Elliot sat in the chair across from me in silence. Dimly, I noticed the chairs were bolted to the floor. I inspected the ground carefully, taking in the smooth stone tiles and the chair legs and even my blazing shoes, anything that wasn’t Elliot.
Elliot was alive. This should be amazing news. I should have been jumping for joy.
But it was all wrong.
“Aspen told me you died.” My voice came out in a hoarse croak.
“Yes, well, the whole world told me you died and yet I held out faith. Maybe it would have done you well to reciprocate the favor.” His voice was clipped, and sarcastic, and wonderfully him.
I wanted to hug him and punch him at the same time, but somehow the tempest cancelled itself out, leaving me numb in my seat.
“What are you doing here, Elliot?”
“Ah. I suppose you mean, why have I betrayed everything we ever worked towards, letting the Council win?” I looked up, surprised. He was smiling.
He cut me off. “Easy. I haven’t.” He opened his arms wide, and I wasn’t sure if he was gesturing at the room or the whole city of Justix. “I’m not part of the Council, Ara.” He grinned. “I am the Council.”
I shook my clouding head, confused.
“I did it! I saved the city. I deposed the Council and took their place, all while leaving the public unaware. No riots, no unrest, a nice, easy change of government.”
I shuddered. Wasn’t it a sign that something was wrong, that people didn’t even know who was leading them? That they couldn’t afford to care, following the laws blindly?
“Isn’t it perfect? Now that you’re back, we can lead together. Justix can be our vision, and with the power you have inside of you, we’ll be unstoppable. We can build an army, we can expand.” Elliot leaned forward on his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. “The whole world is ours for the taking.”
I leaned back.
“I didn’t want the world, Elliot,” I whispered. “I wanted-” What did I want? Revenge? Justice? A city where little girls didn’t lose their fathers?
My best friend back?
“Come on, Sitara.” He never called me that. Never.
“I need to run a few tests on you. Real quick, then we can get back to planning our perfect Justix.”
“Tests?” I didn’t like the sound of that. But it was Elliot. He was always experimenting with something or another, and I’d let him test things on me countless times growing up.
“Remember that little needle I gave you? The one I can only assume you injected yourself with, during the fire.”
“The serum in there was the most genius thing I’ve ever thought of, and that’s saying something. The one I gave you was highly experimental, and I wasn’t quite sure if it would work. All this time, all I could do was wait and hope.” He smiled. “And it worked beautifully. See, I developed the technology to bring you back about seven years ago, but at that point I figured since you were already in there, might as well test another theory of mine. All the experiments I’d run with mice and the like indicated you would be in a dream-like state of subconsciousness, and it wouldn’t matter to you if you stayed there a bit longer.”
I shook my head. It hadn’t been dream-like, I wanted to scream. I’d been torn, awake but asleep, there but not, present but deep in the past.
Elliot kept talking. “-and it appears my theories were correct. After spending longer in the sub-plane than you did in the base plane- I added five years to your seventeen just as a nice neat unit of measurement- you seem to be trying to return to the sub-plane. I’d have to test a few more things to prove it, but what the data is currently showing is a switch of base planes. Which is to say that the sub-plane has become your new base plane, and without a strong dosage to keep you based long enough to switch it back, your body is trying to return there.”
“So what does that mean?” If I was being honest, I wasn’t hearing a word he said. When Elliot got excited about something he was studying, he could talk on for hours uninterrupted.
“It means, we need to give you a heavy dosage of what was in that gas I had administered to you at the memorial to keep you here. Otherwise, you’ll disappear.” He was still smiling. It was disconcertingly normal of him, to talk about something that didn’t warrant a smile while grinning.
“And that’s all you’ll be testing?” My mind was moving too slowly. What had he said about power?
“Well, not all. I have a few more theories-”
“You said I have power?”
“Ah, yes.” Elliot shifted in his seat. “You look like you’re about to pass out. How about we give you your first dosage just to keep you grounded, and then we can talk about my other theories. They’re all very interesting, I promise you-”
“I don’t want your syringes and your tests and your Council! You aren’t you. You’re different.”
“Time changes people, Ara. Are you really trying to tell me you’re the same person you were when we met? Are you still scared and alone, planning to take down a corrupt system with a butter knife?”
“Just come with me. I have a table and tubes all set up, but I don’t want to force you. Let’s do this the nice way, all right?”
“What about my friends?” I felt bad for forgetting about them.
“Your friends?” His voice was ice cold.
“The people on the bus with me. I know you did something with them. The blonde girl with the pink lipstick, the really tall girl with the bob haircut, the guy with the black curls… where are they?”
“Those people aren’t your friends, Ara.” He leaned forward, resting a comforting hand on my shoulder. I shook it off.
“Maybe they aren’t, but I feel responsible for them all the same.”
“Well, they aren’t your problem anymore. They’re taken care of, I promise.”
I frowned. What was I doing? This was Elliot, alive. This was the power to change things in Justix. This was everything I’d ever wanted, wasn’t it?
Was this just like what I’d done with Aspen and Cade? With the orphanage? Was I doomed to always run from the people who loved me and cared for me? Was I so broken from losing my father that I wouldn’t rely on anyone, ever? If so, wasn’t it my responsibility to better myself as a person? Let Elliot fix me, and-
I looked at Elliot, furrowing my brow. He was frowning, frustrated.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Let’s go.” Elliot had always been a fantastic liar, but he used to say he preferred the truth anyways. Now I wasn’t sure how much of anything had been true.
“No. What was that?”
“Ara!” A strangled cry, and another muffled thump, like someone banging on a door. Tari.
“Where are they?”
Elliot looked different than I’d ever seen him. Deadly calm, like the eye of a storm.
“I didn’t want it to come to this.”
My voice spiraled in pitch as his dropped ever lower. “Where are they, Elliot?”
Elliot maintained eye contact, tapping a small device on his ear I hadn’t noticed before. “Bring them in.”
A hidden door, flush with the wall like the doors in the interrogation room, flew open. Six Justix Council Guards filed in, three of them dragging a teenager. They stopped in a line, forcing Tari, Julian, and Ellie to their knees and guns to their heads.
Aaron was still loose, somewhere in the bunker, probably running around the eighth floor. At least he was safe.
There was nothing I could do. I had my knives, and I think Elliot knew that. Still, I could only take out one or two guards before someone got shot.
Unless this was a bluff. But Elliot never bluffed. He never bet unless he was sure he would win. I swallowed. Elliot never bluffed, but maybe I could.
“I don’t care, shoot them.” I forced all the nonchalance I had into the words, cringing internally at my own acting incompetence.
Elliot raised an eyebrow. “So you’re fine if we shoot them? I know you, Sitara, and you’re not fooling anyone.” He paused. “Unless your stay in the sub-plane changed your psyche...” His voice faded off. “This is taking too long. Just come with me and lie down on the lab table, and we can get this all over without anyone getting hurt.”
I glanced over at the prisoners to see Tari exchange glances with Julian and Ellie, and one by one they nodded at her silent question and turned their gaze to me. Finally, Tari met my eyes and nodded, determined.
Dread surged in my stomach. What was going on? If they were planning to try to take down their captors, they were all going to die.
“No!” I cried as they surged to their feet in sync, startling the guards.
“Yes!” Aaron barreled out of the door I’d come through, gun already firing. He hit two guards as I stared in amazement. Where in the world had he learned how to shoot a gun at all, let alone with that much accuracy? But the remaining three guards were starting to shoot, and the time to stare had long passed.
I charged the guards with a knife in each hand. I didn’t want to kill them. I didn’t know their story, and I couldn’t live with taking an innocent life. The small voice in my head asked me if I could live with taking any life at all, but I shooed it off. Hopefully I’d never have to find out.
A knife in the leg of one man and a whack over the head of the other with the hilt of my other knife sent both guards out of commission, hopefully still alive. I was breathing heavily, but Tari and Julian, both still tied up, were struggling against a guard. I ran at him, knives flailing, and after he made a pathetic shot that only barely grazed my arm, he made the smart choice to drop his gun on the floor and raise his hands above his head in surrender.
My breaths heaved in my chest, and I looked around wildly, eyes flitting over the room. Tari and Julian were behind me with the surrendered guard, and the two guards Aaron had shot were lying on the floor in a puddle of blood. I quickly looked away. The guard I’d stabbed had surrendered as well, and Ellie was wrapping his leg. I hadn’t known she knew first aid.
I limped past the man I’d knocked unconscious, my legs growing heavy as the adrenaline pumping through my veins gave way to exhaustion and the pull of Elliot’s other place. I blinked, noticing, in a flash of clarity that came with a corresponding flash of pain, that I wasn’t using my crutches. I was walking on my ankle. I was walking…
The floor rose to meet me, but before everything went dark I heard the traitorous whisper of my nine-year-old self bounce around my mind.
Where was Elliot?