Somewhere I have never travelled 1.1
I could feel my bugs crawling all over the shelter. They tumbled as people moved on their mattresses, twisting either to swat at their legs or just in quiet restlessness. It was strange, lying here, hearing the exhalations of what seemed like a thousand bodies and the muffled footsteps of people trying to navigate their way through the beds and belongings that littered the floor.
It had been cleaner, a few days ago, but then a cluster of shelters downtown had gotten flooded by a couple of cracked pipelines. After that, the remaining functional shelters across the city had to accommodate a much larger share of people, even as they struggled to find space for those that were already there.
Initially, low, blue partitions had bordered each cluster of ten or so mattresses, providing an illusion of privacy, of space. They'd been the first to go in the effort to squeeze more people in. After that, the pathways, defined by their lack of mattresses over the blue tarp that spanned the makeshift-shelter, had been filled in. So, all around me now, without pause or break, lay a thousand bodies with bugs that crawled, clambered, slithered and wriggled over flesh and skin that was ridged with bruises or clothes that were slick with sweat, blood, or worse.
It was a warm night. The heat licked against me, pressing and pungent, heavy with human odor. There were fans, but electricity was intermittent. I could see glimmers of night in silvery reflections on the metallic edges and faces of things. And below all that, the crowd of bodies began, with its every smell and movement crashing against my consciousness with all the careless fury of a flood.
And yet, that was not was bothered me the most.
I had read once, however long ago that time felt, about the devastation that the Endbringers left. The pain and the heartbreak.
But nobody really talked about the inconvenience of it all. About how angry you felt when others crossed over that non-existent divide between mattresses, occupying what was clearly your space with their limbs, or in worse cases, their belongings.
The woman beside me was doing exactly that. And I could feel the bugs crawling around her neck.
I twisted, trying to stand. My legs were aching and my arms still felt sore from spending the entire day involved in the relief efforts, but there was no point in lying here like this, when I felt so incapable to shutting out what the bugs around me were broadcasting. It had been a long while since my control had been so frayed.
I tiptoed, trying not to step on people. The bugs gave me a limited topography of the place: I knew where the people were, but the spread of their bodies was not something I could sense, or see. A lady cursed at me as I grazed her leg. Something sharp scratched the underside of my calf.
I stopped. The lights were off, the fans still. I knew the electricity was being routed towards the more critical areas, but that didn't stop the wave of indignation roiling through me. I was nearly blind in here, buffeted by a thousand alien sensations.
I had to leave. I brought a large mass of bugs to me, ants and other fast but inconspicuous insects. They moved in a wave towards the doorway, skittering over people and things, and, in the areas where they weren't clambering up or down, my feet found surer footing. I dispersed them before we reached that lightened crescent, and stepped out into the moonlight.
I was nearly a block away when the lights returned, the air suddenly flowing with currents rather than heavy and still. My bugs conveyed the strange sensation, and I felt the night breeze against my skin while this other sense told me differently. Within a thousand feet around me, amongst the trees, the cracks in the road, and a heated gust I could only assume was fire, were countless bugs, and through them I felt it all, standing beneath that dark quiet sky.
It was calming.
I moved, leafing through the sensations. In the beginning, I had tried to focus on them individually. After all, you could only hold one thought at a time, right? But that wasn't how it worked. It had never really hit me, consciously, and I had just fallen into taking it in all at once, devouring countless different impressions at a time and somehow being able to isolate and understand them all.
If I had a hundred mouths, I often wondered, could I hold a hundred conversations?
Lisa would probably know. Would she have laughed, if I had asked? But that didn't matter now.
Leviathan had left his mark. Not physically—his destruction hadn't directly reached here—but in the way people were sleeping in their cars, and the emergency workers trudging through the streets, waving in trucks carting food and clothing, bed sheets and mattresses. I had helped unload them earlier, and a part of me wanted to help now. But my skin pricked and there were just too many people around me, too many people whose movements my bugs were feeding back into my head for me to stay here.
I more felt than saw a person peel out of that crowd and move towards me.
"Hey, kid." He was a sturdy man, his hair starting to grey at his temples. Holding his flashlight aloft, he fell in step with me. "Not the best time to go walking around here, ya know?"
"I'll be alright."
"Parents?" I shook my head. "Oh. Sorry."
I didn't correct him.
He tried once more, and then, after telling me to stay safe, walked back to where they were unloading supplies. The three there turned towards me after he reached them, and paused a moment before resuming. Their voices felt like whispers and screeches and unintelligible clutter all rolled into one.
It was strange, being cared about even in this cursory way. Almost wrong, but then they didn't know about what I'd done, all that I had betrayed. But that didn't bear thinking about now.
The quiet night around me was roiling with sensations.
I didn't do this often, revel in the sensual side to my power. Bugs didn't feels things the way we did, naturally, but that didn't mean that they didn't register the light drizzle that had suddenly begun, or the soft wind that was making the trees rustle. At first, all that had been an alien mess of sensations, but I'd gotten better at interpreting it now, at contextualizing it and feeling it as I would, had those things been registering against my normal senses. It was far easier than trying to comprehend the words that were being spoken, or trying to see through their small compound eyes. And it meant that walking through that road I was in a hundred places at once, feeling the rain, being warmed by the fire and comforted underneath a thick quilt.
I walked, until the drizzle petered out and the wind, in its absence, grew stronger.
There were people around me here, ambulances rushing across the road, and the sound of distant screams. I had felt this place earlier, walking up the road—the cold, septic hallways of the building—and had begun purging the bugs from it and killing the vermin that had gotten in through cracks in the foundations. There was an air of cold, quiet efficiency. People in white strode across the grass, standing and directing the flow of incoming patients, checking charts and sometimes even replacing the IV bags right beneath the massive eaves atop the doorway.
I moved towards the crest of a small hill that faced the place, a couple of feet away from the road. At my back, the road, a wide expanse of dim yellow broke off to take a long curve towards the compound, passing by the squat walls and through the gate. And finally beyond that, the hospital, which even from this distance seemed to thrum with noise.
In front of me, the light grass grew longer, wilder, until it met the edges of a weald. It was soft, cold to the touch, and slick with the remains of rain. This close to the road I could see the streetlights glimmer along its edges, an entire field of sharp, gleaming blades.
It was liberating how little I could sense. All the bugs in my power were moving towards the trees, skittering over the slick, smooth tiles of the hospital, over the harsh scabrous asphalt of the parking lot and road, and into the wet supple grass. As they left, my awareness in those areas receded, and my senses grew dimmer behind me even as they ballooned out in front. But this urban forest was so much easier to contextualize. After the intricate spaces I had just trudged through, the forest was a simple tune, almost soothing really.
Her voice surprised me, more so because it had been a long while since I'd been surprised like this.
"Hey. Waiting for someone?"
I lifted my head. She was standing beside me looking down with a cigarette held between her fingers. Her features were obscured by the shadow of her hair. My answer stuck in my throat as I recognized her face.
"Okay. From the hospital? Taking a break here or something? I have to admit, this is a nicer area than the parking lot."
I thought for a moment and then nodded. I had been volunteering at a hospital. I could use that to blend in. The bugs were surging, wanting to come to my defense. But there was no point in getting them close to her and suffering from those headaches again.
But the spiders were gathering.
"Mind if I sit?" She didn't wait for an answer.
Could she know? She was being too insistent, approaching me like this. She had healed me after the battle. And while there had been no documented cases of Panacea using her healing to somehow track and identify people, I knew full-well the benefits of keeping some cards up your sleeve.
The spiders were spinning their webs and there were wasps in the leaves. I might not be able to hurt her or let them touch her, but I could restrain and perhaps that would be enough to buy me some time to run away.
But why was she here? Swarming with bugs, the canopy of the trees at the edges of the weald grumbled and shook, as if they too were waiting for an answer.
I remembered, vividly, the wide-eyed look she had shot me after Armsmaster had revealed his part in my initial betrayal. Had she tracked me because of that, because I didn't fit the sharp binary she divided the world into? Or maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe she just wanted to capture me. I had no doubt that all it would take from someone like her would be one touch.
I realized then that I'd already scooted away from her and that she'd tilted her head towards me, frowning at my movements. "Sorry, I know I'm intruding. It's just… been a long day."
I acknowledged her with another nod.
"Ok. Thanks. Want one?" she asked, proffering the cig. The embers from the edge sparked and fell between us. I shook my head and she took another drag, looking disappointed as the smoke came out in wavy lines.
While I'd almost reclined on the slope, she was sitting more hunched up, her knees drawn close to her chest, her belt bag pressing against her thighs. She coughed often and tried to quieten the noise by puffing out her cheeks and dampening the sound in her mouth. And as we sat there, the two things – the cape beside me, and the roiling angry anxious mass of bugs in front – pressed into my mind, accumulating pressure.
She was clumsy with her scrutiny. In my peripheral, I could see her glance my way numerous times, before turning away and taking a short puff of her cigarette and trying to silence her coughs. It was obvious that she had no real experience in a situation like this, which made me wonder whether others from the New Wave were close and observing, ready to intervene. What would be the point of sending her anyway? Did they think that I would be less likely to be hostile with Panacea, rather than somebody overtly threatening like Glory Girl?
Maybe this was less an operation of some kind and more a chance encounter? It would make sense, considering how poorly she was prepared for it and how nervous she seemed.
Finally she turned and extended her hand. "Hey. I'm Amy."
I looked at the extended limb, and then back up at her, watching her redden. There was no way I was touching her, not if she could use that to confirm whatever ideas she had about who I was. She took her hand back after a moment, sighing. Grounding the cig into the grass, she stood. "I'll just… be on my way then."
I turned to watch her leave. It was surprising how hesitant she was. Even in the bank, she'd been a lot more composed and vicious, at least until Lisa had begun speaking. Here? If this was an operation then I was severely outnumbered, and she would know it. Then why—
She paused, and began to walk back towards me. "Wasn't trying to be rude, you know. You just seemed so… sad. Sitting there for so long."
I just stared at her.
"Just wanted to make sure you were okay, you know?"
Subterfuge? It didn't seem like it, not with the way she was fidgeting.
"I'm," my voice came out rough, almost scraping against my throat, "fine."
"Oh, here." She dug into her bag and pulled out a small bottle and offered it to me. I wondered for a moment whether it was drugged, and then dismissed it. That would be too unlikely.
The water wasn't cold, but it made me realize how parched I was and how long it had been since I'd last had anything to drink. "Thanks."
She smiled, taking that as an invitation to begin the strange, halting conversation again. "And I was thinking, considering how you were just," she gesticulated with her fingers towards me, "sitting there, that I could help. Is there somebody in there that needs—"
"Oh. That's good." She was sitting again, facing towards me this time, close enough that her shoes were almost brushing my legs. "Long shift then?"
"What?" Oh, right. The volunteer guise.
I mentally prodded myself, in an attempt to keep up.
"It's pretty cool what you guys are doing, helping people, pitching in. I have a friend who's volunteering, like you. She usually unwinds with a movie, though. And a pizza or two."
I stayed still as she spoke, filling the silence in her rushed nervous manner.
"She says it helps, to think of something else after all that." She pointed vaguely towards the hospital. "Something nicer, you know?"
As she continued to speak, it took me a while to get what she was driving at. And though I no longer suspected any deception—she seemed far too nervous and earnest—what she was doing wasn't much less jarring than that.
It was also rude, I thought.
"…so, yeah," she finished, flashing a smile towards me that, in the dim light of the streetlamps, seemed small and hopeful. "What do you think?"
I had no idea; the bugs had stilled.
I should refuse, obviously. It made all kinds of sense, especially since I didn't actually go that way. But the whole idea of it was strange, so unbelievable that I just sat there, and she just fidgeted, as the silence grew more pronounced.
Had this been the secret? It couldn't be—the New Wave could not be so closed minded that Panacea would so deeply fear her sexual orientation being revealed. But if it wasn't that, it was close. Humiliation, shame. Heartbreak.
The seconds ticked by. She was drawing back, slightly. I could see it in the way her shoulders turned, and how her gaze twisted away from me. She had frizzy hair that she'd neatly tied up. There was a soft scent emanating from her—something akin to grass and flowers or thereabouts—but I could still see the beads of sweat on her neck, and the damp spots in her shirt. She had been working. Probably here, or maybe this was her last visit for the night, shoring up the more critical patients before she began again tomorrow.
Despite our encounter at the bank, I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for her.
"I'm," I began, before pausing. The bugs in the air above us were being rocked by a sudden gust of wind.
I looked up. Glory Girl slammed into the ground, a few feet away, the dust rising in a plume around her feet. She glowered at me, striding up the hill.
"You're a hard person to find, you know that?"
All comments and critiques are welcomed.