A week after the nine had heard out Monica Jansen, each taken a copy of her business card, and left the Parma Station, they found themselves once more all together. They were sitting in a dingy and small restaurant and bar, crowded around three tables that had been pushed together to accommodate them all. It had been chosen due to its complete lack of customers at that time of night combined with its curiously unquestioning owner. The grey-eyed, middle-aged woman that was watching the news on an ancient television behind the counter seemed completely unconcerned if her patrons were talking about sports, tv, or the super-natural.
The nine were considerably more talkative than they had been the night they’d met. They were chatting awkwardly, about the most normal and innocuous things that they could think up. It was clear from their conversations that they were struggling to find shared interests or experiences that they could spin out into sustainable conversations. There was more than a few awkward pauses, and a few were guilty of blankly staring at another conversation to find a topic they could interject with.
Eventually, the small conversations petered out all at once, as they sometimes do. There was the barest hint of tension, of apprehension as some of the figures cast sideway glances at each other, as if wondering if it was time to go. Then one of the nine, a young woman, leant forward, smiled with half her mouth, and said, ‘So, I’m sure you’re all wondering why I called you here today.’
As she spoke, an even younger man, his acne showing that he was still a teenager, snorted with laughter and quickly cut himself off, before glancing around the room to see if anyone had noticed.
The young woman seemed pleased with this reaction, but before she could go on an older man, the oldest in the room, spoke.
‘Cut the bullshit,’ his words were gruff and sharp, ‘A: We know why we’re here, and B: I’m pretty sure that whatever you suggest is going to be pointless.’
‘I would loathe to tell anyone else their business,’ said a colossally huge man, ‘But perhaps it would be more prudent to allow the young woman to voice her concerns before we dismiss them?’
The old man crossed his arms, and scowled at the ceiling, while the big man turned to the young woman and said, ‘You were saying?’
Throughout the exchange, she had barely reacted. She was shorter than average, with a colossal amount of dark, curly hair, streaked with vivid purple. Her over-large, dark eyes had been glancing from the other faces, to the door of the room, to her drink, and back again the whole time, but her smile hadn’t once faltered. She smiled at them all now.
‘Jokes aside, it’s damn obvious why we’re here,’ she said, ‘It’s been a week since the accident, and none of those spooks we were picked up by are any closer to working out what’s happened,’ she leaned forward, conspiratorially ‘I reckon, it’s time us freaks got off our asses and tried to figure it out.’
At the word ‘freaks’, a ripple went through the room. Some scowled, some actually flinched, and one or two’s expressions completely froze as they tried to keep a poker face.
A handsome man covered in intricate, swirling tattoos, was the only one to chuckle pleasantly. ‘I don’t know about the rest of you, but I take umbrage at the word “freaks”. I believe that I’d prefer if we called ourselves “eccentrics” or “avant-gardes” or something of that flavour.’
‘I think you can call us whatever you want,’ said a well-dressed, miserable looking man who up until this moment had been silent, ‘But it doesn’t change what we are.’
‘We cannot change what has happened,’ said a tiny, middle-aged woman, ‘But I would be very interested in finding out who is responsible for what has been done to us and having them answer for it,’ she turned sweet eyes with small crow’s feet at their edges on the young woman and said, ‘Which is what you were saying, I think.’
‘Me too,’ said the young man with the acne before the young woman could speak, ‘I mean, well, I think we should, you know, we should…’ the attention of every figure around the table was now focused on the young man, ‘Erm, well, I mean, Ayesha, you were explaining it better.’
The young woman, Ayesha, grinned from ear-to-ear, and shook her head. ‘Nah, Luis, you’ve got the floor. Tell them the plan.’
Luis looked for a second like he would rather die then go on talking with so many people watching him, but he went on, keeping eye-contact with a knot on the wooden table, ‘Well, erm, okay. So, I think that the only way, or the best way, for us to work out what happened is to work together. So, I was thinking, maybe we should, you know,’ Luis looked as if he was embarrassed to even think what he was thinking, but he redoubled his focus on the knot in the wood, ‘I think we should… be a team,’ only then did he have the confidence to look up and glance at the collective eyes still watching him, ‘Like a superhero team.’
‘Well done Luis, good job selling them on it,’ said Ayesha, ‘I think we can all agree that this is probably the best idea any of us have ever heard. Am I right?’
‘What the Hell do you mean, a “superhero” team?’ said the older man.
‘Yeah,’ said the man in the suit, ‘I’m confused. Are you saying we should fight crime on the streets or something?’
‘No,’ said Luis, ‘Well, maybe, like, if we see any going on, but,’ Luis collected himself, ‘Look, the accident happened, and we all emerged on the other side of it different, right?’
There was a mummer of agreement from around the table.
‘Right, so, we got these, you know, abilities and stuff,’
‘Careful Luis,’ said Ayesha, grinning, ‘You might be making the gaining of superpowers that most people can only dream of sound slightly too exciting.’
Luis smiled, sheepishly, ‘Okay, so we got superpowers, but… I also know that some of us lost things,’ after saying this, Luis had to stop his hand, which had subconsciously reached up to scratch his head beneath the beanie that he was wearing.
There was another murmur of ascent from around the table. This time somewhat more sympathetic than the last one.
‘And we all know that whoever, or whatever gave us these abilities also made us…’ he paused for a long while, ‘Do things. Things we didn’t want to do.’
There was no murmur this time. Only a hard silence.
‘I think,’ said Luis, building up speed again and looking less sheepish, ‘That if we work together, and, you know, pool our resources, we can work out what happened. We can beat this, we can find out who did it, and once we do…’ Luis relaxed slightly, letting the anger that had creeped into his voice dissipate, ‘We can make sure that they never do anything like it again.’
There was a long silence after this, as each of the nine thought about what it meant.
‘So,’ said Ayesha, ‘I’ve already picked out super-hero names for each of you, and I’ve been working on your costumes, natch.’ Ayesha indicated the big man, ‘Your costume might need letting out a bit, gonna be honest, hard to get measurements.’
There was an appreciative ripple of laughter as the tension in the room dissipated a little, especially from Luis and the tattooed man. The big man chuckled a little and rolled his eyes.
The older man hadn’t laughed, but he did seem a little less tense. ‘While I think that it’s a lovely idea you two kids have cooked up,’ he said, glancing between Luis and Ayesha, ‘I think that it’s important that we point out all the ways in which it won’t work.’
‘Yeah,’ said the suited man, ‘I think that a lot of things could go wrong here.’
‘You two must be so fun at parties,’ said Ayesha.
‘This isn’t a party,’ said the old man, even harsher than before.
‘Well, not with that attitude.’
‘What we are talking about,’ he said, speaking over Ayesha, ‘Is going after some… thing that we know nothing about, something that can not only,’ he paused for a second and glanced at the ceiling, exasperated, ‘Grant powers, but something that can get inside our heads and force us to commit… And force us to do very bad things.’
Luis deflated a little, but the tattooed man seemed to rile up at this, ‘All I’m hearing from you are arguments for why we should pool our resources. We all of us know very little about what happened and what who is responsible might be capable of. The closer we work together, the more chance we have of working it out.’
‘We can’t be sure that that will be enough,’ said the suited man, ‘It doesn’t matter how many resources we pool if we don’t have any to start with.’
‘Which neatly brings me to problem number two,’ said the older man, ‘I don’t think we’re the only kids on the block.’
‘What do you mean?’ said the man in the suit.
He leaned back in his chair and shrugged, ‘I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Those spooks who took us in for questioning after the event. Did anyone notice anything strange about them?’
The blind man had been following the back and forth patiently for some time. His fingers were steepled on the table before him, and on his lips a smile had been playing as if he was desperately trying to avoid bursting into uproarious laughter. At this point though, he decided to speak. ‘The agents were worried, scared that we were attackers or terrorists. But when the dust had settled they seemed to be extraordinarily unconcerned with the fact that nine people had suddenly developed superpowers, that they had proceeded to go on a killing spree in downtown Manhattan,’ (there was a noticeable in-drawing of breath from some of the nine) ‘and that immediately following this the nine simply turned themselves in for questioning.’ He leaned back in his chair, a pleasant smile on his lips, ‘They even believed us when we told them about being mind-controlled.’
Everyone had turned to face the blind man’s sudden speech, but now that he was finished, they turned back to the older man. ‘I was gonna say that they clearly had a procedure that they had to follow, but yeah, you more or less summed it up. They’ve dealt with this kind of shit before. What does that mean?’
The big man spoke, ‘It means that we have inadvertently stumbled upon a world that we can only speculate as to the workings of,’ he pushed his small spectacles up his nose and turned to the others, ‘There are almost certainly other beings out there like us, perhaps stronger. And in engaging with assisting the agency with the capture of this person who controlled us, we may inevitably come into conflict with one or more of them.’
Ayesha, who’d been getting impatient since the big man had started talking, spoke up, ‘So, to cliff-notes that, we might have to fight a couple of super-villains.’
‘And super-heroes,’ said the suited man, glumly.
‘What?’ snapped Ayesha.
‘Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? Super-people mean some good and some bad. Some of the bad are almost certainly wrapped up in this. I imagine that the good will be with those agents we spoke with,’ he smiled humourlessly at the table, ‘In the real world, vigilantes have to deal with both criminals and the police.’
‘And once again,’ said the older man, sarcastically grinning at the suited one, ‘You have perfectly brought me to my final point. Not only are we proposing hunting a thing we don’t understand, not only are we talking about jumping into a world we know nothing about, we are talking about working together to do it,’ he downed his drink before continuing, ‘And I trust each and every one of you about as far as I can throw you.’
There was a silence from around the room. Luis, with a hurt expression, opened his mouth to break it, but before he could utter a word, he was interrupted by the man in the suit.
‘You don’t trust us?!’ he said, shocked, ‘After what we all went through that night, together, you don’t trust us?’ He was staring the older man dead in the eyes.
For a second, it seemed like the older man would be unable to meet his gaze, but though he looked uncomfortable, he turned his eyes from the table and said directly to the man in the suit ‘No. I don’t trust you,’ he glanced around the table at the others, ‘I know I got my mind controlled, but I have no way of knowing if anyone else in this room did too, or whether they were part of this.’
As the older man’s reasoning set in, there was a collective quietness from the table, and a gentle shifting of seats. Ayesha and the big man looked like they were on the verge of bolting for the exits. The tattooed man had cast his gaze downwards towards the table. The smile lingered on the face of the blind man, but the humour had been pulled from it. Suspicion reigned for a moment. The only two who could meet the eyes of the others was Luis and the man in the suit. Their eyes met.
‘Okay,’ said Luis, addressing the table, ’So, trust is an issue. I guess, yeah, that kinda makes sense. I mean, we did kinda all say that we all got mind-controlled. Two weeks ago, if somebody told me that they got mind-controlled in order to do messed-up stuff, I wouldn’t have believed them either,’ he then turned to address the older man specifically, ‘But that was before I got mind-controlled! If you felt that thing controlling you too, why would you think that we didn’t?’
‘Because I have no reason to trust any of you. Two weeks ago, I didn’t know any of you people. Now, all I know about you is that you were given super-powers at the same time I was, and that you claim that you have no control over the stuff we did. I have no trust in you, and I have anti-trust in Stevie Wonder over there with his shit-eating grin,’ here he indicated the blind man, who was now smiling openly.
‘Harsh,’ said Ayesha.
‘Low-hanging fruit,’ said the blind man.
The older man turned now towards Luis, ‘There’s no reason to trust anyone in this room, kid.’
‘I find myself curious of something,’ said the older woman to the man, ‘I understand your concerns with trusting us. But what precisely is your alternative? That we are to go home and patiently await a response from the authorities concerning our powers and actions? Are we to ignore the very real possibility that without discovering who or what did this to us, we may be held accountable for what happened?’ Her face was warm and pleasant, but the nut-brown eyes that she turned on the older man were surprisingly piercing.
The older man seemed ruffled by this, ‘Are you asking me if I believe that we should obey the authorities instructions when they barely trust us as is? Yeah, maybe that could be a good idea.’
‘I am inclined to agree,’ said the huge man, ‘We don’t know enough about each other to unite against Parma.’
‘Likewise,’ said the tattooed man, ‘The professor makes a strong case. There’s just too much we don’t understand.’
‘I trust you all,’ said the suited man, ‘But if you all don’t trust me, then we can’t work together.’
The older woman shrugged, ‘I don’t like taking no action, but I’m not sure that this “team” is the action that we should be taking.’
‘I’m planning on doing something in any case,’ said the blind man, ‘But I work better alone.’
‘Right,’ said the older man, the professor, pointing at the blind man, ‘Setting aside how creepy that statement was and how much it supports my “He’s clearly behind it all” theory, I think that settles it. If we were a team, I like to think that we would act democratically, and democratically that’s more than half of us who want to split. So even if we had a team, we would just split up the team.’
‘Excuse me,’ said the blind man, raising a finger, ‘But one of our number hasn’t spoken yet. If we were a team, then I think that everyone should have a chance to speak.’
As one, they all turned to the tall blonde woman who had yet to open her mouth. While the others had been arguing and talking back and forth, she had remained entirely silent. Her expression had been practically blank as she watched whoever was talking, quietly absorbing what had been said. Now that their attention was on her, she looked as if the characters in a film she’d been watching had suddenly addressed her by name.
‘What?’ she said.
‘We are quite interested,’ said the huge man, ‘In hearing what it is that you have to say concerning our plan.’
‘Concerning the plan,’ she said, ‘I don’t know, really. I don’t have anything to add.’
‘It’s fine if you don’t want to add anything,’ said the older woman, her voice softening slightly, ‘But if you don’t voice any thoughts now, there may not be a better time to.’
The tall woman paused for a second, her eyes moving as if they were pulling together thoughts into coherence, ‘Well, I don’t know. It sounds like a good idea because we could work together, but it might not work because of the trust thing…’ Her voice started quiet, and as she continued it faded into almost complete silence.
Ayesha nodded, ‘Real insightful. Well worth the wait.’ She brushed her fingers through her mass of hair, and turned the motion into a cat-like stretch. ‘So that’s it then,’ she said, ‘Nobody’s sold on the Ayesha and the Freaks team? Because I’d be willing to change the name.’
‘I suppose not,’ said the big man, ‘Too many potential issues, and not nearly enough collaborative spirit to overcome them.’
‘I.E., we don’t like each other,’ said the professor.
‘Well, we tried,’ said Ayesha, ‘Anyone want to split a bowl of chips before we leave?’
‘Wait!’ said Luis. Since he’d last spoken, he’d been glancing at the others with a growing expression of horror, but had found himself unable to speak. He’d let Ayesha defend his plan for a while, but now that she too had abandoned the idea, he found himself unable to stay silent. ‘I know we don’t trust each other, and that we don’t know what’s going on, but we can’t just abandon each other! We need-‘
‘Yes we can,’ said the professor, standing up with some difficulty as he got his walking stick under him, ‘And I’m gonna leave now, because I feel that you’re about to try and bring us all together with a rousing speech, and I’ve just eaten.’
The professor standing seemed to have broken a spell that they had kept them seated. The nine shifted and began to stand.
‘A week!’ said Luis, his eyes turning slightly glassy, ‘Give it a week! We’ll meet back up again here a week later and if you all still feel the same, then we don’t have to do it.’
‘Yeah, nice try, kid,’ said the professor, ‘But it’s a logical fallacy that giving people time to think about a problem will bring them around to your side. Nothing’s going to change the fact that I don’t trust you assholes.’
‘Even setting aside the professor’s attitude,’ said the man in the suit, ‘What I’ve seen from you all hasn’t made me want to stay. I don’t feel comfortable with any of this, and I want out.’
‘I’m sorry, Luis,’ said the older woman, putting a small pale hand on his, ‘But I don’t think it’s going to work. There’s just too much that can go wrong.’
One by one, they made their excuses and filed out of the bar, lost into the darkness and cold of the alley outside.
Eventually, only Ayesha and Luis were left sitting in the bar.
‘Well, we tried,’ she said, ‘But they aren’t coming back.’
‘They’ll come back,’ said Luis, with more steel in his voice than he’d had all evening, ‘They have to.’