Two days earlier…
“You live above this place?” Maya stuck close to Lucy’s side as they threaded their way past the lunchtime crowd at a restaurant simply called Jericho, headed for a door next to the kitchen.
“Yep.” Lucy beamed back at her, leading the way, “Trust me, it’s an awesome arrangement. This used to be a family-owned Greek place and they had the top two stories as living space. Then the new landlord renovated it into four apartments, but the front door’s still through the restaurant. Kind of a pain, but it’s a great restaurant. Basically any Middle Eastern food you want, they’ve got it, plus pizza and gyros. Good prices too—and they deliver.”
Maya looked back toward the front door. “But you can see Midnight Black from here. Isn’t this place your competition?”
“Call it friendly competition,” said Lucy. “The Emeri brothers that own the place are good guys, so I can’t begrudge them a living.” Taking out her palmtop, she aimed the screen at the digital lock on the door and it unlocked and opened a fraction. “Now come on; the little bonus down here isn’t the best part.”
They traversed two flights of stairs to the top story of the building, ending up on a short hall terminating in a window on a fire escape and sporting two doors: one next to the stairs and the other near the window, each on opposite sides of the hall.
Once more, the palmtop gave them access to the door by the window and Lucy threw it open dramatically while using the palmtop to turn on some floor lamps. “Welcome home, Maya!” After saying so, she looked deeply self-conscious before adding, “er… prospective home. Assuming you like it and like living with me and stuff.” After clearing her throat in the following awkward silence, she added, “Go ahead, make yourself at home. I’ll… give you the tour.”
There didn’t seem much to tour. Maya ventured into the expansive main room, looking about quizzically. It really was just one big room with a hardwood floor, a few stout plaster-covered pillars, and exposed rafters above, but Lucy had done an impressive job making it more than that. Here and there, Chinese-style screens sectioned off ‘rooms’ while largely leaving much of the space open.
A couch, an easy chair and a few low end tables faced a flat screen television right as one entered the door on one side, and on the other, a matching easy chair had been cleverly disguised with a quilt and positioned to face a corner dominated by book shelves and a small coffee table. Further inside, a modern-looking desk held a printer and a dock for a tablet computer with two small, squat filing cabinets sitting under it sat beneath a window with an office chair rolled up next to it.
Lucy slung her purse over the hook of a coat rack next to one of the screens sectioning off the couch and TV. “Living room, library, office,” she listed off as she joined Maya in her explorations. “The dining room here it the center of the whole house of course.
The dining room wasn’t sectioned off. A table set with a birds of paradise themed tablecloth was surrounded by four wooden chairs with cheerful, pink cushions in the seats. Three matched. The last one looked like an antique; dark, lacquered wood contrasting with the lighter, newer ones. Directly behind the older chair was a free-standing semi-circular bar with a brass rail and a standing china hutch full of various miss-matched glasses behind it and a mini-fridge hugging the pillar next to it.
“The bar, which you’re not allowed behind—except New Years. Maybe.” Lucy hustled past that area to the one immediately beside it. “And this is the most important part of the apartment: the kitchen!”
As to be expected of someone who chose to make food their life, the kitchen she’d built was larger than any other part of the house, separated from all the other parts by a two-part counter that formed an arc with a section that could be swung up to allow people to enter it through the middle. There was a sink at either end if of the counter; a traditional stove-top with burners on one side, and a huge griddle on the other. Two wall ovens were front and center, flanked by a sleek refrigerator with a transparent door on one side and a steel freezer on the other. Appliances, from blenders to food processors, to toaster ovens—all top of the line—sat on the inset counters below and above cabinets that no-doubt contained every dry ingredient and piece of cookware ever.
Everything was extensively labeled and in some places, the markers on those labels looked fresh.
“W-wow…” Maya whispered. She’d often dreamed of becoming a chemist and hadn’t dreamed of having a lab half as elaborate.
Lucy patted the counter top lovingly. “Yep. It’s my baby. When I first moved in seven years ago, I had a couch I rescued from the curb and an electric range. Built this place piece by piece.”
“It’s really nice.” Maya replied quietly.
“You haven’t seen it all,” Lucy said with a smile, prompting Maya to follow her again. The screens completely closed off one corner at the back of the room save for a space large enough to walk through. Maya caught a glimpse of a large bed, and an even larger armoire. “That’d be my bedroom. And through there,” she gestured to a place where the rear wall seemed to bulge into the room, blocking Maya’s view of the other corner, “is the bathroom. Sank a lot of money to get that just right. But the best part of all is right around here.”
She led Maya around the ‘bulge’, passing a set of open double doors that afforded a look into a large space with a tiled floor and a big, elevated tub.
The opposite rear corner of the apartment featured a chaise lounge and a wicker coffee table facing a floor-to-ceiling window with a sliding door. The drapes normally drawn across the window were thrown open to reveal the small balcony beyond.
And past that…
“There tore down the old Mayfield Bank and Trust building about three years after I moved in,” Lucy explained as they gazed through the gap in the skyline which gave them a beautiful if distant view of the South Anne River and the East Truman Bridge spanning it,” If anyone knew I had this view, my rent would triple.”
Maya moved closer to the sliding door to get a better look. Soot popped out of her hair and leaned forward until he almost fell off her bangs for the same reasons. “It’s perfect…”
Moving up beside her, Lucy beamed. “I’m thinking… replace the chaise with a real bed, get you a desk, dresser… maybe some blank screens to hang posters off of… this could be your room. And that could be your view.”
Looking up at her with wide, dewy eyes, Maya looked shocked. “R-really?”
“Really,” Lucy nodded. “Of course, if you want to claim some other spot, there’s lots of open space here…”
“I-I’d really like this.” Maya backed away from the window and found her way back to the chaise, sitting down on it and giving it an experimental bounce. “Do we really have to get rid of this though?”
Lucy snorted. “You can’t sleep on that. You need a real bed, kiddo.”
Experimentally, and careful yo keep her feet hanging off the side as she was still wearing her shoes, Maya laid down on the lounge. She was markedly small for her age and it actually made a suitable bed for her with plenty of room for her to stretch out.
After a little wriggling around to get comfortable, she found that her head lined up perfectly to still take in the view of the bridge, though she couldn’t see the water from that angle. “But it’s so nice…” she said dreamily, “Much nicer than the one in Ms. Master’s office.”
With a playful sigh, Lucy relented. “Alright. Since you’re just giving this a try for the weekend, you can sleep there. But if you decide you want to stay here, we’re going to get a bed…or at least a nicer chaise… so I don’t feel like the worst mo—er—guardian ever, okay?”
Maya gave him a genuine smile. “Okay, Ms. Black.”
“Hey, I think we’re a little closer than that now. I’m sure you don’t want to call me… you know… so how about if you call me Lucy?”
The smile remained even as Maya’s shyness may her intensely study her shoes. “Okay… Lucy.”
One Day Earlier…
Petra winced as she felt a sharp pinch on her arm. A will of iron kept her from looking at what was doing it or the woman doing it. Or the man sitting so casually on a stool across from her as if he wasn’t wearing a set of powered armor and she wasn’t his pawn.
Idly, she wondered about the nurse injecting the tracking nanites into her. Did the woman really have a grasp on what she was doing? Orb Weaver wasn’t mincing words around her, that was for sure. Maybe she did this kind of work for supervillains all the time. They just rang her up whenever a cop shot them, a superhero beat them up, or when they needed some teenagers shot up with the same tech they put into parolees.
“Repeat your objective for me, Petra.” Orb Weaver said, calm and casual. He was leaning back against the counter behind him, perfectly at rest. For a scant few seconds, she imagined forming a sword or spear out of her power and lunging for him. She’d never formed a purposefully sharp edge, but she’d try extra hard for Orb Weaver.
But in the world outside her imagination and wildest dreams, she was terrified of the consequences of failing should she try to hurt him. In reality, she was defeated.
She spoke to her knees rather than the man in front of her. “We’ll be deployed from a van outside the target near one of the walls. The ceremony is meant to be outside, so we’ll got over the wall as close to it as possible. I’ll be making a ramp to get us over. Dan and I are meant to cause chaos while Tamara engages and incapacitates the target.”
The last words were especially bitter on her tongue. ‘The target’ was someone her age, a fellow descendant that Orb Weaver wanted to bring into his fold. Being part of that was worst than being forced to attack people at all. “Once she has, we go back over the wall and split up, making for our individual extraction points.”
“And if you meet any resistance?”
“I don’t see why it’s necessary—”
“It’s necessary because I say so and I’m the one holding all the power over you,” Orb Weaver put only a slight edge to his words. He didn’t need to do any more because he’d made sure long ago that she knew what threat he was implying. Pushing off the counter, he brought his hands around to clasp in front of him and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Now. What do you do if you meet any resistance?”
Petra swallowed, her tongue feeling thick and dry in her mouth. “Use lethal force,” she whispered.
The Orb Weaver nodded. “Yes. And I will be checking. The news is always hungry to report on body counts. I’m hoping to hear a non-zero number.”
Unable and unwilling to add to the conversation, Petra just hung her head and sat there while the nurse bandaged her arm. This didn’t seem to appease Orb Weaver, who studied her quietly for a few short moments before speaking up.
“Oh, you don’t like this plan do you?”
“I don’t have to like it, do I?” Petra desperately wished to be anywhere else.
Now that he’d drawn her in, Orb Weaver sat back again and crossed his leg, resting his still-clasped hands on his knee. “Now, now. You know I’m all about the personal development of the students here. You are, each and every one of you, my very special projects. You especially, Petra. Because you’re smart. The right kind of smart in fact. While you lack the sheer breadth of my intellect, you’ll go very far I suspect—given the correct instruction.”
“Like murdering people,” Petra said woodenly. As long as she complied, it seemed to her that Orb Weaver didn’t care one way or the other about insolence.
“Like doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals,” replied Orb Weaver coolly. “Let us be honest for a moment, Petra: I honestly see in you a great deal of myself. Of the immense potential for greatness hiding just beneath the surface. But in you it is fettered by your insecurities, your misplaced faith and care for your fellow man and most of all by your fear. Of all the students here, you are the one with the bright future. Brain Child is a slacker, Tamara is just a dollar-a-dozen brute no matter how powerful she is, and Daniel is too afraid of his own power to realize the first and most important truth about them: he may die constantly, but he never stays dead.
“You alone have the will and the wit to use your wonderful power effectively in conjunction with any other resources at your disposal.”
Petra peered at him through her bangs. “Even if I wanted to succeed, tomorrow is going to fail. We’re three barely trained students and not only are the students and the security forces going to be there, but some of the Descendants as well. How do you expect us to fare against them? We’re going to lose and lose badly.” she tightened her jaw. “The best I can hope is that one of the students there doesn’t kill me or Tamara or…”
She narrowed her eyes, recalling now that she hadn’t seen one of her fellow students all day. “Where is Dan?”
“Dying.” The reply was uttered with such nonchalance that it took her a second to process it and realize what he’d said. “A rather lot, actually. Several of his ‘modes’, shall we say, have dozens of permutations. We’re trying to find the optimum configuration before tomorrow.”
Bile rose in Petra’s throat. Somewhere in the very same building as her, the only friend she’d made there was dying and there was nothing she could do about it. A tiny voice that sounded terrifyingly like Orb Weaver if the mastermind were younger and female told her that it didn’t matter: that Dan had assured her that he’d come back each time he died.
She beat that little voice down. However temporary, death was death and Dan didn’t deserve it.
“Oh please. Stow your empathy,” said Orb Weaver. He gave a nod to the nurse, who packed up hastily and left. “You may believe Daniel is your friend, maybe even your one ally at this school, but the person you think you’ve known up until now, these past few days, is nothing but a character he’s been forced to play. You’ve heard how his power works, haven’t you?”
In case he didn’t he continued, “Whenever he dies, he must choose attributes: as broad as his physical strength and as granular as his aptitude at various skills. We believe he could even change his appearance if he wished to, but he’s never relayed the presence of such options. In any event, the culmination of those choices leaves him as a wholly different person with every new configuration.”
A cold chuckle came from behind the bug-eyed helm. “For the past week or so, we’ve had him using a load out with high personal magnetism, maximum skill in interaction and high points in manipulation. You fell you are his friend merely because he wishes it and had the ability to make it so.”
That wasn’t something Petra didn’t need to hear and desperately didn’t want to believe. “That’s not how it is at all. We’re friends because neither of us want to be here and we bonded through that. There wasn’t any trickery or manipulation at all—until just now with you trying to drive a wedge between us.”
Orb Weaver spread his hands in an agnostic gesture and stood. “Believe what you will, Petra. But consider who told their sob story first. One of the first things I learned when I started playing people was to listen to them and quickly make up points where we could connect on a personal level.”
He crossed to the door and put a hand on the knob before adding, “But yes, continue believing you’re not being fooled. I suppose that’s better than accepting that I really am the only real friend you have here. That without me… you’re alone.”
To Be Continued…