Paolo James Conti
3:35 a.m., Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Everything was swimming in Paolo’s sight as if he was back to before he had eye surgery. He could barely make sense of what was in front of him. Searing spots erupted all over his body. Wounds from earlier torn open? Bullet holes? Or was he just imagining the pain? He stretched out his hands, hoping to reach out to someone…anyone who could help him.
The desperate screams for help, the nonstop gunfire, people clambering over each other, bullets hitting the walls, the floor, flesh…everything rolled into one piercing drone, like a microphone’s feedback that grew louder and louder in his head, gradually clouding his thoughts, muddying what little was left of his consciousness.
He might be screaming too; he wasn’t sure.
He wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
Am I still alive?
Where was Julie?!
I need to protect Julie! he yelled in his head, fearing that he’d forget, fearing that he’d just pass out, unable to do anything. That he’d just die…helpless.
His legs got tangled in the stampede, and he tumbled down. A person on the floor broke his fall. Another dropped on top of him, pushing him against the person beneath him. He felt footsteps on his back, on his face. He was yelling. What was he saying?
“Paolo! Don’t die!”
It wasn’t him who was screaming. It was Julie. He couldn’t scream, he couldn’t move from the pain.
“Pino! Help him, please!”
Paolo felt a tug on his back. Someone tried pulling him up by his clothes but couldn’t lift him. Whoever it was decided to drag him across the floor instead. He got shoved into something hard. It felt cold and smooth on his cheeks. Was this the cart? There was something warm too. A body?
(Copy! Copy it!)
“Pino…?” he croaked.
(Copy the body or you’ll die!)
Even though he wasn’t thinking it, his body moved on its own and reached under the blood-soaked linen. His hand clasped another hand. It was still warm, but he couldn’t feel any life from it. He focused on their connection.
This dead person…whoever you are…
(—awake already? Paolo? Just stay down, okay? Don’t move.)
His mouth clamped tight. Huh? Why did I do this? He didn’t think of closing his mouth. He tried to push himself up, away from the overpowering smell of blood on the floor, but another order came into his head to stay still. His body seized up.
Was someone controlling him? He needed to fight it!
(Knock that off!)
(Someone’s controlling me!) No way he was going to let—
(This is Pino, listen to me. Just don’t move.)
He didn’t know what was going on, but he relaxed when he heard her name. Yes, this was Pino; he recognized the ‘sound’ of her thoughts. He was disoriented when he woke up and panicked. Whatever she did before he passed out must’ve worked since he no longer felt any pain. I’m alive! he realized, cheering in his head.
Did she heal him? But he felt different from the time he was healed of his injuries from his gorilla monster form. He strained to recall what happened a few moments ago. His own body provided him the answer—or, to be more accurate, his new body. He must’ve copied someone’s corpse just as he was in front of death’s door. He didn’t know whose body this was, but he felt incredible strength. He wanted to jump for joy that he was alive, and he was sure he could touch the ceiling and even burst through it.
But his happiness was cut short as a morbid thought crept in his euphoric mind.
(Pino, who is this—)
“What do you want? Give me back my daughter!”
(Ha? Hey, what’s going on?) Was that Doms? She sounded really distressed. Did something happen to Lizzie?
Pino didn’t answer his question. (Don’t move no matter what happens), was her reply.
“You dumbass!” said a man. “How did you get caught?”
His voice was familiar. This was Finlay, the leader of the group that attacked at them. But why did it sound like he was somewhere ahead? Paolo was sure he had his back to that Adumbrae because he was running away, not towards them.
“Let her go!” Ramon roared.
“My bad, Calds,” said a man barely able to control his laughter. “He’s just too strong. I have too few puppets with me because Dekano destroyed most of them.” This also sounded like Finlay, but the voice came from somewhere behind Paolo. There were two of them talking? Was he going crazy?
“You already took care of him?” replied the first man who spoke, who must be Calder, the twin brother Finlay mentioned. “Cool. But why did you come here with your real body?”
“Oh, that. This metal woman got a funky eye, so I thought she’d probably notice if I only sent my puppets.”
“Shut up!” Ramon said. “Are you going to give us back Lizzie or not?”
“Please let my daughter go,” pleaded Doms. “I’ll do anything—”
“As I was saying!” Finlay forcefully interjected. “Turns out I was right that she’d notice.”
“And now you’re caught, you dumbass.”
“If you don’t let Lizzie go,” Ramon said. “I’ll—!”
“I…Yes, I’ll kill him!”
“Go ahead. I don’t care about if he dies.”
“Ouch, that hurts. You’re supposed to be my brother. My twin at that.”
“I heard what you said about my outfit.”
“But it’s true. I’m the more fashionable between the two of us. I was only telling the tru—”
“Shut the fuck up!” Ramon yelled in frustration. “I’m not messing around! I’ll really kill him.”
“Don’t you care about your brother?” Doms said. “I also care about my baby, Lizzie. We can exchange…”
Calder laughed. “I’m serious. Go ahead and kill him. We’re both adults and responsible for our decisions. I’m not responsible for his own skin.”
“Harsh but true,” Finlay said.
“My responsibility now is getting Erind. For which, I figured I needed a hostage to exchange for her.”
Can I do something to help? Paolo didn’t know why, but he felt he was invincible. There was just…something…something about this body that he copied that he felt he could take them on. The feeling of power that coursed through his body when he transformed into the gorilla monster, he could feel it now too. If only he could see what was happening, but there were bodies around him.
“Pino, please,” said Doms. “Maybe we can give them Erind.”
“No!” Ramon said. “What are you even saying?”
“If we give them Erind, I can get my baby back.”
“It won’t work like that, lady. You’re a good mother and all, but I’m sorry to say that I’ll be hanging on to your daughter for awhile. We’ll make really good friends.”
“Why? You only want Erind, right?”
“We won’t give them Erind!” Ramon yelled.
“If I release this girl—Lizzie or something, was it?—you’ll just kill us right after.”
“Wha—no! We won’t do that.”
“Don’t take me for an idiot like my brother, lady. Just kidding, Fins. Anyway, that mutant guy with blades you got back there holding my brother can take on both of us. I really need your daughter as hostage.”
“He wants a hostage to make sure he gets away from us safely,” Pino calmly said. “He’s not sure if he could get away with Erind.”
“Exactly,” Calder said. “Firstly, how do I know that’s really Erind you got there with you, all covered up and hidden? Secondly, like you said, I can’t be certain if Erind is hostage material. For all I know, she can beat me up. I do know she’s not human.”
“You do? That’s interesting.”
“Just take me instead!” Doms said. “If you want a hostage, just take me. I’m no threat to you.”
“No, thank you, lady. I’m fine with your daughter. Much safer for me, and more portable too.”
“How about me?” This time it was Julie who spoke. “If you don’t want an adult as hostage, then take me!”
What? No! Paolo wanted to stand up and stop her, but Pino was immediately inside his mind, assuring him they wouldn’t let them take his sister.
“Wow, you make it sound like I’m bullying kids,” said Calder.
“Earrggh!” Ramon screamed.
“He’s going down the stairs! Fuck!”
There were sounds of scuffle. Should he move and see the situation for himself? He knew he copied only a human body, but he felt like he could fight and take on anyone. There was an indescribable feeling of vigor that he wanted to release. Calm down, he told himself. He resolved to trust Pino. She was the reason he and Julie survived this long. (Pino, what was that? What’s going on?)
(Hmmm. Finlay escaped Ramon’s hold.)
“Why did you let him go?” said Samantha. “He shot Gramps!”
“What happened? Where did he go?”
“I…I…I’m sorry,” Ramon mumbled in confusion. “I don’t know…his arm…uh.”
“He was our bargaining chip!”
“Fins just left me?” Calder said. “Real dickhead that brother of mine. Anyway, don’t blame each other. Friends shouldn’t fight amongst themselves.”
“You need to chase him—”
Bang! Paolo instinctively flinched from the sudden gunshot. But he stopped the urge to cover his head with his hands. He hoped Calder didn’t notice his minute movement. It was obviously important for Pino’s plan, that she was yet to share with him, that the enemy didn’t know about him. He didn’t want to mess it up.
“No! No!” Calder said. “No one’s chasing anyone. Everyone one of you stay here! I still have this precious little girl with me, so don’t think of doing anything dumb.”
“We’re wasting time,” Pino said. “You’re just playing around like your brother.”
“Don’t compare me to him. I’m very efficient with my work, mind you. I was even fine to sacrifice him since he was hindering our objectives.”
“Let’s cut to the chase then. Where do we deliver Erind?”
“You’re obviously not going to give us Lizzie until you feel safe. And that’s when you’ve regrouped with your pals or whatever. Go back to your pals now and we’ll go there to exchange Erind with Lizzie.”
“Wa—wait! We’re not going to give them Erind!”
“Ramon, let me handle this. You already messed up.”
“Discord and mistrust in the group,” Calder said, “I like it.”
“So, where do we deliver Erind? Don’t waste our time, we still have to tend to our casualties. If you insist on staying here, I assure you, you’re not going to get away like your brother. And then we’ll hunt him too.”
Paolo felt a chill up his spine when Pino said that. It was calm and collected, like she was giving a lecture. It didn’t sound like a threat at all, the way she delivered it. But he was convinced she was going to do it.
“Oho! Is that the Adumbrae talking now?”
“I thought you’re supposed to be helping these humans—woah! Don’t point your finger at me!”
“Pino, don’t do it!”
“Fine,” Calder said with a sigh. “You’re no fun.” He gave them instruction how to get to the biggest conference room in the building where he would be waiting with the rest of his group. He did promise to keep Lizzie safe. “You guys are probably going to have an interesting discussion whether to give us Erind or not. Have fun!”
“He’s…also gone.” Vince shook his head as he felt Gregory’s pulse.
“We can’t do anything to save him,” Ramon said.
Both of them moved Gregory’s body beside the corpse of his girlfriend, Aiyani. Benitez was also dead. And so was Samantha’s frail grandfather. Doms and Julie were hugging Samantha, trying to console her.
Paolo didn’t know much about the people who died, he barely talked with any of them. He did feel bad to be relieved he wasn’t one of the dead. For now. Deep down, he knew, he couldn’t escape what fate had in store for him.
A normal guy turning into a girl would find it hilarious, but he couldn’t crack any joke. It wasn’t the situation for one anyway. That dark nagging thought at the back of his mind made his heart sink into the bottom of his stomach.
He stared at his hands.
They were small, and soft, and delicate. But looks could be very deceiving. He held the handle of the cart carrying Erind’s true body and gripped it hard. The metal deformed.
Is this how a Corebring feels? An Adumbrae too, when he thought about it.
“Are we going there now?” Doms said. She armed herself with a gun from one of the clay puppets Ramon destroyed.
“Yes,” Pino said.
Ramon stomped forward and stood in front of the cart. “No! We’re not giving them Erind!”
“They wouldn’t give me Lizzie back otherwise.”
“That’s just giving them another captive. And we don’t know what they can do with the body of a Corebring. We shouldn’t let them—”
“She’s my daughter!” Doms pointed her gun at him. “I’ll do anything to get her back.”
“What? You’re going to shoot me?”
“I don’t want to. Either you come with me and Pino and help get my daughter, or you stay out of our way.”
“You’re trusting her over me?” Ramon pointed at Pino. “I know I messed up and let Finlay escape. I know I look like a monster…heck, I am a monster. But she’s an actual Adumbrae!”
“She’s kept us alive all this time. She healed all our injuries.”
“Didn’t you hear what she said to Calder? She was going to attack him if he didn’t leave, even if he had Lizzie as hostage. Why…why are you trusting her?”
“Actually,” Pino said, “I had to do that...”
“Calder already had Lizzie, but he still wasn’t leaving. Why? Because he wanted to play with us. He and his brother, Finlay, have the same personality. They want to play with people, watch them suffer. Just like Finlay toying with Cassandra, Calder is going to do the same to us.”
“How is that—”
“How? Simple. He’s going to make us decide right then and there whether to give up Erind or not, probably make a game out of it. We’ll surely be divided, and Calder would enjoy seeing us destroy ourselves. If his only intention was to safely escape while having a bargaining chip, he should have scrammed the moment he got Lizzie. You see, he didn’t even want to leave after Finlay escaped."
“That’s…um...” Ramon lowered his blade.
"You fought with him before, but we still have no idea what his powers are. He's too dangerous, I had to drive him away. He won't do anything to Lizzie without an audience, so I'm sure she's safe. And now we're going to save her.”
“But you can’t be serious in giving Erind to them. I’m not going to allow it!”
“I though you already understand that Pino is on our side.”
“I-I mean…be-because…because,” Ramon stammered, “who knows what they’ll do if they have the body of a Corebring?” He said to Pino, “Weren’t you supposed to save her and stop these Adumbrae from experimenting on her? You already saved her! You can’t just give her back to them.”
“We also can't leave my daughter with them.”
Pino held up her hand. “We’re not giving them Erind. And we are getting Lizzie back."
“How will we do that?”
Paolo inhaled deeply, sensing that it was time for him to step forward. He stood up. Julie noticed him. Her face contorted in distress as she realized what he was going to do.
“No!” She rushed to Pino and confronted her. “Did you make him copy Erind to use him as bait?”
“That wasn’t my intention. I made him copy Erind’s powerful body so that he’ll survive. There’s no point making him copy another person just to end up dying again. I wasn’t even expecting him to be able to copy her. Remember that he can only copy corpses, but somehow he was able to copy Erind even though she’s only in hibernation. If he couldn’t copy her, I would’ve made him try…uh…someone else.”
“Cut that out, Jules.”
“I’m not letting you go. You’re the only one I have left.”
“I have to go.”
“You idiot! Didn’t you promise you won’t do anything stupid.”
“I did.” It was weird talking in a girl’s voice. Everything felt surreal, like he was still asleep in his bed. He still couldn't believe everything that happened. Being woken up by a monster Mrs. Parker attacking their dad. Their neighbors dying. The whole building turning into a nightmare. All of this felt like he got sucked into a book, which was funny as he hadn’t read any books for a while because he was preparing for the contest his band would to join next month. He inhaled deeply. “I did promise that.”
“Because this is not anything stupid. We’re going to save Lizzie and we’re going to come back here.” He knelt down and punched the floor. The tiles crumbled, his knuckles buried themselves into the concrete. This was every little boy’s dream, to have super strength. But he didn’t feel any excitement. “There’s nothing to worry about, Jules. I have the body of a Corebring.”
“Ah…You’re going to go no matter what I say?”
“Yes. I promise I’ll be back.”
“Ok.” She turned away from him.
(Pino. I want to ask you something), he said while staring at this sister’s back.
(What is it?)
(When I turn back…when I return to my original body…)
(Uhm…nothing. Never mind.) He didn’t have the heart to finish his question. He knew the answer anyway. Once this transformation ends, he was going to return to his dying body…and die. His injuries were too severe. Pino wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anymore. “Let’s go and save Lizzie!”