has the social skills of a decomposing water buffalo scrotum is fun and all, that shit ain’t gonna fly here. He’s not the leader of the team. I am, and you ain’t got the tits to out-bitch me, little girl.”
I was tall for my age, but Laura was tall for any woman and towered over me. Without Cassandra for guidance, and for fear of touching her and accidentally draining her heat, I backed off and looked down. Some part of the back of my mind noted that, yes, her boobs did have mine beat. Stupid as it sounds, that bothered me.
“Sorry.” Dammit, I can’t keep myself from fucking up. Cassandra was wrong, I’m not enough on my own. “I want to help. My powers are good enough!”
“Yes, because a known backstabber is just what we needed to round out the lineup.”
Ouch. I turned and started walking for the door. I wanted to run, but Anima still stood in the way, and even I wasn’t stupid enough to do anything that looked to her like an attack. My power was good, but her power was godlike. Why did I ever believe they’d have a use for someone like me, when they have her on their team?
She stepped out of my way, but still watched me, her light brown eyes judging me from behind her impossibly flawless armor. “You’re going to leave, just like that?”
Why? What would you do? I’m not as strong as you are. “I know when I’m not wanted.”
She looked behind me, at the others. “Listen, I think everyone’s on edge after you came out of the blue like that. We thought… well, we thought a number of things. And it’s late, most of us are tired, and it’s not a good time for any of us to make absolute statements.” It was almost a command that she gave to the others, coming to my defense. Seeing as she was the most powerful Imbued ever, I was surprised she wasn’t in charge of the entire group. “How about if you come back later. Say, Wednesday?”
“I…” Zach’s not going to change his mind. He hates me now, he’ll never stop hating me. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Well, it’s up to you, but mid week is dead around here, so c… calmer heads can prevail. Maybe we can all have a chance to make a better second impression? Say around six-ish? You can come earlier, but then it’ll just be the two of us.”
The offer sounded wonderful, and it came from Anima of all people. “Sure, I’ll be here. Thanks.”
I made for the stairs before anyone could argue or Anima changed her mind. A few stares followed me out the door, but I’d gotten used to that even before I had blue skin. My car waited in the lot, still somewhat warmer than the frigid night air. I started the car, which began to warm in moments due to the changes I’d made; the air off the engine block now flowed straight into the interior. I didn’t breathe and had no biological metabolism, so there were no health risks where I was concerned, and the extra heat was a comfort.
I stared outward. In the end, today hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped, but it was better than I feared, and I was one step closer to fixing things. I would get Zach back, I just didn’t quite know how yet.