Spending four years under house arrest hadn’t prepared Nate for roommate blowup. Especially not this early in the morning.
For the first fifteen minutes of Jia and Alley yelling at each other, Nate pulled some clothes on, checked his email and ended up doing some stretches to limber up for the day. When they showed no sign of stopping, he wound up killing a few minutes watching Perpugilliam play his World of Warcraft account, which had gone sadly disused since he’d enrolled in school. His female cat had been one of the first victims of his ability when it had first manifested four years ago. The son of a Dominator and a Possessor, Nate’s baseline power was overwriting people with himself; his memories, his personality, everything he was. And for the last four years, Nate had lived under house arrest with only Perpugilliam to keep him company. At least the government had allowed for a second computer so she could keep herself entertained. He couldn’t imagine how boring the life of a cat could be otherwise.
The yelling stopped at some point but he finished up watching Perpugilliam’s raid before daring to poke his head out. Quiet murmuring from the bathroom suggested Finn Barnaby and Amara English were in there together. God. Finn was arguably his best friend but the black Brit and his girlfriend had grown increasingly syrupy. Not in a ‘Ew’ sort of way but more in a third wheel sort of way. He didn’t want to know what the two of them might be up to in the bathroom and he had no plans to stick around to find out.
Making a face, Nate quickly hurried down the stairs and surveyed the battlefield. Jia Sun and Eli Amsley stood out on the lawn talking, visible out the bay windows behind the three couches against the far wall. The Chinese girl’s arms were crossed, her face rigid, every inch of her tense. Eli, by contrast had his hands on her shoulders and a look of deep calm on that freckled goateed face. They were the most recent couple here at Lambert Acres but, in their own way, the cutest. Jia was a high achieving, relentlessly focused woman driven to make up for getting pregnant last year and failing out of the HCP. Eli was the only person here not a part of West Private’s Hero Certification Program…and even Nate had to admit he liked the relaxed, mellow atmosphere the Voice Major projected.
A quick glance out the window in the front door showed movement from inside the shop. Alley Amherst must be out there, working out or something. The arguable leader of the Lambert Acres crew, the fit blonde soldier-turned-HCP student was mercurial beyond belief, shifting from informal to rebellious to frightening intensity at a moment’s notice.
She was also crushing on Jia, which was part of the current problem at home. No sign of Danielle Wyngarde, if that’s really who’d spent the night with her. The thought of the white-eyed silver-haired girl and Alley hooking up made something in his stomach turn over. Was it repulsion? He didn’t think he had a problem with Alley’s sexuality but she was the first gay girl he’d ever met and it was…well, it weirded him out a little. Or maybe it was the fact that Dani was Jason’s sister, the same Jason that had fathered the baby Jia had last year.
Complicated. All of this was way too complicated. The whole thing made him feel a bit nauseous. A few months of student life surrounded by people still hadn’t fully inoculated him against the culture shock from growing up so isolated, from having virtually no human contact for four years before this.
Nate shook his head and turned towards the kitchen. That’s when he found himself alone with Julie Campbell.
She looked amazing. Her wavy brown hair was brushed out but she still wore pajamas. Looking at her…Nate shifted his eyes down to the floor before he could react, before his thoughts betrayed him. Julie was an Advanced Mind, telepathic and able to hear everything he thought. Telepathy in the real world wasn’t like Star Trek. It was more like Babylon 5. People were natural transmitters, broadcasting everything. Telepaths just had the receiver switch flipped on. They had to train to tune the noise out.
Except Julie couldn’t. Although she and Jia were best friends from last year, Julie was the only person in the house here with a job; him. Nate was a Dominator, Class A on the Listing of Restricted Abilities. Because his ability was even more dangerous than that, he had a permanent guard of two Advanced Minds. Mike Cavril during the day on campus and Julie during the hours outside of school. If he tried using his ability outside of a strictly controlled classroom setting, they were under orders to shut him down, disrupt his thoughts or scramble his brains or God knows what.
Of course, she couldn’t actually do that as it turned out. His ability was faster than hers. But she still stayed. Because no one knew she couldn’t stop him? Or because she-
A cough from the kitchen broke up that thought half-formed. Nate swallowed hard against the surge of feelings rising in him, feelings that made him break into a sweat and shiver with the chills when he thought of her. They’d shared a kiss once. He remembered the feel of her hand in his. But-
“Have some breakfast, Nate,” Julie said, her voice soft and almost inaudible from the kitchen. “Eli made hashbrowns and lots of eggs.”
Shuffling, Nate entered the kitchen and took a plate before ladling up half of it with hashbrowns.
“Rough morning,” he said, for lack of anything better to say.
“Oh I know,” Julie said, grimacing slightly. “I’ve stopped listening to everything at this point.”
“I’m surprised you don’t just do that most of the time.” Nate shuddered. “You know, sci-fi makes it look cool but I’ve heard most people think about noise most of the time or something.”
“Mmmmm, not noise exactly,” Julie hummed thoughtfully. “It’s more like…channel flipping really fast. Thoughts pop in, they think about them and that leads to another thought and so on and so on all within a matter of seconds. It’s like walking down the hall at school and catching a few seconds of one conversation before you walk out of range only to pick up another conversation just after, except all at once.”
“How did you deal with it growing up?” Nate looked at the beautiful brunette as if for the first time. His own ability had consumed his youth but the weight of it had taken so much of his attention, he’d never really thought about what abilities would be like for others.
Julie shrugged. “Every Advanced Mind I’ve talked to seems to have had a bit of a different experience. We all have a slightly different mix of it, you know. In my case, I’m actually less sensitive to thoughts than most. I can still hear everything unless I shut it out but it’s…I don’t know, not as loud so I have to pay more attention to make thoughts make sense?”
“Huh.” Nate almost said something but thought better of it.
Not that it helped when the girl sitting on the other side of the kitchen island where they ate breakfast at could pick up thoughts. She flushed slightly but managed a smile. “I always wanted to be a Hero growing up but, like you, my parents originally assumed I wasn’t strong enough of an Advanced Mind when others tutored me and told them what I told you. But every mixture is a bit different. I’m an adequate tele and teke but what I’m really good at is affecting thought. I was better my freshman year than half Advanced Minds are in their senior.”
“Affecting…like mind control?” Nate was surprised as yet another assumption he’d made was challenged. His Domination meant he worried about how easily he might influence others. It never occurred to him that others might influence him.
“More like mind steering,” Julie said, smiling a bit around another bite of eggs. “You already know about me dialing up people’s thoughts so they don’t notice their surroundings. I can also kinda do what Mike did at that frat party. I can’t really push emotions but I can turn up or turn down the intensity and frequency of certain types of thoughts, make it easy for something to come to mind or not.”
“Give me a light side of the Force on that,” Nate said. He immediately felt embarrassed at the geek reference but she only smiled more.
“Light side? Studying. I had a group of girlfriends back in high school, most of which weren’t academic at all. But I just…dialed up how much they thought about what they were studying while we were in class or in study groups. And instead of being bored or doing their nails or thinking about One Direction, they…well, they found it easy to study and all the positive feedback they got from getting good grades meant they studied even more. They’re all at Yale or Stanford, Ivy League all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up becoming doctors, lawyers and scientists all.”
“That’s awesome!” Nate again opened his mouth but shut it before he could voice his thought.
“I’ve never gone dark side, I promise,” Julie said, her smile slipping to a smirk. “But it’s come up a few times in my Control classes. Amplifying thoughts of depression or apathy in Villains to cripple them so they stop committing crimes. Dialing up thoughts of mortality in henchmen, so they throw down their guns and run instead of facing Heroes. It’s something I have to practice if I’m going to stay in the program, especially-”
She bit off her own sentence this time but it wasn’t hard for Nate to figure out what came next. “Especially since you’re spending so much time with me instead of focusing on your own work?”
“The standards are a bit different for Advanced Minds,” Julie said. “But yes. I don’t mind, though. It’s nice to spend time with Jia. We were best friends last year after all. And…I like you, Nate.”
He coughed on his hashbrowns. Choked. With effort, he managed to clear his throat. Ducking his head, Nate coughed once more before finally looking Julie in the eyes.
That’s when he saw it.
What it was, he couldn’t say. He didn’t have the words to describe something he’d never noticed before. But it was in her eyes. Something lurked there, something Not Julie. He could feel it, now that he could see it.
“Julie, look at me.”
The command of his Domination cracked through the air, seizing the girl he couldn’t stop thinking about. She straightened and looked him right in the eyes. And the feeling of dissonance grew. There was a kernel inside of her that resisted…no, not resistance exactly but not obedience either.
“Have you ever met the Ringmaster?” he asked.
“Have I ever met the Ringmaster?” she asked back, those beautiful brown eyes absent yet eager. There was a rapture to her attentiveness, an eagerness to do anything he said.
“Tell me if you have ever met the Ringmaster.”
The answer wasn’t what he expected on several levels. He had to be sensing something in her, something compulsive. But his commands hadn’t hit it. And it wasn’t something the Ringmaster had left behind.
Or was it?
“Tell me what you’ve been told to do about me.”
“I’m supposed to watch you and use my telepathy to jam your ability to Dominate if you try to use it. I’m also supposed to inform the Dean if I ever let you Dominate a situation like the frat party again.”
“Oh shit, she knows?”
“Professor Goddard, Elaine Goddard, discovered the situation in my mind during a Focus class session. She reported it to Dean Diane Goddard, who told me to keep monitoring but to tell her if you did it again.”
Nate’s mind reeled. All this time, he thought his enrollment in the HCP hung by the skin of his teeth, if anyone ever found out about that frat party. A fight had blown out of control when Mike Cavril, his day-watch Advanced Mind guardian, accidentally turned all of the participants into combatants through a just-discovered facet of his ability. Alley had called Nate in to wipe everyone’s minds and preserve Mike’s cover. That was the day they’d discovered Julie couldn’t think fast enough to stop his Domination.
But the Dean hadn’t changed the security arrangements? Or had she. Nate glanced around the house and shivered, realizing for the first time that he had no idea what resources she had or if she had invisible layers of surveillance and control.
A thump from upstairs reminded him that he was just sitting there, Julie frozen with an abstracted smile on her face, waiting for orders.
“Has anyone ever told you not to tell me something?”
There. A faint flicker of resistance in those rich mahogany eyes. She opened her mouth and then shut it.
“Tell me what you were told not to tell me,” Nate said. A small part of him felt guilty for prying into her head. But the larger, rational part of him reminded that small part that this wasn’t Julie he was forcing. He still lacked the words to explain it but it was a foreignness that only stood out the more he looked at the girl with the dark auburn hair.
Nate leaned. Not with his body but with his mind. He couldn’t describe what he saw but he could see it. Just like that, he couldn’t describe how he leaned but he could feel the resistance in her eyes and push against it. It felt like Gym class, felt like doing a pull up except with muscles that had never managed a pull up before. He pushed, failed, pushed again, failed, and leaned against it a third time and felt a little give.
Inch by inch, he budged it until suddenly the resistance fell away. Nate caught himself on the kitchen counter before he fell over into his half-eaten hashbrowns. An intense, hot, throbbing suddenly bloomed behind his skull. But as he reached for a glass of orange juice, hoping the cold would quench the fiery pain in his head, Julie suddenly spoke.
“I was told to love you.”
Nate froze, half the orange juice swallowed, and set the glass down in haste. “You were told to what?”
“The exact words were: ‘You will watch over Nate and keep him safe. You’ll obey the Dean’s orders unless they put him in danger, in which case you’ll protect him instead. You will also come to like him over time, first with sympathy, then with friendship and finally romantically if he returns the feeling. If he comes to love you, you’ll feel love for him in return. If he breaks up with you, you’ll let him go but always feel fondness for him. Should an Advanced Mind probe and uncover these orders, you will remember that these orders were given before you ever met him and you will never remember who gave them to you’.”
“Jesus Christ.” Nate rubbed his temples, looked at the table, looked at the floor, then looked towards the stairwell when he heard another thump from the upstairs.
Julie waited, her face raptly empty.
“Who told you these orders?”
“Who told me these orders?”
“Tell me who gave you these orders.”
“I don’t know.”
Nate grimaced. “Remember who gave you these orders.”
He expected resistance but, once broken, it seemed whatever command lurked in her eyes stayed broken for him. “I can’t,” she said. “I never knew who gave me these orders.”
“Tell me when you received these orders.”
“I’d just arrived on campus,” Julie said. “I left my car in a parking lot and walked to the Registrar’s Office to make sure my tuition was settled. That’s when I received those orders.”
“Tell me how you received them.”
“I don’t know. I just knew I had them. I was on the steps of Millican Hall and that’s when I knew. I didn’t hear them, no one spoke to me, I just knew them.”
“I can’t do this anymore.” Nate groaned, gripped his roiling stomach and took several heavy breathes. Then he heard feet on the stairwell. “Julie, remember. I want you to remember these orders. Now.”
Just like that, he released his ability. Then Nate broke into a cold sweat as he saw the look of utter horror fill the face of the girl he liked. She scrambled out of her stool, knocking it to the floor and backing up until she hit the sink and stopped.
Right then, Finn and Amara came downstairs. She looked freshly showered and glowy, radiant with young love as her fingers twined with Finn’s. Nate’s taller and more charming roommate flashed a smile at his girlfriend before glancing into the kitchen and tilting his head, picking something up.
“Julie,” Nate said, looking back at his warden and would-be girlfriend.
She just shook her head, turned and bolted out of the kitchen backdoor.
“Blimey, mate, don’t tell me you had a row with Julie of all people.” Finn shook his nearly shaved head in dismay.
“Go get Alley, would you?” Nate said, swallowing down a lump of pain.
“We need to call the Major.”
Finn’s eyes dropped to Amara’s puzzled face, then nodded once and rubbed his girlfriend’s shoulder. “Amara, would you mind?”
“Sure,” the short-haired brunette said before heading out the front door towards the shop where Alley was doubtlessly working out.
“Hey, you okay?” Finn asked, picking up Julie’s stool and sitting in it.
“Sometimes I can almost forget why we’re really here,” Nate said. “But we’re in trouble, man. We’re in deeper trouble than any of us know. The Ringmaster got to Julie, got to her before she ever met me. It makes me wonder…”
“If the reason we’re here after the Ringmaster is actually her idea in the first place?” Finn nodded soberly. “Maybe. Doesn’t mean we can’t sort it. Alley, Jia, you, you’re mighty, all of you.”
Nate stood up and looked out the backdoor, only to see Julie heaving up her breakfast on the lawn outside. A profound chill cut through him at the sight. Mighty they might be but the revelation of the reason for Julie’s feelings had shattered any…progress or whatever it was they’d been making. Nothing would ever be the same after this. It couldn’t be, not when both of them had no idea if her feelings could ever have been real or not.
If the Ringmaster really was his mother…
Slowly, Nate’s fingers squeezed shut into a fist.