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Gizmo

Midnight Confessions

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As the sun began creeping over the horizon, Trevor Hunter was balanced on the gymnastic equipment on the Claremont campus, one booted foot perched on a balance beam while the other hovered in the air. His shirt hung nearby on a sawhorse next to an empty mug and his fedora as he remained perfectly still for a long moment before abruptly swinging down so that he was hanging upside down on by the same foot, hands shooting forward to grasp the next bean and vault him into an aerial somersault. Inwardly, he kept his mind studiously blank, concentrating solely on the exercise, the sheer physicality helping him achieve a crystalline clarity.

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After checking the garage, the common room, and the cafeteria, Erin finally made her way out to the outdoor gymnastics equipment where Trevor was. He was obviously deeply involved in his exercise, so she didn't disturb him, instead leaning on the sawhorse where he'd draped his shirt and watching. That was no hardship. Trevor looked awfully good with his shirt off these days, especially when he was demonstrating the considerable physical agility that came with all those new muscles. Even with the strangeness of the morning still bothering her, it was nice to take a few minutes and appreciate the view.

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Trevor continued flipping about the equipment until a midair twist brought him into the right alignment to notice Erin down below. With a small smile, he caught the nearest beam, arresting his spin and swinging back and forth for a moment until his momentum had diminished. "Hey," he greeted softly, dropping to the ground lightly and sauntering over. "Morning." Not long ago he would have been considerably more self conscious about being caught in the middle of a training exercise let alone half clothed, but he had to admit there were some nice side benefits to finally filling out his tall frame.

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"Morning," Erin replied, returning the smile, for all hers was a little halfhearted. "Nice form up there. You've been practicing." She scooted over to let him lean against the sawhorse too. "Pretty soon you're gonna have to take it inside if you want to take your shirt off. It's getting cold." That pretty much took care of greetings and the weather, and talking too much more about Trevor's shirtless chest would be weird, so she figured she might as well get down to brass tacks. "Do you have a little bit to talk?" she asked, trying not to let her discomfort show.

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"Oh, heh, yeah," he agreed, retrieving his white t-shirt and pulling it over his head. "Just can't move as well in them as I used to. Grown out of them, I guess." Straightening the top, he gave Erin a look of subdued concern, picking up on her unease immediately. "Of course," he assured her, leaning next to her on the section of the sawhorse she'd vacate. "Is... this a 'we need to talk' talk or...?"

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"No, I mean, I don't think so," Erin said, running a hand over her hair. "I mean... before, when we were working on my truck together, I told you I would tell you about myself, but I needed some more time. Not because I don't trust you or anything like that, but I guess because it was easier just to not think about it, much less talk about it. But going to the evil world, you got a glimpse of what I could've been, and I know there are stories that float around. And some days, like today, I wake up from bad dreams that I can't really tell anybody about because they wouldn't understand, and it seems stupid to be that way. So I thought maybe I should tell you. Um, you know, if you're not busy, and you want to hear about it," she added.

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"Hey," Trevor stopped her, reaching out and placing his hand atop hers. "Want to make this clear, because sometimes we'll be getting shot at or the world's about to explode or a million other things." His tone deadpan and matter-of-fact, he turned so that he could look her straight in the eye, his glossy, black and red orbs intently earnest. "Never too busy for you. Okay?" The corner of his mouth twitched upward reassuringly as he nodded for her to continue.

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"Okay." Erin didn't smile back, she couldn't right now, but she squeezed his fingers and took some comfort from it while she organized the words in her head. "The world I come from used to be a lot like Prime. I mean really like it, so that Doctor Atom thinks it didn't even split off into its own timeline till sometime in the mid 2000s. I lived out in Seattle there, with my mom and dad and my little sister Megan. Everything was pretty normal, you know, the sort of thing you think is horrifically boring when you're growing up that way. I thought so, anyway." She jerked her shoulders in a shrug.

"Anyway, you know how there are flu scares every other winter or so, where there's some new strain that comes out and everyone wants to get a flu shot and the drugstores all run out? That's sort of what happened on my world in 2007, right after I turned 14." Erin looked away from Trevor, staring out over the obstacle course and the running track. "Only it wasn't just a scare, it was the real thing. By the beginning of 2008, so many people were dying all over the place, so many superheroes, and nobody knew what was going on, that everything just shut down. They canceled the school year and closed businesses, and everybody just tried to stay home and not get sick. The flu had a perfect mortality rate, and scientists were estimating that it could kill one out of every three people in the whole world, and maybe more than that. My dad caught it."

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The slight smile slipped from Trevor's face the moment Erin mentioned periodic flu scares. He was intuitive enough to see where she was going with that line of thought, and by the time she mentioned her father, his mouth was slightly ajar in a bleak expression. "I... knew it had to be something like that," he murmured softly, "but I didn't want to dig into it until you were ready to tell me yourself. God." Letting out a long breath, he ran his free hand through his black hair. "Take your time."

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"It's easier to tell it all at once," Erin told him, "rather than in little bits and pieces. This way I only have to work up the nerve once." She took a deep breath and kept going. "He realized he had it, and somehow, I don't know how, he and my mom faked up or bribed their way into passes to travel. The roads were closed, to try and keep it from spreading," she explained. "My mom woke Megan and I up in the middle of the night and made us pack for a trip, just like a week's worth of clothes, some toys and books and stuff. I took along my bear, Megan brought along her stuffed pony and her music box." Trevor had seen Erin's room enough to remember that the bear and the music box, along with a photo of her parents in a cracked frame, held pride of place on her dresser now. "We put our stuff in the car and left in the dark, without the headlights on. I didn't realize until we were actually pulling out of the driveway that I realized Dad wasn't coming. He hadn't told us he was sick," she recalled bleakly. "He just kept away so we wouldn't get it."

Erin rubbed her face with her hand for a minute before continuing. "My mom's uncle Aaron, my sort-of namesake, was this crazy rich inventor guy who lived on this compound, I guess you'd call it, in Northern California. We went to stay with him. He was working on a cure for the flu, but he wasn't part of the big effort because he'd fallen out with the scientific community over some crazy ideas. I don't really know. Anyway, they came out with a vaccine, and started making huge batches of it. Everyone who could help did, even the supervillains. We were all in the same boat, you know? They made hundreds of millions of doses really fast, to try and innoculate everyone at once. It didn't kill the flu, you see, it made the body strong enough long enough to survive it, or that was the idea. Everyone had to get vaccinated, or it wouldn't work. Only Uncle Aaron wouldn't let us get vaccinated, because he said the formula was bad, that it was a killer itself. And he was right, but nobody else saw in time. I was so mad at him," she remembered, her voice poised on the edge of cracking for a moment. "I was sure we were going to get the flu and die when we didn't have to because he was nuts."

She cleared her throat. "Governments all over the world set up vaccination programs, like nothing anybody had ever seen. This was when a lot of the news channels still worked, so we could watch it. It was a huge effort, first they got the essential people, the doctors and nurses, the military, the superheroes who were still alive. The flu hit superheroes really hard and fast," she added. "Then kids, then everybody else. People were fighting to stand in lines that were days long, and something like seven hundred fifty million people got vaccinated in a week. It seemed to work at first, which just made people crazier to get it. People who were in a coma from the flu started getting better. But then everybody realized, pretty much all at once, that when the vaccine made your body stronger, it did it at the expense of the higher brain functions. It would see you brain dead before it would see you get not only the flu, but a cold or an infected scratch. Seven hundred fifty million people had that in them," she repeated softly.

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Trevor's mouth was closed now, compressed into a thin line. His already pale complexion has taken on an ashen whiteness, and while he kept the hand in Erin's light, the other gripped the edge of the sawhorse with long, thin fingers and aching knuckles. He had no idea how to respond, what he could possibly do or say to make her feel better, even as her distraught expression tore at him inside. Ultimately, he could only stand still and silent, listening as he cursed himself for having nothing more to offer.

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She didn't seem to notice that he had no response, caught up in her own memories. "They tried to stop the vaccine program, but it was too late. People who hadn't seen the news or didn't believe it still wanted the vaccine, and the flu was still spreading everywhere. Watching it from the compound was like being on the moon, we saw it all, but none of it reached us, for awhile, anyway. I remember the local station, eventually it was down to the weatherman and one camera guy trying to broadcast the news, but the only news there ever was was that more people were dead. Eventually the cameraman must've gotten sick or killed too, and the last broadcast was just the weatherman sitting at the anchor desk and crying and telling us that the world was ending." She stared down at her hands. "I don't know if maybe it wasn't until then that I realized things weren't ever going to get any better. Not just that they wouldn't be the same, but that we weren't going to grow up. Eventually something was going to get us, like it was getting everyone else." She sighed and deliberately released his fingers before she crushed them, using her hands to scrub her face again.

"And then Uncle Aaron came up with a vaccine," she continued inexorably. "It did the same thing the original vaccine wanted to but better. Or at least it was supposed to. He had to give it to us before he'd tested it," she explained, "because the zombies had caught wind of us. Once the mental functions were gone, all they had was dim memories and the animal drives," she explained. "They were hungry, and they wanted people, and the two urges sort of combined, you know? They killed everyone they found, everywhere they were. And somehow they found their way in our direction, and they were coming, fast. Faster than a person could run. Uncle Aaron gave us all the shot, except Megan, who only got a little. She was only seven." Erin's voice did break there, but she steadied herself and kept going. "It made us all sick. I don't think I've ever been so sick. When the zombies came, we couldn't fight. Mom told me to take Megan and run, so I took her over to the compost heap and we sort of buried ourselves in it. The adults tried to fight them off, but they were way outmatched. I saw the zombies tear her apart, but it was such a mess afterwards that we couldn't tell what bodies were whose. We buried them all in one big grave. I guess the zombies didn't smell us or something, because eventually they went away. They looked like corpses, even though they were supposed to be alive," she remembered. "It was horrible."

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By the time Erin released his hand, Trevor had gone absolutely rigid, concentrating all his energy on processing what Erin was saying. Thin wisps of midnight mist had begun to lift subtly from the fabric oh his shirt, though he managed to keep a full on torrent in check. Dimly he realized that there wasn't anything he could say, and the important thing was to give Erin a chance to tell someone the whole story, to say it all aloud. As horrifying as it all was, as powerless as it made him feel, he resolved to give her that chance.

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Even as absorbed as she was, Erin had to notice Trevor's unease when he began smoking from under his clothes. If he'd asked her to stop she would have, but he didn't, so she kept going. It was almost impossible to stop now, the words coming faster in the rush to just say it all, to just finish and be done with it.

"Megan and I were the only ones who survived the attack, and afterwards, I had the powers I have now, just not as strong back then, not as trained. We were both immune to the flu, but we were the only people for miles and miles. I learned how to drive Uncle Aaron's Jeep because I knew we'd just run out of food if we stayed. I wanted to go to Freedom City. I thought if anyone was still alive and working on a cure, it would be there. I got a map and we packed some supplies and went. There weren't any people anywhere, just zombies. I killed them when we found them, because I was afraid they'd attack Megan. Since I was so much stronger and faster then, it wasn't that hard unless there were a lot of them. She hadn't gotten enough medicine to give her powers, though, and she was so much more fragile than me. I tried to keep her safe. I did everything I knew how to do, but I was careless one day and let her wander off, out of sight. She fell over this little cliff that was hidden by brush. Maybe ten, fifteen feet, but there weren't any doctors. I couldn't do anything for her," Erin flexed her hands, watching her fingers curl and uncurl. "She died two days later, and I buried her by the hospital I'd taken her to. It was full of nothing but zombies.

"After that," she recalled, "I went kind of crazy for awhile. I couldn't handle it anymore, and I snapped. That's got to be when my path and that other Erin's diverged. If I'd been picked up at that point, I'd have been crazy and violent too. I spent months killing every zombie I could find, just wandering from city to city, trying to make some kind of difference, or get some kind of revenge. But after awhile, even that got old, and I started heading for Freedom City again. It was empty except for zombies, but I found Doctor Atom's program there.He helped me put together a machine to signal Prime. It took a month of running around to all these weird places in Freedom City, but we got it put together, and they took me in. Doctor Atom felt guilty because he could've listened to my uncle, but he didn't. So I came to Prime, two years ago last week. I was in quarantine for a couple of months, and then I spent a little while with the version of my family that lives here, but it didn't work out. So I came to Claremont." She took a deep breath and let it out.

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Trevor placed a hand over his eyes, squeezing them tightly closed even as twin stream of inky gas seeped from between his fingers and rose into the early morning sky. Clearing his throat quietly, he lowered the hand, clearly struggling to compose himself. "I..." The youth reconsidered, and was silent again, looking over at the auburn haired girl bleakly. Finally, and very softly, he said, "Thank you for telling me. I didn't... I never... Lord, Erin, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

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Erin watched him, her own face bleak, but calm. Now that the story was told, she felt wrung out and empty, but more okay than she'd expected. "I don't normally tell people," she told him softly. "Nobody knows what to say, and it just makes everything depressing and awkward. Or the really ghoulish ones asked if I ever killed a superhero zombie, or anybody famous. It's a lot easier not to talk about, and it's all behind me anyway"

She leaned back on the sawhorse and looked up to the gradually lightening sky. "But then there are days like today, when I wake up and it's like I can smell zombies in the air, and I realize maybe it isn't as behind me as I need it to be. And I didn't want to be alone with it today. Thank you for listening."

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After another moment's pause, Trevor slid closer to Erin against the sawhorse and rather than trying to drape his arm around her, placed it behind her, resting along the broad beam so that his chest gently nudged her shoulder. There didn't seem to be anything for him to say, and as much as he wanted to hold onto her tightly just then, he knew that would only make him feel better. All he could offer was was his presence and his silent support, hoping that their mutual appreciation for wordless companionship would be enough.

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Erin responded to the silent gesture of support by sighing and resting her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes for a moment. She was alive, and he was alive, and all of the rest of it was in the past. And now Trevor knew the whole sad story, and it hadn't freaked him out or chased him away. He'd cried with her, in his way, and he'd stuck around. That was good. Erin wrapped her arms around his waist and held on.

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Suddenly, up in the sky, there came a great and terrible shriek! Looking upwards, Wander and Midnight saw a huge white shape falling from the sky with tremendous alacrity, some sort of terrible monster bird-thing on its last legs! Just as they saw it, the great object exploded into a gigantic cloud of dust that smelled oddly familiar to Erin as it cascaded down over all of them. But above them now was revealed the monster's tormentor, a very familiar figure in Claremont colors! Over their commlinks came Mark's voice. "Hey guys! Would someone catch me!?! You'll never believe what just happened!!!"

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Looking upward for a moment, Trevor tiled his head back down, covering his eyes with one hand and letting out an exasperated breath. "Dammit, Mark..." The probability controller's timing, as ever, remained extraordinary. Looking over to Erin, the lean young man shrugged apologetically. "You'd better catch him; he... wow, he really got himself pretty high up there this time. Listen, once we're done with whatever this is, if you need to..."

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"It's okay," Erin told Trevor with a little sigh, looking up at the sky, then back at him. "I'm okay for now. But we need to get Mark a parachute for his birthday." With that, she leapt into the air, judging speed and velocity by dead reckoning, and snatched Mark out of the air as neatly as she'd once fielded fly balls from first base, a lifetime ago. "You okay?" she asked the hapless luck controller as they returned to earth in a much more controlled manner.

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"Great, thanks to you!" said Mark. "Thanks, Erin and Trevor! I knew you guys wouldn't let me down: that's why I steered that thing over here." He looked at the two of them, his face curious, then spread his hands. "It was a zombie dragon, if you guys couldn't tell, it burst out of the museum and looked really hostile, so I jumped on its back to get it away and blow it up." He studied the other two before adding, "Look, I'm not sure how to tell you guys this, but I think the dead are rising from their graves with hostile intent. I saw a lot of activity around the cemetaries while we were in the air, and my off-campus alarm kept buzzing for a call-out. It looked pretty rugged, honestly. I...I thought you'd want to know, if you hadn't heard already."

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Sprinting in the same direction Erin had leapt, Trevor managed to catch up as she and Mark came down in a fairly steep arc. At their friend's earnest words there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by the resounding sound of Trevor slapping his palm into his face with a broad grimace. "Dammit, Mark." He turned immediately to Erin without explaining his frustration. "You do not have to be in on this. It's probably just Medea or some other idiot; Mark and I can mop up."

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For a moment, Erin looked as though she'd been slapped in the face, not even remembering to put Mark down for a few seconds. White-faced, she eventually set him down and looked over at Trevor. "I'm on restriction," she murmured. "I can't go out on missions that involve zombies. But if there are enough that I could smell them in the air this morning..." She swallowed and looked at Mark. "How bad are we talking?" she asked. "What kind of undead, and how many, and what are they doing out there?"

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Mark tugged at his collar, feeling uncomfortable for a moment. "Well, uh, I was up really high," he added again, looking from Trevor to Erin, "but it looked like a lot of the cemeteries were waking up. So a few thousand, I guess, with all the old burials around here..." He coughed, and added, "A lot of them are just shambling around, but some of them are hostile. I saw a couple of other heroes blasting a mob that was chasing a crowd of people...I dunno. It wasn't like every grave in the city opening up, and they're not all trying to, you know, do what they do in zombie movies."

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