Jake slipped the IV out of the patient’s arm, gauze in place to catch any leakage. This guy was supposed to be negative for anything transmittable and he had gloves on but that wasn’t really the point. He disposed of the used line in the same bin that his partner had used for the feeding tube. He stepped back and made a quick visual assessment.
“You see anything else that needs to be done here?” he asked.
“Nope, looks good to me.” Ben said. “He’s a pretty big guy though. Should we call for two more, or-?”
“Nah, just do a sheet slide. It’ll be fine.”
Ben moved to raise the deceased a bit, struggled with the loose weight, and paused just before he had it in the right position.
“Jake, take a look at this.”
Jake moved around to Ben’s side.
“Weird. It looks pretty fresh. Where’s the cover?”
Ah, the bandage had come loose when Ben shifted him. The exposed wound was long but narrow, maybe a foot and a half by two inches. The weird part was that it looked surgical, clean edges and perfectly straight lines, parallel to the spine. Jake reached for the chart.
“How’d he get that? I thought this guy’s whole problem was he healed too fast for treatment?”
“Mm” Jake said absently, still reading.
Ben let the body rest and moved to the other side.
“There’s another just like it. I mean, what the hell?”
“S’okay. Says here Doc Lizborne took a skin sample last night.”
“A skin sample? She practically skinned him! And why didn’t it heal up?”
“Eh, no idea. But it’s got the dimensions and everything, so there’s a record of what. You know how they are up here, everything’s secret because of national security or HIPPA and no one else has the need to know.” Jake didn’t bother hiding the mild contempt that he felt at the thought. “We’ll just do our job, let it be the coroner’s problem.”
Hector was about to raise his hand to knock again when the green painted door opened. The woman who answered was in her late thirties or early forties with stringy blonde hair and too much makeup. The only jewelry he could see was a heavy chain with a gold emblem that matched the one on the door. Hector thought the general look was a bit… tacky. Her overly loose green robe and irritated frown didn’t help any.
“One second.” she said, then muttered something he couldn’t quite hear and made a gesture with her left hand. “That’s better.” she said to herself, pleased. There was a soft gold glow now, coming from a spot in the ceiling just inside the doorway. Looking up, Hector could see a naked bulb but he didn’t think that’s where the light was coming from.
“I’m Sister Dawn.” she said. “What can I do for you?”
Jason stepped forward. “Good morning ma’am. I am Operative Jason Grim and this is Operative Hector Hive. We are here-”
“To pester us until we agree to let you register us, right?” she cut him off.
Jason nodded. Hector thought he saw a bit of amusement mingling with irritation.
“Fine. Brother Jonas said you’d be by some time this week and we already decided to cooperate. We’ll send half of our Awakened Brothers and Sisters to your… your hospital, provided you agree to share any findings. Is that enough for you?”
Jason just blinked.
“That’s acceptable.” Analyst Hive told him. “Registration exam results are always available to the subject anyway and half is frankly better than we get in most Lodges.”
“Yes ma’am, that is acceptable.” She started to close the door, paused when he continued. “If I might ask, how many… Awakened will that be?”
She didn’t quite slam it but the door shut very firmly. Jason turned to face Hector.
“Is that normal? Rather, is that how this sort of meeting usually goes?”
Hector just shrugged. As best he could tell, there wasn’t any sort of usual when dealing with the Crowleys.
There was a faint tapping sound from her open door.
“Um, Dr. Lizborne?”
The girl leaning into Hana’s office lowered her hand and stepped in a bit. She had badly dyed black hair down to just below her shoulders, pale skin and the kind of thin frame that either belonged to a runway model or a malnourished runaway. The cheap skirt that didn’t come close to her knees and the too-tight top didn’t imply model.
“Ah, Ms. T, what can I do for you today?” Hana asked. She was pretty sure the girl didn’t have an appointment but her assistant knew that her door was always open for her patients.
“It’s, um-” She kept her face down as she answered, eyes never quite pointing at Hana. “I told you, you can call me Steph.” She had her hands- covered by long gloves that went up past her elbows and were much too hot for Phoenix- clasped together and her arms held close to her body.
“And, as I’ve told you before, I take the privacy of my patients and the participants in my research very seriously.” Hana said. The palpable air of nervous fragility, of vulnerability, that always accompanied the girl made Hana want to give her a hug. But that wouldn’t be professional so, instead, all she did was say, “So please, step inside, close the door and call me Hana. Then I’ll be happy to return the favor.”
Professional or not, Hana’s smile was as warm and comforting as she could manage.
“O- okay, Hana.” Steph said as she shut the door.
“Now, what brings you in today?”
“It’s about… the skin sample, the one you took the other day?” Steph said, rolling down the glove on her left arm to reveal a small two by two gauze bandage, stained red, taped to her forearm. “It, um, I know it’s still early but I don’t think it’s healing right.”
Hana leaned forward to get a better look at the missing square of skin.
“And, um, my power… One of my- my clients said…”
Hana looked up.
“It’s not as fast as it used to be.”
“Would you mind peeling back the bandage?” Hana asked. “I just want to make sure the site isn’t infected.”
Steph did as she was asked immediately, then waited for Hana’s nod before she resumed speaking. “He said that it was… slower than usual. I didn’t notice at first but I think he’s right.” Her eyes were wet and her lip trembled a bit. “Is there something wrong with me? I mean- with my power?”
Hana smiled again. “No dear, just a side effect.”
“A side effect? From- from a skin sample? I- I don’t…”
“It’s okay Steph. I promise, there’s nothing to worry about. You remember when you did that drug study last month?” The girl nodded, hesitantly. “Well, we couldn’t tell you at the time, it was supposed to be a double blind study, but it was intended to help you control your Empowerment.”
“You mean… so I could choose whether or not people felt good when I touch them? That would be… really?” Hana nodded, her face controlled. She didn’t want to give the girl false hope. “Then why… I still can’t. It just happens. The only thing that’s changed is it’s weaker. And- and that was a month ago.”
Hana sighed. “I know hon. The drug didn’t work the way we hoped. The only thing we’ve seen is a gradual reduction in Empowerment. It’s most likely been happening the entire time. You just didn’t notice until now.”
“Oh.” Steph let out, mingling disappointment with a bit of hope. “Does that mean… Am I going to be normal?”
“Is that what you’d prefer? I know we’ve discussed this before, but I need your consent before I can give you any further treatment.”
Steph was quiet for a moment, eventually, she gave a small nod. “I… I’d rather have control. I… I need my power. It keeps me safe and…” She looked away. “It keeps me fed. But… if I can’t get control of it…” Hana shook her head. “If I can’t control it, I think I’d rather learn to get by without it. That way… that way, when I touch someone, when I see that they’re… happy, I’ll know it’s really me and not the… you know.”
Hana nodded. “If you’re sure.” She reached into her desk, unlocked a drawer, and removed a small vial of liquid and a syringe. “This is a chemical called Sodium Hypochlorite.” She gave a comforting smile when she saw Steph’s lack of understanding. “It’s the second component of the drug you took last month.”
“It’ll make my power… make my problem go away?”
“That’s right. You’ll need to inject it into a vein, then lie down and sleep right away, so I’d recommend you do it at home.”
“I can… I know how to do that.”
Steph flushed red with shame and absently brushed at her left arm with her right thumb. Now, she wore the gloves to protect against accidental contact that would set off her power’s feedback loop, but that wasn’t why she’d started wearing them. Hana was careful to keep any sign of judgment off her face as she continued.
“I know. And, Steph? I promise, after this, no more problems with your power.”
“Really?” The longing in Steph’s voice wasn’t subtle.
Hana nodded and gave a reassuring smile as she handed the vial over.
“How much do I…?”
“Point five milliliters.” Hana told her. “It’s a high concentration so it will sting quite a bit, I’m afraid.”
Steph gave a hesitant smile. “That’s okay. It’ll be worth it.” She put the vial of slightly yellow liquid into her small purse and started rolling her glove back up. “Oh, I- uh, I almost forgot. What about my arm? The skin you took. Is it… is it okay?”
“It’s fine dear. The size of the sample and the drug just mean it’s going to heal a bit slower than usual, that’s all. It’ll be fine soon.”
On her way out the door, Steph turned back to say one last thing. “Thank you so much Dr. Lizborne, Hana. You’ve- you’ve always been so nice to me and I- I just don’t know how to thank you.”
Hana gave a suggestive glance at the open door and gave the girl one last smile as she answered. “Ms. T, I’ve told you before. This may be a government funded program, but we’re here to help.”