~~I stopped short and turned, looking at Andrew.
“I’m a Soul, man, Just like you. So why the chair and the freaking water?”
“It’s a cleansing thing,” Andrew told me. “We were going to let you out anyway…”
“What he’s forgetting to tell you,” Jody interrupted icily, “is that most Souls we pick up don’t stay there for much longer than a couple of hours. You were down there for most of a day, thanks to Jacob. The only reason that you had to wait for so long is because Jacob hates your guts. Isn’t that right, Andrew?”
The Soul glared at her, but didn’t answer.
“What’s his problem with me, anyway?” I asked, trying to break the silence.
“Maybe the fact that you screwed up half of our operations in the last couple of weeks?”
“Well, if you guys had been a little faster in finding me, maybe I wouldn’t have been in the way, yeah?” I challenged, standing my ground and glaring at him. “You want me back down there in the waterfall chair, you have to drag me down there.”
Andrew blurred forwards, suddenly springing up into the air, planting a foot on the concrete wall and spinning into a kick that had all the power of his jump and body weight behind it. Somehow, I managed to twist out of the way – the impact connected with my shoulder, smashing me down to the ground, deadening my entire arm. I rolled with the impact, muttering a curse, and went for a leg trap, trying to snag Andrew’s calf and pull him down to the concrete with me. I felt pain finally rip through my shoulder – he’d dislocated it – and clenched my fist, suddenly ripping my entire arm upwards and clicking the joint back into place.
Andrew stamped down on my calf, and I cursed, flexing my spine and leaping back to my feet. I saw Jody settle into a fighting stance and turned shoved her backwards, stopping her from fighting on my behalf. Andrew tried for another kick, but I trapped his leg with my free arm and then grounded my feet properly, swinging him into the wall. His breath exploded from his lungs as he hit it, and he dropped to his hands and knees, trying hard to pull breath back in.
I felt my pulse slamming at my temples.
“Seriously, not in the mood,” I told him breathlessly.
Andrew grimaced and straightened his glasses as he stood up.
I met his eyes with determination in mine.
“Last I checked,” Jody interrupted, “he’s not in charge of anything except street operations. Did he tell anyone that he’d brought Peter down here? Huh?” The silence gave Jody the answer she was looking for. “I didn’t think so. He’s here now, which takes him clean out of Jacob’s jurisdiction. Which makes the last five seconds technically an unprovoked attack. You honestly think that Ebony is going to want to discipline you for this?”
Andrew didn’t say a word, just brushed past me and continued up the stairs.
As soon as he was gone, I sat down on a concrete stair, hard. My breath was still coming back to me and my shoulder was killing me. The torn muscle and ligaments were healing, I could feel the familiar burning sensation tracing its way through my shoulder socket. I wasn’t just able to heal others – I healed automatically, faster than most people.
Jody sat down beside me.
“God, he annoys me,” she muttered savagely.
“Yeah?” I asked conversationally, rolling my arm to loosen it up.
She looked at me. “You OK?”
“He’s got one hell of a kick,” I offered with a grin.
Jody rolled her eyes. “That was terrible. C’mon, let’s go and see Ebony.”
We moved up through passages and metal doors – all practically identical except for serial numbers and different graffiti styles – and, as we walked, I felt my shoulder heal completely and the pain fade. As I walked, I let my mind wander. Jacob was obviously in some position of authority. What had Jody said? He headed street operations. I knew firsthand just how formidable of a fighter he was – he was probably someone that I wanted to stay on the right side of in the foreseeable future. Andrew… he was something else entirely. Jacob and he seemed close. Maybe they were part of the same unit?
“What’s Andrew’s history?” I asked finally, breaking the silence.
Jody didn’t meet my glance but stared stonily ahead. “He’s Jacob’s lieutenant. Usually the guy that leads the street ops. He’s a hell of a fighter and a right pain in the neck if you let him get to you. You should ask Ebony about him, though.”
I caught the bitterness in her tone.
“A bit of history between you two, then?”
“You could say that.”
I decided to change the subject.
Jody turned a corner and ducked under a low-hanging pipeline. “She’s actually the person that heads the Underground. Everyone who stays here answers to her and to her only. She knows this whole place like the back of her hand and everyone in it.”
A certain warmth to her tone told me that they were on good terms.
“Friend of yours?”
Jody stopped and looked back at me.
“You a mind reader?” she asked.
I shook my head and grinned. “I just catch on fast.”
“Ebony’s the only reason that I’m here,” Jody told me. “She brought me in when everyone else knew I was going to be a liability and dangerous. She believes in second chances.”
I filed this away, and followed Jody through yet another metal door. Instead of leading into another cramped concrete hallway, we entered a chamber of sorts, what looked like an abandoned control centre. Its centrepiece was a gigantic metal table, the kind you’d find in a lab, which was rusted around the edges and more than a little dented in places. It was bolted to the floor. Chairs of all shapes and sizes were pulled up around it, and a dark-haired young lady of around twenty was standing in front of a bank of screens. She wore a pressed blouse and skirt, business-woman style, with rectangular gold-rimmed glasses and necktie. Every inch of her pretty much screamed boss and I figured that I was looking at Ebony. She turned and offered a half-smile to Jody.
“Good to see you’re back. And you brought someone with you.”
I nodded my greetings, not sure if a bow was required. “Hey.”
“Peter, isn’t it?”
“It is. And I suppose that you’re Ebony?”
“You suppose right. How are you feeling?”
I looked down at myself. “Wet and cold. You guys got a spare shirt kicking around here anywhere? I haven’t been in civilized company for a while, I’ll admit, and I couldn’t really stop to change. Apparently it was urgent.”
“Jody, get the man a shirt,” Ebony said, and Jody ducked out of the room, a grin on her face. The boss-lady examined me clinically from her place by the computers. “Andrew tells me that you’re an Unbounded. You just missed him coming out of here, actually. Have you met him yet?” Amusement coloured her tone – she knew what’d happened in the hallway.
“I met his feet,” I muttered.
“Jacob’s rather… miffed that we decided to bring you down here,” she told me. “He would’ve preferred to leave you to get yourself killed… but it’s not really the way we do things. And, just between you and me, he’s exaggerating about the street missions. We had to change plans – his plans – slightly to get the job done, which he sees as a monumental screw-over, but you actually helped us in a way. The authorities chased you instead of keeping their eyes open for the rest of us.”
“So, you want me to keep doing a clay-pigeon impersonation?” I asked.
Ebony shook her head. “No. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“It’s nice to know that there’s still people who care enough to mother-hen me.”
Jody, right on cue, stepped through the door again and tossed a bundle of fabric in my direction. I snagged it out of mid-air and pulled it over my head. The shirt was a strange shade of purple, but it was a shirt and that was all that mattered. Ebony laughed, shaking her head and glancing at Jody.
“Where has he been?” she asked.
“Peter? In the Washing Chamber. For the last twelve hours.”
Ebony looked at me, suddenly horrified. “Jacob…?”
“Apparently,” I said, stressing the word, “he hates my guts.”
“Jody, find him some space to sleep.”
The boss-lady glanced up at my face as she stepped across to the table.
“Jacob happened to mention that you were an Unbounded. What can you do?”
I stepped around the table, deciding that my ability was best shown rather than spoken of. To be honest, I really couldn’t explain it. After knowing about it for something like ten plus years, I still had no idea how it worked, aside from the fact that it took concentration and it could heal people. I was sure there were more dimensions to it, but I’d spent most of my time running so hard that I’d never had any serious time to pursue it.
“May I?” I asked.
Ebony let me take her hand, suspicion clouding her eyes. I pressed her palm, and then closed my eyes for a moment, murmuring the childhood prayers of healing and dedication that I’d recited every night to my parents… I felt that familiar tingle of warmth in my chest, which raced down my arm and into her hand. Ebony’s breathing caught, and she exhaled sharply, letting the air hiss through her teeth. So that was her condition, then. Stress.
I pulled my hand away and she stepped back, staring at me in astonishment.
“It’s exactly what you needed,” Jody answered for me. “I know this sounds nuts, but I think that his power is to cure whatever’s doing the most damage to you.”
I glanced at her, impressed at her explanation.
Ebony’s dark eyes settled on me. “I think we might find a use for you here.”
It was easy enough to tip her an informal salute. “Requesting permission to sleep?”
She laughed and waved me out of her presence. I followed Jody out into the hallway, and then felt the fatigue kick in. One of the strange effects of my powers were that they could suspend ridiculous amounts of tiredness until they became too much – then I pretty much just keeled over and collapsed. My world turned into a whirl of grey and strange, bright colours that seemed to stream across my vision like fireworks. My balance was thrown completely out of orbit, and I had to catch onto the wall to stop myself from keeling over.
“You OK?” Jody asked, catching hold of my free arm.
I grinned tiredly at her. “Big day…”
“I’m being serious. Can you walk?”
I managed to drag my feet across the concrete, leaning heavily on the wall, feeling as if my limbs were suddenly made out of lead. After a moment, I found a previously untouched reservoir of strength and kept pushing myself onwards. Jody started forwards, watching me with concern in her eyes. Nice of her. If I tripped on the stairs, I’d probably make a mess…
The thought made me laugh quietly.
“Hate for that to happen,” I muttered to myself.
“Peter, look at me….” Jody’s voice was strange, disjointed…
I looked up at her, seeing the girl that had saved my life and hid me. Her face seemed to glow with an inner light, and as I tilted my head, I could see her eyes, normally mahogany eyes, darken a little, almost into red. The sight was amazing and I couldn’t help another stupid grin crossing my face. Jeez, I felt strange… when I finally tore my eyes away from Jody, we were already through a doorway and walking down a staircase.
“…how many fingers am I holding up?” she asked, holding up three.
“Fifteen…?” I suggested, and then, seeing the horror on her face, laughed. “Nah, messing with you. Three fingers. Why do people always hold up three, though…?”
She hit me on the shoulder – it stung, sharpening my vision a little.
“You’re not funny. I thought you were losing it for a second there.”
“Jodes, I am losing it. It’s called sleep deprivation. Give me six hours of solid sleep and I’ll be fitter than the proverbial fiddle. At the moment, though…? Yeah, ignore me.”
“You sound like you’re on something,” she muttered to herself.
I glanced down at my hands – scraped, torn up.
“It could be something to do with that head kick I walked into, but you’d think I’d have started feeling the effects a little earlier. Jacob knows his stuff, that’s for sure…” I glanced at her. “Can you talk? Sounds crazy… but your voice’s going to make sure I don’t bounce off the walls as much as I am. It’ll sharpen me up just a shred.”
I wasn’t lying – as soon as Jody started talking, in a soft, strangely hollow voice, my balance seemed to improve. Focusing on a sound seemed to help keep me upright. But there was more to it than that. She was talking about herself.
“I started learning martial arts when I was thirteen. I’ve been trained in Rhee TKD, bits and pieces of hapkido, and a lunatic I went to school with taught me a handful of jiu-jitsu joint locks. I never would have had a chance getting down here if Ebony hadn’t found me curled up in an alleyway half-dead with grief. She gave me a new life, introduced me to Andrew and Jacob, helped me fight against the Marked, even if I was one. They said they respected me, but when I started deviating from the plan, when I started letting my darker side out when I fought, they called me a loose cannon and a liability. Jacob thought it’d be funny to demote me and keep me underground for half a year. Andrew didn’t like it… he came to talk to me all the time, kept me company, kept me sane, mostly. Then he just stopped, started getting into the street ops way too much. And they called me obsessed…! Ebony finally decided that I was recovered enough to send me back out into the field again. And guess who they happen to get me to pick up…?”
Jody pulled a door open – it was a storage room of sorts, with mattresses covering the floor and an old-fashioned oil-lamp burning on a steel bench. The place was deserted, and dark. I turned, looked at Jody, who met my gaze with a hard one of her own… daring me to judge her for what she’d told me. I just smiled at her and let myself drop onto one of the mattresses, bliss overtaking me as my muscles no longer needed to keep me upright.
“Thanks, Jodes. Good story.”
I saw her smile, just slightly.
“Sweet dreams, Pete.”
Then I let darkness take me into the land of dreams…