<< Xa – A War On The Horizon
Weeks later, I walked into my office as if it was uncharted territory. And on some level, it was. What I originally thought to be the bank actually proved to be a similar building in a new location. My unarmed self wouldn’t find it weird but today, even my jacket felt wrong though I had worn it so many times before. The desk, the carpet, the chair and couches, it all seemed from another era.
Back when my body wasn’t permanently scarred.
The doctors said I was fairly lucky. My face would heal perfectly. I might keep a small bump in the nose where it broke and partially healed before I was rescued. Some bones and joints would complain about the cold for the rest of my life. When fully dressed in long sleeves, no one could ever guess I had been tortured nearly to death for weeks. Even in a t-shirt, the marks on my arms might not draw too much attention. I doubted I would one day feel confident again in a bikini.
Yet here I was, all sown up and on the way to complete remission, stepping in my office to work again. It beat spending the day in bed with a book, trying to distract myself from the endless stream of questions. My mind required occupation and not knowing what was happening in the outside world almost troubled me more than the nightmares.
James and Rebecca gave me a moment to take the office in. Another map now covered the wall next to my Ocean map.
“It lists the last location of all the known members of one of Wayne’s cells.” Becky explained. The number of pins impressed me. Our investigation took a big step forward while I was gone. “Their organization is spreading too.”
I inhaled calmly to counter the shock. Spreading. I hoped our recent strike smashed it to oblivion. Being wrong hurt too.
“It stopped the attacks.” Rebecca soothed. “The rest of the organization quickly took over after Wayne’s death though. They’re restructuring but they’ll be back.”
“And your knowledge of Wayne’s plan allowed us to evacuate his wife’s neighborhood. We found most of the bombs before they blew and controlled the media.” James added. He obviously tried to reassure me but I read in their faces how fake his speech was. Becky knew me better.
“We still have a lot to do but we took a step forward. And most of it was because of the ground work you did before you were kidnapped.” She hugged me. “But today’s main focus should be ‘Welcome back, Cass.’”
“How about Casey?” I had to ask though the thought squeezed my heart.
“We convinced searchers to share their knowledge of mind programming.” James said.
“You should have seen Aaron. There’s something awesome in watching him yell at somebody else.” We laughed. “They’re working with him. It’s looking up.”
No telepathy was required to understand it was ill-advised for me to see him at this point. I nodded to the unformulated warning. I was still fragile. If I cringed in front of unemotional paperwork, seeing my crazy would-be-boyfriend-dash-torturer better be postponed.
“Well,” Becky sighed, “you’ve been in your office.” She clapped her hands together. “It’s enough work for today.”
She grabbed my arm and towed me toward the elevator. She kept her mind carefully silent. James chuckled behind us when I complained about being roughened toward an unknown future.
“Don’t prompt dive, please,” Rebecca insisted. I cocked an eyebrow and decided to play along. I even pushed it a step further by closing my eyes. Becky allowed the navigational information to pass from her brain to mine but that was it.
I realized I needed the playfulness. I was out of bed. The organization which wanted readers off the face of the earth gave us a break. For the sake of my sanity, I could afford to forget they would come back stronger.
I realized without much effort that Rebecca was leading back towards the common room. The chatter reached us at the elevator’s door. Not a surprise party then. I didn’t expect us to walk through the lounge and kitchen. Becky steered me toward an adjacent room which used to be a bedroom.
“Just remember to breath,” she broadcasted before requesting that I opened my eyes.
I stood shock still for a moment. I was out of everyone’s sight but could detail the décor of the back wall; a huge American flag and a very official looking podium. Becky pushed the small of my back gently and I stepped inside the room. Everyone was there along with a handful of FBI agents, including Jackson. The room fell silent as Daniel hooked his arm in mine and led me to the podium where the director of the FBI joined us. I fought to keep my jaw from dropping.
“For security reasons, we can’t afford to do the official ceremony right now.” The director began. His unofficial opening made me smile. He definitely wanted to set the tone. “However, no threat should keep us from honoring the courage of the people in our ranks. Agent Cassidy Elizabeth Parker, please step forward.”
Daniel released my arm and I forced my knees to unbuckle long enough to take a step. This was unprecedented. Unbelievable.
“Despite the sorrow she endured and the threats to her security if she pursued her investigation, Agent Parker continuously played a central part in the fight of the current menace. Her resistance led her to endure incredible amount of physical and mental pain. Yet, she pushed through, never breaking and providing us with vital information to strike the enemy.” Tears swelled at the corner of my eyes. I tried to take them back but this was just too much. “It is my honor to award you the first PSI Medal for Meritorious Achievement.”
The roaring of the crowd blurred my perception of the rest of the ceremony. The medal wasn’t just about me, though I felt incredibly honored to receive it. The FBI was in over their head. They couldn’t stop the war without us. They needed us. But most importantly, they were on our side and now, finally and despite Wayne’s campaign, they treated us as equals.
And because of that, we would win.
Sequel coming in July 2011
<< IXb – A Trouble In Paradise
The clean scent of my immediate surrounding welcomed me back to consciousness. I breathed in deep, appreciating every nuance of liveliness in the relatively non-descript perfume. No putrefying corpse. No vomit. No rusty smell of blood. It smelled almost too good to be true.
“If you inhale anymore of it, you’ll blow up.” Rebecca teased.
I mumbled an incomprehensible response and cracked my eyelids. The light, dimmed by my lashes, slowly forced my eyes to adapt. I eventually worked my way up to eyes wide open. The pale ceiling wasn’t a particularly delightful sight but it meant safety which made it as precious as the smell and the softness of the bed beneath me. I turned my head towards the window. The sun silhouetted Rebecca in a couch.
“I’m at the bank.” The realization tempered my humor. My thoughts shied away from the implication of that truth and jumped on the nearest conversational topic. “How did you find me?”
I tried to sit but moving my right arm instantaneously sent a jolt of pain in my shoulder. I fell back against the pillow. Rebecca moved and sat on the small space I managed for her.
“You’re pumped with morphine to dull the pain while you rest. Any physical activity is a bad idea.”
“Thanks for the heads up!” I joked. She rearranged my arm under the covers and tucked me in. She picked up a glass on the side table and offered it to me. I sipped the water and it ran down my throat with a satisfying coldness.
“In a way, I guess you saved yourself.” Becky explained. She touched my arm to beam the sequence of events straight inside my head.
The three telepaths and Nadina had been talking through the aeration system. So the existence of her ex-boyfriend was fresh in Nadina’s mind when I played her. Most of her thoughts while I acted like I snapped had been about how the ex snapped and what subjects led him over the edge. Once decoded the information helped Adams and Carmichael. They pried open the telepath’s mind and gained enough crowbars to repeat the process on his two brothers. From there, the investigation became fairly easy.
“We played connect the dots, basically.” Rebecca summed up once she completed the replay of her memory. The manufacturer signature on the bomb, the telepaths, the man responsible to hire all the hit men, they were all connected somehow once you knew how to track them down.
“I kept concentrating on your mind every time I had a chance,” Becky added. “Despite everything you broadcasted a few useful pieces of information. We narrowed down the region where you were because of the day you saw snow falling.”
“You were able to hear me?”
“Not all the time. But I think your impromptu dives occasionally brought you over their mind shielding drugs or whatnots. I’m not sure how that happened but it did.” Once they knew which cities I could be in, they doubled-check which had been contacted by the key personnel they uncovered with the brothers’ information. The phone numbers were all untraceable, both technologically and psychically, or disconnected but they pointed towards one city in particular.
Then, I spat in the snow.
“You should have seen us, disguised as civilians, trying to spot blood in the snow bank in front of a stone wall with a window.” I saw it through her memories and laughed. That pursuit was a pretty desperate move but it paid off. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t.
“I’m sorry about Sean.” I said. Becky’s face disappeared behind the shadow of grief. Her composure returned after a deep breath.
“In a way, I already knew. Or at least I was prepared for it.” She murmured. I wanted to hug her but moving would hurt like hell. I didn’t have the will to endure pain anymore. Picking up on my thought, Becky lied down next to me. “I’ll pull through, if only for the souvenir.” She ran a hand over her belly.
Throughout the day, an irregular stream of coworkers came and went. All the readers brought laurel and meadow cranesbill to celebrate my strength and my unyielding devotion to the community. A selection of “get well soon” flowers accompanied them along with a handful of black roses for the ones we lost. The non-reader FBI agents felt awkward when they walked in empty-handed.
Daniel stopped by at the end of the day. The recent events took their toll on him and he seemed a bit older. Aaron talked in a softer tone than usual. So soft, in fact, he sounded like he was afraid to scare me off my bed.
When the doctor turned off the morphine, I finally dared to contemplate the questions I had pushed to the back of my mind. Just thinking about them and knowing I had to ask was a form of torture. What they implied sufficed to make them almost unbearable but after a week in bed, I was tired of everyone overprotecting me as if the events that didn’t kill me didn’t make me stronger either.
I waited for Becky to be alone with me before I opened the can of worms. People apparently knew my intentions or coincidence just refused to allow that moment to happen. I could prompt dive to find my answers but if no one wanted to tell me, I probably didn’t want to find out without a safety net.
How much had we slowed them down? Since I was here, the menace was still out there. Did we have any new leads? Obviously, the war wasn’t over and my survival was but a battle won. All dark and important questions. But the one I meant to ask first was much more personal and oh so important for my sanity.
Was there any chance to help Casey?
Xb – A War On The Horizon (Finale) >>
IXa – A Trouble In Paradise
The clatter of broken glass on the floor wasn’t what I expected. My brains didn’t repaint the walls but the non-reader’s did. His body thumped to the ground. My eyes registered the event but my brain took a while to catch up.
Wayne wasn’t taken by surprise at all. He dived for the gun in the dead man’s hands. A bullet whistled over his head. He rushed to me and when my brain finally caught up with the events, Wayne’s arm held me to him and a gun convinced me to stay still. He spun me around so his back was to the wall and I faced the window.
Ryan rolled on the ground and fell into a crouch by the door. Casey remained on his chair; he probably checked every attacker’s mind to ensure he wasn’t in anyone’s crosshairs. Or he didn’t care. This scene could get dicey. Or more dicey.
I had a hard time thinking straight.
“You should hit her.” Casey commented, pointing his chin at me. “Her brain is ripe for the picking with all her knowledge of the organization.” He concentrated again. “Forget about it. Your mind has been pinpointed too. Oh well…”
Casey sighed and dropped to the ground, face on the floor. He laced his hands behind his head. Though he thought he ought to die, he apparently privileged his cause and refused to die in vain. I wished Wayne would follow his example.
The stress made me prompt dive. I realized Wayne was doing exactly that. He sifted the possible future with the frenzy of a man who has no escape. Telepaths on the other side picked all the information right in his head and countered every plan. His utopia died today. Unfortunately, no plan was perfect and every last one of the futures ended in a bloodshed.
I wrestled Wayne’s brain as furiously as I could. He struggled back and I felt the gun against my temple move. Desperate, I choked his consciousness or, at least, I tried to. I had never separated a mind from its body before.
The futures changed for a kaleidoscope of the possible outcomes of our confrontation. With each push from one of us, the probabilities were altered. If Wayne partially emerged from the Ocean, he could pull the trigger and blow my brains out. If he returned to reality completely, he wouldn’t risk diving again and I was back to the helpless hostage square.
The one of us who dominated the other would lock his opponent in the Ocean.
The future waltzed around in our heads as our mental struggle stifled our bodies. The troops would move in soon. I just had to keep Wayne occupied until then.
My shoulder sent an unexpected jolt through my body as the disorientation from the dive drove us to the back wall. The pain distracted me a moment and I felt Wayne’s mind slither out of my grasp, heading back to the surface. I dug in the suffering he inflicted upon me to find the strength to push forward. My consciousness clawed on his and pulled him back under.
“I thought you understood.” Wayne talked to me through the Ocean again. I wouldn’t let it destabilize me.
“I understand why you’re mad. I understand the logic of your madness. I can’t abide by it.”
My thought was barely finished when Wayne’s consciousness vanished into oblivion. I emerged from my dive to find his body at my feet. The odd angle of his neck left no doubt as to the cause of death. I stared at him for a moment, bewildered. A pool of blood also spread at my feet. I followed the river to Ryan’s missing forehead. I should have been glad he could hurt me no more but in the moment, his spilled brains were just another horror forever etched into my memories.
Soldiers brushed past me. I followed their hurried footsteps to Casey, still lying on the floor.
“Don’t hurt him!” I bellowed. Despite everything, he was Casey. I had seen and lived too many horrors. His death would be the drop to overflow the vase. His death would break me. I tried to throw myself over him but a pair of strong arms held me back.
“Don’t worry,” a feminine voice whispered in my ear. “He’s not planning to attack so they won’t hurt him.”
I knew that voice. So many times I wished to hear it again. Was I just dead?
“No, you’re not, silly,” the soothing presence whispered in my brain. A flow of peace waved its way through my consciousness. I hadn’t felt such a pleasant telepathic presence for a while now.
Pulling me into a hug, Rebecca shushed and rocked me. Someone brought a blanket. She wrapped it around me slowly. I winced when it brushed my shoulder but welcomed the warmth.
And I cried.
Rebecca hummed a tune as if no one else existed, as if no other task was hers but to nurse me back to freedom. Back to sanity. Her whole mind breathed protectiveness and the disappearance of my nightmares. It was over.
As she held me closer, I felt the small roundness of her belly. I laughed. And it felt so good. So right.
“You’re going to be an amazing mother,” I whispered when the hysteria receded.
“I think Daniel would disagree. I doubt he’ll let me go out in the field again for quite some time.” She laughed in my hair. “Let’s patch you up so you can be the awesome godmother.”
Suddenly, my tears doubled as the image of the cadaver up in the torture room hit me. Rebecca’s mind wrapped around my panic and forced it calm.
“I know,” she broadcasted. “I’m okay.” I knew she shielded her true emotion for my mental safety. “We’ll talk more once you’ve had a good night sleep.”
Rebecca’s arms opened up so a paramedic could get ahold of me. He was a telepath too and infused me with calm so I wouldn’t panic once Becky pulled back.
“I need medical attention.” I stupidly thought before falling unconscious.
Coming next Wednesday: Xa – A War On The Horizon >>
<< VIIIb – A Sword Overhead
Casey rose from his chair and knelt beside it. He bent forward, resting his chest on the seat. His head hung on the other side, the neck offered for the cleaver. He turned his head and looked at me sideways. His smile troubled me deeply though he meant it as an encouragement.
How could anyone hope that cutting my would-be lover’s head would ever feel like the right thing to do? That he asked for it mattered very little. That my life depended on it mattered very little. I hadn’t surrendered the smallest part of my soul so far and what they now asked of me meant giving up.
A gun cocked on my left. The non-reader had the canon steadily pointed at my head. I prompt dived, desperate to find a way out of this. A flood of horror washed over me. I snapped back to reality and Ryan released his hold on my arm. He growled once for emphasis. His telepathic programming really made him quite a mess compared to Casey.
“I’m afraid cheating is prohibited.” The non-reader said. “Not that you could actually pull it off anyway.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t been programmed to ignore my instincts.” I snapped. It suddenly hit me to ask, “Why haven’t I been programmed?”
Wayne moved closer to me. With the gun on my head, he trusted I wouldn’t try to harm him. Or he didn’t care.
“They wanted to do it.” He explained with a teary voice. “But you bested them, honey. You never broke. They couldn’t get in far enough to alter you.” His pride would have been endearing if he wasn’t a mad man forcing me to kill. “I didn’t want them to do it. I want to have you as you are.”
I swallowed my retort. His current manipulations were an attempt to change me. He coerced me to adhere with his ideology and thus turn my back on a part of who I am. On the other hand, who was counting the number of illogic arguments anyway?
“I can’t do this, Wayne.” I loosened my grip. The cleaver hit the floor with a loud clank. I raised my hands and backed against the wall.
Even if I killed Casey to save my life today, there was no guaranty I’d have an occasion to turn the knowledge I had of their organization against my captors. The whole thing wasn’t even about my feelings for Casey. It wasn’t about avenging the betrayal he had been programmed to exert upon me.
If I bent under this pressure, all I endured would only amount to failure.
I wasn’t giving my values and my mind up. Not two weeks ago when they cut my flesh. Not now as they ravaged my heart. I still had survival instincts and they banged against my skull, urging me to run, to beg, to cry, to kill if I had to. I wasn’t giving that up either.
“Oh honey!” Wayne sighed, shaking his head. “Why all the drama? It’s only a reader’s head!” He closed in on me and kissed me. I bit his lip. He drew back, surprised and hurt. His hand hit my face so hard I fell to the floor.
“Did you play me?” He begged and cried. He looked like a child who just learned his mother was leaving forever. “You said you understood!”
“I understand.” I replied, slowly dragging myself to my feet. The non-reader’s gun followed my ascension. “But I do not agree.”
My words wounded him like a bullet. A fraction of second later, a detonation filled the room. I hit the floor again with a yelp. My hand instinctively went to my left shoulder to press against the bullet wound and slow down the blood lost. The pain shot from my fingertips to my ear. I winced and moaned. My breathing hardened and the suffering morphed into rage.
I forced my will to shake my battered body. My head spun when I sat. I ignored it. I pulled myself up for the second time. The four other people in the room eyed me with different expressions. Ryan crouched like an animal ready to jump to my throat. Casey sat astride on his chair, wrapped his arms around the back and rested his chin on top. He smiled; I was a reader soon-to-be slaughtered, a good day by their group’s definition.
Wayne cried in silence but didn’t move. He tried to break me. I broke him. Fair game.
“The next one goes in your head.” The non-reader announced, readjusting his gun accordingly. “Are you sure you don’t want this thing to unfold differently?”
I stared at my bloody arm. My new shirt hadn’t remained whole for long. I smiled and straightened my spine. There wasn’t much more left to do. Either he killed me in the next hour, bandaged me or I would bleed to death. I could have panicked but I didn’t have enough energy left for that. Somehow, knowing the fight was over and that the game would be nulled freed me.
“I’d take a vacation in the south,” I taunted. “Are you offering?”
Wayne closed the gap between us and punched me in the stomach. My breath deserted me and I bowed forward. Beating while I bled to death, for the win!
“How can you do this to me?” He cried.
“You’re stealing my line, bastard.” Another punch cut my air. As soon as my lungs filled again, I emptied them with a laugh. My last words had to be an ode to Rebecca. I hoped she was okay. And the child too.
Wayne stepped back and I straightened, amazed by what the energy of despair could make me do. They couldn’t hurt me anymore. I held my head high, daring the non-reader to pull the trigger again.
They couldn’t have me.
“Alright then,” the non-reader said.
Another detonation filled the cabin.
IXb – A Trouble In Paradise >>
<< VIIIa – A Sword Overhead
Casey walked in with the confidence I knew him for. My heart skipped a beat.
“Got your message.” He said to the non-reader. “Hi Square!”
I always disliked the nickname but at this moment I truly abhorred it. It brought back memories of better times and choked my moral. It reminded me that, somehow, I lost the Casey I knew, and was left with a traitor who poisoned me and kicked my pregnant best friend in the stomach.
“I’m glad you could come so quickly.” The non-reader replied with a grin that foretold nothing good. “The partners have decided that it is your time.”
“You can’t be serious.” Wayne objected. My mind reeled to catch up with what I missed. Then it hit me.
The partners wanted me to kill Casey.
“She knows him!” Wayne continued. I prayed for his plea to work. “That’s too harsh a test.”
I was glad already sat on the floor because the situation robbed me of any muscular control. The only thing in my mind was the craziness of the ordeal. Some people wanted me to prove my allegiance by killing the man I loved. The man who betrayed me. And, if I trusted Casey’s smooth expression, he was going to willingly submit to his fate. Was it even possible to wrap my head around that?
“He betrayed her. I’d say that’s too soft a test.” The non-reader countered Wayne’s argument, echoing the turmoil in my mind. “The only valid point is that it’s a shame to lose one of our best programmed assets. You should be thankful the partners are ready to give him up for your girl.”
“That’s the worse attempt at convincing me I have ever heard.” Nevertheless, Wayne walked toward the kitchen in the back of the room and opened a drawer. Metallic clanking told me what he fumbled through. “You could have gone for something along the line of killing the competition.”
Throughout the conversation about the whys and why nots he should be killed, Casey didn’t flinch. He sat on the chair I had left and rested his arms where my old bound still dangled. He looked straight at Wayne and nodded in approbation when the psychopath returned with a large cleaver.
Nausea menaced to blow my lies wide open; Casey had no survival instinct whatsoever. How could telepaths annihilate such a primal impulse? The non-reader mentioned good programming. Casey never betrayed me; they broke him and forced him into the ultimate form of submission. It wasn’t like they just made him forget who he was or convinced him readers were evil. He actually didn’t care whether he lived or died. At all.
It suddenly struck me that being the only one sitting on the floor, with everyone towering above me, I gave away a pretty submissive vibe. Out of spite, I forced myself off the ground and slumped on Wayne’s chair. My movement lacked confidence but at least I wasn’t below everyone anymore. Casey smiled with the same warmth he always had when we worked together.
“I’m so glad to see you’ve come to your senses.” He moved to edge of his chair and rested his hands on my knees. “I wished you did sooner so I didn’t have to work you over so much but hey, the essential is that you’re fine now.”
Memories rushed back to me, freed from the glaze of the Ocean waving in and out of my consciousness. My bloodied spit in a snow bank by a stony façade. The cold wind freezing me to death while my torturer watched TV. Casey had been the dark figure of my nightmares, the worse of my plagues. My brain shut it out to help me through the ordeal. But I remembered now.
Before I knew it, my fist collided with Casey’s jaw. My body moved to hit him again but a part of my brain hovered on the fringe of the fury; they were winning. If I snapped, they won. I just snapped. Even if only for a moment, it was a moment too much. Their manipulation never stopped. This loyalty test was part of their chess game and had, in fact, very little to do with loyalty.
If I didn’t kill Casey, I was dead and my knowledge of the organization along with me. If I killed him to fake my loyalty, I earned yet another weak spot for them to apply pressure on. If I killed him out of anger for what he did, I effectively crossed a line and accepted that somehow, they broke me.
This was my unsolvable problem.
“You have to stop troubling yourself so much.” Casey said. He grabbed two apples from the bowl and threw one my way. “To die for my cause is good. To die by your hand is a blessing.”
He bit in his apple and juice trickled down his chin. I was famished and the bits of fruit I had earlier weren’t nearly enough to satiate me. However, no matter how tempting Casey made that apple look, I couldn’t take a bite in my own, even to keep up appearances.
I dropped the apple to the floor. No one moved to pick it up. In the corner, Wayne slowly sharpened the cleaver. The sound ground back and forth incessantly. No one talked. I supposed they wanted to let the horror sink in.
I looked around hoping to find even a small chance of escape. Catching my thought, Ryan growled. Casey clicked his tongue at me in disapprobation.
“I understand why you do it,” I said, thinking it with all my heart. “Please don’t force me to this now.” I pleaded to Wayne. He shrugged.
“Not my decision, honey.” Wayne kept sharpening the weapon. “We’re running out of time.”
“He’s right, you know.” Casey added. “We have a big operation soon. Either the partners trust you or you’re dead. I know they’re sick of trying to break you.”
I shivered. Wayne dropped the sharpener and joined me. He dropped the cleaver on the table and absentmindedly massaged my shoulder. I couldn’t move my eyes away from Casey who took a last bite of the apple.
“I want this, you know,” Casey said.
Wayne closed my hand around the cleaver.
Coming next Wednesday: IXa – A Trouble In Paradise >>