Energy and Matter: Part 16

16.

Sense from the Senseless

Hailey and Ken returned to the bunker, pulling Yaz and others into a meeting. They planned their next moves: Jenna and Rachel would hack the phone with Valerie tending to the latter periodically. Before long, they’d know what they had. If anything, they’d move against it. Yaz pulled the city patrols, fearing retribution and reassigning Hailey and Ken to perimeter patrols. The meeting adjourned with Hailey and Ken relieving a top-side patrol.

Yaz returned to Elise’s room, the obvious air of tension had congregated outside it but utterly dissolved when she stepped inside. Neither was sure of things yet, but Elise needed someone. Close. Without Hailey, Yaz was the only option– more than that that, she was only one Elise wanted as an option.

Yaz relayed everything, settling into place against the head-board. Elise sat beside her, bouts of grief still manifested, quieter now but present. Yaz allowed it. Rather than risk worsening things, she remained present and little else. It was enough for Elise.

Hailey, on the other hand, was lost. She’d yet to speak to her parents. She’d made her decision, but now didn’t feel the proper time to bring it up. Ken ensured they ate, but they’d taken each meal in their room, alone. She hadn’t seen either leave, even to use the bathroom. However preoccupied she’d been, the situation was despairing.

The only thing that kept her from total, mental collapse was the mindless crackling of foliage beneath her feet. Beside her, Ken helped strengthen her connection to reality but their unchanging patrol-line kept her mind wandering. Their route comprised one-half the bunker’s square perimeter, the patrols timed to coincide so no pair met the other, thereby allowing for total surveillance of the area.

Unfortunately, that also meant a boring, lock-step rhythm with no room for deviation. She was a walking sentry-gun, roving for targets. That neither she nor Ken had much to say only emphasized the autonomy.

Hailey finally felt ready to burst. She needed to say something, anything. The air was awkward, tense. She felt herself speak, almost completely unaware of the words conveyed.

“There was just… so much blood.”

Ken winced. “Is that why you’ve been so quiet?”

“Huh?” It took her a moment to comprehend the words ringing in her head. Even longer to recognize they were hers. “Oh, um. No. I just–”

“Hailey, you’re in shock. Traumatized. You killed two people.”

“I didn’t–”

“Yes. You did.” He stopped mid-step. His face hardened, mixing sympathy with reality, “Hailey, your actions directly caused two people’s deaths. Accept that.”

“I…” she trailed off, hung her head.

Ken put a hand on her shoulder, spoke as an equal, “I was there too. We all were. I was a decade older and it was still difficult to reconcile. But remember, we’re fighting for your existence. This isn’t just about you, or me, or those dead bodies. It’s about a group trying to capture people to experiment on and torture them. Your people.”

Bile frothed in her stomach like a bubbling cauldron, “Yeah.”

Ken’s hand fell to his side, “Given the choice, not one of us would want this for the other– let for alone a teenager. But you’re stronger than you realize.”

She shrugged, “My power’s not that–”

“Not your power, Hailey, you,” he corrected. “You are stronger. Not just because of your power, but because you know how to make hard decisions. You know how to be a protector for your sake as well as others.” She winced, uncertain she agreed. He began walking again. She followed. “Hailey, look at the bigger picture. You’re young, and while it’s still difficult for you, but your instincts told you to do what you did. Because of it, we may finally have information on the Hunters. That information could be the key to letting you go home. To letting all of us go home.”

She kept pace with him, “Is it really possible, Ken? The things we’ve seen. The things we’ve done. Can we really ever go back?”

He frowned, hesitated. Then, with a sigh, he nodded, “No. You’re right. We can’t go back. But we can go forward. We can move on, given the chance. Together or alone. Now, because of your actions, we may be able to do that some day.”

She was silent, thinking. Then, she risked dampening his ardor with honesty, “Do you really believe that, Ken?” He eyed her. “Do you really believe people will stop hunting Seers?”

His face and heart sank. It was an obvious question. One, Hailey had to admit, was unlikely to have been overlooked. His silence said it all. Hailey sensed, both with empathic sensitivity and common logic, the reality of things:

Seers were powerful beyond measure. So powerful they’d needed to invent whole new categories of power just to attempt poorly explaining how powerful they were. That kind of power didn’t come lightly. It wouldn’t be taken lightly either. Ever. If anyone outside the Seers themselves knew of them, others would too. Given enough time, groups like the Hunters would seek to harness or control them, their power. More than likely, for their own ends and without mercy.

Seers weren’t simply an oddity. They were a force. One, by their very nature, capable of toppling entire civilizations if properly positioned or motivated. A single Seer, acting as an advisor to a military or nation, might single-handedly turn war-tides. There could be no greater asset, no more dangerous weapon. Both Ken and Hailey knew that. So did everyone else in the bunker.

The longer the silence continued, the more Hailey was forced to accept that there might never be a true end to the conflict. So long as Seers were sought, superior as they were from Humans at large, someone would hunt them. If the Hunters were any indication, nothing would keep them from that.

The rest of their patrol turned quiet. The awkwardness was gone, the tension with it; both were replaced by a dismal dread whose background noise increased ten-fold. Ken took it in stride, less perturbed. Hailey couldn’t sense anything beyond his focus on the task at-hand. She tried following his example to remain level, occupying herself with the patrol by using her empathic sensitivity to extend their range of affect.

The shift ended back at the cabin. She and Ken returned to trade out with Jakob and Joel, a pair of middle-aged men Hailey’d had met but yet to interact with. They met at the cabin door as Lindsey and Bryce stepped out. The groups greeted each other in passing but the elevator sank for the bunker. Hailey and Ken parted along the hallway, the former ultimately headed to shower.

Yaz checked her watch; the distant elevator locked into its housing on schedule. Shift-change was always on the dot. Her people were good. Everyone needed them to be. Moreover, they respected her authority, her judgment. The only complication she’d had since taking charge were during engagements. Hunters were always wild-cards. Their actions decided things then, no matter her planning nor training.

She sighed a small bit of tension, looked to Elise between her legs. She lay on her side, head against Yaz’s chest, half-asleep from the entranced, beating heart in her ear. Yaz stroked her hair absently, blue-blonde soft beneath her fingers. Wont of lust within was tempered with deeper thoughts that granted it too little of purchase.

Elise stirred, rolling on her back to look up at her, upside down. “You don’t have to stay any longer if you don’t want,” Elise offered. “I’m sure you’ve got things to do.”

Yaz half-smiled, “I’m happy here.”

She stretched, groaned, and pushed herself up to rub her eyes. “You sure?”

Yaz crossed her legs, sat level with Elise, “I am.”

“What are we going to do?” She yawned.

“You mean tonight?” Elise shook her head. “Then about us… Is there something we should do?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been with anyone before. Let alone… like this.” She eyed the room.

“We’ll see how things go.”

Yaz began to pull her over, but a knock forced them apart. Yaz sighed derisively, stood and strolled to the door. Valerie’s face appeared outside it, more stern than usual. The cause was obvious; she’d sense the girls’ intimacy, was unhappy about it. Thankfully, she focused on other business.

“You’re needed. We have something.”

“Get the others. I’ll meet you in the training room in five minutes.”

Valerie acknowledged her with a nod, but remained in place. A silent accusation was made. Yaz didn’t need a psychic to decipher it. Instead, her back stiffened, her face hardened. She was pulling rank and the both knew it. She shut the door on Valerie and turned away for her gear on Elise’s desk. She secured her sword, snapped her leg-holster in place.

“You should be there for this,” Yaz said, tossing Elise her vest and gun.

Elise stood beside her, dressed, and clipped her P-90 to a vest strap. She zipped her vest and followed Yaz to the training room. Most of her security team were already assembled. Only Valerie and Hailey had yet to arrive. They entered shortly, as Yaz took her place around the desk Rachel and Jenna were working at. Various, small tools and tech gear were strewn about between a pair of laptops linked via USB and ethernet cords. Between them, the phone was jacked into various other ports.

Yaz waited for Valerie and Hailey, then leaned in between the two Seers. “What’ve you got?”

Rachel’s drug-addled eyes bounced between Jenna and Yaz. Her morphine dose was in full-effect, her voice sluggish. “First, we cracked the phone’s basic locks. Sifted through various code-words, and phrases, and passwords we picked up in the past.”

“None of it worked,” Jenna said, speaking faster. “But we instituted a recovery protocol, effectively rewriting its user settings.”

“That didn’t wipe it?” Yaz said.

“It did,” Rachel replied.

“But,” Jenna added. “We ran data recovery to retrieve what was lost. Mostly junk data. Thumbnail files. Website cookies. Etcetera. We sifted the data until we hit on this–” She keyed up a file-browser and a list of files with randomized titles of letters, numbers, and symbols. “System logs. We decompressed and decrypted their contents. We got this.”

The group crammed behind Yasmine to view Jenna’s laptop. On-screen, a second file-browser opened with a list of files, each one appended with dates and times. A series of numbers, dashes, and degree marks appeared.

“GPS coordinates,” Yaz knew.

“Right,” Jenna keyed up a command prompt, then typed a string of commands. “First, we eliminated anything unique– visited only once. Then, cross-referenced what was left with known places– business, restaurants, supermarkets; the kind of place someone goes often, and ended up with this.”

The list shrank to two entries. Judging by their frequency, either one could’ve been their mark.

“We checked the sat-maps,” Jenna said, pulling up a satellite image of Bacatta. “Here. The second entry. First is a residence, probably something they’ve rented out for appearances. But this matters.”

Rachel picked up from there, “The second address is a warehouse that’s supposed to be abandoned. It’s big. And according to the blueprints, there’s a network of maintenance tunnels beneath it that could be easily added to. If the Hunters are set up anywhere, it’s there.”

“Do you have the schematics?”

Yasmine’s strategic mind ramped into overdrive as Jenna pulled them up and explained, “It’s simple; Bi-level. Open storage floor. A pair of corridors or so. And some offices. Main operations would be on the lower floor and upper would be where they’re running their front from. Probably minimal guards; snipers on the roof, hidden perimeter patrols, the usual.”

“Nothing a small group couldn’t get past,” Yaz agreed.

“You need a Seer,” Valerie said firmly. “To anticipate anything if fighting breaks out. An active Link would help to avoid it altogether.”

“We’d need an extraction team off-site,” Yaz thought aloud.

“I’ll go,” Hailey said. The group’s eyes focused at her with uncertainty. She thought of what Ken had said. “Like it or not, I caused this. I’m not letting another Seer risk their life on intel I brought in.”

They glanced between Hailey and Valerie. She gave a small nod. Yaz agreed, “Alright, but you aren’t going alone.”

“I’ll go too,” Elise said suddenly.

Incredible doubt crossed the faces of all present, Yaz included. Hailey was against it, “No.”

“They killed my parents. These bastards need to pay,” Elise snapped..

Yaz was uneasy, but kept herself restrained, “Be that as it may, this isn’t to be taken lightly.”

“I don’t want her going,” Hailey argued, recalling Elise’s all-too-recent attempt to strangle her.

“It’s not your decision,” Elise spat.

“It’s not yours either.”

“Blow it out your–”

Enough!” Yaz barked. “It’s my call. If Elise thinks she can pull it off, I’ll allow it. But I’m warning you– both of you– this is a stealth op. You get in, look for any intel and get out. I won’t hesitate to confine either of you to your quarters if you can’t stop this petty bullshit. Got it?”

The girls suppressed their ire with shamed, averted looks.

“Getting in and out undetected is key. The best way is through the rear, personnel door. If– and I stress if you can get in, scout the interior, and search for any way into the maintenance tunnels, but do not enter them. We can’t risking going in to pull you out if something goes wrong.”

Yaz outlined their parameters, then their entrance and exit. She finished with reassignments for Jenna and Bryce; to tag along, waiting off-site with her for extract once the pair had finished– or to provide reinforcements, if necessary. The group dispersed to ready for the operation.

By the time they piled into the truck, Hailey already regretted volunteering. Once her feet hit dirt, her instincts and training would kick in… she hoped. Until then, the wait was clawing at her mind, incising her gut. Somehow, she sensed, no matter what they found, something was about to go horribly wrong.

Energy and Matter: Part 15

15.

Nobody Bleeds in Vain

True to her word, Yaz spent the day with Elise. The briefing was simple, lasted all of five minutes. Yaz roughed out a map of the cabin and nearby woods on a white-board, and scribbled up a set of acronyms and times for scheduled patrols. A series of arrows lined the cabin’s perimeter in two different colors. Each pair took a route. Bryce and Ken were due up first. Miller’d been on rotation the night before too, was now sucking down coffee like water. Despite Elise’s skepticism, he looked as sharp as ever.

Patrols rotated every eight-hours. For sixteen of those hours, a second patrol of Seer and security unit roamed the city. Given Rachel’s injury however, Jenna Perez had been forced to run a double, roaming patrol. Elise knew these patrols were meant to feel out new Seers or leads on Hunters. She couldn’t say how. Until now, Rachel and Jenna had been splitting the patrol, Valerie otherwise occupied with Tyler.

Despite a fixed role, Valerie was always present for Yaz’s briefings. She watched from the side-lines, evaluating. Elise found today to be no exception save that Valerie also appeared unhappy with pushing Jenna so hard. All present knew there was little to be done, Jenna included.

That was, until Hailey suddenly appeared, late. Valerie’s eyes followed her skeptically.

Hailey approached Yaz, “I’m here to help.” She avoided Elise’s eyes, “Wherever you need me.”

Yaz glanced to Valerie for approval, but she and Hailey were engaged in a silent exchange of words. The latter’s choice showed on her face. The former’s sought certainty. What no one else in the room knew, though Jenna suspected, was the actual conversation taking place via the Link, succinct as it was.

“You are certain?”

“Yes.”

That was all either of them needed. Valerie gave a slight nod. Hailey turned to Yasmine. There was distinct and deliberate lack of protest to the air. It was enough.

“Alright,” Yaz said without ceremony. “You’re on first shift with Jenna and Lindsey. Jenna, get her up to speed. Ken, you’ll run second shift with Hailey. Got it?” Yaz eyed the group, reassured. “Everyone has their assignments.”

The group dispersed as Hailey followed Lindsey and Jenna from the room. The Seer was relieved not to be pulling another double shift. It showed in her round features and the sparkle of green eyes dulled by fatigue. She climbed into the rear of the pick-up top-side, helped Hailey in. They began rolling from the cabin toward Bacatta-proper.

Hailey was uncertain where to begin. She’d made her decision, and however quickly, far from lightly. The path forward had always been rather obscured, but now that she was on it, committed to it, guidance seemed at hand.

“Lost?” Jenna asked simply.

Hailey was suddenly aware she’d been staring into space. “That obvious?”

Jenna laughed, “Kind of. Don’t understand, then just ask.”

“Okay.” Hailey said, hesitating. “So, what am I supposed to do?”

“Basically, just meditate.” She crossed her legs, closed her eyes, and activated the Link. She spoke aloud rather than via the Link. “We make rounds about the city, use our empathic awareness to sense if other Seers are nearby.”

“How can you tell the difference?”

“It’s mostly opportunity. Normal seers are like psychic white-noise; they’re just there, blended with reality. Untrained and newly activated Seers give off an aura. A chaotic energy. Staggered and stress-filled waves. They can’t control their E-P yet– Empathic Projection, rather, because it’s a lot like being born, being activated, but you’re fully aware, conscious, and completely terrified in ways beyond that of a normal human.

“Feel the difference between my energy and Lindsey’s in the front seat?”

Hailey did. She felt a definite shift from the bunker’s usual atmospheric energy. The city was colder, emotionally, as if thousands of conflicting psyches had mixed into an overpoweringly bland stew. Part of that stew flowed from Lindsey in the front seat. His energy was cooler, less active, but focused– human energy. Conversely, Jenna’s energy was radiant; warm, spring sunlight inside as opposed to out.

She sensed Hailey’s understanding. “You feel it. Continuous. Persistent. A dose of warmth.” She prepped a series of E-P waves, “This is roughly what an untrained Seer feels like.”

The warmth was suddenly lava-hot. Then, space-cold. Hot again. Cold again. It sank, rocketed back up, bouncing and rebounding ceaselessly. With the bounding came extremes of emotion. Euphoria. Utter terror. Joy. Depthless grief. Back and forth until Hailey’s spine shuddered and she audibly shivered.

“You understand now. That’s how we found you. An untrained Seer’s like a beacon. One in danger, is like an atom bomb. If Rachel hadn’t had her vision, we wouldn’t have known your approximate location. Yaz we might not have found you in time.”

“So, there’s a point where the chaos becomes too much to distinguish the source?”

She nodded, “Generally speaking, extreme stress is the trigger to it. Usually female Seers have learned to control their emotions to some degree, even untrained, and are easier to find.”

“So there are other male Seers? Besides Tyler, I mean?”

Jenna sighed mournfully at the mention of Tyler. “Theoretically, yes, but I don’t know any personally.” Hailey’s confused squint begged an explanation. Jenna provided as best she could, “So far’s we can tell, there’s no specific circumstances for a Seer’s development. More than likely, it’s a combination of genetic factors. However, there’re very few instances of multiple Seers in the same family, even identical twins might differ– one is, the other isn’t. There’s still so much we don’t know about ourselves.”

“Our people,” Hailey muttered, feeling a resonance with the phrase. She re-focused, “So why’re male Seers so rare?”

Jenna’s eyes flitted behind their closed lids. “The working theory– and it is just a theory– is that male Seers beyond puberty are rarer due to societal norms. Women are placed in the role of emotional reliance. Men tend more toward emotional avoidance. We believe Tyler was activated because prepubescent humans are inherently more reliant on their emotions. Street living and his parents’ death emotionally traumatized him, that trauma activated him as your meditation did you. Unfortunately, we cannot locate inactive Seers.”

Hailey followed. “And since males tend to avoid their emotions, they aren’t activated as easily.”

“Bingo.”

Hailey shook her head, sighed, “So an unknown number of male Seers are completely oblivious to their power?”

“As best we can tell.”

Hailey was silent, wondering what it might be like to be an oblivious, inactive Seer. That she’d been one most of her life didn’t feel true anymore. To know, but remain inactive, she supposed, would be a double-edged sword. As much as one could keep themselves from being a target, so too would they be cut off from their greatness. She wasn’t sure whether she pitied or envied inactive Seers.

The next hours passed in bouts of silence. Hailey attempted to feel out the city. All around, outside the blacked-out pickup, energy swirled and thronged. The white-outline of truck and ever-shifting buildings sandwiched or encapsulated blue humans. Not a single wave of energy felt out of place the whole morning and afternoon.

When it was finally time to return to the cabin, Hailey was prepared to take over. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as she expected, and short of being attacked, she doubted it would be anything more than sitting around for eight hours while Ken drove. She hopped from the truck long enough to stretch her legs, grab some lunch, and use the bathroom then hopped back in and stuffed a comm in her ear.

Ken started for the city, radioing in, “Just hollar if you get a hit.”

“Got it,” Hailey said, scarfing down lunch as fast as possible.

The next few hours passed similarly to the first few. That was, until a sudden dread boiled up from her stomach. They’d only just passed the halfway mark of their shift. Ken had pulled into a gas station to refuel, Hailey’d waited until the coast was clear to deter suspicion, then slipped from the truck. Moments later, she was standing, stretching, when a knife stabbed her gut. She doubled over.

Ken lunged beside her, “You okay?”

She panted in pain, “Just this… feeling.”

Ken’s heart raced, his eyes wide, “What kind of feeling? Where’s it coming from?”

She spoke through her teeth, “Dread. I don’t know.”

“Feel it out, Hailey. This is important.”

She did her best to focus through the pain, shut off her senses. The Link activated. Waves emanated outward from somewhere nearby. She pointed aimlessly, teeth grit, “There.”

Ken spied a four-way stop-light, empty of all but one car. “Right there?” She grunted, clutched her head. “C’mon!” He yanked the fuel nozzle out. “In front. Now.”

Hailey groped her way to the passenger door. The light changed. A red, four-door sedan made a gentle right-turn. Truck tires spun on asphalt, peeled away. Smoke trailed behind them. The truck hopped the curb toward the intersection, caught air, crashed down.

“Is it moving? Is it them!?

Hailey bit her lip, grabbed hold of the pain mentally, and forced it part-way out. “Yes. Ahead.”

“It’s them,” Ken fumbled with a radio. “Patrol two to base. Come in base.”

Valerie replied. “Go ahead, Patrol two.”

“We’ve got eyes on a target.”

Valerie audibly stiffened, “Take them out. Recover anything possible.”

“Copy.” He tossed the radio aside.

Hailey’s stomach bubbled acid at her throat. “What’re … you going to do.”

He answered with action. The truck’s engine groaned. They lurched forward. The transmission whined, bucked between gears. The road-gap to the Hunters closed. A mere second passed. They were on the Hunters’ bumper. The car lurched forward this time, gained speed.

“You’re not getting off that easy you bastards!”

The car swerved around stopped traffic to pull away. The truck followed, lost speed. Gained again. Slammed bumpers. The car fishtailed. The driver rode a screaming turn across pavement and sidewalk. The angle was too wide. The car side-swiped another sedan, rebounded toward a line of buildings. Bodies dove this way and that along the sidewalk to avoid being hit. The truck surged forward, on its tail.

Hailey lolled in her seat, jarred by the truck’s movements. She was near to fainting. Agony scorched her guts. It spread in waves to her extremities. The car careened right, into an alley, galloped forward. The truck slowed for the turn, raged back toward top-speed. Hailey winced, looked out; the Hunters were too far ahead. If they reached the Alley’s end, they’d be into traffic and gone.

Her mind worked reflexively. The Link activated. Needles stabbed her fingers. Fire cooked her gut. Phantom compression pulsed at her temples. She smack a mental hand clasped at something in the distance. It was vaguely heavy, ahead of the Hunters. A two-ton dumpster flew into their path. The car struck at full-speed. The front end crumpled, a tin can to a foot. The truck skidded to a screeching stop, and the molten knife slipped from Hailey’s gut.

“C’mon!” Ken jumped out, pistol in-hand.

Hailey fell out, to her feet, gasping for breath. She stumbled toward the car, raising her P-90. Ken directed her to its trunk. He inched forward. From the angle, even Hailey could see both driver and passenger were dead. One was splayed over the dash. The other had taken some part of the car and the steering wheel to the torso, but their body and her visual angle obscured it. If she had to guess, the guy’s ribcage was pulverized, his heart pierced by bone and vehicle.

She winced at the thought, at the pain, but kept her gun up, trained through the back window. Still-smoking engine-oil and antifreeze wafted back on a breeze with hints of gasoline. It smacked Hailey, full-force, in the face. She focused on Ken’s careful approach. He hesitated with a second glance, then busted the cracked driver’s window with the butt of his pistol. Its barrel smacked away large shards of glass, and he reached a hand in to feel around.

Hailey felt sick: Ken’s hand emerged, covered in blood and gripping a cell phone. He thumbed it, ensured it still worked. Sirens screamed nearby. He hustled back, gestured Hailey along to the truck. Moments later, they were sailing toward the bunker, Hailey’s mind still in the alley.

“We may’ve just gotten the biggest break we could ever hope for,” Ken said, toweling his bloody hand.

The thought of anything verging on happiness made Hailey sick. “What!? How can you be pleased?

Ken’s eyes darted over and back, “It’s a smartphone, Hailey. Smartphone’s have GPS trackers. Long-term contracts. Serial numbers. Ip addresses. At least one of those things will be traceable.”

She finally managed to still her rising bile. “You think we can track the Hunters?”

He nodded, “It’ll lead us straight to them.”

Energy and Matter: Part 14

14.
Even the Biggest Fish Have Scales

Hailey didn’t so much fall asleep as collapse into bed and shut off. Her energy was so drained even a full-night’s sleep proved not enough. The deepened mourning greeting her on awakening weighted her already lead-heart. It felt more coincidental to her restless, dead-sleep rather than causal. Though she still believed in coincidence, unlike the other Seers, the deception of things lately meant she wasn’t putting money on anything.

A knocked sounded. She fell from bed to her feet, dressed sluggishly in a shirt, still pants-less, and sequestered her lower-half behind the door. Valerie looked in at the angle, her face more severe than Hailey’d seen yet.

“Valerie?” She yawned. “Training isn’t for another hour.”

“You’re correct,” she replied with a sidelong glance. “May I come in?”

She shook off sleep, let her in, and stepped into day-old pants. Valerie closed the door with a maternal analysis– and similar disappointment. It was less cleanly than even Hailey would’ve liked, but given the previous night and Valerie’s demanding schedule, lapsing to such a state was inevitable.

Hailey sat on the bed to slip on socks and shoes, “Are we changing the training schedule?”

“No,” Valerie said, stepping before her.

She took a breath, clearly finding difficulty with what she intended to say. Hailey hesitated. Valerie never missed a beat, let alone struggled with thoughts. Her heart tripped over itself.

“Is something wrong? Is Rachel alright?”

“Rachel is fine. Injured and recovering, but fine,” Valerie said stiffly. She cleared her throat, “I am here about your parents. Specifically, what you intend to do about them.”

Hailey squinted slightly. “What d’you mean?”

Her face fixed up with a wizened gravity. “Hailey, you were told, when your training was complete, you’d be given an opportunity to leave.” Hailey’s expression remained unchanged. “However, we also discussed that your feelings might change. You are more than capable of defending yourself and others. You proved as much last night. And while there is much you might yet learn, it requires greater commitment. Namely, remaining here for the foreseeable future. Perhaps indefinitely.”

Hailey’s squint narrowed her eyes. “You’re saying I’m finished training?”

Valerie’s head gave a tilt, “In a manner of speaking.”

“You’re not speaking, Valerie. You’re being cryptic. And I daresay more uncertainly than usual.”

Valerie scowled for a moment, but her face fell back to indifference as she admitted the uncertainty within her. For someone so sure of themselves and their words, any hesitation was likely magnified to onlookers even more so than it felt.

“Perhaps you’re right. Your preliminary training is complete. But there is more you can do to hone your skills and control. Unfortunately, it is not without sacrifices. Nevertheless, the choice remains open, but the offer will not last forever.”

“So choose to live here or go home,” Hailey said plainly.

“More or less.” Valerie hesitated again, made doubly sure of her next words, “As I said you’ve proven yourself capable. Normally, you would begin my advanced training while taking on responsibilities; joining Yasmine’s security team, their patrols, scouting or supply runs.”

“But my choice means I’m allowed to leave before committing to that?”

“Indeed,” Valerie replied. “But it is a true commitment we require. We cannot have flights of indecisiveness risking this refuge. To join us, you must commit wholly to us, else outside loyalties endanger our safety.”

Hailey read the subtext in Valerie’s words, “You mean cut ties with my family.”

“If necessary, yes,” she said with a regretful nod. “As they must remain with us for now, it will appear less divisive than it might later. Whether here or not, you would be forced to consider them second to the group, whose safety takes precedence over theirs when necessary.”

Hailey looked to the floor. Valerie’s commitment could be summed up much more simply than Hailey wanted. She almost couldn’t bear thinking of it, but the people around her deserved better than cowering at her own thoughts– or for that matter, reality. Valerie was ultimately admitting she might have to sacrifice or parents for the others, whether through action or inaction.

Hailey spoke as if her thoughts had been spoken aloud. Valerie didn’t need them to be.

“How do I do that?” She looked up at her, seeking guidance, “How do I tell the people that have loved and protected me my whole life, that they’re to be repaid like that? Second to strangers?”

Valerie sighed, sank beside Hailey on the bed. She was suddenly candid, as if her stiff veneer had never existed, however present it remained otherwise. “I first learned I was a Seer while pregnant and married. The child never came to turn. Not after what happened. My husband and I had been rescued, much as you, by a group of strangers that knew more than we did. I decided shortly after, that I could not bring a child into the world I suddenly found myself in. My husband felt otherwise, but ultimately knew I was right.”

Strained memories played over her face. The sudden flash reminded her of Elise’s traumatized stare before she’d snapped, attacked. It was no wonder she had. She wasn’t even half Valerie’s age, already forced to contend with a thing that brought even the most experienced, stiff-faced Seer to the edges of strength.

Valerie’s stare broke. “We were together only months before agreeing to break it off. As you, I was given the choice to stay and fight, or leave. I had already sacrificed my child, my dreams to train as a Seer. For me, leaving meant those sacrifices were in vain. The only reason to leave was my husband.” She cleared emotion from her throat with a hard swallow. “I devoted my life to this purpose the day I was asked to remain among the group that saved my life. Ultimately, I stayed because it was what I felt best. Not just for me, but for those I owed my life to.”

Hailey watched her a moment, but her eyes fell thoughtfully to the floor.

Valerie’s voice softened. “Hailey, I cannot tell you what the right path is. And it would be disrespectful to deceive you into believing this is an easy choice. It will never will be easy to accept. Nor will its consequences. All I can say from experience, is recognize that your choice affects far more than you alone. As much as I fear to sway you, I must admit, we need you as we need anyone willing to help. However, you are young and yet to live life even meagerly.

“And while your parents may stay, and indeed become as great an asset as you, the distance between you will be irrefutable. It is the same distance that afflicts all Seers. We are of a different breed. One with much greater responsibility and effect. Time and again, the three of you will be forced to accept you are no longer their daughter. Rather, you are their protector, as you are to any here.”

Hailey’s eyes glistened with sadness, “And if I leave?”

Valerie surveyed the glint, “Then you are master of your fates, beyond the reach of those who need or help you.”

Valerie winced at the manipulative way of her own words. There was little to be done about it. Hard truths were infinitely less painful, less dangerous, than soothing lies.

“Whatever you choose, Hailey, know that you have been an excellent student. I could not be more proud of your progress. You have great power, child. I suspect, whether here or elsewhere, you will do great things with it. I only hope they may one day help bring an end to the fight that has forced us all here.” She rose from the bed, turning to face Hailey a final time before leaving, “Your training is complete– at least until a decision is made. Take your time, but do not forget; others’ actions may hinge on your response.”

With that, Valerie left. Hailey stared at the closed door. The conversation was an echo of crashing waves. Thoughts nipped and fled from Hailey’s feet on the shore. Like a tide, her decision felt as if merely an eventuality, long ago decided and only yet to pass. Speaking it required more courage than present, while confirming such a decision so quickly felt ill-advised, disrespectful. If nothing else, she’d take time to summon her voice.

As Hailey sat on her bed, Elise’s restless waves struggled for sleep beyond the wall. She’d done nothing but lie in bed since attacking Hailey. She cried, grieving as much for her parents as for herself. Then, Yasmine had led her inside to sleep. She stayed long enough to believe Elise slept, then left. Elise’s strength left with her. She spent the night bearing thoughts and fears that left her writhing. Fits of half-sleep passed. Periods of blame; blaming herself, blaming Hailey. Imagining ways she might have, should have, acted, reacted.

Reality was cold facts, no matter who was to blame; her parents were dead. Her family was gone. Bodies in a morgue no longer bore the same beating hearts. The ones that had graced such love upon her. Gone too, it felt, was Elise’s own heart. She wasn’t even sure it still beat until its rhythm stumbled at Yaz’s sudden appearance.

Elise’s eyes widened. Yaz winced, “I didn’t wake you, did I?” She gave an awkward shake against her pillow. “You mind if I sit?” She half-shrugged. “How are you?” Another shrug. “I can go, if you like.”

She started to stand but Elise grabbed her wrist, her voice weak, “Please. Don’t.”

She wondered what to say. “Rachel’s awake. A little loopy from medicine, but she’ll be okay.” Elise’s hand slid into hers. Yaz trembled, focused elsewhere. “I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”

“I know.”

Yaz stroked Elise’s hand, only half-aware of it. “Ken’s making breakfast. I can bring it here. No-one’ll blame you for wanting to eat away from the crowd right now.”

Elise trembled this time, a bodily mirroring from the calloused smoothness of Yaz’s hand. She inched into a slump against the headboard, half-sitting, half laying. “I don’t… really want to be alone. I just don’t know if I can be around… everyone, yet.”

Yaz sensed her meaning. “Grief is normal, Elise. Everyone here’s lost someone. We all know what it feels like.” She angled nearer to her on the bed. “Look, what I mean is, if you want me to stay here, just say so. I’m giving you time off from training. You deserve it anyhow.”

Elise brightened subtly, “Will you stay for breakfast?”

Yaz’s eyes caught light, twinkled with a sturdy nod. “Of course. I’ll stay all day if you want– after my security briefing, I mean. Then, I’m yours for the day.”

Elise did her best to will tears, but failed. She sniffled, “Sorry. Thank you.”

Yaz’s eyes fell to their hands. Elise leaned forward. Before she realized it, their lips pressed. It was clumsy. Stupid. She pulled away apologizing. Yaz said nothing, bewildered. She blinked hard, tongue skirting her lip.

“I’m sorry, I just…” Elise trailed off, face red and tears flowing.

She tried to pull her hand from Yaz but the grip tightened. “No.” Her chest fluttered. “Don’t. Just– Is this real or… ”

Elise was equally caught off-guard by her forwardness. “I… think so.”

Her usual confidence wavered “What I-I mean is… is this really what you want or– you know, comfort?”

Elise shrugged, eyes still averted. “I… want it. It started during our training. B-but, I understand if you’re don’t.”

Yaz was cautious, quiet. “Why now?”

Elise preened the bed-sheet, “I just need— you, now. I can’t hide it. Not after… not now.”

Again, Yaz hesitated, “Is it really me, Elise?” Silence. Yaz lifted her face with a pair of fingers met the tear-glazed eyes behind her glasses. Her voice softened, “Is it really me, or just anyone?”

Elise’s eyes didn’t stray. She knew the answer. “You.”

Yasmine leaned. Their lips met again. Elise’s wet face sank against Yaz. Their hearts raced. Heads spun with euphoric vertigo. She forced herself forward, over, straddled Elise atop the bed. Their hands tensed, pulled at one another in a passion fueled by fear, need, desire.

A sudden knock made them jump. Yaz choked on a quiet gasp. Elise’s chest heaved. Yaz sat back on the bed’s edge and called at the door. It opened on Ken, apron-clad over flannel and denim, and still dusted with pancake mix.

“Breakfast’s ready. You want some?”

Elise nodded silently. Yaz spoke aloud, “We’ll be there in a minute.”

Ken saw Elise’s tears, suppressed a regretful twitch, and nodded. He pulled the door closed, completely oblivious. Yaz wasn’t sure anyone should know. Not yet anyhow. The door shut, and she stood, pulling Elise up with her.

“C’mon. You need to keep your strength up. We’ll have the briefing afterward. That way, you’ll know what it’s like. And you won’t have to be alone Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, voice cracking.

Yaz slipped her arms around Elise. Their temples met. Warm breath invited Elise’s nearer on her neck. She basked in it, finally forcing away her tears, her strength renewed by Yasmine’s embrace.

Energy and Matter: Part 13

13.

Paradigm Shift

Hailey handed her mother a glass of water across the kitchen bar. Elise still lie in the training room, catatonic. She’d collapsed there. Hailey offered to stay, but Yaz sent her away. Even now she cradled Elise, awaiting news of Rachel’s injuries. Both Miller and Valerie tended to Rachel in a vacant bedroom they’d converted for triage. The extent of the damage, and the length of time for her recovery, was anyone’s guess.

Personally, Hailey was more consumed by issues she could actually address. Fearing for Rachel was inevitable. Grieving for Elise equally so, but she could do nothing productive in either of those instances.

Her mother took the cup of water with a quiet, “thank you.” Hailey sought the best way to explain. Her mother sipped. Her father stared, utterly lost. Hailey sympathized. So much had happened so fast, it was hard not to be lost. Her training was the only thing keeping her on an even-keel. In light of that, she mustered her wits and courage.

“I know you have questions. But listen now. I want you to know why I disappeared. Anything I don’t cover, ask when I’m done, okay?”

Her parents eyed her. Their skepticism said there was nothing to make sense of the chaos they’d seen. The confusion they felt. Most of all, how Hailey had seemingly already processed it all.

She sighed, knowing the look. She’d received it the first time she’d been caught with a joint. It said “Explain yourself,” simultaneously admitting there was way to.

Still, she had to try. She cleared her throat. “It started with a book. A couple weeks ago.”

With that, Hailey began to explain everything that had happened. Her parents’ disbelief was obvious. It was understandable. Hailey saw the insanity in it too. Their daughter had disappeared without a trace for weeks. Then, suddenly showed up dressed like a soldier, toting a gun, and forcing them to uproot without explanation. It warranted some incredulity.

But the chaos should’ve have imparted the dire reality of things.

She hoped they were still in shock. After all, four people had just died in front of them. Two were people they knew well. Between Elise’s parents and the Hunters, enough blood had been spilled that the truth should’ve been obvious.

It wasn’t. While they hadn’t learned or felt what Hailey and Elise had, reconciling their lack of faith was difficult. Hailey had learned that somethings needed to be taken on faith. Apart from being truths difficult to understand, they were also less satisfying.

Hailey finished, bracing against the sink to await questions. Her father sank back in his seat, pressing his temples, as was usual when mentally taxed. Likewise, her mother’s shoulders sank.

“This is insane,” her father finally said.

“Alex.”

“No.” He slid from his stool, pacing the room. He whipped ’round across it. “Don’t you see what’s going on here? Our daughter’s been brain-wash–”

“I haven’t—”

“By this… cult! They’ve trained her to kill, and they’re–”

“Alex, stop!” She shouted, verging on tears.

“Dad. Seriously.” Hailey was both disgusted and disappointed. He was ready to argue, but she cut him off. “These people saved my life. If it weren’t for Yasmine and Bryce, Elise and I would’ve been killed– or worse! They were protecting me. Now they’re protecting you!”

“Protection? You think that’s what this is?” He scoffed. “The only people protecting you are your mother and I– how d’you know they didn’t send those people after you?”

“Why would they send people after me then kill them?” She asked with a harsh discordance.

The empathic projection hit his chest like a bolt of ice. It spread through his veins. Froze his blood. Staggered him. He swallowed hard, instantly terrified.

Hailey clenched her jaw, eyes seemingly afire. “You can’t protect me from them, Dad. I’m sorry that hurts your ego, but we have bigger problems. All of us. You cannot leave this place. Whether you make the best of it or not’s your choice. But you are. Not. Leaving.

His mouth wished to squirm in anger, but the ice wouldn’t allow it. Instead, her mother cut in, “Hailey, try to see this from our perspective.”

She sighed, hand to her forehead. “I have, Mom. But you have to accept there are things bigger than you going on. And I’m involved. Whether we like it or not.” She glanced between her parents, “This place… it isn’t so bad. And these are good people. Friends. They’re as much forced to be here as us. Their lives are in danger simply because they exist.”

“But why are we here?” Dad asked, trying for calm for fear of another ice-bolt. “We’re not… Seers, or whatever. Right?”

She took his calm as a peace offering, matched it. “No. You’re not. But you are the parents of a Seer. You’re valuable. A bargaining chip. If the Hunters had gotten to you before us, you’d have been used as bait to draw the rest of us in.”

“Why? What do they want?” Her mother asked, doing her best to mediate the situation.

Hailey explained as best she could, “The power I have makes me immune to using it. Other people, normal people, can have the power too but it’s like a drug for them. They become addicted. Hollow. They’re mindless husks with no free-will. Seers aren’t like that. The Hunters want us alive. To study, experiment on. But they’ll kill us if we fight back hard enough. But they can’t do that if we’re in hiding. You were targeted to draw us out. Elise’s parents too.”

Her dad threw his head into a disbelieving shake but her mother remained passive. “So Elise is… not a Seer?” Hailey affirmed with a look. “And they want her because she knows you are?”

“Yes. They would’ve hoped going after Elise’s parents would draw us both out.”

“But now they’re…”

“Dead.” Hailey’s heart sank. She hesitated with a breath, then, “Look, the point is, you’re not safe anywhere else. You have to be here. For all of our sakes. If you’re caught, the Hunters will use you to get to me.” She looked explicitly to her father, “Even if you don’t believe this, you have to trust me. Being here is the right thing to do.”

“What about the police or–”

“There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to handle these people,” Hailey said sincerely. “Besides, if they even believed us, keeping a low profile is important unless more groups decide to come after us. The fewer people aware of Seers, the better. We can’t exactly follow the law. And I don’t even want to think about a witch hunt.”

Her mother and father exchanged a look. The former spoke. “So, what are we supposed to do? Just sit here? Honey, we have jobs, and bills, and–”

Hailey took a breath, they still weren’t getting it. “This is more important, Mom. This is life or death. Those things can be fixed later. You can’t fix being dead.”

The words echoed in Hailey’s head longer than she liked. Her body and mind were running on pure adrenaline. Her patience was waning. She’d been exhausted before Yaz had torn her from bed. Now, she’d passed the point where sleep might be possible, much less restful. The entire night had been a clusterfuck. Rachel was wounded. Elise’s parents were dead. Hers were in shock. And everything felt like her fault. She couldn’t handle it. Not if forced to coddle her parents too.

She pinched the corners of her eyes, “Just relax, okay? Too much has happened to figure everything out now. I’ll get you a room and we’ll talk tomorrow. I need to see Elise.”

With that she strolled away, unwilling to allow any further arguments. A definite paradigm shift had occurred. She suddenly understood parenthood better. The pseudo-parental figure she’d been forced to become required she watch her parents as if infants. In a way, they were. Overgrown children, more stubborn and combative than infants could ever dream of. Ultimately each child knew, their parents were the overlords. Parents too, knew children were their charges. The family “chain of command” put them at the top.

That chain was now broken, re-fused, Hailey at its apex. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize how difficult the shift could make things. Hailey couldn’t help but think of Yaz, her seemingly effortless sway over her subordinates. The chain was reversed for her too. The difference was, the people below recognized her authority.

That must’ve been nice.

She found the training room door half-open, peered in. Elise sat against a wall, staring into unreality with wet eyes. Her face remained as empty as in the truck. Grief poured from her in an invisible geyser formed within that burst continuously. Its contents became tidal waves that drowned reality, stung Hailey’s heart. Needles stabbed her throat and extremities. Valerie was right; genuine grief ran deep, yet this went even deeper.

She entered the room as quietly as possible. Yaz knelt beside Elise, a hand on her shoulder. Hailey ambled over, lost for words or action. She’d never been good with grief. Never even experienced a distant relative’s death. Even as a Seer, proper sentiment was beyond her. Thus, she stood before Elise, head hung and hands wrung with guilt. She felt Elise’s pain, and beneath it, her own sympathy.

“I’m sorry… about your parents. Elise, I didn’t… I didn’t see the Hunters ‘til it was too late. Everything happened so fast.” Elise’s empty eyes rose to meet hers. A vague twitch in one’s corner forced Hailey’s head to hang again. “I know there’s nothing to say to… I just want you to know, I’m here. It probably doesn’t help, but…”

She trailed off. Her eyes wandered up again– caught Elise lunging. Time slowed. Her muscles engaged. They were too late. She was on the floor. Elise straddled her chest. Her newly strengthened hands clasped Hailey’s throat. They squeezed like hydraulic vises.

“I’ll kill you!” Elise screamed. Yaz was up, moving. “I’ll kill you, bitch!”

Yaz’s tiny figure pried Elise off in a yank. She locked Elise in a full-nelson. Hailey skittered away, coughing and writhing with renewed air.

Elise rasped in fury, deranged. “I’ll cut your fucking heart out. You bitch! You did this! It’s your fault! You–”

Yaz covered her mouth with a hand, threw her around. In a flash, she had Elise against a wall, forearm at her throat. Elise’s throat scratched for air. Her face was beet-read. Purple veins bulged around her neck and temples.

“This isn’t helping!” Yaz barked at nose-length.

Hailey drug herself toward the opposite wall, catching only bits of air. Elise kicked and struggled, a rabid animal chained to a post.

“What the fuck’re you thinking!?” She slammed Elise against the wall, stunned her, released her to a dazed heap. “Never use what I teach you on one of us. I don’t give a fuck if she just stabbed you in the gut. You. Don’t. Fight.” She shoved Elise’s torso back with a foot, fixed their eyes together. “I am God here. Almighty Zeus. My word is law! Violation means death. No matter how good of friends we are, this isn’t a fucking fight club. Act like a rabid dog, I put you down. Got it?”

Elise’s daze was wearing thin, but still thick enough that she could only half-nod in reply.

“Good.” Yaz stepped toward Hailey, who’d balled up across the room. “And you–” Hailey looked up, her coughs beginning to subside. “Are you injured?”

“I don’t… think so,” Hailey said, drawing sharp breaths.

“Then get lost, I don’t need you.”

Hailey rasped a breath, “I came to–”

Yaz’s eyes were fire again. “I don’t care if you came with a million fucking dollars. Get. Lost!

Hailey fought her way up, then staggered from the room. The door shut. Yasmine put a hand to her forehead that fell back to her side with a shoulder-slumping defeat. She stared forward, hand on her hip, trying to work out what the hell’d just happened– and whether or not she would have to put Elise down.

Elise’s voice crackled, wet and rasping. “It’s her fault, Yaz. None of this… It wouldn’t have happened if she’d stayed away. If she’d’ve kept her stupid mouth shut–”

Yaz snapped, “You’re wrong, Elise. You know that. Inside.”

“Hailey’s power started all of it.”

Yaz’s irritation seeped through, “And you know damned well the moment you learned it, you were as fucked as she was.”

“That’s not–”

“Shut up!” She about-faced, planted firm steps toward Elise with a stiff spine. “I swear to you, Elise, if you ever pull that kind of shit again on anyone here, I won’t hesitate. I don’t care who’s just died, or who’s at fault, you never use what I’ve taught you on one of us. Never. Am I clear?”

Elise nodded silently, eyes averted in shame. Yaz sighed and softened. She sank beside Elise to sit on the floor, her back against a wall. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but…”

“It’s okay,” Elise moused, wincing. “I earned it.”

She held Elise’s hand in both of hers, eyed her with sympathy. “No, it isn’t. None of it is. It’s not okay we were too late. It’s not okay the Hunters got the drop. It’s not okay your parents are dead. It’s not okay we’re losing this war. None of this is okay.” Elise was about to speak. Yaz stayed her. “If anyone is to blame, Elise, it’s me. Not Hailey. She may be the only reason we’re alive. If she hadn’t sensed those Hunters, we might all be dead.”

“What’re you trying to say?”

Yaz looked at their hands, searching for proper words to explain her thoughts. She gave up, went with her gut, “Hailey is as much a victim as you are. More even. The Seers are just… products of Human evolution. Hunters force them into hiding simply for existing. In the meantime, they threaten them. Everyone they love. Everyone they care about. And if they have the chance, they use or kill them.

“You’re part of that. But Hailey, the others, they shoulder the greatest burden. Fearing for their lives simply by existing. Fearing for, and remaining the cause of, so many others’ suffering.

“But it doesn’t make it their fault, Elise. None of it. Being angry at Hailey isn’t going to help. In the end, it hurts more than you or her. If there’s anything I’ve learned here, it’s that you shouldn’t blame anyone for what happens. Instead, cherish them all the more because they could be gone in a heart-beat.”

Her words rang into silence with a soft breath.

Elise knew she was right, but found it difficult to put aside her own feelings. Blaming Hailey was a defense mechanism. A result of being so lost. Maybe it was rightful in some ways. Maybe it was completely and totally unfair and childish. Neither case changed her parents death. Then again, her wounds couldn’t heal overnight, if ever fully. At the very least, she knew Yaz was right, however unwilling she was to accept it yet.

She sank against Yaz’s shoulder, utterly dejected and defeated, body long exhausted by grief and pain. With a resignation to let things rest for the night, she nuzzled Yaz’s shoulder and tightened her fingers around Yaz’s hand.

Energy and Matter: Part 12

12.

Innocence Lost

The next days were a blur. Eventually, Hailey found herself in line with Valerie’s sentiments on hate. Part of her truly hated Miller and Rachel for the beatings, hated Valerie for allowing it. She trusted them though, almost inexplicably, and sensed it would pass.

At times, she found herself pushed so hard she left her body entirely. Life ceased. She retreated into the ether, watched herself fighting– losing, winning– from on-high. Half in The Link. Half out. More than once she thought herself dead, experiencing a very real hell. She only re-centered afterward, when autonomously eating, showering, or falling into bed devoid of energy and unable to think.

Like her, Elise was finding her place and pace, peace of mind. Training honed her focus, allowed her to surpass Yaz’s expectations. She was glad, but cared only to see her parents again. That could only happen through Yaz’s training, when she became the fighter Yaz expected. If she didn’t, seeing her parents only put them in harm’s way.

The two girls still hadn’t spoken, save in passing, when Elise found herself stepping into a shower after training. Behind her, Hailey entered the bathroom. Neither was sure what to do. Elise shut the stall door, twisted the shower on, and soaked her aching muscles. Hailey paused mid-step as she entered the bathroom, was compelled back to action when the water started.

She undressed and entered a shower-stall in silence. Fiddled knobs gave way to an undeniable tension beneath drumming water. Elise sensed it, knew Hailey had too. She sighed silently, its presence stabbing their chests, and immersed herself in water, hoping to find a sentiment to shatter the tension. Hailey graciously obliged.

“I know you don’t hate me, Elise.” Displaced water said Elise straightened to wash herself. “I don’t blame you for being angry. I just… don’t want to lose my best-friend to something beyond my control. If there’s something I can do, please, tell me.”

Elise was too tired for anger. Her limbs and mind were weighted by hot water. She had no energy to breathe, she couldn’t be angry. She didn’t hate Hailey anyway, but nothing could be done. The more she lied, said otherwise, the worse things would get.

But Yaz was right too; her anger affected more than her alone.

She said nothing, shut off the shower, and stepped out to towel. She redressed and stood before a sink to stare at herself in a mirror. Hailey’s shower shut off, more quietly than normal. She appeared behind Elise in a towel, hesitated, then began to dress. She was ready to leave when Elise spoke.

“I don’t hate you, Hailey.” She pivoted slowly to face Elise. “I know none of this is your fault. Lying won’t help. Even then, I won’t. I am angry at you. It’s not rational. It’s not fair. But I am. Being stuck here isn’t our choice, but you don’t have to fight for a place here. There are answers here for you. For me there’s just… a void I can’t fill.”

Hailey hesitated again, but repeated her question, “Is there something– anything, I can do?”

Elise shook her head. “No. I need time. You’re my friend and I love you. And I know, if things were reversed, you’d still be here. But there’s no magical cure. Just time.”

She piled her clothing under an arm, stepped past Hailey. The door to the bathroom shut. It echoed in waves that shook Hailey’s core. She willed away pain; she hadn’t lost Elise, not completely. She wasn’t sure either one had time, but she’d give her all she could. She’d never wanted a cure-all, just some affirmation, good or bad. She had it. Expecting more was ungrateful. Grieving was unfair, too; as a Seer, it affected more than she alone.

Hailey took the empty corridor to her room, feeling increasingly like the Omega Man. The bunker felt desolate. An immovable dread clouded over it, just out of sight– even for a Seer. Hailey sank into sleep, hoping morning would change things. It didn’t. The cloud took residence over the bunker, following Hailey through the next few days and spreading to others in the interrum.

She found herself more guarded than ever. Valerie and the other Seers sensed it too. They pushed Hailey further, harder, sensing her training would need to be complete, total. They forced her to concentrate, to fight, long after she should’ve collapsed. She allowed it, more driven than ever. Her endurance, already far beyond what it had been, increased ten-fold. The last, blurred days gave way to more of total blackness. The more she tried to comprehend them, the more incomplete they became.

The cloud finally burst as she was lying on her bed, utterly exhausted and battered from telekinetic combat training. To say her body hurt missed the extremity of the damage it had learned ot endure. Her mental fatigue left her in a perpetual trance, a breath from the Link.

A knock sounded, but the door opened anyway. Yaz appeared, “Training room. Now.

She sat up, but Yaz was gone, the door open. Hailey fell to her feet, drug herself out, limbs trembling. She entered Yaz’s training room to find Miller and Rachel with she and Elise clustered at a corner. Hailey’s body quaked, shot pain through and along it.

She stepped up to the open cabinet and the group around it. Before she could speak, Miller forced a vest on her, pressed a comm in her ear. Beside her, Rachel mirrored the motion. Miller turned back to the cabinet, grabbed a weapon out, slapped a magazine on its upper section. He pinched back a bolt, and stuffed a comm in his ear to hustle past for the door. Rachel hurried after him.

Yaz passed Elise a vest and a weapon, eyed Hailey, “You had weapons training?”

“A little. Not much. Why?”

Yaz shoved a gun into Hailey’s arms. “P-90.” She pointed to the barrel, then the trigger, “Point. Shoot. Aim that end at the bad guys.”

Elise stuffed an ear-piece in, tested it. Yaz affixed her sheathed sword, then snapped a leg-holster on, her pistol in it. She angled past them, then started off.

“Wait!” She begged, hustling after her. Elise kept pace with her. “What’s going on?”

They headed for the elevator, “Your parents.” They stopped to await its return.

“What about them?” Elise asked.

“The Hunters are moving. Jenna and Ken have confirmation. They intercepted radio traffic–” She forced them onto the elevator before it locked in place, immediately launched it upward. “They’re taking your families in. We’re not waiting. We’ll move to secure them, then deal with the Hunters.”

Elise’s eyes nearly exploded. “What!? What the hell d’you mean “secure” them?”

They arrived in the cabin, pushed through and out. Yaz led into the back of the pick up. The cap and gate closed as they settled against the wheel-wells. The truck spun and groaned, lurching through brush for the road.

“Yaz?”

She sat at the tiny, mobile command center, keying in info on a sat-map. As expected, they weren’t more than a few miles from Bacatta-proper. Technically, they were still in town, but far enough that Yaz’s fears were obvious. They might be just far enough not to make it in time.

“Yasmine!” Elise shouted.

“We’re bringing them in,” she growled, focused elsewhere. “It’s time. They need to know the truth. They won’t like it. They will resist. You need to show them you’re safe. That they won’t be if they don’t follow us.” She turned, eyed Hailey, “Make sure they understand the gravity of the situation.”

Hailey recalled her parents’ remote grief and nodded.

“I’ll make sure they come with us,” Elise said, less confident than she let on.

The ride was tense. Between her vest, gun, and comm, Hailey found it impossible to sit comfortably. A racing heart didn’t help. All that kept her from total panic was the emotional control she’d garnered from Valerie’s training. If any of that training was to pay off, it was now or never.

She wasn’t sure what would happen, but that seemed the point. Her actions weren’t to be second-guessed. They were meant to be reflexive, fluid. As much second nature as Link-activation or mindfulness. Hopefully, shit hitting the fan meant she’d dodge before realizing she needed to– metaphorically or otherwise.

Bacatta-proper appeared in a blur of headlights, and Yaz’s commands,“Hailey’s closer. They’re likely to go for the Seer’s family first.”

Hailey’s heart rose in her throat. Elise grimaced across the dark bed, “I’m sure they’re fine.”

She was silent, focused on retaining control of her emotions. Losing her wits helped no-one, her parents least of all. Losing control meant losing her power. That might be all that stood between her parents and certain death. She screwed up her face, breathed, mind on her heart. Beneath her, the truck rumbled and weaved. The city outside was in its night rhythms, subdued chaos of life and breath. Hailey sympathized.

An undeniable aura had appeared in her absence. For the first time, Hailey understood the world for what it was. It wasn’t a fixed entity. Rather, it was countless entities– organisms within organisms, pulsing, undulating, vibrating, moving as one. There was movement within movement, even in the most immobile things. Her power revealed the world for what it was; nested hives of activity, energy, the only differences between the iterations, volume, density.

She was suddenly humbled, and oddly at ease. An intense knowing overcame her; it would all turn out– not necessarily right, nor wrong, but some way. Despite the dread, the tension, the indifferent world, she was where she needed to be. Anywhere else would’ve been wrong– the wrong place, the wrong time.

She was ripped away from her thoughts by the truck skidding to a stop. Yaz was out, sword and gun drawn. Elise and Hailey piled out. The semi-darkness of suburbia outside Hailey’s home was familiar, but felt decidedly foreign. So much had happened the past weeks that Hailey longer recognized home. Indeed, her empathic power said it felt the same.

The group advanced to the front door, single-file, and lined up outside. Hailey centered herself in the line, ready to rush in, gun spraying. Yaz gave a silent three count. The screen door was thrown open. Miller kicked the inner-door off its hinges. They charged in, weapons shouldered. The rest followed. Shouts erupted. Miller and Yaz stopped short.

Hailey pushed toward the front. Her father’s face went white behind the dining table. Her mother gasped, ready to sprint forward as Yaz spoke.

“They’re not here,” she said, eyes wide.

Elise swallowed hard. “My parents!”

She bounded for the truck. Rachel and Yaz hurried after her.

Miller stood in place beside Hailey, “We need to move, kid.”

“What’s going on here?” Her father demanded, more confused than caustic.

He rushed over to hug her, but Hailey forced her back, “We need to go. Now!

“What’re you–”

“Mr. Ferguson, if you do not follow your daughter this instant, I will have to subdue you and drag you along. We do not have time for a reunion.”

He looked open-mouthed between Miller and Hailey. She pulled at her mother, half-dragging her down the stairs. Miller waited a beat, ready to move. Her father swallowed, followed. Miller ran vanguard. Yaz and Elise were in, ready to go. Hailey rushed her parents into the truck bed.

Miller climbed in, radioing, “We’re in. Go.”

“Honey, what’s going on?” Hailey’s father asked.

Miller glanced between the girl and her parents, “Make it quick, kid. We’re not done yet.”

“Who are these people? Where have you been? Why are you carrying guns? What the hell is going on here?”

“Dad, calm down,” Hailey said sternly. He looked ready to protest, then thought better of it. “Something happened. To me. I can’t explain now, but just listen, trust me.”

“Trust what?” Her mother asked through tears.

“Some very bad people are trying to find me and Elise. In order to try to get to us, they were going to use you.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Her father asked.

Miller cut in, “It means, Mr. Ferguson, that if you don’t do exactly as we tell you, you may not survive the night.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No. Dad–” Hailey growled frustration. “Just do what we tell you, and you’ll be alright, okay? Please?” He wasn’t satisfied. She looked him dead in the eyes, “Trust me.

Her father sighed, clearly angry, but too shaken to fight. The truck skidded to another stop and Miller threw down the tail-gate.

“Stay with them,” Hailey ordered, clambering out. Miller knelt outside the tail-gate, weapon ready.

Hailey rushed the door with the others. Elise led the charge. She’d lived there her whole life, yet it had never seemed more foreign. Her tension and fear were palpable, even without ESP. They breached, Rachel in Miller’s place. A moment later, they mounted the stairs, weapons sweeping. Elise’s mother stood from the couch in the living room, hands up and instantly in terror. It took her a moment to recognize Elise before her face drained its color.

She choked on sobs, rushed to hug Elise. Her father appeared with a bat, froze, spied Elise, and dropped it to sprint toward her. They smothered her tearfully.

Yaz radioed, “We’ve got ‘em. Anything yet?”

“Nothing,” Miller radioed, scanning the darkness. “Still quiet.”

Too quiet.

Elise’s parents asked the same questions, demanded the same explanations, equally quelled by relief. All the same, they couldn’t stay. Yaz rounded them up. Elise maneuvered her parents outside, the group in a line with Hailey at the rear.

Horror sprinted along her spine. It hit her brain, unfurled along a dropping gut. She spun, ready to retch: Two figures appeared at the house’s far-side. Guns rose. Hailey barely felt herself yell. Time slowed. Muzzle flashes were flickers of lightning. Ammunition whizzed in trails. Miller pivoted, aimed. Hailey reacted, dropped to a knee. Her P90 rose. Trailing fire divided their line.

Time resumed. Elise’s father fell. Blood curdling shrieks revealed the fresh holes in his torso. Rachel screamed, landed on the sidewalk. Her arm and side flowed with crimson as she fought shock to aim. Yaz threw Elise down, pistol out. More gunfire crackled. Rachel and Elise’s screams were joined by another, cut dead a second later. Hailey’s body reacted. Her training kicked in. Her gun was spitting hellfire, popping in rhythm with Miller’s. The Hunters went down.

It was too late. Hailey turned, saw Elise scurry from beneath Yaz. She scrambled toward her mother, screaming, reaching toward her father. Her voice was muddled by saliva, mucus. Tears made screams incoherent. Their cause wasn’t. Elise’s hands bathed in red, applied pressure to her mother’s chest.

“Knew you were alive,” her mother said. “S-soldiering on.”

“No. No. No.”

Sirens blared in the distance. Her mother’s jaw clenched. An earth-splitting gasp rattled her. She relaxed; limp. Dead.

Hailey’s father dove out. He and Miller grabbed Rachel up, rushed her to the bed. Yaz grabbed Elise. She resisted. Hailey grabbed too, rubbernecking.

Yaz screamed. “They’re dead. You’re not.” Sirens wailed. “You can’t fight the Hunters from a cell. Get. Up. Now!

She jerked Elise up with immense strength, shoved her toward the truck. Hailey pulled her along, shoved her in, then sprinted back to the bed. Yaz piled in beside Elise, her cries silent, her face empty. Miller burned rubber as cruiser-lights appeared in the rear-view. He took the first turn he could, then another, driving a zig-zag toward the bunker at break-neck speed.

Yaz examined Elise for holes, found none. If she hadn’t been breathing, Yaz might’ve mistaken her for dead. She felt the fresh pain still stabbing at Elise’s heart. Words failed her. She did the only thing she could think to, held Elise’s hand in her own.

Missed Part 11? Read it here!

Energy and Matter: Part 11

11.

No More Games

It had been a few days since their last encounter that Hailey found Elise and a few others gathered in the kitchen. Yaz stood behind the bar, the group intensely focused on her. Hailey appeared within sight and Yaz motioned her over.

“Now we can begin.”

“What’s going on?” Hailey asked, eyeing the assembly.

“Something bad,” Rachel said beside her.

“This is gonna’ be a clusterfuck,” Miller added, elsewhere.

Unless we get ahead of it, yes,” Yaz affirmed.

Hailey was lost. She looked to Elise, and the pensive anger on her face. “Our parents.”

Hailey’s heart skipped a beat. “What about them?”

“Last night they met,” Rachel said. “I had a vision of it.”

“Rachel and I confirmed it later,” Miller added again.

She was confused, “I’m still lost. What’s it mean?”

Yaz replied succinctly, “In simplest terms, they’ve sought outside help to locate you. A private investigator. He is now under surveillance by Hunters.”

“What!?”

Rachel winced, “And they’re likely to take your parents hostage as bait.”

Hailey’s stomach rolled and tumbled. Bile made its acidic creep up the back of her throat. It stung her tonsils and sinuses. The world was ready to spin out of control. The only thing that kept her from collapsing was her now-minute emotional control. Valerie’s training had done that, at least.

She steadied herself on the bar, “Woah…” A deep breath saved her remaining nerves. “What do we do?”

Silence. Elise fumed. Hailey heard, and felt, air bursting through flared nostrils. For once though, it wasn’t directed at her. The group exchanged looks, then settled on Yasmine. She strengthened her stance, legs planted wide, and arms crossed at her chest.

“We’re going to turn the tide, use them as bait,” she said sternly.

“What?”

“It’s absolutely insane,” Elise growled. “They have no idea what’s going on.”

“Be that as it may,” Yaz said calmly. “It’s my call, and I’ve made it.”

“Wait. Wait,” Hailey said, waving a hand and stumbling over her words. “What the hell’re you talking about? Using our parents as bait? Why? How? Set a trap? How’s that fair? They know nothing. What makes you think the Hunters won’t just kill them?”

A small argument broke out. Elise jumped into a verbal dog-fight between Rachel and Miller, sided with the former. Hailey and Elise were on the same page, for once. They barked at both Miller and Ken, whom argued it might be the only way to learn anything.

Shut up!” Yaz snapped. The room was silent. “This is my call. I am in charge of security. Hailey. Elise. I understand your reservations, but this has to be done. Intel on the Hunters is scarce. Rachel was lucky to have spotted the pair running surveillance. We’ve already lost them.” Her eyes darted between the two girls, “Until I say otherwise, both of you are to step-up your training. I will inform Valerie immediately. Timing is crucial. You both need to be field-rated before the Hunters make their move. That could be any time in the next few days to the next few weeks.”

“Why rush field-rating them, Yaz?” Ken asked. “Putting them out there’s risking all of us if they’re not properly trained.”

Another argument was about to break out when Yaz’s eyes narrowed lethally. “I’ve already spoken to Valerie, Hailey’s progress is rapid. Miller; you and Rachel will go with her. Begin the last phase of her training. Elise is learning just as quickly. I will have her ready. If you doubt me, leave. I have no time for doubt or dissent.”

The group eyed one another, resolved to do as instructed.

Yaz watched them, “Good. Ken, pull Jenna in and take her with to run surveillance on the families. Find the Hunters. Keep them under observation. Lindsey and Jakob will be out to join you soon. Until the situation changes, patrols will double.”

A general affirmation gave way to a dismissal. Rachel and Miller headed straight for the training room with Hailey. Ken followed, broke off to head up and out of the bunker. Soon, only Elise and Yaz were left.

“Go to the training room. I’ll be in soon.”

Elise followed the others, passed them as they entered the Seers’ training room. She did her best to evade any backward glances. Hailey caught the resentment flowing past as the door shut on Elise. The trio took a place in the middle of the room. Yaz appeared, spoke to Valerie. Her hushed instructions were expected. Valerie listened quietly, then agreed to Yaz’s terms. A moment later, the tiny head of security was gone. Valerie strolled over.

“You’re to begin advanced training immediately,” she said, her confidence fierce. “It will not be easy. You will hate all three of us. You will have no energy to do so. Nor to continue training, but you will, because we will say to. When it is over, you will be a Seer with complete access to your power, a fully-realized potential. I will say this once, and once only; you are a promising student and will make a great Seer, but if you fear the immediate future, save us all the time and leave now.”

Hailey swallowed hard. This last phase of training would be extreme, as much a test of her will as instruction. She didn’t doubt Valerie’s sentiment, considering her penchant for honesty. She didn’t want to hate anyone, but Valerie’s eyes said it was unavoidable. Something in the others said they were about to destroy her– mentally and physically, break her down to rebuild her. If she’d been wearing a jumpsuit, she might’ve felt like Lee Majors.

As it was, all she felt was a duty to the people around her, and her parents. If she didn’t complete this, she could never protect them, let alone herself. She couldn’t allow that. Even the thought of it. Any purchase it took would become an unstable foundation under the weight of the future.

She screwed up her mouth, put on her best war-face. “I’m staying.”

“Miller, test the child.”

Valerie and Rachel suddenly backed off the gym mats. Hailey glanced sideways. A fist flew at her face. Before she knew it, she was on her hands and knees, spitting blood, her lip split. She rose to her knees. Miller threw a kick. Her instincts engaged. She rolled sideways. Miller hit air, lost balance. Hailey felt the same pull in her limbs she’d felt time and again; the Link.

She was on her feet, hand flat. A stiff chop hit Miller’s neck. He crumpled to the floor, out before he hit. Hailey rebounded in a low stance. Blood dripped from her lip. Adrenaline drugged her veins. Her pulse beat in the pressure points across her body. A shadow flitted at her right, forced her ‘round.

Rachel charged. An open palm went at Hailey’s chest. She leapt backward to dodge, failed. The force was immense. Hailey felt herself hit the cement wall across the room. She collapsed in a heap, winded, dizzy, utterly stunned.

Valerie was shouting, “Your opponent will not hesitate. Up!”

Hailey fell to her feet. Her whole body felt fractured. Rachel charged again. She closed the room’s distance in a breath. A moment later, fists pummeled her torso at full-strength with fury. Rachel reeled for a final kick. Hailey fell sideways, rolling. A grapple upended her, tossed her across the mats. She came to a rest near Miller’s unconscious body, staggered to her feet. Rachel was at her back, arm around Hailey’s throat, choking her.

She gasped, choked for air. Her nails clawed blood streaks into Rachel’s arm. The Seer completely blocked out the fresh wounds. Before Hailey knew it, her muscles engaged. She pivoted. Rachel flew over her, slammed her back on the mats. Hailey’s foot aimed for Rachel’s neck.

Stop!” Valerie shouted with a grating discordance.

The empathic projection doubled and tripled its resonance in the room’s poor acoustics. The force almost knocked Hailey off her feet. She staggered back, collapsed to a knee. Her body heaved, panting and throbbing from agonized bruises and minor gashes. How she was alive felt a mystery, but she sensed Valerie’s satisfaction. Somehow, Hailey’d once again surpassed her expectations.

Rachel climbed to her feet and offered Hailey a hand, “No hard feelings, okay?” Hailey swallowed blood and pulled herself up. She collapsed into Rachel, righted herself. “You okay?”

She nodded, regained her footing, and let Rachel kneel beside Miller to shake him awake. He suddenly sat upright and groaned.

“Good one, kid,” he said, rising to his feet.

The three stood before Valerie as she addressed Hailey, “You have excellent instincts, and your connection to the Link will ease the transition to fighting. You feel the pull, follow it. That is good. It will get you far. You will not survive on it alone however, so your training will now begin.”

In the room beside them, a similar scene played out; though Elise was much further advanced, Yaz found no reason to beat her so needlessly. Despite everyone knowing it was better to feel out Hailey’s instincts, Elise wasn’t a Seer. Apart from not having those instincts, she also might not heal quite so easily, at least emotionally.

Yaz had already taught her basic self-defense– the same any student would receive. Things would be tougher now, and more than that, they had to hurt. She’d produced a pair of wooden sticks shaped like swords and made of thick, bundled wood. Just about the only thing that didn’t hurt about them was holding them. They were ugly, heavy, and stung like hell when hit– Elise learned that the hard way.

The pair were running Yaz’s exercises, but the girl hadn’t broken a sweat. She was calm, calculated, testing as well as teaching. Elise was the antithesis. Her entire body was drenched. Clothing too. Her face and skin were red, blood raging from constant, snaps of the stick.

Yaz pressed her, forced her across the room in a flurry of crossed blades. Elise growled, forced her back. They danced in pursuit over sticks that tapped fast rhythms. Elise pirouetted. Yaz caught her, snapped her thigh. She fell to a knee. Yaz’s stick pressed at her throat, lifted her upward. Elise fumed, furious, both at her own failure and Yaz.

“You’re angry with me,” Yaz said, motioning Elise back into her starting stance.

She huffed through her nose, crossed her stick with Yaz’s, “Why shouldn’t I be?”

They started again. Elise fought with anger, her vigor unmatched. Yaz took each press and feint in stride. “Some things are still beyond you, Elise. Believe me when I say that.”

She made a flourishing spin aimed for Yaz’s legs, “Don’t try to take the high-ground. I know you better than that.”

“You know only what you want to.” She blocked, unbalanced Elise to break her attack.

Elise growled again. “Then teach me, oh great one.”

“Don’t be a jack-ass,” Yaz said, stepping back to await the next advance. “If you could separate yourself from your emotions, you’d understand: I neither came to this decision lightly, nor saw any worthwhile alternative.”

Elise lowered her stick, stormed across the room for a towel and a bottle of water. She wiped at her neck and downed a gulp with a huff. “I doubt that.”

Yaz sat in place on the mat, stick across her lap to breathe, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive. Do not mistake stratagem for disregard.”

Elise whirled at Yaz, “What is strategic about using my family as a fucking hooked worm?”

Yaz closed her eyes, as if meditating. “We both know the only way to ensure your family’s safety is to keep the Hunters from reaching them. My teams are to intercept if they attempt to. Until then, keeping them in play means we might still retrieve intel. Anything even remotely telling of their structure and force must be secured. Otherwise, you will never return home.”

Elise turned back to the table her things rested on, braced herself against it. Her head hung. There was no denying Yaz’s logic, but anger was the only emotion she could manifest. Whether at herself or someone else didn’t matter. Had she not felt so impotent, so helpless, it might have been different. Unfortunately, things were so beyond her control she wasn’t sure which direction was forward anymore. All she knew was the feeling of being trapped in a bunker with a bunch of strangers training to kill people in her way.

Yaz appeared, laid a hand on her shoulder, “You can do this, Elise. I know it. You know it. Just keep training. Then, when the Hunters make their move, you’ll be there. But you can’t be if you’re not focused now.”

Elise let the words sink in. If nothing else, she needed to see things through. The alternative might be certain death. She had a duty to continue. If not to herself, then to her family– and in a way, to Yasmine. She slugged back more water and returned to training.

Missed part 10? Read it here!

Short Story: She Ran

Life for Twitch was a series of late nights, later mornings, and intoxicants strung together into perpetual night. She knew only darkness, sprawl lights, data hubs– and Chinese takeout. By this point, she was more Mu-Shu pork and fried rice than man or woman– though she’d never been much good at either. That’s not to say she wasn’t feminine. She could be, and was fond of saying “I can be feminine up to my ballsack.” Admittedly, it helped less than she liked.

Her physical assets weren’t anything astounding anyway: she ate like a starved horse but never gained weight. Would’ve given anything for tits– even fat-guy tits. Her ass was as flat as an old church pew. And she was five-two if she was a foot, and hadn’t grown an inch since eleven years old. Her hair was more amber, scarecrow-stuffing than golden flax, and her eyes more whiteish-gray than blue. Most of all, her waist kept to the eleven year old girl range, and not in a good way.

Even as a street kid, trading old tech gear as meltdown money for food, she’d been small. And “Twitch” was more than just an accurate assessment of her gaming skills. She was never much more than a squirrel in the headlamps around people. She’d taken to isolationism for multiple reasons, it was. And, isolation was simply easier. No need to bathe or dress if no-one was ever around.

She did have friends though, in the way anyone did nowadays. They were real people with real lives, too. Some weren’t dissimilar from her, save her “circle” never met face to face. That was about the only part of her life she didn’t mind.

She still scrapped tech occasionally, but her money was made in data hubs. She’d become a fixture in the area for info hacking. Nothing too serious. Nothing to piss off the corps. That was bad juju she didn’t need and wanted even less. Rather, she went for the usual stuff: Corp-Sec patrol comms. Cit-cam surveillance. Errant packets from open ports. Probing anywhere she wouldn’t be killed over, for a price.

Business wasn’t bad. Between light jobs and salvage trades– and outright luck– she’d even afforded her own dive. It wasn’t more than a bedroom over a Chinese joint– the same slowly ensuring her transformation into soy-basted fowl– but it was nothing to balk at. Occasionally, she even ran data retrieval for more legally-inclined associates and acquaintances.

The night things changed, Twitch was none the wiser. She’d slipped out, as usual, to head for a hub nearby and jack-in. The supernovae of night lights infected the scenery. Flashes of heat and ice emitted through waves of neon. The city sprawled out like walls of an ancient fortress on either side of her. Mazes of alleys and cross-streets split and wove through them, belching steam from their bowels and smog from their gullets.

The occasional gust from passing cars only reinforced Twitch’s feelings. Humanity had fallen. Was to be avoided as often as possible. Looking back, if she’d known what she’d soon face, she might’ve lingered more. Instead, she remained as apathetic as possible for a still-warm body. And thus, though not without reason, she was all the less prepared for reality when it crashed down.

She surfed the waves of humanity to her selected data hub; a coffee shop next to an alley with city infrastructure access. Jacking in there, she could kick back with a spliff, a few downers, and a cup of something passing for coffee. All that was left was riding the high across the net to cherry-pick whatever was needed to make a profit.

Something hit her. It slammed the side of her head like a freight train. She panicked: Neural Shock. Fried brains from overcharged skull implants. But no. Sure, they felt like literal blows to the brain, but left you instantly and forever worse off than stroke victims– if alive at all. They blew out the circuits in your brain. Fried its wiring.

Twitch panicked. Reason made her recover. She could think. She was alive… enough.

Something flashed in her face. She yelped, blind. By now a crowd of eyes were on her. She was completely oblivious to them. She stumbled to her feet, fell into a sprint. Whatever this was, it wasn’t funny. She fled into the street. Rain was falling, scattering neon-lit walls’ across the roads. Twitch tripped, face first into the street. Car horns screamed. She staggered back, lost, clutching her head.

Her vision returned as she scampered back onto the sidewalk. Cars screamed past. Muddled voices were all around her. She was suddenly aware of a crowd, fled. Her tiny figure spilled past and into an alley beside the cafe. A few seconds, and she was half-way down it. She tripped again, slid across the pavement. A message appeared, filling her vision: help me. She blinked, tried to force it away. It disappeared to reveal a body sprawled in the alley’s center.

The guy wasn’t much older than herself. He lay on one side, gut wound leaking into the wet alley. Blood flowed along a current of water rolling back the way she’d come, depositing somewhere ahead in the street. It was all Twitch could do not to flee in terror at all of the insanity occurring. For the guy’s sake, she forced herself to kneel. He groaned, sensing her presence and whispering something. Over. And over.

Twitch knelt in the stinking filth. She put her ear near his mouth. His waning breaths eeked out their message in syllables. They were slow, sharp. It made them all the more effective.

“They’re… coming. For us. They want the hackers. Dead. All of us. They’re coming for us…”

Her eyes widened. Terror trembled her limbs. Whoever they were, they’d done this. And they weren’t stopping with him. She thought to call for help, but feared who might answer. The life faded from his eyes too quickly anyhow. His voice went quiet. She did the only reasonable thing she could think; ran.