1.08 Refining Fire - by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Falkner grabbed two hours of something like sleep on the back bench seat of one of the Yukons. She put Worth on the same shift, and Lau; Todd and Hafidha could hold the fort, and knew the difference between what they could field and what they had to call her for.
Reyes and Brady came in with the other vehicle just as the angry sun cleared the horizon. Revelations was a Christian book, but in their line of work, they couldn't help but know the end-of-days icons. The sun didn't rise in blood every day of the week.
Brady had that healthy-animal resilience, but Reyes looked drained. "Have you slept?" she asked him.
"I'll go try." He showed her a humorless smile. "They don't pay you enough."
"Not by several orders of magnitude."
Her back hated her. Too damned bad. She stumped up the metal steps and into the trailer.
Inside, the smell of fresh coffee arm-wrestled the smoke. Worth had passed out paper masks, so they wouldn't all be breathing soot (where did she find these things on the fly? But she did), but Falkner noticed that no one seemed to think they needed to wear them in the trailer. Well, maybe they didn't.
Hafidha was updating fire progress on her monitor; the satellite images refreshed square by square, a puzzle of pieces in black, gray, orange, and dark pine green. She'd figured out some kind of image processing that filtered the smoke and extrapolated what was happening on the ground beneath it. Brady sat with elbows on the table, the heels of his hands dug into his eye sockets. Todd was curled up in a corner with his jacket over his head.
Hafidha saw where her eyes went. "I told him to. I'll wake him up if I need him."
In fact, Todd rolled over and pushed his jacket away. "Dereliction of duty," he admitted, rusty-voiced.
Falkner shook her head. "Grab it when you got it." War zone rules were now in effect. She poured coffee into a styrofoam cup, held it out to Hafidha, who shook her head, then Todd, who scrambled to his feet and took it from her. She poured herself another. "Brady, any more to report from last night?"
He shook his head without raising it. "Villette's medical file's on the table."
"Good. Todd, when Worth wakes up, you and she go through it, see if you can find anything more to suggest what he's likely to throw at us."
"Yeah," Brady said. "Because someday we might even see the son of a bitch."
Falkner had known one of them would crack; she'd expected it any time in the last twelve hours. "Brady?"
He rose and slammed his big square fists down on the table. "Fuck this! We go in and get him now."
Hafidha gaped at him. Todd swung his head to watch Brady a little sideways, and set his coffee cup down.
Falkner walked to Hafidha's end of the table; Hafidha scooted her chair out of the way. Falkner turned the laptop so the display faced the rest of the room. "Look at this," she ordered. "Look. There are no safe approach routes."
"This freak has had him for five days!" Brady towered over her, staring, mouth working.
Five days. Statistics said they were already too late. Falkner felt her leash slip. "What the hell good do we do if we get in and can't get back out? This is not a God-damned Michael Bey movie!"
In the silence that fell, Falkner thought, Well. Good thing it happened on my watch and not Reyes's. I can be counted on to stay calm.
She swallowed everything. "I'm sorry, Brady. I don't like it, either."
"Why, this is Hell," Reyes said. He was leaning in the doorway. "Nor are we out of it."
Pretending intellectual distance probably did him a world of good, so she didn't suggest he shut up. "Thought you were trying to sleep."
"When the fun's in here? Tell me there's hot water."
"Only with coffee in it," Todd said, apologetic. He pointed, and Reyes pulled a cup off the stack.
"I'm going to check in with Pelletier," Falkner said to no one in particular. She was pretty sure Pelletier was off-site.
She wasn't thirty feet outside the trailer before Brady caught up with her. She swallowed her feelings all over again and said, "Forget it. We're all like that right now."
He shook his head. Yes, she'd misread him when he came in. He was like Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, moving as if any gesture could shatter whatever or whomever he touched. "I want this to be over, is all. One way or another."
"It'll be over when we get Chaz back."
"Falkner. Don't do this. You know what's in that house."
Falkner rounded on him and drew herself up. "No, I don't. And neither do you." She bit each word free of the last. "And if you believe otherwise, you'll move a little slower and think a little less hard, and you'll remember for the rest of your life that you didn't do everything you could."
"If he's still alive, by this time..."
"If it were you, would you rather be dead?" Because if you're going to talk about it, talk about it.
Brady started to answer, looked away. "I don't know."
That was all she could do for him, short of finding him a threat to fling himself at. She laid a hand on his shoulder. "Go find a corner and get some sleep. I'll wake you if there's news."
He looked her in the eye, long and hard. Then he nodded, dropped his chin, and headed off to the vehicles.
She turned toward the trailer and spotted Reyes leaning near the door, arms crossed, eyes half-lidded, watching. Falkner sighed and walked back. Before she got there, Reyes tilted his head--come with me--and started slowly north, through the parking area. She fell in beside him. They walked in silence, until the sounds of the fire camp were an undifferentiated rumble behind them. Until they could say things that required plausible deniability.
"Brady's right," she said, and stared down the road as if there were something to see.
"It's been too damned long, Stephen. You know how little chance we have of finding him alive."
Three more strides. "Maybe that's a blessing."
Falkner forced her next breath out between her teeth. "Not you, too. You know better. There's no fate worse than death."
"Not for him, maybe."
She stopped. "What do you mean?"
Reyes lifted his hands, as if to push the question away.
"No. You've been holding this in...since you heard Chaz was missing." She hadn't realized it, but it was true. "What are you afraid of?"
The air was bitter charcoal in the back of her nose and mouth. She'd forgotten Worth's paper mask. So had Reyes; there was nothing to hide the tight muscles of his face. He looked as if he was struggling against pain.
"I had a theory, back when the unit was just me. It seemed like an impossible job. Serial criminals with anomalous abilities, and not enough resources or manpower to stop them.
"So I thought, what if I do what the BAU always tries to do? What if I get ahead of them?"
"I was trying to profile the anomaly itself, determine how it chooses its victims, what its script is. I collected psychological test scores from almost a thousand emotionally disturbed children across the country. I was looking for scores that couldn't be accounted for by the testers' conclusions."
"Anomalous results." The dryness of Falkner's tone surprised even her.
"I only found one. A ten-year old male who tested at the bottom of the scale on everything. The testing psychologist wanted to diagnose severe autism, for lack of anything else that made sense. But she'd met the boy. She noted that he was alert, had good verbal skills, and seemed unusually bright."
It couldn't have been. But Falkner was pretty sure it was.
"By the time I found those scores, they were three years old. Fortunately, there was a lot of follow-up data. In those three years, I could see the boy mastering what he must have been trying for on that first test: to land on the low side of normal."
"Nothing to see here," Falkner said, through a tight throat. "Move along."
"Protective coloration. We've seen it repeatedly in gammas; the host protects the anomaly from detection. I thought I was seeing it again. In a way, I was. But there were no violent incidents, no attempts to harm himself or others. And there was no external manifestation."
"You found a beta."
"Until then, I didn't know there was any such thing."
Falkner tried to imagine it: Chaz struggling not to stand out, not to be singular or brilliant. Moving from one foster home to another, misunderstood, misdiagnosed--my God, almost certainly malnourished--trying to remember who he was while he kept up a facade of being someone else. Thirteen was a combat zone for identity under the best of circumstances.
Rebekah was thirteen. What if she hadn't been Esther and Ben Falkner's daughter, Deb Falkner's big sister, a kid who could count on her family for love and support? What if she'd been alone in the world, and realized that the landscape of her brain was radically different from everyone else's, in a way that frightened the people around her?
Falkner clenched her hands in her coat pockets, tensing against pity. The thirteen-year-old Chaz Villette didn't need that anymore; he was gone.
"The one thing I knew for certain about the anomaly was that, sooner or later, it did harm. In those test scores, I was looking for the effects of stress on disturbed kids. It occurred to me that in that boy, I might be seeing the anomaly in an incubating form."
"That might be what betas are. Apply enough pressure, enough stress, and the anomaly takes control. They turn."
"You don't still believe that."
"I don't know what's happening in that house. But if Chaz is alive... He may not be Chaz anymore. When we get there, we have to be prepared for that."
She would never be prepared for that. It was like a summer horror movie, when the nice kid suddenly grows fangs. It was insane.
But she hadn't studied the anomaly as long as Stephen Reyes had.
There was a hole in the story, though. A missing reel in the monster movie Reyes was seeing in his head. The hole in the suspect's narrative always told you the most.
"And after that?" she asked.
"After you found him and figured out what was going on. What happened?"
"What do you mean?"
A cold stone in her stomach. At sixteen, Chaz Villette was still in the Clark County foster care system. At sixteen he'd dropped out of school, aced the college placement exams, and gone to Princeton. She'd read his file.
Between thirteen and sixteen...
"You watched him," Falkner said.
"You left him there."
"The point was to observe the effects of stress."
"My God." Her breath came hard and fast, as if she'd been running. "You don't test a human being to destruction. You don't do that."
"You know as well as I do how little we have to go on. How many lives are at stake when we don't know enough."
"You stuck him to your web and watched him twitch! Do you think it makes it better that you took notes while he did?"
"No. No." She said it through clenched teeth. "This has nothing to do with the job or the chain of command. This is about human decency."
"It was my call to make. I made the best one I could."
"You found a kid at risk and left him where he could be damaged in order to test a theory! A kid who grew up to join the team. Who watches our backs. Who you count on to save lives, Stephen. Maybe yours."
"I recruited him to keep an eye on him."
"You recruited him because you needed what he does. Don't try to bullshit me. I know how it's done, remember? And if you're keeping an eye on him, how did he end up trapped in a house with a monster?"
She'd silenced him. She ought to feel good about it.
"If anything goes wrong," she said, softer, her voice shaking, "if you're right, and he turns, one of us will have to blow his brains out. If it happens, I hope to fuck it's you. Because I haven't earned it, and you have."
Falkner spun, the gravel at the road's edge rolling under the sole of her shoe, and strode back toward the bustle of the fire camp. When she got there, she kept walking until the sound of it faded again. Then she stood in the grass by the road, clutching her arms, until her breathing was even. She could go back now and pick up the job. They needed her. If her eyes were red, the smoke would account for it.
He lay on his side, curled as tight as he could, and thought about the throb in his wrists while he watched the Relative eat a peanut butter sandwich. It's just fuel. He's like a fire: he doesn't care what he consumes.
And he consumes everything he touches.
It should be easy now. He had a plan, a course of action. Resolution ought to carry him over the rest of the trial. He couldn't figure out how to communicate the resolution to the meatware, though, and his body kept telling him and telling him, We're starving to death. Do something. He wished he could explain that was the point.
He didn't want to die. But he didn't know how else to fight. And he didn't know how to stop fighting.
He was so tired. Earlier would have been better, for the fighting. Back when he'd had a bright, sharp edge on his brain and knew how to use it. His mouth felt like paper and dry sponge, and he could practically hear his muscle tissue being eaten for emergency rations. But he could do this.
He needed to do something, and this was the thing that he could do. Because the heart was muscle, too. And when his body consumed enough of that muscle, the heart would stop beating.
Oh, Chazzie, he said to himself, in Daphne's voice. You really fucked yourself up this time.
That was just torturing himself. He was never going to hear Daphne teasing him for his ineptness again, any more than he was ever going to hear his mother singing. He could pretend, but they were from different worlds now: one gone on ahead, the other in the process of being left behind.
Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half
It could be winter in North Dakota.(No; freezing to death was supposed to be not too bad.)
- I could be sitting in pee. Or vomit.
- He could be nailing parts of me to things
- Home surgery
Poison Concussion/head trauma/brain damage
- He could cut off my feet.
- Ditto hands
- Flaying alive
Impaling(He wasn't sure, but he thought it was faster than starving to death. Probably hurt more at the outset, though.) Vivisection/disembowelment(Also pretty fast, when it came right down to it.) Disfigurement(Well, within limits; he'd once held a set of scene photos showing what was left of a junkie who thought it was a good idea to cut off his own face with a knife and feed it to his pet dogs. That victim had lived. Chaz suspected he would rather not. But he could spare an ear or something. Or fingers. Duke did okay with a couple of missing fingers--)
The house could burn down(Working on it, thanks.) Blood eagle(Okay, icky and horrible. But how long could you live with your lungs pulled through your ribcage from the back? Not long, Chaz would guess.) Boiling in oil(See 22.)
- Extensive second-degree burns.
Third-degree burns.(He'd realized on consideration that third degree burns would kill him fast, under these circumstances. And that they wouldn't hurt after the initial pain of the nerve tissue being destroyed.)
- Breaking on the wheel
- Stretched on the rack, iron maiden, etc.
Across the room, the Relative finished his breakfast and went into the kitchen to wash his hands. He came back with the water bucket, set it down, lowered himself to the floor beside Chaz. With a father's tenderness, he stroked Chaz's hair and shoulders, murmured his filthy endearments, laid his hand on Chaz's cheek. "Do you want some water, baby boy?"
He wanted water more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. He could smell it, cupped to his mouth in the hollow of the Relative's palm.
He shook his head, and closed his eyes.
"You need to drink, baby boy."
"I don't need nothing," Chaz said.
Water splashed his face as the Relative jerked away; he kicked Chaz accidentally, and Chaz couldn't be bothered to protest.
But he did open his eyes, and saw the Relative crouched over him, eyes wide and staring. "Addy?"
Chaz thought. It was hard, like remembering what you had done five minutes ago when you were really drunk. Disoriented. Disorganized thinking. But he was pretty sure what had come out of his mouth just then was his mother's tones, and not his own. Huh, he thought. I guess I can do Tyler County after all.
He thought, No. You can't have her. I can't stop you from having me. But you can't have her.
She got away.
"Just me," he said.
Chaz closed his eyes again. After a while he felt the Relative move away.
The passage of time was hard to track; that, too, was like being drunk. He couldn't tell how long it was before the Relative came back and sat down beside him. "Papa's good boy. Papa's sweet angel. I brought you a treat."
Chaz heard the crunch of apple's flesh under the Relative's teeth. The fresh, honey-sharp scent filled his nose, the moist edge of the bitten-off piece brushed against his mouth. Now he couldn't lick his lips; the taste of juice might defeat him.
He turned his head away and thought about concentration camps, hunger strikes, political prisoners. Once upon a time, prisoners were starved to death as a form of capital punishment. It was called immuration. There were a lot of things that were worse.
"Don't you want to eat, sweetheart?"
It was easier not to answer, not to lie.
"Brave angel," the Relative said, and stroked his hair, and sat with him a while.
And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.