Energy and Matter

1.

A Gift from A Book

Hailey Ferguson, aside from being relatively shorter than most of her friends, was an otherwise normal, maturing human being. She dated, studied, got average grades, and functioned as much on a high-school level as anyone could be said to. There was nothing externally remarkable about her, save being five-one in a school where most girls were nearer six feet. In younger years, it made her a target for ridicule, but now those girls were too obsessed with boys, girls, or themselves, to notice her roaming the halls.

Day by day, wandering was Hailey’s occupation. She drifted from one group of acquaintances to the next in a zig-zagging meander, occasionally accompanied by the lone, other human she might call a friend, Elise Brennan. The only time the rhythm broke was when the five minute bell rang. Then, alone or accompanied, she’d meander toward next destination.

Today, she was headed through the Western Stairwell, alone. She wandered down, a passive figure in a sea of hormones and adrenaline surging and roiling all about about her. Hailey was always a calm center of it all and today was hardly an exception. The sixteen-year old dirty-blonde head rounded the stairs for the second level, bobbed down, then rounded another corner for the ground-floor. The river of students gave a final push through double-doors, then dissipated on the other side.

The crowd half-smothering Hailey a moment ago all but disappeared. To others it seemed she did too, along a gradual curve for a perpendicular hallway and Mr. Harmon’s physics class. She liked Mr. Harmon. She liked his class too. But being the youngest teacher at BHS and bookishly rugged put him in a special place for her. Most of all though, Hailey loved physics. His teaching it made him infinitely more appealing.

Hailey loved physics for one, simple reason: it wedded science and mathematics in a way she wasn’t sure couldn’t explain everything in the universe and beyond, given time. Hailey was nothing if not thirsty for those explanations, and others.

Predictably then, not much could’ve made her late for physics class. She’d have rather broken the mystery of her aloofness by running madly to class before being late. Like her rhythmic meandering though, her aloof manner was in no way endangered today. She let her tranquil legs carry her to class and the left edge of the room: a prime window-seat with extra space for her pack on the floor.

The bell rang and the class settled. Mr. Harmon’s ruggedness took its place before the chalk-board with the rest of him. He waited for the last zips of back-packs to fizzle out into the air, then cleared his throat.

“Today’s lesson’s another in theoretical physics,” he said casually. He rounded for the chalk board. “Energy and Matter.” He wrote the words on the board. “The two things that comprise the entirety of the universe.” He turned back and scratched his neat beard. “To review, what is the difference between the two.”

A few hands went up, Hailey’s among them. Mr. Harmon picked Jordyn Sutton– one of the girls as soon called a slut her friends behind her back, as “BFF” to her face. Hailey’s hand sank. Jordyn cleared her throat, “Energy is a force. Matter is a substance. Like the difference between heat and fire; fire’s physical. Heat’s radiated energy.”

“Yes, very good,” he said. “Any others?”

Jordyn’s face went blank. Hands went up again, Hailey’s with them. Mr. Harmon picked her. “Anything physical versus anything with no mass but the potential for change; Ice and cold, food and calories, or light and a light-bulb.”

“Very good,” Harmon said, returning to the board and scribbling out the answers he’d received. “Now, as we learned before, we know there are extensive relationships between matter and energy, as well as anti-matter. Can anyone remind us about Anti-matter?”

Only Hailey’s hand went up this time. “Anti-matter’s like the negative charge to Matter’s positive charge, but when the two meet, they’re both annihilated from colliding. The result is the creation of mass-less objects like protons and neutrinos.”

He cocked a crooked smile, “Reading ahead again.” The room chuckled. Hailey blushed slightly. The lesson carried on. “Yes. Now, just like matter and energy, there exists dark energy and dark matter. We cannot physically measure or observe them, but their effects on other objects confirm their existence.” He drew a large circle beside a smaller one on the board, “We can visualize this. We know the Earth–” he put an E in the small circle “orbits the Sun–” then, an S in the larger circle. “Because we can track the sun’s progress along the sky. But we also know Mars orbits the sun for the same reason.” He drew another small circle, further away, with an “M.” “However, what if we could not see the sun? How would we know its there?”

Someone spoke aloud. “Because Mars and Earth are still orbiting it.”

Mr. Harmon spun ’round, pointing, “Absolutely right, Michael.” He erased the sun, then redrew it with dashed-lines. “Stars like these are not uncommon. They are impossible to see, however we know they exist because of their effects on their neighbors. We can’t see them but we see them acting on the things around them.” He turned back to the class, “In much the same way, dark matter and dark energy can neither be seen nor measured, but we their effects on the rest of the universe tell of their existence.

“For example,” He wrote “e=mc2” on the board. “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was originally written to include a cosmological constant a mysterious force counteracting gravity to form a static, or unmoving, universe. Soon after, scientists learned the universe was not static. And in fact, was expanding rapidly. Einstein then removed the cosmological constant from Relativity, calling it, “the greatest blunder of my lifetime.”

“However, recent advances in technology and high-level mathematics have reintroduced the cosmological constant as dark energy. A force, neither seen nor measured, but known to exist because of that same, accelerating expansion that caused Einstein to rule it out. By all theories, excluding the constant requires our universe to be contracting. Observations contradict this. The universe is expanding, and that expansion is accelerating.

Hailey was entirely enthralled. All of her mental focus was on Mr. Harmon. Dark matter and dark energy had swallowed her whole. It was surreal; a thing existing, affecting an entire universe, but invisible, untouchable. It seemed more the realm of fairy-tale than science. Then again, so might wind to those unfamiliar with it. In a way, too, she sympathized with it in a rare bout of anthropomorphism– it reminded her of kids no-one knew of until it was too late.

When the bell finally rang, signaling the transition between periods, the class rose, eager for their last period and the day’s end. Evidently, Relativity applied more to high-schoolers watching ticking clocks than they realized. Hailey was often a victim of such physics-ails as well, but Before she could scamper off Harmon called her over. He handed her a book titled, “Dark Matter and You.”

“It’s not required, but I figured you’ find it interesting.”

Hailey’s eyes lit up, “Yes. Thank you!”

Mr. Harmon gave his charming, bearded smile. “It might get a little “out there,” with the author’s personal theories, but his science and coverage of others’ theories is sound.”
“I’ll do my best to power through,” she chuckled.

“Take your time. No rush,” he said, ending the conversation with a turn for his chalk-board.

Hailey bounced away and into a final period that flew by, relativity notwithstanding. Geometry was easy. She’d long ago surpassed most of her class, only electing to stay out of the AP class for fear of its homework load. That fact afforded her time to start reading Mr. Harmon’s book. She began gobbling up the information, sprinting through pages that would’ve stalled even the most learned readers. Her desire not to stop kept her reading until long after arriving home. She only just managed to keep from staying awake too late by reading herself to sleep.

By Physics the next day, she’d finished the book. She entered class early to return it, and to her surprise, Mr. Harmon wasn’t the least bit shocked she’d finished it. Despite her agreements about “out there” theories, the book had laid out complex theoretical and practical physics in such plain English, anyone would get it.

A sort of fugue state overtook her that day after school: as if only just beginning to process the information, Hailey’s brain worked. She mulled over the various, outlandish theories connecting seemingly random forces, acts, or events to dark matter or dark energy. One, particular theory though, captivated her more than any others:

In effect, it stated a possible explanation for dark energy was human thought. It’s seeming prevalence in the universe, was explained by the ever-increasing human population. That dark energy, the author posited, might even be the “essence of humanity–” what others referred to as the soul, and science called consciousness, or philosophy the “mind-body problem.” It was a stretch, the author admitted, but a possibility. On both accounts, Hailey agreed, but she became fixated on the idea all the same.

She spent the night sitting on her bed, stoned, and staring at the wall in a pseudo-meditative trance. At one point, she must’ve fallen asleep; the room dissolved, replaced by bright, white light. In the dream, she was marked upon her white-light bed by a blueish light glowing with the same, rippling ethereal quality of everything else. Afraid to disturb the peculiar dream, she let her thoughts float a while.

When she finally ripped herself back to reality, she was sitting again on her bed, refreshed but confused. Normally, sleep made her toss about, and never came during daylight hours. Between that and the obvious oddity of her state, she wondered if it was sleep at all. It wasn’t long before plunging back into her thoughts felt the best way to answer her questions– even if the dream continued to dominate them.

She let the questions echo in her mind, whispers on passing winds that kept the thoughts form remaining in place too long. A long, involuntary sigh escaped her lips and her mind slotted back to where it had been. The walls began dissolving again. Bright light flashed into being. Her heart leapt. Fear coursed through her. Whispering thoughts chased it away. She’d been here once already, even if it was a dream.

But it couldn’t be a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream. And despite her various, underwhelming talents, lucid dreaming wasn’t one.

A knock sounded on the door. Her vision flitted within the strange state, followed the ethereal, immobile white-light of walls to the doorway where another, blue figure glowed– and judging from the outlined-knob, beyond it.

“What the hell?” she breathed quietly.

“Hailey?” Her mom called from outside the door. “Honey, dinner’s ready.”

“Uh– o-okay, Mom,” she stammered.

Her mother’s blue-light figure hesitated, shrugged to itself, then meandered away, exiting the reach of the strange sight. Hailey’s mind was still slotted in place, but she jarred herself out with a thought. The light suddenly fell away, back to the room’s normal appearance. She found herself quietly panting, exhilarated.

However it had happened, she suddenly found herself agreeing with the book’s author. And summarily believing she’d linked something he’d described. The only way she could express her astonishment was with a breathy pair of words:

“Holy shit.”

2.

In Through An “Out” Door

Dinner was the first time she heard them, but given her state, Hailey ignored the voices. School the next day was another story. At dinner the disjointed conversation between her parents could be reasoned to make sense, somehow. This was different. The unconnected dissonance finally revealed itself in full as she passed through BHS’ rear-doors for its crowded commons area.

A usual morning’s din was sluggish half-speech over silent breakfasting of the less-than-morning students. Today, a sea of whispers crashed against a relative silence beneath it. The sheer magnitude was staggering. Hailey stumbled like a drunkard into the commons, and toward a bench. She clutched her aching head, groping for the mental volume-knob jacked to eleven… and failing to find it.

A voice approximating her best friend’s sounded before her, mired in lisping chaos. It took a couple tries before Elise got her attention. When it finally clicked that Elise Brennan was both before her, and trying to speak, Hailey’s eyes rose slowly. They took in the pear-shaped waist and denim hip-huggers to ascend past her small breasted t-shirt in slack-jawed confusion. It was only once she reached Elise’s thinly-bespectacled, blue-gray eyes that she knew fully whom stood before her.

Elise squinted with derangement, “I asked if you were alright. Hailey?”

She shook off pain, uttered something noncommittal. Elise sat beside her on the bench, scratched the shaved side of her platinum blonde hair, then pawed the blue highlights of her bangs to flatten them; a habitual act.

“You’re out of it today. You get a bag of spacey-weed or something?”

Hailey half-shook her clutched head, fought to sift through the crashing surf to pin down Elise’s voice. She managed dim the others a little, but the constant lisps remained.

“I… something happened last night,” she moaned. “Now my head’s killing me.”

“Were you taking Xanax again?” Elise asked, caustically. “I told you that shit messes you up!”

“No.” She paused to wince and grimace. “I wasn’t taking anything.”

Elise’s face resettled into its usual visage. Her glasses slipped downward. She nudged them back up with a finger, “Good. So, what happened?”

“I don’t really know–” The five minute bell cut her off. Elise stood beside her, helped her up. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Are you gonna’ be okay?”

Another noncommittal mutter allowed Hailey to depart for class. Her usual meandering was absent. Class was difficult to focus on. The whispers were a fraction of what they’d been, but much louder, directed. Dozens of voices, too jumbled to be understood, meleed for attention. Hailey didn’t want to understand them. She wanted them to go away. Half way through her last morning class she laid her head on her desk to rest a moment, then was suddenly torn from bliss by a lunch bell.

Oddly enough, lunch was quieter. Internally. Externally, it was the same as ever. Hailey found a secluded corner, and ate from a bag lunch with her headphones fighting valiantly to drown out the ever-present voices. It was a shame the battle was lost from the start, given the voices were coming from inside. Even after finishing her food, she kept them in, hoping to space-out enough to unravel her knotted mess of thoughts.

Everything stemmed from the Dark Matter book. That much was obvious. Nothing made sense without it and everything began after reading it. She tried to piece together– or rather break down, piece by piece– the nature of matter. According to quantum mechanics, its hierarchical structure ended with solid matter. Going backward mentally, she’d begun stripping matter into its more basic forms.

At the time, she’d focused on heat and a leaf. In simple terms, heat was a process acting on a thing, matter, to alter its properties. Conversely, a leaf was the thing acted upon. The collection of energy, or heat, into the matter caused it to warm. The book’s author had often posited a similar transference of energy– from thought– as the cause of dark energy.

Hailey couldn’t even begin to fathom what had caused him to begin formulating his theories, but he fitted them to established facts in a curiously logical way. He’d likened the effects of thought to those of heat produced via friction. Like rubbing one’s hands together, thought and brain-waves produced an effect that radiated from the thinker. EEG machines took advantage of this fact.

However, the author extended these facts to his theory, positing that such brain-waves continued to radiate outward, eventually becoming too sparse to measure via our insesitive instruments. In effect, they did not ever truly fade, merely echoed at lower and lower wave-lengths, transferring their energy from the mind to cosmos. This transference then, might account for the growing increase of dark energy, and in turn, the accelerating expansion of the universe.

When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body. In simplest terms, every action has an equal and inverse reaction. Newton’s “Third Law of Motion.” Simultaneously one of the simplest, and most revolutionizing, concepts in history. Hailey knew it well, but the Author might rival Newton’s contribution, if his wild theories proved true. If what was happening to her was what he’d suggested– and not a mental breakdown, it meant a revolution for not only physics, but all of human kind.

Hailey recalled a passage from the book while Pink Floyd soothed her mind into soaring further from the din and the migraine it was causing:

If dark energy is then the manifestation of psychokinetic processes— that is, mental processes which create energy– it is a fair assumption to find intelligent life as its source. Humanity included, however much our experiences might dictate otherwise.

“If true, should not see our world as one of possibly many points from which the universe’s expansion emanates? In theory, yes. Unfortunately, none of our observations supports this. One may only further postulate then, that either natural wellsprings exist elsewhere in the universe, or that other beings with similar mental aptitude exist through-out it.

“Taking this to mean there are multiple points of expansion, we might see how, like the gravity-pocked curved fabric of the cosmos itself, the various wellsprings could mesh into a form deceptive at smaller scales and only evident at larger ones. In other words, that while the entirety of the cosmos’ expansion is not fueled by our minuscule place in it, we might nonetheless remain yet a pinhole leak fueling the spillway.

Most things regarding alien life was beyond Hailey’s realm of knowledge, at least logically speaking. Her suspension of disbelief could be extended for the posterity of scientific theorizing, but otherwise, she wasn’t about to speculate on it. In this way though, his theory seemed sound. Combined with her experiences, a lone passage placed him in the realm of right.

“Thus by acting as heat might to molecules, it is possible for pyschokinetic energy, or dark energy, to be manipulated, as well as to manipulate the fields of various, other forms of matter or energy. The only barrier is method with which the force is interfaced. Returning to our metaphor, we bring heat to the leaf only with the right tools. Most of the time, this is a lighter.

“Overall, the interaction of these fields, as evidenced by their effects on the cosmos at-large, might allow for smaller scale interactions (such as telekinesis, precognition, or telepathy) for one who’s managed to harness some method of interfacing with the thought-generated energy. Given the mind may be the mechanism for its creation, the interface itself might be as simple as “the right thoughts, making it no different from setting the leaf alight by passing the proper temperature.”

Whether he’d been right intentionally, or a crackpot stumbling onto one of the universe’s great secrets wasn’t clear. What was clear was that Hailey had begun to access that energy, linking to it through proper, mental stimulation. At least, she hoped that was the case. Otherwise, there was something seriously wrong with her, and she was probably going to end up institutionalized.

When the bell rang to signal the end of lunch, Hailey didn’t hear it. She sensed it– not with her new, special, and completely undesired powers, but by the obvious mass-exodus proceeding around her. She half-stood as something hit her Occiptal. Hard.

She fell to her knees and hands. Crowds surged around outside her, oblivious. She growled an obscenity, fingers nursing with begrudging pressure as she moved to stand again.

A second blow to the temple knocked her sideways to her knees. She staggered. A pained yelp escaped. White-light flooded her vision. Images flickered past. Her lungs fought for air, unable to inflate. A hallway crowded with students parted for EMTs rushing someone through on a stretcher. To her side, Hailey faintly heard Elise’s voice over the tidal wave of whispers.

A moment later, she was staring at the floor from an angle, her head propped against a brick wall and throbbing worse than ever. A small trickle of drool leaked from a corner of her mouth beneath wet eyes. Another groan and she straddled rubber legs for a footing. Her tears wiped black eyeliner to streaks across her fingers.

Her legs half-swaggered, half-stumbled toward the nearest bathroom. The halls were largely vacant already, but Hailey suddenly didn’t care about tardiness. She stood before a mirror, wiping her running eyeliner beneath bloodshot eyes. Her eyes said she’d smoked a joint, her cheeks said she’d been crying. Neither one could be anywhere near the level of reality.

She checked her cell-phone clock: she wasn’t about to be late for class, she was late for class, by fifteen minutes. How? She’d only just heard the bell, only just saw the crowds start to form. What the hell was going on? And what were those images? A vision? It couldn’t have been a dream. It didn’t feel like one. It felt real. Yet to come. Like knowing you were about to vomit, with no way to stop it, but not quite being there yet.

The more she tried to think on it, the louder the whispers grew, and the more sick she felt. Whatever was happening wasn’t good.

She wiped off and reapplied her make-up, then spent the rest of fifth period waiting for it to end in the bathroom. When it was over, she’d have to find Elise, convince her to ditch, and carefully maneuver Elise in the right frame of mind to reveal what was happening. Whatever that entailed, she had to convince Elise of the truth, there was no other avenue forward in her mind.

When the end of fifth period came with the ringing bell, Hailey was once more in the hall near the commons. The geyser of lunch sprayed students into the crowded hall. Hailey eschewed her aloofness and half-ran for Elise’s locker. She weaved in and out of the crowd as fast as possible. Elise was at her locker, prattling on to the girl at the next locker over. Hailey skidded to a stop, doing her best not to pant desperately, and waited for the girls to say good-bye before leaning in at Elise.

“I need to talk to you.”

Elise squinted confusion. She nudged her glasses back up her nose, “Okay. Talk.”

“Not here.” Hailey eyed their surroundings. “Not in school.”

Elise’s brow furrowed, the ring in her left brow catching light. “Oh…kay.”

“Ditch with me.”

She snorted at the thought, “You’re serious? You wanna’ ditch physics?” Hailey was silent, her eyes pleading. Elise sensed the gravity of the situation, and dug her pack out, “Fine, but if we get caught, I’m blaming you.”

“Fair enough.”

Hailey pulled Elise through the crowds that thinned near a stairwell. They were down and into another crowded hall when someone started shouting something. All eyes turned to the disturbance: Vertigo upturned Hailey’s stomach. An Assistant Principal jogged toward them, shouting to clear the way. Behind him, EMTs rushed a student past on stretcher. Hailey’s mind overtook the vertigo, only to see the vision play out a second time.

Time slowed. The Principal jogged past. Whispers rose and fell, internally and externally, Elise’s among them. A second later, the stretcher rolled past, a student’s face upon that she’d never met but had seen once before. As they passed, the crowd’s heads turned to follow with a flocking motion. Only Hailey remained still, blinking hard as time passed outside normal rhythm. She turned her head to eye Elise, mind swimming through molasses. Their eyes met, blackness overtook her vision.

The next thing Hailey knew, her eyes were fluttering open on a tiled ceiling. She lie on her back on something stiffer than a concrete floor. Elise’s face overtook the view above. Hailey squinted at her, head throbbing from fluorescent lights that infected her brain with ultra-bright luminescence.

“Hailey?”

She groaned and sat upright. “Ugh. What happened?”

“You passed out. The nurse is calling your parents–”

“No.” She lowered her voice, “No, I need to talk to you.”

“Hailey, this is a little more–”

“Just trust me,” she said, standing and swaying. She found the nurse across the room, her back turned and a phone in her hand on the far-side of her desk. “Please, don’t call my parents. I’m fine. I’ll go back to class now.”

The nurse whipped ’round, frail frame and eyes moving much quicker than Hailey thought them capable. “Excuse me?” Hailey repeated her request. “I’m sorry, Ms. Ferguson, but I can’t allow you to stay here in your condition.”

Hailey did her best to lie through her teeth; she hated doing it, but was shamefully good at it. “No, it’s alright. I… I was just a little dehydrated. It happens sometimes. It used to happen a lot when I was younger too. If I don’t get enough water, plop! Down I go. I’m sorry. I should’ve paid better attention.”

The nurse eyed her skeptically, searching her for traces of deception, and finding none; a testament to Hailey’s abilities. She was particularly good at appearing innocent, had to be to keep suspicion off her when high– which was more often than not. Hailey feigned shame and relief until the woman softened.

It was a moment before the nurse sighed and hung up the phone, “Very well. I can’t hold you here if you’re up and moving.” She circled her desk for a refrigerator, fished out a bottle of water, then handed it to Hailey. “Drink this. If you end up back in here, I’m calling your parents. Okay?”

Hailey nodded with a small smile. She uncapped the water, sipped it, and thanked the nurse. The aging woman handed her a stamped hall-pass and shooed the girls out. Elise followed behind Hailey, stunned. They diverted from the offices as if heading for the rear stairwell to Physics. Then, with a cursory survey of their surroundings, they passed for the rear-doors and the school’s parking lot. It wasn’t until they slipped into Elise’s late-90s Civic and pulled from the parking lot that they spoke.

“Elise, I’ve been hearing things.”

They pulled onto the main road, “Did you eat mushrooms again or something? I swear, you’ve been weirder than ever today.”

“Elise, listen to me,” Hailey begged. “Something happened to me last night. This weird, white-light thing appeared after I was like, meditating, or something. Ever since then, I’ve been hearing voices.”

Elise looked at her with a question to her sanity, but redirected her eyes to the road. “Look, I don’t know if this is some kind of joke, but it’s not funny so, just stop. First you pass out. Now you’re talking about hearing voices. What am I supposed to think? That you’re nuts?”

“I hope not,” she said, wondering where the line between that and this lay. “Just listen, okay? I don’t care if you don’t believe it yet. Just listen. Can you do that?”

Elise’s mouth squirmed in a frown but settled into an emotionless line. They pulled to a stop at a light. “Fine. Go ahead. I’ll do my best.”

Hailey instantly launched into the events of the past few days; the book, its contents, her thoughts during and after reading. After explaining that she’d returned the book to Mr. Harmon, she continued, “I was thinking about what I’d read, and making these connections about how it might work. How a field, or something with the right properties, could affect bonds between molecules. Then I started thinking about how that might work for a person’s thoughts, if they generated that field. Then all of a sudden, it was like… reality fell away. This weird white-light appeared. I was there, in the center of it, emitting this blue light. Then my mom walked down the hall, and she was blue light too. And then, today in school, I kept hearing all these voices, but they weren’t voices, they were thoughts.”

Elise squirmed uncomfortably, steering them around a corner from a main road to a rural one. A tense silence that Hailey was almost dreading came. A few dozen whispers rose and fell; Elise’s erratic thoughts, both of fear and concern, with questions of whether it was true or not.

“There’s one way to confirm it,” Hailey said, quieting the whispers. “Think of something. Something I don’t know. Something I couldn’t possibly ever guess. Think it, and I’ll repeat it.”

You’re out of your mind.

“Something less obvious,” Hailey said with a roll of her eyes.

I didn’t say that out loud, did I?

“No. But I need to convince you.”

Elise took a deep breath, “Okay. Give me a minute to think.”

A few dozen whispers sounded at once. They all went silent together. Then, with a depressed longing, and immeasurable fear, Elise’s thought whispered; I like girls.

“Uhm. Oh,” Hailey said, eyes bulging. She stared off at the rural road passing by.

Did she really hear that!? Does she think I’m– no, she’s my best friend, she’d never think that. Would she? Is she like that? I’ve never…

“Like what?” Hailey suddenly asked.

“Huh?”

“Am I like what? A homophobe? Jesus, Elise, you know me better than that.”

Elise cleared her throat uncomfortably, “Um, okay. So… why’d you go all quiet?”

Hailey thought for a moment, shrugged, “It caught me off guard. It’s not the kind of thing I was expecting you’d say. I didn’t expect it to be so… personal.”

Elise’s heart visibly sank, “Can we not talk about this, please?”

Hailey turned her eyes at Elise, “Um, okay, but… listen, I don’t care. I mean, not like I don’t care about you. I do care about you. But it’s not a thing to me. Okay?” Elise gave a slight nod. The whispering thoughts raged forward in a jumble. “Quit thinking so many things at once, please.”

“Sorry, this wasn’t what I was expecting today,” Elise admitted, eyes intentionally forward.

“I know the feeling. We’ll just… talk about it when you’re ready, okay?” Elise nodded. “We have bigger problems. Something’s wrong with me. That kid in the hall? I saw him in this vision I had during lunch. It was like a flash of the future. Before I knew what was happening, class had started. I had to blow off the period because I was so late and felt like I was losing it.”

Elise frowned, angling the car along a gravel road toward a circular bluff of trees that surrounded a gravel parking lot. Bacatta’s Grove Park had always been a mainstay for them, and now more than ever, they needed the serenity it provided. Elise rolled to a stop and shut the engine off.

With visible difficulty, her eyes rose to meet Hailey’s. “If you’re not gonna’ judge me for… well, then I’m not going to doubt you. But honestly, Hailey, this is way beyond me. I don’t know anyone it isn’t beyond.” She reached over, fished through the glove box for a bag of weed and some rolling papers, then shut it and pocketed the items. “But I’ll help however you need. I just hope I can.”

She frowned again. It made Hailey wince. They slid out of the car together and headed into the woods.

3.

Go Google Yourself

Hailey and Elise found a place beneath a massive oak tree to sit and smoke. By all accounts, it was the perfect day for it; not too hot or cold, lively wildlife, and just enough of a breeze to keep the air from stagnating without blowing the weed away. The pair soaked up the spring afternoon in peaceful silence. Elise’s whispers were quieted by Hailey’s continual concentration on not hearing them. Hopefully, it would become second nature. For now, easing the throbbing headache was enough.

Despite the serenity, obvious tension clung to the air between them. Hailey’s newfound ability had met its match in what Elise had revealed. Given the emotions brewing beneath both subjects, there a conversation or two was to be had. For the moment, they were occupied by the bag in Elise’s lap. She gave the joint a final lick and her tongue ring glinted at Hailey’s eye.

The signs of her changing sexuality seemed more obvious now, but nothing was so glaring out of context. The conversations they hoped to avoid were entwined now, but Hailey kept quiet to enjoy the clean air and pure bud.

She blocked out the whispers by focusing on the wind: whoever had these abilities naturally must hide them expertly– or was incurably insane. She wasn’t sure which direction she was headed yet. Elise passed the joint. She took a deep hit, exhaled a plume of smoke. Her head fogged over to obscure the whispers. The vise lifted from her head, allowing her to relax against the tree-trunk.

“Damn, that’s good weed. Where’d you get it?”

Elise chuckled, “That’s like asking where the bodies are hidden. You know you aren’t getting an answer.”

Hailey managed a snort, “There’s bodies now?”

Elise winked over a wavy smile. Hailey managed a laugh. Elise took another hit. The joint made its rhythmic passage between them without need of acknowledgment, but the tension was nearer than they liked. Elise took the joint back and inhaled a massive drag.

She spoke from a shallow throat, “Guess we should talk ‘bout the elephants, huh?”

Hailey blew a long, defeated cloud of smoke. “I guess.”

Elise passed the joint, “We did ditch class for it.”

Hailey worked up her courage, “You wanna’ go first?”

“Oh no.” She gave a firm shake of her head. “You brought us out here, you spill it. Besides, it’s not like there’s much to say about… my thing, anyway.”

Hailey wasn’t sure she agreed, but went ahead. “I told you, I was… meditating about this book, and now I can hear people’s thoughts. It’s weird. And scary. And I want it to stop.”

“Not to mention pretty intrusive. No offense.”

Hailey deflated, “I know. Who would want this? And why me? And what about that vision thing? Is this how my life’s going to be now? Hearing people’s deepest secrets and living stuff twice while passing out? What the hell kind of life’s that?”

Elise shrugged, “Sort’a sounds like a gift to me.”

“A gift!?” Hailey blurted. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Think about it. It’s like a super power. You get the cool stuff, like hearing what your crush thinks, and the not so cool stuff– like, well, having to see bad things before they happen.” Hailey’s mouth squirmed with dread. “Maybe though, being able to see it happen means you can keep it from happening, like a superhero.”

Hailey’s mouth continued to make funny shapes, “Elise, you’re nuts. This can only be a bad thing. Why would you want to hear what people think?”

She cocked an eyebrow up, “It’d be a lot easier to date… But yeah, I get it.”

Hailey whined, head in her hands, “This is not happening. It’s a dream. A hallucination. Too many mushrooms– are there such things as ‘shroom flashbacks?”

Elise shrugged, “Never heard of ‘em.” She took the last hit off the joint then snuffed it in the grass, “But if you wanna’ know about something, check the ‘net. You know, google it.”

“Google what? How to tell if you’re psychic?” She snipped derisively.

“Why not?”

Hailey groaned, “This is so not good I can’t find a word for it.”

“Bad?”

“It’s beyond that.”

Elise stared off into space, “Beyond bad. Hmm…”

Hailey let her words ring for a moment, “I’ll look into it, but… can I ask you something?”

“Hmm?” She said with a glassy-eyed look.

“What made you realize–”

“That I’m Gay?” Elise said with a raised brow.

“Yeah, sure… gay.”

Elise considered it, “Probably rubbing off to girls instead of guys.”

Hailey’s face crumpled, “T-M-I.”

“You asked.”

Hailey rolled her eyes. “You haven’t told anyone else, huh?”

“Technically I didn’t tell you. But no.”

“Is it hard? Living with that secret, I mean?”

Elise pawed at her hair, flattened it from the breeze, “Not really. It’s not like anyone’s asking. My parents like that I’m not dating and the rest of my family wouldn’t care anyhow.”

“What about your other friends?”

“You mean the invisible ones here now?” She asked with a smart-assed, sweeping hand.

“C’mon, it’s not like I’m you’re only friend,” Hailey argued. “What about Trent and those guys? Or Mal and her group?”

“They’re more acquaintances than friends. Trent and his friends mostly want to bang me. And Mal and the others just mooch my weed. You’re the only one I’d consider a real friend.”

The admission stung her heart a little. “Quality over quantity,” Hailey reassured her.

Elise’s mouth puffed out a little. The rest of her face rose and fell, “That’s what I keep saying.” An awkward silence descended. Hailey broke it to move on, “So, um, any crushes then?”

Is this your way of trying to get me to say I like you?

“Don’t think that,” Hailey corrected. “I’d just ask.”

“Sorry, but no. I’m still trying to figure out what my, uhm– type?– is, I guess. Not you.”

Hailey laughed, “No wonder we can only stand each other. We’re like a couple of whiney old ladies; the haggish psychic and the smart-ass lesbian.”

Elise chuckled, pushed herself up “C’mon, let’s head to your house and google psychic stuff.”

“Okay,” Hailey said, following her up. “And maybe some lesbian porn, if there’s time.”

She shoved Hailey playfully, “Jerk.”

Hailey shoved back, “Lez-bo.” Hailey gave her a sideways hug as they walked. “This person loves you at least.”

“Enough for me,” Elise said, less sarcastically than usual.

They headed back to Elise’s car and made for Hailey’s house. On arrival, they piled their stoned arms full of pantry-booty, then headed to Hailey’s room to sit side-by-side at her desk, surfing the net for anything even remotely related to psychics. Eventually, they ended up on her bed propped in various positions with the high wearing thin. Elise lie near the bed’s edge, feet in the air on a wall, and reading from an e-tablet. At the head of the bed, Hailey sat cross-legged to sift search results for anything outside conclusive proof of human insanity.

“Check this out,” Elise said, righting herself to face Hailey. “Separation between Seer and norm is genetic, but requires the activation of the Seer’s latent abilities. Most usually, through accessing The Link, an otherwise cryptic name for the state of mind connecting Seers to their sight-based power and the energy that they rely on. Sound familiar?”

“The Link? What the hell kind of name is that? How reputable’s this site?”

Elise shrugged, “How reputable are any of ‘em?” Hailey saw her point. “Anyway, I don’t think there’s a “Psychic Handbook.”

“Probably not,” Hailey despaired.

A knock sounded on her door and she was suddenly glad her psychic abilities were suppressed. The last thing she wanted was knowing her mother’s twisted thoughts. Her head poked through the door, her face an aged version of Hailey’s. She stuck it into the room with her top-half, held on the door’s edge as if about to be swept away on a rapid.

“Hi, Elise.”

“Hi, Mrs. Ferguson,” Elise said with a wave.

“Hailey, your father and I are going out to dinner. There’s money on the kitchen table. Order whatever you want, but I want the change, okay?” Hailey nodded. “Have a good time and be good.”

“You too,” Hailey said. “Have fun I mean.”

Mom let the rapid pull her from the door as it shut. Elise chided her, “Your mom’s kinda’ hot.” Hailey faked gagging. Elise laughed, half covering her face, “I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to see your reaction.” Hailey gagged again. “C’mon, free food’ll help.”

They grabbed their respective tech to head for the kitchen. Before long they’d settled on a pizza from a place down the road. Delivery meant more time to waste on the net– and sneaking to Elise’s car for another joint. They returned lighter than before and in time for the pizza to arrive. For a while, Hailey forgot the world, soaking instead in the ambrosial mix of food and grass so often the cherry atop a good night.

Tonight it felt less good. Something about her fainting spell nagged at her. Contrary to expectations too, even the less tinfoil-hat websites hadn’t mentioned anything about it. Whatever had happened to her, however similar it was– if the web were truthful– there was a definite difference in her. Nowhere had she read anything about fainting or migraines. The most common side-effects ranged from minor paranoia to full-blown psychosis. She didn’t need either of those. Part of her was grateful for headaches and faints instead, but the rest wondered what made her different from other Seers– if indeed she were one.

The more she thought, the more the word seeped into the cracks of her mind. “Seer” had been defined as one whose mental abilities allow access to future, or present, remote events. Her vision at school easily fit the former definition, but what about hearing voices? Was “Seer” separate to her, like she was separate from a “norm?”

Her mind fell to The Link. Supposedly Seers used it to access their powers. If her suppositions and experiences aligned, it was the thing linking them to the “dark energy” her book’s author had presented as the force through which such abilities manipulated reality. If that was true, there was no telling what a Seer was capable of if properly trained.

Dark energy and dark matter were said to be the counter-balances to the universe. In ways, as much had already been proven via Relativity and the blunder of the cosmological constant. In others, the sole question remained of whether or not the “dark” affected them. In no way were there questions of if these things existed. Unfortunately, if that book’s author proved right, Hailey had just been given a sizable chunk of power over the universe– or at least, access to said power.

She didn’t like the idea, liked where things were heading even less. Being a psychic wasn’t high on her list of priorities. Had it been on the list at all, it would’ve been nearer the bottom, far below things like; “don’t flunk out of school,” and “get a job, or get a car.” It made her squirm to think of it being on the list, but it wasn’t the thing bothering her most about being a “Seer.” That was something else. Something beneath the factual tones of net-articles, and even the incredulity Elise used; fear.

Fear dominated all of the information she’d taken in. Seers were simultaneously respected, awed, and terribly feared. She could only think of Tolkien and his “affairs of wizards” when she considered it. Even after her high wore off, and Elise left for the night, Hailey couldn’t help but wonder at it:

What would her life would be like now? Anyone that learned her secret, and accepted it as truth, would be leery of her. She doubted Elise would ever outwardly show it, but she was obviously uncomfortable with someone listening to her most private thoughts. Hailey wanted everything to be a bad dream or a bad joke.

She forced herself into a restless sleep, peppered by dreams of random nothingness. Midway through, one dream hit her hard. She found herself lucid, conscious of the dream-state. Terror stirred her gut. Bile burst up her throat.

Elise slid into her car outside her home. Morning fog rolled beneath overcast skies warning of ill omens. Half-way through Elise’s trip to school, Hailey’s gut wrenched into a knot.

Then, glass shattered. Metal twisted. Elise’s head hit her window. The impact’s bloody orb splintered in a spider-web. In a blink, hands went ’round Elise’s half-conscious body. She was grappled out the door over aggressive shouts.

As if time skipped, Hailey saw a darkened room. Elise was lashed to a chair. Hailey could neither move nor speak. As if stuck on-high, helpless and consigned to watching. A muffled voice demanded something. A silhouetted figure knelt behind Elise. A moment later, a resounding crack of bone echoed through the room. Hailey was ripped from sleep by breaking fingers.

She yelped, upright, sweating, and feeling her hand where the finger had been broken. It was fine. The residual pain from the dream was already fading. No other explanation was needed. The dream was a vision. Another one.

Far from being benign as the last, if reality held true, Elise would be kidnapped and tortured. As the seconds passed, residual guilt from the dream told Hailey it was because of her. She wasn’t sure how or why but her gut confirmed it. If she wasn’t careful, Elise would die soon.

4.

Told You So

“C’mon, c’mon,” Hailey muttered, cell-phone at her ear.

A pause gave way to Elise groaning, “Nuhgh. Hello?”

“Thank god.”

“Hailey?”

“Are you okay? Did you get home alright? Did anyone follow you?”

Elise yawned, checked her clock. “Hailey, it’s four-thirty in the morning. What’re you–”

“Did anyone follow you home? Did anything seem out of place?”

“What? No. Why?”

Hailey sighed relief, but her voice sharpened. “Don’t go to school alone. Pick me up first.”

Elise groaned again.“Is this about the psychic thing?”

“I’ll explain later. Just promise you’ll pick me up before school.”

Elise sighed, “Fine. I promise. Can I go back to sleep now?”

Hailey swallowed her fears, “Yes. Sorry. Just… please be here.”

“I will be.”

The line cut out. Hailey suddenly realized she’d been pacing. She set her phone on the end-table, sank to her bed beside it. There was no way she’d sleep again, but resting wouldn’t hurt. She laid back on her bed, eyes closed and mind racing. A thousand different scenarios of what could happen raced past. All of them were changed. Being there ensured no-one took Elise by surprise. If Hailey had her way, they wouldn’t take her at all.

By the time her alarm went off, Hailey was wired. She shot out of bed, showered, dressed and ate in record time. Moments later, the front door sounded and Elise slipped inside from the rain. Hailey’s parents had already left for work, relinquishing the house to girls that tended toward mischief. Today, Hailey wasn’t in the mood for it. All she wanted was to get Elise to school safely.

“So, what happened exactly?” Elise asked, having heard the story twice already. She was still confused as to the dire urgency of a 4 AM phone call.

“You were driving to school and got hit. Someone kidnapped you, then started hurting you.”

Elise shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. It was probably just a–”

“It wasn’t just a dream, Elise! It was the same thing that happened at school.”

“Except it hasn’t happened,” Elise reminded.

Yet. Because you haven’t gotten there yet.

“Who knows if I will?”

Hailey paced through her kitchen, hands rubbing her sore and tired eyes. She sank into a lean against a counter. Elise watched, more empathetic than anything, but Hailey’s dream was outlandish; something like that couldn’t happen, let alone to her. The fact that one vision had come true didn’t mean another would. Even now, there was no way of knowing if Hailey had made parts up.

She believed the mind-reading, but precognition? The last vision could’ve been a fluke, or the dream-vision just a dream. The only thing that really mattered was its obvious affect on Hailey. She was on-edge. Real or not, believing it had worked her up. Then again, if she was right, there was real danger. Elise couldn’t help feeling she deserved the benefit of doubt, for now at least.

“I get you’re worried. And I’m grateful you care and all. But what’re the chances it’ll still happen now that we know about it? I mean, you’ve directly interfered. Doesn’t that guarantee some change? And even then, does anything guarantee it will?”

Hailey’s arms fell to her sides, “I don’t know. I-I mean, I have no idea how any of this is supposed to work. I just… can’t let you go to school alone.”

“Then come with me. It is the reason I came over,” Elise said simply.

Hailey despaired. Elise’s tone was too naive, too innocent. She hadn’t felt the crack of bone, or the jolting whiplash of the car accident. She hadn’t heard the twist of steel and the shattering of glass, or felt hands grappling her limbs. Hailey had. She wasn’t sure she’d ever forget it. The memory made her finger hurt and upturned her stomach.

Elise sought confirmation of their ride together. Hailey breathed to calm her frustration: Elise clearly wasn’t getting the depth of things.

“I just don’t want to have to say I told you so, Elise,” she said finally. “This can’t be one of those situations.”

“Okay. If something happens, we’ll deal. Deal?” Hailey half-nodded. Elise eyed her phone, “We better go, we’re gonna’ be late.”

Hailey did her best to still her queasy stomach as she grabbed up her pack and led the way to Elise’s civic. Her head swiveled, searched their surroundings for anyone or anything out of place. To her dismay, the neighborhood was dull as ever– as if nary a blade of grass was out of place. Everything was all perfectly normal, save Hailey. She didn’t like it. It was the too-quiet silence before catastrophe.

She slipped into the car and locked the doors. Elise ignored it. They buckle up, then eased form the driveway and along Bacatta’s suburban streets. Morning traffic from students and workers grew to a near traffic jam along the main streets toward BHS.

“Don’t go down Armistice,” Hailey instructed.

“What? That’s the fastest way to Orwell.”

“Just don’t. You were hit on Armistice. Go around Elm. Cut through the alleys.”

Elise’s eyes rolled stiffly. “This is getting ridiculous.”

Hailey wanted to snap, but Elise turned onto Elm’s asphalt and kept her fury at bay. Granted, she was right, it didn’t make Hailey wrong. Elm was a long, snaking road that cut a downward slope through a portion of isolated elevation. The civic rolled down through the ran, following the water along its sloping curves and stopping at a cross-street. The water continued on ahead, leveling out in an alley and rolling into its storm-water grates.

Elise gave Hailey a final look, sighed and followed the water. They entered the alleyway behind a set of strip-mall-like groupings sitting back to back. Hailey could see Orwell a quarter-mile ahead, at the alley’s end; the city’s main road and the same one the high-school was on. More and more, she wondered what had changed. Would someone still attempt to kidnap Elise? Or herself? Wouldn’t they have wanted fewer witnesses? And if Hailey was the eventual target, wouldn’t they attempt it doubly if–

The car rocked over a loud blast. Hailey’s nerves shed their sheathes. She was instantly shaking. Elise skidded to a stop in the middle of the alley, threw off her belt and rushed out. Hailey scrambled after her, mind still racing, and stomach rising. Elise fell to a crouch by the rear-left tire. Hailey stumbled over, terrified, found her beside it, coat in the light drizzle and knee wet from the alley.

“God damn it, Hailey,” she shouted. “Do you have any idea what this is gonna’ cost to get fixed!? This is all ‘cause of you’re paranoid b-s.”

Hailey deflated, however relieved she found herself. “I’m sorry, Elise. I didn’t mean–”

“Save it!”

Elise huffed, leaned into the car to turn off the engine, and unlocked the trunk. She fished through it, tossed out a jack, a steel bar, and a dug for a spare tire.

Hailey hunched against the rain, “What’re you doing?”

Irritation bleed through her sarcasm as if a freshly opened vein. “Changing the tire, genius. What’s it look like?” She hesitated, dried her glasses, “Was this in your vision? Blowing a tire on the way to school?”

“No,” Hailey admitted quietly, eyeing the alleway’s ends as cars zoomed past.

A delivery van pulled up to the rear of a building far ahead. A pair of men stepped out in jumpsuits and ballcaps, and lingered near the van’s rear. Fear stabbed at Hailey’s chest, but dissipated when they began carrying boxes into the back of a building.

Hailey crouched beside Elise, watched her crank the jack, “Can I do anything to help?”

“No,” she snapped, panting. She apologized, “I don’t know what to make of all this. Yesterday, my biggest worry was–”

Ceramic brakes squeaked a few paces away, cut her off. Both girls stopped to see an identical delivery van now parked before them. Hailey stood up first. Another pair of men climbed out. Deja vu made Hailey’s head swim.

One of the men was older, grayer, and clad in a baseball cap he affixed as he climbed down, “Gotta’ flat, huh?”

Elise eased up beside Hailey, steel bar in-hand and hidden behind her back. As much as she’d doubted Hailey, she wasn’t about to risk it. The two men angled toward them and the girls inched closer together.

“You alright?”

Hailey spoke, “Yeah. Nothing we can’t handle. Thanks though.”

The younger man glanced sideways with a smile. Time slowed. Hailey watched his head turn, something in his ear caught light; fleshy and brown, but too pastel-like to match his skin. It looked like an ear-piece from a spy shows. It was hard to see, but undoubtedly smooth plastic, not skin. She managed a quick swivel; the men who’d been moving boxes were now headed over.

Time resumed. Her body reacted on instinct.

She kneed the younger man’s groin. Fist-jabbed the other’s throat. Elise’s eyes bulged. She spun round, drug Elise down. Gunshots rang through the alley. The van’s windshield splintered. The girls dove for the Civic’s rear-bumper. The elder man gasped on the ground beside them. The other cradled his manhood with one hand, fished for his waist with the other.

He groaned, struggled, “Little… bitch.”

Hailey ripped the breaker-bar from Elise’s hand. Chrome flashed. Hailey’s black-bar smashed downward. The man’s temple caved inward with fleshy wetness. His body was instantly limp. Blood splattered upward, kept at-bay by the rain that gathered strength. The elder man choked for air, terropr and fury in his eyes. He struggled to fall forward, clutched at waistband. Elise’s body worked. Her leg pumped. Muffled screams sounded beneath a loose jaw. Gunfire echoed nearer by. Distant feet sprinted over dirty concrete, countering it.

Hailey peered over the trunk. A bullet shattered the window, whizzed past. She shrank with a squeak. Elise’s eyes were fixed on the man clutching his broken jaw. Her body was frozen again, but her mind seemed to be working.

A second round of gunshots sounded, quieter and higher than the others. A sudden scream prompted them to peer through the broken window. A hooded figure was charging the last jumpsuited man. He clutched his arm on the ground beside his dead comrade. Thin steel flashed, and arterial blood joined the rain in a fountain. The figure didn’t hesitate, didn’t miss a beat. Its blood-soaked Katana drew back, its body focused its sprint on the girls.

Elise bolted. Hailey was a half-second behind. They reached the alley’s end. Elise continued onward, gripped by terror and flight. She knew of no other path but forward, through traffic. Horns blared. Brakes squealed. Still they ran. Hailey glanced back, the figure still after them. It hurled itself into the air, cleared a car and half the road, came down to land with a roll, and was up and running again as unaffected as before.

Hailey’s terror mounted, fueling her forward. Elise’s break-neck pace was almost impossible to keep up with, but she managed to keep close. They got far enough along the sidewalk that they were about to leave the figure behind when another van skidded to a stop across the road. Bodies piled out. Elise diverted back into the road. Automatic weapons-fire echoed behind them. Each round was a stab of adrenaline and dose of fear. The sounds were silenced by the same, singular, high-pitch as before.

Hailey caught up at last, pointed them down another alley. They disappeared from sight, wheezing and panting, stumbling and nearly falling mid-run. Hailey chose a door at random, and burst into the darkened backroom of an empty shop. They shut the door and hid, huddled in a nearby corner with their hearts racing and breath ragged.

Before they could think to speak, the door burst open. The hooded figure appeared, cast in black silhouette. Its pistol rose on the corner where they huddled, the deadly blade gleaming like a bloody beacon at its side. Adrenaline surged through Hailey. The pistol sank to the figure’s side. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself charging. The figure side-stepped. Hailey missed her tackle, dove for a wall and fell to the floor instead.

The figure holstered its pistol beneath its cloak and stepped toward Hailey. It shook off its hood, revealing a cascade of golden-flax hair and brown feline eyes. Hailey rolled to the side, stared up at the face of a girl no older than herself. From a distance, she might have looked much younger. Her skin was fairer than Hailey expected, and she was petite, short.

Her eyes surveyed Hailey with a hardened disappointment, “Seers are usually smarter. And better trained. But just finding out will do that.”

She offered Hailey a hand. Hailey remained still, frozen in place. Her eyes darted between the girl and Elise behind her. “Wh-who are you?”

“Yasmine Roma. Most people call me Yaz,” she said stiffly, eyeing her own hand.

Hailey hesitated, then took it. The girl pulled her up; young, but immensely strong.

“Does that mean … you’re a Seer?” Hailey asked.

“No,” she deadpanned.

Elise slowly inched to her feet. She stepped over as if the floor might give way at any second.

Hailey watched her, “Why are you here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She asked with a rising brow. Hailey squinted in reply. “I was sent to retrieve you and your friend before… well, they got here. I was almost too late. You got lucky. Sorry.” Distant sirens bled in from outside. Yasmine’s ears perked up. She swept the pair with her eyes, “We need to go. I cut down what was here, but others will be looking for you.”

“Why?” Elise finally asked.

Yasmine’s gaze danced between them, “Because she is a Seer, and you know too much.”

“How do you know?”

Her eyes fell to Hailey explicitly, “It doesn’t matter right now. What does is that you come with me. Otherwise, you’ll be hunted down for experimentation and dissection.” They eyed her with equal measures incredulity and horror. She ignored both. “Now or never. Or would you rather I leave you here for them?”

“We’ll go,” they chorused together.

“Good.” She headed outside, pressed a finger at her ear, “Off Jackson. Behind the bar.”

Hailey and Elise followed, however apprehensively. In the distance, emergency lights flashed red and blue, or red and white across buildings and roads. A large pick-up with a bed-cap roared down the alley from the far-side spraying water in puddles. Yasmine directed them to its tailgate, dropped it and raised the cap’s blacked out rear-window. A load of electronics and other gear was fitted inside at the bed’s front. The small windows were covered but accessible and holes had been cut in the inner-liner to blow air from conduits channeled from the cab for climate control.

Yaz climbed in and offered Hailey her hand again. She hesitated, “How do I know we can trust you?”

“I’ll give you a good reason when I think of one.”

The remark was oddly reassuring. Enough that Hailey climbed in and help Elise up after her. Yaz pulled the tailgate up with a length of rope, used another to shut the cap window. The truck began to roll forward as Hailey found herself wondering what the hell she was getting into.

5.

In The Beginning

Neither girl was sure how long the ride lasted, but at some point the rain stopped. Though they’d both checked their phones at various points, they could only guess the time they’d left the alley, and thus that they’d been traveling over a half-hour. Yaz let them out as soon as the truck stopped, but it was as pointless to attempt discerning their whereabouts. They were in the woods near a cabin; anything more was too much to expect yet. Neither of them liked the idea much, but the alley attack was too fresh to want to be elsewhere.

They stood, waiting for Yaz’s instructions. The air was thick, the woods thicker; the sun only breach the canopy in small, rhombic rays. Sunlight scattered across mud and debris-strewn ground, disturbed only by the splat of Yaz’s boots on the ground. Soft tamps elsewhere marked the appearance of the driver, clad like a lumberjack in flannel and sporting an equally large beard.

If it weren’t for his grizzled, massive figure, the girls might’ve mistook him for a hipster. The rigid discipline in his walk, and the holstered pistol on his right hip, spoke of a genuine article though. The rifle slung over his back only confirmed it. If they hadn’t been present for their own escape, Hailey would’ve thought him hunting for his breakfast. Elise eyed her for guidance, and in turn, she eyed Yasmine.

Yaz presented him with a hand, “Bryce Miller. You can thank him for getting to you in time.”

The girls murmured “thank yous.” His dark eyes tensed to a squint, their corners wrinkled from a life harder than Hailey wanted to imagine. It had evidently left him suspicious of everyone and everything, too.

The squint settled on Hailey with skeptical appraisal. “New Seer, huh? Don’t seem like much.”

“They never do, Miller,” she reminded. Elise and Hailey exchanged a curious look.

Bryce cleared his throat, “Just keep ’em outta’ the way.”

“We’ll do our best,” Yaz replied. Her tone shifted sternly, “Relieve Anderson from perimeter patrol. Tell ‘im to keep his radio on. I might need you again.” Miller marched away with purpose. Yaz muttered, “Fuck if I’m gonna’ have someone below me telling me what to do.”

“Below you?” Hailey said.

Yasmine motioned them to the cabin, “I’m head of security.”

“Uh… what?” Elise said.

Yaz pushed her way into the cabin, “The residents put me in charge. Youth has its benefits. Imagination’s just one of them. With my training, it only makes sense.”

Elise wasn’t sure she agreed. Nothing seemed to be making sense. They rubbernecked their way into the cabin, questioned the girl’s sanity. The place was quaint, cozy even, but it was barely a trio of rooms, one open and split between a kitchen, dining room, and an arrangement of sofas before a fireplace– hardly a place to house “residents.”

Moreover, while the other two rooms weren’t discernible, Hailey guessed they weren’t more than a bedroom and bathroom. How Yaz expected them to be safe there was beyond her. Before she could say anything, Yaz stepped to a framed oil-painting on the wall. With a sideways tilt, the painting resonated with a click! A section of floor slid away in the center of the cabin’s main, adjoined room.

A platform elevator trundled up and into place, locking with another loud click. Yaz stepped onto it, motioned the girls along. They sank into darkness beneath the cabin, the light above shrinking as the floor slid back in place. A moment later, new light bled in from a break in the concrete at one side of the platform. It began at their feet, grew to full-height while the elevator sank into its housing and locked again.

LED bulbs in industrial grade light-cages glowed overhead, melding new-age tech with old-era cement to form a sturdy bunker. The entryway merged into a short corridor that angled left a short way ahead. Yaz led them around the corner, revealing that it doubled in width and height. A series of rooms were arranged along its sides, barred by heavy, steel doors; some ajar, others closed and with or without light splaying through their cracks.

Hailey and Elise followed Yaz, utterly astonished. They stopped at a room on the left, midway down the hall. She ushered them in. It was small, mostly bare, but contained as many essentials as possible; bed, dresser, end table, a desk and chair. The only other thing in the room, save a ceiling light, was a rug in the center of the cement floor, no doubt to combat the occasional bout of cold.

“You can decide which of you gets it. I’ll give the other the one next door. That way you’re close,” Yaz said casually.

“Rooms?” Elise asked. “How long do you plan on keeping us here?”

Yasmine’s face stiffened. “As long as it takes to train you. Until then, you’re walking targets.”

“Targets for what?” Hailey asked.

“We call them Hunters,” Yaz said, crossing her arms with authority. “We don’t know who they’re working for, or where they’re coming from, but we know they want Seers for experimentation.”

“What? Why?”

“Seer-abilities are valuable. Seers are even more valuable because they can withstand their connection to them. A normal person attempting to use the Link becomes addicted over time. We do what we can to keep the Hunters from capturing Seers because we can’t survive otherwise. We suspect they want to study Seers’ genetics to harness their abilities.”

Hailey recalled her visions. “Why would someone want the ability?”

Yaz looked her over, “Only an untrained Seer would feel that way.”

“What?”

“Think about it.” She let her arms fall to her sides, then made small, pointed gestures. “You have the ability to read minds. Properly trained, you can manipulate objects, remotely or locally. You can kill anyone, anywhere in the world, with a proper, singular thought. Among those things, there are often hidden talents– healing abilities, summoning power to create things fire, electricity. Do you have any idea what malicious hands could do with them? Can you even imagine what a government or a military would do to get hold of it? To know, and anticipate one’s enemies? To eliminate them without ever deploying a single soldier? A country would completely disarm its nuclear arsenal for just one Seer. They wouldn’t need nukes afterward.”

“Jesus,” Elise breathed.

Hailey stared. The walls were ready to close in. She didn’t want to be hunted, or experimented on, or to manifest fire, or hear thoughts. She wanted to smoke weed, fall in love, have sex, graduate high-school, go to college– she wanted a normal life. Yaz sensed her thoughts from the light being snuffed in her eyes.

“I understand you don’t want this. Who would? Fact is, if you leave here now, without being trained, you will die– or worse. I can’t allow that. You’re not a prisoner, but your activation means danger for more than you and your friend. Anyone you come in contact with might be used against you now. If the Hunters were to capture you, find what they’re looking for, they’d stop at nothing to root us out. I can’t allow that.”

Elise’s anger began to grow, “So we’ll be kept here against our will?”

Yaz sighed frustration, “What I’m saying is what I’ve said: As long as you’re alive, you’re in danger. Because I saved you, you’re also now a security risk. Your choice is simple, go along with what we request, receive our training, or get locked up until we end the fight or move.”

Hailey grit her teeth. She couldn’t argue but she wasn’t about to let such a crass ultimatum go unpunished.

Elise huffed, puzzling things out as she saw them. “And what about me? Why am I a risk?”

Yaz’s eyes lingered on Hailey’s before darting away, “You have valuable knowledge. The Hunters will take it from you. You’ll be tortured until they know of everything you know.”

“What if I just agree not to say anything?” Elise asked, thinking she might withstand torture.

Yaz’s face hardened into a death-mask. “This isn’t for show. It isn’t a threat. It is someone beating you ’til you talk. Pulling your teeth and fingernails out. Breaking down every. mental. barrier. you have, to retrieve everything from your mind. It is painful. It is thorough. And it is utterly unstoppable.”

Elise’s stomach rose into her throat as her heart sank. Hailey swallowed her own anger, but refused to let fear replace it. “Just tell me what to do to get out of here as fast as possible.”

Yaz seemed disappointed, but acquiesced. “Decide which one of you gets this room, then we’ll talk to Valerie.”

Elise and Hailey exchanged a look, and with a shrug, Hailey took the room, leaving Elise to the identical one beside it. Yaz kept her word, and quickly led the girls to the far-end of the corridor and a room on the right. Ahead, the corridor widened into a large room, divided by a bar-like counter at the edge of a kitchen. Between it and the entrance, the room was further divided in two sections; the right a reading area of couches, chairs, and filled bookshelves; the left, a large, twelve-person dining table presently empty.

Behind the bar, a pair of men shuffled about, the light too low to give any hint of their features. Yaz stole their attention back, and opened the door to a room whose interior was astonishing given its utterly unremarkable exterior. While outside it appeared to the same, ten-by-twelve space as the other rooms, inside it formed that room, then billowed out to half the size of a gymnasium where its rear-wall should be. School desks were scattered here and there before a white-board, and between it and a series of gym mats.

Hailey was immediately awash with an inexplicable power. A sudden belonging accompanied it, as if all her life she’d been searching for a place, and had at last found it. Her heart skipped a few beats. Her breath fluttered in her chest. She swept the room with a wide gaze that made it feel greater with each moment that passed. Though its dimensions remained unchanged, it took Hailey a moment to come to grips with the training room and see it for what it was.

A middle-aged, sinuous looking woman strolled past a young boy at a desk, and made her way over, greeting them with a firm, extended hand. Her dark eyes were alert, wily; her spine rigid. She looked down on Hailey as though a headmistress to a fresh, fearful pupil.

“Valerie Henson,” she said, focused on Hailey. “You feel it. Good. That energy? You’ve power, child, but it is chaotic, unfocused.”

Hailey exchanged a deranged look with Elise and Yasmine, “Uh. Okay.”

Valerie’s face stiffened. “I may sound crazy now, but I assure you I am not. In time you will grow to understand my meanings better than you believe possible. Until then, you must check any attitude at the door. Skepticism is alright. Critical thinking is required, but I will not accept any disrespect.”

Hailey winced, “Sorry. I’m overwhelmed. This is all kind of…”

“Insane?” Valerie asked, softening only slightly. Hailey grimaced with a nod. “It is how we all feel in the beginning.”

“It goes away?”

Valerie shook her head. “No. It merely transforms. The feeling is an effect of having your reality turned upside down for a logic obfuscated by emotion. You cannot begin to understand your power until you accept that understanding must come first through inner-knowledge. Only then can your logic be receptive enough for an explanation to manifest.”

Hailey had to think over what she’d said before responding. Considering how riddle-like her speech was, it seemed understandable. “So… I need to learn to take certain things at face-value before understanding them deeper?”

“In so many words, yes.”

Hailey eyed the three women beside her, then heaved a sigh. Everything Yaz had said about staying and training rushed through her mind– along with everything she risked by leaving. To say she wasn’t angry would dismiss her feelings.

But Hailey had never been one hurt others, let alone through inaction. In a way, it was the only reason she was here now. It was why she’d tagged along with Elise, to ensure against inaction. Now, it seemed any action would’ve caused her to be a target, and that her tagging along had made it the lesser of evils.

Given the circumstances, everything thus far had been handled as best as it could be given the options and information available. No matter what now, neither she nor Elise could be safe outside the bunker. Hailey wondered if they were really safe in it, but let the thought go in favor of more pressing matters. Presently, least of all evils seemed to be staying until properly trained– both of them.

Hailey eyed Valerie. “If I accept your training, can I return home?”

One corner of an eye tightened and slacked, “Yes. In time, however, you may feel that this is where you belong.”

Despite the feeling the power had given her, she Hailey couldn’t see herself feeling that.

“No. I’m a Junior. I don’t even have a driver’s license. This isn’t where I belong. This is where I’m forced to stay to keep people safe.”

Valerie’s nostrils flared slightly, but a hint of compassion tainted the silence between them, though outwardly she remained unchanged. “Be that as it may, your feelings may be wholly changed after my training. But enough of this for now. You must relax before you can begin. Yasmine?”

For a moment, a young girl appeared in her eyes, but disappeared in a blink, “Yes?”

“Take our new guests to the kitchen and have Kenneth fix them a meal.” Yasmine bowed her head and started for the door. Valerie eye the girls in tandem, “All I ask of you both is to be respectful and try to relax. We have enough on our shoulders here that there is no need for more. We are friends, not enemies.”

With that, Valerie turned back to the young boy, and Elise immediately followed Yaz. Hailey hesitated to examine the curious belonging, but let it settle into the background. She started forward as a vise of anxiety constricted her chest. She swallowed hard, terrified by its sudden appearance, and hurried after the others, hoping to chase it away.

6.

What Do You Want From Me?

Hailey and Elise sat at the kitchen bar with Yaz, devouring plates of expertly crafted pierogi. Despite the meager lifestyle required, the resident’s palettes weren’t left wanting. Ken Anderson, one of Yaz’s security, was an bonafide chef. Before getting roped into things, (how the girls weren’t certain) he’d been a chef in Chicago at a five-star restaurant. Whatever had led him there, life in the bunker was better for it. He took his leave after cooking and strolled away with a smile.

The girls sank into silence to eat. Yaz was up a few minutes later, promising to return as soon as possible. The silence thickened. It broke long enough for the pair to finish their meal and make their way back to Hailey’s room. Elise sat before Hailey on the bed, quiet for a long while. When she finally worked up the courage to speak, the weight in her heart visibly weighted her breaths.

“What am I doing here, Hailey?”

She shrugged, “I figured being alone wasn’t–”

“No, why’m I here. In this place.

“Same as me. Trying to stay safe.”

“Safe from what, Hailey?” She asked, high-voiced with despair. “What’s really going on here? I mean, Seers? Kids with weapons? Security teams? This is heavy shit. How can we know we’re safe among these people, let alone with them?”

“What’s our alternative?” Hailey asked seriously. Elise frowned. “You heard Yaz. We’re being hunted. You saw it yourself, those Hunters are hell-bent on getting to us. Are you forgetting this morning? Or my vision? We can’t–”

Elise was irate. “Hailey; step. back. Examine this.” Hailey stared, failing to see her point. Elise whispered, “We don’t know these people. Now they’re talking about training us like soldiers or something– and against our will.” Her voice strained itself in emphasis, “And you have no idea if that vision was real or just a dream!

Hailey sighed, blowing frustration like a steam pipe’s release-valve. Depression crept into its place. Valerie’s remarks on inner-knowing returned: The dream-vision was different than dreams alone. It felt different. Even now, the feeling of knowing it wasn’t just a dream lingered in her gut, her heart, her mind. It was confirmed first by feeling rather than logic, as Valerie had said to expect.

But Elise couldn’t understand that. She hadn’t felt Hailey’s terror. She didn’t ache with distant, cracked bones, or whiplash, or the clutching of grotesque, foreign hands. Hailey had, did. Dreams were different. They came with mono-sound. A distance to signify a separation from reality. This vision was surround sound, V-R, full-sensory stimulation.

“It was real, Elise,” she said finally. “Whatever you believe it, I know it. It was real.”

Elise lowered her face into her hands. There was no denying the girls were at odds on the subject– not to mention everything else going on. As much as Hailey wanted to go home, to let Elise go home, she knew they couldn’t. Her gut confirmed it even more-so now than before. Whether or not Hailey would stay after training remained undecided, but her same inner-knowing was beginning to admit Valerie might prove right, in the end.

“We have to find some way to let our parents know,” Hailey said after a few, silent minutes. “We need to ask Yaz when she gets back.”

“And if they say no?”

Hailey grimaced. She wasn’t sure. The more she considered it, the less likely they’d be allowed to communicate with the outside. The bunker was obviously secret, well-guarded. And if what they’d said about the Hunters was true, for good reason. It wasn’t a comforting thought; it only served to further highlight their distance from normality.

Hailey laid back on the bed, eyes shut and mind swirling:

Seers. Hunters. Kids with swords and guns. Training. Hiding. That– this, was her world now. It seemed ludicrous, but reality often was. Fiction writers so aspired to pinpoint reality because only reality could be quite so outlandish and yet remain believable. It followed no plots. It held no logic but its own. And Unlike books or movies, it had no clear beginning or middle. Despite a guaranteed end, one could never know how or when it might manifest. Thus, reality was its own form of ludicriousness. Anyone that wished or claimed to understand or believe it wholly was admitting to a form of voluntary insanity.

It wasn’t until she heard Elise involuntarily sniffle that Haiey’s eyes opened again. She inched upright, sat against the wall, and eyed Elise. Slick wetness ran from beneath her glasses. It matted blue hair to one of her cheeks, and tainted the air with a putrescent grief.

Hailey’s heistated. “A-Are you okay?”

Elise gave a tearful shake of her head. Hailey’s heart ruptured. Of all people, Elise shouldn’t be here. This had stemmed from Hailey’s issues. Elise was just swept up in it. The thought of never seeing her family again, of them worrying for her, was overwhelming. Contrary to their usually reversed positions, Hailey was taking everything in stride. She’d been on the cusp of something far beyond her when everything began, making the transition easier. But Elise was so far from her natural element Hailey doubted she could ever empathize properly.

“C’mere,” she said gently, beckoning her over with open arms.

Elise didn’t move. Hailey pulled her over by an arm and held her. Elise trembled with an internal quake. Something gave at its height, and she broke into quiet sobs. Hailey merely sat, allowing Elise’s grief to flow freely, stroking her hair with a sibling-comfort.

It was a long while before Elise’s grief had exhausted itself. By then, she lie against Hailey’s chest listening to her heart beat. A fugue state filled with a warmth that flowed into her from Hailey. It was too intense for ambient body heat. Too internal. It was as if she were intentionally projecting it to soothe her.

A passage on Seers played through Elise’s mind: Inherent sensitivity and control of emotions means Seers are capable of Empathic Projection: their manipulation of the Link may be augmented so that their emotions are projected to better control their enviornment…

The passage went on, positing pseudo-technical explanations regarding Seers, their energy, and its effects, but Elise’s mind had wandered by then. Now, Hailey seemed to be employing such an ability. As unconscious as it may have been for Hailey, there was no denying what Elise felt.

For Elise, the feelings were an unexpected comfort. Their existence itself was disconcerting, but their presence imparted a warmth and clarity she desperately needed. It was as if her own, usual aloofness were turned back to her, affirming that “everything would be alright.” She couldn’t be sure of that, but Hailey’s feelings assured her of it, calming her. In spite of an undeniable fear they manifested, Hailey’s feelings seemed to say; regardless of the future, Elise wasn’t alone.

It was enough to eventually compel her upright. She pulled herself into a sitting position, smearing eye liner with a hand as she wiped at the last of her tears. “Sorry.”

Hailey’s voice held a sort of soft finality, “Don’t be.”

Elise suppressed what was left of her grief with a sigh. “I know you don’t want to be here either. I just feel like the odd one out.”

Hailey’s brows pinched in perplexity. “How?”

“If you’re a Seer, you’re one of them.” Her head tilted at the door. “I’m not. I’m just… stuck here, more a drain than a help.”

“That’s not true. Without you, I’m alone too.”

Elise was about to speak, but a knock sounded. Hailey beckoned. Yaz appeared, lugging two backpacks, sword over her back and gun at her hip. She set the bags beside the desk, “I managed to get your stuff from your car.” She eyed Elise specifically, “All of it.”

The two girls sat up. Elise suddenly recalled the weed in her glove-box. Hailey eyed Yaz, her mind elsewhere. “Why wasn’t it easy?”

Yaz stretched, “Cops. They roped off the scene. I managed to get in and out undetected, but it was close. Point is, they know something happened. You’ll be reported missing soon, if you aren’t yet.”

“Did they… did they find the bodies?” Hailey asked, stomach churning. Yaz nodded. “Jesus. That won’t come back on us, will it?”

“Maybe,” Yaz admitted. “But we’ve got bigger problems. Once your parents find out you’re missing, it won’t be long before the Hunters move– either against them or us.”

“Them!?” Elise’s eyes bulged. “Why would they do that?”

“I’d do the same. To lure you out.” She eyed Hailey directly, “Your training needs to begin A-SAP.”

“And me?” Elise asked helplessly.

“We’ll get there.” She gestured Hailey to the door, “C’mon. Valerie wants to meet with you.”

“Uhm, okay.” She glanced at Elise, unwilling to leave her alone. “What about–”

“I’ll be fine,” Elise interrupted. “Go. Learn. I’ll see you later.”

Hailey hesitated, but Yaz left the room. Elise shoved her toward the edge of the bed. A moment later Hailey disappeared out the door with a pained breath. She hurried after Yaz, entered the training room to find Valerie behind a desk at the far wall and facing an interior section of room. Her attention was fixed on a notebook beneath her that she scrawled into with purpose.

“Leave us, Yasmine,” she said without looking.

Yaz half-bowed, left. Hailey wandered toward Valerie, stopped a few feet from the front of the desk. She stood in place for a few minutes, waiting patiently. Soon, the hypnotic scratching of Valerie’s pen echoed almost imperceptibly. It rang through the silence and awkward tension between them. She was just beginning to wonder if Valerie would acknowledge her when she slid back in her chair and stood. It gave Hailey a start.

Valerie stepped around the desk, hand dragging along it, and stopped before Hailey. She half-sat atop it, arms bracing her at her sides. She crossed them and began sizing Hailey up. There was more display than purpose behind the movements. Valerie could’ve examined her just as easily from the chair.

“There,” Valerie thought. “Your instincts are good. You wonder why I might rise in such a way. Obviously my eyes are no more impeded from one side of the desk than the other. So why the displacement then?”

Hailey expected the question to be rhetorical. Valerie’s eyes awaited an answer. She cleared her throat, “Uhm, I don’t know. To make a statement… or something?”

“Close enough,” she said, in her headmistress-way. “The actual answer is to show rather than tell. I, and others like us, have trained ourselves to sense others’ emotions. By relying on our instincts and intuition first, we are guided toward otherwise obscured truths through doors pure logic might otherwise close. It is in this way that we know our world and those whom inhabit.”

“But why? Isn’t that dangerous? To rely on gut-feelings rather than logic?”

“Truth does not require logic, only existence. The unconscious mind governs all human action. Thus, the human world is built and driven by it. It is also the foremost human connection to the Link. Through it, we may follow feelings and instincts to learn the truths they surround.”

“The Link” rang in her ears. It was the same phrase found time and again during her research; the connection that facilitated Seers’ powers. It meant nothing to her otherwise. It was fiction until now. Hearing someone so obviously knowledgeable and confident, refer to it so factually, made her discount any doubts of its existence.

“So it’s real? The Link?”

“Indeed. It is the thing in which all Seers must be trained. The source of our power.”

Hailey winced, “Can it be turned off, or removed?”

Valerie’s face darkened. Her voice turned grave. The room went cold. It seemed to Hailey she could almost see her breath.

“There is only one way we know of, outside death; the fracturing of a Seer’s mind.” Hailey listened, unchanged, but lost at her meaning. Valerie’s orbits caught only shadow. “When overwhelmed by powerful forces, a mind may fracture, splitting apart. A thing once whole becomes shattered. Fragmented. Memories break. Reality and its connections fade. The body only remains alive through sheer autonomy. Will no longer exists. Nor do dreams. Emotions. Speech is all but impossible. When it comes, it is incomprehensible, never lasting more than a few disconnected words or ideas.

“Among these things, when it is a Seer’s mind, their energy becomes fragmented. Their power disintegrates. They are all but dead, despite physiological fitness. Even in the best cases, only glimpses of the person they were shine through. A twinkle in the eye. A remnant of twitching facial muscle. Insubstantial given what is lost.”

“So the Link can’t be severed then,” Hailey surmised, unsure of how to feel about the alternative.

Valerie lightened, the headmistress returned to her place amid the well-lit room. “There is no known reversal of the condition, nor is there any other method to it. The Link is as much you as the undeniable connection to a greater thing. Once activated, a Seer cannot become deactivated. As for losing the Link, death is the preferable alternative.”

Hailey agreed with wide eyes, realizing she’d been considering whether or not brain-death was the better alternative to her current situation. Valerie recognized as much, but rather than outright address it, she allowed Hailey’s mind to work its way there alone. She understood the lesson, suddenly eager to have anything else occupying her mind.

“So, you’re going to train me?” Valerie gave a slight nod. “How?”

She straightened upright, “We will begin with mindfulness training. You will be taught to quell your emotions. To sense your environment. And when to trust your instincts alone. Then, you will be instructed on more adept-level mental techniques; the inner-sight, remote viewing, and inner-communication. If you continue to show proficiency in it, you may also receive training to control your precognition. The sight is powerful, and each Seer has some connection to it, but not all have control, nor can they. We will know by then the extent of yours.”

Hailey nodded, mentally preparing for what was to come. Valerie straightened from the desk and bridged the gap between them with a single step. She re-examined Hailey, this time more analytically, possessing a singular purpose.

“Finally, if you show the proper grasp, both Yasmine and Rachel will train you in self-defense. The choice to pursue such lessons outside my requirements is yours. I recommend it. But some of us are not fighters, and it is best not to attempt to be, lest we endanger others. When your training is complete, I will inform you, but you will know regardless. Then you may choose to leave.”

Hailey’s eyes gleamed at the thought, but Valerie’s were too stern for it to gain much purchase. There was no denying there was a road ahead. Undoubtedly, it would be long, but most certainly it would be difficult. More than anything, it needed to traversed with the utmost caution.

Hailey breathed deep and slow, in anticipation of the long path forward. “Okay. Where do we start?”

7.

These Truths We Hold to Be Self-Evident

Elise stared at the closed door to Hailey’s room, more lost than spacey. She’d managed a few hits from a joint by blowing the smoke through a tube of fabric-softener sheets. It was the usual way of hiding smoke, and she always kept an ample supply of softener sheets in her pack. Though she doubted anyone would care– she’d seen ashtrays here and there with snuffed butts– avoiding confrontation was at the top of her priorities. At least for the moment.

So, she focused elsewhere; Hailey’d only been gone a few minutes, but it felt longer. She was anxious and paranoid before the high. Now she sensed the lack of reasoning for it. The bunker was safer than anywhere she knew of, outside perhaps Geosynchronus-orbit above the Bermuda Triangle. Unfortunately, that didn’t change how she felt.

Hailey had a place with the Seers. Elise didn’t. In school, Elise and Hailey were their own clique. They weren’t smart enough to be nerds. Not athletic enough for the jocks. They weren’t musicians or quite inebriated enough to be true burn-outs. Hailey had drifted, using her curiosity and aloofness as a form of extroversion. Elise on the other hand, only ever had Hailey, and groups she felt out of place in. To say nothing of how she’d feel about them now. She was utterly alone.

Her eyes fell to her pack with a longing sigh. So much had changed so fast. Too much. She rose for her pack and slipped outside for the room next door– her room. The door opened on an identical room, and to another heaving sigh. She set her pack at the foot of the bed, began sifting through it. Everything inside was school related. Only a few, minor things like a wallet represented the life she’d left behind. At least the open door behind her partially combated the loneliness.

In a flash, a hand laid on her shoulder. Her heart leapt ten stories. She whirled ’round, chest heaving, to see Yaz, recoiling.

“Jesus Christ!” She swallowed hard. “You scared the hell out of me.”
Yaz apologized. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.”

Elise took a few, quick breaths, then shoved her pack onto the floor. She sat at the foot of the bed still trying to shake off the last of her shock. Yaz gave a look, as if asking if she were welcome. Elise shrugged, motioned to shut the door. Yaz acquiesced, pulled the desk chair over, and sat nearby.

She watched Elise mindlessly sift her belongings. “She’ll be gone a while. You need anything?” Elise shook her head. “Well, don’t hesitate to ask. Everyone knows how you feel. And empathizes. You don’t want to be here, we know, but we’ll do our best to make it bearable. We all know what it’s like to be displaced. At the very least, I’m here, if you need me.”

Elise was silent. Her eyes fell to the bed beneath her pack. “I can’t help feeling like the odd one out. Everyone else here has something to do. Everyone has a place.”

“It’s the same for everyone, at first. Me too.”

“How’d you deal?”

She chewed her bottom lip with an uncharacteristic hesitation. It was out of place, especially to Elise. Something of the young girl beneath all the gore-covered armor shone through. Since they’d met, Yaz had been sure-footed. Confident. In charge. Elise saw now how deep that facade was required to go to keep her from losing it altogether.

“I made my own place. Eventually.”

“How?”

“Learning to fight,” she said simply. “Not just to defend myself, but to fight. As a warrior. Then, I learned to think, like a General. Even when I was good, I knew I could be better. So I learned to be. I studied battle tactics. Stratagem. Everything down to schematics for known security systems. I read history books, practiced, simulated, and examined famous war-battles in PC games. When the time came for a major move– the others began looking to me for advice. Once they took me seriously, they saw my aptitude and put me in charge of security. Since then, I’ve worked to earn that trust by keeping everyone safe and bringing in Seers.”

“It must’ve been hard,” Elise said, wondering how she might react in Yaz’s place.

“It wasn’t easy. I can say that. But difficult is a matter of perception. Around here, there are more difficult things then deciding who’s walking where at what time of day.”

Elise stared off, hopeless. “Guess Hailey’ll know those too, soon.”

Yaz eyed her as she broke her stare. Their eyes met, and Yaz did her best to impart her courage. “You need something stronger than survival. You need confidence. You’re not the silent bench-warmer type. Not in matters you’re adept at. Here, the only thing you know is you’re a liability.” Elise agreed. “What you need’s something to ensure you aren’t. I can provide that, if you choose.”

Elise’s brow furrowed, “You mean training me?”

“As I have been, yes. No-one here is better qualified. Plus, we need all the security we can get.”

Elise visibly thought about it. Yasmine allowed it, watching her mind work in her downcast eyes. There was a certain sense to the idea. If the others looked to Yaz for guidance and security, there was no reason she shouldn’t. As skilled as she was, learning from her was as good as learning from any master infinitely her senior. Above all else though, she agreed with Yasmine’s assessment; she was a liability and felt like it.

When it came to being out of her element, confidence was her last trait. Elsewhere, an argument might be made for, but until mathematics, drugs, or music were relevant, she’d remain a burden. The only way she saw to ease her mind seemed to be training, as Hailey was.

The crucial difference was Elise’s complete lack of ingrained talent. She met Yaz’s eyes again, as if to ask about it. The silent answer was already poised on her brow and stilled lips; what she lacked could be made up for in practice. If Yaz was the expert she appeared to be, training Elise would be as natural as training herself– ingrained talents or no. In any event, it would give her focus, allow her to keep at-bay the fears and concerns cropping up.

She nodded with a blink and met Yaz’s eyes, “Alright. Teach me to fight.”

Yaz rose to full-height, her commanding presence taking over. “Then there’s no reason to waste time. We’ll begin now.”

Elise followed her from the room toward the Seers’ training room. They entered another, identical room beside it. The concrete walls made it impossible to hear anything between the two, but somehow, Elise sensed Hailey’s presence in the other training room. Yaz focused her attention on weight-training equipment. Gym-mats lined the floors of all but a small, outer perimeter where training dummies lined one side, lockers another, and chairs a third. The room was like something from an old martial arts film, complete with punching-bags and various training implements.

They stopped at a weight bench. Yaz directed Elise to sit on its edge. “We’ll gauge your abilities to better facilitate training. I’ll show you proper form and technique along the way, but take it easy. If you need a break, say so. Now, lie back and show me what you can do.”

Next door, Hailey sat cross-legged on a mat in the room’s center. A similar evaluation was progressing despite the varied context. Hailey’s eyes were closed. The room outlined in the tell-tale white of the active-Link. Valerie sat a short distance away; an ethereal figure of golden light whose essence undulated and swirled, obscuring its features. Her voice rushed in with a series of harmonies above and below it. The whispers were much like the thoughts of the students’ had been, save the words were intended only for her.

“You have great power, Hailey,” Valerie relayed inside her mind. “In time you may harness that power. But you must first recognize the care and mindfulness required to wield it. To ensure we do not violate another’s essence, we have established and agreed to three tenets to be upheld.

“Tenets?” Hailey asked aloud, uncertain of how to speak via the Link.

Our “Code of Honor,” if you please. The Three Tenets are these: Firstly, you must never violate another’s mind nor privacy. Either by reading them, remote viewing them, communicating with them without their continued or prior permission, or by using the Link to harm them via physiological manipulation.”

“What’s physiological manipulation? And why can’t I do it?”

Valerie inflected an indomitable gravity to the air. Her words turned discordant, grating Hailey’s mind and commanding they be taken seriously. “In this context, it means to use one’s power to harm another’s mind. Specifically, via shutting down autonomic functions such as the heart-beat or breathing. Though the first tenet may be flexible, it should only be when all other avenues are exhausted and death otherwise imminent.

“So I can’t use it to defend myself?” She asked, wondering what the point of training was, then.

“You misunderstand. Once you have learned to control your power, you will know of many more ways of handling aggressors. You will also find then, that it is not difficult to overcome most situations without such drastic action.”

“Okay. So. Don’t kill anyone with heart-attacks or force-chokes,” she half-joked. Valerie’s ethereal head tilted with disapproval. Hailey winced.

Valerie pushed forward, “As well, it is unfair for such power to be used to willfully violate another’s privacy.” Hailey wondered at the depravity necessary to, but Valerie continued. “The Second Tenet is to never reveal your abilities to those not circumstantially bound to, or with prior awareness of, Seers as a whole. We must never speak of our existence without good reason. Even here. Knowledge of Seers should be guarded, for the sake of others, as well as ourselves.

Hailey knew first-hand what she meant– and how bad it felt to drag someone into the fight unintentionally. She couldn’t imagine doing it voluntarily. Her heart sank. She exhaled a sigh, mind on Elise in the next room. Her energy was barely visible through the dense light-wall, still beside Yaz’s somewhere nearby.

Valerie sensed the bend her thoughts had taken. “And thus you see the peril faced by those whom know.” Hailey nodded. “The final tenet can be seen as an extension of the preceding two; never abuse your abilities as a Seer for personal or material gain. It is amoral to cheat others via the Link. We carry great power, Hailey. That power requires vigilance. Our darker urges are vastly more dangerous because of it, but so too is our capacity for goodness. These rules are held to not because we are superior to others, but because they humble us, rely on us, to otherwise protect them from ourselves. In time, you too will better understand why these feelings drive and guide us.”

“I’ll do my best to uphold them,” Hailey promised, thoughts lingering on Elise.

“Then we shall begin with mindfulness.

For the next few hours, Hailey and Valerie sat before one another amid the active-Link’s white-light. It reminded her of the old movies where a teacher imparts their wisdom to a student through guided meditation. Much of it was meditation, Valerie assured her. Through it mindfulness could be found: She would learn to control her thoughts and feelings. Through that, her actions and reactions. It would be slow-going at first. Eventually, she’d hold enough sway that mindfulness would become second nature, autonomous.

This, Valerie explained, was crucial to harnessing the Link. Without mindfulness, simple matters such as the Link’s continuous activation, were unattainable. Lack of it was also the sole reason Hailey remained mute through it. Maintaining the Link, and using it to speak, required a level of concentration yet beyond her. Until activating and maintaining the Link was as automatic as breathing, anything beyond remained impossible.

Thus, their time was spent mostly in theory and instruction. Hailey said little more than she had to, the afternoon an otherwise endless call and response of instruction and practice; Valerie, the former; Hailey, the latter. When she was finally released for the night, she made her way to the bathrooms down the hall. The bunkers’ layout had allowed for only one, excessively large bathroom to be retrofitted into two, smaller ones. Thick, steel walls divided them. Their interiors were further sectioned by toilet and shower stalls, and a row sinks.

She entered to find a shower already running, Elise’s clothing piled inside a sink nearby. Hailey called over the running water, “Elise?”

“Yeah?”

“How are you?” She asked, stripping down and feeling as if back in gym-class’, dread included.

“Alright… I guess.”

Hailey stepped into a shower, fiddled with the knobs, and immersed herself in the warm wetness. Her legs turned to rubber, almost buckled from exhaustion. Her stomach instantly growled. She kept her mind off it, “Were you and Yaz training?”

“Yeah. Starting to, anyhow,” she replied, sounding more confident than before.

Some of the weight rose from Hailey’s chest. Hailey soaped herself with a bar from a holder in the wall. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“What d’you mean?”

“You were against being here earlier. What made you change your mind?”

Elise was quiet. She let the water drum against her, head down and eyes closed in search of an answer. It was true she didn’t want to feel like dead-weight, but that didn’t feel enough of an explanation for herself. All the same, she settled on it for Hailey.

Hailey was dismissive, “You’re not dead-weight, Elise. I’d be lost without you here.”

Elise went quiet again, longer this time. Her shower shut off and she stepped out to dry herself. Hailey rinsed herself a last time, twisted the shower off, and stepped out nude and dripping. She wrapped herself in a towel while Elise dressed, slowly.

“You’re not going to say anything. Are you?”

Elise rolled a shirt down her torso. “There’s nothing to say, Hailey. Even if you don’t feel it. Even if I can’t explain it. I do feel alone. Maybe that’ll change with time, but I just wanna’ go home. I know I can’t yet, and I understand why. But it doesn’t make it easier– especially with no purpose.”

Hailey eyed her skeptically, “What makes you think it’s any different for me?”

Elise breathed deep to speak, hesitated, then exhaled. “It just is. Just like how you know the vision wasn’t a dream. I know I don’t belong here.”

Neither of us do,” Hailey countered, unconvinced.

Elise finished dressing. “You’re my friend, but you do have a place here, whether or not you accept it. I don’t hold it against you, I’m just telling you how it is.” Hailey looked about to argue. “And trying to say otherwise is discounting my feelings.”

Hailey’s face sank. Elise grabbed her old clothing and towel, and left. The door shut with an echo it resounded through the empty room with metallic reverb. Hailey’s heart was stung by it. For better or worse, Elise was right. But if Hailey’s instincts were half as good as Valerie insisted, it was for worse.

Already, she could feel a chasm separating them. It no doubt widened with each event and word that put them further in and out of their respective places.

Hailey’s head fell, her eyes mournful. Her shoulders slumped. She started forward, knowing the path ahead would be grievous, rough.

8.

Legends, Assholes, and the Link

The night passed relatively easily, however depressed the girls became. They found each other again at the kitchen bar, dining on left-overs. Little was said. The silence itself spoke volumes. Each sensed the other’s feelings, Hailey’s epiphany. Given their last conversation, neither felt much like addressing any elephants in the room. Exhaustion parted them wordlessly in the hall. The pair settled into their rooms for sleep, mystified by the notion that so much had transpired in a single day.

But the emotional roller-coaster had been real. When Hailey woke in the morning, confused, the large group’s sounds seeped in and sharply honed reality. It impaled her gut as she stepped from her room, hair wild and eyelids heavy. Distant sizzling greeted her with mingled, ambrosial scents. Valerie sat with a few others she’d yet to meet at the bar, Yaz and Bryce at their far end.

Yaz waved her over, offered her a seat, and introduced her to the woman between she and Bryce. Her dark features and olive skin seemed pristinely groomed. “Rachel Ramirez,” Yaz said casually. “Seer. She was gone most of yesterday.”

“Hi,” Hailey said sheepishly, mind still reeling.

Rachel was alert, wide-eyed, and vastly more pleasant than Valerie. “I heard Yaz brought you in. I was hoping to meet you before Val got too mystical.”

“I heard that.”

Rachel’s smile infected Hailey. “Good to know you can do that. Tense Seers tend to ruin the room’s mood. What with empathic projection and all.”

Hailey guessed her meaning. “I imagine that’s a downer. I’m sure we’re real fun at parties.” Rachel laughed. “I can’t like, I’m a little overwhelmed.”

“I’ll stick with you. Don’t worry. We’ll talk. I’ll meet up with you after Val’s training.”

“You won’t be helping?”

Yaz interjected, “Rachel’s a runner. She and Bryce patrol the city and feel out psychic energy. It’s how we found out about you. That, and Tyler’s vision.”

“Tyler? Is that–”

“The boy, yeah,” Rachel replied. “We’re protective, obviously, but he’s shy. Eventually, you’ll train with him. He’d be with you now, but he’s a pre-cog. His visions give him nightmares. We’ve been focusing on finding a therapy to help him block them out, but it’s slow-going.”

“How bad?” She asked, recalling her own visions.

Rachel grimaced. “I’m guessing you know their power. When we found Tyler, he was living on the street, catatonic. He was nearly feral. He still hasn’t fully recovered. And he won’t speak of his family. All we know is, he’s better now than he was. He’s put on weight, is no longer malnourished, and the nightmares are slightly less frequent, if nothing else.”

Hailey grimaced, feeling her heart impaled this time. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be a downer.” Rachel shrugged. “How long’s he been here?”

“Six months or so, since we moved to Bacatta. We found him in the first few days.”

Yaz piped up again. “Moving was necessary. The Hunters were getting too close. We spent a month scouting before we found the bunker. We’d been staying in a warehouse with no fortifications, and too much ground to patrol. This is better: Single access point. Easily patrolled grounds. Obscured, remote location. And if need be, it can withstand a siege indefinitely.”

Rachel threw back a sip of coffee, “Near as we can tell, it was meant as a fallout-shelter during the cold-war. Then was forgotten about.”

Yaz nodded, “I dug up everything I could on the place, found out it’d belonged to a man who’d grown up an orphan, died during the seventies, and had no family. All records were paper, and in bad condition.” Hailey’s brow furrowed confusion. Yaz clarified. “It was forgotten about. We spent a couple weeks cleaning it up, then moved in.” Hailey nodded along. “Since then, Bacatta’s been our focus.”

“Why?” Hailey asked, thinking of it as the same, droll place she’d been born and raised.

Rachel explained. “We believe Bacatta’s a convergence point for psychic energy. We can’t be certain yet, but we suspect a Conduit is somewhere nearby.”

“What?”

“A Conduit,” Rachel repeated.

“If reality follows legend,” Yaz explained. “A Conduit’s a sort of… being, of pure energy. What little is known says they’re responsible for the balance of energy that maintains reality’s stability.”

Hailey’s eyes glazed over. Yaz and Rachel laughed.

Ken swiveled from his stove, divvied food onto plates, and set them out. Elise suddenly appeared, as if present only for the food. She said little and sequestered herself in the bar’s corner beside the wall. Her eyes remained on her plate through-out the meal. She spoke only in “thank yous,” and “pleases.” Yaz and Rachel fell into a quiet conversation. Hailey was elsewhere; focused intensely on the desperation pulling her toward Elise. Rather than look to her for help though, Elise was clearly avoiding Hailey as much as was possible for two so near to one another.

When, one-by-one, the group began to disperse, Elise followed. She slipped away before Hailey could speak to her. Yaz went with, leaving only Rachel and Ken with Hailey. Clattering plates and running water accompanied Hailey as she finished breakfast.

She wandered down the hall afterward, unsure of her aims. Valerie appeared, as near to materializing in the corridor as a creature of flesh and blood might. “I want you in the training room in ten minutes. Prepare yourself, but no dawdling. I have other matters to attend to later today.”

Hailey merely nodded. There was no doubt any longer that the boy, Tyler, was the more important thing. Mostly, she wasn’t about to piss off her mentor. They’d be spending most of their time together. The last thing they needed between them was a feud.

Hailey stepped to her door, stopped with a hand on the knob, then swiveled for Elise’s room. She knocked.

“Yeah?”

“It’s me.” Silence. “Can I come in?”

Hailey felt rather than heard Elise’s sigh. “Yeah, alright.”

She stepped in, shut the door behind her. Elise sat at her desk, a notebook open on fresh ink. Hailey needn’t bother prying. The air around Elise said the letter was for her parents. She found herself aligned with Elise’s silent hope that it might soon find them.

She cleared her throat, “Um… are you alright?”

This time, she both heard and felt the sigh. Elise dropped her pen, threw herself back in her chair. “What d’you want me to say, Hailey? Yes? You want me to lie? Say everything’s fine?”

“No. I want the truth. I’m worried about you.”

She spit air through her lips, “If you were, you wouldn’t have drug me into this.”

Drug!?” Hailey said, eyes wide, jaw slacked. “Elise, I was drug into this. And in case you’ve forgotten, I only brought you with ‘cause I was scared for you.”

“Yeah. Sure. Okay. And you freaking out has nothing to do with it.”

Hailey blinked hard, hoping she’d misheard Elise. It seemed she’d heard her right though. Somehow, now everything was about her.

“Elise, I was freaking out.” Her voice rose a half-octave, “Freaking out for you. You don’t know what it was like. That vision. You didn’t feel your best-friend’s car get t-boned. Her whiplash. You didn’t hear the glass shattering around her. Or the metal twisting. You didn’t feel hands grabbing at her. Her getting knocked out and tied to a chair. Beaten. Broken. I felt it. I felt it as you. And yeah, I freaked. Because I care about you. ‘Cause I love you. And ’cause I didn’t want anything to happen.”

Elise’s eyes averted with contempt. Hailey’s head shook in utter disbelief.

“Whatever. If you wanna’ pretend I had any control over any of this, fine. I’m not going to stop you. But I will not sit here and pretend I did any of this selfishly. I did it for you.

Elise didn’t budge. Hailey threw open the door and stormed out, slamming it behind her.

“Asshole.” Elise muttered, uncertain which of them she meant.

It took Hailey most of the morning to fully calm herself. The inability to focus only angered Valerie, which in turn, irritated Hailey. Only after sitting in meditation, alone, hoping to for some measure of inner-peace did the last bits of contention dissolve completely. Rather than focus on her relief, she let her mind wander until Valerie once more took a place before her.

“It took you long enough,” she said blithely. “But what is past is past. We may now focus on the matter athand.”

For the next hour, they sat in meditation for what Valerie termed, Environmental Sensory Training. Over time, she projected a myriad of feelings to be separated from her own, identified, and reflected back. Hailey found most of it more easy than she expected. Sussing out Valerie’s emotions from her own was simple. Reflecting them proved more difficult. She was confused as to its necessity, but Valerie offered no explanations yet. Outside technical help, she gave only her expectations.

Reflection was difficult for one, sole reason; it required intense concentration to separate emotions from their resulting, physical feelings. Given everything with Elise, manifesting much outside complacence or despair was difficult. She suspected too, Valerie had purposely begun with this training to combat the conflict arising between them.

By the end of the ES lessons, Hailey felt more confident. If little else, she knew how to activate the Link. The next lesson Valerie called, “instinct honing.” She deactivated the Link and instructed Hailey to do the same. They stood a few feet apart in the room’s center. Valerie produced a bandanna and blind-folded Hailey.

“You must learn to trust your instincts.”

“How’s being blind supposed to help, again?” Hailey asked, sarcastically.

She stepped back around Hailey, “Only after learning to trust your instincts can you properly protect yourself or others. Understanding them will allow you to overcome people or environments that seek to deceive you.”

“Can’t I just use the Link for that?” Hailey asked.

Valerie circled Hailey, explaining, “Though we rely on the Link, it is not our only asset. Nor should it be. It should, as all things, remain merely a tool to aid us. But not every tool is useful in every situation. You would not hammer a screw. Yet both hammer and screw are useful in various situations.”

Hailey gave a slight nod. “Okay. Following. Still not seeing the destination.”

Valerie stopped before her again. “Quiet your mind, as you would in meditation, but do not activate the Link. Instead, use your senses to tell you where I am.”

“You’re in front of me. I can hear you.”

“Quiet child,” she said.

Hailey rolled her eyes behind the blindfold. She did as instructed, shutting off the active parts of her mind as in meditation. Rather than activate the Link though, she did her best to feel the room. The air was cool, still. As she’d done during her last lesson, she breathed and entered her contented trance. It deepened the silence buffering the world from Hailey’s examination of it. Soon only the slightest shifting, air currents and faintest sounds were noticeable.

Valerie’s harmonic whispering echoed in and out of itself in Hailey’s mind.“Now separate your feelings from those around you; your instincts from them. Recognize instinct for its compelling truth, the “gut feeling.”

Hailey took a deep breath, eyes closed. She visualized herself manually sorting through the various feelings, projected from within and without or wafting in, as if on invisible currents. She picked hers from the melange; strongest, physically nearest and emanating from within rather than infecting from without.

Valerie sensed her compliance. “Very good. Now, emotion from instinct.

Easier said than done, Hailey knew. She did her best anyway.

Presently, her emotions were a knotted fishing-line, fine and utter chaos. Separating them out seemed impossible. If she could’ve, she’d have just cut the line and started anew. Unfortunately, emotions weren’t quite so disposable.

Sifting them proved more mentally straining than expected. Each emotion came with its own associated, physical manifestation. A tremble of a hand here. Twitch of an eyebrow there. With them too, were their undeniable effects. Terror stabbed her gut. Despairing put her heart in a vise. Repulsion upturned her stomach. Joy righted it again. Other emotions came and went. Anger stole breath. Cerebral-awe preceded chest-fluttering admiration. Even groin-warming hope trickled into the edges of consciousness.

One-by-one, she stripped them away, mentally setting them aside to reveal what remained. That, she sensed, was instinct. Firmly entrenched in the gut and waiting to spread out to what needed it most; be it legs for fleeing, or fists for fighting.

“Very good, child,” Valerie whispered. “I am somewhere in this room, but you cannot hear me. I am a leaf on the wind. A shadow in darkness. Yet one you may still sense. Turn to me.”

Hailey hesitated. She knew it was better to be certain and slow, than quick and wrong. She felt her gut pull from the side. With a turn, she faced the left wall.

“Excellent.” Valerie went silent. Hailey’s gut pulled again, remained in place. “Faster now.” She about-faced. Another silence. Then, “Again!”

The pair repeated the process until Hailey was anticipating Valerie’s commands. Before she spoke, Hailey was turned. They kept the rhythm moving until Valerie was satisfied. She stood before her again, speaking normally.

“Now, we will repeat this exercise,” she said, producing a soft, stress-ball from a pocket. “This time, you will not await a command. You will sense my movements. When I stop, you will toss the ball and I will catch it. I will then move and throw it. You will attempt to catch it. All of this in silence. Do you understand?”

Hailey nodded, eyes closed behind the blind-fold. “Throw the ball. Catch the ball.”

“Begin.

The first few throws, Hailey was off– but more from poor throwing than lack of sensation. The same went for catching. She stumbled into a natural rhythm, allowing her instincts to guide her. She went with them, pulled from side-to-side, her hands and arms extending to catch or throw. Before long, Valerie was once more standing before her, untying the blind-fold.

Hailey blinked hard against the bright lights, rubbed eyes. Valerie pocketed the blindfold.

“I am truly impressed, Hailey, but do not let it go to your head. I could not ask for a better start to your training, but I expect you to practice your meditation each day. As well, your emotional control, reflection, and projection. You may want to ask your friend, Elise, to aid you. I suspect it would do you both well.”

Hailey winced, “I’ll do what I can.”

Valerie gave a small bow, “That is all I ask. You may go. We will continue tomorrow.”

Hailey left the training room, more tired than she’d realized. The smells of more food being cooked wafted from the kitchen. She headed toward Elise’s room, but hesitated. Waves of hostility emitted from inside with a tension that pulled at Hailey’s guts. Rather than spread outward to encompass the bunker, they seemed to flow straight into her. It was obvious they were directed at her.

Hailey heaved a sigh and turned toward the kitchen, alone, resigned to let sleeping dogs lie… for now.

9.

Not the World You Knew

Elise’s letter to her parents had been finished for hours. Yet she remained at her desk, reading and re-reading, until she wasn’t sure what words meant anymore. Sorrow welled bile in her gut, twisted her intestines into knots. Rage lathered her blood to a froth, only common sense and despair managed to temper it.

She knew she’d been harsh with Hailey. Illogical even. It didn’t matter. Everything was her fault, intentional or not. All Elise could do now was hope to contain herself, keep from causing undue problems. Primarily, that meant not speaking to Hailey again anytime soon. That reality made the knock on her door all the more aggravating. She stood up, yanked open the door, expecting to give Hailey a piece of her mind.

Instead, Yaz’s eyes were deranged by concern. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just… thought you were–”

“Hailey?”

Elise deflated,“Please don’t say that name right now.”

She beckoned Yaz in, whom shut the door behind her. She leaned against it with a shoulder, turned to watch Elise sink behind the desk and fold up the letter. The air between them was tense, but its ire was aimed elsewhere.

“Sooner or later you’re gonna’ have to leave this room,” Yaz warned. “Do it enough, you’ll run into her. It’s a small place.”

“I know.”

“All I’m saying’s, you can’t be angry forever.”

“I know.” Elise turned in her seat, “How’d you deal with it?”

A definite apprehension preceded her. She cleared her throat carefully, “I… was angry. I took it out on other people. Most of my family was killed before Rachel reached me. My sister was…. she didn’t last long. After her training was finished, she left. We found her a few days later, dead from a heroin overdose.”

Elise grit her teeth, “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t put the needle in her arm.”

“I just meant–”

“I know what you meant. But I don’t need sympathy. I need you to understand.”

Elise was somewhat taken aback, “Understand what?

“Your anger, however valid, effects more than you.” She glanced wide, encompassing the bunker’s entirety. “There are people here whose sensitivity to emotions is infinitely greater than ours. And even I can sense your anger from a ways off. Imagine how the others feel.”

She shook her head, exasperated, “So, w1at? Just shut off?”

“Of course not. That’s worse. For you and us.” A hint of desperation appeared beneath Yaz’s controlled exterior. “No, what I’m saying is, we all accept this isn’t what you want. We respect that. But your anger is unnecessary. And short-sighted. And ungrateful.”

Elise’s face was hit by a brick wall of confusion, “Huh? How?”

“Think of it like this.” Yaz settled against the desk beside her, eyes forward. “We rescue this girl from actual, real harm. Take her in. Keep her safe. Fed. Comfortable enough. The only thing we ask, is to accept that leaving isn’t possible. Not yet. And not because we want to keep her here, but because it’s not safe– for anyone to let her go yet. Meanwhile, she’s understandably angry, but despite a polite surface, resentful. Hateful, even.”

Elise hung her head, ashamed.

“How would you feel about her?”

Elise echoed earlier sentiments, certain now whom she meant. “Like she’s an asshole…”

Yaz’s tone firmed in correction. “Or, that she doesn’t understand greater things than her are at stake. And that, unintentional or not, she’s being supremely selfish.”

The room went quiet. It lasted long, thoughtful minutes. Yaz’s words, and Elise’s thoughts, ran their course. Elise’s shame went deeper than she wanted. Whether from the Seers’ around her, or her own internalized guilt, she felt far worse than unwittingly selfish. That she likely occupied the middle ground between her and Yaz’s estimations didn’t help matters. Negatively impacting others she bore no ill-will toward made her stomach.

“What do I do?” Elise asked finally. “And how?”

“We’ve already begun that. You just need more patience. In everything.” Elise gave her a curious look. “I’ve put together a training regiment. It won’t be easy, but I’ll be there. Every step.” Elise’s curiosity faded. Yaz rose, lightly patted her shoulder, “Come on. You’re a long way from being field-rated.”

Elise followed her to the training room. The next few hours passed in sweat and fatigue. Yaz stressed proper form and movement therein. Bench-weights were the simplest place to begin. Yaz spotted, only giving breaks between after several sets of high-reps. Yaz took over here and there, forcing her to spot and watch. Elise relished the shifted pace, and opportunities to breathe.

Treadmill running came with its own challenges. Maintaining proper form at full-tilt to simulate escaping Hunters wasn’t half as easy as it had sounded. Yaz urged her on; a single lapse in form might cause a twisted ankle, wounding or killing her or anyone else with her. She’d seen it happen once– and would say nothing else to the effect.

To Elise’s credit, she easily broke through her own physical barriers, managing to power on, when she should’ve long failed. Either from her own inner-drive, or Yaz’s expert instruction, she attained heights of physical endurance few beginners had known. Let alone herself. There was something to be said of Yaz’s presence and confidence. It topped no-one else’s, making her both an excellent teacher, and a hard-as-nails leader. Elise suspected it was the only way she’d retained control over men and women twice and more her age.

Their day of training ended after the bunker had descended into night-time dormancy. The main corridor was lit, and light peered from beneath various doors. Otherwise, the place was quiet, still. The two girls showered and headed for the kitchen bar. Elise took a seat while Yaz rummaged-up leftovers.

Over a sighing microwave, Elise finally glanced at Yaz, “So, how’d I do? Really, I mean. Don’t sugar-coat it.”

Yaz smiled. “I wouldn’t do that anyhow. And for a first day, you’re beyond where I was. Then again, I was younger, so that had something to do with it.”

Elise grimaced, “Is that good or bad?”

“Good,” Yaz chuckled.

The microwave spat a few beeps. Yaz removed their food and sat beside Elise to eat. Elise was careful to pass the time with anything other than the situation outside the bunker.

“So, who trained you?”

“Just about everyone. Myself included.”

“Everyone? How?”

Yaz chewed with one side of her mouth, spoke with the other. “Everyone’s skilled at something. They took shifts. I mostly learned strategy alone. I spent my nights on it, more as a useful hobby than anything. Eventually, I started arguing about our patrols and defenses. When the others finally got over themselves and started listening, they saw my logic. Soon they were deferring to me. Eventually, it was just easier to put me in charge.

Yaz sipped water, “The Seers taught me to trust my instincts, channel them into reactions. Bryce and the others taught me how to react. Self-defense and combat-tactics. Combined with my own training, I became the fighter I am.”
Elise recalled fleeing the alley. “Why the sword?”

“Its good in close-quarters, and it scares the hell outta’ people,” she said with a hint of amusement. “There’s nothing more intimidating than a tiny, pissed off girl with a couple feet of steel in her hand.” Elise managed a laughed. “The other side is, it’s really easy to win when your opponent underestimates you, and they tend to.”

Elise’s face fell to a sad realization, “So you’ve… probably killed a lot of people, huh?”

Yaz let the question to echo between them with a long drink of water. “Elise, we don’t live in the same world anymore. The one you’ve known your whole life. That’s part of the transition. It’s why it’s so difficult. You have to accept the world isn’t what you knew it to be. It’s filled with blood, and fear, and death. Whether you let it weigh you down or not depends on remembering a simple fact; when the time comes, they’ve made their choice.

“If you’re a guardian for friends or family, you’re their first and last line of defense. If someone intends to test that, ordered to or otherwise, they’ve accepted their lives may be forfeit. I, and the others I command, are the only thing standing between the Seers and fates worse than death at the Hunters’ hands. Each of us will fight to our last breaths and beyond to ensure against that.”

Elise’s stomach bubbled like a cauldron. Yaz was training her to be a weapon. Like her. If it came to it, she’d have to kill. Die even. All to protect those she cared about, as Yaz had sworn to do. Her appetite left her. For the sake of her ailing muscles, she forced the last of her food down, sensing she’d need it to properly recuperate. Yaz sensed her resignation, put a hand on hers for comfort.

“Elise, I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “But our lives are no longer our own. They belong to the people we love. The ones we’d die to protect. That’s the real truth of this life. You must accept it. My sister could not. It’s not easy, I know. I’ve been where you are. We all have. But I’m telling you, it does get easier.”

Elise felt tears welling in her eyes. “How?”

Yaz leaned over, quiet for sympathy’s sake. “By focusing elsewhere. By preparing yourself. So if or when that moment comes, you’re as ready as anyone can be. Because those you serve, deserve it.”

“And if I’m not ready?” Elise asked, her breath fluttering.

Yaz turned Elise’s face toward hers with a pair of gentle fingers. Their eyes met: Yaz’s sharp, determined, and confident, as Elise had come to expect of them; Elise’s pained, frightened, longing for something she wasn’t even aware of.

“I promise, Elise, you will be.”

Elise searched her for deception or uncertainty, found neither. Her head and eyes sank, tears glistening in their corners. She nodded, prompting them to roll down her cheeks. For better or worse, she believed Yaz. Despite a tainted, bygone innocence, a purity of spirit remained in her. She forever radiated an aura of devotion and loyalty. Even without Seers’ abilities, Elise was sure of it.

She breathed deep, steeling herself against fear. Whatever came of her ailing friendship with Hailey, at the least it had brought her Yaz. Without her, Elise would never survive what might come. Whether due to her training, or something more, Yaz’s companionship was fast becoming the thing she could rely on. Hopefully, it would be enough.

Elise and Yaz parted soon after for sleep. Morning training would come early, after Yaz’s daily patrol and security briefing. Until then, Elise needed to rest.

As she lie in bed, waiting to sleep, Elise couldn’t deny her growing dependence on Yaz. She was beginning to need her– as more than a student to a teacher, or one friend to another.

10.

Bonds Remote and Near

The girls’ first week in the bunker passed in variants of their first days. However unknowingly, their training progressed with similar rapidity. Before long, Elise was onto self-defense training. Her confidence grew, however shakily and more disheartened she felt from their hiding.

Meanwhile, Hailey’s training had surpassed even Valerie’s expectations. They’d progressed from mindfulness, empathic projection, and instinct honing, to Active Link Training. Activating the Link was already second nature. Often Hailey activated it just to reassure herself she could at whim. Her daily meditations, too, had eased her fears of the Link. She’d even begun speaking through it, as any Seer might. Valerie’s training sessions had gone from silent instruction and audible response, to full-on silence to anyone without an active Link.

More importantly, she’d begun remote viewing– taking in distant or foreign sites merely by focusing on their surroundings. As if a psuedo-picture-in-picture engaged, the Link-view of the training room dissolved into the hazy place she focused on. Presently, that was home. Specifically, the front of her house.

A police cruiser sat outside where she and Valerie stood, as if specters haunting the place. Cars crept past, passing through them as the air particles they were. The remote viewing merely connected them to it. The cushion of energy and matter was mental wifi. The Seers immersed themselves in it, and through its universal pervasiveness, projected them along it as sentient data along a net connection. That wifi was what Hailey’s author would’ve called Dark Matter, and what Valerie called psychokinetic, or PK, energy.

Whatever it was, an active Link might stretch out a mental hand along it. By reaching out and following it, she might go anywhere. Her mind was a vast, unending entity through it: Hailey closed her eyes, activated the Link, and reached out. Invisible fingers felt along tendrils of energy that connected all of reality. They permeated in and around the room. The city. The state. The planet. The universe. She pulled herself along, as though dangling off a precipice. Once reaching the top, a rightness in her gut apexed. Active images of the place she sought appeared.

Presently, Valerie’s golden form accompanied her outside her home. The police cruiser hardly affected the scene. Sorrow stung her chest. It wasn’t hers. She’d long been separating her emotions from others. Along with Link activation, such emotional control was second nature. It was her parents. A bitter-sweetness beneath marked her mother from her father’s sour anger.

“Is it a violation of the tenets to go in?” Hailey’s harmonious whispers asked.

Valerie’s head shook in silence. Hailey took a deep breath; the street flickered. She was inside and out, dissolving from one place to the next. Then, she was inside, the street now her living room. Her parents sat at the dining-room table, at the head of the adjoined room, their hands clutching one another.

One officer stood beside the other whom sat at the table. “Mrs. Ferguson, I’m sorry, there’s simply nothing more we can do.”

Hailey felt his genuine regret. Dad’s anger and grief smothered it. “What do you mean there’s nothing more? You haven’t done anything.”

“Sir, I understand you’re angry, but in cases like this, there’s usually something to go on. We’ve found nothing outside the initial scene.”

“My daughter just disappeared into thin air, is that it?” Her father blurted.

“Mr. Ferguson, I’m telling you there’s nothing more the BPD can do. We have APBs and Amber alerts out for both your daughter and Elise Brennan, but there’s nothing more our investigators can do. They’ve combed the available evidence, but aside from a few eyewitness reports, there’s nothing else to track your daughter’s movements.”

Hailey’s mother choked back tears, “She’s still alive.”

The officer winced, “I sincerely hope you’re right, Ma’am. Unfortunately, the BPD cannot devote any further resources to this case. I’m sorry.”

Hailey’s father rose from his chair. “Get the hell out of my house.”

The first cop eyed the second, then shook his head, “I’m sorry.”

They filed out. Her father’s eyes bored holes into their heads the whole way. He stepped to the front, bay window, and watched the cruiser pull away. Hailey’s mother suddenly appeared beside him, gripping his left arm with both of hers.

“She’s alive, Alex,” she said, tearfully. “I know it. She’s alive and she’s safe.”

Hailey choked out a sob. The dream-like Link shattered and fell away. Valerie found herself once more sitting before Hailey in the training room. She remained silent, allowing Hailey time to recompose herself. She did so only after a gentle reassurance.

“Grief is a difficult emotion, Hailey,” she said quietly. “It is the deepest-rooted. Rare in its true form. There are many levels between sadness and true grief, but you’ve yet to truly experience the latter… Until now. Seeing them thus, and not reacting, would be more dangerous than you realize. This is normal.

“Rather than let it control you, use it to hone your focus. Know, that one day, you will feel their love again. They, in turn, will feel yours. They will know their suffering was not in vain. When they understand what’s happened, their love will allow them to accept it. For now, know it is there. Know, that when you are ready, you will lighten their hearts with your return.”

Hailey wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. She gathered all her grief into her breath and exhaled it. She closed her eyes and reactivated the Link. Valerie followed suit.

Were you not so adept, you would not have been capable of that, Valerie said without prompt.

I know that should be comforting, but it’s not.

It is what it is. How you take it is your choice. Rejoice that you have one– and that there are those who love you.

Hailey cleared the grief from her throat. “I know. But I’d rather not revisit them yet.”

“Then we will focus elsewhere. Another place your memory is strong.

Hailey relaxed, mind once more stretching out. This time, it grasped along the mental paths for Bacatta High-School. Before long, they stood in the Commons, unchanged since their disappearance save a few new posters, including one of the girls’ disappearance.

“Good to know some things never change,” Hailey said sarcastically.

“What would you rather they do? Seek you where you should not be found? Perhaps rally behind your faces for mischief?”

Hailey shook her head. “No. You’re right. Life goes on within and without you, right?”

Valerie cracked a smile. “A wise sentiment indeed.” She waited to see if Hailey would speak, then continued. “Tell me of this place. Why return here?”

Hailey wasn’t sure. She searched the faces, found the same melange of emotions she’d come to expect; excitement. Lust. Happiness. Depression. Indifference. A half-dozen others that comprised the average teenager during an average day of average life.

“I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause I feel out of place, and this is sort of where everyone does.”

“An astute observation,” Valerie said.“Do you wish to return here some day?”

Hailey had to think about it. Valerie allowed it. Whether she wanted to return to school seemed to hinge on whether it, and her life before, could be separated. Everyone there was out of place, but that gave them a place to be. She would be even more so now. Before, she’d just been another angsty teen, however eclectic or eccentric. Now, she was literally a breed apart from normal humans. Though she’d always technically been, it mattered now.

“I’m not sure,” she finally admitted. “I’d like to return to my life some day, but…”

“But is this truly your life anymore,” Valerie finished. “It is a question we all must ask ourselves when reflecting on what is left behind. Trust in me when I say that there is not a Seer whom knows the truth and has not asked the same question.”

Hailey’s projection eyed Valerie’s. “Is there an answer?”

She frowned, “Not a satisfactory one, so far as I know.”

“I can do this. The remote viewing. Can we move on?”

Valerie nodded. The Commons dissolved back to the training room and Valerie before her. They sat in silence for a moment, allowing Hailey’s inexplicable desperation to abate. When it did, Valerie re-focused her attention.

“I will next instruct you in manipulating your environment.”

“Meaning?”

“You will learn to control objects via telekinesis.”

“Telekinesis? I thought that was just a myth.

Valerie rose and motioned for Hailey to follow. They stepped to the room’s center, as before, the Link no longer active. Valerie produced the small stress-ball they’d come to use for various trainings. She presented it to Hailey, palm flat beneath it, and closed her eyes. The ball rose, unaided.

“Woah.”

It zoomed away, followed a wide arc, soared through long loops. As fast as it left, it returned, settling gently into a hover over Valerie’s hand. She opened her eyes, ball still hovering.

“In time, you will have this control. For now, we will keep things simple.” The ball came to a rest in her hand. “Activate the Link as normal.” Hailey did, settling her mind where the Link was most stable. “Now, reach out through your empathic connection. Feel the ball as you would my presence. It is not living, but inanimate. It does not exude energy, but rather occupies a space in it– a mass of matter.”

Hailey understood her meaning; living things had an aura, a sort of halo of magnetic repulsion around them. The nearer you were, physically, the stronger the field. This field allowed a Seer to feel out others from objects, and distinguish them through the Link. Once discerned, it was there the empathic projections could be read from, directed to. Ordinary objects merely existed. There was no aura. No faint trace of energy. Only minute repulsion generated by subatomic bonds.

The easiest way Hailey had found to explain it was that living things were chaotic, warm. Their energy and matter constantly shifted, rearranged, altered by the infinitely smaller organisms and bonds forming them. Regular matter was different. Cold. It was a tight-knit amalgamation of specific atomic and subatomic bonds, that ostensibly, never changed.

Hailey felt for the cold object now resting in Valerie’s hand. Not being as adept as Valerie made her like a blind child groping for a goal. Thankfully it was only mentally. Otherwise would have been significantly more uncomfortable.

Valerie sensed that she’d located the ball. “Now, as you would pull yourself toward a remote destination, you must pull the object toward you. Meanwhile, maintain its vertical position by keeping the tether from slacking.”

The instructions were clear enough, but the ball slid forward and immediately hit the floor. Hailey lost control. It rolled away. Valerie levitated it back.

“Again.”

Hailey grasped the ball. It slid off Valerie’s hand, hung in place. Then, like Wily E. Coyote, it plummeted to floor. Her confidence went with it.

“Sense the fields of the ball and your PK meeting. Repelling. Steady them. It is subtle. Again.”

The ball hung a full-second longer than before. It fell again. Hailey’s frustration rippled through the Link.

“Relax,” Valerie snapped. “You cannot control an object without first controlling yourself. Do not regress. Again.”

Hailey wanted to snap back. It would only be answered with greater fury. Instead, she took a deep breath, let her emotions run their course and fizzle out. She re-focused, grasping the ball. A moment later, it hovered between them. Hailey’s concentration had become so fixed she almost didn’t hear Valerie’s praise.

“Very good. Now across the room and back.”

Hailey felt the ball levitate, as if a series of pistons thrust endlessly at one another to keep the ball in place or move it along. She let herself grasp the resting rhythm. Then, as if manipulating select pairs of pistons, began rocking the ball forward. In reality, the ball neither rocked nor rolled, and instead began to drifting forward. She pulled back, the imaginary pistons shifting. The ball drifted back. It sank back into a hover between them and Valerie smiled.

“We will hone this technique now. Do as I instruct without question and as quickly as possible.” Valerie began to issue commands. For a half-hour the ball zoomed back and forth, up and down, sketching a variety of two, then three-dimensional shapes. All the while, Hailey kept her focus attuned, refining her broad control so that finer control could come easier. By the time she’d finished training for the day, her confidence had all but returned.

She was headed to the bathroom when she ran straight into Elise. Her eyes had been focused on a tablet of paper. Elise had meant to silently escape the bathroom, freshly showered after training with Yaz. The two smacked into each other, almost simultaneously falling to their asses. They rose together, apologizing. Elise recognized it was Hailey, hesitated.

“Sorry,” Hailey said again.

“Yeah, me too,” Elise replied, less sincere than before.

She began to step past. Hailey stopped her, “Hey.” Elise eyed her. “Everything okay?”

Elise chewed her lip, “No, Hailey. It isn’t. I’m coping, but I can’t pretend like I’m not affected. If you want an honest answer, that’s it. If you want me to lie, don’t bother asking.”

Hailey winced. Elise took her chance and escaped. She headed back to her room. Hailey’s heart sank. On top of everything, she’d as much as lost her best friend simply by trying to save her. She deflated with a sigh and pushed through the bathroom door, her heart sinking into her stomach.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.6

17.

What You Thought You Knew

The pickup rolled to a stop outside the ten-mile squared shipping yard. Twenty-foot high chain-link topped by razor-wire fenced the seemingly endless compound. Railroad tracks ran through it at one side, various entrances about it here and there. There was clearly more within the place than the Hunter warehouse. No doubt it made good cover given all the trucks, fork lifts, and other heavy-machinery moving about.

Leagues of stacked shipping containers, parking lots, and gravel or cracked asphalt separated the yard into sectors. The girls’ target was far ahead, at the compound’s rear. For the sake of stealth, the pair were dropped near a closed, side-fence. The spot was hidden from highway and access-road views by trees and dense foliage; from the interior compound and its warehouses by forty-foot tall stacks of shipping crates.

They would have to sneak in, walk the rest of the way. Darkness was on their side. Hailey’s Seer instincts were turned to eleven; they’d make it to the building at least, beyond that was anyone’s guess.

A foreign tension emanated from Yaz as she let the girls out. The fence-line was just ahead, past a bit of brush spackled with gravel. Hailey tested her radio, double-checked her P-90, then started for the fence. She knelt and turned to see Yaz’s hand grip Elise’s.

“Come back,” Yaz ordered. Elise nodded.

Hailey watched their lips lock, and suddenly recognized the foreign tension for what it was. The couple parted; Elise moved for Hailey’s side and knelt. The truck crunched gravel and dirt, pulled away with its headlights off. Elise produced a pair of bolt cutters, began snipping her way up the fence.

“How long’s that been going on?” Hailey whispered. Elise remained silent, focused. “Okay, then. Ignore me.”

Elise didn’t bother. She wasn’t about to be baited. Not now. She pried the fence apart, gestured Hailey through, and followed in a crouch. Patchy grass turned to gravel along row of shipping containers. They stealthed forward; distant semis hissed and reported near an idling locomotive that embraced the still night. Around it and elsewhere, a fleet of hundred-foot cranes groaned and whined, lifting cargo on or off trucks, train-cars, or crate-stacks. Flood-lit warehouses fell further into darkness nearer the yard’s rear where a lone warehouse sat, seemingly vacant.

Hailey and Elise knew better. However they’d done it, the Hunters had secured themselves a warehouse to hole up in; planned to use it to exact pain on any Seer or person in the way of them. Elise’s fury boiled. She was ready to turn the tides, take the fight to the Hunters. It was revenge more than anything. The last images of her dying mother fueled her. She was determined to show the Hunters something to fear.

Elise stealthed to the edge of the first break in the crates, stayed Hailey. The crates’ cover had hidden them from the various bodies and vehicles for over a quarter-mile. Now, they would be exposed for a short distance between it and the buildings ahead. It was a short time, but enough to blow the element of surprise if they were seen.

Elise waited, watching the empty lot before them. A few hundred yards past it, a crane was moving laterally forward, its operator just barely visible in the box far-above. She waited until she was certain no-one was coming, and started for a building’s far side a hundred-yards forward. Hailey followed on her heels. A line of concrete barriers meant to act as over-sized wheel-stops, nearly concealed themselves to the building. They vaulted up, onto a walkway, scampered along it.

They moved as shadows in a darkness deeper than a mere, absence of light. The rear-edge of the warehouse broke for another, flood-lit set of grounds between it and the next. A lone security guard smoked outside a door at it the building’s far-edge. He pulled his coat closed, huddled into it, and inhaled deep. Elise was about to risk it. They were wasting time. She made a start. Hailey’s hand stopped her.

The guard inhaled deep again, then flicked the lit cigarette away and blew out a smoke plume. He swiveled toward the pair, still hidden in cover, and followed through for the door. He disappeared into the building and Elise breathed. She stilled a shaking hand; that would’ve been a mistake. She was too driven, too impatient. She did her best to emulate Yaz’s expertise, and started forward again.

Hailey rushed after her for the next warehouse, slipped past its edge, and entered into its dark side for the next edge. They found themselves at it and peering into another, expansive parking lot, flood-lit by poles about its middle and sides. The building itself was darkened, empty. Beyond it in the distance, the darkness prevailed, but the pair were focused on another warehouse at its side, between it and a vast, flat darkness.

It was there. They could see it clearly now. Only moments and steps remained, separating them from their quarry. The Hunter warehouse was dim, still. Hailey sensed movement in the upper shadows. She closed her eyes, activated the Link, and spied snipers posted at the building’s roof-corners. Hailey tapped Elise’s shoulder, pointed to the nearest corner in the distance. Elise’s eyes homed in, squinted; small movements caught her attention.

“Sweeping the compound.”

“Your call,” Hailey said.

Elise watched the nearest sniper’s rifle oscillate along its bipod. She judged the distance between warehouses, counted the seconds between one side of his sweep and the other. Then, with a hand, she repeated the count. Her third finger went up; Hailey sprinted across the parking-lot. Her lugs burned with fury, terror. The dark-side of the warehouse, came into reach. She vaulted, dove.

She turned back to see Elise still waiting, counting. Seconds passed in nail-biting agony. Elise suddenly bolted, running like a creature possessed. She might’ve broken an olympic record, Hailey couldn’t be sure. Like her, she vaulted and dove from light into the cover of darkness.

A single breath, and Elise was up, moving. The darkness pervaded even beyond the edge of warehouse’s rear. The shadows led them along the building’s broad-side, all but bridging the gap between they and the Hunter’s warehouse. Now, they could see the snipers unaided. They were perched like sentry guns atop the steel and concrete structure. The nearest one reached his visual arc, started back with an eerily autonomous motion.

Elise waited, counting. Then, in a breath, she bolted across the bright, open ground. Hailey watched, heart erratic. The sniper’s barrel swiveled. Elise crossed his blind-spot, beneath the building’s edge. Hailey swallowed adrenaline, suppressing a squeak. Elise’s P-90 rose at the corner. Her head gestured Hailey. She waited, counted. In a burst of sprinting madness she raced for Elise’s side. It was over fast. Not fast enough, Hailey felt, and they weren’t even inside yet.

She kept quiet, let Elise pass for the double doors. Inside, an oscillating camera pivoted between a view of both doors and the far end of the hall. Elise held up a finger, waited, then slipped in with Hailey pressed against her. They found themselves in a long, darkened corridor, doors spaced one side with the other wall empty.

“You’re up,” Elise whispered.

Hailey activated the Link: the layout was identical to Yaz’s blueprints. They’d entered from the rear, near a few offices usually reserved for company admins or foremen. A definite stir of energy took their place instead; cold, electronic. Here and there around the ground and upper floors were other signatures; some animate, others not.

“Server room,” Hailey whispered, timing her way right to bypass the camera. She hesitated at a door, “Someone’s inside.”

“Distract them.”

Hailey stepped inside, cut left along seven-foot high data servers glowing with various LEDs over a constant whir of fans and micro-machinery. Elise went right, complimenting her. Hailey emerged into view of a man at a computer terminal. He was suddenly on his feet, a weapon drawn.

“What’re you doing here? Who are you?” Hailey gave a crooked smile. He grit his teeth, “Drop your weapon. Hands behind your head.”

“You first,” Hailey retorted.

Elise struck. Her arms went ‘round his throat. Her wrists locked; muscles jolted sideways. His neck cracked! His body went limp. Elise let it collapse. Hailey was stunned. Elise ignored it, keying up his active computer to sift for intel.

“Watch the door!” Elise ordered in a hush.

Yaz had instructed her to search for any drives containing usage logs or large data repositories in hopes that any important information would be grouped together. Whether it be information on the Hunters’ internal organization, their leaders’ whereabouts, or something more, could only be ascertained once the caches were accessed. Unfortunately, not knowing where the intel was meant taking the drives at all was at the risk of finding nothing. Still, it was worth trying.

Elise located a few, specific drives with large caches, mentally noted them. The very real possibility of walking away with nothing was too much for her to bear. It would weigh her down, forge more room for mistakes. She blocked it out to locate the drives, rushed along the racks, began pulling them out here and there. The SSDs were small, enough that a few fit comfortably in a pocket. She grabbed the few she sought, returned to Hailey’s side.

They headed for the door, Hailey stopped short.

“What?”

Hailey’s eyes were closed, Link active, “Two guards just took a post out the back door.”

Elise’s heart ran hurtles. “Any other way out?”

Hailey eyed the place with an eagle-eye view, via the Link, “Through the front. But there’s people between here and there. A lot of ‘em.”

Elise knelt beside Hailey, “Yaz, we need you at the rear door. Sixty seconds.”

“No dice, kid,” Bryce radioed. “Gotta’ truck moving in. Troop carrier or something. Old style. Taking up position at the rear of the building. Can’t risk lighting the place up.”

Elise huffed, “Then be ready to move on the front entrance. Radio when you’re in position.”

“Copy.”

Hailey gave her a derisive look, “You can’t seriously think we’ll get out that way.”

Elise released the safety on her P-90. “We will. No arguments.”

Elise stepped out. Hailey sensed the same catastrophic dread she’d felt before. If her instincts were worth anything, this was how it would happen. She hurried after Elise, stopped her at the corner of the corridor.

“Wait. Just wait.”

“Are you crazy? We can’t sit here arguing!”

Hailey’s face hardened, “Elise, I know you’re angry with me, but this is the wrong way. We need to–”

Footsteps sounded from the mouth of the corner passage. Hailey saw two men approaching via the Link. They stopped just around the corner. Hailey put a finger to her lips, pointed at the corner, then flashed two fingers. The pair merely stood, either unaware of them or awaiting something specific. It only took a moment for Hailey to sense the latter. The troop carrier outside was empty. Bodies were now piling up around the doors behind her.

Hailey relayed the situation: somehow, they’d been discovered.

They readied their weapons. A quick pivot littered the two guards with rounds. An alarm screamed along the corridors. The doors burst open, something loud exploded, flashed like lightning. Masked Hunters filed in, firing. The pair dove for the corner, recovered, began sprinting for the front of the building. They passed from the corridor into the open storage floor.

Another flash of lightning. A deafening crack. A shock-wave. Elise stumbled mid-step, fell. Hailey tripped on her, fell too. She scrambled up. Her sight faded, in and out. Masked, black figures charged, encircled them, weapons rose. Someone ripped the P-90 from Hailey’s hands, forced her onto her stomach with a boot in her back. Elise’s gun was man-handled from her grip. She was forced down alongside Hailey.

Their vision returned to a section of Hunters that separated, allowing someone through. Elise and Hailey blinked away pain as faint footsteps returning. The figure before them mouthed a command, and the girls were forced to their knees, guns trained on them. The figure focused; a woman in fatigues, face slacked and scarred from age and war.

She clicked her tongue, “I am disappointed. All that power, and they send two children.”

“You’ll die for this, bitch,” Elise spit through her teeth.

The woman took a knee in front of Elise, “Young ladies should learn to hold their tongue.” She hit Elise’s face with an iron-fist, splitting her lip. “That was for my men.” She straightened, focused on Hailey, “Oh do we have plans for you, little one.”

“Go to hell,” Hailey hissed.

The woman laughed. “Us or them. The devil you know, or…” Hailey’s face went blank. “Come now, did you really think we were the only ones looking for you?” Hailey’s jaw clenched. A corner of her mouth twitched. The woman stepped back away again.

“What’re you on about?” Elise growled.

She laughed again, “You could never stop us all. And without us eliminating the competition, well, you’d only have more of us to fight.”

Hailey’s worst fears seemed confirmed, but Elise’s hate bubbled over. “You ordered my parents killed. For that, you will die.”

“Is that what you’re doing here?” She asked, back-stepping. “Seeking revenge? Are you prepared to die for it?”

Elise forced herself to her feet, “If I have to.”

The woman’s mouth curled vilely, her hand clutched a pistol at her side. “Prove it.”

In a flash, she drew, fired a single round into Elise’s gut. Blood spattered the floor. Flecks hit Hailey’s face. Elise clutched her navel, hands crimson. She fell to her face, bleeding out.

The woman sneered at her men, “Take the other and put her under. V will want to be here.”

Time slowed around Hailey. She wasn’t sure what was happening. Her body acted on impulse, instinct. She found herself forcing away the hands holding her in place. A burst of furious energy erupted. A shock-wave seemed to emit from her– did emit from her. Bodies were thrown through the air. They flew, smashed distant walls, windows, ceilings, rag-dolls. The lights went out, shattered by bodies and debris. The warehouse plunged into darkness. Hailey blinked, full-tilt charged. The woman was down before the bodies landed.

Hailey’s hands maneuvered her around, slammed her head against concrete. The woman’s dazed eyes filled with terror.

Hailey didn’t stop; the woman’s head hit concrete. Again. And again. Blood sopped. Brain oozed. Her body went limp, her skull a fleshy pulp of bone-dust and fluid. Hailey rebounded, pistol in hand. Her eyes shut, Link active. Bodies were falling about the room, lifeless, broken, or injured. Before they could react, a masked face met a bullet. Then another. The pistol barked incessantly, clicked empty.

Hailey whirled, found two men rising. Phantom hands lifted and slammed them at the ceiling, then the floor, like rag dolls. Elise’s weapon slid from one, crossed the floor to Hailey’s hand. She growled, spraying the last of the living men with ammunition. The P-90 went quiet, barrel smoking. She stood amid the roomful of carnage as the double-wide rolling door exploded inward.

Time resumed its normal pace. Bryce skidded to a stop behind her. Hailey lowered her gun. Yaz and Jenna piled out. Hailey snapped back to reality, helped lift Elise.

“SWAT incoming,” Jenna said, lifting Elise.

They piled into the truck’s rear. Yaz stabbed a needle into Elise’s arm, flooded her veins with something, then felt for a pulse. The truck jolted to and fro. Rubber burned to smoke as the truck whipped ‘round and rocketed for a road, any road. Hailey kept pressure on Elise’s wound, felt her grief welling. It was the same, pure grief Valerie had spoken of; fresher, more powerful. A geyser of energy poured from her, flooding the vehicle, submerging Elise’s body.

Yaz moved to inject Elise. Hailey shouted, “Stop!”

The others hesitated, Yaz fought, on-edge, “I am not letting her die.”

Hailey put her hands over Elise’s wound, “Neither am I.”

A sudden flash blinded Yaz. Jenna’s Link activated. The mere force knocked them back. Hailey began to glow. Currents of energy pulsed within her like arcs of lightning. Both in and out of the Link, Hailey’s currents pulsed golden, enveloping her. Her form dissolved, impossible to discern through the blinding light. A series of arcs formed between Elise’s wound and Hailey’s hands.

Light flowed from Hailey’s hands into Elise. She was suddenly conscious, delirious. She muttered nonsensically, writhed. Hailey slumped forward, only vaguely aware of willing herself to stay conscious, to continue manipulating the energy. Her mind and body were reacting on impulse, instinct. She felt energy surge around her, flood the truck. One hand extended upward, spraying energy as if springing a leak. Its flow suddenly reversed direction. The leak became a vacuum, sucked unseen energy into a golden stream that formed near her hand. It fueled the pulsing, surged and roiled within her, then flowed out and into Elise.

Hailey’s glow apexed in a second flash. The truck was blinded. When the women’s vision returned, it had died completely. Jenna and Yaz blinked, frozen; Elise’s wound was gone, her body stilled, as if sleeping peacefully. Hailey collapsed over her, unconscious.

18.

Hungry Again

Elise awoke with a start; she was in bed. Yaz jerked awake in a chair beside her. Elise’s hands roamed for the gut wound but found nothing. She moved to sit upright, Yaz forced her down.

“Easy,” she said softly. “We aren’t sure how complete the healing is.”

“Yaz? What the hell? I thought… Didn’t I–”

“Hailey,” Yaz said gently. Elise squinted. “You remember I told you some Seers have powers? Powers they don’t know about?” Elise nodded. “Hailey’s a healer. No-one knew until now.”

Elise looked around the room, still confused. “So, she could’ve saved my parents?”

Yaz winced, “She didn’t know she could do it until she saw you dying.” Elise’s face softened. Yaz held her hand, “Valerie told me that Seers like Hailey only discover their power when someone they deeply love is hurt. Hailey saved your life because she loves you, Elise. You can’t blame her for not saving your parents. When it mattered, she saved you.

Elise’s face sank to shame. Yaz wouldn’t allow it, she pulled her over, kissed and hugged her. Elise sank in to her.

Hailey awoke with a throbbing migraine to find Elise sitting at her bedside. From her disheveled clothes, she’d been there a few days. “Elise!? You’re alright?”

Elise eased upward, “Hey. Yeah. Thanks to you.”

Hailey rubbernecked her room, “What about the others? Is everyone else–”

“They’re fine. You’ve been out a few days now. Whatever you did drained you good.”

She rubbed her head, “I feel like I was out drinking… for a week.” Elise smiled. Hailey caught it. “Good to see that.”

The smile wavered, then faded. “Hailey, I’ve been a colossal bitch. You’re my friend. That means something to me. After what you did, I owe you. The least I can do is… say I’m sorry for how I’ve acted.”

Hailey inched upward, “I’m sorry too. Especially about your parents. I wish I could’ve done something to–”

“I’m alive, Hailey. That’s enough. It wasn’t your fault they were killed. It was a bad place. A bad time. I knew it before too, I just… couldn’t accept it.” She stood from her chair, “But I’ve got Yaz now. I wouldn’t if it weren’t for you. And I’ve got you. Besides, there’s bigger fish.”

Hailey gave her a knowing look, “The Hunters.”

“There’s a lot more than we realized,” she affirmed with a nod.

“Then she wasn’t lying.” Hailey said, managing to stand. She swayed, Elise caught her. “Thanks… It isn’t over yet, is it?”

“Jenna’s recovered a lot off the drives,” she said reassuringly.

“So, it wasn’t a wash?”

“No, but there’ll be time for that later. I was thinking breakfast now.”

Hailey managed a smile, felt her stomach rumble. She moved to the door, swayed again, Elise spotted her.

Whatever the woman had meant, and whatever was on the drives, only time would tell. The future was uncertain in many ways, but in a few that counted, it wasn’t. The bunker and its people were safe; for the moment, if nothing else. The fight wasn’t over, yet, and there were doubts it ever could be, Hailey sensed a lull. Enough of one, anyhow. If she was lucky, and trusting her instincts had taught her anything, the lull might allow them to better settle into their new lives.

She understood better now what Valerie had meant bout wanting to stay. Cautioning her against being stubborn was never contingent on if she’d earn it or not, nor even if she want it. Rather, it was to keep her mind open to the newfound loyalty that would arise within her. Most of all, Hailey wasn’t about to leave Elise, and Elise wouldn’t leave Yaz. For the foreseeable future, they’d be staying right where they were.

Regardless of what came, or when, Hailey would stand beside the others to meet it head on. Seer or not, she’d fight to her last breath to end the Hunters, whoever they were. Whether working with, or for, someone else made no difference. They’d find a way to end the conflict someday.

For now, breakfast sounded just fine to Hailey.

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