The final guest interlude is from Syphax, who writes the serial Stone Burners
Olivia hunched over on the couch in Ben’s apartment, threadbare blanket wrapped around her shoulders and wings. The tube TV across from her filled the dim room with flickering light and white noise. Outside, sirens cut through the night air, more than she’d ever heard in the last week since waking up for the first time. She tensed up every time it sounded like they were approaching, though they always turned away or stopped short.
I just met Ben. I shouldn’t just be sitting around on his couch, right? she thought. They’re looking for me, not him. Her clawed fingers idly fiddled with a corner of the blanket as she looked around the bare apartment. Ben kept little more than furniture in his living room or the kitchen. The only thing that caught her eye was a box of donuts on the kitchen counter.
Food. Food is good. It’s something. The bruises across her chest ached as she stood up. Her wings, folded up as tight as she could get them, nearly brushed against the ceiling. She lumbered over, her scaly tail dragging along on the carpet. Do any of them have cinnamon? She picked one out, then thought, Maybe Ben wants one.
Olivia grabbed the box with her free hand, claws punching small holes into the thin cardboard, and headed down the small hallway. She froze at a half closed door. The sirens had distracted her from sounds much closer. She heard faint screaming, along with much louder rasping. Is he OK? She nudged the door open.
As spartan as the living room was, Ben’s bedroom was chaotic. She saw three guns, including the long one he usually carried, leaning against the wall in the far corner. On the walls were a couple movie and videogame posters thrown up haphazardly, as well as a mounted crossbow. The closet was thrown open, clothes clean and dirty spilling out. A clock on the lopsided nightstand next to the bed read 10:14 PM.
Ben lay sprawled on the bed in pants and t shirt, sheets and blankets shoved aside and a controller by his limp hand. His black hoodie and gun holsters lay by his feet. On the other side of the room sat a solid wooden desk, with an idle game on a computer monitor. Bright lights flashed on screen, occasionally accompanied by a scream. Just as she was about to back away, he jerked awake.
“What’s that?” he mumbled, shooting upright. He blinked, bleary eyed, at Olivia for a moment. “Oh, hey there. I didn’t realize I passed out.”
Olivia stared, donut box in hand forgotten. Do I say something? Without waiting for a response from her, he rolled off of his bed and onto a swiveling office chair. He moved aside a small fake Christmas tree and a plastic jack o’ lantern to turn off his computer.
He looked up at Olivia standing in the doorway. “Excellent choice of donut. Cake ones are fantastic,” he said, rapid fire. After a moment, he added, “Don’t have to just stand there, you know.”
She crouched down to fit through the door. After a moment’s hesitation, she sat on the edge of his bed, curing up her tail so that it dangled next to her off the side. It’s OK to do this, right? Ben spun in his chair to face her directly. He looked at her expectantly, so she asked, “What were you doing?”
“Just playin’ a game. Weren’t you goin’ to sleep? It’s only been a couple hours.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she mumbled in reply.
He nodded. “Gotcha. Not gonna explain that?” he asked, pointing to the donut box in her hand.
“Oh, right. Sorry. Did, um, you want one?” she asked, holding out the box for him.
“Shit, can’t say no to that,” he said, almost too fast to be understood.
He flipped it open and took one, leaning back in his chair to enjoy the donut. They sat in comfortable silence for a minute. This isn’t bad. No one is angry, no one is shooting. This is nice.
“Um, why do you have that big hammer?” she asked once they’d finished.
“Speak up, what was that?” he said, cupping a hand by his ear.
“The hammer,” she repeated, as loud as she dared. “Why do you have it?”
“Oh, right, that thing. I got it a while back, when I first started vigilante-in’. That a word? Fuck it, whatever. I got it thinkin’ I could break some knees to get some info outta targets. But that don’t work too well. They just spit out what they think I wanna hear. I’ve been keepin’ it around in case I come across some really big nails or some shit.”
Olivia stared at him, horrified. Why would you do that? That’s horrible. “
“Like I give a fuck. They ain’t exactly nice people.”
“Still though,” she mumbled. “It’s not right. Those guys-”
“Hey, they were shootin’ you. They wanted you dead, no question about it. If you weren’t fuckin’ bulletproof, you would be. An’ look, all I can do is teleport a short way. You can tear apart a car, an’ you ain’t the only one. Gotta level the playing field somehow. That’s what they were thinkin’ when they shot you.”
“And you killed them.”
“So did you.”
“By accident! We did the same things they did.”
His grin didn’t waver. “Apples and fuckin’ oranges. I ain’t killed someone who didn’t deserve it. Neither have you. If you start enjoyin’ it for its own sake, that’s a real problem.”
“Isn’t that what ferals like me are supposed to do,” she said. “Just kill?”
“Shit. I dunno. Only other time I heard of a feral, it killed a dozen people before getting’ mowed down by the cops an’ the local supers. An’ besides, most ferals I’ve heard of are weird-ass monster things, like shovin’ an elephant through a human or somethin’ awful. You look like a real tall girl with wings an’ a tail stapled on. Don’t worry about it. You feelin’ guilt? That’s good, that’s empathy.”
“I guess,” she said.
“Speak up, talkin’ way too soft.”
“It was nothing,” she replied.
He grunted and said, “Well, if you ain’t sleepin’ we gotta kill time somehow.” He spun and leaned over to the side, starting to sift through a box under the desk Olivia hadn’t realized was there.
“What are you doing?” asked Olivia.
“I got a bunch of these fuckin’ things somewhere. Aha!” She heard several things thump in the box Ben was going through, then he came upright with several disks in hand. “We shall watch movies until our eyes bleed and our brains leak from our skulls! Unless you got somethin’ else goin’ on.”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”
“What do you mean somethin’?”
“There’s a terrorist guy out there! He tried to shoot us. He did shoot me, a bunch. And it really hurt. And he’s got a bunch of other people with him and they also have guns and we’re just sitting here and I don’t know-”
He raised a hand, cutting her off. “Hold up. Take a deep breath.” Olivia forced herself to stop. Sorry. “Hear that?” he asked, once she’d calmed down.
I hear lots of things. “What?”
“Those sirens.” She nodded after a moment. “That’s the sound of the cops handlin’ that little issue. Keep in mind me bein’ a vigilante ain’t exactly legal, an’ the cops will shoot you on sight. We don’t wanna get caught in a crossfire.”
She nodded again, now more aware of the sirens than ever. Apparently it showed on her face.
“You still bein’ a worry wart about everythin’?”
“Yes. I mean, I killed people,” she said, studying her knees. “I’m getting kind of flashbacks about it and they’re awful. That was me doing that. I attacked everyone. I hurt you too, I think.”
Ben set down the DVDs and rubbed his neck. He said, “To be fair, I jabbed a taser into your neck, so we can call that square.”
“Yeah, but you were trying to stop me from killing other people.”
“Yeah, but…” then he suddenly leaned over and jabbed her in the eye.
“Ow, why?” she asked, holding a hand over the poked eye. What did I do?
He considered her with a grin, stroking his clean shaven chin. “Interesting. You see, if you were a monster, since you seem to think you are, you would’ve bit me or attacked or somethin’. Instead, you’re making me feel as though I just kicked a puppy. Not a classic monster trait, I’ll tell you that for free. Also, I didn’t getcha too hard, did I?”
She blinked her eye a couple time and removed her hand. “I’m fine, but please don’t do that again.” He smiled and nodded, holding his hands up to as if to say ‘I’m innocent’. She sighed. “Why?”
“Why did this have to happen? All of it, everything?”
“You want the short version or the long version? Never mind, I’ll tell you both.” He grinned and settled more comfortably in his chair, leaning forward. “The short reason is because fuck you. That’s why.”
She stared at him for a moment, then said, “That’s not helpful.” I am never asking you a question ever again.
He burst into laughter. “Oh God, oh, that was great. You have sarcasm after all.” His laughter subsided. “OK, OK, OK. Lemme explain. Long version. You an’ I an’ everyone else are insignificant specks on a chunk of rock, which in turn is an insignificant speck, hurtling through the icy screamin’ void of the infinite expanse of space. We mean nothin’. We can’t even perceive even the tiniest fraction of the universe. Everythin’ we do is ultimately meaningless. No matter what happens to you, trigger or no, means jack shit. That’s the truth. You with me so far?”
“But you can’t look at it like that. It’s important to note that, in spite of what I jus’ said, people still do amazing shit. Apollo missions, the Pyramids, the concept of agriculture, an’ so on. You may be one in a billion, but you never know what’ll come outta what you do until you try. Ninety-nine point nine repeating percent of all 9.7 billion people on Earth wouldn’t care if I died, so why do I continue? Because I want to. Because I’ve got my brothers, I’ve got friends an’ acquaintances, I’ve got stuff I wanna do before I kick the bucket. It matters what you do more than anythin’ else. So what are you gonna do? Mope about somethin’ outta your control, or do somethin’? I watched you eat bullets. Bullets. There’s a reason we use those to kill each other, an’ you just shrugged ‘em off. You can do a lot of shit if you put your mind to it.”
He leaned back and took a deep breath. Olivia barely heard him breathe during that entire tirade.
“I get what you’re saying. But…I don’t know. I’ve been afraid of nearly everything for two weeks now.” Ben started coughing at that. “What?”
“Nothin’. Continue.” He waved her off, hiding his smile with the other hand.
Olivia was getting tired of Ben treating everything like a joke. “What, you’ve never been afraid that some government agency is going to swoop in and dissect you? You’ve never been afraid that you were going insane because you didn’t even know your own name? Never been afraid of how you’re going to get by day to day, if you’re ever going to get a job or fit in anywhere?” Her voice was raised at that point.
Unfortunately, he still grinned. So help me, I’ll…I’ll…do…something. Ben spoke up before she could think of something suitable, “You got a point. Several actually. Sorry ‘bout that. Never really thought about it. But let me tell you this: even without the whole dragon thing goin’ on, you look like you could break me in half, no problem. Damn near seven feet tall. So it’s kinda funny when you get all scared and uncertain. Kinda jarring.” He caught her look. “Hey, hey, it’s a compliment. The breaking in half part at least.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
He looked incredulous. “What, you’re sorry? For what? That sounded like a normal conversation with me. You’ve spent more time around me without snappin’ than anyone who’s not my brother. I’m a jackass. My job is to hurt people. You saw me stab that one guy. Guess what? No moral repercussions for me. None”
“How are you a good guy then?”
“I’m not, not really. My brother Rob, he’s a techie, goes by Gears. He’s in Pennsylvania as a freelance criminal, vague as that is. Sam never got powers, I don’t think. He joined up with Lock Corp a couple years ago when we split. Haven’t heard from him in a while. But I’m getting’ side tracked. The thing is, Rob said he’d go into the crime business, Sam said he’d be a merc. I said I’d be a vigilante, which is basically a criminal who hurts other criminals.” He motioned around them to the room full of weapons. “Hell, I stole most of this from criminals, or bought it with money I stole from them.”
“Why do you even have a job then?”
“Because if you’re tryin’ to figure out who the vigilante is, who you gonna pay more attention to? The ghost of a guy, no records to his name, or the minimum wage shmuck just goin’ through life? Gotta be careful when you’re wanted.”
“You were going to kill me if I was feral, weren’t you?”
Without hesitation, he said, “Yep. Wouldn’t ‘ave lost any sleep, either. But, you ain’t a standard feral, which I don’ think has been drilled into your skull quite enough yet, so keep that in mind. I’m thinkin’ you’re bein’ a bit hard on yourself for what happened today, and my patented ‘Get Over It’ technique seems to have failed. So I tell you what, how about we take this night off, regroup, an’ figure out a game plan tomorrow.”
“That sounds alright,” she replied, sitting up a little straighter.