After nothing came fire. I was the sky and the sky was a blue-black blaze. Something shuffled, a putty deck made of everything. Things slipped back into place. Fuck-ups, hungers and fears flared to life, gave shape to the blazing blue mass. Faye West, probationary Sugar Plum Fairy and man-bee slavemaster. Not as good as I remembered it.
I was falling. What had happened? That girl, a gun to my forehead. A black abyss. Then fire. Then falling. Then-
I bounced hard on the grass before taking a tumble to the rocks. The roll wasn’t as fierce as the fall but the ground turned hard and sharp. Nothing broke but I had cuts all over. And some burning pain right behind my forehead. Jesus H. Christ in a Chuck E. Cheez, that hurt.
The ocean roared a few hundred yards away. This was still the same island the singularium was on though now I was a long jog away. In fact, if I had to guess I’d say I was about one rifle’s range from the technological fortress. Son of a shit. I pulled myself to my feet.
Had I been dead just then? Mom used to argue with her friend Lisa over Star Trek. They could never agree: did the transporters move you around, or did they kill and replaced you? This definitely wasn’t the time to worry about that. It would take forever to get back to Mina and one of my ankles had rolled in the fall.
There wasn’t enough time to worry about Mina, however. A plane touched down between the camouflaged singularium and myself. Faye, you incompetent idiot, I thought. Kori must have signaled for the plane before even coming on board. She’d been stalling that whole time. It was a sleek, nondescript craft with black solar-absorbent skin. It could have been any one of the millions like it.
I stood my ground, ready for someone to exit. Instead my body started hurtling towards the plane in rips and jerks while the door opened. It felt like falling except it was happening sideways. Then regular ways, then upways for a second, then sideways again. I would shoot towards the plane for a few seconds, then gravity would change directions and I’d fall a few feet towards the ground. I tumbled in this way for over five hundred feet in dusty, nauseating loop de loops.
“Satan,” I belched as I hurtled through the plane door.
“In the flesh,” Winifred Schilling wheezed. I’d never seen her in person but I knew what to expect at this point. She was a melted remnant of a woman, hairless and artificially ventilated. It was hard to tell how much of her was cutting-edge medical technology and how much was hate. To her right stood a large Indian woman who appeared to be middle aged. Her hair and dress were business casual but she sported a ruby nose ring. Around her neck hung a brick on an iron chain.
Then there was the lion-man. He was nearly naked but it took a second to notice because his head was crowned by a very distracting mane of fire. His features were mostly human, handsome even, but not so human that him being handsome didn’t feel weird.
Also, some girl was there.
“Thief,” the lion-man purred.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” some girl said.
“No, let’s,” Schilling snarled. “Our sticky bandit here was the last one seen with our property and then our property disappeared. Seems evidence enough for me.” Her eyes brushed over the holster around my waist. “Frisk ‘er.”
As quick as that I was on the ceiling. Some girl gave me a pat down and handed my machine pistol to nosering.
“Mina’s still a woman of taste I see,” nosering laughed. Then she looked me up and down. “In some matters, at least.”
“Hey! That’s not- well. It’s complicated!” This was a stupid time to be blushing, but why would that have stopped me?
“Your friend Mina’s led you astray, girl,” Schilling said. Her voice sounded bored but her stare was one of the heaviest things I’d ever carried. “I don’t think you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into here.”
“Oh, I’ve got an inkling,” I grunted. Were they making the gravity stronger, or was that my nerves? I sat up on the ceiling to look Schilling in the eye. My stomach lurched. My brain and my gut had different ideas about which way was supposed to be ‘down.’ “So far today I’ve survived a feral demon, a shot to the head and a swarm of man-bees.”
“Ya didn’t survive the shot, kid,” Schilling laughed. “There’s a headless broad waiting for you wherever you left. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.”
My stomach sank. That was that answered, at least. It was a weird kind of sinking feeling. One where I felt like there was no bottom to sink to. Like flying but in reverse. “Then I’ll survive being dead.” My voice was smaller than I’d have liked.
Schilling was unmoved. “Let’s see you try that twice in one day. Dedun here would be happy to barbecue the flesh right off your bones and eat it in front of you.” She nodded at the lion-man. “Or I could have Stonewall toss you outside. Let her flip your gravity one last time so you fall into outer space. Your call, kid.”
While I processed that, the lion-man shuffled awkwardly. “Schilling, I can’t eat her,” he whispered.
“It’s just not my brand.”
“Fine!” Schilling snapped. “Outer space it is. Any problems with that?”
“Not at all,” Stonewall replied.
Some girl said, only ethical ones.
“Perfect. No problems. So, now that we understand the situation, what’ll it be? Do you wanna talk your buddy Mina into coming quietly? Or do you wanna see what the weather’s like on Pluto this time of year?”
“Spoiler alert,” Dedun purred, “cold.”
My courage trickled down into my ankles, meaning it landed somewhere on the plane ceiling. Fucking superpowers. Fucking superpowers. I realized then I’d been hit by two supers in one day, both times without the Sugar Staff to protect me. Could I be infected too? If that happened my bond to the Staff would be permanently broken. The singularium, the Staff, my life… in the span of less than an hour everything had managed to slip away.
“I’ll talk to her,” I said.
“Smart girl,” Schilling crooned. She turned to her goons. “Get us over there!”
Some girl took the controls and the solar plane hovered high into the air. We were in the air less than a second when Dedun cried, “incoming!” I stretched my neck to look through the plane’s windshield. Man-bees burst through the singularium’s cloaking device as if from thin air.
“On it.” Stonewall stretched out both hands and knelt onto the floor of the plane. Man-bees began to wobble in the air as their personal gravity tossed and turned from Stonewall’s power. She could only disrupt small chunks of the swarm at a time, however, and the man-bees adapted quickly to the unpredictable gravity. They pressed on.
“Fire!” Schilling screamed. Some girl fired laser cannons hidden under the solar plane’s wings. Those weren’t standard. Green light struck a cluster of man-bees, immolating several who then rained down on their brothers. Even as they burned and fell their wings flapped in defiance.
Then, contact. The first wave of man-bees gripped the plane. Dedun threw open the door. Air rushed through the cabin and wind whistled outside. A roar of fire. A ball of flaming man-bees went whistling past the tail of the plane while Dedun slapped his chest.
Not all of them, though. One on the windshield, carrying something, some kind of grey box. He pounded the button. A small explosion cracked the glass, flinging the man-bee backward. The lights and instruments throughout the plane flickered off. Our momentum lurched in the air. Some girl struggled in the cockpit.
This wasn’t a rescue mission, I realized. Mina thought I was dead. This was revenge.
We began to fall. I fell first, as Stonewall forgot about pinning me to the ceiling. She used her powers to control our descent but that only freed up more of the man-bees to swarm us. “I’m here!” I screamed. Dedun roared at the incoming man-bees but there were too many. Several gathered at one wing of the plane and gave it a push. Dedun lost his balance and went tumbling through the door of the plane, clinging to the side.
My chance to escape- everyone who could do something was struggling to keep from crashing. I struggled to walk straight on the rocking plane. My shoulders banged first one wall of the craft then the other as the man-bees jostled the wing. Almost there. I gripped one of the seats for balance just as a leather old hand took my wrist.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Schilling snarled.
Just a woman. Just a bitter, broken, ruthless old woman. I snapped my wrist away and took hold of the hose to her oxygen machine. I yanked it out of the machine and grabbed her shoulder with my other hand. The plane rocked. We went flying against the wall.
She was on top of me and heavier than she looked. She dug her knees into my stomach. Thick yellow slobber dribbled onto my face as she hissed. Outlast, I told myself. Old hands crept up towards my throat. I held my elbows out wide and she staggered to get past them. Her eyes rolled up in the back of her head. I threw her aside.
The plane landed. A lion’s roar and the sound of machine pistols filled the air. I rushed out the door, just in time for Stonewall to shift her attention back to me. Gravity yanked me back to the plane but I hooked an elbow over the edge of the doorway. I hung horizontal in the air.
“Hey!” I screamed at the man-bees. “I’m here! I’m not dead!”
I had to repeat myself several times before they could hear me over the gunfire. Someone gripped my left foot in their hands, their grip breaking after my right foot met their face. Furry yellow arms grabbed hold of me. We were flying. Schilling’s crew struggled on the ground. The man-bees took me behind the cloaking device.
* * * * * * *
Mina gave me the tightest hug of my life once I was back on the singularium. Kori and Jereme were both bound and bruised in the corner, the man-bees still alert and ready to kill. She couldn’t see any of that. She just held my face in her massive hands and cried. “I thought you were dead,” she sobbed. I then remembered the place on deck where I’d first been shot, the place where my body lay.
Was that a foot at the edge of my vision?
I turned my back on it. “I don’t wanna talk about it right now. But thank you.” I pointed at our captives in the corner. “I’m tired of these people. You dropped that EMP on their plane, right? I vote we drop them here and leave.”
“Agreed.” She whistled, and soon the man-bees had whisked Kori and Jereme to their feet.
“Your girl’s got a hell of a right hook,” Kori told me. There was a fresh gap in her teeth. “She’s a keeper.”
Jereme glared, eyes full of hate and betrayal. The man-bees dragged them off to meet the others outside. Once they were out, Mina and I headed towards the control room. We signaled for the man-bees to gather onto the singularium for departure. Then I ordered the control brains to find the most remote location the singularium could possibly colonize.
“Most remote? We gotta get home somehow, Faye.”
I rubbed my hands against my neck. It felt solid. Normal. Flesh, bone, all-too-vulnerable vein. My fingers had their familiar hairs and moles. Everything ached that always did. But pain still burned in my forehead. With concentration I could force it into the background, but it wouldn’t disappeared. There was the memory of the moments that surrounded oblivion.
“I did die, Mina. In a way. That lady killed me and brought me back, I think.”
Mina’s eyebrows knit together. She put her hand on my shoulder. “…Jesus. Did you get as far as an afterlife?” There were some supers who said they could talk to the dead, or to the demons and angels imprisoning them. Of course, people were saying that before we had supers, too.
“Just this one,” I smiled. “But I was thinking about what Kori said before she killed me. We keep running away from things. Now we’ve got the most powerful device on earth and nothing to stop us.”
“…where are you going with this?”
“I want to run towards something instead.”
“Mars!” the sub-singularia chirped happily. They had just completed their analysis.
“Faye, we have lives. Jobs.”
The burning in my skull. “I’m not so sure. I’ve had powers used on me three times today. My head feels funny. I might not be able to use the Staff anymore… And even if I can, don’t you think we could do more good with this thing? What if this is what we’re meant to work on?”
“Not forever. Long enough to plan. We don’t want war, right? So let’s figure out how to wage some peace.”