“Did we break her?” asked Ben, off to Olivia’s left. He poked her in the cheek, failing to provoke any sort of reaction out of her.
“Leave her alone,” said Miya, who still wore that face concealing scarf for some reason.
“She hasn’t said a thing since the brain aneurysm thingy. Tha’ sucked, by the way, never told ya earlier. Same for you?” he asked Miya. Head still hurts a bit from that.
“Yes, and she’s not going to get any better if you keep harassing her. Leave her alone,” commanded Miya. They had the headache thing too?
“I’m still here,” murmured Olivia, eyes fixed firmly on her knees. She still sat on the top of the table. Ben had caught her from falling off when the brain thing happened.
“Wha’ was that?” asked Ben.
“I’m still here,” repeated Olivia, about one quarter of a decibel louder than before.
“Ah. See, Miya? Improvement.”
“Are you alright, Olivia?” asked Miya, taking a step closer.
Olivia closed her eyes for a moment. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember how I got here or what had happened again. Again. How could I have not realized that? Stupid me. And get a grip, the others are here. Don’t cry or waste their time or anything.
“I’m OK,” said Olivia.
Ben gave a disbelieving snort. “Bullshit.”
“Shut up,” barked Miya. Please stop. Both of you.
“I’m OK,” insisted Olivia. At least I’m not bleeding or anything. Find a bright side. “I’m… I’m fine.”
“I don’ think you’re bein’ entirely honest ‘bout all this,” said Ben.
“I’m stupid, OK? I thought it was real,” burst Olivia. “I thought it was real and I didn’t question it and I didn’t want it to end and I couldn’t remember how it happened and I didn’t care. Sorry.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. And the others from the lair are still gone and I have no idea where they are.
“The hell is wrong with you, Ben?” asked Miya before Olivia could finish. “Look at what you did. Why do you keep harassing her about this?” She advanced on Ben.
“Curiosity. Honesty. I dunno.” He didn’t smile anymore.
“It’s OK,” Olivia tried to say.
“You need to just stop talking,” Miya continued to Ben. Please stop.
“Yeah, I’m jus’ gonna ignore that. Now fuck off,” said Ben, lifting a hand over Miya’s head and making a shoo-ing motion. He got a swift punch to the gut as a result. Miya!
Miya followed up with a blow aimed at the underside of Ben’s chin. As he flinched from the punch to the stomach, he tilted his head so her second punch landed directly on the ridge of his jaw, rather than ruining his mouth.
His shoo-ing hand snapped down to grab Miya’s hair at the same time. He wrenched her head back and his other hand shot forward in a punch to her throat. He stepped forward and swept her leg quicker than Miya had time to react. Miya turned and fell on her back, and Ben snapped a kick to her ribs.
What… stop it. Just stop it. Less thinking, more stopping. Olivia jumped down from the table.
“My tolerance for that kinda bullshit is real fuckin’ low right now,” he shouted down at Miya, still not smiling.
He wound up for another kick when Olivia lowered her shoulder and hit him in the side. She only meant to distract him, to get him to stop, but she hit him hard enough to make him trip over his own feet and topple over. Oops.
Olivia placed herself between the two of them, feet planted wide, bracing. “Stop it, both of you.”
Ben rolled and began to get up, pausing to spit some blood and saliva off to the side before jumping back upright. Don’t do something stupid, don’t do something stupid.
“She started it,” he said as he pointed to Miya.
Olivia half turned to check on Miya. Miya sat upright, massaging her throat. It sounded like she was deliberately breathing to make sure air passed through correctly. Doesn’t sound like she’s wheezing or anything.
“I don’t care. What are you two even doing?”
“Did you,” began Miya in a rasp. She coughed, then continued in a clearer voice. “Did you hear him? He was being a complete ass.”
“I’m fine. I told you. Please, just stop,” said Olivia. “This isn’t helping.” Please listen.
“Fine, whatever,” said Ben, one corner of his mouth curving upwards in a half smile. He began a slow walk back to the table, not taking his eyes off her or Miya..
Olivia turned her attention back on Miya. She offered a hand to help her back up. “Are you OK?” asked Olivia.
“Been worse. I’ll live,” she responded, accepting Olivia’s help. “And you,” she added to Ben, “Fuck you.”
Olivia tightened her grip on Miya’s hand as she pulled her up and said, “No. I said stop.” Listen. Why won’t you listen? Please listen.
Miya winced under her scarf (Why is she wearing that? Should I ask?) and said, “Ow, OK. Fine.” Sorry about that. But still, both of you are really short tempered all of a sudden.
Miya and Ben sat on opposite sides of the table and glared; Olivia half expect the air between the two to catch fire. Olivia gave a long sigh as she took a seat. I didn’t realize I was kind of holding my breath that whole time. She leaned back in the chair and hung her head. Well that was a distraction if nothing else.
They sat in silence for a while, no one knowing what to say. This isn’t real. None of it is. Everything still sounds like I have a blanket over my ears, only super thick blankets. She’d pressed what she’d used as blankets against her ears a few times in the week she’d first woken up.
She twiddled with the hem of her shirt again. The fabric feels all… fabric-y. Claws can’t really feel anything. Or scales, to a lesser extent. Never noticed that before. But this isn’t me. It’s just some weird illusion thing, not real.
“Gaaah! We need to find a way outta here,” exclaimed Ben, breaking Olivia’s train of thought.
“Yeah, no shit,” said Miya.
Olivia sighed and rested her forehead on the tabletop. Please stop it. That’s becoming my mantra isn’t it?
“See?” said Ben to Miya. “Look at what ya did. Olivia, jus’ remember, no matter what happens, you’ll always be taller than Miya.” Olivia gave a tiny smiled in spite of herself. That was kind of forced, but yeah, she is kind of short. Miya rolled her eyes, but said nothing.
Olivia sat upright again. “Sorry. For, you know, hitting you.” I mean, if this gets you two to stop fighting, I’ll take it.
He blinked. “S’alright.” He stuck his tongue out at Miya.
“What?” exclaimed Miya.
“I didn’t hit you,” explained Olivia. She narrowed her eyes at Ben, who grinned wide. You know what you did. He glanced at Miya. Olivia glared at her too, for good measure. You too.
“If I literally had an olive branch, I’d give it to ya. A figurative one OK?” said Ben.
Miya said, “Let’s just focus on getting out of here.” Good enough. Olivia relaxed.
“OK, let’s start at the beginnin’. Where is here?” asked Ben. “So far as I can tell this is some sorta mental construct place.”
“Yeah, based on stuff out of our own memories, at least where we started,” said Miya. Hey, they can pretend civility. Yay.
“So who’s causin’ it?” asked Ben. “Shadow fella?”
“That’s what my golem saw.”
“Wait,” said Olivia. “I, um, I think I might have seen him before. Not here. No, not here, here, real here. Um, and before. If that made sense.” And I didn’t say anything about it. Because I’m an idiot.
“What do ya mean?” asked Ben.
“I think I’ve seen the shadow guy before. The first time was… a couple days after I first met you… I think. He only popped up for a couple seconds on a rooftop. But I think I saw him a few other times since then. Um, sorry. I mean… I didn’t mention it before. Sorry.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to say sorry for. I wouldn’t have believed ya if ya said there was some guy watchin’ ya that no one else saw, an’ who did nothin’ over the course of a month or so. Hell, it’s almost the middle of June now, jus’ realized.”
“Oh, this was some dark figure that vanishes once you try to look at him, right?” asked Miya. You too?
“Yeah. That’s… that’s exactly it,” replied Olivia.
“I might’ve seen him before, at that animal smuggling place. I thought he was just a trick of light or something.”
“Oh, fuck,” said Ben, smacking himself in the forehead. “This fucker John Doe?”
Olivia glanced at Miya, whose eyebrows had nearly formed a unibrow in confusion. She cocked her head to the side.
Ben glanced between the two of them. “John Doe’s an old urban legend from around here. Lemme think.” He drummed his fist against his forehead as he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.
“OK. I think the story goes like this: Back in the seventies or somethin’, there was a murdered guy. No one knew him, came outta nowhere, but Johnny Law found his fresh corpse on the side of a road real enough. Middle age dude, shaved head, no tattoos or somethin’ to identify him. Dental records got nowhere fast. Guy was a fuckin’ ghost. Couldn’t figure out how he died, no injuries or poison traces or anythin’, but clinically dead. Cops were lookin’ for any kind of lead, when three days after they found him he vanished from the morgue. Not a single trace.”
“Well, um, why is he called John Doe?” asked Olivia.
“That’s just what they call any unidentified bodies. Women are Jane Doe,” explained Miya. Well that’s appropriate for this guy.
“Yeah. So when I say there was no trace of the body, there was nothin’. No body bag they were storin’ him in, no scraps of hair or tissue, nothin’. Records of the body, eyewitnesses remembered him though. Everyone started pointin’ fingers, cryin’ foul play, never got anywhere past that. This was right after the Gülmer invasion in the seventies, an’ the cops had bigger problems on their hands than one dead dude who wasn’t causin’ any problems at the moment.”
“So a week or so later, people started dissapearin’. No trace, trail would go cold at some random point. Sometimes between work, sometimes from their bed, no pattern. This got to the point where people got scared, an’ conspiracies started comin’ out. Maybe twenty disappearances in the course of the two months. Some journalist made the connection with the vanished John Doe and the missin’ people, an’ the name stuck. Then, after the two months the vanishin’s stopped.” This is kind of creepy.
“Police looked into it again, this time they actually cared. Still nothin’ because what kinda story you think this is? Things were quiet, but every now an’ then since then, someone drops off the face of the earth in Westward, an’ some conspiracy folks point to John Doe.”
“So how do we know this is because of him?” asked Miya.
“Right. Yeah. One of the main rumors says he’s a sort of super. Teleportation an’ light manipulation. Tha’ fits with what you’ve said, but that theory goes on to say he eats the corpses an’ scatters the bones and stuff all over to cover the tracks. Kinda falls apart there, unless we’re in the afterlife right now, but I ain’t gettin’ a blowjob from God right now, so I don’ think tha’s it.” Blowjob?
“Maybe he has a third power,” said Miya. “Maybe a personal physical power as well, if he’s a particularly lively corpse.”
“Yeah, so maybe,” began Ben, a thoughtful look on his face. “Maybe he’s trapped us in our own minds. With a power or somethin’.”
“Why?” asked Olivia. Why us? Just for fun?
“I… don’ know,” said Ben.
“Let’s think this through,” said Miya. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but we started out trapped in our own mental constructs.”
“Yeah, I’m guessin’ we’re lookin’ like how we imagine ourselves to be.” He met Miya’s furious eyes (Miya, what’s under the scarf?) and continued, “An’ tha’s the last I’ll say on that, but tha’ points to this bein’ more based on our minds than his, or a pocket dimension he controls.”
“Why would he do this? What does he gain from doing this?” Miya asked the group at large.
“We all have powers. Maybe that?” said Ben.
“Depends. Who were the people who was abducting before?” asked Miya.
“Hrm. Well, I don’ think there was any pattern behind the disappearances. Tha’ kinda thing woulda been noted. Never mind ‘bout the power thing.”
“How do you know this?” asked Olivia.
“Yeah, never heard of this before,” added Miya. Yay, they seem to have forgotten their malice. Or are just putting it aside for later. Either works.
“Internet. Talkin’ to people. I’ve worked in food a lot, you pick up stuff from customers or lifers workin’ there.” Lifers? Whatever, ask later. If it were relevant, he would have said. Probably.
“Alright, it’s not an obvious trend. Maybe we just got unlucky? We were in the wrong place at the wrong time and he just picked us off?” said Miya.
“Tha’s a possibility,” said Ben. “Maybe the others will be able to do somethin’ on the outside.”
“Um…” began Olivia. Rob, Chris, and Amanda. They’re in trouble too. “The others. I… kind of saw them get… taken by him.”
“Wait, everyone?” asked Ben. Olivia nodded. He smiled. “Of course. Why would I expect anythin’ less?”
“We thought he got you as you were flying back, same as Ben,” said Miya. “You saw him?”
“Sorry. No. Well, kind of. Um… I never got a good look at him. Everyone kept vanishing when our backs were turned.” That was scary. That was really scary. At least we can find them again. They’re not gone.
“Don’ know how he did it?” asked Ben.
“Well, we know he can’t fly, or imitate flyin’ with his power,” said Ben.
“What makes you say that?” asked Miya.
“Woulda nabbed Olivia en route like me if he coulda. Less people to deal with if she’s on her own up in the air.”
“OK. But that still doesn’t help us figure out why we’re in here right now,” said Miya.
“Hey, jus’ throwin’ out as much info as possible,” said Ben. No, no, not again you two.
Miya looked like she was about to say something then changed her mind. After a second or two she said, “Fine. But so far the best thing we’ve got is random, but that’s not right if he’s been stalking Olivia for a month.” That’s really creepy, now that she’s said it like that.
“Stalkin’, right,” said Ben. He pointed at her and Miya. “Right. He was observin’. He was lookin’ for somethin’. An’ ya know what I noticed between me an’ Olivia’s places? It wasn’t a place we’d wanna leave. Each tailored for ya. Lookin’ back, I was kinda goin’ through mental hoops to convince myself it was real.”
“Yeah, you remember the resets?” asked Miya. Yeah, those weren’t fun.
Olivia nodded as Ben said, “Yeah. Every… every time I started questionin’ if it was real, reset.” Yeah, that… that sounds like what I did. “Same with you, Miya?”
Miya nodded, adding no further detail. Ben continued, “So maybe he was lookin’ for people who wouldn’t fight it so hard. I mighta looped continuously ‘til Miya popped in. I knew somethin’ was wrong, jus’ couldn’t think straight long enough to figure it out.” What happened to Miya? What happened to Ben, for that matter? “An’ it took us a bit for you to come around,” he said, pointing to Olivia.
“Yeah,” said Olivia. Sorry.
“So it is possible to fight him, even here,” said Miya. “His control isn’t complete. How did we wind up in other peoples’ heads though?”
“He’s connectin’ us? I dunno.”
“So he could be watching us now?” asked Olivia. Creepy, creepy, creepy. She resisted the urge to turn around to look for some sort of boogeyman behind her.
Ben and Miya stopped. Ben eventually said, “Yep. Didn’t think about that.”
“So he knows… we know… he knows. Now. Maybe,” said Olivia. That made more sense in my head, I swear.
“Yep,” said Ben.
“We need to figure out why he’s doing this, too,” said Miya.
“Why?” asked Ben.
“Because it could be helpful,” responded Miya
“We could jus’ spend the time workin’ on how to get out.”
“What if it helps us get out?” asked Miya.
“What if it don’?” retorted Ben.
“You have no way of knowing that.”
“Neither do you,” he said with a grin. Both were at the edges of their seats now, voices getting heated.
“Guys, please stop,” pleaded Olivia.
They didn’t hear her. “I’m not the one grinning at everything like it’s some kind of joke.”
“Yeah. It’s kinda funny if ya think about it. An’ at least I’m honest about what my thing was. You ain’t contributin’ much on that front.” They’re not listening again. Olivia folded her arms on the table and buried her face in them.
“I’m not fucking talking about that, especially with you.”
They’re not going to let it go. They’re going to just keep going at it. They’re just going to fight, and I can’t get them to stop. I can’t get them to listen. And I can’t get them to stop, and the others are still going through whatever illusions this guy has for them, and I think I’m crying, and my memory is easily manipulated, and I’m still just a weird stupid monster thing once we get out, if we get out, and…
“Hey, hey, hey,” said Ben from next to her. “I have no clue what to say now,” he muttered under his breath. Welcome to my world. “It’ll be alright. Probably.”
“Probably?” asked Miya. “Really.”
“Bein’ honest. An’ you really wanna play the blame game right now?”
“Fine.” They’re… they’re not fighting?
“We’ll figure out a way out,” said Ben. “Don’ break down now.” Right. Just… just get up. Olivia wiped her eyes on her forearm, then sat back up. Ben was down on one knee next to her.
“S-sorry,” she murmured.
“You sure you’re alright?” asked Miya with crossed arms from Olivia’s other side.
“Yeah. I’m better.” Get it together, get it together.
“Good. Besides, gotta find the others an’ get them out, too,” said Ben.
“That’s a good point, actually. Where are we really?” asked Miya, retaking her seat.
“Hrm?” I’m with Ben on this one? What do you mean?
“Where are we physically at right now? Are we just lying on the side of the road, unconscious while we run around in circles in our own heads?”
“I don’ like that idea. It’s a good point, but I’m not likin’ it,” said Ben, leaning back in his chair.
“Well, no,” said Olivia. They both snapped their attention to her. “I mean, um, the others… when he was in the lair… you know… attacking. They just vanished. I couldn’t hear them… or… you know, smell them or anything. They were just gone. Couldn’t see them. He… um… got me last… so… yeah.” She trailed off. I know, I’m weird.
“Alright, so, wait!” said Miya. “Didn’t you say this guy had light manipulation?” she asked Ben.
“Yeah, but this was rumor, mind you.”
“Um…” began Olivia. I think I’m right in this. “I don’t think light affects sound or smell.”
Miya sighed. Sorry. “You’re right. So what, did we get absorbed into him somehow? Why would he be jerking us around in our minds then? What does he get from it?”
“Well, we don’ even know if he pulls us in physically,” said Ben.
“You got a better explanation?” asked Miya, leaning forward.
Ben thought for a moment, eyes unfocusing a little as he stared off at a point over Miya’s head. He shook his head slightly, like a dog shaking off water. “Nope, carry on.”
“So what does he get from this?” asked Miya. “Does he enjoy headgames? Is he eating us like a Venus flytrap and keeping our minds occupied so… we don’t… struggle…” What is this about eating us? That’s bad.
“The fuck kinda power is that?” asked Ben. “Ya get some weird ones, but tha’s at the top of the list.”
“Maybe it’s not a physical consumption. Maybe it’s heat or mental… stuff. He could’ve teleported us anywhere, keep in mind. We have no real idea what his power is. This is all guesswork,” said Miya.
“Heat? He could go to any heated buildin’ or factory to get that.”
“I’m just throwing ideas out there. Just an example.”
“OK, OK. Jus’ wonderin’,” said Ben, half raising his hands in the air in mock surrender. “But a real question for you two now: why hasn’t he stopped us yet?” He smiled a bit. “My thinkin’ is that he doesn’t ‘ave complete control over us. He reset whenever we started questionin’ if it was real. But once we came to the realization, no reset. It might not be a conscious thing on his part. Powers are easier fooled than people. We have this mental image of ourselves, an’ this place in our heads that we don’ wanna leave, maybe it’s good enough he puts it on autopilot or somethin’.”
His attention had been flipping between Miya and Olivia; he ended on Olivia, who nodded along. I guess that makes sense. She glanced at Miya, staring off into space. “Miya?” she said.
Miya’s eyes refocused. “Hm. Oh yeah, that makes sense.” Are you OK?
“Now, how do we get out of here?” asked Ben.
Olivia poked her head around the corner. Nothing more than a concrete corridor. I know I hear something. The mechanical grinding noise got louder as her and Miya progressed.
“You sure about this, Olivia?” asked Miya.
“Yeah. Chris or Rob has to be in here,” replied Olivia. I’m still worried about where Ben wound up.
“I’ve never seen this place before.”
“So?” I closed my eyes and he’d vanished. Just like in the lair. Except I was someplace different as well. At least Miya’s with me. And we both wound up in chairs, too.
They’d found themselves in what appeared to be a concrete bunker. The color of the concrete shifted between different sections, with the occasional bit of sheet metal over random patches of wall, but the place otherwise seemed structurally sound. As far as I know. And I don’t know anything about architecture, so I’d take that with a grain of salt.
“I don’t like underground concrete bases like this.”
“Because, you know… let’s just move on.” Odd.
They passed an open door. Out of curiosity, Olivia looked inside. A stereotypical bedroom. A bed, desk, a shelf full of knickknacks. Behind her, Miya stood on her toes to get a good look over her head. Yay, I don’t have wings to brush up against the roof.
Olivia kept walking, Miya following a few moments after. “You didn’t notice anything strange about that room?” asked Miya.
“No, why? What was it?” What did I miss?
“Never mind,” said Miya. She pointed, “That room, I hear it too now.” How did you not hear it before?
Light flickered from a partially open door, accompanied by more grinding noises. Olivia ran the rest of the way. She pushed open the door and came to a stop on the inside. Rob hunched over a workbench, facing her. On it lay a mask, the same kind he and Skulker wore. He pushed a tool of some kind off to the side, then took a rag and started rubbing at the forehead, making it shine under the single fluorescent light on the ceiling. Miya joined her at the door a second later.
“Hi, Rob,” said Olivia.
Rob took in the two of them for a long moment, face impassive. He jerked his head towards the way they’d come in. “Out,” he said.