Emma Barnes scowled at Taylor's empty seat, then turned to page 242 of her book. Parahuman's Progress: A History of Capes, the chapter on the Endbringer Truce.

Though there had been prior instances of hero-villain cooperation - most notably the doomed last stand of Sao Paulo - the first formal truce was ratified on January 23, 1994, when the United States Congress passed the Preservation Act. Villains who fought against Endbringers would be offered temporary immunity from arrest, guaranteed anonymity, and generous life insurance and funds for medical treatment.

The truce paid immediate dividends. On March 26, 1994, Behemoth emerged from the earth six miles west of New York City. Local villains and rogues immediately swung into action. Armillary, Belobog, and Tiburon Blanco led their teams in a coordinated effort alongside the Protectorate's elite to stall Behemoth's advance for more than an hour until the bulk of hero forces arrived on the scene-

Emma set the book aside with a sigh. She didn't have the heart to keep reading. It was depressingly relevant to her current predicament.

She gazed out the window. A bare glimmer of sunlight trickled in through a narrow gap at the top of the window. The rest of the view was blocked by a massive pile of flooded rubble, shattered brick walls and twisted steel support beams.

Leviathan's work. Winslow High School had been crushed. She and her classmates were trapped inside with no way to contact the outside world.

The bright side was that she was alive. Her eyes drifted to the seat of the girl who had protected her. The girl who had saved everyone in the class from certain death.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat, then turned to page 243 of her book.

A hand tapped her on the shoulder. A familiar touch. Emma spoke without looking up. "Sophia. What's up?"

"How long has it been? Four days? A week?"

Emma shook her head. "Only two."

"You're bullshitting me. Two days?"

"Two sunsets and two sunrises since we heard from the...loser."

Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat. Sophia was already there, standing with her hand on the back of Taylor's chair.

"Two fucking days. Fuck." Sophia swore with relish. As if she was glad she had something to piss her off. "It'll take those idiots in the PRT a week to get their shit together after Leviathan. Already feels like a fucking eternity."

Sophia moved so fast it was a blur. A single smooth movement to pick up the chair, phase into shadow, and hurl the chair into the desk. The chair phased back into existence embedded inside the desk, and the mangled furniture toppled to the floor with a crash.

A pointless mess. But the rest of the class wasn't paying attention to Sophia's antics. They were crowding around the windows.

A cheer went up. Twenty one voices exultant.

Taylor was back.

"Los-" Emma bit back her insult. She felt her scowl give way to a smile. It made her feel weak but she couldn't help it. She was happy to see her former best friend, if only because it meant they were in contact with the outside world again.

Taylor climbed in through the window, opened by Greg and Sparky working together. Lumiere, as the capes were calling her these days. She pulled in a bulky backpack behind her, filled with supplies to tide the class over until the relief crews did their work and cleaned up the wreckage of the rest of the school.

Taylor looked the same as she always did, now. Faded jeans with a rip below the right knee, a long-sleeved tee shirt that was a touch too large for her bony frame, her curly dark hair trailing halfway down her back.

All in shades of gray.

Taylor swept her gaze over the class. For a moment she seemed to split, two versions of herself looking in different directions, until one of the two Taylors flickered and disappeared. Her power had activated in response to something it perceived as damage and restored her to an earlier state. A reflex that was triggered by as little as the pressure of her hand brushing against an obstacle, or a papercut on her finger, or a speck of dirt sticking to the treads of her sneakers.

"What happened? Did you beat Leviathan?" said Greg. Emma suppressed a wince. The geek was eager as a puppy. Taylor's biggest fanboy.

Taylor didn't return his enthusiasm. She must have been dreading the question. She sagged and spoke in a defeated voice.

"I...I'm sorry. I couldn't stop Leviathan."

Taylor hesitated, her eyes downcast. When she finally spoke, her words came spilling out in a torrent. "I tried, I swear I tried. I can only trap whole objects and he's too big to fit in a gray zone. I tried to pin him with zones around his body but he was too fast. It would have taken four or five to pin him, the best I could get was two before he slipped away. The other capes tried to hold him still for me but they kept getting killed, and he kept killing me, and...and then he...he almost tricked me into trapping Alexandria."

Taylor chewed her lip. Her power immediately reset her to undo the miniscule damage to her body. "I gave up on trapping him and tried to protect people. I made barriers to stop the waves, but..."

She chewed her lip again. Her power reset her again. A nervous habit. "...the heroes told me to leave. They said I was doing more harm than good. The streets I gray zoned are off limits forever, they said it's better to let Leviathan trash them and rebuild them later. So I...I stopped using my power. I stayed and helped evac a few capes, gave them medical attention. Resuscitated a hero who took a hit-"

Emma caught her choice of words. The heroes told her to leave. Taylor didn't consider herself one of them, a hero, even after all she'd done.

Taylor bowed her head. "I'm sorry. I promised you I'd make a difference, and all I did was make things worse."

A tear ran down Taylor's cheek. It made it half an inch before her body reset.

A hubbub of voices filled the air. Some comforting her, some angry, others pressing her for more news. One voice was louder than the others. Julia Schwartz asking about her parents.

"I'm sorry." said Taylor, raising her voice to be heard. "They don't have a list of casualties yet. I protected the shelters with my power but I didn't have time to get them all, and I had to leave empty holes for the doors, and...not everyone made it."

She took a folder out of her backpack and withdrew a stack of envelopes with names hand-written in pen. "I made these. One envelope per person with the status of your relatives. Alive, wounded, dead, or unknown. You can open it or not, whichever you want. Those of you who lost someone...I'm sorry. I'm sorry I couldn't protect them as well as you."

Emma stared at the envelopes in her former friend's hand, then found her eyes drawn to the window. Outside, where her family was waiting for her. Mom and Dad, and her sister Zoe back from college for the summer.

She wanted to go to her family, to rush to their side and hold them tight and feel their warm touch again. It would only be the work of a minute to start. Climb out the window, clamber over the rubble, and slog through the flooded streets to find whoever was in charge of what was left of the city.

She wanted to go to her family, but she didn't know where she'd find them. Home...or in a refugee camp...or ailing in a hospital bed...or dead and drowned in a flooded shelter...or nowhere at all, missing without a trace.

She wanted to go to her family...but she knew it was impossible. There was an unbreakable wall in the way.

The world outside was gray. Though, to the rest of the world...

...they were the gray ones.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

It had been this way ever since the day they had pushed Taylor too far. Taylor had gotten her power, then, and in her panic and humiliation she'd cast the classroom around her into a gray zone of eternally repeating time. A zone she had proven completely unable to dispel.

Forty two seconds, now. Every forty two seconds Emma found herself returned to the state she had been in when she'd given Taylor the final push off the edge. Forty two seconds, hour after hour, day after day, wearing grooves in her mind until she thought in forty two second cycles, dreamed in forty two second cycles, her sleeping mind's fantasies guided by the repeating sensation of her body being reset again and again and again.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Forty two seconds was a luxury. It was enough time for her to open her book to a page and read a few sentences before she was reset.

Much better than the first month, when the loop had been eight seconds. Much better than the first ten days in the loop, before Taylor learned that she could lengthen it. It had been zero point six six seconds, then. Six hundred and sixty milliseconds. She'd had to communicate with blinks and eye movements aimed at the cameras outside.

The experts said Taylor's ability to extend the loop was tapering off. Rather than growing indefinitely it was slowly approaching a fixed plateau. All efforts to enhance Taylor's power to help her end or extend the loop had failed. Her power rejected anything that would change her, even if it was an enhancement.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Taylor was the only one who could enter the loop and make changes that stuck. There was never any waste. The meals she brought for them on Monday left in the same untouched condition when she took them back out on Tuesday, even if they'd savored the first bite a hundred times.

She had tried to pull them out of the loop too, but her power refused to release living beings from the loops. The PRT called it a 'Manton limitation'. The same reason her power refused to let Taylor release herself from her own personal loop that protected her from injury.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Loser. That insult was Emma's personal cross to bear. She couldn't stop herself from speaking the curse that had pushed Taylor over the edge and doomed them all.

The others shunned Emma. Only Sophia, Madison, Julia, and Tim would talk to her in more than a few grumbled words. The rest of them called her 'Loser Girl'. For the word that defined her now. The word she'd spoken hundreds of thousands of times, the word she forced onto everyone around her with ears to hear it, day after day after day.






Emma considered herself lucky. It could have been worse.

Chandra had the misfortune to be looped at the precise moment her too-tight underwear rode up her ass. She'd had to experience that supremely uncomfortable sensation every six hundred and sixty milliseconds, twenty four hours a day, again and again and again. Without an instant of relief, without regard for her feelings, without regard to whether she was asleep or awake...

After a week Taylor had realized she could move objects inside the loop and saved her, but by that time Chandra had cracked.

Chandra was doing much better, now. She didn't scream anymore, her tics were less noticeable, and she only had her panic attacks every couple of days.

Then there were the less fortunate ones. The ones Taylor couldn't help. Shin had a splitting headache. Sparky had to pee. Serena had a cramp from her period. Again and again and again.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Yes, she was one of the lucky ones. She wasn't sick, or in pain, or even uncomfortable in her seat. Her mom and dad visited her twice a day, and her sister Anne came with them when she wasn't away at college. They brought her books and music and made sure she kept up on her studies.

Most of all, they gave her a reason to live, a reason to look forward to the future. They insisted on planning for the day the PRT found a way to free her. Even after the Protectorate's best had failed they never once wavered in their confidence that the heroes would succeed.

Her family's relentless optimism was probably an act for her sake, but she didn't care. Next to the oppressive cabin fever of the classroom it was a breath of fresh air. Knowing her mom and dad were coming gave her an excuse to keep herself sane and presentable. For the sake of her pride, and the sake of her family's smiles.

As things were, she only had three things left to live for. Her pride and her family were two. Her other raison de vivre was...harder to satisfy. She'd have to deal with it today. Nudge things in the right direction.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

The people who didn't have any support, any goals to live for...they simply dissolved. Everyone had snapped at one time or another. The benign ones spent days in an unresponsive trance, or muttering incoherently, or making useless repetitive movements in search of stimulation, rocking or pacing or stabbing themselves with scissors.

The troublesome ones fell to urges to satisfy their baser desires. For a while they'd had a miniature Lord of the Flies scenario on their hands, until Sophia made it clear that she'd kill the fuck out of the troublemakers as many times as it took to make them behave.

The next trouble on the horizon was going to be Sophia. They were all restless, stir-crazy, and Emma's friend had the worst of it. Sophia's most recent ploy to relieve her cabin fever was organizing a recreational fight club. An extreme sport with no holds barred, a game the class was uniquely qualified to play since they could recover from any injury up to and including death.

No one was passionate about the fight club like Sophia was, but Emma made sure to act the part of an eager participant. She'd nudged Madison and Tim into taking part as well. When Sophia snapped again - and it was a when not an if - it was going to be ugly. She wanted to be on her good side.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

So many social games to play, even sealed in a room with the same twenty two people day after day. If you knew how to play you'd never get bored. And Emma absolutely refused to be bored. She needed the distraction. Without her social games she'd be the next to have a psychotic break. And she refused to be the next to break.

Sartre had said it best. Hell is other people. Thus, as one who had been cast into hell...other people were her only pleasure.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Taylor began her daily circuit of the room. She stopped at every seat and delivered a small parcel with each student's mail, supplies, and rations. Then Taylor had a conversation with the student in quiet tones. Taking their requests and writing down any messages they wanted to send to the outside. Today she also gave them the special envelopes she had prepared, the ones with news of how their families had fared in the Endbringer attack.

Emma kept a close watch. Alert for hints of her classmates changing their routines or developing new ambitions.

Shin asked for an order of Thai food, going into obsessive detail about the side dishes. No surprise. Food and drink were popular favorites. They were also a good way to predict a classmate's mental state. People who suddenly demanded sweets and fatty food were on the edge of a breakdown. They'd spend the next week retreating from the world by stuffing their faces twenty four hours a day. Shin managed to be dignified about it. He was taking a journey through the menus of every Asian restaurant in the city, one order per day.

Chandra asked for books. Another source of insight into a classmate's character. Chandra liked books about motherhood. From what she'd babbled in one of her panic attacks, Emma gathered that she'd wanted to get pregnant with her boyfriend against the wishes of her parents. Now she was learning to cope with the fact that she'd never have children.

Sparky asked for another mod for his drum set. Emma's eye twitched. Asshole. If the stoner kept up his ear-raping attempts at music for one second longer than his agreed-upon daily playing time, she was going to stab him through the eyeballs with her pens again. As many times as it took for him to get the message.

Greg asked Taylor to load a save state onto his gaming rig. The geek was attempting a world record run of Super Meat Boy, advancing through the levels forty two seconds per day. Emma had to admit the game had a certain ironic appeal...

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Madison accepted her weekly stack of teen magazines and had Taylor take her dictation of the next three paragraphs of the article she was composing. A write-in submission to her favorite mag, tentatively titled Sweet Sixteen Forever. She was hoping to get on the cover.

Emma smiled. She'd given her friend the idea. She doubted they'd print Madison's story - the mags were in the business of selling celebrity culture and tips to one-up your peers, not sob stories, no matter how 'inspirational'. It would clash with the mood they wanted to instill in their audience. Besides, they'd never print a black-and-white cover. But it gave her friend a distraction from her imprisonment. She hadn't had one of her fits for a week.

"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.

Sophia didn't ask Taylor for anything. Instead she gave Taylor an earful. A convoluted discussion about cape powers and Endbringer fights. Sophia played the part of a seasoned veteran. She made Taylor recount the battle in exacting detail - even more detail than fanboy Greg had - and lectured her about proper tactics. Ha. As if Sophia was an expert. All she'd done was search-and-rescue during a Behemoth fight. Taylor had been in the thick of the action.

Emma didn't care about cape minutae anymore, but she paid attention for the sake of her friend. It would give them something new to talk about later, a few hours of time well spent. A rare commodity in their frozen world.

Then it was Emma's turn. She took a slow breath to steady her nerves. She raised her head to meet the eyes of her oldest friend, and oldest enemy...