B007.a A Dream of Knights

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“I’m truly sorry, Madam, but there is nothing we can do,” the elderly doctor said with a grief-stricken face. “The damage is too extensive, and we have no idea what kind of toxin was used during the attack.”

“What do you mean, you have no idea? Can’t you, can’t you, can’t you,” her voice broke and she sobbed into a purple silken handkerchief, “Can’t you take a blood sample? From her or… from one of the others?”

He shook his head, looking down at the younger woman, who was sitting in the waiting room. On any other day, she would have looked regal, beautiful and full of life – he had seen her quite a few times before, as she was one of the main benefactors of the Petal Memorial Hospital. “Whatever it is, it breaks down once removed from its living host – including breaking down immediately once a victim dies. We’re not even sure if its a real toxin, or a bacteria, or a virus or maybe something contrived. I’m truly sorry, but there’s nothing we can do at this p-“

“What about the United Heroes!?” she spoke up, half shouting and half begging. “They have, they have healers, gadgeteers, contrivers! Or a private one, I have money, I can pay any price, will pay any price!” She broke down into sobs again.

He squatted down in front of her, despite his protesting knees, looking up into her reddened eyes. “We will, of course, make inquiries. The United Heroes have already offered their support, and they have their best minds working on this. I don’t know about the private sector, but you are of course welcome to try and find someone – though I would suggest you be careful about some of the people who’ll offer to ‘help’ your little girl. And please keep in mind that powerful healing powers are very, very rare – there might not be anyone who can help her, considering the severity of her ailment.”

She nodded, though he could tell she wasn’t really listening. Instead, she stood up and walked towards the large window that looked into the room her daughter lay in. She’d been put under anaesthesia while they tried to save her life, but it didn’t seem to work – she was half-awake and in pain. Crying and screaming. Fortunately, her mother couldn’t hear her, because he didn’t know how she’d react if she could.

Long, expertly manicured nails scraped over the glass. “Can’t you do anything? Give her anything, so she won’t hurt?”

“We’ve tried every anaesthetic in our store – whatever ails her, or the other victims, it seems to break down whatever we give her.” It was maddening. They couldn’t treat these poor people – that, they’d had practice in. Medicine so often failed them in this world, especially when metahumans were involved. But not even being able to relieve the pain? When nearly three fourth of the surviving victims were children?

No one prepared you for that at med school.

“Can I go in? Maybe I can calm her down,” she said desperately.

Oh boy. “I’m sorry, but no, madam. Quarantine protocols, until we know whether or not the… ailment is not contagious.”

“I need to be there for her,” the young mother whispered. Then her whole posture dissolved, and she slid down onto her knees, crying.

I’m so sorry.

* * *

Hurts.

Her chest felt like it was on fire, her heart felt like it had exploded and kept exploding. She felt bile rise in her throat and other things, too, as she choked and spit and tried to calm herself.

Too late, too late, all too late…

Dimly, she heard screams and sounds of fighting outside.

Right, if Hastur came here and showed her face…

She couldn’t bring herself to care as her body trashed around. How long had this attack lasted already? Three, four seconds? It felt like years.

Wait, if there are monsters outside the door, maybe they’ll put an end to this…

Had Hastur left the door open? She couldn’t remember hearing it fall closed, but then again, she was quite distracted…

Basil wouldn’t want me to think like that.

More pain, and then a novel feeling – the muscles in her calves snapped her bones, adding a novel new sensation to the mix. She would have screamed if her throat was not already torn from doing so, and filled with bile and blood.

Basil…

She’d thought he would save her. She was sure he would have. But now time was running out faster than they’d expected.

Mama…

She wouldn’t take her death well. She’d changed, after dad and Tom had died. Prisca couldn’t remember seeing her smile, at least not honestly.

Roselind.

Her stupid older sister, always busy, always up and away. She’d tried to be there for her after Hawaii, but she’d had to live her own life, too. She was studying at the Silicon Valley Institute for Technology, one of the youngest baselines to ever attend.

Basil’s smarter, though.

Someone broke through the door. But of course, she couldn’t see. Monsters? Maybe. Though this was also the perfect time for a knight in shining armor to show up.

Basil’s armor doesn’t shine, though.

And who else would ever come for her? Apart from her mother, if she was even in the same state. She was always somewhere, on her way. Doing stuff.

Voices, two of them. Then, warmth on her chest. The pain lessened.

Other hands, familiar ones. Basil. She’d gotten really good at learning how to recognize people by any means available – she had so little to do, so she studied every and any small thing she could think off, just to kill time.

I can pick locks like nobody’s business, you know? I’m great at ventriloquism, too.

Who was she talking to? The pain further subsided, but she could still feel her heart tearing itself apart. It just didn’t hurt anymore.

Who are you? Why are you helping me?

It wasn’t Basil who’d taken the pain away. No, he was… he was doing something. Cutting. Trying to save her. Someone else had taken the pain away, was calming her heart down.

It wasn’t working.

I’m so sorry, I’m trying my best!, came a strange voice. A girl, and a young one, it seemed. She didn’t sound quite human – and she talked right into her head.

I appreciate it, though. Don’t feel bad, no one can help me, anyway. Not even Basil.

Basil? Your boyfriend?

There wasn’t any pain now, at all. She could still feel herself choking, her heart killing itself. The broken bones in her leg, the pinched nerves…

Yes. He’s great. But I don’t think he can save me now, either. He’ll try, but he won’t.

Ah. Him. Who knows, he might just do it. And I’m here to help you.

She felt like laughing.

Thank you, but it’s alright. I knew I wouldn’t live long, anyw-

Stop talking like that. How about you tell me more about Basil? How did you meet?

That… was something nice to think about. She was going to die, she might as well think about something pleasant.

We met online. Don’t have any friends left, I’ve been in here for too long. Just some people I chat with, every now and then.

Don’t really have any friends, either. Made my first one just a short while ago.

Then you know how it is. But anyway, we met online, and we got talking. And I guess… he wasn’t funny, but he was… funny in the way he was just so clueless. Innocent, like a little child, really.

Uhu?

Yes, so I got to know him better. And then I let it slip that I lived in New Lennston, too. And somehow, don’t ask me how, he convinced me to let him visit.

You don’t like visitors?

I don’t like people seeing me. At all. I’m ugly.

Debatable. But pray continue!

He came here, and I was so nervous, so afraid he’d just… go away. And then he came in, and… and…

What? Love at first sight?

No… no, not really. I don’t know. I don’t remember when exactly we went from friends to… you know. The other kind of friends. I just know that… I don’t know. I don’t know how we got together, really, it’s just that…

That what?

We… it felt like… we were falling. We were both falling, and we kind of… fell together, you know? Does that make any sense?

A new sensation, as if someone was reaching into her chest, somehow.

I don’t know. I’m really not an expert with these things, you know? I can’t even tell the difference between wanting to hug someone and wanting to have sex with them.

Sounds icky.

It is. Unbelievably so… you promise to keep this a secret?

What?

What I’m going to tell you. A secret.

Oh. Sure. Dead people are really good at that.

You’re not going to die. Will you keep it even while alive?

You’re delusional. But ‘kay. Okay. I’ll keep it.

One time, I kind of spied in on my parents… you know. And I… tried to… you know… join in.

Oh. My. God. That bad?

That bad. Dad only made it worse.

How so?

Well, he knew it freaked my mom out, so he acted like he liked the idea – for the record, he didn’t, at all – just to drive her crazy. Tried to ‘convince’ her to try it out.

What did she do?

She punched him so hard he made a crater down in the basement – after breaking through four floors. Ever since then, they’ve always been using their powers to make sure I couldn’t even look in.

Hehe. Serves him right. He sounds like a jerk.

Probably. But mostly, he just likes to drive people crazy.

Sounds like a jerk.

More of a troll, really.

A jerk.

True, I guess.

Hey, can I ask you something?

Sure.

Want to be my friend? I’d like to have at least one more friend before I die.

You’re going to have lots of friends before you die, you’ll see. And I’ll be happy to be the first of many – not counting Basil, who is really doing his best right now to make sure you’ll have more.

Great. I’m Prisca. Nice to meet you.

My name’s Irene. Glad to make a friend – I’m up to a glorious two, now.

Me t-

* * *

She was falling again, just like… just like back then. When she’d met Basil.

Is this dying? I hear some people saying that love can feel like dying, but is it really this close?

Darkness. No sensations.

A light in the sky. Then more. And more.

Billions of lights.

Calling her.

No. Let me sleep. Let me rest, please. I just want the pain to end.

She hadn’t wanted Hastur to do to her… whatever she did to people. But she’d also hoped – she was only now realizing it – that she’d end the pain for her.

That way, she wouldn’t have to feel guilty, right? If someone like that killed her?

The stars were growing brighter by the second.

Two were really close.

There was only void around them. Except… there were some stars close, but out of sight. Behind her?

She couldn’t turn, so she looked at the stars in front of her. They were here, now.

One looked… twisted. A twilight world, half-formed and wretched, but still beautiful.

Irene. That’s you, right? Are you hurt?

The other one… it looked more like strands of light and mist, drawn together in a haphazard star shape. Many little pieces, held together by… by nothing, really. Just kind of holding together, glowing bright and white as something black and fast raced across them.

Basil, that you? I knew you were falling, too, but are you really this hurt?

She had always felt like there was something wrong. Like, somehow, somewhere deep inside, he hurt just as much as she did.

Maybe worse.

And I hated it. Then I learned to love it. Made feel good, to try and help you feel better.

It was over now. The stars were fading.

Only darkness remained.

* * *

Only darkness, and three strands of light. Like thin hairs, glowing, leading… up? Away?

Back.

No. It was over.

Yes.

She was dead.

Yes.

Basil had failed. Irene had failed, whoever she was in the end.

Yes.

He’d feel bad. Blame himself.

Yes, he will.

He already felt bad enough as it was. Even if she had no idea why.

Yes.

Did she have to die?

Yes.

Did she have to die now?

No. Call back the Light.

She touched the three strands of light, pulling.

Come to me, she thought.

Come. Come. I call you, come here. To me.

She pulled and pulled.

And through the darkness, a star fell down, drawn by the strands of light.

It fell… in front of her.

And suddenly, in its light, there was a her. She looked down herself. Thin, wasted. Broken and ugly.

But her.

The star had fallen a few feet away, burning like childrens firework, singing.

She couldn’t hear the melody, or any kind of sound, but she knew it was singing.

Do I want that?

She knew if she took up the star, there would be no going back. She would change.

Maybe not for the better.

I have a choice. I could turn away, right?

Yes.

What do you want me to do?

Whatever you do.

Who are you?

Just you.

Oh.

Look.

Someone stepped into the circle of light, on the opposite side of the star.

She was gorgeous. Tall, almost as tall as Basil. Her skin perfect, lily white. Her form full, luscious but slender, dancer and a lover all in one. Long red hair, soft waves coloured like aged wine that fell down to her butt. Lips, full and pouty, of the same colour.

Brilliant green eyes, almost glowing.

Mom?

No, she spoke. Just you.

Who she always wanted to be and more.

That body was so strong. Stronger than she would ever be.

I can be you?

You already are.

She bent down, slowly, and lifted the star with both hands, holding them out to her palms up.

Chose. You can go back. Or you can fall. One is peace. One is pain.

I don’t want any more pain. But I have to, don’t I?

The choice is yours. Afterall, you’re saying this to yourself.

I see.

She stepped closer, reaching out.

Please, let me fly.

She touched the star.

* * *

She was walking along a dark, long road, lined with old, large trees and absolutely covered in snow. It wasn’t cold, even though she was naked.

Next to her, another girl. Young, younger than her. Preteen, she’d guess.

A cute girl, with straight black hair and warm brown eyes. But she was so thin. Dressed in layers upon layers of cast-off clothing, none of it fitting.

They were walking towards a big mansion that stood apart from any other building. A tall wall was built around it, but she knew that the girl knew a way in. A breach in the wall no one had cared to patch up.

They snuck in together and made their way for the side entrance of the mansion.

Large dumpsters stood there, old and heavy.

The whole place looked old. Nothing like any building Prisca knew.

The little girl opened one of the dumpsters, climbing up to look inside.

Why are you doing this? It’s filthy! she tried to say, but couldn’t speak.

Then, a door nearby opened. The girl jumped off the dumpster and ran to a nearby bush, hiding behind.

An old man stepped outside, dressed in warm, but simple clothing. A thick jacket and a wool cap that looked handmade. And expertly so.

He was really old. Thin. White hair and beard, clean and neat, but somehow dishevelled. Like he had people who took care of it, but didn’t care himself.

“Look, sweetheart, I know you don’t trust us, but you need to get out of the cold!” he said, looking at the bush.

The girl tensed up, shivering. He’d seen her! What if he knew how often she stole from their trash?

“C’mon, sweetie, I know you’re there. You’ve been coming here all this time, and you ran away every time one of us tried to talk to you!”

He knew. Where were the others? The thin blonde girl, the tall scary man with the hooknose?

Were they sneaking up on her? She looked around frantically, mortified.

What if they gave her back to the orphanage? She didn’t want to go back, never!

“Look, little girl, we won’t hurt you. Fact, the sir and the miss are off for their work. C’mon, you know we’ve been trying to help you.”

They had, hadn’t they? There had always been a lot to eat here, in the dumpsters. Wrapped in oily paper, clean and uneaten.

At first she’d thought they just threw it all away, but…

She’d eaten better in the month she’d been stealing food from here than in her entire life beforehand.

There’d even been sweets in the trash, carefully packaged. And one time, someone had put a cup of a hot brown drink next to the dumpster, shielded from the snow. She drunk it without thinking, it smelled so delicious.

“Little girl, please. Ol’ Jake is freezing here. Means you got to be freezing even worse. The miss and the mister made food for us all, there’s more than enough to get your little tummy full. And then you can have a bath, and something nice to sleep in, and a bed. We got lot’s’a empty beds, nowadays.”

It sounded so nice. But what if they wanted to hurt her? People were mean.

“Little one, please, come in. You’ll freeze to death out there! C’mon in, everything’s golden!”

He looked like he was suffering, Prisca noted. He really wanted to help this girl he didn’t even know.

It took nearly ten more minutes for the little girl to finally get out of the bushes and walk up to the tall, old man. She looked suspicious, but also hopeful. Or maybe just tired.

‘Jake’ smiled and led her in. Prisca followed, and saw a feast inside. Whoever this Miss was, she was an awesome cook.

The little girl looked at Jake, who smiled and nodded, and then she pretty much jumped onto the table.

Tears came to Prisca’s eyes as she watched the little girl break down sobbing while stuffing herself against all common sense. Jake tried to make her slow down, but she wouldn’t listen.

She hadn’t eaten anything warm for so long. Never anything so tasty.

Prisca watched her almost fall asleep after eating, but Jake took care of her. He bathed her (it broke her heart to see such a thin girl), dressed her, put her to bed.

The girl was crying now, but the old man just held her hand and sang her a lullaby.

And then the world went white.

* * *

The world exploded into light, catapulting Prisca away from the scene. Out of the mansion, which was swallowed up by the light.

She couldn’t tell for how long the pillar of light remained, but it burned away all the clouds in the sky, blasted them away.

There was only a crater left where the mansion stood just moments ago.

For just a second, she saw Jake, old and thin, then young and strong, then older and stronger, then a baby, then a child, then a corpse, then a teen and then… he vanished, flickering away.

She saw the little girl, her thin body curled up as an invisible force carried her to snow pile beyond the crater, shaping it into a kind of half-cave that it left her in.

And she saw a bright star rising, as a beast of darkness screamed and howled and cried.

* * *

Prisca opened her eyes.

She was back in the hospital room, standing at the foot of the bed. Looking at Basil and Irene – Gloom Glimmer – bent over a thin, ugly scarecrow, trying to save her.

Heard the weak, calming heart of the scarecrow. She was alive again. Basil hadn’t failed.

Strange. I’m here, aren’t I? Why bother with that?

She looked down her own body. It was… beautiful. Perfect. Everything she ever dreamed of, and then some.

And it felt good. Strong, fast, tough. Healthy. She was horny as all hell, but now she knew it wouldn’t kill her to act on it.

And her senses. Gone was the dull mist that lay over everything. She could see and hear and smell. She tasted her own mouth and it was glorious. She felt the cold floor beneath her bare feet, and it was glorious.

No pain there. Her body didn’t hurt at all.

Suddenly, a shout bubbled out of her throat. She threw her head back and screamed her joy out to the world, startling Irene.

The young metahuman turned around, looking at her in bewilderment. Then at her old, useless body.

Basil was too focused on saving that worthless piece of meat.

That worthless, broken, tainted, changed hull…

A hull that was still alive. Breathing. Feeling.

She could feel some of her old pain, as if through a kind of misty lens.

I’m asleep. And this… this is a dream.

She looked down at her perfect body.

Ah. Aha. Ha. Hahaha.

She’d gotten her wish. Her feet had risen a few inches off the floor.

Glimmers of golden and silver light formed around them, merging into… into boots. Greaves.

Golden and silver glimmers formed gathered around her, forming into gilded armor. Even a helmet that closed around her head, but did not obscur her vision nor her hearing.

Haha.

She held a spear, taller even than her new body, and a big round shield, both golden in her hands.

Hehehe. Everything’s golden, for sure.

She looked at the body on the bed. it was asleep, still. Basil was looking at her, his face hidden behind his mask.

Haha. I got it. I got it.

She was whole, and strong, and free, and healthy.

Except not.

Her laughter shook the room.

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B005.5 They Called Us Mad!

December 31st, 1899

St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital was always rather empty around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, even in a city the size of Lennston. In fact, they had grown so used to not having much to do during that time that they were just giving most of their staff off for the holidays, retaining only a skeleton crew.

Another reason for this was that the hospital had fallen on some pretty hard times, with funding being cut and people in general preferring private practices, mostly due to various superstitions about the inefficiency of hospitals and the impersonal treatment. The fact that the local medical university was top-notch and produced an abundance of private doctors who were all too willing to make house-calls at any time didn’t help.

What this meant was that, twenty-one minutes before New Year’s Eve, during one of the worst snowstorms in recent memory, when most of the world was celebrating the beginning of the new century, there were only one doctor and two nurses in the emergency unit. The doctor, a portly man in his early fifties named Quentin Tressman, was there because he had a wife and three children to support, as well as a mistress and an illegitimate child, and the hospital paid a little extra for the holiday time. The older nurse, Anna Smithens, a matronly woman, didn’t have any family left, nor any real friends she cared enough about to spend the holidays with, so she opted for the holiday shift – it was highly unlikely she’d have to do much, anyway. The younger one, Estephania McSmithee (Steph to her few friends) – the similarity of their names had been noted and abused for cheap jokes since the first time they had met – was just twenty-one and also had no family save for a father she didn’t want to ever see again. She’d also decided to try and befriend Anna, wanting to alleviate the older woman’s loneliness.

So they sat behind the counter at the entry to the empty hospital – there were, literally, no other people there except for Jake the Janitor, a reed-thin old man in a janitor’s suit who’d joined them for a New Year’s drink.

And then someone barged into the room. Several someones. The four hospital workers jumped off their seats, except for Jake, who always said that getting too excited had never helped anyone, and so he finished his drink before turning to look.

Two men had barged in, different as night and day, each carrying a woman in their arms.

The first man in was the kind of person they often got here, if they got any patients at all – a working class man, probably from the settlements immediately around the hospital. Early thirties, short, heavy-set, not really attractive nor ugly, close-cropped brown hair and a dirty blue overall. Steph recognized him as Michael Whitaker, the mechanic who always fixed up her shoddy car for half the price anyone else set. In his arms, he carried a rather young woman, no more than nineteen, with dirty blonde hair and a figure that needed a few extra pounds, dressed in an old creme-colored nightgown. His wife Diana, Steph knew.

The second man, only Jake recognized (he was old, and he got around a lot), though all of them could see that he was not part of their usual clientele. Abraham Franz-Frederick Goldschmidt was, without much doubt, the patriarch of the oldest and richest family of Lennston, a city with a lot of old rich families. He was dressed in a formerly immaculate three-piece suit that was worth more than all four of them made in a year, probably. Tall, slender and hook-nosed, with naturally tan skin and neatly parted black hair, he looked the very opposite of Michael. His wife Jennifer, too, could not have been more different from the young Diana – she was very nearly the same age, maybe one or two years older, but where Diana was bright and sunny, she was dark and sultry, dressed in an expensive evening dress that had seen better days.

Both women were heavily pregnant, their faces strained and red, making the reason for the panicked expressions of their husbands very clear.

The next few minutes were a haze of hasty explanations and hurried movements. The husbands were panicked, afraid for their wives and unborn children, as both of them were racked with pain (also, over the last few months, there had been a disproportionate amount of deaths during childbirth). Since the Goldschmidt’s house doctor hadn’t shown up – probably got stuck somewhere in the snowstorm – and the Whitakers didn’t have the money to pay a private doctor, they’d both come here in a hurry. Unfortunately, they’d gotten very worked up, which didn’t help the mental state of their wives, who were barely coherent at this point. Doctor Tressman had never before assisted during childbirth and had to act purely out of theoretical knowledge, and he was already imagining the kind of lawsuits a man like Goldschmidt could bring down on him. Anna was just concerned for the young mothers, remembering the three children of her own she’d all lost to complications during childbirth. Steph was just afraid she might not be able to help them. Only Jake remained calm, mostly because he knew he couldn’t do much anyway, other than offer words of encouragement. And he never got excited, anyway.

For convenience’s sake, they put both women into the same room and began their work, while Jake sat with the husbands, trying to calm them.

* * *

January 1st, 1900

On the very eve of the new century, two healthy young children were born.

A boy, already dark and with a decidedly sultry look on his hook-nosed face that spoke of future troubles with self-restraint. He had his mother’s amber-coloured eyes, and his father’s thin lips and too-big nose, that made him look like the baby-hawk to his father’s papa-hawk. And he was even as agitated as his father, crying and screaming for all his little lungs were worth.

And a girl, bright and curly-haired, with her father’s bright blue eyes and her mother’s blonde hair. What struck the onlookers the most wasn’t however her cute looks, but rather the fact that she wasn’t crying – she just quietly let Nurse Smithens wash her and give her to her mother for nursing.

Their parents named them Ismael Franz-Peter Goldschmidt and Gwen Diana Whitaker, respectively.

Then, however, it turned out that there was only one crib around to put the children in, and since the mothers needed to rest and the fathers were not trusted by the women present to keep their cool and let the children rest, they were put into the same crib while Jake ran off to procure a second crib (he always knew where to find anything).

When he returned, however, it was unanimously decided that separating the two had to count as a capital offense. Quiet little Gwen had almost immediately calmed down the little Ismael, and the two of them ended up holding hands and fall asleep.

Jake predicted that the two of them would become inseparable as they grew up, and everyone agreed with him, swept up in the emotions of the occasion.

* * *

Sometimes, great people witness little events. And sometimes, little people witness great events. Most of the time, you can’t really tell which one is big and which one is small, but they all have their own stories, even if they’re absorbed into a larger narrative.

Quentin Tressman went on working at the St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital, as it was granted a second spring by Abraham Goldschmidt, who donated a very generous sum to the hospital his first son had been born in (and in which all of his later children would be born in). The doctor finally came clean with his wife about his mistress and the daughter he’d had with her. After a few years that nearly ended with a divorce – which, at the time, would have been beyond scandalous, and likely have ended his career – she forgave him and even raised the girl as her own after her mother passed away in an accident. Quentin himself, while never becoming a star doctor or anything, became a local fixture, a reliable, dedicated man of medicine. More than three hundred people came to his funeral when he died peacefully at the age of seventy-nine.

Estephania McSmithee succeeded in her goal of befriending the older Anna Smithens, and even found herself a loving husband. Even though they never quite made enough money to live without worry, they held on to their little slice of happiness, and she gave birth to two children. Anna Smithens spent a lot of time with her younger co-worker, and when she died in nineteen-o-nine, she named Estephania as her only heir. To Steph’s and her husband’s surprise, Anna turned out to be the last scion of one of Lennston’s oldest and richest families, and they never had to worry about money again. Instead, the Widard family became another one of Lennston’s fixtures.

As for Jake the Janitor, after working in the hospital for five more years, he retired from it, but ended up hired by Goldschmidt to work as a gardener at his mansion, after the previous one passed away. He later went on to… well, that is a story for another day.

* * *

True to Jake’s prophecy, the two children became inseparable. Their parents, especially their fathers, became fast friends, despite the disparity between their social and economical status. In fact, Goldschmidt and Whitaker became a well-known duo around the city’s pubs, as they drank and performed – they were both passionate hobby-musicians – their way through the city, if they didn’t just brag about their children.

The two mothers didn’t become quite as close, though they often met for tea or coffee, mostly while their children played with each other. Though they did make a point of attending each other’s birthday celebrations, as well as those of their children.

Gwen and Ismael – or Petey, as only she was allowed to call him – grew up together, spending more time together than apart. At first, it was simply because of their shared birth and their parents’ sentiment. But soon, as it became clear that something was off about them – they learned to speak their first words months before they learned to walk, and little Gwen even learned how to recognize a few simple written words before her second birthday, closesly followed by Ismael – they found themselves unable to really appreciate other children their age as friends, and thus grew closer still.

Their families watched in awe as the two seemed to grow smarter every day, learning to talk and write at an almost adult level by the age of four. They seemed to soak up knowledge the way other children soaked up attention, and Michael often joked that he would have gone bankrupt if he’d had to pay his daughter’s teachers (and books) all by himself.

Unfortunately for everyone, the two seemed determined to use their intelligence to cause their families and teachers as much of a headache as possible, frequently breaking out of their rooms to meet up even when their parents wanted to keep them at their respective homes, or to go exploring, which often ended in total chaos.

And that was before they started spending their free time playing heroes.

* * *

December 11th, 1913

I was cursing and cussing as I left the auditorium with Gwen right behind me. “This is just pathetic!”

“Petey, please, calm down,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, as it usually was. Not that I ever had trouble understanding her. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.

“But they’re just… we’re right, and they know it! They just don’t want to admit that two children are smarter than all of them put together and cubed!” I threw my arms up in exasparation, almost throwing the folder I’d been carrying . In fact, I felt like punching something. A lot. Preferably something with headshots glued on of all those stuffy, idiotic, self-centered, moronic…

Gwen hugged me from behind, immediately dissolving the anger. She’d always been able to calm me down, no matter what mood I was in. My parents said she’d done that the very first time we’d been together in our crib.

“They’ll come around,” she whispered. “You just need to keep on going, and they won’t have a choice other than to accept our work, ne?”

“And in the meantime, people die! Adults and children! Just because no one wants to admit that two children came up with it before anyone else did!”

“Shshsh.” She rested her forehead against my shoulder. Damn, I hated when she did this. And loved it, too. Mind Control. Definitely mind control. She’s been conditioning me since birth.

“I feel like eating. A lot. Are you in the mood for Greek food?” Food always helped stave off indignation at human idiocy.

“Always. You know I love it, ne?”

I threw the damn folder into a trashcan. Just a stupid little fungus. So many lives it could save…

* * *

Petey and Gwen had always been brave, even reckless in their little adventures, to the point where their parents fully expected themselves to die of heart attacks before their children grew up.

At first, it started with them going into the forest to explore it, hunting and catching animals to study them, even some dangerous ones. Or getting them used to the two of them over days and weeks, so they could observe them during their natural day-to-day business.

Things got more extreme from then on, with them even breaking into buildings like the library or the university for various reasons.

At age seven, they ran into a burning building together, saving two little toddlers from a fiery death. They were grounded for four weeks (not that that stopped them from doing whatever they wanted) and got a medal each, as well as a pair of firemen helmets they’d wear from then on whenever they went on an adventure together.

Over the next year, they found five lost children, uncovered a drug dealer ring, caught a serial murderer and wrote a collection of poems that became quite popular all across America.

They never slowed down, only increasing their newsworthy actions year after year, until, to their parents collective relief, they decided to focus on scientific research instead of playing detective or firefighter (not that they stopped doing that, they just didn’t seek it out anymore).

Unfortunately, they weren’t quite taken seriously, at least in the beginning. This caused a lot of damage, in hindsight, even if they managed to work through their colleagues’ prejudices by the time they turned fifteen.

In 1915, when World War I had just entered into its most gruesome phase, Ismael entered the army, lying about his age (he was very tall for his age and had a very adult face, anyway), and shipped off to the front. As did a young, very effeminate looking boy named Oliver Polliver, aged 18 (though he looked like he was fourteen at best, he had all the documentation required).

The two of them racked up two medals of honour each, as well as at least three of each military honor the Allied forces had to offer – until 1917, a year before the end of the war, when Oliver was wounded during battle and revealed to be a young girl. The two of them were sent back to America immediately.

While they could neither be convicted (they were both still minors) nor be denied their military honors, and most of the public admired them for their deeds, many also did not take kindly to their actions, especially Gwen’s participation in the war as a combatant. No small number of ‘concerned citizens’ demanded that they be put into mental institutions, and most of Lennston’s upper crust demanded that Ismael be kept apart from the ‘bad influence’ that was Gwen Whitaker (in truth, they hoped to free him up for one of their daughters instead of the daughter of a mechanic he was so very obviously in love with).

To avoid further scandal (and keep their children safe), their families made them promise to return to their research and focus on it in full.

In hindsight, it might have been better to send them off to the war again…

* * *

17:13 – December 31st, 1922

This is going to be the best birthday, ever. And nothing would spoil that, I told myself.

I was standing in my room in front of the mirror, a small box in my hand that felt like it was made of lead. I felt like hiding it away.

So stupid. I know she’s going to say yes. So why am I getting to nervous?

I opened the box, looking at my mother’s engagement ring. She’d given it to me two years ago, just a month before she passed away. It was made of pure gold, fashioned like roses that wound around each other into the form of a ring, with a ruby, an emerald and a sapphire held in between the winding stems.

It was really, really easy to imagine it on Gwen’s ring finger. I had toyed with the thought of taking it to the best goldsmith I knew – that being me – to make it smaller, so it would fit her thin fingers. Two reasons I had left it as it was. One, It would have felt wrong to change it away from the form it had when father had proposed to mother and two, it might encourage her to eat more and finally put on some of the weight she needed.

Gwen had always been too thin for my taste. I mean, my taste pretty much was Gwen, but I’d have preferred her to have a healthier weight.

“Come on, Ismael. You fought your way across half of Europe with her. You’ve literally spent your whole life with her. Why is it so hard to ask her this one stupid question!?

She lived in my house – she only had a room at her parent’s place for form’s sake, really. Neither of us had ever had any doubt about where we wanted to take our relationship. Really, it was only a formality. We’d done everything a married couple did, and more, I just haven’t asked her yet, damn it!

It was ridiculous that we were almost twenty-three and I still hadn’t asked for her hand in marriage. One of the many aunts I didn’t care about had warned me against it, since our children wouldn’t be Jewish then, but who cares?

You’re wasting time. Intentionally. Go and ask her, you idiot!

* * *

17:19 – December 31st, 1922

She said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes!

* * *

18:20 – December 31st, 1922

We’d shared some pretty intense, long kisses before, but never one that went on for an entire hour without any interruption.

Damn that fucking pet of hers for breaking that vase. I’d strangle it if she didn’t love it so much.

But now it was – she said yes, she said yes! – time to finally get on with the machine. Finish it. The plan was to finally prove our theory on New Year’s Eve, the moment of our birth.

Twenty-two years. Twenty-two years times two, but really one. And now, today, we would finally do what we were always meant to do. We will change this world together forever. And no one will ever laugh at us again.

We’d constructed the machine underneath my family’s mansion. My mansion. Ever since father’s death a year ago – he hadn’t taken mother’s death well, not even with Uncle Michael’s help – I’d been the owner. Most of the staff was gone, since Gwen and I lived mostly by ourselves and didn’t socialize much. Too many stigmata on us, especially her. And I refused to accept guests who looked down on her. Only her, and me, and Jake ‘I’m still the Janitor’, the crazy old man who had been there at our birth and would probably be there when we died of old age, as well. He pretty much took care of the entire mansion and the surrounding lands himself, only hiring outside help every now and then for the stuff he simply couldn’t do himself anymore.

Anyway, as much as my parents’ deaths had hit me – without Gwen, I probably would have gone insane and done something stupid like try and bring them back to life – it had provided us with a remote, secure and discreet research facility. Gwen wasn’t worried about spies and thieves, but I still couldn’t forgive that asshole who fished my folder out of the trashcan and sold my invention for his own, all those years ago.

I’m petty like that.

Now I was connecting the final high power cables to the core of the machine, the human-sized doorway without a door.

Another invention that could already have changed the world, I thought as I checked the batteries over. We’d charged them using Tesla’s bladeless turbines. The entire mansion was completely independent from the outside, electrically. We had a big waterfall right underneath the cliff it stood upon. The turbine was only now getting the attention it deserved, even though Tesla had invented it an entire decade ago, and our batteries were still not being accepted. Not due to any problems with the technology. But because we had invented them. And I was too proud to pass them to someone else to publish the technology, damn me.

All will change after tonight. No one would just ignore us anymore. No more demeaning articles about Gwen in the newspaper, trying to smudge her achievements.

* * *

23:57 – December 31st, 1922

“Everything’s ready,” I said to Gwen. Not that it was necessary.

“Yes. Finally…” She wasn’t looking at the machine, but at the ring I’d given her. Good God, even in a simple labcoat, she made me crazy just by looking at her.

“Gwen?”

“Yes, Petey?”

“The machine?”

She blushed, moving her hand behind her back. “Yes, of course, it’s all ready. I checked everything, three times.”

I nodded.

“It’s time.” Finally.

“It’s time, ne?” she agreed. “But Jake’s refused to leave the mansion. What if-“

“Nothing will go wrong. Even if I‘d made a mistake, your calculations are always flawless. And even if there was a chance, we have no right to deny him his place here. No one has shown us more support than he has.”

She nodded, her bright blond hair briefly obscuring her face from me. When she looked up again, she was smiling, her eyes bright with that spark that always made my knees weak.

“Let’s do it. Let’s open the door.”

I pulled the first two levers and the machine began to wind up. “Let’s open it. Together.”

I took her hand and put it on the third and final lever, putting my own over it.

“Gwen?”

She looked at me, her face just inches from mine. “Yes, Petey?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

We pulled the lever down. And we opened the door to our dreams.

* * *

00:00 – January 1st, 1923; “Point Zero”

As pure white light flooded the room, we both broke out in laughter. It was beautiful.

And they called us mad! Those fools!