The Book of Darwin: Chapter 1

A Whateley Academy Adventure

The Book of Darwin, Chapter 1

(Recovery and Redemption)

By Joe Gunnarson


December 18th, 2006 in the sky above Uluru

Jericho adjusted his legs for the hundredth time as he adjusted the programming for the sensor suite he was working on. The loud, droning hum of the deceptively ancient, heavily modified C-130 transport plane was as cacophonous as it was unending. Jack was out cold, a legacy of the droning engines that acted like a metronome to his senses, artificially bringing fatigue to stave off the many, many hours of boredom on board the transport.

Caitlin was almost unfamiliar, decked out in the metallic, cobalt blue tattoos that stood out in stark contrast to her pale skin. The young woman was silent, listening to something through a pair of headphones, almost shock-still as the boredom dragged on endlessly. Like him, she was fiddling with a project she’d started after they had gotten underway, distracting her from the antsy nervousness about coming to Australia that had almost kept her from agreeing to come entirely until Gunny Bardue put his foot down. The volatile girl still wore her blood-red rager band on her left arm, something Jack also had adopted upon boarding the plane bound for his home.

Sandra was coiled up on herself, reading a book and trying to relax. Jericho’s serpentine best friend was often shy and quiet, but he knew she was absolutely, frantically scared of the idea of being out in public anywhere, much less in a foreign country where she didn’t know the rules. Fortunately she had calmed down in the unending hours of travel, and was poring through novel after novel at a pace anyone not familiar with Whateley Academy would consider insane.

Three odd faces were accompanying the Whateley Outcast Corner crowd, and he didn’t bother to shift his head to take them in. He did let the camera mounted on his shoulder, hooked into the jack on his neck swivel to supplement his odd perceptions.

Koala, Spider to anyone who wasn’t trying to annoy her, was also poking at a mechanical project. She was a bit older than Jack, but the two were as thick as thieves when opportunity presented itself. She wasn’t exactly the picture of Sidhe hotness, but the Chestnut hair and tapered, elven ears and fine features meant she could be, and often was, mistaken for the mercurial fae. She was also as temperamental as Jack was. The amber eyes completed the picture of ethereal beauty that contained one of the most devious and diedrick’s-prone minds in the world, according to the great, reptilian buddy that was busy snoring in the back of the plane.

Hammerhead was one of the two adults escorting the quintet of mutants to Australia. A native of Cairns, the man had the dusky skin and some facial features that marked him as having some aboriginal blood in his recent family history. He was relaxed, easygoing and calm, something not expected of one of the strongest bricks operating in the Pacific theater. Jack had practically tackled the man in greeting, too happy to see the man who had fished him out of the Outback near Darwin.

Katja Vilenkov was a rather severe Russian woman in her forties, or he got the impression she affected being severe when she was on the job. Jericho never understood why some supers teams maintained an MCO liaison until he’d met her. Far from the hostile, “you’ve committed a crime and we just can’t prove it” attitude most MCO agents seemed to reserve for himself and his friends, the woman was all business, simply ensuring that the paperwork was filed correctly, the Outcasts had their passports, and that Jericho and Caitlin weren’t bringing any items forbidden by Australian law with them.

Bizarrely enough, his Rafe Armor was not an item that was deemed “restricted.”

Jericho put the finishing touches on the coding that he’d worked out to replace the string of devisor “what the merry hell is that” code that should ensure his Rafe armor medical sensors could be comprehended and utilized by normal, baseline technicians. Slowly, but surely, the entire assembly was drifting from pure Devisor Sci-Fi supertech to gadgeteer-solid that could be replicated and used for the purpose he intended.

He got up and hooked the sensor control node back to its housing under the back-plates of the power armor, re-attaching and sealing the suit, then locking the stylized wings that generated the faux-PK field he had built into the entire rig.

The Power core was pure Devise, but it worked like a charm. He’d need to get something more real-tech before he could actually complete the initial suits that were promised to Whateley Academy in exchange for their funding. Koala had the knack for Gadgets, and he envied her that. He had to back-trace his work the hard way, not being able to emulate many other techies in their super-genius IQs, like Loophole. He had to settle for mere “genius.”

A Klaxon tone began sounding loudly, emotionlessly. A red light appeared on the ramp door and Caitlin was out of her seat like the bullet from a gun, and had the parachute on so fast that “Crazy Joe Turner” could swear it had teleported on her body. The massive, mottled, black-and-yellow, spined raptor-thing that was Jack Carlyle shook off the grogginess as the tone pierced the fog of his mind and he and Hammerhead both got the GSD pair equipped and harnessed safely.

Spider lazily got up and sauntered over to her own suit of power armor next to the bulky, armored Rafe. Compared to the white-with-red-cross armor, her light armor looked as lithe and graceful as she did, and it was painted a dark purple that almost went to black like some car paint jobs. It was also more dependent upon gravity fields for her defenses rather than armor, much like the power fields of his own. The two of them didn’t bother chatting as they hooked into their respective drop armor suits. Jericho removed his shoulder cam, stowed it and connected a five-point gravity field generator to his armor and dropped the chest plate and helmet over himself.

Systems online.

The helmet and spinal assembly automatically plugged into the jacks he’d had implanted in his back and skull, giving a better connection, and allowing him to see like a normal person without interfering with his peripheral “vision” that he lived with from day to day. A few tests of the systems to make sure that everything was working properly told the tale. The Rafe Armor was operating well above his expected design parameters.

Fat lot of good that had done him during Combat Finals. Carmilla and he had gone round and round against each other, but ultimately, she had won their contest, which turned out to be less of a fight and more of a contest of wills interspersed with “brick dodgeball” to keep things exciting.

He almost missed the green light except Caitlin was bolting and leapt out the open bay door within half a second of the light flicking from Red to Green. Hammerhead almost missed it as Jack leapt out right behind her. Spider darted out and dove for the ground as Sandra, shaking more than a little, let her tailtip, then a few feet of tail slip out and drag her out the door with a terrified shriek.

He kept the stomping footfalls of the Rafe Armor as light as he could then simply stepped out the back of the plane, dropping as he opened his arms and legs to keep from tumbling at thirty-thousand feet. He could see the others below. Jack wasn’t leading even though he was the largest, that honor fell to Caitlin, who was cruising in a face-down dive like she thought she could fly. Her body was held rigid as she dropped like a lawn dart, aiming to impale something unsuspecting below.

Sandra had already pulled the ripcord on her massive chute. He couldn’t imagine having nineteen feet of tail in freefall was a pleasant experience, but she managed stoically as first spider, then he, fell past her. He turned on the telemetry and saw Caitlin aiming for a spot about five Kilometers south of the great red rock in the middle of Australian nowhere. Even from above it was eerie how the rock seemed to glow red in the setting sun.

The trip down didn’t last long enough as Jack, then Caitlin pulled their ripcords a bit under a thousand feet up., Jericho and Spider forced themselves upright and activated their gravity chutes, which created a rippling distortion of space around them, pulsing outward as both sets of power armor hit the ground hard, taking a knee as the accumulated force was bled off into the desert and scrub brush around them in an almost-visible shockwave that would knock a full-grown man on his ass had they landed too close.

“How’s the knees Jericho?” The elfin devisor’s voice came over the comms, Australian accent and all.

“Worked like a charm, just like you said. I appreciate the upgrade.” He grinned, despite himself.

“Anytime, mate. You done Jack a good turn all semester, more than happy to help.”

Caitlin hit the ground shortly thereafter with a thump and a roll to absorb the shock, having pulled both control cords on her square chute to control her descent and shorten the time hanging in the air. The two armored forms looked and watched as she collected up the bundle of cloth and safety lines, jamming it back into the backpack it had erupted from as though she’d done it a hundred times.

“Trust Cait to avoid the scenic view. You’d think she was afraid of heights or something.”

Caitlin gave Jericho the one-finger salute, fully able to hear him through her own commset. “Funny, funny Joe, gonna give you an armor wedgie.”

“You and what ar...OOF!” Jericho crashed to the ground as close to four-hundred pounds of dinosaur landed on him, catching him in a tumble and tangling the two boys up in the chute lines as Razorback made his entrance to the conversation with an exultant shriek.

Diamondback took the longest to land, both because she’d pulled the chute highest up, and because it was one of those old, nigh-uncontrollable round chutes used to drop heavy cargo crates. The girl easily weighed in at half a ton, maybe more, of human/snake hybrid even though she’d never tell anyone what her actual weight was. Her arrival was the most graceful, as her dangling tail hit the ground, she simply got more under her until she was comfortably balanced and pulled the release, and landed as though she had simply levitated down.

“And the winner of the coolest skydiving entrance goes to the Diamondback.” Spider’s words were greeted by the whooping jeers of the boys, who took too much time to get untangled by wrestling and making it worse, and a smirk from Caitlin.

“It’s not my fault I was born practically perfect in every way, Don’t hate.” Diamond gave the boys a fangy grin.

“Ok Mary Poppins, go grab your chute, we should be able to hit Ayer’s Rock after dark so we don’t freak the norms.” Caitlin chuckled as she moved to assist her friend.


“Huh?” Caitlin looked at Spider.

“Uluru is the original name of the place, the one most people in the Northern Territory actually use.”

Jack, having extricated himself from the chute mess, by the simple expedient of shredding it, nodded and chirped in agreement.

Sandra hissed something under her breath and made a gesture, and the discarded, rolling chute snaked it’s way back into the pack it came from as Jericho stuffed the wreckage of Razor’s chute where it belonged. Caitlin clipped the three packs together and improvised a drag line for all three.

“You sure you’re ok hauling that yourself?” Joe looked in askance.

“Unlike you lot, I don’t get tired, I’ll be fine, Joe. You two should ditch the armor like you said.” Caitlin rolled her eyes. Far from the usual eruptions of energy they had become accustomed to, she was stable. Something about the full-body tattoos had gotten the mess under control, and she was dressed in a simple white T-shirt, jeans and jungle boots with nary an arcane sigil to be seen.

“What? And do actual exercise?” Jericho made a warding gesture against evil as he popped the control on the armor. The Dimensional fade was notable, but not a bright lightshow as the armor stowed itself nowhere, an improvement over the teleporter delivery system that wouldn’t reach from Whateley to Australia.

Spider’s armor flickered similarly, then faded, slipping into it’s own dimensional pocket as the “blind” devisor named Joe stretched out a bit.

“So we waiting for dark?” Sandra slithered up and drank down a bottle of water. The heat was notable even at dusk, and she was still warm-blooded.

“Nah, Sun’ll be down before we get near the resort territory. Our folks should be near one of the tent cities away from the main touristy areas. Fortunately, you and Jack won’t cause quite as much of a ruckus as you’d tend to in the states.”

“High GSD counts here in Oz?”

Jack nodded, signing -Something about this country spits out more monstrous GSD types, so you see a lot more like us on the local supers teams. Not exactly one in four, but seeing someone with spikes is more considered a friendly warning to be nice than an implied threat.-

“Smee, translate.” Caitlin looked over at Diamondback.

“He said you need to learn sign language faster.” Jericho grinned. “Just the stuff we heard before, more GSD cases here. What he didn’t say is most of them don’t get near his level of body alteration, much less Cthulhu Plushie’s”

“Watch it bunky, I like Fubar!” Caitlin mock-glared.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Most of Melville?” Sandra offered, archly. “We should probably get going, Jericho’s the only one here besides Jack who can see in the dark.”

“And me,” Caitlin supplied.

Sandra sighed. “Tell me that you’re at least normal that way, Spider?”

“Sorry luv, stole a package from Jobe, now I can see by starlight just fine.”

“Why am I the only one normal in the vision department?”

“Because the world decided to make you amazingly distinctive in other ways, my old friend.” Jericho grinned. “Remember, it could be worse, you could have given the only map to a blind man!”

The rest of the outcasts groaned as Jericho opened up the aforementioned sheet of carefully-folded paper… sideways. “That way,” he declared, beginning to march eastward until Razorback ungently turned him towards Uluru and pushed.

“I think we picked up an imposter.” Spider looked at Jericho critically.

“Why do you say that?” Caitlin asked.

“Not a trace of crossdressing, clashing colors or vomit-inducing fabrics.”

Diamondback’s eyes went wide and she snatched her protesting “friend” by the neck, giving him a noogie. “Who are you and what have you done with Jericho?”

* * *

Razorback was home. Whateley was awesome, but this was his birthplace. He’d taken to joyously tearing across the landscape, running free and taking in the sights, sounds and smells as he re-familiarized himself with the desert sands and scrub brush. Jericho, Diamond, Cait and Spider all wandered a ways back as he powered his way towards Uluru, and Jack hunted for the place he’d been during the previous summer. It was a quiet, out-of-the-way location, with a very distinct, six-year-old boy who was wandering back and forth in the dying light, searching for a monster big brother.

Jack saw Little Adam staring out into the fading light of dusk long before the boy saw him. The large, mottled raptor-boy got low, on all fours and crept around the child like a stalking animal, staying low and under what little cover he could until he was behind. The little boy never saw Jack coming.

When Adam turned around again, he was eye-to-snout with a massive, lizardlike form and he shrieked in fear and delight. Adam practically dove on his big brother, the dinosaur, and hugged him for all he was worth. Jack chirped at his brother and butted the boy with his jaw and hunched down low.

Adam got to play his favorite game as he settled between spines on Jack’s back and shoulder, then hung on for dear life as his big brother loped out lazily, at a fraction of his full speed, to meet his friends. The two brothers were an odd match, but neither would have traded the other for anything.

“Now that’s adorable.” Caitlin looked amused as Razor loped by with a whooping child on his back.

“That’s Adam, the most fearless six-year-old ever seen in creation.” Spider sounded amused as she watched the two. “When Jack’s within earshot that boy fears nothing. Razor killed a Caiman that tried to nab him last summer and now he’s Adam’s hero forever.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Jack alright.” Diamondback looked quite comfortable, slithering on the still-warm sands. “He’d never let someone who couldn’t fight back take a hit if he has a choice.”

Jericho nodded. “You should have seen the look on Bloodwolf’s face when Jack caught him stalking Aquerna once. She never even realized they were there.”

Jack did an overly-elaborate skid for Adam’s benefit, kicking up the dust impressively. -Quit lying about me. I am a fierce, man-eating death-lizard.- He chirped at the lot of them quizzically and cocked his head to punctuate the statement.

“Suuure you are.” Sandra gave him a mock-noogie, only to realize that the little boy was staring at her like she was made of pure awesome and held his hands out to her. She blinked a bit, then picked Adam up.

Adam, for his part, surprised everyone as he carefully inspected Diamond’s scales on her face and arm, then craned his neck to look at her tail which replaced her legs. Apparently deciding that it was good he grinned at her. “You’re pretty. Can I get down please?”

“Uh. Um… Thank you?” The confused snake-girl set the boy down and he promptly scooted behind her to follow her long tail to the tip, poking at it, then coming up the other side and sitting on the thick portion just behind where her body hit the ground and lying forward like he was riding a racehorse, feet off the ground.

-He wants a ride.- Razorback signed, chuckling.

“Just go with it, Sandra, Adam’s decided you’re like Razor.” Spider chuckled.

Sandra slithered experimentally, giving a few thrusts with her tail, and discovering that Adam’s body didn’t interfere, then started moving again as Jack led the lot of them towards the remote campsite. Adam, of course, was giggling the whole time.

“Reminds me of my little brother, Zach.” Joe Turner smiled.

“Yeah, he really does, doesn’t he?” Sandra chuckled. “Remember that one time we kidnapped him to the pool that day?”

“Shit yeah. You, me and Matt carried him what, a quarter mile with him struggling and giggling like a lunatic?”

“You all sound like you had fun back home,” Caitlin commented idly.

Sandra nodded sadly. “I think it’s only a matter of time before Matt has to run too.”

“Mom and Dad are keeping an eye on Matt, watching for signs whenever they can. Best we can do.” Jericho sighed.

“If he manifests and he has to run, I’ll get Carson to turn me loose to go retrieve him.” Caitlin was still hauling the three Chute packs like they weighed nothing.

“Why would Carson do that?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gone into a hot area to drag someone out.”

“One of these days you’re going to have to explain these cryptic comments.” Diamondback smirked. “I’d say you were one of those cops they put in High Schools to pass as students given some of your humor and commentary, but they try to pass as normal. You suck at normal.”

Caitlin stopped for a second, considered, then shook her head. “Yeah, it’s not like I have anything to lose at this point. I’ll tell you all what’s up when I’m ready. The tats just made my life a lot less complicated, believe it or not.”

“I figured,” Joe nodded, “You’re exploding a lot less.”

“I spy, with my little eye, several Americans and one Australian family searching for a missing child.” Spider pointed at the figures near the campsite. “Shall we go meet your parents?”

Sandra steeled herself and slid forward with the little boy, who weighed next to nothing against her exemplar form’s strength, clinging to her tail like a gecko, enjoying the odd, undulating ride that was nothing like being on Jack’s back at all.

Jack’s mother was skinny as a rail with strawberry blonde hair and the look of someone who constantly worried, while his father actually looked like he was someone who worked out constantly, his sandy, blonde hair was at odds with his dusky skin and part-native features. Little Adam took after his mother more than anything else.

The two hesitated only slightly before giving Jack hugs and welcoming him home. Even Caitlin could tell that their fear wasn’t of Jack, but fear for him. Their hesitation was marked by guilt and worry. Being empathic allowed Diamondback to cheat a lot, and she quashed an unconscious and unworthy stab of jealousy towards her raptor-like friend.

Joe and Sandra were engrossed in a family group hug with Joe’s mother, father and eight-year-old brother. Jericho’s mother looked like the stereotypical “professional black woman” in many ways. Her hair was shoulder-length, and her clothing was clean and stylish, even for a vacation. His father was skinny as a rail, and only slightly taller than his wife. Were it not for the short hair and very different, friendlier face he would have reminded Caitlin of Worm’s wiry form.

Caitlin would have felt left out had the whole scene not reminded her more of the Parents’ Day get-togethers at the school.

Jericho, of course went first. “Guys and gals, these are my folks, Edith and Nathan Turner, and my little brother Zachary.” He actually signed along as he introduced his family for the benefit of the thirteen-year-old Zach, who was wearing what looked to be an older-style hearing aid that obviously had minimal effect on the boy.

Caitlin and Spider politely shook hands and accepted a hug from the insistent Mrs. Turner before turning to Jack.

-My family, Debra and Kiernan, and you nerds all know Adam.- Jericho translated perfectly, and Jack’s dad gave a wry look.

“Still a smartass with every statement, are we boy?”

Jack looked at Jericho as though he’d been betrayed at Joe’s perfect translation, looked sheepishly at his father, then unabashedly and rapidly nodded his head with a toothy, predator grin.

“And that explains why they get on well. Joe couldn’t ever say hello without being a wiseass about it.” Mama Turner gave her son a scolding look.

“Me?” Jericho asked. Then frowned and tried again. “Who me?” His innocent face failed utterly so he opted for “Moi?”

“You’re lucky I love you, Joseph Turner.”

“Does this mean I still have to feed him?” Nathan Turner gave his son the gimlet eye only to be popped in the arm by his wife.

“If you don’t I’ll start cooking the family dinners.”

“Feeding the boy till he turns thirty, gotcha.”

She popped him in the arm again.

Spider grinned. “Much as I love the byplay, I have to scoot. I promised my mum once I got settled I’d jet off to Cairns to be with the family.”

“Well it was good to meet you, Spider. Hope to see you again, soon.” Nathan Turner smiled.

“Bye Koala.” The Outcasts invoked her hated codename all at once.

“Oh you right rotten...” She wasn’t able to finish her tirade as Adam hugged her leg.

“Bye Koala,” the little boy said.

She hugged the boy and gave the outcasts a mock-glare. “I’ll get you all for this you know.”

“Promises, promises.” Diamondback buffed her nails on her shirt idly with a fangy grin.

Spider shook her head wryly and hit the control on her watch, causing her armor to rematerialize from its dimensional pocket around her, then bounded into the sky, letting the disc-shaped gravity plates carry her on her way.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to things like that, no matter how many times I have seen it,” Debra watched the girl fly away. “Come on then we should all get back to camp.”

As the families went back to camp, Diamondback was so very caught up in the conversation and reacquainting herself with her surrogate family that she missed a phantom tearing sensation on her lower body that left no physical wounds.

* * *

Caitlin sat up late, watching the fire die quietly. All of her friends were asleep, and she was left to her own thoughts. Not all of them were good thoughts, but the instances of crying when she thought of Cat were fading, even if she still felt hollow inside.

There was a nagging feeling in the back of her skull, the feel and sight of the currents in the air, which she’d learned to identify as the magic flowing through the world, were wrong here, weakened and yet not, spiralling oddly even if naturally. The best way to describe it to herself was akin to scar tissue. She got up, and started to wander towards the great stone mound that marked Uluru, a place most Americans only knew as Ayer’s Rock.

It was odd, and she followed a spiraling path along the outskirts of the area twice, coming inward, slowly, careful to note the markers, Jack told her about earlier, which denoted areas taboo to wander into. Caitlin was hardly the most spiritual person in the world, but she wasn’t anti-spiritual. She honestly preferred not to shit in the wheaties of the native cultures that were gaining more and more recognition as time passed onwards.

She’d been to Australia a few times before. The laid-back people reminded her of home, and she always got a feeling of disappointed indulgence of the ignorant when people not of their culture went about as if they were still back in the states. The dusky, native people were almost invariably laid back, but passionate about whatever they did. It had been hard not to come to like them in the past.

But that was a different life.

There were actual wards on the markers ahead. The place cordoned off by subtle magics was being blocked from most of the essence flows of the rest of the desert, and Uluru itself. This was the place that was getting her twitchiness going on. The cordon was wide, and familiar. There was no mistaking that whatever it was, it called out to her. But she couldn’t go in without deliberately tromping over someone else’s sacred or taboo spaces.

“Walking alone at night near Uluru isn’t always as safe as tourists think.” The voice came from nowhere, but the words were delivered with such quiet and easy tone that they simply alerted her to the man, several meters away, rather than making her jump out of her skin. “You, however, aren’t a normal tourist, are you?”

Caitlin turned and looked at the older man, who was shorter than her six-foot frame, with weathered skin and short-cropped hair going gray. “Not that I could hide it. I think I saw all the markers and stayed off the taboo spots. My friend Jack told me how to pick them out.”

“You respected the ones that matter. Not all of the markers are something anyone can see. So why come here? Most anyone who steps near this place feels repelled rather than drawn.”

“This place feels familiar.” Caitlin breathed. “It’s like I should know it, but I’ve never seen it before?”

“Well, since I suppose you are a mutant that makes you tied to a spirit of some kind, one whom is of stone made flesh. You are not the one I would have expected to come here.”

Caitlin gave the man a careful, second look. The currents flowed through him. She could see and feel him gathering essence almost as if it were old habit, then storing it on the ancient, rough, walking stick he carried. She nodded to him.

“I’d jaw at you about the essence flows here, but I’m about as novice at the knowledge as you come.” She pointed at the invisible border she’d stopped at. “All I know is that blocks most of the flows here, just not why.”

“If you listen, I could tell you a story, but you don’t seem the type who hears the whispers of the dream around us, or see the spirits.” His voice and demeanor weren’t that of judging, but understanding.

“If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d likely have just smiled, nodded and walked away.” She looked at the old man carefully. “I’ve had a few things happen in my life that forced my views into a larger world.”

“I take it this wisdom has come at a cost of pain.” He held a hand up. “You are like an open book. You dress like a young person, but your posture, words, tone and inflection tell me that you’re older than you pretend to be.”

Caitlin smirked. “You could say that.” She took a few steps forward, away from the boundary marker and held out a hand. “You can call me Caitlin. Since I can’t really go any further, I should probably head back to the camp.”

He took her hand and nodded. “I am Kuparr. I’m one of the ones who keep a finger on the pulse of the dream here. But I disagree, you can go further, you just choose not to in respect for my culture’s taboos. I came here tonight because I was told that I would meet someone who might cleanse Uluru of this particular scar. If you feel a connection, then you are probably the one I am looking for.”

“Ok I’ll bite. I want to know. If you say we can pass through, lead the way.”

“You trust easily.”

“I really don’t. I just know that this is important, whatever it is.”

“Fair enough. If you will follow me then, I will show you the safe path to the gates that cannot open.”

The path Kuparr tread made no logical sense, whatsoever. It was a spiraling, overlapping, nonsensical path that would have had Caitlin rolling her eyes had she not seen how the currents flowed around them, cutting a tunnel of energy as she recognized a ritual. As they walked, light shone through, and the sun seemed to rise without lighting the sky, standing beside the moon and stars in an impossible vista guarding the great red rock which had the feeling of nothing so much as a great being guarded in eternal slumber while the rest of creation was born of her dreams.

“Modern popular culture calls this the dreamtime, accurate and not, but it is so much more. Coming here physically is impossible without one’s essence being ignited and lit like a beacon. Even among the spiritual elders, very few could muster the spark needed. You have enough for both of us.”

“Should I be worried here?”

“No,” the man shook his head. “This place is safe, sacred. Dark things do not come here. The only thing which scars the land here is a place carved from the dream when courts of things greater than men ruled this world.”

“Five-Fold Court.” Caitlin muttered ruefully. “I’m familiar. There.” She held a hand and the ever-shifting landscape around Uluru froze in place, then pulled back until the building came into focus. The great edifice looked as much cathedral as bunker, a place of burning heat and slagged metal. “I’m not an expert, but this doesn’t strike me as something that belongs here.”

“The Dream contains all that is, was and will be. But that is not natural to it. Someone or something carved that from the dream. It drains the essence of the world slowly, and gives nothing back. The spirits are choked off, and have difficulty coexisting with it, so they hide elsewhen.”

“Son of a bitch, that’s an Artificer Forge.”

“A what?”

Caitlin took a breath, mostly to school the bitterness from her voice. “I don’t know the whole story, or even all of the details, but the Courts you spoke of were presented with a gift. Four wondersmiths that would be granted to them, one for the Sidhe, one to the Undine, one to the Efreet, one for the Earthen Court, whom I don’t know much about. Two male, two female. One of the courts got left out of the gifting, so I imagine that caused some friction. This was a Forge that housed one of the smiths while they worked.”

“All this for one person?”

“Seems like a waste to me too.” Caitlin walked straight to the gate, then turned to the side, following the great, stone walls while her mind filled with the details of the edifice. It was forged from dreams, the stone and metal construction cut from the endless wash of possibility itself, a great rent in the fabric of the world. It was anchored from within, the essence-forge drawing power. So long as the flame burned hot, the forge would burn on.

Caitlin stopped at a piece of blank wall, then traced a spiral pattern on the wall, and the stone drew back on seams cut into the stone that were too fine for human eyes to see. “Come on, I know how to remove this thing.”

“What is it?”

“One of the places where some of the greatest artifacts, recovered from the past, were forged.” She looked around at the edifice, a monument to creatures too powerful for the world to fully contain, and saw the many forms of Gaia’s daughters, for the first time, cut into statuary and murals in the walls of the massive edifice.

They were beautiful, they were terrible, they were literal monsters and gods all at once. Each one of the cathedral walls, ceiling and floor told the tale of one of the four great beings who ruled the Center Court in their Mother’s stead. The scenes on the wall changed and shifted with each glance, each told a different story of the lives of the four great beings, and in the end, how they were murdered for their power.

“Who were they?” Kuparr was almost reverent.

“Terra-Valeria, Firstborn.” Caitlin easily read the long-dead script on the wall as she pointed to the wall on the left side of the corridor. “Mother of the Mind, giver of life, the aspect of the Court from whom all natural life came.”

Caitlin looked at the right, “Terra-Verdanis, Secondborn, the shaper of the world, mother of the plants and the natural order of the world.”

Underfoot was the odd one. “Terra-Kashaly, Thirdborn, the aspect of force, she was the glue that held the court together, representing the forces that held the world itself together.”

“Terra-Nocturne, Fourthborn.” Caitlin looked at the alternating figure of light and darkness. “She seems to be the light and dark, good and evil, idealism and pragmatism, like a coin flipped. She represents duality.”

“I have never heard of them.”

“Neither have I, and I have memories going back to the Five-Fold Court that I can’t always filter out. I can just read the script. Whatever killed them, it looks like it did the job very, very thoroughly.” Caitlin looked at the end and saw the pendant, the crystal, the seed, and the fawn each of their remaining power and spirits had been bound to.

“How powerful were they?”

“From the looks of things? Powerful enough that no one likely wants to see them return.”

“That is a sobering thought.”

Caitlin shook her head. “The Five-Fold Court is dead. I wish people would quit trying to dredge up the corpse and revive it.” She led on into the great Forge shop, past the entrance.

It was beyond massive, seemingly containing enough space to fill several aircraft hangars, and carrying more imagery of the four daughters. Great beasts of all kinds decorated the walls, the servitors of the earth court were ancient, primal. The statue of Terra-Kashaly in one corner showed a woman with many arms, caressing two raptor-like beasts as though they were favored pets. The deadly beasts lacked the spines and spikes that Razorback had, but they looked like him.

“This place gives me the Heebie-Jeebies.” Caitlin shuddered at the memories of uncountable hours laboring at that which the Nine Queens commanded. The forges were just similar enough to trigger the memories.

“Would it be right to destroy this?”

“This was a place to hold a favored slave.” Caitlin spoke firmly, and bluntly. “This place is a strategic location and your people will lose Uluru if anyone finds out about this place and how to access it. This is a supernatural ICBM factory that was used to build weapons of war to battle things few people can stand up to without going mad at the very sight.”

“We cannot have that. What will you do?”

“Let me see if there’s anything useful in here that my guys can use at school, or you all can use to keep Uluru protected. I intend to burn the rest.”

“How much damage will that do?”

“To Uluru? Should just cause this place to wither and fade away like a popped pimple.”

“I think we can live with that.”

It took Caitlin less than two hours to find everything useful in the place. This Forge had largely been wasted on the four sisters, who could do most of what they needed without artifice. An armband shaped like a black-metal serpent with Orichalcum eyes, a smoky, black octagon of seeming obsidian and a small box from whence came a haunting voice, singing a lullaby that calmed even Caitlin’s emotions, were what she stuffed into a pouch and strapped to her back.

“Why those things?” Kuparr asked. “From what you told me of the rest, those are the least-valuable.”

“My friend Joe built armor to save lives. The adamant Octagon would let him shield wounded people better, and not break. The serpent is an unbonded familiar spirit, in a physical form, intended to advise and guide a child into their full powers, and I think Sandra could use an advisor who didn’t judge her on her appearance. The music box may help Razor keep his temper when he needs it.”

“Nothing for you?”

“I don’t want anything from this place. If I need something, I’ll make it myself.”

“Then as far as the councils are concerned I saw you bring those three things in yourself.”

“Thanks. I didn’t give you a few items because… the time for such things has passed. Or there’s no possible way we could argue they were “cultural artifacts” that your people could simply claim. The stylings are all wrong.”

“Our culture is not about things you hold in hand, though I thank you for the ones that might help us keep Uluru safe.”

Caitlin nodded, then picked up a massive Orichalcum sledgehammer and pointed. “Keep the door open. I’ll be out in a moment.”

“As you say.”

Caitlin went to the four pillars, each bearing a face and form of the Sisters, then in reverse-order of their birth, shattered the base of the pillars before tossing the incalculably valuable hammer aside to vanish when the edifice was reclaimed and annihilated by the surrounding dream. She walked to the forge-fire and reached into the naked flame with a bare hand and closed her fist, snuffing it like a candle.

Caitlin turned to the door, picked up her three prizes, and left the Forge to die.

* * *

December 19th, 2007, Uluru Resort

Sandra felt wrong as she woke up, and felt like she was twisted in knots, her arms and tail felt constricted, like she was wrapped in cloth wrong. Her tail was coiled under and over her and through itself uncomfortably as though she had been thrashing in her sleep. The feeling was not pleasant and she felt tearing as she tried to pull herself upright.

“Please, not shedding, not again, not now.” Her grumbled voice didn’t carry far enough for anyone to hear, but her inspection of herself found no signs of the glassy, glazed scales that would indicate she was getting too big for her own skin.

She popped open the tent and dragged her upper body out with her arms, letting her tail uncoil itself naturally, grumbling and snarking to herself as she slithered across the warm sands to the fire pit.

She found Caitlin in quiet conversation with an older gentleman she didn’t recognize. She would have hidden herself if he didn’t happen to look over at that particular moment and do a double-take.

“Well now, that’s something you don’t see every day.” he recovered quickly, much more quickly than she would have expected.

“I would hope not,” Sandra snarked wryly, “If there were too many like me there’d be a major confusion factor in the dating and modeling scene.”

“Like how do we market all of these now-useless pairs of pants?” Caitlin chuckled. “Sandra, meet Kuparr. Kuparr, meet Sandra. She’s the shy one I told you about.”

“Good to meet you Sandra. Your friend here didn’t tell me you also were blessed with odd physiology.”

“Blessed, yup, there’s the word I’d use.” She grumbled and coiled up near the fire and tasted the eggs and bacon Caitlin was skilleting over the fire as she spoke.

“You’re going to find most people a lot less reactive to your appearance than I imagine they are in the states,” Kuparr commented and tossed her a pair of hard-boiled eggs. “Cautious, yes, but after Rager’s Night most people are actively trying to be more forgiving of ragers and the GSD. Both are common on this continent, probably as common as exemplars elsewhere.”


Caitlin snorted. “Unless you’re dealing with a genuine Humanity Firster, just do your thing. Your behavior is usually as nonthreatening as they come. So you should be able to show your face in public and get service at most shops.”

“That would be a nice change.”

“Why do you think Jack resisted going to Sydney?” Caitlin smiled.

“Big Cities have more to damage, and thus, more outrage when something goes wrong,” Kuparr added.

“So I guess I’m not the worst off you’ve ever seen?”

Kuparr looked at Sandra and shook his head. “No, you aren’t the worst, but you are one of the most… secure?”

“There’s a terrifying thought,” Caitlin cut in. She dropped a pot of eggs and bacon in front of her friend. “Eat up. I’ve been cooking for you and Jack. The rest of us will eat civilized amounts of food.”

“You’re just jealous because I can dance and you’re all left feet.”

“I see you two don’t like to take life as heavily as most others in your situations,” Kuparr noted, still looking at Sandra, skeptically.

“If we took life too seriously…” Diamondback made a gun with her fingers while pointing it at her own head while Caitlin used two fingers for the gun barrel, grinned insanely and pushed the “gun barrel” deep into her mouth.

The old man laughed.

“Ugh, why are you people awake at this ungodly hour?” Joe grumbled as he stumbled out of his tent, searching desperately for the pot of coffee Caitlin was already holding out to him.

“It’s ten O’Clock, doofus, time to be awake.”

“Sandra, I love you, but it’s vacation time. Being awake before noon when there’s no work, and no school, is sacrilege.”

“Shut up and eat your breakfast.” Caitlin shoved a plate of eggs, bacon and grits at her friend as Razor came sniffing out of the tent as well, taking the other pot of rapidly-cooked dead thing and digging his snout in.

“You’re going to wreck my…”

“If you say diet, I’m going to leap over this fire pit and slap you.” Caitlin pointed a spoon at him like it was a lethal weapon. “You’re starting to look like you are trying to become a football player.”

“Huh? No way.”

Sandra reached over to her friend and grabbed his baggy clothing and pulled tight, showing that Caitlin wasn’t wrong, and Diamond was clutching a double-handful of fabric behind him. “Time to get some new clothing, butthead.”

Razorback pointed and made a pair of whooping shrieks that sounded suspiciously like “Ha-Ha!”

Kuparr watched the interplay with an amused smirk on his face.

Jericho poured himself a cup of coffee only to have Jack steal it.

“This means war.” Jericho launched himself at Razor with a whooping battlecry that he’d learned from a cartoon, starting an impromptu wrestling match that had everyone rapidly awake, worried and laughing all at once.

* * *

They practically had to drag Sandra bodily to the resort. The nervous, serpentine Whitmaniac tried every single excuse to get out of going to a public place filled with baselines as she could. No one was having it. Even Jack, who normally respected her worries, firmly took a hand while Joe took the other and they hauled her between them.

“This is a bad idea.” No one needed to be an empath to get that Sandra was pushing towards the border of a panic attack.

“Sandra, breathe, relax and trust.” Mama Turner’s voice was like pure magic to the panicky girl as she let herself be led while her surrogate mom gave her quiet encouragement.

Caitlin ranged off to the side, watching for any sign that someone might actually take offense to several obvious mutants walking towards the five-star resort that was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. She noted the security guys who were in the area because they weren’t as laid back as the locals, nor as antsy as the tourists. Not all of them were pros and combat veterans, clearly, but that wasn’t necessary in a place where the worst incident would likely be a loud and obnoxious Texan who needed to be told to calm down and mollified with some minor pittance of customer service.

Two of the Security workers in official capacity did approach, did do a double-take at Sandra and Jack, but said absolutely nothing about their appearances. They simply walked up to Caitlin. “Miss, is that red band…”

Caitlin just nodded. “Come on Jack, let’s go get acquainted with the Security team.”

Razor chirped and handed the hand he was guiding Sandra with to Mama Turner. -We’ll catch up.-

The pair of them stepped up to the security guys and Caitlin held a hand out. “Lead the way, we aren’t interested in causing a freak-out.”

“Thanks, lot of people don’t quite get what a red band means in Australia.”

“Means me and Razorback here are providing friendly warning that poking us with sharp objects is not safe. Neither of us have any verbal triggers that we are aware of. It’s stress and violence-related for the both of us.”

The two men visibly relaxed. The one speaking nodded. “Then this should be simple enough, thanks for being courteous enough to give the warning.”

Razor chirped and pointed at his armband and Caitlin’s then pointed at the security man who was talking and pantomimed a circle.

“He can’t talk.” Cait looked at the two men. “He said something during the plane ride out about needing to get local versions. These are ones we used back in school to let people know we can pop if poked.”

“Right. That we can arrange, if you will follow us.”

The two Outcasts nodded and followed, giving the two men enough space so they wouldn’t feel crowded. They were doing a damn fine job keeping their nervousness in check, confronted with a pair of Honest-to-God ragers, but there wasn’t any good reason to test their bearing.

The pair left a shaking Diamondback, who was enduring the disbelieving stares of more than a few tourists, most of whom were Australian and giving more sympathetic looks to the panic-attack-having GSD girl, and only a few nervous looks from non-locals. The Turners, Joe and the Carlyle family all worked at coaxing Sandra towards her destination, telling her that everything was fine.

Caitlin and Razor, however, the other two obvious oddballs in the group, owned it. At least, they appeared to. Jack didn’t even give the wild-eyed looks of a few tourists so much as a second glance, and Caitlin studiously ignored them as they followed the two Security Guards to their destination. Most of the eyes weren’t glued to their odd features, but to the red bands on their arms.

When they were safely in the Security office the two were politely offered their choice of coffee, tea or soda and given a rarely-used clipboard of paperwork to fill out. When they had done so they put away their Whateley-issued Ultraviolent bands and put on the plain, red bands with the logo of the Australian Paranormal Investigation Organization. The API band meant that the pair had taken the time to register as ragers, and were protected by Australian law.

Anyone provoking a known rager to attack in Australia would share the fate of the rager. All of the property damage, all of the injuries, all of the deaths, they would be considered responsible for. They would automatically receive the same sentence if the rager was tried and convicted for crimes in the nation, sharing the rager’s fate. If the rager was taken down before they could do any significant damage, “Provoking a Paranormal Berserker” carried a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. PPB convictions could make it incredibly hard to find work with anyone who wasn’t a Humanity First! enthusiast.

This was, of course, assuming the person provoking survived their egregious mistake.

“Alright you two, I have to say thanks for being so cooperative. Most kids your age grumble a lot more about having to do this.” The guard wasn’t showing his previous level of tense.

Caitlin shrugged. “It’s something we have to live with. If we want friends, family and bystanders to feel safe around us, so be it. Besides, we got being awesome as a side benefit.” She grinned and put a hand on Jack’s shoulder.

Jack nodded frantically in agreement.

“Well, given that everything’s filled out right, you two have the run of the resort. If someone does start poking your triggers please remove yourself from the situation and get to one of our security personnel and we will get the mess taken care of. We’re very proud that we haven’t had any incidents of para violence here at Uluru, and we don’t intend to start now.”

“We’ll do what we can to help you keep that record.” Cait gave a mock-salute and the pair walked out into the hallways without so much as a nervous glance as to what people might think of them.

It took a bit, but they found the spa that the families insisted that everyone visited. Joe was waiting for them at the door and he dragged Razor into the changing areas to help him get changed up without completely shredding his normally-mangled shirts. Caitlin walked into the womens’ area and just picked a locker, stripped down and put a towel over the bikini that Sandra had insisted she have after a good ten minutes of staring at the thing like it would bite her.

Caitlin had gotten by pretending not to notice her body, pulling the bras tight enough that her breasts didn’t bounce much, learning to cope with the wider hips. Her height hadn’t changed much, but her build had, and no matter how blithely she pretended it wasn’t a problem, Caitlin Bardue wasn’t comfortable really considering how she’d changed.

Once she finally managed to work up the gumption to put on the offending garment and really look at herself in the large mirror, she had to shake her head in amazement.

Exemplar bodies really only varied on the one-to-ten scale based on the person doing the rating’s personal tastes. Her skin was pale, but still had the pinkish hue and very slight tanning of a girl who was used to being outside, working. Her body was long, leggy, topping out at just under six feet by fractions of an inch, and built like a girl who lifted weights for the tight tone of an athletic body. The breasts she knew were D-cups intellectually, but on her frame they looked more like C’s or B’s would on shorter women, not enough size to make her look top-heavy. Unfortunately too big for her to be able to completely ignore them entirely.

The metal irises of her eyes and shiny, metallic, black hair that travelled to just below her waist had its own problems as cutting any part of it caused it to rapidly regrow, and the bits removed self-destructed in spectacular light shows of unrestrained magic. Clipping fingernails resulted in similar eruptions.

The girl was lithe, athletic and well-built, almost like she had been sculpted in the image of someone’s idealized, human woman. Adding in the full-body, metallic blue tattoos, and she was obviously not normal, and in many ways exotic. Erik would have rated her an eight, Caitlin was having a hard time really processing that it was her. The lack of biological panic response to the disbelief was more relieving than disconcerting.

In all the time she’d been a woman, Caitlin hadn’t had a period, hadn’t slept, and didn’t have a visceral attraction reaction to anyone since she had changed. She wasn’t more prone to crying, and she could take or leave the close contact, hugging and such with less discomfort than she had as Erik, but not with the natural enthusiasm of most women she knew.

It took her a few minutes of processing before she remembered that she had told Sandra that she would be there for the girl. She stepped out into the massage area, blithely ignoring the stares from more than a few women, many of whom had that “I hate you for looking that good” expression that she’d come to recognize over time, and hunted down a nineteen-foot long serpent with a young woman attached to it at the hips.

Poor Diamondback was lying face-down on a series of mats, arms crossed under her, hiding her face as Caitlin settled down next to her. The girl’s towel she’d had wrapped around her hips was opened at the back, revealing nothing but smooth, serpentine trunk where her ass should be. She was shivering a bit, and not from a chill when Caitlin settled a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey Sandra, relax a bit. I’m here, and I’ve always got your back.” Cait saw Mama Turner and Mrs. Carlyle watching Sandra from a pair of massage tables with slightly worried expressions until Caitlin came in and dropped to the floor next to her friend.

“Thank you.” Sandra looked over at Cait and gave a wan smile. “I’ve never been in public without someone shrieking about the monster.”

“Well if they call me a monster, they’re right. I’ll eat them.” Caitlin grinned.

She was rewarded with a more genuine smile from her friend. “Thanks Cait. You here for the massage?”

“Sure, I’m made out of rock, how good can it be?” The tattooed girl rolled her eyes and grinned.

“Dunno, I’ve never had one.”


Caitlin needn’t have worried. When the women doing the massage arrived, she found the experience far more painful in the early parts as the woman explained that her back was completely clenched up. “Board back” was what they called it. Diamond giggled quite a bit as she watched her friend go through the painful process of having her kinks worked out, even as she had her own strange experience.

The woman helping Diamondback had brought a bucket of sand, soaked in mineral oil, and was very thoroughly using it to rub down Sandra’s scales. The sand scoured out all of the scale creases and apparently felt amazing to the girl as she began to relax into the sensation. Both of the women working on the two obvious mutants were incredibly skilled, and utterly professional. If either was uncomfortable working with either of them, neither showed it. There wasn’t much to say, and Caitlin caught Debra Carlyle smirking knowingly at the antsy, nervous, and horrendously insecure Sandra.

“Don’t look now, smug mother alert.”

When Sandra looked up, with a sleepy, dreamy expression, she realized that the two mothers were watching her with knowing looks, and Sandra groaned as the woman working her way down her serpentine back found knotted muscles she didn’t even know existed before.

“They can be smug all they want,” the serpentine GSD girl moaned in agony, then relief as a particularly painful knot released its hold on her tail. “This place is amazing. Maybe someday…” She left the wistful comment unfinished.

“Ow, shit. Oh that actually feels good,” Caitlin winced as her own back gave up it’s unknown torture-hold upon her life by inches. “I think we can safely say, best vacation ever.”

The two girls managed to somehow endure a full hour of massage, then the moms dragged them in to get their hair and nails done. The two were too zoned out and relaxed to argue much. Caitlin didn’t even have it in her to threaten the woman doing the work with destruction, and wound up with blood-red finger and toenails after she warned them that trimmings could be dangerous. Both she, and Sandra had their hair pulled up on the sides and clipped in place with rather elegant styles that matched their normally-long and unrestrained hair.

The men and women met up and after a bit of coaxing, and invocations of Christmas spirit, Mama Turner and Mama Carlyle got their way, and both Sandra and Caitlin wound up sporting very nice dresses, Sandra in blood-red, Caitlin in emerald green when all was said and done. Sandra almost glittered, her scales having been sand-scoured and polished with mineral oil left her looking vibrant and very, very vivid in coloration.

“How the hell did I let them talk me into this?” Caitlin said nervously, her turn to feel antsy and vulnerable.

“Same way they got me. They hit us with an amazing massage and got us dolled up before we regained our senses.” Diamondback was fidgeting with her dress while they waited for the guys to catch up.

“As if we’d get you in there any other way,” Mrs. Turner gave Sandra a smug look, and adjusted the girl’s dress so it actually didn’t look or feel awkward on her odd body.

“And Jack told us you’d probably fight us with knives if we simply dragged you into a salon,” Mrs Carlyle made similar adjustments to Caitlin. “We had to do something, because neither of you deserves to just be wallflowers tonight.”

“Help Sandra, they’ve assaulted us with class,” Caitlin deadpanned.

“We never stood a chance.”

Neither did the boys. Jericho, Jack, Zach and Adam stopped dead in their tracks upon seeing the two Outcast girls in their Christmas Eve attire. It was bizarre seeing “Crazy Joe Turner” wearing proper slacks and a suit jacket, and somehow even Razorback’s suit managed to not look obliterated.

Both Caitlin and Diamond were blazing bright red, blushing for the same reason, each not knowing that the other was just as uncomfortable being dolled up as she was. Joe recovered first, and took the lead his folks would expect, and offered Sandra his arm. Jack followed suit with Caitlin as the parents paired off with each other and Zach tried to talk with his brother and his friends on the way to the reserved room for a very good dinner.

Dinner, as it turned out, was worth every penny both families had spent on it together. Even Jack, the bottomless pit was sated by all of the amazingly good food that was provided. When the parents retired for the evening, they took the two younger boys with them and left Outcast Corner to sit quietly in the dining room.

“Merry Christmas, ladies, a few days early.” Joe grinned.

“Merry Christmas, guys.” Sandra grinned at Joe.

Caitlin just smiled wistfully, remembering similar nights with friends, family, and a loved one she would never see again. Even Razor caught the tears threatening to pool along the tattooed girl’s eyes.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Joe translated as his reptilian buddy signed.

“I wouldn’t know where to start.” Caitlin smiled and shook her head. “As weird as it’s been for me, I haven’t had many better days in my life.”

“Well, we’ll see.” Joe nodded to Diamond and Jack. “We thought it was time to talk to you about our history, our secrets we’ve kept on campus. You’ve been a good friend, and none of us feel right being cagey around you.”

Caitlin looked at the others, curious, then slowly nodded.

“It’s not like you wouldn’t figure it out sooner or later. You’re learning the sign language, and that’s how we talk about it.” Diamondback looked nervous. “When we manifested, me and Jack… we…”

Razor simply gave Sandra a nod, watching curiously. Caitlin got the impression no matter what secret anyone ferreted out about Jack, he would own it and make it his.

Sandra dug into her purse, an affectation Caitlin had been forced to adopt when the surrogate ‘rents dragged them kicking and screaming into attire without pockets, then withdrew three small photographs. She laid them down on the table carefully one by one.

“This one is Jack, four years ago.” Sandra put down a picture of a little girl who was the spitting image of Debra Carlyle at age eleven, with brown hair, her father’s tanned skin and a yellow sun dress.

Caitlin blinked but let Sandra continue. “This one is me, and this was my brother Matthew.”

Caitlin leaned over and looked at the photos of the twin boys with mussed, reddish-brown hair and roguish grins on their faces. She took in the faces, and looked over at Sandra, ignoring the tiny, soft scales framing her face, and the eyes, or the forked tongue that occasionally poked out when the girl wasn’t paying attention to her instinctively serpentine behavior. She looked like she could have been the supermodel twin sister of either of the twin boys when consideration for her inhuman features was eliminated.

Caitlin leaned back and looked at Sandra, then at Jack. The pieces of the puzzle that were Diamondback’s insecurities just seemed to fall neatly into place, not all of which were congruent with her GSD body image. “Well, that explains quite a lot.” She rolled the words around on her tongue. “Except for you, you don’t have a girly bone left in your body,” she said pointedly at Razor.

He just responded with a predatory, fangy grin and shook his head.

“You’re taking this remarkably calmly.” Joe didn’t quite look at her, but she knew he was scrutinizing.

“Would you believe me if I said you two were hardly the first two I’ve ever met in your boat?” She rolled her thoughts around, remembering Zenith, and Nikki Reilly, among a smattering of others she’d either been confided in by, or figured out. Almost all of them were good kids.

Sandra let out a breath she hadn’t been aware that she was holding. “Oh thank God.” The empathic snake-girl felt absolutely no disgust, fear, hatred or any other negative emotion save caution rolling off her friend.

Caitlin took a long breath, then held out a hand to Sandra, and one to Jack. When each of them took the offered hands, she smiled. “I don’t care who you were, the only thing that matters to me is who you are. Who you choose to be is what matters, and I’m not going to judge you. God only knows I’ve no room to judge anyone.”

“Thank you.” Sandra gripped the hand tightly and Razor let out an amazed chirp.

Caitlin stood up and stretched a little, then looked around the room. “I was debating what to tell you, how much I can tell you, what Carson might skin me for telling you.” She popped her neck nervously.

“Hey, you told us about that artificer shit, how much worse can it get?” Joe looked amused.

“I’m older than I look. Diamond wasn’t far off when she said campus cop. Only in my case, teacher.” Caitlin looked at each in turn. “I had a late-stage burnout because I got charged up with too much mystic art mumbo jumbo and blew up on one of the ranges.”

She could have used a shovel, comfortably, to pick up the three dropped jaws. “You two aren’t the only two who’ve had their bodies rebuilt in a manner not of their choosing. The ash pile at my little ritual site had everything from my past life that had a meaningful memory connected to it. My truck, my uniforms, miscellaneous belongings, and the engagement ring I gave to Cat McQuiston a little under a year before Halloween night.”

Diamondback put two and two together, filling in the blanks with a rapidity Caitlin would have thought impossible were it not for her association with the quietly brilliant girl. “You were put in the student body to keep people from twigging to the Artificer. No one’s going to look for a mystic construct in the student body of a school.”

“You got it in one.”

Joe shook his head. “Erik Mahren, the Range Bastard. All along and… Holy shit. Why didn’t you pop back up on the radar once you got the tats done? You said once they were finished no one else could do it to you.”

Caitlin smirked as Joe invoked her favorite nickname. “It’s not that simple, wish it was. Now I’m, rejuvenated isn’t the word because I wasn’t that old, but I’m orders of magnitude stronger, faster, tougher. I see Essence currents, and I can force magic to do what I want, kind of like you build things Joe. I just do the Magic Devisory, where you do scifi. Add to that my old meds that keep me from popping my lid don’t work anymore?”

Razor signed at them, Diamond translated. “Razor says you have to learn to be a new person and adapt to new powers, just like us.”

“Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I like you all. You think, you use your brains, and you don’t judge.” Caitlin looked at Sandra ruefully. “You think me figuring you out was inevitable, sure, but that road goes both ways.”

“You suck at being a teenager, and a girl now that I think about it.” Joe grinned, “You walk like you couldn’t decide if you wanted to be a ballerina or a berserker when you grew up.”

Caitlin rolled her eyes and cranked the invisible wheel to extend her middle finger at Joe, grinning.

“You do realize that I’m going to make you take over for the Team Tactics course next semester,” he grinned.

“The hell you say.” Caitlin shook her head. “I’ll help with tactics, but you’re the leader here, Jericho. I’m not a good person to lead teenagers in the sims. I’m like Razor, pop a gasket and I’m gone, no more leader. Never mind you’d just learn to do what I tell you, when I tell you, not actually how to beat Gunny at his own games.”

Razor signed again, forcing Cait to try and puzzle out what the hell he was trying to say until she realized he was pantomiming drums.

“What is he trying to rope me into?”

Sandra smirked. “Razor suggests that Joe accept a compromise. He stays leader, you provide advice and tactical knowledge, and you join them in music class and learn to do drums.”

Razor signed again.

“What do you mean, us?” Sandra watched Razor sign again. “Don’t I get a choice in this?”

“No.” Jericho said as Razor shrieked and signed, then both grinned.

Caitlin shook her head. “You do realize that neither of them are going to let you off the hook if I agree to this silliness.”

“I don’t think either of them is going to let us off the hook, ever. They’ve been hounding me since the beginning of the school year.”

Both boys nodded. “She speaks wisdom,” Jericho said.

“So you’re telling me if I don’t agree to be your tactics guru and try to learn an instrument for your thornie band you’ll harass me about it at least once a day and demand I participate in music?” Caitlin gave the boys a long look.

Razor pretended to look thoughtful, then nodded his head vigorously.

“This is blackmail,” Sandra gave Joe a narrow-eyed look.

“I prefer to think of it as an irritation incentive. Like when you ask the parents for something and they finally give it to you to get you to shut up.” The blind boy was grinning, knowing full well he’d already won.

“Can I give him detention?” Caitlin asked blandly.

“I have no issues, but you’ll have to clear it with Carson.”

“Could be problematic.”

“Do we have any other options?”

“Wedgies come to mind.”

“Oooh, I haven’t done that since I became an exemplar…”

* * *

Sandra tried to sleep, but it wasn’t working. She felt an itchy, taut sensation across her body, like being wrapped in gauze from head to tail tip, and it was driving her nuts. She felt like she was bound up in one of Joe’s damn glue bombs, and she wasn’t sticking to anything.

The worst part was her face. She couldn’t see anything constricting her vision but she could feel it pulling her face against her skull, muffling her breath, making it hard to sense anything. She tasted something akin to cobwebs.

As she scratched, her fingers were catching in… something, hooking on something she couldn’t see but not quite having the force to tear it away. As she awkwardly flailed and half-slithered out of her tent, she felt something give as she scratched at the sensation on her face, and stopped, frozen as she heard an audible sound like wet cloth ripping, or flesh.

A blind moment of panic expected bleeding, but there was no pain. In her hand, trailing to her cheeks was a handful of frayed, silvery threads, like she’d had spiders cocooning her. And she could only see it with her right eye. Her left eye saw nothing but the darkened campsite and the smouldering remains of the cooking fire. The sensation brought her to full attention, as she brought both of her “personalities” to bear on the problem, working out the details with her twinned attention spans.

A bit calmer, Sandra dug her nails into the phantom threads and began tearing, forcibly snapping the frayed things until she could see. She immediately wished she couldn’t.

Uluru went insane. The vibrant daylight burned with the night sky and all the stars in a kaleidoscopic nightmare of sensation as the world around her heaved and shifted even as the ground beneath her adhered to the laws of gravity and held her upright. She almost threw up, but managed to hold it back.

Sandra closed her eyes, and her attention divided. She watched the darkness of the real world, while Ryan watched the unnatural light of whatever it was pounding at the borders of creation. Her view of reality divided, superimposed upon itself impossibly as the GSD exemplar focused on the problem at hand, tearing away all of the threads binding her body that Ryan could see but she could not.

The webs seemed to take forever to peel apart and unravel. The knife laid out near the campfire couldn’t touch them, but she found that Caitlin’s odd, obsidian knife could be seen by both herself and her other side. She took a breath and pulled the blade from its’ sheath and slid it down her body, sharp end up, slicing through the gods-cursed webs that held her bound as though the blade were built solely for that purpose.

When she put the blade away and stood, what she saw defied her comprehension. Day and night, heat and cold, joy and bitter anguish all seemed to co-mingle in the very air around Uluru. Midnight had stolen the light, but the sun burned away the darkness as she tried to reconcile the fading, flickering, dancing forms that flickered in her vision like heat shimmers, then faded away to barren sands and red rock. The land was verdant, vibrant, alive with trees and animals and people. But it was barren, brush and the occasional tree broke the landscape around the great mound as her perspective of time literally failed her.

Great beasts charged across the landscape in phantom packs, killing things she could barely perceive, and knew she did not want to see. Four great shadows looked down at her and she wanted to exult, to hide, to flee, to embrace as burning eyes that were not judged her. The pastoral vista burned with unholy fire as time broke and the world itself screamed and cracked into pieces, all of the glorious, beautiful, terrible, monstrous things died in the flash of an instant and were replaced by glorious towers of glass and steel, with nature burning with it rather than in spite of the man-made edifices.

“I see you are awake, and finally unfettered.” Kuparr’s voice called her attention, without startling her, in his easygoing manner. “Your friend knows a thing or two about being unbound. Are you alright?”

Sandra looked at the old man, realizing that she could see him both through her physical, and mind’s eyes. Kuparr was as real to Ryan as he was to her. “What is this? What am I seeing?”

The old man gave a wan smile. “Who knows? Past, present, future. Possibility and the end of hope coexist here. What it is, who is to say, but the sleeping dream of something greater than we.”

“This isn’t the dreamtime…” Sandra gave a skeptical look.

The old man shook his head. “It is a dream for sure, but not the Dreamtime. We remember but the dreamtime, as it is called in english, is long past. Entering the actual Dreamtime would be to see the creation of the world itself. We can no more chase that revelation than one could step into the Book of Genesis and advise God on the creation of Man.”

“Oh…” She looked thoughtful. “What dreams here?”

“I honestly do not know. I’m not even sure if the dreamer itself is aware that it is asleep.” The old man smiled indulgently. “But it is here, and it is very old. Perhaps someday we will know.”

“Is it dangerous to walk here?”

Kuparr nodded. “Very. The fact that you have the presence of mind to ask means you may pass without the Bunyip using you as their tool, or their meal.”

“I thought the Bunyip was a water-demon.”

“Not the Bunyip. Just Bunyip.” He sat by the embers and put more wood down on the pit, stoking the small flame. “Bunyip are many, not one. The things that feed on nightmares, the things that corrupt the flesh, and possess the body, or make trinkets of the soul, all are Bunyip.”


He nodded, slightly. “This place was once ruled by beings greater than us. Your friend found one of their edifices. She believed it to be a threat to Uluru, and the autonomy of our people here, and destroyed it.”

“She never said…”

“Why should she?” He sat, staring into the flames. “I only tell you this to illustrate a point. The Dream here is strongest, at its’ most powerful. It extends even across the seas to touch the corners of the world, but its influence is not as strong as it once was, and it encompasses all things, both benign and malignant. The dream showed your friend something that had scarred her, badly, so she erased it from existence despite the fact that she could have taken and claimed it with little I could do to stop her. Those scars she carries aren’t healing any time soon.”

“It’s not just what lives in the dream. It’s what the dream can show you.” Sandra looked contemplative as she picked away threads of webbing and tossed them to the fire. She saw nothing but the flame guttered and burped anyway. Ryan saw the flame reach to assault the fibers as though a dying man were offered a last meal before his execution.

“Correct. Everything the dreamer knows, everything she sees past, present and future can be reflected here. This is a safe place, a holy place in many ways. The darkness does not come here except in reflection, old memories adrift in slumber. You’re lucky you unfettered yourself here at Uluru.”


“Call me weird, but I get a very motherly vibe from the dreamer. But Mothers can be wrathful.”

“Yeah. Yeah they can.”

“We don’t have a lot of time. I’ve places to be, and things what must be done before I can rest, but I can give you the basics. What do you know of Astral space and Dream Realms?”

“A little. Both can be homes of spirits, Dream Realms are pockets created by minds to cradle them in sleep, or to protect them as they delve into things that for most are mystery.”

He nodded. “Close enough. You’re a child of both worlds now, flesh and spirit. You and me, we exist in both at the same time. If you can figure out the trick, you can move to one or the other, but it never lasts. Your presence is too vivid within the realms of both flesh and spirit to last long solely in either.”

“So what can I do?” For the first time in a very long time, Sandra knew the feeling of heart-seizing terror. Spirits were dangerous when they couldn’t perceive you. When they could put touch to you, the potential became infinitely worse.

“I can show you the basics, give you some tricks to defend yourself. But you’re going to be best off making use of any ability you’ve learned to fight, any magic you might know. You, and your friends have been touched by things you shouldn’t have been. There are things in the Outback not wholly flesh, not completely spirit. You and the Hunter will be able to see them. The others might not. The tattooed girl and the blind kid might have better luck seeing these things.”

“Am I going to be attacked?”

“Maybe, but if we do this right, hopefully we can get you home, without too much scarring.”

“As if my life needed more complication.”

“Life is complication. You need to trust your friends, and let them help you. The others, the families? They aren’t ready for what you are going to see, and they can’t fight the dark things that have left those very faint scars on your blind friend there.”

“Voodoo Wolves.”


“Jericho calls them Voodoo Wolves. An amalgam of things here, and outsider blood that shouldn’t be possible. Something called the Bastard…”

“Don’t say that name that way, not with that inflection, not here.” She found her words cut off as the sky dripped blood from the stars, and the sun scoured the world with its fury, seeking the cursed thing. “She knows what that is, and we cannot wake her. The beast which offends her so much is close. It’s here, and not. It tried to kill her heart once, and it’s still recovering from the doom it inflicted upon itself. But we do not dare invoke one near the other, lest they rekindle that old war. Speaking of the Dreamer to the Beast, or the Beast to the Dreamer invites the wrath of both.”

Diamondback blinked, and nodded. “Show me what you can. I’ll fill in the others when they’re awake.”

“Let’s begin then. I’m going to show you how to shield yourself against both sides. It will help with those Voodoo Wolves you speak of. You’re going to see the truth, what they are, and reality isn’t going to force their existence into the comfortable, maddening shells that humans fear. When you must straddle the line between flesh and spirit, they’re much, much worse.”

“I hate my life.”

* * *

Kuparr watched the four friends talk after the two boys woke up, and the tattooed girl came back from her explorations of the deserts away from the great rock. He watched as the two families packed up the two 4x4 trucks, one battered and rusted pickup with the four very dangerous children in the back, and one rented SUV with the normal children safely belted in and secure.

They were good children, he thought, a bit rough around the edges, a bit prone to lashing out at the world, but good.

As he reminisced the wind picked up, and the old man never seemed to notice as the wind blew the flecks of sand from his bones, withering his body until even his husk vanished, blown away to rejoin the desert. The Dream that was Kuparr ended, and another began elsewhere.

* * *

December 21st, 2006, Darwin, Australia

Caitlin was absolutely shocked by the sheer turnout of people that had come for the Rager’s Night March. There were at least a thousand people here, many of whom wore similar red bands, many of whom bore the signs of obvious GSD on their forms. The number of baselines who were marching compared to the few mutants was staggering.

On December 21st, 1998 one of the worst episodes of mutant violence in the history of Australia had erupted on the streets of Darwin as a Humanity First! Rally targeted the family of one Connor Edwards, a fifteen-year old football (soccer to Americans) player who had recently manifested as a mutant. The boy’s temper was astronomical, and he’d been ejected from the competition teams as his exemplar status made him ineligible for competitive sports.

No one knew what exactly set him off, but they had a good idea. It was here, in front of an empty, nondescript home that Connor’s two-kilometer rampage began, ending in the most horrific, televised battle seen on the news in recent years. “Rager’s Night” was the Fool’s Fight of Australia, though rather than inciting panic and mutant suppression, the parliament of the country had written the laws to punish those who deliberately provoked violence from mutants saddling them with the sins of their target, should they live through the ordeal.

Every rager in the crowd was given a single rose. Caitlin held hers delicately between two fingers, trying not to crush it. Razorback held his carefully, not being flippant and using it like a toothpick like she expected. Both families were here. The Turners and the Carlyles were following the twenty-two red-banded ragers who were on the front line of the procession.

Caitlin could see the twelve blank plates where names might be inscribed on the plaque at her feet. It was the place where the horror had started, and as she read the odd plaque in the road, she understood.

In this place, twelve men and women died, committing an act that would result in the deaths of too many innocent men, women and children.

This was a crime of hate, and they provoked a rager to prove mutants were dangerous.

In doing so, they sentenced their own neighbors to die.

Their names will not be remembered.

They will not become martyrs for their message of intolerance.

Let the only legacy they have be the horror they wrought upon the people of this nation.

They may not have a legacy of infamy that others can share.

Two steps away, Caitlin saw the first plaque.

Amelia Edwards, Mother of Three, age 42.

The second one became visible as the march began and the litany of names every so often joined the first one. As they passed one of the ragers would place a rose on the name of one of the people who fell in the rampage.

Nick Arnassen, age 8. Razorback placed his first rose on the plaque, and everyone avoided stepping on it.

Sharon Hunter, Age 27. Caitlin knelt and set her rose down on the plaque, and stood, moving forward.

The litany of names continued, and when the ragers ran out, another rose was given to each. The victims were remembered, and the slow march finally came to a small park in the intersection square where Erik Andrew Mahren had executed Connor in the street, on camera, and Caitlin diverted and brought Razor with her to a spot with a plaque few might notice, as it was off the beaten path.

The march stopped for a moment and watched as the pair set a pair of roses for Nathan and Bonnie Gellar, who had died in their car, having had the poor luck to drive through a stream of bullets from machineguns intended for a berserker. Their car had been cut to swiss cheese, and they never had a chance to escape before they died. They were collateral damage.

Caitlin prayed that it had been swift.

Three plaques marked unknown assailants who had stopped the rampage and died, their bodies never recovered by the authorities.

Here is where the so-called “Dragonslayers” fell to Rage.

We do not know who they were.

We do not know why they came.

We only wish they could have ended this nightmare peacefully.

A GSD woman with four eyes and tendrils in her hair laid a black rose on the plaque where Blackjack fell.

A normal looking businessman laid the rose at the spot where three Marines were killed in their Hummvee, trying to escape the carnage after delivering the Dragonslayers.

Razorback laid one on the spot PFC Colton, the kibble had fallen.

When everyone gathered around the center of the memorial park, Caitlin knelt and laid her rose on the plaque of Connor Edwards, Desperately trying not to see his face in her mind’s eye through a gunsight, fighting back tears. This was the battle that broke Hijacker so many years ago, and it had been one of his first.

She hated herself for being the survivor all over again. Caitlin couldn’t keep the images away as she whispered a silent prayer that one day she could find forgiveness, as she ran her hand along the plaque marking the place where a child had died by her hand.

People say killing gets easier. They were liars.

Sandra felt the guilt, the shame and the remorse coming from her kneeling friend as the red-bands formed a circle around the crying girl in the center. She moved to help, but Joe caught her arm.

“Let her grieve, Sandra,” Joe said quietly.

“But she’s..”

“I can see. Just… trust me.” The look on the face of her white-eyed, dreadlocked friend was something she’d never seen before, and she nodded.

After a seeming eternity, Caitlin stood and stepped back into the circle of red bands. There were no speeches, no news interviews. There was a long period of silence as twenty-two berserkers and almost a thousand baselines and mutants stood with bowed heads to honor the victims of the tragedy. Every single one of them understood a simple concept: this could be me.

An old man carrying a bible led a prayer for the departed and asked God to watch over his daughter and grandson, wherever they might be. He even prayed for Connor’s killers, never realizing one of them stood within arm’s reach, Asking God to forgive them if their intentions were only to stop the deaths that seemed unending.

When the circle broke, no one could find Caitlin anywhere.

* * *

Caitlin arrived back at the Carlyle family’s ranch-style home sometime after midnight. She was still wide awake, but she’d just about cried herself out, reliving the raw guilt she felt at the deaths she’d had a part in during the Rager’s Night nightmare.

If it had been anyone but a child she could have coped, Erik could have coped. She could have made peace with that death, but even in her waking nightmares she realized that any pair of eyes she had ever met could have been the ones staring into her gun barrel on that nightmare night. When she’d still been able to sleep she’d seen those eyes almost every night, and on the worst nights she saw the faces of her students staring up into the barrel of a pistol whenever she’d closed her eyes.

The house was silent, the families were all asleep, only one person had stayed up, waiting for her in the living room. Joe Turner held up a hand when she was about to speak, and waved her to follow. He quietly opened the back door and led her outside. She was half-expecting him to confront her, she didn’t really expect his first question.

“Are you going to be alright, Cait?” She saw concern writ large on his face, as “Crazy Joe” Turner dropped the clown act so he could be there for a friend in need.

“I honestly don’t know.” She shook her head, ruefully. “Eight years and I still have nightmares about that street, can’t forget what happened there.”

“Sandra was worried, she thinks you are blaming yourself for that kid’s death.”

Caitlin opened her mouth, and nothing came out for a moment. She was mentally exhausted, stressed, and just now realizing that she had never really learned to cope with her own demons. She’d never spoken to anyone about what had happened in Darwin, none of them had. Connor Edwards was the nightmare Erik Mahren had prayed would be a delusional nightmare and he’d wake up not feeling like a murderer.

She wanted to say that she couldn’t talk, that she couldn’t violate security, but it was just an excuse to keep from having to think about it for too long. Erik Mahren was officially dead, and nothing could really stop her.

“I wish I could say I wasn’t responsible for that kid’s death.” Caitlin leaned against a thin, odd tree and wished that just once she would be able to let go. “Eight, nine years ago, I was here on a deployment, on my way home when the ship pulled into port. Me and a few others on the ship had survived some hairy shit by the skin of our ass and the dumbest luck anyone could have.”

She closed her eyes and remembered the excitement for being off the boat after too damn long, looking forward to a landfall that wasn’t to go hunt for death incarnate with six others who had gotten too close to the reaper a few too many times.

For his part, Joe just listened silently, letting her compose herself, find words and leaving his normal smartass commentary at the door.

“While everyone was prepping to debark for some drinking and partying the shit hit the fan and people started dying. Me and my crew were pulled up on deck by the colonel and told to grab our shit and get ready to go.” She relived the feeling of going from elated, to terrified in seconds as the situation was laid out.

“Darwin had no native supers teams, and no paranormal cops who could go toe to toe with a Class Three rager. The closest team that might have taken Connor down was over an hour away. The local military forces were mostly at home with family for the holidays, and they couldn’t pull a react team fast enough to matter. We got the green light.”

“They didn’t tell you it was a kid, did they?”

“They didn’t know it was a kid, no one had enough information to tell what the fuck was going on. By the time me and my guys were engaged fully, Connor had killed a Hummvee full of Marines who tried to distract him long enough for us to get fully in play. All we knew was we had a screaming body that was literally pulling people apart like a kid dismembering insects.”

“What happened?”

“We fought, he killed two of my Marines in close Combat. Between him and the havoc, me and the other two gunners missed the car coming into the intersection with two people who made the wrong turn at the wrong time. We didn’t even realize what had happened until the vehicle got painted red from the inside. We turned their car into swiss cheese and killed them without ever intending to.”

Caitlin tried to stop her hands from shaking, but it wasn’t really working. Her voice was more than a little hollow, as Joe watched her relive Rager’s night in her mind’s eye as she talked. “Connor almost killed me, and I survived by popping a satchel charge on a city bus at near-suicide range. I shellshocked myself pretty bad, and all I saw was the guy who almost killed me standing, looking around.”

“I stumbled out of the store front, moved right up to him as he dropped to his knees, drew my sidearm, and I put a bullet between his eyes at point-blank range.” Her voice cracked. “It never even occurred to me that he’d stopped, snapped out of it, and it made sense in the moment. But my mind replayed it back and I saw his eyes. He was awake, staring at the mayhem and wondering what the hell happened, then he saw me, and it was over. Then I realized I’d just executed a fucking teenager!”

Joe was silent for a moment, then put his hand on Caitlin’s shoulder and seemingly stared into her eyes, her soul. “”How many people have you talked about this with Cait?”

“You’re the first. I thought I could handle this, thought maybe I could make peace…”

“Maybe you can. You’re not just another killer. Did you go in wanting to kill him?”

“I remember wanting to live, praying to god someone else would solve it before I ever had to click off my safety.”

“So you were responding to a shit situation, and you had to fight or die.”

Caitlin nodded. “He was out of the rage when I killed him, walked up, pop. No thought, just execution.”

“How much do you know about Connor Edwards, Caitlin?”

“Not much, just that he was a soccer enthusiast, he manifested and was a known rager, and some idiot shitlords decided to go pick a fight with him to protect humanity or some other bullshit.”

Jericho nodded. “Connor Edwards wasn’t a blackout rager. They tested him when he first popped a gasket and ripped a car to pieces. I looked up the bio on the kid before we went, then read it again after we lost you. Connor told the docs that he felt like his body was possessed, and he couldn’t do anything to control it. He was a passenger.”

“Oh sweet Jesus he would have remembered…”

“He would have remembered tearing up those H1s, he would remember killing the kids, the bystanders, everyone who got in his way. He would have seen their faces in his nightmares the same way you see his. He killed his own mother when she tried to stop him from going ballistic.”

Caitlin’s shaky knees finally gave and she hit the ground next to the tree, silently for a minute. “To this day, I could swear I thought I saw relief in his eyes when he realized I was going to kill him. I thought it was my brain making shit up, trying to protect me, find a way to make me feel better about what I did, to justify what I’d done. I still have a hard time believing that I wasn’t grasping at straws to find a reason why I didn’t deserve to be dead next to that kid.”

“Connor’s greatest fear, according to the bio posted alongside the laws protecting ragers, was that one day he would find himself hurting people he cared about, people who didn’t deserve to suffer, and he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.” Joe knelt next to Caitlin. “There’s a police record, and a recording of a kid with far more self-awareness than anyone our age has a right to be. He told the local cops if he raged out, and he started hurting people, shoot to kill.”

Caitlin started crying again, and Joe let her head rest on his shoulder as she finally let go and simply mourned the boy she had killed eight years before.

* * *

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