My name is Ling Yu. I’ve lived in Domina most of my life; my family moved here when I was two, and I got stuffed into an orphanage about a year later, when they got killed by some gang or another.
I’m not very smart. That’s just a fact. I only got into college because of my soccer scholarship—and even then, I had to personally beg the dean.
But just because I’m not a genius doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I know when to keep my mouth shut, when to listen. And now, going to see the Big Boss while carrying a corpse wrapped in blood-soaked sheets, seemed like an excellent time to just listen.
“Adam didn’t hear the screamer,” the girl with the diamond ring on the necklace—Laura, I think—was saying. “We stopped on the curb, but he stepped into the road. A truck came, and this moron—” she jerked her thumb at Derek. “—jumped in front of it. That’s when we found out about his ability.”
“You two heard the screams too, right?” Derek asked Akane. “From farther than you should have, I mean.”
Akane opened her mouth to speak, glanced at Laura and Adam, and nodded meekly instead. She had been shy when she first met me, but grew out of it within the hour. The same would probably happen here.
“So it would be safe to assume that anyone that can hear these screamers has a power,” Laura mused. “We’ll have to find out mine and…what did you say your name was?”
“Find out mine and Ling’s later.”
“Sorry, Adam,” Derek said with genuine concern. “I guess that means you don’t have any powers.”
His friend snorted and shifted his grip on the corpse; I was forced to do the same to keep from dropping it. My stomach churned, but I suppressed it. It wasn’t a person, not really. It was just some kind of zombie. “We don’t know anything about these abilities yet. For all we know, you guys will turn into screamers too. I’m fine with being normal.”
“Talk later,” I grunted. I really didn’t have a good grip on the corpse; it was tiring me out. “We’re entering Necessarian territory.” While they were originally from North Central, Necessarius had bases all over the city. Including one near where we had killed the screamer.
The ‘sarians had established a perimeter around a large warehouse, probably where we were supposed to meet with Big Boss. The only thing that identified them as part of the gang was a black and red striped piece of cloth, tied around their right arms. Other than that, there was nothing resembling a dress code, although most of them stuck with jeans and a t-shirt. Of course, these were the elite, so they had the latest military rifles and body armor as well.
One of the guards stepped forward without a word and flipped out his phone. He glanced at the screen, then at us, then closed it and waved us through. He didn’t seem at all fazed by the bloody sheets; I guess that’s just something you get used to.
There were multiple layers of defense, but they all let us through without complaint. Even when we reached the actual building, we had to pass through a large maze built from walls of stacked cement bags and other construction materials. With the guards standing on top and staring down, it seemed like a pretty good fortress.
But, again, the Necessarians didn’t molest us, and we had little trouble getting through. Every once in a while a guard would drop down and point us in the right direction; I wasn’t being metaphorical when I called the place a maze.
At last, we reached the end: A ‘room’ made of piled supplies, about fifteen feet wide and long. The ‘walls’ were about equal height, with armed guards watching us warily, and the only exit was the one we had just come through.
“It is a Friday night,” a deep, calm voice said. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the source: Sitting in the center of the room, on a large wooden chair flanked by a pair of speakers, was Artemis Butler.
He was much, much bigger than he looked on TV. He wasn’t quite fat, but he wasn’t muscular either. He was just so massive that it was hard to not feel tiny—and I’m not exactly large to begin with. If he stood, I think he would have clocked in at seven feet. Not a skinny seven feet, either; he was thick like a tree.
In fact, that was the perfect word to describe him: Tree-like. Big. Heavy. Unmoving. Eternal. On TV, he was just a big man. In person, he was like a mountain.
He had a large cane in his right hand, and he wore black gloves to match his tailored black suit and sunglasses. But rather than hiding it, this all served to accentuate his unnaturally pale skin and ivory hair. If he took off his glasses, I knew we would see his red eyes—not as deep as those granted by the toy maker, but still noticeable.
“It is a Friday night,” he repeated. He sounded like a rock slide. “and I am sitting in a warehouse, surrounded by armed guards, with a dead zombie being delivered to me by five college students. I sincerely hope you have some good news for me, because I am somewhat cranky at the moment.”
Adam and I put down the corpse. Almost before we finished, a pair of ‘sarians with large rubber gloves that reached their elbows came from behind us, lifted the package, and handed it to similarly equipped men on the walls. They quickly took the body away without saying a word.
“I suppose we could have a lot of fun dancing around the point,” Butler mused. “I decide what to tell you, you decide whether I’m telling the truth, and we verbally spar for a few minutes.” He sighed. “But I don’t really have time for that. I am missing a game at the moment, and I hope to be back before the second quarter starts. And I’m sure you have things to do as well.”
Derek crossed his arms and glared at the gang lord. “I’m saving this city with or without you.” There was no boasting in his voice; just a little bit of mild accusation, directed at the Big Boss. He was going to save the city, I knew right then and there. The fact that he didn’t even know what the danger was yet wouldn’t even slow him down.
The man didn’t move, though the corners of his mouth did twitch upwards briefly. “You’re definitely your mother’s son, it seems. Let’s just share our information first, and see where we stand from there.”
Derek didn’t relax an inch. “Agreed. But you seem to know more than we do, so you go first.”
The guards on the walls adjusted their grips on their weapons; neither Derek nor Butler seemed to notice.
The gang lord nodded. “The creature you just killed is what we call a screamer—I’m sure you can guess why. It is the second one we have encountered.” The large man shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Or the fourth, depending on your point of view, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The first was twelve hours ago. I was hoping it was an isolated incident, and if we are very lucky, it still is.
“What we know is that these creatures are insane, violent, and possess powers. They are similar to zombies in many respects, including their ability to infect others.”
We came to attention at that, but the Big Boss help up his hand in a placating gesture.
“I don’t think any of you have anything to worry about. The other infected turned within minutes, and symptoms arose within seconds. As far as we can tell, if you come in contact with a living screamer’s bodily fluids, you are turned. Saliva from a bite and blood are the only confirmed instances right now.”
He frowned. “Interestingly, it seems to be only a living screamer. We took a sample before we killed the first one, and afterward it was inert. Very odd.” He leaned back in his chair a little. “But I digress.
“One of my men tried to restrain the screamer, and was bitten in the process. He quickly devolved into a similar state, with identical powers. Another was infected when he shot the first victim at close range, and was showered in blood. He turned the same way, but we were able to neutralize him without casualties.”
“What powers did they manifest?” Laura asked. She didn’t seem very intimidated by the most powerful man in the city, and instead had a very thoughtful expression on her face.
“The ability to manipulate electricity,” he answered. “Both the original and his victims. Now, please tell me that is the same power your screamer manifested.”
Derek shook his head. “Pyrokinesis.”
Butler sighed deeply and slumped a little. “Which means it’s a different strain. I suppose it was too much to hope for.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened again. “This means that there is some sort of intelligent force behind these creatures. I am certain we will see more shortly.”
“Wait,” I said before I could stop myself. Everyone turned to look at me expectantly, and I was forced to continue. “Uh…right. Sorry, it just seems like a major jump from ‘multiple strains’ to ‘intelligent force behind them.’ In anime—” now Akane was glaring at me, while the rest looked at me like I had grown a second head. “—ah. Sorry. I just think it’s a bit early to make that assumption.”
Butler nodded. “True enough. I am simply focusing on the worst-case scenario. I will be happy to be proven wrong later.” He smiled, a little bit sadly. “Unfortunately, in my experience, expecting the worst rarely leaves you surprised.” He turned his gaze back to Derek. “Now, I understand you five have powers as well.”
“Only Akane and myself for sure. But everyone but Adam heard the screamer…uh, screaming from farther away than should have been possible. We think that means we all have powers.”
“Hm,” the gang lord muttered. “Interesting. But better than I expected. We can use you to hunt down the screamers. They don’t seem to be able to shut up, which is a very good thing.”
“Wait,” Adam said. “You’re willing to work with random college students? And to put us in such an important position?”
“Never turn down an asset that is available to you, Mister Anders,” Butler advised him. “None of my men—nor anyone else, as far as we can tell—have powers. Though on that note, I would like blood samples from all of you. If we are very lucky, your abilities may be transferable in the same way the screamers’ are.”
Derek immediately held out his arm, and Akane followed his example, but Laura narrowed her eyes. “And if not?”
The Big Boss matched her icy gaze without flinching. “If not, then nothing. We go back to plan B, have you help us hunt down the screamers. However, if your blood creates screamers, we’ll have to isolate you and only let you out for missions. We can’t have you accidentally starting the very zombie apocalypse we’re trying to stop if you get a paper cut.”
A couple more scientists came into the room, wearing the same big rubber gloves as before, and holding small, empty needles. They quickly drew blood from Derek and Akane; the rest of us looked at each other for a moment, sighed, and let them do the same to us.
“We’ll know the results soon,” Butler promised us.
“But if we can’t give you a spec, Big Boss can probably float you a toy voucher.”
It was MC’s voice, coming from the speakers flanking Butler. She sounded a bit stranger than normal, less formal.
Butler frowned. “Mary, what are you talking about?”
“Adam. He’ll want in on this, right? If we can’t give him a spec, we can at least buff him up with the toy maker. Give him a fighting chance.”
“I can’t use the toy maker,” Adam put in sullenly. “I’m lutum informis. It’s useless on me.”
Butler pursed his lips. “Well, not quite useless, but you are right in that it is not easy. And I don’t think it will be necessary, regardless. This will be dangerous enough for the ones with powers if all my theories pan out. If we can’t give you a power, you’ll stay out. Understand?”
The bland man frowned. “Mary’s the one who suggested it.”
“Don’t call me Mary,” MC said instantly.
Adam blinked. “But he called you…”
“Because he won’t stop.”
One of the lab techs returned from the entrance behind us. “We have the results, sir.”
Butler waved his hand. “Go ahead, I don’t have time for secrecy.”
“There is no evidence that the Paladin’s blood creates screamers, sir. Unfortunately, the subjects did not exhibit any powers either.”
The gang boss raised an eyebrow. “Paladins?”
“My idea,” MC chirped in. “I passed it along to Doctor Clarke. Don’t you think it will sell?”
Butler sighed again. “Yes, very clever. Be sure to keep the test subjects in isolation for at least twenty-four hours, just in case.”
The tech left with a nod.
“Well, it was a small chance anyway. Now, Miss Akiyama—” Akane flinched noticeably. “…ah, yes, your file did mention that you were a bit shy.” He turned to Derek instead. “Mister Huntsman. I assume it was either you or your Akane who killed the screamer? Did you get it’s blood on you? I’m hoping you’ll be immune.”
Derek brushed back his hair in consternation. “No, Adam was the one who killed her. And no one came into contact with her blood until after she died. More evidence for the theory that dead screamers can’t infect people.”
“Mister Anders?” Butler looked at Adam with new interest. “That is…unexpected. I was under the impression that you had no combat experience.” He shrugged slightly. “Of course, my spies have been looking into you for about half an hour, so they may have missed some things.”
“No training,” the man in question answered. He seemed a bit offended, though I couldn’t tell why. “I picked up a gun and shot her. It wasn’t that hard.”
Another one of the lab techs came in and placed a stethoscope on Adam’s heart, under his shirt.
“Hey, what the—”
“Seems normal,” the man muttered. He pried open Adam’s eyelid and shone a penlight in his eye. “He seems fine. No signs of shock. Of course, that is just a preliminary analysis…”
“Thank you, doctor. That will be all.” The man nodded and left. Butler rubbed his chin. “Now, this is very interesting. I haven’t seen a natural-born killer in some time. You could be useful after all.”
“We still don’t know why he didn’t get a spec,” MC pointed out.
“And I still don’t know mine,” I added. “Or Laura’s.”
“Oh, I figured out mine this morning,” Laura said nonchalantly. “And I’m guessing you did too.”
Everyone stared at her, but it was MC who spoke. “You were gonna mention this when?”
She shrugged. “Soon. It didn’t seem important. But my power is the ability to detect lies. Which is why I know Mister Butler has been completely honest with us, and how I know—” she smiled at me. “—that little Ling knows what her power is.”
I cursed under my breath. Somehow, I knew this was going to happen. Yesterday, when I used my power for the first time, I had known I was going to get dragged into something like this. Why had I even bothered hiding it in the first place? Oh, that’s right, because as interesting as anime is, I didn’t want to actually live one.
“At least that confirms the theory about who has powers,” Butler mused. “Although I am still interested in why you were the ones who received them, this explains why Adam was left out. If you received your powers this morning or earlier, Adam has only been here a few hours.”
“So…you’re saying Derek’s patient zero,” Laura said slowly. “Or I am. And we infected those close to us?”
“Or someone did it intentionally, since you don’t seem contagious,” MC put in.
“That seems the most likely possibility,” Derek agreed. “I haven’t seen Laura in years, and when I ran into her earlier, Adam was with me. If I was infected then, there’d be no reason he would be excluded.”
“So there are two questions left,” Adam summarized. “One: We need Ling to tell us her power.”
In all the excitement, it had seemed like everyone had forgotten about that. Apparently not.
“Two: We need to figure out who else could be infected. It shouldn’t be that hard. Call a few people, ask them if they heard screaming about an hour ago.”
“Lizzy,” Akane said. She didn’t elaborate, but Derek nodded in understanding.
“She’d be a logical choice. She’s connected to both me and Laura.”
“I’ll call her,” Laura grumbled, pulling out her phone. “She’s my roommate. And I already tested it; my ability works fine over the phone.”
“Put it on speaker,” Butler ordered. Laura nodded and dialed. She held out the phone, and we could all hear it ringing for a few minutes before it was picked up.
A sweet girl’s voice answered. “Hello? Laura? Where are you? You said you were going to get sheets over an hour ago.”
“Yeah, I ran into some people and got caught up in something. Don’t worry about it. I have a quick question: Did you hear screaming about an hour ago, but couldn’t find the source?”
“Hm? Yeah, I did. It went on for about…ten? Twenty minutes? Then it stopped. Why, was it something important?”
We all looked at each other. There it was. Confirmation that more than just the four of us had powers. I hadn’t met this Lizzy, but I guess we needed to bring her into the fold.
“Why…” Laura shook her head and started again. “Why didn’t you investigate?”
There was a pause on the other side of the line.
“What could I have done?”
Everyone looked at Laura, but she just blinked. “Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry. I’ll see you later.”
“Alright, bye.” She hung up, and Laura squirreled her phone away.
“She was telling the truth the whole time,” she confirmed. “She heard the screamer, which means she has a power.”
“A power she doesn’t know about,” Derek corrected. “I want to keep her out of this. And I’d like to ask you to do the same.” The last was directed at Big Boss; he nodded in assent. “Good, then if there’s nothing else, we’ll be leaving now. You need to get back to your game, and we need to figure out the limits of our powers. We’ll contact MC if we hear a screamer.”
“Hey, hang on,” Adam put in. “Don’t just sign us all up. I’ll admit he has some good points, but I don’t want to work with a gang lord.”
“Zombie apocalypse, Mister Anders,” Butler said with surprising gentleness. “No one gets to be picky.”
“No, I’m with Adam, we should think about this.” I thought working with Necessarius might be a good idea, but again, I’m not very smart. The least I could do was convince the smarter people to think more. “Besides, how’d you even know about us?”
“The truck driver who almost hit Derek and Adam called it in,” MC replied cheerfully. “He didn’t know what was going on, but we figured it out quickly. We called you, and were lucky enough that you had already aggroed a screamer.”
“I can understand why you wouldn’t want to work with me,” Butler continued as if no one had spoken, “but this is for the good of the city.”
“My father knew you before you became Big Boss,” Laura noted, while looking the man in question in the eye. Well, sunglasses. “He told me stories. Can you swear to me that all you want is to safeguard the city?”
“I swear that all I want is to safeguard everyone,” Butler answered quietly. “But this city is all I can control.”
Laura shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
“That’s three against two,” Big Boss said. “One of whom can apparently detect lies. Now, I won’t force you two to work with me, but if you’re not willing to help, then things will get more complicated.”
“Wait one second,” I interrupted. “Akane hasn’t answered.”
She jumped at her name, looked at me, then at Butler. She bowed her head and whispered, barely audibly, “I’m with Derek.”
“As I said,” the gang boss continued with a small smile, “three against two. So what will it be?”
Adam rubbed his head. “I…I guess I’m in. But I’ll need weapons and practice.” He smiled. “I’m already taking Applied Firearms at AU, so I guess that will help.”
Butler nodded. “A small selection of firearms will be delivered to your dorm room within an hour. The code on the case will be ‘14113.’ If you don’t like the guns we give you, call Mary, and she’ll arrange for new ones to be sent to you.”
The bland man nodded in thanks…and everyone turned to me. I sighed.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I muttered. “But yeah. I’m in.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 8)
I have a very strong desire to give an in-depth, heavily researched scientific explanation for how the powers work. I like technobabble. However, it wouldn’t fit in this case. There’s no good, unifying scientific theory that can explain the disparate powers. So I’m making this the highest canon right now:
IF ANYONE GIVES AN EXPLANATION OF HOW THE POWERS WORK, THEY ARE LYING OR WRONG. Or both.
Now, that’s not to say that questions aren’t going to be answered. I’ll reveal the differences between the screamers and the Paladins, how people gain powers and so on. What I will not explain is how those powers function. It’s not nanites or dark matter or quantum physics or anything else explainable. It is, as far as the audience is concerned, magic (please note that it is not actually magic).
The best comparison I can give is the X-Men: The Eternals created the X-gene, which gives people powers. If I had been writing that, the answer would have been limited to “the Eternals give people powers.”