“Something’s wrong.” Sister Dawn declared.
Brothers Jonas and Micah each gave her their own version of an interested look but neither answered. She raised her right hand and spoke a word under her breath as she snapped her fingers. A small ball of softly glowing, yellow light appeared.
“Yes?” Micah said, confused.
“That took effort!” Dawn snarled. “I actually had to try. It should have been easier.”
Jonas eyebrow’s rose. “Okay. Do it again.” He raised his own hand, curling it around his eye as if he held an invisible telescope. Dawn did as he’d asked and, once the second orb appeared, he relaxed his hand. “How long has this been going on?”
“Just a few days, since right after… after the hospital. You can… Can you tell what’s wrong?”
He nodded. “It’s your connection to the Otherlands, your talent, it’s as if it’s split. Part of it’s here, within you, the other…” He nodded his head, indicating a direction. “Too far to say for certain, but I think that’s the same direction as the hospital.”
Dawn opened her mouth to speak, but the sound died in her throat. The room was suddenly full of an oppressive sensation, like a looming thundercloud. It was power, raw and wedded to rage. She turned to look and saw Brother Micah’s face.
It was easy to forget what he was, day by day. He was kind, gentle, dedicated to his work with the Lodge and its history. He’d been one of her teachers when she joined and she’d watched him shepherd more than one confused, frightened Initiate in the same way he had her.
Now his face was cold, merciless and determined.
Micah was also the strongest of them, quite possibly the strongest of the entire Association. He had not gained that status by being kind or gentle. He was loved, by her and by many others, because of his work as a teacher. He was feared, and rightly so, because of the… other things he had done. The Lodges were allowed to continue only because the Citadel had never seen them as a threat. There had been… problems in the past. Rogue members who might have brought them all down in their wake.
Micah had stopped them.
Even as he spoke, as Dawn felt his power wash over her and saw that awful look on his face, she knew that the last thing they had seen was this very sight.
“What of the others?” he asked. It would have been better, less disturbing, if he hadn’t sounded so calm. “Nine volunteers we sent, and only one suffers? No. I don’t believe it.”
Jonas swallowed convulsively before answering. “I… I know Loren and Rook have been having… difficulty with their studies. But… I thought it was just…” He shook his head. “They don’t have your level of familiarity with their gifts.” he told Dawn. “It’s- they might not have noticed the change. I’ll… I’ll have to examine them to be sure.”
Micah nodded. “Do that. If it’s as we all expect, then this is likely to be the very threat that Lillith warned us against. This is sooner than she described, but that means little. We changed our plans in response to her prophecy so the threat has likely changed in response to us. Confirm that this isn’t just Sister Dawn and we’ll respond… appropriately.”
Dawn felt a chill run through her. “What…? I don’t think…”
“Yes?” The cold hadn’t left his voice, that terrifying calm.
“I’ve been exchanging e-mail’s with Dr. Lizborne, Hana, and… I don’t think she’d do something like this. She wouldn’t try to hurt us. I-” she shook her head. “Everything I’ve seen of her tells me that she’s just like us, that she wants to understand how our abilities work more than anything else. I just can’t see her doing… well, I can’t see her deliberately hurting anyone, much less me.”
Jonas answered before Micah. “Are you saying… what, that this is an accident? Something that just happened after they took all those samples?”
“Exactly what was taken from you?” Micah interrupted before she could answer.
“Blood, skin, hair and saliva.” Dawn listed off.
Micah’s face didn’t change from that terrible mask but Jonas grew more grave as she spoke. “Really. That’s almost exactly what you’d need to lay a curse on someone and you think this is just a coincidence?” he asked.
“They are not Awakened.” Micah said. “They do not see the power in the same way we do and it would be a mistake to act otherwise. Nonetheless, this is not a good sign.” he told Dawn. “I promise that I will not attack her. In fact, I think you and a few of the more experienced among those who participated with you should accompany me, but all I intend to do is speak with her, to demand an explanation. If she cannot or will not answer, or if I do not like what she has to say… well, we’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
Even as Brother Jonas left to verify that this wasn’t just something wrong with her alone, Dawn nodded in agreement. There wasn’t anything else she could really say to that.
She could hear a thousand voices, a thousand thousand voices or more. Each of them muttering, whispering, just waiting for her attention, waiting for her to command them. That was the difficulty of using her power. Not getting the effect she wanted, it was getting only the effect she wanted.
It took a moment for her to form the idea, to define what she was trying to do without relying on words or images. But, eventually, she got it down and the majority of those voices went quiet. The ones that were left got louder, more insistent, begging her to tell them what to do.
These were all similar, had more or less the same function as the one she was looking for. She focused on that idea again, did her best to make it clearer, more specific. That got rid of a few more and left her with maybe a couple dozen.
Now she had to be careful. At least she’d had enough practice that she wouldn’t accidentally give an order to the full legion of voices. After… after what she’d done, she’d been terrified of ever using her power again. It hadn’t taken long for her to realize that that wasn’t an option.
Every cell phone, speaker, printer and computer screen in the building had said, “I’m sorry.” on her second day at the embassy. If she’d been anywhere else in the world… well, it wouldn’t have been as bad as the first time, but it would have been bad enough.
She focused even further, got it as specific as she could and, simultaneously, began to build the image of the command she wanted to give. It wouldn’t be in words, not the kind she spoke with her mouth, any more than she could really hear the voices with her ears. That was just what her instructors called a ‘referential framework,’ like the pictures on a com were really ones and zeroes which were really tiny electrical charges that were either on or off.
Inside her head, she told the one, particular voice, “Don’t listen.” As she did, she felt something really weird and she… she hiccupped with her mind. That was the only way she could think to describe it but that wasn’t really right. Her eyes shot open in panic. What had she-?
“Why did you pull out?” Instructor Charles Rodby asked her, utterly calm.
She took a moment to get her breathing under control before she answered. “I… I think I made a mistake.”
He pursed his lips and she saw the green glow that surrounded his head when he used his power. It vanished after a moment. “I don’t see anything wrong. One moment.” He raised his arm and began fiddling with his com.
She just sat there, waiting and trying not to freak out. If she’d done something big, they’d probably know about it already. She’d been trying to isolate a specific e-mail account, one they’d made just for the exercise, and render it immune to tampering from Turing types.
“Well, it looks like you did too good a job. I can’t access the account with my power, but I can’t log in with my com either. The server’s showing it as active so you didn’t just delete it, but I’m afraid e-mails sent to that address won’t be getting read any time soon. Not quite what we were going for.” Her instructor smiled, amused.
She gave a sigh of relief. “I- I was afraid I’d done it to more than one account, maybe gotten an important one.”
“I don’t think so but we’ll follow up on it, just to be careful. Can you tell me what went wrong?”
“It was…” She hesitated as she groped for the right words to describe the odd sensation. “It was like when you’re talking on the phone in the middle of a crowd. Someone bumps your elbow and- and you don’t say the wrong thing, not exactly, but maybe you hesitate or you say it the wrong way? I’m not…” It really was hard to describe the sensation.
“Hmm. Well, like I said, we’ll follow up on it to be careful but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. In the mean time, I must say that I’m very pleased with your progress. You’ve still got a ways to go on your focus but you shut down your connection as soon as you noticed something was off. Well done Trainee Turing.”
She glared at him. They’d had this conversation before. “I told you, that’s not my name.”
“Abby, that’s not- It’s really not a good idea to call yourself that. Right now, people think you’re- think the person responsible for that event is dead. It’s better that way. You don’t need the trouble that’ll come with a name like that, the danger.”
Abby didn’t let up on the glare. “It’s not about them, or the danger. That name’s for me. I can’t- can’t afford to forget. I have to make up for what I did. Or at least- at the very least, I have to make it mean something.”
“Very well.” he said, resigned. “Well done, Trainee Interruption, well done.”
“Something wrong?” Hana asked. “You keep checking your com.”
“No,-” Jason looked up. “I have been attempting to contact the Dillon Institute for some time now. My calls never seemed to go through and I have recently sent them several e-mails. I had been hoping to receive a reply promptly but have not.” He shrugged. “I suppose it is less important than it once was.”
She smiled. “The Dillons are a good group but I wouldn’t have thought the Citadel could supply you with anything they could, probably a lot cheaper too.”
“As I said, I do not think that it matters as much as when I began. Please, continue with what you were saying before I distracted you.”
“Okay, as long as I’m not boring you.” Jason thought she was attempting to ‘tease’ him, but he was not certain. Most of the people he knew were unlikely to attempt such an action. “Most of what we’ve learned about Empowerment is negative, that is, things we’ve learned aren’t the case rather than things we’ve learned that are.
“For instance, we’re reasonably certain it isn’t a genetic phenomenon. Or at least, if it is, then it’s one that’s reliant on a gene complex that’s shared by pretty much everyone.”
“How can you be sure of something like that?” Jason asked. “I would have thought that you would need to have some idea of the mechanism involved before you could rule out the action of a specific gene. Additionally, I had always been under the impression that Empowerment ran in families. Both of my parents are Empowered and my own ability is something of a mixture of theirs. Also, I knew two individuals in my trainee class who were cousins and their abilities are also similar to each other’s.”
She nodded. “You’re right, it does tend to run in families. That was one of the things that lent weight to the theory. But,” she smiled, “and this is the neat part, adopted children show the same rate of Empowerment as natural born ones. That works both ways, by the way. Empowered parents who adopt are, on average, just as likely to end up with a kid who flies as if they were related and un-Empowered parents who adopt are just as likely to end up with one that doesn’t. See?”
He nodded. It was not something that he had known before but it fit well with what he did. “What of the children of parents who are Empowered but are adopted by people who are not?” he asked.
“Good question. Assuming the kid’s old enough to remember their birth parents, you get a rate of Empowerment equivalent to children raised by Empowered. Otherwise, it matches up with the adoptive parents.”
“Hm, interesting. So what about-”
Distracted by the elevator’s chime, Jason looked across the clinic waiting room where he had been speaking with Dr. Lizborne. There were no patients. Since Agnes had died, or perhaps just before that, he had noticed that fewer and fewer people were there every day. He did not like thinking of her death. It seemed… so wasteful. A good woman, one of the more powerful Strong types in the country died in her bed because she was too tough to be harmed by the heat of an accidental fire. Sadly, she had no power that would protect her from oxygen deprivation or smoke inhalation.
Jason scowled just as a group of people stepped out of the elevator. Two of them were familiar but he could not have said why. He was not good with faces, something that he should work on. It was easy to forget that his chosen profession was not just about combat but also about interacting with people, speaking to them and gaining their trust.
The group began moving and, perhaps reminded by the familiar style of their apparent leader’s robes, Jason realized where he knew the two from. Dale Bille and Cole Boyer had been two of the Crowley members who had accompanied Sister Dawn- just as he thought her name, he saw her following behind the group’s leader- when she had brought a group- the same one?- to the hospital for participation in Hana’s research.
“You are Dr. Lizborne?” the leader asked.
Jason was certain he had not met the man before.
“Yes, I am.” Hana replied. “Can I help you?”
Jason noticed that she gave a smile to Sister Dawn while she spoke. He had not realized that the two knew each other beyond the level of casual acquaintance. Then again, the Sister had given her that strange book and they had spent some time speaking. Perhaps that was enough to leave them with friendly feelings.
“We have come to ask what you did to our members. Everyone who allowed you to take samples from them has reported problems with their magic since then.” At that, Jason noticed that every member of the group, every member but the one who was speaking bore a familiar bandage on their arms, though most were at least partially concealed by long sleeves. He rubbed his own, idly, as he looked them over.
“I- I don’t know what to say, Mr…” she trailed off, likely waiting for the man to supply his name. He did not. “All we did was take samples. They’ve been used for various tests since then, but I can’t see why that would interfere with your abilities.”
The man just looked at her without answering. If his expression or tone had been more threatening, Jason might have felt the need to intervene. As it was, Hana seemed to have the situation under control.
“Is there anything I can do to reassure you?” she asked him. He nodded.
“We wish to view the samples.”
Hana tapped her chin, silent, for a few moments before replying. “Normally, I’d object on privacy grounds. But, I can see that everyone who came in is here again and, I assume, you’re all okay with that?” She paused for a moment and most of the group nodded or muttered assent. “Additionally, we did agree to share information with your group, so very well. I’m afraid that the saliva is gone, as I’ve already told Sister Dawn, the tests we used it for didn’t leave any excess. I’d be happy to show you the blood samples and explain what we’ve done with them though.”
The robed woman nodded and said something to the man in grey robes that Jason could not hear. Actually, he realized, the man was wearing some sort of chainmail. It was shaped like a robe but the material was composed of countless tiny loops of metal, probably steel. That was unusual enough to put Jason on his guard and keep his attention on the man.
That was why he heard the man ask, “What of the skin and hair?” but did not see whatever gestures Hana Lizborne made as she replied.
“Hm. Well, I had hoped for more, but I suppose I was lucky to last this long.” It was odd enough that he turned away from the stranger and looked back at Hana, just in time to see her change. “Sorry about this Jason, I’ve really enjoyed your visits.”
She wasn’t Hana. She was… very strange to look at. It was as if she were a living jigsaw, composed of many people, male and female. Her right hand was that of an elderly person, wrinkled and bony. The skin and shape of her mouth looked like a young woman’s. The top of her head was bare of hair, shaved smooth and- though Jason could not have said why he was so certain- should have belonged to a man. It was her left hand that held him entranced, that kept his attention. He recognized it. That was his hand.
He felt his power activate but he was certain he had not done so. Everyone in the room save himself, the man in metal robes and- not Hana, that couldn’t be Hana- fell to the ground. He knew they were dead, could feel their lives flow into the thing that had taken Hana’s place. Without thought, he lunged towards her only to fall to the ground as the monstrous stranger spoke a word and his vision was torn away by a blinding light. Light, and pain.
He screamed. Jason could feel his eyes burn, feel his glasses melt and sink into the skin of his face. He tore at them, uncaring that he was literally crushing the front of his own skull with the same motion. The damage he inflicted to himself healed immediately but the light remained. He could feel his eyes, burning away and being replaced over and over again in a constant cycle. It hurt a great deal.
The young operative heard a rage-filled shout and smelled ozone coming from the location that the stranger had stood. There was an impact, one he recognized as that of a superhumanly strong individual striking something too hard to yield to the blow. He could feel his store of lives, hundreds of thousands deep, depleting by the moment as it failed to restore him. While his strength remained, only a few hundred insects but enough for the task at hand, he hurled himself away from the ongoing fight.
He felt himself impact and break through a wall, crushing his backbone in the process. It healed immediately but his eyes still burned. If he had kept his orientation correctly then he should have- yes, he was falling. Jason had hurled himself through the outside wall and out of the hospital. His com was likely damaged in the impact so he reached up, fighting to ignore the pain. He managed to activate his headset just before he crashed into the ground.