"Jade." Amy sounded cautious and a little afraid.
"Amy. I finished what I needed to do and I can explain what's going on now. Is there somewhere you would like to meet up?"
She hesitated for a moment, then responded, "Meet me at the boat graveyard." Then she hung up.
That made sense as a location. It was private, away from her family, and not somewhere under my control. I didn't think we were likely to be interrupted either.
I didn't like how she seemed afraid of me. I supposed it made sense. The last time she saw me I was keeping suspicious secrets from her. Hopefully she would calm down after I explained the truth to her.
I walked down to the nearest bus stop and caught the #14 to the docks. Public transportation wasn't the safest— a lot of Merchants used it, but there weren't a ton of reasons to stab someone on a bus. I could knock them out with a touch if they tried anyway. It was still better than when everything shut down after Leviathan hit. I really needed a car.
I stood on the beach and looked out at the ships. Some held up surprisingly well and had little rust on them. They almost looked seaworthy. Others were decaying and falling apart, filled with rust and holes. I wondered what the difference was. Paint or material? I didn't really care. They just looked depressing. I used to think they looked cool, like giant playgrounds, but that childish glee had been crushed over the years. Also, I hated the ocean now. Leviathan ruined it for me. I was just cheery right now wasn't I?
I thought about how Amy might react. She might not believe me. That would be a bad outcome. I could offer to let her play polygraph, but if she thought I was wrong or delusional there wasn't a lot I could do. She could also just be really creeped out by the idea of a copy of her walking around. There was even less I could do about that.
That wasn't too likely though. It would probably work out. That thought made me feel better. I let out a little sigh and smiled towards the sun setting over the bay.
"Hey," Amy called out from behind me. I turned and froze when I saw Vicky accompanying her with a scowl.
"Uhh, hi," I stuttered. "I'm uh, not sure Victoria should hear this." I shrank into myself a little and tried not to look at Vicky.
Amy narrowed her eyes. "Anything you can say to me you can say to her." I folded up even more and desperately tried to think of a way to get rid of our sister.
I had no ideas. Vicky looked like she was more likely to punch me than give us privacy and Amy was almost clinging to her with a possessive, distrustful frown.
I haltingly began to use my plan of explaining my presence while pretending it was all hypothetical. "Okay, so basically, imagine that in the future someone is fighting a case 53 with time powers and they do something and the person ends up back in time?" Both girls stared at me with raised eyebrows as I hunched over, trying to hide.
"Go on," the healer said.
"And uh, that person is also around in the past so there's two of them now. And the one from the future doesn't really know anyone cause no one else came with them so they try to reestablish their old connections...?" I trailed off.
They stared blankly at me for a long moment. "Thaaat sounds like bullshit," Vicky drawled out.
I scowled with indignation. "Oh, really? Then how do I know about all the people you've hurt then guilted us into healing for you?"
Their eyes widened and Vicky took a defensive stance, getting ready to fight me.
"Chill out. I have no reason to tell anyone and if I did I would have already done it." I rolled my eyes.
Amy glared at me. "You know this really isn't a good way to get us to trust you, right?"
"We can be rather abrasive." My gaze softened and I met my twin's stare. "Sorry." Amy held her glare steady for a few seconds.
"And then you insult me." She let out a breath and relaxed into a sort of annoyed exasperation. Victoria, for the first time in her life, took her cue from her sister and settled down from "about to fight you" to merely "hostile."
"Okay, so you claim to be me from the future, right? Why should we believe that? A good thinker could find out everything you've shown us so far." Amy said.
"There's almost nothing a good thinker couldn't find out. I could be a stranger 10 that copies memories, appearance, and powers. Being or working with a precog would also allow me to tell you about the future, so there's no way for you to be absolutely certain, but if I had those kind of resources why the hell would I spend them doing this?" I finished with a huff of irritation.
"I thought your powers didn't work on animals as strongly as plants." Vicky commented.
"I kinda wanted to avoid this situation so I tried to make my powers seem different from hers."
"Tell me about the future then. Almost no precogs are good enough for this kind of thing so I can verify what you say later." Amy looked smug at her suggestion.
"You know, most of what I can tell you will take weeks or months to happen. I'm going to try and change some of it too, the ABB bombings were random and unnecessary."
"Give a summary for now then. I'm curious," she said belligerently.
I took a deep breath. I obviously couldn't tell them everything, but there was plenty I could. Bakuda, Leviathan, The Nine, and Skitter were all fair game.
"Pretty soon, if not already, Lung will get a bomb tinker," I started. "After that Armsmaster takes down Lung which leads to Bakuda bombing parts of the city in an attempt to get Lung back. A while after that Leviathan arrives and fucks everything." I remembered all the blood and broken bodies I had to fix, the destroyed buildings, and the sinkhole that opened up down town.
"That draws The Nine here and they fuck up our life completely. I wasn't really in the game any more after that, so I'm not super aware of what happened, but there was a pretty serious scandal about the Protectorate, specifically the Triumvirate. Quite a while after that everything goes to shit," I finished with a sigh.
Victoria and Amy stared at me with wide eyes.
"You seem to have left out some details," Amy said, shakily.
"There was also a bank robbery and one of the thinkers screwed with my head. Everyone in the Empire was outed after the ABB thing and the Empire broke up, but they just formed a couple new groups, so it didn't change that much."
"I meant more about The Nine. And Leviathan."
"I'm not sure how much there is to say about Leviathan. It came here in mid-May and wrecked everything, opened a big sinkhole downtown. A bunch of people died: Eric, Neil, Dean, Carlos, others I didn't know as well. Armsmaster broke the truce and tried to get some villains killed." This was exhausting. Remembering my cousin and uncle dying was upsetting and I hadn't even gotten to The Nine yet.
Victoria and Amy stiffened. I could tell they both wanted to disagree, but they knew how dangerous Endbringers were.
"How— how did Eric and Neil die?" Amy seemed to be having the same shortness of breath that I so often had.
"Neil got punched through a wall and then crushed." I felt tears pricking at my eyes. Sarah's family was always nice and tended to be more sympathetic than anyone I had lived with. We weren't as close as you might expect a family hero team to be, but they did offer comfort when Carol was sorely lacking and Mark forgot to take his meds. "We didn't know exactly what happened to Eric. He probably got hit then drowned. That fits with—" my breath hitched and I failed at keeping the bloody corpse of my cousin out of my head. "the condition his body was in."
They stared at me. I wished it was raining. Then I could explain away the tears on my face.
"Do you... need a minute?" Amy asked uncertainly.
I took a deep breath and while I calmed myself down Victoria strode up to me and engulfed me in her arms. My breath caught and I realized I hadn't touched Vicky since I fixed her after Golden Morning. I also realized my face was pressed against her chest. My eyes widened and I started to flush. Thank God she wasn't wearing one of her shirts with a boob window. I was already returning her hug and I wasn't sure how to respond now. I wanted to pull her closer, but that would be weird. Shoving her away would be worse, so I stayed there. Awkwardly.
Eventually she pulled away and I let her. When Amy got a clear look at my face her eyes narrowed in suspicion. She realized what I felt and my face reddened further.
Distraction! "So, uh, what… else do you want to talk about?" I said, looking staunchly at Victoria.
"Can we have a minute to talk alone?" my twin asked her sister. She blinked and looked between us.
"Sure. I'll go… explore the boats or something." She floated over the ocean and dipped down into the water by one of the sunken boats. Scuba diving was the MOST bullshit use of her power ever. She couldn't breathe, but she could fly through the water incredibly quickly and didn't have to worry about the bends because her force field kept her in a pressurized bubble of air if she willed it to. It could also keep her dry if she wanted.
"You're still in love with her," Amy stated. I sighed.
"I don't know about 'in love' anymore. Things went badly, really badly, and I haven't seriously interacted with her in years." Amy stiffened and looked shocked. "I'm still attracted to her and she's my sister so I love her, but I don't think I'm in love with her."
"What did you do?" That brought me up short.
"It wasn't my fault!" It was. "It was The Nine!" I tried to reign myself back. "Bonesaw nominated me to join their little murder clique and part of her test was to get me to break my rules, which she did by injecting acid into Mark's brain. It worked and it fucked me up. Then later when I was with Vicky I lost control for a second and… made it possible for her to return my affections." Shame leaked into my voice. "Then Crawler got to her and I fucked up healing her, badly. I couldn't remember how she looked before and she ended up not— not having a functioning body." I always hated telling this story. I almost never did. It was so stupid. It would have been easy to make a half decent body, even if it didn't really look like hers.
"Jesus." She looked shell-shocked. "I can't imagine that. What did people do?"
"Most people had other things to deal with and I was The Infinitely Valuable Panacea." My tone was acidic enough that I was surprised I couldn't hear the ground sizzling. Apparently Amy agreed as she stepped back. "I felt guilty," I said, calming down. "Guilty enough I got myself sent to the Birdcage. I met our dad there. He's actually really great." I let out a small grin at the only bright spot of this entire conversation. "That's also when I got my tattoos." I motioned at the small birdcage on my right shoulder.
Amy was still staring at me, wide eyed. It was a lot to process. I knew.
I was surprised I was crying less over this than over Eric and Neil dying. I had thought about this a lot more, so I was used to thinking about it, I guessed.
"You came here from the Birdcage?" Amy blurted out. I blinked. I hadn't thought about that.
"Err— no. I got let out. Everyone did actually."
"Let out? There's no way out of the Birdcage." I wasn't so sure of that, even without Doormaker. Ciara, the Fairy Queen, never did seem too interested in leaving, but she'd hinted that she could whenever she wanted. Maybe that wasn't true, but it was definitely possible given that Doormaker's portals existed within the scope of parahuman ability.
"There's a cape that can make portals from inside to outside."
"Then why haven't they escaped already?" Her brow furrowed.
"They're not a prisoner. They actually— well, um. They work for the government." I did not want to get into Cauldron right now. The worries that Contessa might kill me— or her— were just as valid as when I was talking with Faultline's Crew.
"Wait, why would the government let everyone out of the Birdcage?" Her tone was incredulous.
"Remember how I said everything got really bad after the PRT scandal?"
"Kinda?" she said unconvincingly. There was a splash and both Amy and I looked out over the water to see Vicky coming up for air, looking like an angel or siren, before she dived back down into the ocean. I returned my attention to Amy.
"The Protectorate didn't have enough powerhouses to deal with it. They needed all the help they could get. It was like a bigger Endbringer truce. Inmates were released if people thought they could be trusted to fight against the end of the world."
"That seems a little dramatic."
"Not more than deserved. It really was the apocalypse."
"What happen— you know what?" She snapped out of her reverie. "I want Vicky here for this conversation, so is there anything else personal we need to talk about before she comes back?" I considered that for a moment. She needed to deal with her passenger fucking with her head.
"Yes, we need to talk about your powers. Powers want to be used. They crave conflict and you don't give them that. That's part of why you're miserable. You don't need to get in fights right away, but you do need to do something other than healing with your powers. That's why I was trying to get you to help me with the plant robot. It should satisfy your power a little bit, enough that they should stop trying to punish you for not using them 'good enough.'"
"I don't— What do you mean powers want to be used?" I was starting to get used to the almost perpetually overwhelmed look on her face.
"Powers are kind of semi-sapient. They're trying to learn from you and they're not learning anything from repeatedly healing people."
"How do you know all this?" She almost seemed frustrated at me.
"A lot of information came out after the apocalypse. I also happened to work closely with one of the foremost experts on powers." As fucked up as Riley was, she was interesting to talk to.
Amy was quiet for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, then came back to herself. She turned to the boat that Vicky had been exploring and bellowed at her to come back.
Vicky did not surface in an eruption from the bay with a majestic spray of water glittering in the sunset. Instead there was silence aside from the gentle lapping of the waves and faint echo of Amy's shout.
I was struck by the idea of going in after our sister. I could grow a makeshift filter out of a fish's gills pretty quickly and surprising her might be fun.
"Wanna make some gills and chase after Vicky?" I grinned at Amy. That coaxed a startled laugh out of her.
"How would we do that?" she questioned with a bemused smirk.
"Grab a fish and some kelp? Seems pretty straight forward." I answered matter of factly. She looked at me. I realized that the whole 'using powers to do things other than heal people' thing was new to her. Or maybe she didn't want to hurt the nice fishys.
I trotted over to the water and waded into it. It would be annoying to be soaked after this, but it would give me an excuse to invent a biotech dryer. Fish might be a little difficult to find, but worms and bugs in the mud weren't. I used them to start secreting mating hormones. I didn't know exactly what hormones fish used, but I figured a big cocktail would at least attract something.
I also grabbed some seaweed that was floating around. I needed a blueprint of gills from an actual fish before I could start forming them, but I could begin making it easier to use the kelp by changing it into animal cells, converting chloroplasts to mitochondria and the like.
For a split second my power showed me the biological layout of a krill but I dismissed it, as I did the other millions of bugs, bacteria, and other organisms I encountered on a daily basis. Then it occured to me. Did krill have gills? I thought I saw them when my power showed me its body. I walked farther into the bay, dragging my hands through the water in an effort to find more of the little creatures. Soon I found another and caught it. It did indeed have gills.
It would be a little tricky to extract the oxygen from the water into my lungs. It wouldn't diffuse into the air, because oxygen was a bitch like that, so I couldn't make a simple filter. I could however, synthesize fluorocarbon compounds, by taking the fluorine from the water and the carbon from the kelp I had collected. The fluorocarbons would allow oxygen to diffuse into them. I formed a little organism out of the kelp. It was no bigger than my fist, greenish brown, small and slightly squishy. My kelp creation produced breathable fluorocarbon liquid. I used the kelp that I hadn't turned into a fluorocarbon factory to enlarge the gills of the krill to be able to filter enough oxygen for a relatively small adult human like me. I then attached the kelp ball to the gills so they could work together.
I turned around to see if Amy was following and she was. She hesitantly looked at me from right past the shoreline, where she was standing knee deep in water.
"You got a krill or something to make gills with?" I questioned. I doubted it. She didn't seem to be doing much, just following me.
"I'm uh… I'm not really sure what I'm…" She trailed off.
I waded back over to her and held out my large set of gills and some seaweed. They were huge. Maybe three feet long and would probably look like whiskers when I was wearing them.
"I'm making some gills to diffuse oxygen into a liquid that I'll be able to breathe. Try making something like them," I commanded her. I didn't want to be too pushy, but I figured she would be resistant to using her powers for something her passenger would be satisfied with. The Florobot, which I had just decided was an amazing name for the robot we had made the day before, was a good start, but much less drastic than something that did life support by filling your lungs with liquid.
"On an entirely unrelated note, what do you think of "Florobot" for the name of the plant robot?" She looked startled by this, but quickly shifted to contemplating it, then announced her opinion with a definitive "Yes." She returned to examining the gills.
She turned to the kelp ball, "This is meant to make a liquid for us to breathe, right?" She squinted at the kelp ball as she held it up to her face.
"Yeah, you have to hold it under the water though and the fluorocarbon will just pour out into the water if it doesn't go into your mouth."
"It's gonna be really uncomfortable to breathe in a liquid."
"I was thinking I would make a tube go down my trachea. It will still be uncomfortable, but I won't feel like I'm drowning as much."
A bulbous tumor-like thing formed on the bottom of her set of gills.
"The gills need a way to hold the liquid or when it goes into my lungs there won't be enough to breathe."
I thought about that for a moment. I would need to be wearing the gills for a time, while my head was underwater and there wouldn't be enough of the fluorocarbon for the gills to do their job. That sounded like drowning, which would be bad. I copied her tumor onto my gills.
I held the gills underwater so they would be able to start synthesising the fluorocarbon. After a minute I judged the pocket was full enough that I would be able to breathe.
"Okay, I'm going under," I said to Amy, attempting to sound appropriately dramatic. I walked out deeper into the water, put the gills in my mouth, and extended a tube down my throat. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I tried to relax and open my airway.
I pumped the chemical into my lungs, ducked under the water, and swam out to where I saw Vicky.
The water wasn't the clearest, so I couldn't see much immediately, but soon a sunken ship came into view. It wasn't the classic wooden ship that would have been used in the 1800s. It was metal, though it was covered in greenish brown mossy gunk. The ship was long and surprisingly upright. It hadn't fallen over because it was resting against a large stone outcropping. I thought it was close to where Vicky dove into the water, so I swam down towards it. On the deck I saw Vicky punching a shark whose head appeared to be caved in, but hadn't quite stopped moving yet. The entire scene was super creepy in the dark.
I swam in front of her and waved. She looked up at me and spoke, pointing at the animal she had killed. Bubbles poured out of her mouth and I heard through the water "A ark act me," which I took to mean: "A shark attacked me!"
Amy appeared above us and descended awkwardly using the breaststroke.
Vicky looked at me and raised a finger. She then rocketed up to the surface, creating a vacuum which pulled me into her wake and buffeted me a bit. The hell Vicky? After I recovered she came plunging back down and grabbed her sister. I figured she needed to get a breath. When we were all together on the deck of the sunken ship Vicky looked between us questioningly and put her fingers to her face and pulled them apart, miming whiskers.
I mimed back breathing, by putting my hand above my chest and raising and lowering it.
She nodded and gestured for us to follow her as she opened a door on the ship and floated inside. Amy followed after her, grabbing the sides of the doorway to propel herself faster. I copied her and inside was a hallway though I could barely see.
I made the same kind of bioluminescent bulb on the front of my gills as I had used for lights in my treehouse. It cast a blue glow down the corridor, which gave it an eerie haunted vibe.
At the end of the corridor was what appeared to be a control room. There was a hole in the ceiling that let light through, which is presumably how Vicky was able to get a look around.
I modified my newly bioluminescent gills to have an off switch.
Vicky took a seat in one of the command chairs and tried, rather successfully, to make herself look regal. I countered by floating upside down in front of her, almost sitting on the ceiling. She sometimes did that to show off her flying.
Amy joined me and together we looked like bitchy older sisters showing off our powers to our younger sibling. It was a fun role reversal.
As fun as this was I wanted to finish up the conversation with Vicky at some point. I gestured between the three of us and mimed talking by opening and closing my hand like a mouth, then I pointed upward.
Vicky nodded understandingly, then shot up through the hole in the ceiling and in doing so ripped it open wider.
Now that the hole was wide enough for a person to fit through, I supposed I could follow her. I swam up, being careful not to cut myself on the jagged edges. I saw the shark's body with a cloud of blood floating above it. I felt bad for it, even if it had attacked Vicky. I did wonder if it actually had though and Vicky wasn't just freaking out and killing innocent animals over nothing.
I made my way back to the shore where Vicky was waiting, Amy behind me.
Coughing all the liquid out of my lungs sounded like hell, so I reversed the pump that had originally put it into my lungs and pumped it out onto the sand. Amy rapidly stepped away from the pool of fluid. She then looked at me and copied me, sending even more fluorocarbon onto the sand.
After we had finished I looked at Vicky and asked the question that had been on my mind for a while.
"Okay, what happened with the shark?"
"It was crazy!" Vicky became animated at this and started waving her arms around in a way that didn't communicate anything. "I flew down into the water and found that ship and was looking around when it came out of nowhere and it was about to bite me so I punched it and it started thrashing so I punched it some more!" Vicky rambling seemed to indicate that the shark had tried to bite her, but I wasn't convinced yet.
"What do you mean it was about to bite you!?" I didn't want her to feel interrogated just yet. This felt like all those times she beat minor criminals half to death with little to no reason.
"It swam up to me with its mouth wide open. It was heading right at me!" she replied.
"You know, most sharks keep their mouths open to help them breath right?" Amy pointed out.
"Yeah, but it was totally going for me!"
"Sharks don't randomly bite people, that's all fear mongering from Jaws." I joined in.
Vicky opened her mouth to reply, but didn't say anything.
"So what happened was: an innocent animal was trying to breathe and you killed it because a movie scared you." Amy said judgmentally. I fought back a smile. It was an unfortunate situation, but we were making it more dramatic than it really had to be. Maybe Vicky would be more sympathetic towards animals than criminals.
"You're mean." Vicky pouted. "What did you want to talk about anyway?"
Amy turned to me. "Okay, so everyone gets let out of the Birdcage because it's the apocalypse and the Protectorate needs help," she stated calmly. Then she burst out, "What the hell was the apocalypse?" Vicky's eyebrows shot up. For her this was completely out of context, no wonder she was astonished.
"Long story short: the source of powers is evil. Or at least completely amoral. Jack Slash tells them to attack the human race and they do."
"You know where powers come from?!" Vicky exclaimed.
"I do. I can't say a lot, because there are some very powerful people trying to keep things quiet, but as they are the source of powers they do have at least a few dozen powers each well above the normal level for parahumans so a fight won't go well."
"So what are we gonna do?" Amy looked at Vicky incredulously.
"What are we gonna do? Nothing. Maybe tell the Protectorate. This is above our paygrade."
I waved them off and continued, "The chief director already knows, don't ask me how. No point in telling the Protectorate. I do know how we beat him last time though, so I can try and make that happen. I'll contact Costa-Brown about that."
Did I want to work on experimental destructive brain surgery? I wasn't Bonesaw, so no, but getting the ability to supercharge parahumans without completely lobotomizing them like Skitter would be useful. It wasn't really critical though, there wasn't a lot of point in making another Khepri other than as a distraction. Fighting Scion wasn't a winning strategy. Unless you counted psychological warfare, which admittedly many people did, so whatever. Point was, using his partner's death against him was a good idea, then finish him off with Foil— Flechette now. I think that non-combat member of The Travelers did something too.
"How did we beat him last time?" Vicky asked eagerly.
"Got him to commit suicide effectively." The sisters blinked at this, dumbstruck.
"That worked?!" Amy was incredulous.
"He was pretty miserable. That was why he was destroying everything anyway, so getting him to sit still and not use his automatic win condition while we killed him was just a matter of shoving his partner's death in his face repeatedly.
"Wow. That's… really fucked up," Vicky whispered.
"Would you do that against Behemoth?" I asked her.
"I guess yeah." She nodded.
"And Golden Morning was far worse than any Endbringer attack. The casualties on Earth Bet alone were in the billions.
"Billions! Plural!" Amy interjected, astonished. "That's starting to sound more like the apocalypse."
I smiled grimly. "It brought a new meaning to the words 'Endbringer truce'. We teamed up with the Endbringers."
"WHAT!" they both shouted.
That got a sharp laugh out of me. "Yeah, the way that happened was pretty complicated. I have some advice for the chief director on that front too. They fought by our side and hardly killed any of us so it was a good tradeoff. Shows how desperate we were." They fell silent and contemplated a scenario so dangerous that there was a truce with the slaughterers of mankind.
"It's getting late," Amy announced after a minute, likely exhausted. I had to agree, the sun had set and it was getting cold enough to be uncomfortable, especially with the water dripping off me. I was also tired and it had been a long, long day. "I need a chance to process all of..."She gestured at me and at generally everything, "this."
I nodded and we went our separate ways.
When I got back to my tree house I collapsed gratefully onto my bed. That had been exhausting. Not just talking with myself and Vicky. The memory of Schnieder's body laying, lifeless, on the ground was still stuck in my head. That entire situation was just mistake after mistake. I was way too aggressive with Victor and then I kept at it with Hookwolf. I hadn't started working on the disease until way too late and I had kept putting off actually helping Schnieder. Maybe I shouldn't feel so bad. He was at least willing to help the Empire recruit me, so maybe I could just call him a nazi and be done with it. If I did that then killing him was just stupid and not too immoral.
I stared up at the blue lights hanging from the ceiling. They looked disturbingly similar to an anglerfish's lure. I grew petals the color of morning glories, my favorite flower, around the bioluminescent bulbs to act as a shade. I considered the modification. They did kind of look like upside down flowers, but they didn't quite look right to me. The outsides were too simple and empty. It also cast the ceiling in way too much darkness. I grew smaller flowers with similar glowing bulbs in the center around each of the main lights, almost like replacing the sepals with smaller flowers. I was satisfied with the small beautiful clusters and drifted off to sleep.