All Alone

Part Eight: What Zombie Apocalypse?

[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Doctor Cartwright's shout cut across the room. "Stop right there! Identify yourselves! Are you aware of the situation? Is your armour sealed against infectious pathogens? Why did you open that door?"

As could be imagined, that brought the soldiers to a sudden halt. All three looked back at the doorway, which was currently occupied by the fourth soldier. The tableau froze for a few seconds, then the intern (Rodney, as I recalled) leaned in past the soldier and pointed at the gang member on the floor. "That's the one they were bringing back as a zombie!" he shouted.

"Mr Stafford!" thundered Dr Cartwright. "What is the meaning of this? Are you responsible for this intrusion?"

The trooper in front came to some sort of attention. "Lieutenant Grant, Parahuman Response Teams. We, uh, we were informed that there was a parahuman in this hospital who was raising dead people to create a zombie army." He looked around the room, at Doctor Frasier, then Dad, then Sophia, then finally me. "Miss, are you the parahuman he was talking about?"

I sighed. It looked like my secret identity was going to set a world record for brevity. "Yes, but not in the way that idiot seems to think."

"Those two were dead!" shouted Rodney from the door, pointing at Dad and Sophia. "They're zombies, I'm telling you!"

Sophia sneered and gave him the finger.

"Mr Stafford. Raise your voice one more time and you will be facing a disciplinary board." Dr Cartwright's tone was implacable. "You are already skating on very thin ice." He turned to the soldier. "We were just about to contact you with a more complete account of the situation," —his eye sought out Rodney once more— "but this young man seems to have jumped the gun with wild and completely inaccurate accusations."

"I see." It was impossible to determine the trooper's expression from the sound of his voice, but at least I hadn't been shot or covered in containment foam so far. "Is there a pathogen hazard in this room?"

"As far as I am aware, no," Cartwright conceded. "However, before you so precipitately entered, you had no way of knowing it was safe. This is a hospital and you had been made aware that there was a parahuman involved. There could have been anything in the air in here."

"And my report will reflect that," agreed Grant. "However; moving on. Can the young lady actually raise zombies from the dead?" His helmet turned until I could see a distorted reflection of my face in the visor, dead-black eyes and all. "And is she capable of turning that effect off?"

"No, she can't raise zombies," I snarked, my patience finally driven to an end. "And she can only change 'that effect' from one mode to another. She is also present in this room, and she can both hear and understand every word the Lieutenant is saying. Perhaps he could be so courteous as to address his questions to me instead of speaking as though I'm not even here?"

He cleared his throat, sounding a little embarrassed. "My apologies, miss. Why do you think that man claimed you were raising a zombie army?"

I had to give him credit. While I couldn't see his face, he didn't sound as though he was so much as cracking a smile. Of course, he undoubtedly had recording equipment going, so bursting out in laughter would probably not be good for his career.

"Because he's an idiot who didn't bother listening to a word I said," I said with a sigh. "I can kind of wake up people who died not long ago, but they aren't zombies." With the last two words, I glared at Rodney.

"Excuse me for sounding ignorant, miss, but would you mind defining the difference?" As Lieutenant Grant asked the question, I noted that he hadn't actually lowered his weapon very far. It would only take a few degrees of elevation and a twitch of his finger to cover me in containment foam.

Dad took that one up. "According to popular culture, zombies aren't very smart and usually have a taste for brains. Or at least, human flesh. Since my daughter reanimated me, I've experienced no indication of being hungry at all, much less any desire to be cannibalistic." He raised his eyebrows toward the officer. "As for my intelligence, feel free to test that at your leisure."

"And even if I was looking to chow down on some asshole's brainmeats, I'd skip that moron," sniped Sophia with a gesture at Rodney that became a middle finger raised in his direction. "He's so stupid, I'd end up hungrier than when I started."

Closing my eyes, I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Sophia. Not helping."

"Hey!" objected Rodney. "I'm not—"

"Mr Stafford." Dr Cartwright broke in, his tone freezing. "Go and mop the west wing corridors. Speak to nobody about this. I'm invoking patient confidentiality. Do you understand?"

"Uh, which corridors?" asked Rodney. "There's five floors—"

"Did I perhaps stutter?" Dr Cartwright raised his voice slightly. "All of them. Simon, go with him. Make sure he doesn't go anywhere else."

"Yes, Doctor Cartwright," responded the burly security guard.

I felt a little bad for Rodney as he left the room with Simon in tow, but not that bad. If he'd had his way, the PRT would've come in guns blazing (or at the least, containment foam spraying) and I would've been on the way to a holding cell right at that moment. Or a body bag.

The last thing I wanted was anyone creating panic over a hypothetical invasion of the undead, when it was really nothing of the sort.

"So the young man was correct, sir, and you … were dead?" Lieutenant Grant's voice hitched slightly, as if he wasn't quite sure about what he was saying.

"I suspect I still am, son." Dad threw in a warm chuckle, probably in an effort to put the guys with guns at ease. "Doctor Cartwright there says that I have no pulse and that my body temperature is gradually dropping. I personally feel no need to breathe, and I'm feeling no pain from any of my injuries."

"And you say your daughter brought you back? Are you sure it's not a high-end level of healing, like Panacea can do?" Lieutenant Grant certainly didn't want to let go of the point. Of course, phrases like 'back from the dead' tended to be met with a certain level of incredulity. "Or perhaps you've triggered with a power like Aegis has."

"If it's healing, then it's very idiosyncratic," Dad pointed out. "No pulse. No respiration. And if I've got a power to avoid having to do that, then the young lady here has the same power. I'll let her explain how impossible that is."

"Impossible?" asked Grant. "How is it impossible? I've heard of people getting the same power from the same event before."

Sophia rolled her eyes. "It's impossible," she said bluntly, "because I'm already a damn cape."

That definitely pulled him up short. Neither Dad nor I had much knowledge of powers in general, and this was the first time I'd ever heard the term 'trigger' in reference to getting them, but pop culture was pretty firm on the fact that capes couldn't just spontaneously manifest a new ability at the drop of a hat.

Well, someone like Eidolon could, but that was one of the things that made him so cool. Most capes were stuck with the powers that they started out with. Just getting a new one at random wasn't even in the ballpark of possibility. I got the impression Lieutenant Grant knew a lot more about this stuff than me and Dad, but it didn't seem like he had a good argument for that.

"Alright," he said after a moment. "Let's assume for the time being that you are in some way allowing your father and your friend to act as though they're alive when they're actually dead." He pointed at the gang member. "Who is that, and why's he on the floor?"

Dr Cartwright cleared his throat. "That … was by way of being an experiment. He's a member of the Merchants with no next of kin, who was involved in the murder of the young lady's father. He was killed in the attack, and I suggested that we determine the limits of her resurrection ability. It turns out that one, people come back with much the same personality and values that they died with … and two, she can withdraw her influence from them at any time, returning them to a state of normal death."

"Because that's not creepy at all," Sophia said, just loudly enough for the PRT soldiers to hear.

"Again, Sophia, not helping," I grumbled.

She smirked at me. "Hey, I just calls 'em as I sees 'em."

Lieutenant Grant cleared his throat, possibly to cover a chuckle. "Be that as it may, is there a time limit on how long someone has to be dead before it's impossible to wake them up again?"

I waved at Dad and Sophia, then at the mook on the floor. "Three people, in the last half hour, and they were my first attempt. Now you know as much as I do about it. The longer dead they are, the less I've got to work with."

"But you can fix 'em," Sophia piped up, poking at the scar in her side. "Maybe even if their brains have gone all mooshy. Bring 'em back up to scratch."

"And what if that's actually how I make a zombie? No memories, no personality." I shook my head. "I wouldn't want to do that to anyone."

"Merchants have personalities?" Sophia scratched her head and looked dubious. "You sure about that?"

I pinched the bridge of my nose again. "Sorry about that," I mumbled in the general direction of Lieutenant Grant. "It appears that dying and coming back did nothing to help the negative aspects of her personality."

"Think nothing of it." He sounded just a little amused, this time. "Do you have any idea of your range?"

"I was touching them to do it, but I don't know if that's the only way it works." I ran my hand through my hair in frustration. "Seriously, I only got my powers half an hour ago."

"Okay, that's something we can look into," he said. "But what I meant was, how far can one of your raised people get from you before the effect stops working?"

"Ah." My eyes widened. That was definitely a worry. "I don't know. And I'm not testing it out with Dad or Sophia, either."

"Ah, of course." Dr Cartwright snapped his fingers. "The possibility that hitting your limit has the same irrevocable effect as withdrawing your power. I totally understand."

"Well, I don't." Lieutenant Grant looked from Cartwright to me. "Would one of you like to explain?"

I grimaced. "When I'm in 'waking the dead' mode, I can kind of see into the heads of dead people. They've got sparks in them which I guess is the last living cells. I use those to wake them up. If I deliberately cut ties with someone I've brought back, there's no spark there. Nothing to grab."

"Well, that's new information," Dr Cartwright mused. "Doctor Frasier, was there anything you wanted to ask?"

"Uh, no, no," the other doctor said hastily, shaking her head. "I'm out of my depth already."

Lieutenant Grant half-raised his left hand. "Well, I have a couple more. What's 'waking the dead' mode and how is it different from what you're doing now? And if dead people have sparks, what do living people look like?"

I took a deep breath. "Don't freak. I'm going to change my appearance a little." I gave Grant a few moments to nod in acknowledgement, then I pushed myself back into shadow mode. I couldn't see the change in my own eyes, of course, but the minute changes in posture of the three PRT soldiers was clear enough to see. I suspected that their jaws may have dropped slightly, but the supernovas that glared at me through the shadows of their helmets made that impossible to determine.

I was beginning to get a handle on this sort of thing. From the feeling of renewed vigour in this mode, I got the impression that dropping into normal vision let me regain strength for doing stuff in the shadow mode.

"Hey, Danny, you feel any different?" asked Sophia, glancing at her hands.

"Now that you mention it, yes," Dad said. He cupped his chin with one hand, holding his elbow with the other. "When Taylor's eyes are glowing, I feel more … complete."

"Yeah, I think I'm more in touch with my powers this way," I confirmed. Concentrating, I tried to ask myself how far away my father and new best friend could go from me without risking a cutoff. Everything I'd ever heard about capes said that they had at least an idea of the capabilities of their powers, after all.

The answer came not in words, but via an impression. I knew, somehow, that my range for maintaining those I reanimated was at least citywide, maybe even covering a good chunk of the state. Glancing at Lieutenant Grant, I made the conscious decision not to pass on that information. Dr Cartwright didn't really need to know either. Letting them both assume it was shorter than that would hopefully reduce the chance of someone (specifically, the local PRT Director) reflexively deciding that I was a problem that needed to be dealt with.

"You wanted to know what it looks like?" I said to Lieutenant Grant instead, spreading my hands. "This is it."

"I see." In contrast to Dad and Sophia, his voice was hollow and echoing like the last time I'd been in this mode. "Are there any, less visible, changes?"

Oh yeah, he was definitely getting all the information he could, which was his job. Still, there was no harm in giving him something that anyone in the hospital could tell him if he asked. "When I came in," I said carefully, "I'd been severely beaten up. When these powers happened … triggered, whatever … everything healed up. I'm still missing a couple of teeth, but the ones that had been loose are better now, the broken bones aren't broken anymore, and the cuts and swelling and burns and stuff have all gone away. I'm not sure if it's a one-time thing or if doing this change lets me heal stuff like that. Also, I'm a bit stronger than I am in the other mode. Not lift-a-truck strong—at least, I don't think so—but definitely break-a-door-handle strong."

Grant nodded, as though he were taking mental notes. Given how professional he'd been to this point, he probably was. "It seems you've got a minor Brute rating then. Do you know if you're resistant to damage, in this mode?"

"Well, it's not as though I'm going to be experimenting," I said bluntly. "But I don't think so."

Somehow, I suspected not. My main source of danger, being anyone I reanimated who didn't like me, couldn't hit me. I wondered if that extended to weapons, and decided that I should have Sophia test this out at the earliest possible opportunity. Better to find out the hard way than the harder way.

"Understood." He nodded. "Would you be amenable to coming down to the PRT building so that we can perform more tests on your powers?"

"Nope." I was already saying the word before Sophia started performing vigorous horizontal scissoring motions with her hands. It seemed we were both on the same page as far as that was concerned. "You seem reasonable, but I have no idea who's in that building, and whether they might take it on themselves to decide that the walking dead people aren't actually humans with rights anymore, and why don't we dissect one or both to find out what makes them tick?" I stared at the glare where his brain was. "Hard pass, thanks."

Maybe he sighed a little; I couldn't tell. "Understood. Would you have any problem with supplying me with your name and other information?"

"Yeah, she would," Sophia said, stepping forward. "As of the moment she got powers, she was working under a secret identity. Her handing that name over to you automatically puts the PRT into the loop of people who are allowed to know it, and can use it against her."

"But you have to know we can find out in ten minutes, just by looking into hospital records." Lieutenant Grant didn't sound as though he could figure out where she was coming from.

Sophia sounded a lot more sure of herself. "Yeah, you can. But this way you aren't on the list of people who are automatically cleared to use that information. So if you do, we kick up a stink and you guys take a PR hit. And we both know who'll take the fall on that one."

"More to the point, the last thing the PRT wants is a local hero calling them out on bullshit like that." Dad spoke with authority on the subject, though I wanted to giggle when he used the word 'bullshit'. Still, it served to get the PRT lieutenant's attention, which was probably the main intention.

"So I'd appreciate it if you didn't do it," I finished. I didn't really need to stay in the shadow state, so I let myself lapse back to the normal world. "Doctor Cartwright?"

The doctor nodded, picking up on my meaning immediately. "The young lady's medical records are personal and private," he said sternly. "Unless you have an immediate and pressing need to obtain them that does not relate to her status as a parahuman then you will cease and desist with any such enquiries. Is that entirely clear?"

Lieutenant Grant nodded, a little reluctantly. "Totally," he said, though I privately bet he wanted to say absolutely anything else. Walking out with my name, face and total life history to date would've been a huge feather in his metaphorical cap.

Nobody moved or spoke for a moment, then I cleared my throat. "So, now that we've clarified the lack of a zombie outbreak, was there anything else I could help you with, Lieutenant Grant?"

He paused, no doubt looking for an excuse to hang around, but eventually had to shake his head. "No," he admitted. Turning, he nodded to the soldiers behind him, who backed up out of the room. About to step out through the doorway, he paused and turned. "Do you have a cape name I can use in my report?"

"Will you guys hold me to it if I decide to change it later?" I asked warily. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck with a stupid name chosen on the spur of the moment.

"Not really, no. All you'd really have to do in that case is let us know you're rebranding." His tone was encouraging.

"Okay, then. Uh …" I paused in thought.

There were any number of names I could use based around the concept of zombies or raising the (un)dead, and they were universally horrible if I wanted to present as a hero. Besides, despite the fact that Dad and Sophia had been killed, I didn't think of them as dead. Not really, anyway. Nobody who was dead could muster as much snark as Sophia could.

"Okay, how about Animator?" I asked. It sounded nice and harmless, but it described what I did pretty well exactly, if a little misleadingly.

It seemed Lieutenant Grant could see what I'd done, because he paused for a beat before he nodded. "Animator it is," he confirmed. "I'll pass that on." A moment later, he was gone.

I leaned back against a table, letting out a long sigh. "Okay, that could've gone a lot worse," I muttered.

"I agree," Dad said. "That young man panicking like he did had the potential for making serious problems for you."

"It still might," noted Dr Frasier. "Certainly, he left without making a fuss. But do you honestly think the PRT won't make an effort to get information about you and your powers? Being able to bring people back from the dead, even temporarily, is a game-changer. Can you imagine this power in the hands of a gang member? If one of his fellow gangers gets killed, he can put him straight back in the field, tougher than ever."

"Worse," Sophia said. "The more he went on, the more members would be reanimated. I still don't feel hungry or even tired, so a bunch of guys who don't need to sleep or eat, and who are minor Brutes at least part of the time? That's kind of scary."

"But I need to sleep," I objected. "What if you shut down when I'm out to it? That's basically the same as sleeping." I didn't voice my other fear; that when I went to sleep, my power would shut off and 'kill' Dad and Sophia all over again.

Leaving me all alone, with nobody in the world I could turn to.

"Somehow, I doubt it," mused Dad. "The protective capability that prevents us from harming you makes me wonder if it's there to protect you from someone you've animated while you're asleep." He heaved a sigh, which required him to take a breath before he did so. "In any case, you do need to get some sleep, so we should go home." He looked at Dr Cartwright. "How do we go about signing ourselves out? Sophia and myself are undoubtedly written down somewhere as deceased, and from the way Taylor was talking earlier, she was pretty beat-up too."

"Actually, my mom and brother were coming in to pick me up," Sophia reminded us. "But yeah, how do you walk out the front door when you're in the system as 'dead'?"

"I'll pull the files and mark them 'no further action; parahuman involvement'," Cartwright assured us. "Also, I will speak with young Mr Stafford and explain to him in words of one syllable or less that shouting about a zombie outbreak in the middle of a crowded hospital is perhaps the least career-enhancing choice he can make." Looking at the three of us, he cracked a slight smile. "I'll try to keep the incidence of pitchforks and torches to a minimum for you."

Sophia snorted with amusement. "Thanks, doc. You're okay in my book." She slugged him lightly on the shoulder as she headed for the door.

Dad paused though, and looked down at himself. "Uh … would it be possible to get cleaner clothing? I look like someone who's been on the wrong side of a car accident." He nodded toward Sophia and myself. "You two could probably do with a change-up as well. The Merchants didn't do you any favours."

"I can do that," Dr Frasier offered. "We have clothing donated for just this sort of thing, when people don't have something worth wearing in public."

"Bring them to my office," Dr Cartwright told her as she headed for the door. "We have no need to wait around in here any longer." He glanced down at the dead Merchant on the floor. "And while you're at it, send someone to put that man back on the drawer."

"We can do that," Dad said. "Sophia?"

"Sure," she said, and looked over at me. "A little boost there?"

"Oh, uh, right," I said hastily, pushing back into the shadow realm. I'd totally forgotten Dad's comments earlier about feeling more like himself when I was in this mode.

"Now, that's more like it." Dad leaned over the dead man and grabbed him under the shoulders, while Sophia got his feet. "One … two … three … go." It was kind of weird how there wasn't even a grunt of effort from either one; just a straight lift and sideways movement that put the guy back on his resting place. Dad arranged the corpse's arms, and that was it.

"Oh, yeah," crowed Sophia, bending her arm and clenching her fist; a moment later, I realised she was flexing her bicep. "That's what I'm talkin' about. I am so gonna kick ass like this."

"Really?" I asked. "That's what got us into this mess in the first place. How about we take this one step at a time until we know what we're doing?"

"Pfft." Sophia's voice was derisive. "'One step at a time' is for wimps. 'Jump in feet first' is my motto."

"Yes, I noticed," Dad said very dryly as we headed for the door. "That's the course of action that nearly got Taylor killed, and did get both of us killed. Maybe we should consider an alternate way of doing things? One that's less likely to get her hurt? Given that she's the only thing keeping us alive right now?"

Yeah, Dad, I thought as my heart thudded painfully in my chest. Just remind me of that, why don't you? No matter what happened from here on in, I had a responsibility to Dad and Sophia both; if I died, so did they.

"She doesn't have to come along on the ass-kicking," she retorted. "I can do it alone just fine. Especially now that I'm shitloads tougher and stronger than I was before. And hey, the only thing that'll take me down now is a brain shot. Anything else will just piss me off. Kind of like what Aegis can do."

"Hey, if you think I'm gonna sit at home and fix your injuries every time you come home with a knife in your spleen, you might wanna reconsider that," I said firmly. "That shit takes a lot out of me."

"I'll be fine," she insisted. "Hey, I wonder if you can make me regrow fingers or eyes or shit."

"I doubt it," I said. "If it's anything like the regeneration I did when I got the powers, it just heals stuff over. I've still got missing teeth from where those assholes were whaling on me."

We entered Dr Cartwright's office and he waved us to chairs. "Make yourselves comfortable," he said. "I'd offer you coffee, but I don't know who drinks it, or even which of you can drink it anymore."

"God dammit," muttered Sophia. "I knew there was a catch to this back-from-the-dead shit. Hey, doc, just make me a cup, will you? I just wanna see if I can drink it anyway."

"I'll have one too, please," I said, then caught Dad raising his eyebrows at me. "Hey, I know I prefer tea, but right now I need a pick-me-up. Besides, I want to see if I can fix the rest of the damage those bastards did to you, and I know that's gonna knock me around."

"That's as good a reason as any," agreed Cartwright as he busied himself at the coffee machine.

Focusing on my power again, I asked it what happened when I fell asleep. Once again, the answer wasn't in words, but I got the impression that so long as my brain was functional, Dad and Sophia wouldn't suffer any ill effects. Oh. Good. That was a huge weight off my shoulders.

My other problem was one that didn't seem to have an immediate solution. When my power was active, my eyes glowed white, or so people told me. When it was passive, they were engulfed in blackness. There seemed to be no middle ground, no off-switch. This would make maintaining a secret identity nigh-on impossible. I briefly considered the idea of getting a pair of huge wrap-around sunglasses, but shook my head as I thought more about it. In public, that might work; in class, not so much.

Unless … I dropped my vision back into the normal world. "Uh, Dad, what do you think about me pulling out of school?"

Both Dad and Dr Cartwright turned toward me. "I'm not in favour of the idea on general principles," Dad said, "but in this instance you may well have a workable excuse. What do you think, Doctor?"

"I think, at the very least, staying home for a week or so with the excuse of having been mugged, would not be beyond the bounds of probability," the doctor mused. "If you intend to go out as a hero, then that will also be an ideal time to start planning your costume as well as taking any training you might wish to get. First aid, at the very least."

"But after that, my secret will be out, won't it?" I couldn't imagine any other scenario. There was no way I could walk into school and not have people realise there was something strange going on with my eyes, and that was if I was in normal-vision mode. In shadow-world mode, I would stand out like a car with its high-beams on, and for much the same reason.

"Unless we can figure out how to make your eyes look normal, yes." Dad reached across and took my hand. "But we'll get through this together. I promise."

There was a knock on the office door at the same time as his desk phone rang. "Come in!" he called out, then picked up the phone. "Hello, Cartwright here."

The office door opened to reveal Dr Frasier, holding a stack of folded clothing. "I got these—oh, sorry."

Cartwright gestured for her to come in as he kept talking. "Who, sorry? A Mrs Hess? I don't—"

At that moment, Sophia waved to get his attention. She pointed at herself and mouthed, 'That's my mom.'

"—ah, of course, yes," he said. "Send her to my office. She'll have a young man with her? And a child? Yes, send them all up. Good. Thank you."

Slowly, he put the phone down again, then he closed his eyes and ran his hands over his face. Drawing in a deep breath, he let it out in a long, slow sigh. "Ah, thank you," he said to Dr Frasier as he opened his eyes again. "Just leave them on the desk. I'm going to be … busy, for awhile."

"Yes, Doctor Cartwright." Giving him a sympathetic look, she did as he instructed, then left his office, closing the door quietly behind her.

I could understand the sympathy. Also, what had inspired it. One of the very worst parts of being a doctor would have to be telling someone's loved ones that their father or mother or son or daughter would not be making it. Dr Cartwright's job would be ten times as hard; how to explain to Sophia's mother that her daughter had been killed, even though she was standing there right in front of us all? Worse, that Sophia's semblance of life was entirely dependent on me?

To distract myself, I started sorting through the clothes. The ones meant for Dad I figured out pretty quickly, and handed them to him. The others were pretty well much of a muchness, so I gave one set to Sophia and resigned myself to pulling in the belt thoughtfully provided in order to make the other pair of jeans stay up.

And then, there was a knock on the office door. Dr Cartwright looked around at each of us. I nodded, as did Dad. Sophia looked like she wanted to phase out through the wall, but after a long hesitation, she went over and opened the door instead.

"Hi, Mom."

Almost immediately, she was wrapped up in a ferocious hug by an older woman; even from where I was, I could see the resemblance. The teenage boy who stepped into the office around them—maybe eighteen or nineteen, from what I could see—was carrying a kid of one or two, who looked like she was just waking up from a nap, rubbing her fists in her eyes and yawning. She looked adorable.

"What's going on, Sophia?" her mother scolded. "We were worried sick! Why did you call from a hospital? Are you hurt?" She looked down at Sophia's blood-stained and scissor-cut top, and her blood-soaked pants. "Oh, my god! How bad is it?"

"Mom, chill." Sophia pushed the office door closed. "It's, uh … it's kind of unique. Yeah, unique is a good word for it. There's bad news and there's good news." She tried to guide her mother to a chair. "You'd, uh, you'd better sit down for this."

I stood up from my chair, and offered it to the older boy. "You too. Hi, my name's Taylor. Who's the little one?"

He stared at my face for long enough that I began to wonder if I had something on my nose, then I realised that my eyes were still strange. Then he took in Dad's obvious signs of battle, and silently sat down. In his lap, the infant started looking around more alertly. "I'm Terry," he murmured. "This is Annabel. What's going on?"

"Long, long story," I replied, just as quietly. "Brace yourself. Nothing's going to be the same again." I knew that was true for me as well.

"Unique? What do you mean, 'unique'?" Mrs Hess' voice rose in pitch, and she turned to Dr Cartwright. "Doctor! Who are these people? What does Sophia mean, unique? What's going on here?"

Dr Cartwright moved up to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am, I really think you need to sit down. This will come as a shock to your system."

She brushed his hand aside. "That she's been going out as a superhero? I already knew that. I didn't like it, but I knew it." She glanced at me. "Is that girl your sidekick, or whatever they call them?"

Despite the gravity of the situation, I tried not to feel insulted. I wasn't a sidekick … was I? As Night Girl, I'd been … well, basically Sophia's apprentice … oh, crap. I was a sidekick, wasn't I?

"Mom, it's worse than that." Sophia took hold of her mother's arm and tried to ease her down into the seat. "Please, sit down."

I blinked, as did Terry. It seemed that neither of us was used to Sophia saying 'please'.

"Why?" Mrs Hess' voice rose even louder. "Will someone tell me what's going on here?"

I opened my mouth to say something, as did Dad. Dr Cartwright tried to say something soothing, but Sophia spoke over all of us. "Mom, I'm dead."

As I'd heard Dad say once when he thought I wasn't in earshot, that cut through the shit. Silence fell over the office, broken only by the sound of Sophia's mother sitting down in the chair. Her dark complexion gone several shades paler, she stared at Sophia. "What do you mean?" she whispered.

Sophia set her jaw, clearly intending to finish what she'd started. "I mean, I was shot tonight, and died shortly after getting to this hospital." Her voice was firm and sharp, brooking no interruptions. "I died. Just like Mr Hebert over there died, after being attacked in his home by a bunch of Merchants." She gestured toward Dad.

As if it were on a mechanical swivel, Mrs Hess' head turned toward him. He nodded to confirm Sophia's words. "This is all true."

Sophia's mother reached up and clutched her daughter's hand. "This can't be true," she insisted. "It can't."

"Mom, it happened." Sophia crouched down beside her. "I wish it hadn't happened, but it's true." She put her arm around her mother's shoulders.

"All right, who's the girl with the skull eyes?" the older woman asked, gesturing at me. I supposed the description wasn't totally unfair. "Is she dead too? Or is she supposed to be some sick version of Death, and she's just given me one more time to talk to you?" I could tell from the tone of her voice that she didn't want to listen, and was throwing out the question to deflect from what she'd heard already.

"No," I said quietly. "I'm the one who brought them back." I took a deep breath. "I've known Sophia for awhile—"

"I knew it!" shouted Mrs Hess. "You're the one who started my Sophia going out and beating up people, aren't you? You capes, so violent, setting my little girl such a bad example—"

"Mom, shut up!" Sophia shouted right back. As a tactic it worked, but I could tell it wouldn't hold for long. Sophia clearly did as well, because she kept talking, though she lowered her voice because little Annabel was starting to fuss. "She didn't set me a bad example! I set her one! I took her out with me without really training her, and she didn't even have powers then! She nearly got killed because of me! I had to rescue her, and that's when I got shot!" She pulled aside the mangled shirt to show her mother the bullet scar. "Right there."

"That's not new." Mrs Hess shook her head. "That's not tonight." She grimaced, looking at it. "When did that happen?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" snapped Sophia. She looked around, then spotted a pair of scissors on a side table. With two quick strides, she grabbed them up and opened them to get a better angle. I already knew what she was going to do, and so did Dad. Sophia's mother and brother were less ready for what happened next.

"Shit, Sophia, be careful!" blurted Terry. Then he stared, mouth open, as she shoved the metal blade right through her hand and out the other side. Her mother's mouth just fell open as she fought for words.

"I'm dead," Sophia repeated in a harsh tone. "You see blood? No? That's because my heart isn't beating. I'm not breathing." Slowly, she moved her hand around so that the impalement was fully visible. Then she pulled the scissors from her flesh. There was actually a thin sheen of blood on them now, but I figured that to be left over from when she'd been alive.

"Sophia?" Her mother's voice was almost a sob. "What did you just do?"

Sophia handed the scissors to Dr Cartwright. "I'm proving a point. Taylor?" Turning so that her mother and brother could see, she extended her hand to me.

I cleared my throat. "Okay, then. Don't be alarmed. I've actually done this before." Taking a deep breath, I pushed through into the shadow realm. Sophia and Dad came through with me, of course. Dr Cartwright and Sophia's family became skeletons with supernovas for heads. Reaching out, I took Sophia's hand, making sure that the fresh hole was visible to all concerned. Then I pushed energy into it, willing it to heal. It was actually less of an effort than the other one, probably because it was a more trivial injury. But it was no less impressive than before, not least because the injury had been deliberate.

When there was just a shiny scar on both sides of her hand, I let it go and transitioned back to the real world. Sophia showed her mother her hand. "See? I'm not alive. Taylor brought me and her dad back. I told you, it's a unique situation."

Grabbing her hand, Mrs Hess studied the scar suspiciously. "So she can heal people …?"

"No," I said patiently. "I can bring back people who have died, and I can repair their injuries. That's my power. I'm sorry. I can let her walk around, but I can't make her alive again. That's on me." Especially since I'm the one who got them both killed. That guilt was going to last me for the rest of my life.

Silence fell over the office, apart from the burblings of the kid. Once Terry got her settled, he looked up at me, his face drawn. "Jesus," he muttered.

I flinched violently. "Please don't make this a religious thing."

"No, no," he said hastily. "I was just saying it. It's a lot to take in. My sister's a—"

"If you say the 'Z' word, I will kick your ass," Sophia threatened.

"I was going to say 'superhero'," he snarked back at her. "But how does this work? How do we even get past this? Where do we go from here?"

I sighed. "And those are just some of the questions I'm dealing with right now."

End of Part Eight