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Just a Phase

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(Thursday, January 13 2011)

 

In movies and books, moving to a new city and starting a new life was often depicted as exciting and liberating.

If only reality was like that.

I had long since tuned out the discussion my dad was having with Director Armstrong while they signed paperwork.  Gauss watched me with a worried frown on her face, which I had also ignored.  The Director, to his credit, had asked me my opinion of this whole process when we started, but then predictably ignored it and started helping my dad fill out the paperwork.

Dad, also predictably, didn’t listen at all.

Every time he flipped a sheet over it was like someone took a razor to my ears.  I had made it perfectly clear that this was unnecessary, that I didn’t want to associate with the PRT, and that I didn’t want to be abandoned in a far-off city to mollify his twisted fear of me getting hurt.  It wasn’t even about my safety, I had realized — it was entirely that he didn’t want to go through the pain of losing me.

So, despite my pointed insistence to the contrary, I was about to become the newest member of the Boston Wards.  Dad initially wanted me to become a Ward in Brockton Bay, but I told him flat-out that I would rather take my chances with the gangs than spend another minute in the presence of those two sociopaths.  Everything at school suddenly made sense after my disastrous meet and greet with the Wards.

Of course, Piggot had been more interested in telling dad nice things about Boston, ‘just an hour away,’ instead of acknowledging any of my complaints beyond ‘we will investigate.’ At least the PRT covered the hospital bills.

And as the final fuck-you cherry on top of the shitshow sundae my life had become, dad was technically giving up legal guardianship of me to the state.  I didn’t know if he asked for that or if the PRT twisted his arm somehow, but I suspected that in his haste to ‘protect’ me, he didn’t grasp all of the implications.  At the very least, it would make it easier to never talk to him again.

My soul-searching was cut off when I saw dad take the packet and flip it closed.  He had a relieved smile on his face, and Armstrong was telling him various comforting words that I didn’t believe in the slightest.  Gauss was giving me a hopeful smile, which I returned with a flat glare.  “Well, congratulations, Taylor!” she said cheerily.

I rolled my eyes.  “Just show me to my room.”

I stood up and started for the door, but dad intercepted me.  “Taylor…” he began.  He opened his arms awkwardly to give me a hug.

My angry glare stopped him short.  “Mom would be ashamed of you,” I said, voice arctic.  Then I activated my power and stepped through him.  I ignored his pained whine from behind me and strode down the hallway towards the elevator.

Gauss caught up with me just as the doors were able to close.  She dashed into the elevator using her power, and I mashed the door closed button several times.

“I understand that you’re upset,” she began.

“Were you even listening at the beginning of that meeting?” I snapped.  “Two Wards from back home tormented me for two years, culminating in my trigger event.  The school administration didn’t listen to me during the bullying, the PRT didn’t listen when I told them about the locker, my dad didn’t listen when I told him I didn’t want to be here.  And now you and the Director are two more links in a chain of people that don’t give a shit about me.”

Gauss rolled back on her heels slightly.  She was tall, considerably taller than me, so her slight sway was very noticeable.  “I think if you give us a chance—”

“I did.  Two years of chances,” I spat.  “For that, I got to spend hours trapped in a tiny box filled with rotting tampons.”

The Protectorate hero must have realized that I wasn’t going to talk more, because she didn’t try to draw me back into conversation.  Instead, she fiddled with a manilla folder in her other hand that held my keycard, orientation packet, and a few other odds and ends.  I had left it intentionally on the table in a fit of pettiness, but the irritating Protectorate member was too observant to leave it behind.

Part of my mind was cataloging and assessing the building as we walked through the spacious hallways.  Unlike back home, the Boston Protectorate building housed the Wards, as opposed to the PRT HQ across the street.  The Protectorate building was only seven stories, with the Wards common room and quarters on the third floor.  The nearest elevator to the conference room we had been using was on the opposite end of the building, so we had to walk a bit.

Gauss gave a short description of how to work the door mechanism, and I nodded dully in response.  Her lips twisted in worry again, but I ignored it as much as I ignored all of the other faux-concern that permeated the PRT.  Thirty seconds later the mask-up timer dinged, and I walked into the room that was my prison for the next two and a half years.

In retrospect, I should have expected a meet-and-greet. I still flinched when I saw them standing there and staring at me, memories flooding back about what happened the last time I did this.

“Hello, Wards,” Gauss said excitedly.  “I’d like to introduce you to your new teammate!”  She went to nudge me forward, but I let her hand pass through me harmlessly.  When she looked down in surprise, I glared at her through my domino mask.

I intentionally let the silence drag on.  “What’s your name?” Weld asked politely.  Armstrong had told me about him.

“Her temporary name is Phase,” Gauss replied.

“And teammate is a strong word,” I replied, continuing to glare at Gauss.  “I read my damn contract and the rules on the train down here.  You can’t force me to go through power testing.  But until I go through power testing, I’m only a Ward on paper.  No costume, no name, no patrols, nothing.  You can’t even make me do PR events, thanks to Youth Guard regulations.”

Gauss turned to me in shock, and I addressed the seven actual Wards.  “I’m not here to be a hero, or to learn about my powers, or whatever else bullshit the recruiters say.  I’m here because there's not a single other person in my life that gives a damn about what I want.  I fully intend to try to live my life pretending that this entire nightmare didn’t happen.”  I snatched my folder from Gauss’s limp hand.  “Now, where’s my room?”

Weld blinked a few times, confusion writ large on his face.  “Uh, that hallway,” he said, pointing.

I ignored the room full of concerned expressions and strode in the indicated direction.  The common room, at least as far as my quick glance showed, was pretty nice.  Couches, computers, bookshelves, a nice sound system, and a small kitchenette actually made the space seem livable.  Too livable, I realized — at least some of the other Wards must be effectively entrapped here like I was.  Probably the Case 53s, if I understood their situation correctly.

My earlier soul-searching returned with a vengeance now that I was finally alone.  Like all kids, I had dreamed about getting powers as long as I could remember.  In fact, up until my own trigger event, I was a bit of a cape geek.  I didn’t obsess over PHO or stalk my favorite capes, but I did enjoying learning about them and their powers.  Brockton Bay was renowned for its high cape density, and there was always something interesting going on in the local cape scene.

All of that enthusiasm had died as soon as I got my own powers.  I didn’t even know the names or powers of most of my teammates.  The only notable cape I knew about in Boston was the Butcher (she had made the news recently for killing the old Butcher and moving back north), and I sincerely doubted any information about her would ever be relevant.

I found my room easily enough.  The dormitories were clustered against one corner of the building, connected by an L-shaped hallway to the common room on the other corner.  The corner room was marked ‘Weld,’ which I guess made sense if he was the leader.  Mine was three doors down, next to ‘Flechette.’  There was an unused room on the other side.  Doors for bathrooms were obviously marked on the interior of the L.

A tired sigh escaped my lips when I fished out my card and let myself into my room.  Everything was new or like-new: the large bed in the corner, bookshelf, desk, and cabinets were all sparkling clean.  A fancy desktop computer sat on the desk, which made me smile slightly when I remembered the crap internet I had back in Brockton Bay.  The heavy-duty window let in the rapidly-dimming sunlight reflected by the city.

I pulled the door shut behind me and locked it, then flopped down onto the bed and started sobbing into my pillow.

Some indeterminate amount of time passed before someone knocked at my door.  I ignored that, along with the three additional attempts.  At some point, I knew that my suitcase full of clothes would be brought up, but I wasn’t in any rush to unpack.  Instead, I just stared up at the ceiling and let my mind wander.

To my moderate horror, my bed was close enough to Flechette’s room that my limited clairvoyance started to leak over.  I didn’t really need to know all of the things she kept on her desk or about the pictures on her walls, but my power told me about everything in a roughly eight foot radius around me.  I did my best to keep it clamped down during the day, but when relaxing it was easier to just see everything than ignore it.

This was… a problem.  I fully intended to keep all of the details about my power under wraps, given how strong I suspected it was, and asking to be moved down one room would probably require some explanation.  I had tried to be as careful as possible and not accidentally reveal the rather potent precognitive side of my powers, which hopefully meant that Weld didn’t know either.

On the flip side, I was going to spend more than half of my time over the next three years holed up in this room and probably relaxing on this bed.  I was quite certain that the PRT couldn’t compel me to do power testing, and that was necessary for everything else.  Patrols, PR, costume, reveal — all of it, legally, was supposed to happen only after power testing.

But, legally, Sophia and Emma should have been kicked out of the program years ago.  And once the PRT understood the implications of my powers, they would probably be tripping over themselves to get me into their labs.

Fuck.  Should I trust the system that had thoroughly and repeatedly screwed me over, or risk revealing something that I didn’t want to reveal?

Flechette herself entered her room while I was deliberating, and my need to fix this jumped immediately.  At my furthest extension, I could see her walk around near her desk and clothes cabinet.  I could practically guarantee that I was going to see something that I shouldn’t.

I sighed heavily and sat up from my bed.  I guess I would have to tell someone after all.

In a fit of terrible timing, Flechette exited her room at the same time I exited my own.  She turned and gave me a hopeful smile, then looked down in shock.  “Your, uh,” she said.

Oh, it was my luggage.  Instead of stepping over or around it, I had simply phased through it.

I gave her a flat look.  “I need to change rooms.”

“Oh?” she asked, curious instead of accusatory.  “Why?”

“Um, it’s a problem with my power.”

“Woah, really?  Like what?”

I grabbed my arms with my hands.  “I rather not say.  I, um, can’t share a wall.  With anyone, really.  Who should we talk to?”

She bit her lip, then looked up the hallway towards Weld’s room.  “Let me go ask,” she said, then darted down the hallway.  I didn’t bother following, but I did step out of my luggage and onto the clear floor.

“What’s this issue with your power, Phase?  Problems sharing a wall?”  Weld’s voice was deep and confident, and he gave me a smile as he followed Flechette down the hallway to me.

“Yeah,” I muttered.  “Need to have an open room between us, otherwise I…”

“Otherwise you?” Weld asked.

I looked around nervously.  “I…”  It was hard to describe what the problem was without giving away my power.  Weld had what was probably a comforting expression if not for the frown, and Flechette was obviously worried.  “Nevermind,” I muttered.  “I’ll just sleep on the opposite wall.”

I turned back to my door, but Weld spoke up.  “No, wait, Phase, it’s okay.  I understand that you don’t want to tell us about your power, but even if I disagree with that, you don’t deserve to be uncomfortable.”

“They probably can’t fix it until tomorrow,” Flechette said.  “I am staying here tonight, like usual when we have a patrol that ends late.  But it’s ok, I’ll just sleep on the couch.  Would that fix it?”  That wasn’t the greatest solution, but it would suffice for tonight.  I would just have to keep my senses clamped down until she was done in her room.

It took me a moment to realize I was staring at them.  I blinked a few times, then pushed my door open.  “Yeah, that would be fine.  Uh, thanks.”

Flechette gave me a sad smile.  “No problem,” she said. 

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I walked into my room and pulled my luggage in after me.  Right before the door closed, Flechette stuck her head around the corner and said, “Oh, wait!  Have you had dinner yet?”

“I’m not hungry,” I replied.  She made a confused noise, but let me go.  The door closed a moment later.  My response had been partially a lie — I did need to eat, I just wasn’t hungry.  With everything that happened today, I didn’t really want to find out the result of putting food in my none-too-pleased stomach.

My head felt like it was filled with molasses, and I flopped back down onto the bed and stared at the ceiling for a while.  Quiet time came to an end when my new smartphone beeped, apparently indicating a message; it took me a few minutes of fiddling to figure out how to unlock the infernal device and see what had caused the beep.  To my confusion, I had a whole bunch of messages.

The most recent was from some PRT-specific program, letting me know that Gauss was going to come by my room at 8AM sharp to take me to breakfast and continue my orientation.  There were also a slew of text messages from a number I didn’t recognize.  But based on the backhanded apologies and depressed ranting, they were from dad.

I deleted the texts and blocked the number.

This being my first cell phone, I took a moment to look through the programs list and check what else I could do.  Browsing the internet was hilariously fast compared to back home, and I took a moment to poke around on PHO.  My trigger event had not been particularly public, but there was still the chance that someone other than Emma and Sophia had seen me phase out of the locker.  The PRT claimed that they would help cover up for me if that was the case, but I trusted them about as far as I could throw the HQ building.

PHO ceased to interest me a few minutes later, and I went to my luggage to find a set of pajamas and a towel.  I didn’t usually shower before bed, but showers were relaxing and I wanted to get the scents of today out of my hair before I laid down.  Train-smell and Boston-smell would come out pretty easily, but PRT-smell was probably something that would harass me for the rest of my life.

The shower was closer to my end of the hallway than Weld’s, which was nice.  What was nicer were the showers themselves, since they had a seemingly unlimited supply of hot water and were tall enough for me to stand up straight.  After using the generic soap and shampoo, I did my best to relax and enjoy the fact that I wouldn’t need to get out of the shower any time soon.

It was, maybe, the only good thing that had happened all day.  Too bad I spoiled it by spending the entire time replaying the day’s events.

My skin was amazingly pruny by time I decided to finally finish up and head towards bed.  However, when I lifted my towel to dry my face, my nose was filled with the smells of my house back in Brockton Bay.  Of my favorite shampoo, the one mom always recommended.  Of hints of dad’s cologne, and the indefinably ‘my house’ smell that distinguished it from every other house.

I couldn’t help it.  I burst into tears.

“Are you alright in there?” Flechette asked, knocking softly on the external door to the shower room.

“I’m fine!” I snapped around my sobs.  “Just… just leave me alone.”

She must have gotten the message, because by time I got dressed in my pajamas and opened the door, she was gone.  I shook my head in irritation, and I had phased through my door and into my room before I realized that I should have used the scanner.

Eh, whatever.  Lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling of my cage, my brain refused to shut up and let me sleep.  Despite everything, I kept remembering playing heroes with Emma as a kid.  I had always wanted to be a hero when I grew up.

Just not like this.

I didn’t sleep particularly well.