“You’re really a umm, a vampire? Like, a real vampire?” The question, tinged with nervousness mixed with genuine curiosity, came from the young girl who sat perched on a swing in the middle of the park in the artificial town where the Fusion School adult students lived. She was holding the chains of the swing tightly, slowly gliding back and forth on it while her eyes remained locked on the (much) older figure on the swing next to hers.
“That’s right, Denny,” Asenath confirmed without looking that way. Her attention was on the artificial moon against the dark ceiling. “I was born in seventeen-ninety-five. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?” She asked that with a small smile, finally glancing over to the girl.
Denny, in turn, flinched despite herself. “Everything about all of this is crazy. Are… are they really right about me? I mean, was I really older? I mean, not as old as you, but…” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl knew it was true deep inside, but she needed to hear it from someone else.
Asenath gave a short nod. “It’s true. Everything they told you is true, all of it. You were just a teenage girl minding your own business when you got dragged into this because that boy thought you would be a fun victim. It wasn’t your fault and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. He was just… his father turned him into a monster, and he took it out on you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry for everything that happened to you, and I’m sorry that you were alone for so long while you were trying to figure out what’s going on. You didn’t deserve any of that.”
Turning away, Denny silently swung back and forth. The only sound was that of the creaking chains. Finally, after almost thirty seconds of near-silence, she spoke again. “That girl back at the gas station, Kalia, she didn’t deserve what happened to her dad either. And… and from what you guys said, that… umm, Ammon didn’t deserve to have his dad make him bad.” She sounded hesitant to even say that, but forced the words out. Her voice turned even softer. “Sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I think… I think it’s not about what anyone deserves. It’s just about what happens. Good and bad.”
“You’re a smart… person,” Asenath replied after taking a moment to absorb that. “But I’m still sorry you had to try to deal with all that by yourself. Even the strongest, smartest people need to depend on others. You had no idea what was going on or what was happening to you, and you still handled it better than most would have. You didn’t hurt anyone. You helped those people at the bus station. And you saved the sword from Kushiel, even after she kept threatening you. You were smart enough to know that giving it to her would make things worse, and brave enough to lie right to her face. Even after dealing with… with everything else you’ve been dealing with. Even after you saw her kill those people. You still did the right thing.”
“Brave?” Denny sounded doubtful. “I was so scared I almost threw up. I didn’t have a plan or anything. I didn’t know what to do. If she started killing people again, I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t do anything. I tried to use the voice thing, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t–I didn’t–” She cringed, hunching in on herself, voice almost inaudible. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t want to give her the sword. Because if I gave her the sword and she killed people with it, that would be my fault. I don’t want people to be hurt or die because of me. Because if I do… if people die because of something I do, I think that might make him stronger. He might win. He might take over.” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat, hoarsely adding, “I’m not brave. I’m terrified… of him. Of what he’ll make me do if I give him a chance.”
Shaking her head, Asenath slipped off the swing and stepped around to stand in front of the other girl. “That’s why you’re brave, Denny. Do you have any idea how many people would be curled in a ball in the corner, completely catatonic from seeing those memories and thoughts? That or they’d just give into him entirely. Going through everything you did and still keeping yourself from doing anything bad? Having bad thoughts doesn’t make you bad. Listen, I’m a… I’m a vampire. There are so many times when I look at someone, smell their blood, and I just want to give in. I want to taste them. I want to indulge. Even around people I like, sometimes it just… flares up. I used to think that made me a monster. But having those thoughts isn’t evil. You had no idea what was going on. No one explained anything to you. These memories and impulses just kept shoving their way into your head and you still resisted. You did everything you could. You helped those people. You had Ammon’s thoughts in the back of your head and you still saved them. Yes, you are incredibly brave. Braver and smarter than I think almost anyone in your position would have been. You are one incredible girl, and everyone is so lucky that you are.”
There was a moment of silence. Even the creaking chain stopped as the girl put her feet down to stop the swing. She kept her gaze locked on the ground, staring intently at nothing as various thoughts worked their way through her mind. Finally, Denny exhaled and looked up. “I think the memories are what helped me. My memories, I mean. I… I remembered how scared I was when he… when he made that man hurt me. I remembered laying on the floor and trying to curl up so he wouldn’t kick my stomach so hard. But I couldn’t stop him. I–I remember shooting him. I remember how he looked. I remember going to the gas pump. I remember the taste of–I remember. I remember it.” She swallowed hard, a visible shudder running through her. “I remember being hurt and… and killed like that. And I never want to make anyone feel the way I did. I think that’s why I could… why I can resist him. I think remembering those things helped me not be a monster. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that scared, and that helpless.” The pain in her voice was raw as she stared at Asenath.
Silently, Senny offered her hands to the girl. She waited until they were accepted, then pulled Denise to her feet. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, before and after your… death. Whatever your reasoning, you are still one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Squeezing her hands, she added quietly, “Your mother never believed that you killed yourself, you know.”
Blinking rapidly, Denny stared at her, voice tentative. “What do you mean?”
Asenath, in turn, told the girl about being hired by her mother to find out the truth. “Everyone told her that you killed yourself, but she didn’t believe it. She hired me to find out the truth, to find out who was responsible. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing to begin with. Hell, I’d say that’s why I was there to help Felicity when he tried to hurt her. If your mother hadn’t called me, I never would have been trying to track him down. I never would have showed up at that house and been able to help stop him, save Flick from the people he was controlling, and stop her father from being forced to kill himself. I never would have been there if your mom hadn’t refused to give up on finding out the truth, if she hadn’t refused to believe what they told her.”
Digesting all of that, Denise turned away and folded her arms tightly. She stared down at the swing she had just been sitting on, silently processing for several long seconds. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “You’re saying I should go back and explain everything to her, to both of them. You think I should tell my parents what’s going on. But how?” She turned back, pivoting on one foot to stare imploringly at the older girl. “How am I supposed to tell them any of this stuff? It sounds really crazy. It sounds… it’s…” Her eyes closed tightly, a small whimper escaping her before she opened them. “And they won’t remember anyway. Isn’t that what you guys said? It’s the umm, the…”
“Bystander Effect,” Asenath finished for her, giving a short nod. “Yes, that is a thing. But there are pills that your parents can take that will temporarily disable it. So they can remember and understand what you’re telling them, what we can show them. We will still have to convince them that it’s real, but we can stop the Bystander Effect from butting in.”
“And… and then what?” the girl asked, biting her lip. “Do they just keep taking those pills forever? What’s going to happen to them once they know the truth? Can you just have them do that umm, bonding thingie you were talking about? What if they don’t want to? What if they think I’m a monster? What if they think everyone here is a monster? What if they try to tell the police? What if–”
Reaching out, Asenath put both hands on the girl’s shoulders and spoke gently. “I can’t tell you that everything will be fine. I can’t tell you how they’ll react or how any of that will go. I’ve seen it go really well, and really poorly. I’ve seen the best and the worst reactions. But your parents deserve the chance to show you their reaction for themselves. They deserve the opportunity to know the truth. Like I said, your mother believed in you when everyone was telling her otherwise. Maybe they won’t be able to accept this, but give them a chance, okay?”
Remaining silent for a few seconds as a conflicting rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, Denny finally gave a very short nod while swallowing a thick lump in her throat. She was clearly still terrified at the prospect, but pushed past that. “Okay,” she managed weakly, “I want to tell them the truth. But you’ll come with me, right? You’ll help stop me if–if…” She was clearly terrified not only of her parents’ reactions, but also what she herself might be tempted to do when she saw them again.
Smiling very gently, Asenath nodded. “Yes. And don’t worry, we’ll help you block those memories and the… the impulses. You’re not alone anymore, I promise. And we’ll bring some others too. Come to think of it, we still need to find out if Felicity and her family are immune to the Denuvus power or not.”
That made Denny blink. “Immune to the what?”
“Oh, I guess we didn’t explain that part.” Asenath gestured with one hand. “That power you have, it didn’t come from Ammon originally. It actually belongs to a guy named Denuvus. He–”
“She.” Denny immediately interrupted the other girl, head shaking quickly as she stared with rapidly widening eyes. “You mean she. She was a woman. She talked to me. She was—I mean she even tried to use the–I mean she said her name and she was trying to make me–I mean–”
Asenath frowned, gently taking the girl’s hands. “Denny, slow down. What do you mean she talked to you? Take a breath. What happened? Do you mean someone started to talk to you about Denuvus? Or… or…” She trailed off, staring at her. This was too important to not be completely precise about what exactly had happened.
So, Denny did just that. She took a deep breath and let it out before explaining everything about the therapist she had been sent to see. Starting from the beginning, she detailed the entire encounter, including the part when the woman had switched to the name of Denuvus and had clearly tried to control her. Now that Denny understood the power and looked back on it, the meaning behind introducing herself with that name was obvious.
“And it didn’t work at all?” Senny pressed, thoughts whipping their way through her head. It was a lot to take in. Granted, appearing as a woman didn’t exactly mean a lot in a world of magic, especially given how secretive Denuvus was. He or she always obfuscated details about themself and used proxies to hide behind. There were a thousand different rumors about where they had come from, and she was pretty sure that at least half of them had been started by Denuvus. Being a male could have been a lie from the start, or they could have appeared in a female form to throw people off that way. When dealing with someone like that, you could never take anything at face value. And yet… and yet this was still huge.
Denny was nodding rapidly. “Uh huh. I mean uh uh. I mean, it didn’t work. She tried to make me tell her about my dreams and then told me to sit down. And she introduced herself both times, with that weird name. I just… I guess I kinda forgot about it because of everything else that’s going on.” Cringing a bit guilty, she quickly added, “I could tell you what she looks like, and if–oh. Oh. I told her to leave me alone and go jump in a lake. I mean, I told her my name and then I told her to go jump in a lake. Umm… that didn’t work though, right?” The girl suddenly sounded pensive and worried. “If I’m immune to her, she’s immune to me, and I didn’t actually make her jump in a lake. So she doesn’t have to be mad at me or anything. She doesn’t have to be angry and–and… umm…” Trailing off, she swallowed hard at the thought of having someone that dangerous angry with her. Even if she was immune, Denny wasn’t stupid. She knew that this Denuvus wasn’t limited to simply trying to use that single power on her. She could use it to hurt other people, or use other things.
“It’s okay,” Asenath quickly assured her, though she herself was a bit stunned by the whole situation. “Like I said, you aren’t alone. We’re all going to help you, I promise. And we’ll figure out what’s going on with this Denuvus thing. Tell us where his… or her office was and we’ll check it out. I mean, I doubt there’s anything there still, but there’s always the chance Denuvus missed something when cleaning up. Anything that helps find out more about them. I’m pretty sure you’re the only person I know of to have a face to face with them and actually remember it. So anything you can tell us, anything else you remember or think of, it could all help.”
“I don’t–I’m not–” Cringing visibly, Denny gave a quick headshake. “I’ll try. But um, I think I need to check on my mom and dad now.” Drawing herself up, clearly trying to push down all her doubts and insecurities about that, she added, “I… I need to see them. I miss them.” Her voice shook slightly with the admission, revealing just how hard it was to say. She was so afraid of accidentally hurting her parents, and equally afraid of being rejected by them when they found out the truth. Yet she desperately wanted to be with them again.
Squeezing the girl’s hands, Asenath nodded. “It’s okay. We’ll take you there right now. You’re right, we can deal with everything else later.” Plucking a phone from her pocket, she gestured with it. “Let me just set it up.”
Quickly, Denise spoke up. “S-so, we’re really… umm… you know, this place is really…” She looked around the park, slowly raising her gaze to look at the artificial sky before swallowing hard. “It’s not really in the sun, right? It’s just somewhere else. Like a big building. That Mr. Sean guy said it was in the sun, but he’s just teasing.”
With a small chuckle, Asenath replied, “Well, he does tease a lot. But not this time. We are one hundred percent inside the sun. It’s a really big space station with a bunch of forcefields to protect it from being burnt up and crushed. It absorbs the energy from the sun and turns that into more force field power. So we never run out.”
Denny stared at her in disbelief. “But why would you do that? Why be in the sun at all? It’s like… super-dangerous. So why take the risk? What if something goes wrong? Won’t it, umm, like, kill everybody before they can do anything? One little crack or whatever and everyone gets incinerated, or crushed. Wait, would you burn up first or get crushed by the pressure?” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was trying to calculate that before quickly abandoning the thought. Instead, she settled on, “It’s bad. It’d be really bad. So why live here?”
Gently, Asenath explained, “First, as far as the danger goes, you’re right. If anything went wrong, it’d be pretty bad. That’s why they built over a hundred redundancy systems. If there’s any problem with the integrity of the station, everyone on it will be teleported to one of a dozen different potential safe zones down on the planet. See, the way it was explained to me, the computer that helps run this place can do over five hundred thousand trillion calculations per second. You know how many that is? If you made a stack of pennies all the way up to the moon, you’d have to make two more just like it to equal one trillion. You know how long ago the dinosaurs lived?”
“Um, sixty-five million years?” the younger girl offered.
“Right, so sixty-five million years,” Asenath confirmed. “A trillion seconds is thirty-two thousand years, so you’d have over two thousand trillion seconds to reach sixty-five million years. Two thousand trillion seconds between now and when the last dinosaurs lived. And this computer can calculate five-hundred thousand trillion times per second. The instant it detects a problem, it will grab everyone on the station and teleport them off. That’s faster than anyone can think.” She smiled a bit, trying to be reassuring. “You see? Does that make you feel better?”
Flatly, Denise replied, “Sure, unless the computer goes evil and kills everybody.”
Asenath blanched a little. “Right, that’s where some redundancies come in. But trust me, it’s all as safe as it can be. As for why we live here at all, it’s because there’s a lot of bad people out there who are really powerful, and they want to find us. They want to do a lot of bad things. So, we have to hide in a really good place to make sure everyone who lives here is safe. It could be dangerous if something goes wrong, sure. But it’d be a lot worse if those people found where we live.”
Swallowing hard as she processed that, Denise offered a weak, “There’s a lot of bad things going on that I don’t know about, huh?”
“And you don’t need to know about them right now,” Asenath insisted. “You need to think about your family, and deal with your own stuff. Come on, I’ll call ahead and we’ll get an escort to go down to find your parents so we can explain everything.”
Forty-six minutes later, the group arriving at the front door of Denise’s family home included the girl herself, Asenath, Sarah and Sands Mason, their mother Larissa, and Risa Kohaku. Such a large group normally wouldn’t be required for a simple pick-up job, but they were being careful given the entire situation. And they wanted Denise to know she had all the support she needed when telling her parents what was really going on.
Besides, Risa was the one who knew how to administer the Bystander Effect-blocking pills that would allow the girl’s parents to even retain any ability to understand and remember what they were being told.
“Girls, watch the front yard, okay?” Larissa urged her daughters, while the rest of the adults moved up to the door behind Denise herself, who leaned up to push the doorbell, looking even more anxious with every passing second.
“Sure, we got this,” Sands confirmed, exchanging a fist bump with her sister before the two of them stepped out by the front sidewalk. They listened as the doorbell rang a couple times, then heard Denise try the door and step in, calling out for her mother and father. Silence passed for a few seconds, aside from the sound of the others moving inside. And then, that silence was broken by a scream.
Exchanging quick looks, Sands and Sarah resisted the urge to pivot and rush that way. Their job was to watch the front walk. If they ran off now just because they were curious, and someone came right in the spot they were supposed to be guarding, it could be really bad.
“Mom!” Sands called. “What’s going on?”
The next thing they knew, their mother was rushing Denise right back out of the house, before the girl collapsed to her knees there in the grass and threw up. She was sobbing so hard it seemed like her whole body might tear itself apart from the inside.
“Kushiel,” Larissa managed flatly after falling right beside the younger girl to gather Denise into her arms. She held her tightly, half-laying there on the grass. “Kushiel was here.”
“Wh-what?” Sarah spoke up. “How do you know?”
“She left a note above the bodies,” Larissa informed her daughters.
“It said, ‘you should have given me the sword.’”