014.0 Power

Ted farted, again.  His indigestion was killing him, his shoulder hurt and he was stinking up the cabin so bad that his first officer had been making excuses to duck out of it, off and on, for the last hour.  It was like the world was out to make this day as miserable as possible.

He wasn’t even supposed to be working today.  If Turam wasn’t still laid up after that wreck, if some Empowered asshole hadn’t caused a nationwide blackout and thrown the FAA’s schedule into the crapper by crashing half a dozen jets a few weeks back, if some Congressman hadn’t wanted a ‘priority’ flight back to Washington…

Goddamit.  Ted hated flying across the country.  You couldn’t go over the Battlegrounds, some asshole warlord might decide to knock you out of the sky.  That meant you had to cross bug territory.  There were all these fiddling little trade agreements in place, with lots of little clauses and allowances that amounted to “Ted has to fly his plane over the exact route we give him, no matter how damn silly it is, or we’ll shoot him down for no reason, no matter how important his passenger is.”

He didn’t even know why they let the bugs live.  Ted hadn’t met one face to face, but he’d seen them in plenty of movies and he had to talk to one every time a flight took him from coast to coast.  They were creepy, plain and simple.

He farted, so hard it hurt.  Ted was almost grateful, it was enough to distract him from his chest and his shoulder.

At least the flight was almost over.  Just a few more minutes until they were over D.C., where he could get a whole six hours rest before they stuffed him back in another jet to fly who knows where for who knows what goddamn reason.  He sighed.

His chest was really hurting now.  Little dizzy… that… that wasn’t right.  Ted decided he needed help.

He fumbled for the intercom and tried to tell… Lee?  Sanchez?  What was his first officer’s name, he couldn’t- couldn’t…

He stood up to go get help, stumbled a bit as the ground tilted beneath him.  Ted tried to laugh, his gut had caught the stick again.  Good thing Chris had control of the…

He staggered forward, the room getting darker.  God, his chest hurt so bad…  He got the cabin door open.  It stuck at first but he just shoved harder and harder, until he fell through and landed on someone.

It was Mike!  Good old Mike Pelwood, his favorite co-pilot.  Mike’d know what to do.

Lying on top of Mike, Ted farted.  It seemed so silly to him that he couldn’t help but giggle.  Everything was getting all dim and woozy.  The last thing he could make out was someone yelling something about a plane.  It was okay.  Mike could handle it.


Cafeteria

No one had challenged Isaac in three weeks.  At least, no one he hadn’t deliberately goaded into it.  He could see the fear in people’s eyes, in the way they looked away when he was nearby or backed out of his way when he approached.  He hated it and he loved it.  Maybe he hated that he loved it?

Isaac didn’t know how he felt, even Jessica hadn’t been able to help him sort that one out, but he knew it was working.  No one wanted to fight him, not even in the team exercises.  He’d gone up against more than one person that should’ve been able to take him, or at least give him a real challenge, but they’d each hesitated.  Scared of him.  That was enough.  Better yet, he still found it easy to provoke a challenge from whoever his current target was.

There was only one problem.  Isaac’s rank was slipping.  He was almost down to thirty now.  Jenny was the only one who’d beaten him, but since no one wanted to fight him they were just challenging the people right above or right below him.  He didn’t care about the rank in and of itself, but there was a big difference between the top third of the class and the middle ranks.  If his challengers weren’t tough enough, he’d be missing out on valuable experience.

Isaac approached the group of milling trainees, careful to keep the arrogant sneer on his face.  He’d modeled it after Duncan’s and it seemed to do the trick.  A few of them saw him coming.  They got quieter and dropped their eyes.  He reached out to rest his hand on the shoulder of the one he wanted, not squeezing hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to remind the boy that he could if he wanted to.  That probably wouldn’t take much, given the circumstances.

Donny turned around, the little black ball that was never far from his body zipped around in a random pattern.  His face went white as soon as he saw Isaac.

“What- uh, what do you want?” he asked.

Isaac didn’t let his expression change.  He wanted to cheer the kid.  Putting even that little bit of defiance into his voice must’ve been tough, considering what Isaac had done to him in their last match and that he already had a grip on him.

“Your little… ball.” Isaac said, loading his words with scorn.  “Anyone who takes it from you may challenge who they please, correct?”

“Y- yeah.”  The ball swung around behind Donny’s body and out of Issac’s sight.

He kept his grip on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing just a little harder, and raised his other hand palm up.  It took Donny a second to get the point but when he did his eyes went wide.  He started to shake his head and step back but Isaac tightened his grip again.

“Hey, knock it off man.”  It was one of the others.  Kelvin Strong, maybe Kevin?  He’d stepped back in, along with the rest of the group.  “Duncan tried to pull this crap the other day.  If you want the free challenge, just get it the right way.  Instructor Bruce said he wanted Don to practice control and long term use of his power.  We won’t let you cheat by bullying him.”

It was incredible… He counted four other trainees, aside from Don.  Not one of them, not even all of them as a group were a threat to him.  But they were standing up to him, together.  Isaac didn’t say anything, not trusting himself to control his voice.  He just flared his forcefield, enough to make it visible, and squeezed hard enough to make it hurt.

Don gave a little cry of pain.  Isaac could almost literally see the memory of their fight crossing his face.  The black ball fell into his outstretched hand at the same time he saw a glare of green light and registered the impact on his field.  Still calm, the blow had done nothing to him, he let go of the kid and walked away with ball in hand.

Isaac really wished he could have backed down.  That sort of unity was a far cry from the behavior he’d seen earlier in the class.  Even Jenny, probably the best person he’d ever met, had made fun of Jason.  Sure, the guy was a little… odd, but that wasn’t the real issue.  It was his relative weakness.  No surprise that a group of kids just out of high school, proud of their newfound status as Citadel operatives, valued strength so highly.  Now they were rallying around one of their own, not a weak one but definitely weaker than Isaac.

He wanted to smile so much.  Issac had to work to keep the mask of arrogance in place.

There was one thing that was strange.  They said Duncan had tried to do the same thing.  Instructor Bruce had announced that anyone who got the ball of Dust away from Donny could challenge anyone above themselves, regardless of the difference in rank.  Isaac would have to check to be sure, but he thought Duncan was sixth or seventh.  About the only person he couldn’t challenge already was Jenny, maybe Kerry.  No one wanted to fight Kerry and, by now, no one thought they could beat Jenny.  She was just too good.

Duncan using threats of violence to get something he wanted fit his image of the boy, all too well.  Isaac didn’t like the obvious similarity to what he’d just done, but that was the price of the role he’d picked for himself.  But Duncan doing something like that for no real gain? That was another thing entirely…


Sparring Field (Simulation Area)

Kelly blinked as a flash of red light obscured her vision.  When it cleared, she looked around but didn’t see anything different.  The rest of her class was still there, gathered in front of an oversized combat dome.  Coach Achala was in front of them, along with the guest instructor, Retcon.

“No! No, get him away!”

A terror-filled voice cut through the quiet muttering of the crowd.  Was that Kerry?

Kelly made a quick shift, then he used the new height to spot his friend.  She was pushing her way out from the center of the crowd, shoving her larger classmates out of her path if they didn’t move fast enough.  Apparently unsatisfied with her progress, Kerry changed into a dragon.

Kelly didn’t know how much control she had over the dragon forms she changed into.  It was really obvious that it wasn’t always the same one.  Some of them were different colors, usually red or green but sometimes black, and they didn’t always have wings.  They’d had long, snakelike bodies and they’d had squat, broad bodies with heavy scales.  All sorts of shapes, really.  This one… this was the biggest one she’d done yet.

A bunch of the other trainees were knocked aside by it.  She stretched up a good sixty feet, with a short neck and a long, powerful looking tail that was another sixty feet.  There were spikes all down her back and tail.  The scales were jagged, almost barbed.  Every part of her body was black as pitch, with an eerie red light coming from her eyes and open mouth, even from between some of her scales.  It was…

“Awesome.” Jenny whispered.

“Yeah.” Kelly said quietly, nodding in agreement.

The huge beast that Kerry had become still looked frightened.  It was backing away from the crowd of trainees, most of whom were huddled together after she had knocked them down without noticing.  Kerry’s tail was whipping back and forth, really fast for something so big.  Kelly could feel the wind it stirred up as it moved.

“KILL HIM.  YOU- YOU HAVE TO DO IT!  NOW!”  Kerry boomed.

Kelly didn’t know if she was screaming, but there was fear like he’d never imagined he’d ever hear from Kerry.  Heat poured off her, made worse as she spoke.  Keridwyn Dragon reared back, the red light dimming, and Kelly knew what was coming.

He shifted as quickly as he could, into a curving wall large enough to protect his nearest teammates.  If he had the chemical structure right, he should be made out of that Richards made alloy that Bruce had let him sample.  It was supposed to be some of the strongest stuff on the planet.  Hopefully, that’d be enough.

Kelly didn’t have eyes or ears, no way to know what was going on around him.  When he was something like this, just a chunk of metal, he had to work to keep the shape.  How he did that without a brain didn’t make sense to him either, but there it was.  He came out of his state of timeless concentration to find the area around him in chaos.

The dragon was gone, but not without leaving plenty of damage behind.  Half the class was just… gone.  The ground was scorched black.  Most of the survivors were clutching badly burnt limbs.  A few were huddled over their friends, trying to give first aid to… to people that just weren’t coming back.

“Oh god.” he said.  “What… why?”

Isaac wasn’t hurt.  Jason seemed fine.  Hector had been excused from the day’s group training for some reason.  Jenny was standing just behind Kelly.  At least he’d managed to protect someone.

“Who else?” Kelly muttered to himself, looking around while he tried to decide what needed doing.

Coach Achala…  He still had that look on his face, that floating, serene smile.  His face was the only part of him that wasn’t burnt.  The other instructor, Retcon, was-


Sparring Field (Simulation Area)

Kelly blinked as a flash of red light obscured her vision.  When it cleared, she looked around but didn’t see anything different.  The rest of her class was still there, gathered in front of an oversized combat dome.  Coach Achala was in front of them, along with the guest instructor, Retcon.  Something had happened to her.  Her left hand and forelimb were badly burnt, almost down to the bone.

“How-?” Kelly couldn’t stop herself from asking.  It hadn’t been more than a moment.  They were supposed to be starting Coach Achala’s new group training exercise.  “Uh, Coach?” she raised her voice, “What just happened?”

He turned his face towards her, that floating, serene smile in place.  She found it oddly comforting.  “Trainee Protean.  I apologize for the disorientation.  It is a side effect of Operative Retcon’s power.”  He made a small gesture, indicating the woman beside him.  There was something odd about her.  Kelly couldn’t seem to…

“Oh!  She’s hurt.  Should we-”

He gave a little nod.  “Do not trouble yourself, Kelly.  A second Healer has already been summoned and will arrive shortly.” His smile took on a little more focus, became reassuring.  “I assure you, everything is under control now.”

Now?  They’d just been given their instructions for the training. They were supposed to be doing a big free-for-all fight.  One with no restrictions on lethal force because they had a Healer that could fix them up no matter what.  Why couldn’t Kelly…  Oh.  He must’ve- must’ve died and…

Coach Achala gave a little sigh.  “Class, your exercise is complete and you are dismissed for the day.  Challenge matches will be held as normal, tomorrow.  Monday, there will be a special speaker in the morning, so Combat training will be held here at two in the afternoon.”

Kelly gave a shrug, dismissing the odd train of thoughts.  If Coach Achala wasn’t concerned by the strangeness, that was enough for her.  Now where was Jim?  It was burger time.

“Hey Kelly!” her cousin called.  She jogged over.  He was next to Jenny.  “You ready?” he asked.

She just nodded.  Kelly was pretty much always hungry, at least when she had a stomach.

“You still wanna invite Kerry?”

“Nah,” she answered, “she’s cool and all but…”

Jim shrugged.  “No big.  I don’t know why, but I’m feeling like having a dude day.”

Kelly grinned and changed.  “Fine with me.” he said.

“Not to butt in, but if you want a third…” Jenny said.  She had that incredibly cute smile that Kelly always had to fight to avoid copying.  It kept him just distracted enough that he didn’t tell her he wanted to spend time with just his cousin.  “I think Don could use some time in town.  He’s been pretty bummed since he lost his ball.”

“Sure,” Jim said, “works for me.”

“Great!” Jenny said, with a huge smile, “I’ll let him know!”


Munch’s House (of Burgers)

“Did you tell him it was by Proxy?” Jim asked.

Kelly gave him an exasperated stare.  “Yeah, but I don’t think it’ll help much.  Not everyone has your encyclopedic knowledge of all the burger places and comic book stores on the West Coast.  Don called and said he’s running late, so just order him a cheeseburger and fries.”

“No prob.” his cousin said, and left to do just that.

Kelly didn’t bother giving him his own order.  The two had long since developed a routine.  Jim dragged him to whatever restaurant he’d just discovered, ordered whatever he wanted, then got Kelly three of the same thing.  Frankly, Kelly preferred being female when they ate out.  The looks he got when people watched a tiny little blonde girl put away so much food were hilarious.  She usually weighed less than ninety pounds, but it didn’t have anything to do with diet or exercise.

Jim came back, set the little number in the center of their table and slouched into a seat.  There was no other way to describe what he did in a chair.  It wasn’t sitting, just a sort of boneless relaxed… slouch.  “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

Kelly just cocked an eyebrow at him.  Yes!  It’d taken him a week but he had it down now.

“You seeing anyone right now?” Jim asked.  “Because if not… I think that flyer girl has a thing for you.”

Kelly felt himself blush.  “Um, no.  I-” He took a deep breath, then went on.  “Sammy’s sweet, and a really good friend, but she’s not my type.”

Jim’s boneless pose went a little rigid at that.  “I know that tone Kelly.  That’s the ‘You just touched on something serious that I don’t want to talk about’ tone.  You know I’ll get it out of you, so spill.  Is it Dauntless?  You’re one of the only ones who doesn’t walk on eggshells around him.”

Kelly had to stop himself from grimacing at the thought.  “No, Isaac’s my roommate, and I guess he’s kind of my friend, but that’s it.”

Jim was upright in an instant.  “Kelly, he didn’t-”

“No.” Kelly cut him off.  “He’s just been getting on my nerves for a while is all.  I know everyone else thinks he’s some kind of monster, but he’s always been really sweet to me.  He just gets a little overprotective, sometimes.  I try not to hold it against him.  I know he means well and all, but it just gets a little annoying.”

Jim relaxed a bit.  “Good, good.  I- I know you can take care of yourself, but I’ll admit I worried about that.  He- Kelly, it’s not just that people think he’s a bully or something.  The way he acts, some of the stuff he’s pulled in Combat and the challenges…  It’s messed up.  The guy is fucking scary.”

He didn’t try to hide the grimace this time.  “I know.  I’ve seen a few of his fights.  But he… Isaac’s really not like that.  There’s got to be some reason…”  Kelly shook his head, unsure what else to say.  “Back to the topic.  I’m not seeing anyone.”

Now it was Jim’s turn to blush.  “Okay.  This is really personal, and I don’t want to offend you cuz, but I think it’s important so…  Have you gone through puberty yet?”

“I- I, uh” Kelly stammered.  “Um, do you mean as a girl or a boy?” he said, very, very quietly.

“Either, both, I don’t know.” Jim shrugged, but there was nothing casual about the look on his face.

“Not- not technically.”  God this was embarrassing.  Jim didn’t respond, seemingly waiting for more information.  Kelly didn’t really want to tell him, but trusted his judgment enough to do it anyway.  “I, I can give myself breasts or facial hair, all the other little stuff… but I don’t really age.  I mean, every time I shift I’m pretty much making a new body from scratch.  I never tried to include… you know.”

“Kelly, I’m really, really sorry about this.”  Jim looked miserable.  It was almost enough to make Kelly laugh.  “When you’re a guy, do you have balls?  If you stay a girl long enough, do you, uh, you know… bleed?”

“Anyone else would have a tentacle wrapped around their face right now.” Kelly told him calmly.

“Please Kelly.  I’m not… I’m really worried.  That stuff, I know your brain and your mind are sort of… disconnected.  But not totally, right?  That stuff is all tied into hormones and things that, that I don’t think you can really develop right without.  Mentally, I mean.”

Kelly didn’t say anything.

Jim kept going.  “You don’t need to tell me, but if I’m right… I think you should go down to medical.  Maybe they can help you… I don’t know, design your insides better?  Make it so your bodies are… are actually adult instead of just looking that way? Either that, or you need to go through it the hard way.”

Kelly sighed.  “Fine.”  His cousin was right.  He never would have thought about it on his own, but there was something wrong with him.  Not the gender thing, Kelly was perfectly happy the way s/he was in that regard.  But he’d never thought of a guy, or a girl, as cute.  That wasn’t normal at his age.  Well, except for Jenny.  Maybe he was okay after all?  “I’m not sure you’re right, they didn’t say anything during my Empowerment exam, back when I registered, but I was still a kid.  I guess they might have missed it, or maybe I was just too young for it to be an issue at the time.”

Jim grunted, but it was his happy grunt.  “Safer topic now.  Have you heard the rumor about Jason and Jenny?”

Kelly shot him the eyebrow again.  Man that was fun.

“I’ve heard they’re secretly dating.” Jim told him.

“Really?” Kelly tried, but he just couldn’t load the word with enough disdain.

“Yep,” Jim went on, oblivious, “I don’t see it myself but that’s what Kerry’s been saying.  She’s seen him leaving their place a few times, when no one else was there.”

“Jim, it’s none of our business.  Besides, it’s obviously not true.  I live with the guy.  Jason’s… nice.  He’s really polite but… maybe a little distant.  I like him well enough, but Jenny could do better.  There’s nothing there.”

They were interrupted by food.  A middle aged guy, his nametag said Baron, holding a tray loaded down with the food Jim had ordered, to be more precise.

“Here you go boys, enjoy!”  He set a small stack of bills in front of Jim.  “And your refund, sir.”

“My what?” Jim asked.

“Son, Citadel don’t pay for food at my restaurant.”

“Um, no offense or anything, but why not?” Kelly asked.  “And how did you know we’re in the Citadel?”

The man smiled.  “Two guys just out of high school, in ridiculous shape and they order enough food for five people?”  Kelly flushed.  “Also, you paid with a credit card.  Feral isn’t exactly a common last name, even if it wasn’t a Citadel card.”

This time, Jim was the one who blushed.  “Yeah, I guess that’d do it.  Thanks, really, but we’re just trainees, we can’t…”

Mr. Munch, assuming that was really his name, cut him off.  “Yes.  Yes you can.  My sister lives in Vancouver, son.  She wasn’t hurt in the Graviton incident, but she could have been.  I cheered when I heard you guys put him down.  Now,” his face went from genial to adamant in a flash, “you will eat your food.  You will enjoy it.  You will not pay for anything in my restaurant.  Understood?”

“Yes sir.” they both answered.

Pleased, Baron Munch left the table and returned to the register.

“Should we wait for Don?” Kelly asked.  Jim didn’t bother to answer, just stared at the burger that was already half way to Kelly’s mouth.

Before Kelly could take his first bite, a shout cut through the room.

“Nobody move!  This is a stickup!”

“Really, do people actually say that?” he muttered, even as he felt the tingle of changing to his combat form spread across his body.

Jim grabbed his hand.  “Not yet, cuz.”  He nodded to indicate the other diners.  “All it takes is one stray shot.  Let him get the money and we’ll take him out when he’s leaving.  His guard’ll be down.”

The robber, wearing a heavy jacket and a ski mask, moved to the registers.  Along the way, he shouted at anyone nearby, telling them to sit down or shut up.  It really was just like something out of a cheesy TV show.

“Let me hit him first.” Kelly said, as quietly as he could.  “I can use my paralytic, shut him down without putting anyone at risk.”  Jim nodded.

The two cousins watched the robbery unfold.  Most of the crowd were tense, frightened, but they did as they were told.  No one tried to run or tackle the gunman.  Mr. Munch was eerily calm, though he kept shooting Jim and Kelly looks.  He just filled a paper bag with money and handed it over.

Kelly tensed when the masked man snatched the bag, ready to shift and attack.  He never got the chance.

Black spikes struck the man.  One in his gun hand, one in each of his knees and a larger black sphere stuck him low in the back.  A single shot went off.  Kelly leapt out of his seat and hurried to make sure no one had been hit.  The robber was down, no threat to anyone now.

“Guess Don’s here.” Jim said.


Private Residence

Mary relaxed the mental grip she usually had over her power.  She felt it spread, settling over everything in the room.  In short order, she had a working knowledge of every living thing in her reach.  The woman, not sleeping but drugged into unconsciousness, the nervous young man sitting next to his mother and another one, physically almost identical, in the basement.  She ignored Hector and his duplicate, focused on her patient.

Her awareness sank deeper.  The little particles that served to focus her power infiltrated the woman’s bloodstream, her lungs and digestive tract.  No sign of the infection.  She went deeper still, the particles replicating and attaching to individual cells, her knowledge of the woman’s body growing more intimate and more precise.  She started reporting her findings as she went.

“I’m not seeing any indication that Chemo’s poison is still in her system.”

Poison wasn’t quite right.  The dead Empowered had created something that was like a cross between parasite and virus.  Individually small, the particles had used bits of random matter to replicate inside her and, when they encountered nerve tissue, triggered a pain response.  It was eerily similar to the way her own power worked, though more focused.

“I think I’ve gotten it all, but I’d like to monitor her for at least another two weeks, just to be sure.”

Hector gave a great sigh of relief.  “Thank you,” there were tears in his eyes, “thank you so much.”

She nodded brusquely before continuing.  “That said, there will be some complications.”

Mary began focusing on the morphine in her bloodstream.  Without the pain, it would lead to euphoria and possibly addiction.  She set her power to breaking it down.  It shouldn’t be necessary anymore.

“Your mother’s muscles are severely atrophied.  Her weight is too low and…” she hesitated, but Hector leaned forward, eager to hear it regardless.  “There’s one more thing.  Chemo’s power, it left permanent effects.  I can help her with the rest of it, speed up the physical recovery, but… her brain structure has been altered.  Chemo’s power didn’t just trigger her pain receptors, it caused her to grow more.”

Hector didn’t respond at first, thinking it over.  “So you’re saying that… that even without that stuff in her body, she’ll still be in constant pain.”

Mary shook her head.  “No.  More likely she’ll just be very sensitive.  In essence, any injury she has from now on will hurt more than it should.  I can’t exactly quantify it, but it’ll be something on the order of… well, a stubbed toe will feel like a broken bone should.”

“Okay.  That… that’s not good but it’s still better than what she’s lived with so far, right?”  He seemed desperate for reassurance.

She smiled.  “I’d say so.  I might be able to help with that, but I need to talk to her before I go any further.  I can do… do a little with brains, but it’s not completely safe.  The… the pathways the brain uses aren’t identical from person to person.”

“That’s fine.  Even if-” Hector was interrupted by a quiet snore from his mother.  Mary watched the look of wonder spread across his face.  “Mom, mom hasn’t had real sleep in a long time.  I don’t know how to thank you.”

Mary didn’t answer at first.  This wasn’t something she wanted to talk about, but it was something she needed to.  “It’s the least I could do for a friend of Jason’s.  He… never had many, growing up.  It just wasn’t safe.”  She watched Hector carefully, not sure if she was hopeful or afraid of his response.

“I can understand that.  He told me a bit about his Empowerment.  Something that dangerous, in the hands of a child so young… I can see why you’d be nervous about it.”

The boy seemed pragmatic and he was definitely intelligent.  Had he realized the truth?  She didn’t think Jason knew enough to spell it out for him, but he might have told him enough.  “Hector, there’s something I need to ask you about, but first… first I need to know how you feel about Jason.  I know I’m his mother, but please, don’t be polite.  I need a real answer.”

To his credit, Hector took her seriously.  He sat and thought about it for at least a minute before he spoke.  “At first, I didn’t really think about him at all.  Jason comes off as… bland, I guess.  Everything he says in public is polite, and usually fits the situation, but that’s about it.  But after I got to know him a little better, frankly he scared the crap out of me.  I looked him in the eyes.”  He stopped talking and met her gaze.

She nodded.  Mary knew what it meant to look into that darkness.

“After I got my powers, well, I’m almost impossible to kill.  As long as one of me is running around I keep going, you know?” Hector hadn’t been her focus, but she had enough of her particles in and around him to feel the slight spike in his heart rate when he said that.  A lie?  “But I know Jason could kill me.  He could really do it, and I knew that, knew he would, too.  It was… it was terrifying.”

Mary nodded.  “And now?”

Hector’s face was calm, composed.  His voice was almost empty of emotion as he replied.  “Mary, after what you did for me, what you did for his sake…” his voice filled with absolute certainty.  “I’d do anything for him.  Anything.”

She sighed.  “Thank you.  In that case, there’s something you need to know.”  Hector sat a little straighter.  “How much has he told you about his Empowerment?”

Hector chewed his lip as he thought.  “Just the basics, I think.  I’ve figured out a little more on my own.  He can kill anything he sees.  When he does, it makes him stronger and lets him heal.  The size or severity of the wound doesn’t seem to matter.  I’ve watched him heal bruises and broken bones with the same effort.  It depletes his… his store of lives, I guess you’d say, which lowers his strength.  When he’s out of lives, he loses the effect.  From a few things he’s said, I take it that the healing is involuntary.  Oh, and plants let him heal but don’t increase his strength.”

Mary nodded.  “That’s… that’s not wrong, but it’s not everything.  What about his personality?”

Hector seemed a bit reluctant, but he answered.  “He doesn’t have Antisocial Personality Disorder. He’s not a sociopath.  I’ve watched him carefully, and done a lot of reading on it.  Jason… well, he doesn’t seem to have a conscience.  He understands that other people are real, that they matter, but only in the abstract.  It’s the same with empathy.  I know he doesn’t want people to suffer, but it’s like he doesn’t really get it.  There’s a disconnect between the idea of other people and the reality, like he can’t really relate to them.”

Mary waited to see if he’d go on.

“That said, he’s not malicious.  He doesn’t seem to enjoy hurting people.  He just doesn’t understand why it’s bad.  It’s like… like he’s emotionally numb.  I used to think it was a side effect of his Empowerment, either literally or just because he was under-socialized.  But… that’s not it, is it?”

So he had figured it out, part of it.

“You did it to him, didn’t you?  Jason told me he killed his pet dog when he first got his power, so, to stop him from killing someone every time he threw a tantrum as a child, you… changed him.  You shut down his emotions, didn’t you?”  Hector’s voice was calm, controlled.  Not accusing her, just stating a fact.

“I did.  I lowered production of… well, of a bunch of chemicals in his brain and throughout his body.  You don’t need to know the details, but I basically left him incapable of normal emotion.  I had to, or the Citadel would have killed him.”

Hector went very still.  “Does anyone else know you did this?”

Mary shook her head.  “Troy, his father, just thought Jason was a little strange.  I’m not sure if he believes it’s because of his Empowerment or what, but he never blamed me.  I taught him to hide it, kept him out of school until he was fourteen, when I was sure he could pass as just a little odd.”

“So what made you so sure the Citadel would have killed him?  His power is dangerous, especially for a child, but it could have been controlled.  I mean, something as simple as a blindfold…”  Hector paused.  “That’s not all, is it?”

“No.”  Mary told him.  “The strength, healing, even killing along his line of sight, that’s not Jason’s main power, the one they would have killed him for.  He killed Rex, his dog.  But… he also killed his baby sitter, our neighbors’ daughter.  She was in the bathroom, with the door locked, and there was no way he could have seen her.  He didn’t know. Still doesn’t, I think.  Jason doesn’t need to see someone to kill them, just to kill selectively.  I’m not certain, but if it works at the same distance as the aimed version, he can kill every living thing within a mile.  That’s his real power, the reason I crippled my son.”

Hector didn’t have anything to say to that, so Mary went on.  “What I did to him, I did for his sake, not anyone else’s.  I just wanted him to live and they never would’ve let that happen.  He was too dangerous as a child.  But… the changes I made, they weren’t permanent.  The human brain is too good at rerouting, even without his healing.  I had to refresh it constantly.  Without that, he’ll start to… to feel, again.  I need you to help him, help stay in control.  Please, Hector.  You say you owe him, so I need you to help him learn to cope with it.”


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