Chapter Seven: With Nowhere Left to Turn

The sentries let him leave the compound unchallenged. He can feel them watching, feel their minds registering his presence as a flicker. But there's no alarm and no call for backup.

He'd like to think it's because they still see him as an ally, even after what happened in the muster bay, but he's not that naïve. At best, they're keeping him sweet. They know how dangerous he can be as an enemy.

Much as he'd love to have someone to trust, he can't bring himself to take their offer at face value. Marlena's his blood, but right now that doesn't mean shit.

Hell, Kessler was him. And that didn't mean shit either.

There's only one person in this entire city who's even really on his side, as far as he can tell. His aimless wandering takes him in the direction of the clinic. He knows she'll be busy, but maybe a talk with Kris'll put things in perspective.

It's a hell of a question he needs answering. Team up with a bunch of murdering sociopaths to save the city, or go it alone, same as before? Maybe there is no right answer to this.

He doesn't notice anything's wrong until he's standing on the corner across the street from the clinic. The place is just a pile of blackened rubble. Smoke's bleeding skywards, entwining with the clouds.

People are just walking past. Most of them don't even notice. It's not the only fire that's happened today. He can see half a dozen other dark ribbons unfurling into the atmosphere between here and the Historic District.

He staggers across the street, staring through the burnt out facade crumbling before him. It's all that's left of one of the last bastions of safety in this broken city.

"Crying shame," someone says.

There's an older guy wearing a battered jacket and jeans standing next to him, eyes on what's left of Kris's sanctuary. His hooded eyes are wet with tears. Looks like the crying shame is literal.

"Took a bullet once, during a Reaper riot. The little lady who owned this place patched me up. Even gave me these clothes. She was a good woman. Crying shame."

Cole crushes his hands over his face. "Was?"

"You want to see her?"

-x-x-x-x-x-

The streets are the morgue now. Ever since the blast, people lay their dead at the roadside, waiting for the burial detail to come by.

Used to be that the dead just fell apart in the gutters. Then, one day, a bunch of guys from Cole's old neighbourhood picked up shovels and started patrolling the streets, picking up and burying the bodies.

Now, even the folks without family to take care of them get a burial, instead of just turning to fodder for birds and wild dogs.

The casualties from the clinic are laid out under tarp on the street leading to Archer Square. There's a guy standing guard with a sawn-off. One of the patients, paying off his bill to Kris and her volunteers. The old man nods to him, then leads Cole to the body lying in the centre of the line.

It's Kris alright, under the spackle of blood and ash and brick dust. But her neck's twisted like a corkscrew. It wasn't a fire that killed her.

He needs to see. He needs to know what happened.

He puts a hand over her eyes, lets his own fall closed, and feels the prickle of charge tumble from his fingertips. Sparks trace a path through her mind, into her memories.

He sees more dead laid out for the gravediggers. Gunshot victims who didn't make it in time to be saved. He sees through Kris's eyes as she heads back inside. He sees the clinic, overcrowded as usual, and he can feel that impotent frustration inside her, not much different from his own. She even thinks about him, in a disparaging kind of way.

He feels her alarm. Voices from the backroom. He sees a light as something explodes. Volunteers and patients are thrown to the floor. Out of the back staggers the ex-Reaper, Cole's patient, eyes wide and wild, crackling with power. Conduit, her mind screams.

Someone yells for Kris to run and then vanishes in a flash of searing light. It leaves her blind as she crawls away. For a moment, her mind is just panic and her own heavy breathing.

And then her vision swims back. The Conduit's behind her somewhere. She can't see where and she's scared. The patients can't get out. The volunteers are gone. There's a pile of them in the doorway. And blood. So much blood.

She runs at the entrance, hoping it comes after her, hoping it spares anyone who can get out of there under their own power. Something grabs her by the arms, so tight that it cuts her down to the bone. The pain is unimaginable.

A black hood looms over her. From it emerges a white face, eyes that are black from corner-to-corner, thin lips dripping tar. It tilts its head, like it doesn't know what to make of her.

"Why does he love you?"

The face disappears. The pain stops. Everything below her shoulders goes dead. She hits the floor. The world's already fading. But she hears the voice speak, one last time.

"Burn it. Burn them all."

And then Cole's out of her head. The old man and the guard are staring at him, trying to figure out what he's been doing for the last ten minutes.

It's starting to rain. He's flickering. Every drop on his skin burns like acid, even if it doesn't leave any marks.

He pulls the tarp back over Kris and takes off running. He needs a place to lay low, to wait for the rain to stop. He doesn't know anywhere. He'll just have to improvise.

It's his fault. Those patients, those medics, and Khris - they're all dead because of him. He left that Conduit with them. He brought Sasha down on them like the Angel of Death. All the power and resources of the First Sons at his disposal and he still let her slip through his fingers.

"Fell for the same trick twice," he says, grimacing as a raindrop crackles on his cheek, "damn it. Damn it!"

Every time you fail, someone's world ends in the worst way imaginable.

Next time, she's going down. Before she can rip the heart out of this city. Before she destroys everything worth fighting for, all in the name of her sick obsession.

For now, all he can do is run.

-x-x-x-x-x-

Rain makes his powers go haywire. No matter how strong he gets, it seems like that'll always be the case. Seems kind of unfair, even ridiculous.

He waits it out on a rooftop where someone's rigged a piece of corrugated iron into an awning. It keeps him dry and that's all he can ask for. He even catches a few minutes sleep.

When he wakes up, he's not alone. Two dark shapes are standing at the edge of the roof. One of them's wearing the greatcoat, tanks and mask of the First Sons. It wakes him up better than a cold shower.

The other's wearing a suit, long hair tied back. Marlena. She puts him at ease. A little. Not by much though.

He sits up, raking a hand across the stubble on the back of his head.. "What are you doing here? Come to drag me back."

"If I was interested in dragging you anywhere, you couldn't stop me," she says.

He could debate that.

"How'd you find me anyway? You bug me?"

"I followed you. I'm not interested in monitoring you, Cole. I think I can trust you to do the right thing without watching your every move. I came to talk. Just to talk."

He pushes himself to his feet and dusts down his jacket. "So talk."

"I've had Bishop confined to the stockade. I'll deal with him personally, but that might be punishment enough. He's never been there before. Give him time and I think he'll come around. As it is, I think it's worked out for the best this way."

"Yeah, no thanks to you."

"If I had stepped in, you never could have proven yourself in front of my men. A lot of them didn't trust you. They saw you as a weak link. Now, I think they might be willing to accept you."

"That's great. There's just one problem. I don't give a damn what you and your men think of me."

"Really? You don't think having a group of powerful Conduits marching to your beat sounds worthwhile? If you're honestly that stupid then we have nothing left to talk about."

He doesn't respond. Just when he thinks he's got her figured out, everything seems to change again. Sometimes she sounds so much like Kessler. Other times, she sounds like him. He guesses its to be expected. Technically, he's just as much her daddy as Kessler was.

"Maybe I can't convince you. Maybe you're sick of listening to me. I brought someone you might want to hear out. I'll be waiting."

She turns and drops off the roof, leaving what he assumes is her bodyguard behind. The man takes a deckchair and shakes the water off it, then lowers himself into the seat.

Cole stays standing.

"Hello Cole," he says, "you probably don't remember me."

"You all look the same with those masks on."

"That's true, I suppose." He unbuckles the clasps at the back of his head and let's the mask fall away from his face. Beneath it, he's about Cole's age, with blond hair buzzed close to his scalp. "My name's Jensen Curtis. You probably don't recognise my face anyway, but you should recognise this."

He taps at his right cheek. There's a star-shaped discolouration just below his eye. It's a shock burn, the kind Cole's left on gang members and cult initiates by the dozen since the blast. Except its not the usual pink of old burn scarring. It's black, because there's tar seared into the wound.

"Ex-Reaper?"

"Ex-Reaper Conduit. You left me flat on my back in an alley somewhere, after we tried to get the drop on you one time. First Sons found me before the cops. Took me in. Cleaned me up. Educated me."

"And you've got a score to settle now, is that it?"

"Yeah, you could say that. But not with you. See, far as I'm concerned, you and Marl saved me from a fate worse than death."

"So you're working for the First Sons instead?"

Jensen shrugs. "Means to an end. I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. They gave me the option to get out of the city, start fresh, learn to control my powers. I wanted to stay and fight. Responsibility. Like you said."

"That right?"

"Yeah, that's right. Marl wants to help you, Cole. And I want to help her help you. I want to pay you both back. Look at me. Look at my face. You know I'm the real deal. Bishop's been First Sons for over fifteen years. You can't judge us all based on him. Two months ago, I was just like you. So were a lot of the guys."

He sighs, staring at his boots. When he looks up again, he's wearing an expression Cole recognises. It's somewhere between overwhelmed by Empire City's situation and resigned to the knowledge that he's one of the only ones who can help fix it.

"Hell, I'm still like you. Just a man trying to do the best he can with what he's got. I figure we could all use a little more."

He holds out a hand, like he wants to seal the deal.

"So what do you say?"

-x-x-x-x-x-