The clear glass elevator slides into the top of the Tower. I actually count two floors of offices that flash past us before it slows to a stop and the doors chime open. Sergeant Grim Goatee gestures—I guess I should be glad he doesn’t actually push me—and we step out.
I’m expecting some sort of otherworldly environment of harsh whites and steels, or wood paneling or something, but actually it’s just glass panels everywhere, with people sitting at plastic pre-fab desks. The computer hardware looks pretty nice, and it seems everyone at this level has their own office, but there’s not a lot of fancy stuff. It’s very minimalist and not even fancy minimalist. Almost disappointingly mundane. I guess they spend all their money on those fancy guns.
Wolfe walks straight towards the frosted glass room at the back. The big guy in the blue pinstripe suit is sitting at a desk just in front of the double doors, tapping on a laptop. I wonder how his big hands even fit on the keys. He nods as we approach.
“We’ll be using the teleconference room,” Wolfe says, not even breaking stride as she pushes through the double doors.
I follow, a bit confused. “I’m sorry … teleconference?”
Wolfe’s jaw is twitching all over the place. “Special Agent Cross of the FBI’s Mass Shootings unit, who’s been working with the Pittsburgh police regarding the incident at your school somehow …”—this last word comes out with particular venom—“received a tip that our department might be able to put him in touch with Gareth Dickson, reportedly a material witness in the shooting, without whose vital testimony alleged shooter J’son Baker is likely to go free.” She lets out a huff. “Politiciking bastard,” she mutters. “UN top secret facility, but some senator makes promises about ‘justice for the lost’ and suddenly, never mind security protocols!”
“J’son?” I ask, following Wolfe into a muted room just off the glass-and-metal executive office. “Testimony? What about?”
“I imagine they’ll tell you. Just answer their questions as honestly as you can, without giving them any information about your time here.” She glares at me. “If I so much as suspect you of hinting about this place or its location, I will cut off the feed.”
“Why? Could they do something?”
“Of course not.” She gestures me to a chair at the end of a long table. “The video is going to be on that screen,” she says, pointing. “I’ll be at the control console on the left. You have half an hour—no more. Understand?”
But she’s gone. The screen at the front of the room is coming to life, showing a heavy-faced middle-aged man in a suit with a nametag I can’t read.
“About time,” he says. He peers at me. “Hm. Well, you match the description all right. Suppose I’ll have to work with that. UN will count as a registered entity. Now before we begin, you must know that this call is being recorded and may be entered as evidence in court proceedings. Any false evidence will be regarded as a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Understand?”
I feel inclined to laugh—five years in prison sounds like a good break—but the way Wolfe is looking at me clearly shows that would be the wrong choice. “I understand,” I say.
“Very well.” The heavyset man nods. “This is Special Agent Cross, beginning video interrogation 4.39. Please state your name for the record.”
I guess they want the legal name. “Chad Gareth Dickson.”
“Noted. Beginning interview.” He makes a small note on the packet in front of him. “Were you a former student at Andrea Dworkim Academy?”
“And were you present on the day of the shooting: October 15th of this year?”
He nods in a satisfied manner. “I understand you have a short amount of time, Mr. Dickson, so we’ll keep this limited to a very few questions. Firstly, can you identify this person?”
The screen pitches around, and I find myself looking straight at J’son.
It’s … something of a shock. His braided hair is shaved off; he’s in an orange jumpsuit; all his earrings and noserings are gone. He looks … small. Vulnerable. His jaw also has a lot of stuff wrapped around it. Shit. Is he still healing from that?
“Uh …” I realize I’m supposed to say something. “Yeah.” There’s a frog in my throat, and I cough to clear it. “Yeah. That’s J’son.”
Agent Cross looks at me, and I get they must want the full name. “J’son Baker.”
J’son raises his head to look at me with slight interest. He cocks his head on one side.
“Is this the man you subdued on the day of the shooting?” the detective’s voice asks.
“All right. Secondly, please describe how you subdued him.”
I cough. “My girlfriend and I were hiding in the closet. He started to come in, so I grabbed the gun and pulled it away. He had a pistol, so we fought over that, and he bit down on my hand. When I pulled loose, I ripped his jaw off.”
“Ripped his jaw off.” The detective sounds tired. “You sure you want to go with that?”
“It’s what happened.”
“Fine, fine. What else?”
“I managed to get control of the pistol. I stood up and pointed it at him, telling him not to move. Then the cops showed up.”
The events sound simple, bald, stated like that. The frenetic adrenaline is only a memory.
“Thank you, sir.” The detective turns the screen back around to face him. “Anything further to add to the record?” I see Wolfe’s hand reaching for the remote.
“Hang on.” J’son’s voice, a strange buzz, as if he’s talking through his teeth, echoes from the speaker. “I want to talk to him.”
Agent Cross frowns at him offscreen. “Two months of stonewalling, and suddenly you want to talk,” he says.
“Two months of you begging me to talk, and suddenly you’re not going to let me?” J’son says. “I want to talk to him. You can be in the room, leave the thing on record. I don’t care. I want to talk to him.”
I’m not sure what to think.
Wolfe steps in front of the screen. “This was not part of the arrangement,” she says.
“The arrangement was that I get half an hour with your little inmate,” Agent Cross says. “We never discussed who else might be in the conversation with me.” He looks back, off-screen, at J’son. “Okay, Baker. You’ve got ten minutes.”
The screen turns around, and I see J’son in the orange jumpsuit. “Sup, dickhead.” J’son can’t exactly smirk, with his jaw wired like that, but his eyes convey it anyway.
“Hey.” I find myself grinning. Feels just like old times.
“Who was that bitch?” J’son asks. Wolfe’s now back by the podium, her finger firmly on the remote.
“Just some lady,” I say. “What’s up?”
“In prison. Taking food through a tube these days.” It’s creepy, watching his lips play around his fused jaw. “Guess I should be glad I’m not shitting through a tube.”
“I didn’t think I hit you that hard.”
“What the hell are you apologizing for? I tried to shoot you.”
“Well … yeah, but …”
We were friends.
It doesn’t make sense to put it like that. He tried to kill me; I was defending myself. And thinking back, J’son wasn’t a great friend. Just the best I had at the time.
“Forget it,” I say. “You knew it was us, then? In the closet?”
“Yeah.” He chuckles. “You were, like, the tallest white kid at school, bro. I saw you turn the corner when I came up the stairs. Taking hostages from the supply closet was part of the plan anyway. Figured I’d get someone to get the teachers to open up their classrooms.”
“Shit, J’son,” I say. I thought I knew this guy. “That’s messed up.”
He looks away. “I’d already started shooting. Only thing to do at that point was to commit to it. Go big or go home. You don’t wanna be the line item about the kid who only killed four of his classmates. These days, you need more than four, or even ten, if you want people to remember you.”
I have to take a moment.
“Remember you? That … that’s what this is about?”
“Whole point of doing it at school, right?” J’son shrugs. “So everyone knows who’s hunting them down. Hell, if you’re going to shoot someone, you might as well know them.”
I can’t stop staring.
“I kind of hated you, honestly,” J’son says, softly.
The words are shards in my brain. I knew, sort of, or at least I’ve come to realize this since going to camp and getting real friends. But hearing it … “Why?”
“Everything was about you. The teachers always paid you special attention, the principal let you get away with everything. You had all this money even though you and your Mom never worked.”
“Your parents gave you a fifty-dollar allowance!”
“Did you know we had to fill out questionnaires on you? It was a monthly thing. Everyone at school had to fill out a sheet about whether you’d done anything weird lately. No-one would even tell us what ‘weird’ was supposed to mean. Shoot. Forget me. Everybody at school hated you.”
The words gather weight, sinking in my stomach like lead balls. I knew it, I knew it.… Freaking shit, Chad. You didn’t know anything. You seriously going to listen to what this asshole shooter has to say? How the hell does he know what ‘everyone’ thought?
But the other part of my brain is already listing examples of all the times I felt certain I was being slighted for reasons I didn’t understand. Every time people fell silent when I walked up, or when they started laughing the minute I walked away. The two kids who “play-punched” me in the cafeteria, and all the kids who blamed me for punching them back.
I knew it.
“But they barely remember you, now.” He manages a smile around his fused jaw. “They remember me. I’m a fucking legend. Made a name for myself.”
That’s pretty much it. The video chat ends. Wolfe tells me I’ve been suspended blah, blah, blah. Down the elevator, out the door.
Campus is bare. Don’t know why. Don’t really care. I can’t exactly visit the rec room or the weight room, and just the thought of going back to the dorm to get spied on rubs me the wrong way.
I pack snow together in the drifts, then roll it through the snow. It builds, getting bigger and bigger. I make a couple others. I stack them on top of each other.
I punch the top globe as hard as I can. White powder explodes everywhere. I turn and see Val watching me.
“What?” It comes out a bit shorter than I mean it to.
She turns around and walks off.
I jog after her. “Sorry. Is everything okay?”
“Did you have any trouble getting back from base?”
“No,” she says. I think she’s walking faster.
Fuck this. “Look, would you just stop for a minute? What is this? Is this still something with that thing earlier or …”
“Shut up.” I’m stopped in my tracks as she whirls around. “Stop it, okay!? Just stop it.”
“Stop what?” I ask.
She turns around in a huff.
“What did I do?” I say, taking a step after her. “Hey, stop already! Just tell me! What did I do? What do you want from me? What the fuck is the matter with—”
A hand clamps on my shoulder, and I turn around to see Jackhammer’s unfriendly mug.
“The lady says you should stop,” he says. “I think you should stop.”
Oh, hell, would I love to punch this guy right now.
But I don’t. The necklace is burning against my skin. So I shrug his hand off, and I look after Val (she’s already disappeared somewhere). “I was just asking her some questions,” I say to Jackhammer. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Fuck off.” His gaze is even. “She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“The hell do you know? She—” I catch what I’m saying and reign myself in. “I’m out of here,” I announce and turn to leave. If Val wants to be all mysteriously angry, fine. She can go fuck herself for all I care. Jackhammer too. Everybody today. Fuck them all.
I see more people now, leaving the school buildings. Must be lunch. Fuck them. I turn and walk in the opposite direction.
The library is a weirder sort of empty during lunch. Like an unnatural pocket of time, where no-one should be here. I don’t want to sit. I want to move, but I don’t want to leave. I pace in tight, angry laps around the bookshelves until I start to gasp, then collapse on the cold floor, leaning on the cold shelves.
“Clearly, something is wrong.”
I look up to see Doc Schaefer. “You seem to be having some trouble with the amulet.” He points to it.
I look down. Somewhere in my angry pacing, my coat’s come loose, and the amulet can be seen resting on my bare skin. It’s glowing and white-hot, with angry red vein marks spreading out from where it’s resting.
“This thing stopped me, didn’t it?” I say, grabbing it. “That’s why I couldn’t punch the one guy.”
“If the man was a human … then yes, the laws of arms prohibited—”
“Well, fuck that.” I snatch it off my neck and throw it at him. He catches it without looking. “You can take it back. I don’t want the thing.”
He just looks at me. “Then what do you want, Mr. Dickson?”
I nearly explode, and I feel bad about this. It’s unfair, and nothing about my situation is in any way Doc’s fault, but it’s been A. Long. Day. “I just want to sit, okay? I just want to sit and be left alone. Is that okay? Can I do that?”
He blinks at me, but he doesn’t move. Somehow that makes me just want to keep going with my rant.
“Look,” I say. “Maybe you can find me a book on how not to piss off Wolfe? Or how to understand girls? Or maybe just a single book about how I can get people to leave me the fuck alone?”
His eyes are fixed on me, his face calm. “Well at present, you don’t seem like someone who should be left alone.”
I scream in frustration and slam my head against the bookcase, shaking a few books loose. For a moment, I just sit there, breathing hard. Doc bends down and starts to pick up the books.
“What … is everyone’s problem, anyway?” I say, once I trust myself to speak. “Why me? What did I do? I saved people! That’s all I did! I stopped my best friend from shooting everyone, and apparently, the reward I get is for everybody to think I’m a born killer. I …” Something’s in my throat. I swallow. “I try and I try and I try, and all I keep hearing is how terrible I am and how much everyone hates me and how dangerous I must be. So if I’m so fucking dangerous, how come everybody feels so fucking comfortable fucking pushing me around all the fucking time?”
“Did you just discover the word ‘fucking’, or did you just decide you’re going to start using it a lot more for dramatic effect?” Doc says, turning over a book in his hands.
“Maybe! I don’t know!” I throw up my hands. “People used to tell me nobody’d respect someone who swore like that, but they don’t seem to respect me as is, so why not? Seriously, what is the problem? What did I do to deserve this? Everyone hates me, and I. don’t. understand. why!?”
There’s water in my eyes. I don’t remember crying. Maybe it just collects there when you’re a certain level of angry. “Everybody keeps telling me what I’m doing wrong …” I rub my face with my hand in a furious effort to clear my eyes. “But I ask them what I’m supposed to do right and it just … apparently, I’m supposed to magically know that already. Or feel it, anyway. Deep down inside.”
“Hm.” Doc nods, but his face is unreadable. “I’ve never understood what they mean by that.”
I can’t help it. I laugh. It’s not a happy laugh, but it’s something.
“The inside of one’s heart is no place to look for advice,” Doc says softly. “It changes too much. What the heart wants to do it may regret the next. One needs a plan—to guide during weaker moments. This …” he says, tapping the necklace against the bookcase, “… isn’t some sort of customizable fashion accessory, you understand. You can’t just follow a Code whenever it’s convenient.”
I try to care about what he’s saying, but again, long day. “You made that one,” I say. “Not my fault if it’s not very good.”
“It’s not very compatible,” he says. “That’s the problem. One of your friends would barely be able to use it at all. I thought you …” He sighs and doesn’t finish his sentence.
I feel oddly ashamed.
Getting up, he reaches over to one of the high shelves and takes out a leather-bound notepad. “Well, something temporary, perhaps. Only good for a few weeks, at best, but …” He takes a silver pen out of the spine. “Better than nothing.”
I look at him as he tears off a sheet from the notepad. “I don’t want another … wait. You can make more of those super-mystical Code things? With just an index card?”
“Not exactly an index card. This parchment is made from Nephilic skin, and the ink made from a mixture of yew ash and blood.”
I look at the card. “Oh. Um. That’s kinda… metal, I guess.”
“It also must follow a particular formula and be careful to avoid contradictions.” Doc shows me the card, which looks covered in the same Greek-ish runes I saw on the amulet. He starts writing on the notepad. “Shall we start with honesty? Does that, at least, seem like a virtue you could aspire to with enthusiasm?”
My eyes are still a bit watery. “Just give me a blank one. I don’t need any of these behavioral mods. What does honesty or anything have to do with this?”
“Everything,” he says, pausing in his writing. “The bounds for your behavior determine where your power flows, where it’s focused. When drafting a new one like this …” he says, tapping the notepad, “we usually try and focus on what the person’s most deeply held belief is: the thing they most want to use their power for.”
“Like … deep down inside?”
“As I said, I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps, though … what should be deep down inside?”
That, at least, I know. “Loyalty,” I say. “Friendship.” I think for a moment longer. “And Love.”