Something awful penetrated the murky darkness.
Nate groaned his way back into consciousness. It came slowly, in inches, and even when his hearing kicked in he couldn’t make much sense of what was said. Only that people spoke to him, kept speaking to him. There was something wrong, something in his thoughts, interfering with his thoughts. Why couldn’t he wake up? Why couldn’t he think?
Finally he took a deep, shuddering breath and woke all the way. That’s when he realized he was strapped down in a bed in the infirmary.
“What?” he croaked.
“Relax Mr. Insley. Do you know where you are?”
Nate lifted his head and peered through bleary eyes at a man. It took a moment to resolve the face. It finally coalesced into a man in his 40s, clad in a suit to rival Professor Matthias’ expensive tastes. Mirrorshades shielded his eyes and his humanity in equal measure. It was like looking at an Agent from the Matrix.
“Yeah,” Nate said, a little clearer this time. “Who are you?”
“You can call me Grey. Agent Grey.” The mirrorshaded face twitched slightly, as if the thought of smiling had crossed from the brain to the lips only to be overridden by the local authorities. Grey’s face looked like it had never borne a smile. Ever. “Senator Sun?”
A moment later, the equally unsmiling face of Jia’s mother swam into view. She didn’t look at Nate, though, only at the Mirrorshades Man.
“Well?” she asked. Grey shook his head once. She sighed, then tried to put on a more friendly expression. It didn’t work well. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well, Nate. My daughter’s been very worried about you. You’re among the last to revive, though I’m afraid that was my decision more than yours.”
“Huh?” Nate tried to rise but still the restraints kept him locked down. “Uh, Senator, could you-”
“I don’t see why not.” Her face softened with warmth but still didn’t smile as she directed the Mirrorshades Man to undo the straps. “You’ll be pleased to know Agent Grey here has confirmed you are indeed an innocent party in all of this. A victim. I’m sorry about what’s happened here, Nate. Dreadfully sorry. Rest assured, it won’t happen again. I’m seeing to that.”
As the straps were released, Nate slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position. The wounds in his shoulders were gone. He ached a little but it was more the twinges from lying in bed too long instead of actual pain or injury. The black uniform of a Freshman HCP student looked completely undamaged as well. Had they changed him while he slept?
“Senator, I don’t really know what’s going on but I’d like to see my friends.”
“Of course. I’ll get them for you. Mr. Grey, if you please?”
“Who is he?” Nate asked, as soon as the Mirrorshade Man had left the room.
“Why, Agent Grey is an Advanced Mind. One of the best in the country in fact. He’s….well, he works for the Department of Variant Human Affairs. You see, serious concerns have been raised at the highest levels of government over what happened here, Nate. I have a number of friends in the House Committee on Ways and Means which, among other things, oversees funding for the Hero Certification Programs across the country.”
Nate frowned. “Is this anything like what happened at Overton?”
“I sincerely hope not.” The Senator had an expression like she’d just taken a bite of something sour. “We have no concerns over the quality of Heroes turned out by West Private. Dean Goddard does an excellent job. But the events of the last 48 hours make it clear that drastic action is called for. So we’ve approved a full audit of West Private, solely to locate any evidence of the Ringmaster’s activities here. Agent Grey’s Department has been cooperating with this audit by conducting, shall we say, debriefing interviews with everyone involved via deep mind probes. In your case, he opted to probe your mind in the event you were complicit so that you couldn’t use your ability consciously to stop or coopt him. But I believe he found your story to be perfectly consistent with the others.”
The hand she placed on his shoulder was gentle, warm and strangely made him think of Jia. They were nothing alike, Jia and her mother. Still, something made him think of his roommate. A touch of perfume, a similarity of scent, something…
“Is…is everyone okay?” he asked at last, straightening his collar and carefully sliding his feet onto the floor. Nate’s knees wobbled briefly as he stood. He felt fine otherwise. Worried, though.
“…I’m afraid your friend Finn Barnaby isn’t. He’s stable but not expected to recover. I’m deeply sorry, Nate.”
The world plunged into blackness. Not literally. Nate’s senses told him the light level stayed consistent. But something bright flickered out inside of him. His stomach curled up into a fist but he otherwise felt the same. Not fine. More like that unsettled sensation when you’re about to get sick but aren’t yet.
It was shock. It just hadn’t settled in yet. He didn’t really want it to so he just walked past the Senator towards the exit. For some reason, he dimly thought she might still be talking but he couldn’t hear or understand a word she said.
So he left the infirmary behind.
Outside, Julie waited in the lobby of the infirmary, in a waiting area scattered with four couches and a dozen cushioned wooden chairs. Not just Julie, Alley and Jia too. The tears in their eyes told him everything. That’s when the unsettled feeling dropped like a stone, plunging him wholly into cancerous chemo-sickness. The girls caught him before he fell. In their arms, in the embrace of all three girls, he gave way to tears, his grief joined to theirs.
“If I told you that you don’t want the answers to any of the questions you’re going to ask, would you take my advice and not ask them?” Alley said, her naturally husky voice almost boyishly thick.
“No,” Nate said, shaking his head. “I want to know.”
“I guess they’re still pulling together the preliminary report, Ginger, but I’ll tell you what I know. They’re saying the Ringmaster Dominated Professor Matthias and Professor Glee into locking all the usual support staff out of the displays, promising to alert the healers if their services were needed. They didn’t lift a finger when the whole Freshman class tried to kill us and, yes, the spook from the DVA confirmed that’s what their orders were. It’s a miracle we didn’t have any fatalities given no one on the healing staff had a heads up until almost thirty minutes after all this shit went down. Not even Mom. She has a five minute window,” Alley explained when Nate stared blankly at her. “She can’t heal any injury older than five minutes out.”
Nate’s eyes unfocused from their faces, settling instead on the far wall.
“Would you like to see him?” Julie asked.
“What happened to Finn?” he asked instead.
“Steve Dukes,” Jia said softly. “His ability is…well, he manipulates memory. Offensively, he can induce total amnesia. Except he was in contact with Marie Yates at the time and she enhanced him. The result…”
With Jia unable to continue, Alley said. “He’s gone, Nate. His body’s still there. They managed to heal the hole Amara punched through him but there’s nothing home anymore. They can’t find even a trace of Finn left behind, even with Marie Enhancing Professor Stevens who is supposedly really good at reconstructing memory. He’s basically in a coma with no brain activity.”
“Like an EMP,” Nate mumbled. “Hardware’s there but the software’s wiped.”
“You know it’s not Steve’s fault, right?” Julie said. She looked worried.
“Yeah.” Nate swallowed once.
“I thought we were brave,” Jia whispered, fresh wetness welling up from her golden eyes. “The four of us at Lambert Acres, solving crimes no one had ever been able to crack. We didn’t know. We didn’t know anything.”
“We pushed,” Alley said. If Julie was caring concern and Jia grief, Alley was rage. “She pushed back. I just hope the Major didn’t see this coming. If he did-”
“It’s not her fault,” Nate said.
“…Major Diaz is a her?”
“What? No.” Nate managed a laugh and instantly felt terrible. “The Ringmaster. Mom. It’s not her fault.”
“Nate-” Alley started before cutting herself off.
“Finn said that?” Julie’s surprise was total, an expression mirrored a second later by Alley and Jia.
“Said what?” Jia asked.
“It’s something Finn said to me,” Nate said. “The last thing he said. He said the Ringmaster’s known we were here all along and never made a move against us directly. The only thing she’s done that we know directly touches us was her Dominating Julie into…helping me. Finn said the student attack was out of character, wildly.”
“Two Dominators,” Alley said, though it was more to herself than to them. “Huh. That’s…not a good sign. Assuming it’s true. Even Julie doesn’t know who gave her the orders. It’ll be a damn hard thing to prove either way.”
Silence fell. The three surviving Lambert Acres Crew stood there, eyes on each other but not seeing much. Too much had happened to pay much attention to sight. Their presence helped, though, the feel of their nearness. And Julie. Nate couldn’t meet her gaze but he felt it. Finally the tension of the last week between them was gone.
“Where’s Amara?” Nate asked, suddenly realizing the last informal member of their team was absent. “Is she with Finn?”
“C’mon, Ginger,” Alley said softly. “Let’s go pay our respects.”