Control State

“Control State”

by Michael Stevens

 

I don’t mind if the kids blow up my furniture while I’m counseling them. Really. They can singe my office chairs, tip over my bookcase, or rip the heads off the dolls I keep in the toy box, and I don’t break a sweat. I expect the little rascals to misbehave. There’s just one thing that sets me on edge during these counseling sessions.

The alarm. It’s loud enough to make me feel like my ears are going to bleed, yes, but that’s not what worries me. The alarm means bad news. An attack. Ergo, when the alarm went off during my appointment with little Kate Gooley, I knew my day was ruined. What I didn’t know was just how ruined it was going to get.

Let me back up a bit. Richard Sokolowski, pediatric psychologist. No wife, no kids, but I’ve got a charming office in the Rhonheimer Center for Exceptional Children. The Rhonheimer’s height is nothing to brag about – especially when you look at the Military High Command Center next to it – but at least it’s built on a hill. That means I can look past the other buildings downtown all the way to the no-man’s-land at the edge of the city and the hundred-foot-tall perimeter wall beyond that. Not a bad view. Alas, one of the disadvantages of working in the Rhonheimer is the aforementioned alarm.

Before the alarm began, the red light above my office door flashed once.

Oh no, I thought. I reached for one of my desk drawers on the right. If I could just get to my earplugs in time…

The wailing sound began, like a thousand off-key opera singers auditioning all at once.

“Doooctooor!” Kate yelled, as though this were my fault. She covered her ears with her hands.

The earplugs were far in the back of the drawer, behind my pistol. I grabbed them and jammed them into my ears as quickly as I could. The sound dropped down to the level of a baby throwing a tantrum.

“It’ll end soon!” I yelled back at Kate.

She just pouted at me. At age thirteen, Kate was one of the younger kids I counseled. She kept her blonde hair as long as military would permit her – long enough that it still curled up here and there.

The siren died down. That was just the first part of the alarm, though. Now that Command had your attention, it would tell you what you needed to know.

“Alert,” a smooth female voice said over the intercom – loud enough that I could hear her even through my earplugs. “D3-7. Repeat: D3-7. Stand by for further instructions. Alert. D3-7…” she said again.

D3-7, huh? I stood up and walked to my office window.

Our fair city of Oxrend sat on the western shore of Lake Ageer. The eastern side of the city – the side that touched the lake – was completely unprotected. The western side was protected by a wall that ran from the southern shore to the northern shore, however. The wall had five sides, each of which corresponded to one of the city’s districts.

D3 meant the wall for District 3 – in other words, the wall directly ahead of my office. As for the seven…

Kate said something, but I couldn’t hear her because of my earplugs. I popped them out and looked at her.

“Can you see ’em?” she asked, her voice trembling with excitement… or trepidation. She tapped her hand on the edge of my desk. The desk made a popping sound, like a firework going off, and jumped an eighth of an inch off the floor.

“Contact Explosion” – that was the name of Kate’s power, or Gift, as we liked to call it. When she struck something, it released energy. If she hit something hard enough, it blew up.

“No powers in the building, Kate,” I reminded her. Last year Kate destroyed my old desk by accident. I really liked that desk.

She shrugged. “Can you see ’em or not?”

I looked back out the window. Troops swarmed around the bunkers at the outskirts of Oxrend. A dozen helicopters hovered above the wall. There were missile launchers and machine guns mounted on top of the wall too, enough to tear any human enemy to pieces.

If only we were fighting other humans.

“No sign of the enemy,” I said, walking to my desk chair. “Hopefully it’s just a false alarm.”

“Look!” Kate pointed out the window.

I looked over my shoulder. One of the helicopters was on fire, and going down fast.

“It’s gonna crash,” Kate said.

“It won’t crash.”

But it did. The helicopter spun out of control, fell to the no-man’s-land, and exploded. The burning wreck looked no larger than a candle flame from where I stood, but who knows how many men just died in pain and terror?

“I think that’s enough,” I said. I tugged on the string for my window blinds. The office became very dark – darker than usual, it felt like.

“Why’re they attacking now?” Kate asked, settling back into her chair. “They never attack in the afternoon. Do you think I’m gonna have to go out again today?” A note of fear entered her voice for the first time today.

“I’m sure that Commander Ziska won’t ask you to do that,” I answered. Ziska was in charge of the Rhonheimer and all our little Gifted. She wasn’t cold-blooded… relatively speaking.

Still, Kate had a point. The scolopendra almost never attacked after dawn, especially not with a large force. D3-7. That seven was an estimate of the size of the enemy force. The maximum was nine. In other words, this attack was big enough to make us all wring our hands until we got the all-clear.

In the meantime, the best thing I could do was to comfort the child in front me. Especially knowing that she might be sent out to fight again today.

“Let’s resume the decision-making exercise that we started last time,” I said, pulling out a sheet of paper from the mess on my desk. I handed it to Kate.

She took it and nodded, but her eyes flicked towards the window blinds.

Twenty-seven minutes later, the lady on the intercom spoke again.

“D3-7, all clear,” she said. I swear that even she sounded a little relieved. “Repeat: D3-7, all clear.”

I smiled at Kate. “I told you not to worry.”

“Yeah,” she said, tugging on one of her blonde curls, “but you looked like you were going to pee your pants.”

I did not! I was the very image of self-composure. “Now, Kate-” I began, in my sweetest psychologist voice.

I didn’t get a chance to finish. The red light above my door flashed.

No. Again? Where were my earplugs? Did they fall onto the floor?

Too late. The wailing sound began anew. Kate rolled her eyes and put her hands over her ears. I did the very same.

The siren didn’t last as long as it usually did. Intercom Lady spoke again, this time sounding almost bored.

“Alert: An incident has occurred in the basement of the General Dane Novenson Building. All personnel are advised to remain clear of the building and the surrounding area until the incident is resolved. Repeat…”

I uncovered my ears, as did Kate. The Novenson Building was on the other side of the Military High Command Center – about a ten minute walk from my office. Most of the building was used for R&D, but the basement housed… ah, yes. The morgue.

“That’s weird. That’s really weird,” Kate said, crossing her arms. “Have you been in that building before?”

Unfortunately, yes. I had to go there whenever one of my patients was killed in battle.

I cleared my throat. “A few times. Anyway, we’ve got ten minutes left in today’s session. Why don’t we finish up the decision-making exercise and then talk about what to do next time?”

“‘Kay,” Kate said, but the blank look in her eyes told me that her mind was a million miles away by now.

“Read your answer for question five again, please.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “I would choose to kill the enemy, because as long as the enemy remains alive, I can’t rescue my teammate-”

Someone knocked on my door. It was that soft trio of knocks that Dr. Eden always made, as though she was afraid that she would find me napping on the job.

“Sorry, Kate,” I said, standing up. I walked over to the door and opened it.

It was indeed Dr. Eden… with guests. She was a slender woman, with long wrinkles running vertically on her face. It was as though every year she worked here squeezed a little more life out of her. She looked pitifully slight in front of those two soldiers in black body armor. My, what big guns!

“I swear I didn’t break the coffee machine!” I said, putting my hands up.

She chuckled. “I’d deal with you myself if you had, Richard.” She glanced beside me. “How are you, Kate? Still drawing?”

I looked to my right. Kate had snuck up beside me, quiet as a mouse. That’s combat training for you.

“Yup,” Kate answered. “Wanna see?”

“Drawing? I didn’t know she drew,” I said.

“You should stop by the barracks sometime, Richard. It wouldn’t hurt to talk with the children a little more outside of the office,” Dr. Eden said. She reached out and tousled Kate’s hair. “I don’t have time right now, Kate, but I’d love to see later. For now, would you do me a big favor?”

“What’s that?” Kate asked. Her voice was a lot more cheerful than when she talked to me.

“Go wait by my office,” Dr. Eden said, pointing at the big door on the other end of the floor. “Someone will come by in a few minutes to take you back to the barracks. Okay?”

Kate nodded halfheartedly. “Is something…?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Dr. Eden said. Her poker face was positively angelic.

Kate looked at me. Tell me the truth later, her eyes seemed to say.

I smiled slightly, not enough to mean Yes or No. There was a lot we couldn’t tell the kids, unfortunately. Too much.

“Bye, Dr. S. Bye, Dr. Eden,” Kate said. She gave us a little wave and walked away.

Dr. Eden looked cheerful as Kate left, but then her expression became somber. This was no pleasure visit. The two soldiers standing behind her glared at me like I was holding up the line at a fast food restaurant.

Dr. Eden squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her forehead, the way she always did when she was stressed.

“Not good news, I take it,” I said.

Dr. Eden opened her eyes and nodded slightly. “Mao Jing was killed in battle twenty minutes ago,” she whispered.

Mao Jing was fifteen years old, and one of our most skilled Gifted. She and her little sister both had the power to manipulate air. I had seen them cut concrete blocks in half with no more than a wave of their hands.

If she was dead…what happened out there, anyway?

“Is the city safe?” I asked.

“It’s safe. The problem…”

“Is Mao Mei,” I finished for her. Mei was Jing’s younger sister: thirteen years old, like Kate, but as unstable as a tank balancing on the point of a needle. I advised Command to take her off of combat duty last week. Fighting the scolopendra would only make her depression worse.

“I’m glad you understand. These gentlemen,” she said, gesturing towards the soldiers, “informed me that Mei went berserk when she saw Jing’s body in the morgue. She attacked the staff and started tearing the building apart.”

“You’re not going to say what I think you’re going to say, right?”

“Sorry, Richard. Command wants us to placate her.”

I swore under my breath. Negotiating with patients in crisis was part of my job, but I hated it. Imagine trying to calm a teenager who could tear your head off. I’d rather be stuck in a cage with a hungry lion.

I pulled a handkerchief out of my breast pocket and wiped a drop of sweat off my forehead. “I would be happy to leave that to you, if you would rather…”

Dr. Eden sighed. “I won’t make you do it, Richard, but she’s your patient. Don’t you think you have a responsibility to be there for her?”

Responsibility…yes, maybe, but as long as someone else was there to take care of Mei – Dr. Eden, for example, who was much more experienced and popular with the kids than me…

“Sorry to interrupt,” one of the soldiers said, sounding about as far from sorry as he could be, “but Command wants us on-site now.”

“Of course,” Dr. Eden said. She shrugged. “Your call, Richard. I’d be happy to take charge of the negotiations, but I could really use your backup.”

Why did I put up with this place, anyway? Why not get a job at that ritzy hospital in District 5, the one surrounded by a forest? No more psychotic kids with super-powers, no more alarms that made me want to stuff cotton in my ears, and no more big men with guns showing up on my doorstep. It was ridiculous. Completely ridiculous.

I looked down at my hand, palm open, and remembered the image of the helicopter burning in the no-man’s-land not long ago. My forehead flashed with pain–it had been too long since I did this–but even so, a flame burst into being above my palm. It was just large enough to light a cigarette with.

Because of this. Because of this useless little flame, I became entangled with the Rhonheimer, and I never quite succeeded in pulling myself away from this place.

“No powers in the building, Richard,” Dr. Eden said. She winked at me. “Shall we go?”

If I let my mind dwell on the danger, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my duties. Best to go as quickly as possible and deal with the consequences later.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Without another word, I set off towards the elevator. No need to tell Dr. Eden that my legs were shaking.

The General Dane Novenson Building was named after Oxrend’s second dictator, the one who developed this area into the military complex it was today. In the last years of his life, he commissioned a granite statue of himself holding a spear on which a scolopendra was impaled, its centipede-like body frozen in a moment of agony. Now every scientist who worked in the Novenson Building had to walk past his stern visage just to get in the front door. At the moment, Dr. Eden, Commander Ziska, and I stood in his shadow, which grew longer as the afternoon sun sank lower.

“The situation is rather bad,” Commander Ziska said. She took a drag on a cigarette and blew the smoke perilously close to my face. She was around the same age as Dr. Eden, but her body was blocky where Dr. Eden’s was slender–and made all the blockier by the epaulets on her officer’s uniform.

“How bad?” Dr. Eden asked.

Commander Ziska pointed towards the main entrance of the Novenson Building. A tank sat on either side of the sliding glass door, each with its gun trained on the lobby. Two dozen soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Battalion crouched or stood between the tanks, their assault rifles at the ready.

“We sent in a strike team seven minutes ago,” Commander Ziska said, cocking her head like this was all somewhat boring. “Tranquilizer darts, rubber bullets, stun guns. Highly trained men. We lost contact with them five minutes ago.”

My pulse quickened. As if things weren’t bad enough, Mei had to go and fight against the military.

She looked at me. “What do you think, Rich? Did Mei kill them?”

“Uh, well…” I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped the sweat off my forehead. This time there was more than a drop.

Would Mei kill the soldiers? In her counseling sessions, she mostly sat in silence, staring at me with bloodshot eyes. What she did say was…enigmatic. And disturbing.

“It’s a possibility, yes,” I answered. “Mei has a long history of violent outbursts. She’s often gotten into fights with the other Gifted.”

Dr. Eden held up a hand, as though to stop me in my tracks. “But she never caused them serious injury.”

True. But how would she react if men in masks charged in with tranquilizer guns? She had spent a couple years on the battlefield by this point. Her first reaction would be to use her powers to defend herself.

“I see.” Commander Ziska threw down her cigarette and crushed it with her boot heel. “In that case, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Catherine Eden and Richard Sokolowski, I hereby order you to pacify Mao Mei. If you fail in your mission, we’ll be forced to kill her. Understand?”

“Of course,” Dr. Eden said. She saluted – which looked a bit odd in her suit.

What was I supposed to say? Hurray, we’re off to confront an extremely dangerous teenager who just lost her beloved older sister! No thanks.

“Not going to salute, Rich?” Commander Ziska asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Er… no, ma’am,” I replied. “But I’ll do my best.”

“Let’s hope that’s good enough.” Commander Ziska waved towards a group of three soldiers standing at a distance from the tanks. “Indigo Team, over here!”

The soldiers jogged over. They were armed even more heavily than the other infantrymen: full body armor, helmets, assault rifles, grenades, and handguns that looked like they would be too heavy for me to even pick up. Then again, maybe that wasn’t saying much. Each of them had a purple patch on his shoulder, but one of the patches had a skull drawn on it in what looked to be permanent marker.

“This is Indigo Leader,” Commander Ziska said. She pointed at the soldier in the middle, the one with a skull on his patch.

“A pleasure,” Indigo Leader said. His voice sounded remarkably clear for coming from inside that helmet. He held out a hand to shake.

“Catherine Eden,” Dr. Eden said, taking his hand. Then he held it out to me.

“Rich has sweaty palms,” Commander Ziska said, smiling wanly. “Be careful.”

“She’s exaggerating,” I said. I shook his hand. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to feel the sweat through those gloves, would he?

“Your name?” Indigo Leader asked.

I forgot to say that, didn’t I? “Richard Sokolowski.”

“Sokolowski…I’ve heard that name before.” I wish I could see what his expression was like, but the visor of his helmet was completely tinted. “You’re a former Gifted, aren’t you?”

Oh, here we go.

“No, not quite,” I said, laughing awkwardly. That was always my reaction when people brought up my past.

Commander Ziska cleared her throat. “Enough chatter. Indigo Team will escort you to Mei’s last known location within the building. If things go south, they’ll try to extract you. If things go well, they’ll take custody of Mei as soon as it seems safe to do so. Got it?”

That sounded reasonable enough. Would they also clean up our corpses if we got sliced to pieces?

“You have twenty minutes,” Commander Ziska continued. “If we lose contact with all of you, we’ll assume that Mei has killed you and charge in with a larger force. If necessary, we’ll bring down the roof of the morgue on her head. I do not want to do that, understand? Don’t fail.”

“We won’t,” Dr. Eden said, but her voice was fragile.

“Good. Get going.” Commander Ziska nodded towards Indigo Leader.

He started walking towards the Novenson Building. Dr. Eden and I followed, and his two subordinates fell in behind us.

This was it. I’d never faced a negotiation as tense as this one before. Usually most of the Gifted just holed themselves up in the barracks or got into a fight in the training hall.

“Richard,” Dr. Eden whispered, moving a little closer to me. “There’s one more thing I should tell you before we go in.”

“What’s that?”

“I suspect…” She pursed her lips. “Somehow, I think Mao Jing uncovered information about the side effects that the Gifted experience. She may have shared that information with Mei.”

My eyes widened. “You’re kidding.”

“I wish I were. Simply… be prepared.”

That information was a state secret. Then again, Jing was a brilliant girl. If any of the Gifted were able to put two and two together, it would have been her.

And if she told that to Mei… this was going to be a nightmare.

The morgue lay at the end of long hallway in the basement. Almost every fluorescent lamp in the hallway was shattered, but one of them flickered off and on, dangling from the ceiling like the guts spilling out of a dead animal. The door to the morgue stood ajar.

For now, we remained on the far side of the hallway. Two of the soldiers from Indigo Team crouched behind the corners, ready to pop out and shoot Mei if she emerged from the morgue. Indigo Leader stood with me and Dr. Eden a short distance away. The light on his helmet shone uncomfortably bright.

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” he whispered. His voice came in loud and clear through the earpiece he had given me.

“It’s necessary,” Dr. Eden replied, her voice equally clear. “Above all, we want Mei to understand that we are here to help her, not hurt her. If you and your men follow us in, she’s apt to get the impression that we’re just trying to make her lower her guard. What do you think, Richard?”

Leave behind the men with the big guns? It didn’t sound like such a great idea to me. Then again, Dr. Eden had a good point…

“Can you position yourselves right by the door to the morgue?” I asked.

“She’ll sense them,” Dr. Eden broke in.

I grunted in acknowledgment. Mei’s powers made her extremely sensitive to movement through the air. Even if she was distracted by Dr. Eden and me, she’d probably be able to sense the soldiers’ breaths outside the door.

Indigo Leader shifted his weight and glanced down the hallway. “Do you think she knows our position already?”

“Probably,” Dr. Eden said. “Which is why you need to remain here, as a sign of good faith. Richard and I will go on ahead. We’ll contact you if we run into any problems.” She tapped her earpiece.

“I’ll follow your lead,” Indigo Leader said. “It’ll take eight to ten seconds for us to run down that hallway and get into the morgue, though. That’s a long time to be trapped in a room with an angry Gifted.”

No kidding. Eight to ten seconds was long enough for Mei to kill us how many times over? A dozen, maybe?

I took out my handkerchief and tried to wipe off my hands, but by this point it was too drenched with sweat to do much good.

“We’ll be fine,” Dr. Eden said. “Come on, Richard. Let’s not delay.” She started off towards the morgue, her high heels clicking on the floor. I took a deep breath and followed her.

“I’ll give you a raise if this works out,” Dr. Eden whispered.

“You’re not afraid?”

She shook her head. “How can we help Mei if we’re afraid of her?”

I wish I shared Dr. Eden’s single-mindedness. I looked over my shoulder, hoping to see Indigo Leader with his gun ready to defend us. He had turned off the light on his helmet, though, leaving that end of the hallway in darkness. All we had to go by now was that flickering light overhead.

Dr. Eden stopped in front of the door. A faint breeze passed through the opening, pushing us away from the morgue. The wind was warm, like someone’s breath.

Dr. Eden cleared her throat. “Mei, this is Dr. Eden and Dr. Sokolowski from the Rhonheimer Center. We’d like to talk with you. May we come in?”

A burst of wind pushed the door to the morgue open further. The air was warmer than before–more like waving your hand over a hot skillet than feeling someone’s breath.

“She’s telling us to come in,” Dr. Eden said. “Quickly, now.”

She stepped through the opening, careful not to touch the door, and disappeared into the darkness beyond. I swallowed and followed her, but I couldn’t fit in without bumping the door. It whined on its hinges.

The morgue was pitch-black. As best I could recall, the room was square, with dozens of large drawers on every wall where the dead were stored. There were a few stainless steel tables in the center for newly-arrived corpses, and a door on the right leading to some offices. Where Mao Mei was in all of that, I had no idea.

“I have a small flashlight with me, Mei. Do you mind if I turn it on?” Dr. Eden asked. She pulled something long and slender out of her pocket; but with the scant light we had from the hallway, there was no telling what it actually was. If we moved any further into the morgue, we wouldn’t be able to see anything at all.

A gust of wind blew from behind. The door to the morgue started to swing shut.

Mei was trying to trap us in here. No way I would let that happen. I jammed my foot into the doorway. The door slammed against it. That would leave a bruise, but at least we still had a way out.

“It’s all right, Richard,” Dr. Eden said. “What good will having the door open do?”

“Maybe nothing,” I murmured, “but we’re keeping it open anyway. Just in case.”

“Dr. Sokolowski is right,” Indigo Leader whispered through our earpieces. “The door might lock if it closes.”

I opened the door a little wider and slipped off my shoe. Yep, definitely felt that bruise. More importantly, though, I could wedge my shoe in the opening here…

All done. That made me feel marginally more comfortable.

Dr. Eden gave a little sigh and continued, slipping the flashlight back into her pocket. “I lost a daughter eight years ago, Mei. She was killed in a car accident along with her husband.”

Silence. A breeze drifted past our ankles, like a question mark hanging in the air.

“I drank myself into a stupor when I heard. Everything seemed like it was over, Mei. Everything. And it still hurts, to this day.” Her voice cracked with emotion. “I’m not saying that I understand the depth of your emotions, Mei, but I want to h-”

Whisk. There was a faint sound, like someone blowing through a straw.

Something made a thud to the right. Then Dr. Eden’s silhouette teetered and fell forward.

I blinked. What just happened?

“Dr. Eden?” I whispered. “Are you all right?”

She didn’t answer.

“What happened?” Indigo Leader asked through the earpiece. “Dr. Eden? Sokolowski?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “Dr. Eden just fell down… I don’t know if she’s hurt, or… I’ll take a look.”

“Roger. Stay calm.”

I crouched down towards where I saw her fall.

My shadow was blocking the light from the hallway. I shifted about a foot to my left. A sliver of light fell on Dr. Eden.

Ah.

Mei could compress the air into a stream powerful enough to cut through iron. She used it to chop through the exoskeletons of the scolopendra.

She must have used that technique on Dr. Eden. The good doctor’s head was missing from her shoulders.

My mind went blank. I stood up, more out of instinct than anything else.

The panic came gradually, from the distant recesses of my mind. It was like someone yelling on a megaphone outside when you’re high up in an office building.

Run. Run. Get away.

But my legs wouldn’t move. They were like jelly. Was Mei immobilizing me? No–just my own fear.

“So noisy,” a voice said. It seemed to come from all around me, even from behind me, out in the hallway. Mei giggled.

“What was that?” Indigo Leader asked. “Sokolowski, come in!”

“D-Dr. Eden is down,” I said, not bothering to whisper.

“She lost her head, Mr. Soldier,” Mei added.

“Is that… the target, Sokolowski?”

I swallowed. My body was completely rigid. Would I even be able to speak anymore, let alone run?

“This is Mao Mei, Mr. Soldier,” she chimed. “Would you like to come in? Dr. Sokolowski is enjoying himself very much. Aren’t you, Dr. S?”

I nodded feverishly.

“He says yes,” Mei said. “Won’t you come in? Your friends are welcome too. That whole army upstairs is welcome, and all the people in Command, too. Let’s have a nice party.”

“Sokolowski, come in. Do you want us to extract you? Repeat, do you want us to extract you, over?”

Mao Mei stepped into the light from the hallway, just a few feet in front of me. Her head was shaved for combat, as usual, and the left side of her face seemed a little thinner than the right, on account of a long scar running down her cheek. And now… her body was covered in a dark liquid, from her chin down to her feet. No need to guess was that was.

She glared at me. If I tried to leave, she would kill me. I had to get myself under control. If not, I was going to leave here without a head, just like Dr. Eden and those soldiers whom Mei had probably killed.

I took a deep breath. Then another. Mei smirked.

“I’m all right,” I said, sounding more confident than I did when I first interviewed for this job. “Mei and I are going to have a nice chat.”

Indigo Leader grunted. Maybe he understood what was actually going on. “…Copy, Sokolowski. We’ll stand by, over.”

“Great,” Mei said. She walked a few paces to the right. “Jing always liked you. She said you were more honest to us than most of those… nasty people. Like this old bag.” She kicked Dr. Eden’s body.

I felt like she kicked me in the gut instead. I couldn’t lose my cool now, though.

“What do you want, Mei?” I forced myself to ask.

“What do I want?” She put a finger on her lips. “Jing and I wanted not to go fight the scolopendra anymore. We wanted not to be afraid of ending up in their bellies. We wanted not to be Gifted anymore.”

Act confident. That was the best way to keep her from turning violent again.

“You wanted to escape,” I said.

“We were going to escape,” Mei said, walking back into the darkness. “Jing was looking for an opportunity. But then she died.” She said it in an “Oh, well” sort of way.

So that was it. They were conspiring to escape the military, but then their plans were cut short by Jing’s death.

“But you know what the funny thing is, Dr. S?”

I licked my lips. My mouth felt terribly dry right now. “No, Mei. Enlighten me.”

“Even if Jing and I escaped from the military, we would have died young, wouldn’t we?”

So she knew after all.

It was the state’s biggest secret about the Gifted. The origin of their powers remained a mystery, but we had learned at least one thing through experience: the children died young. Their powers placed an unbearable strain on their bodies, regardless of whether they used those powers or not. Most of the Gifted wouldn’t live to see their twentieth birthdays.

My life rode on the next words I spoke. But what could I say?

“You don’t deny it,” Mei said, her voice heavy with contempt. “You’re just like all the rest of them. I think I’ll kill you too, and then those soldiers at the other end of the hallway, and then everyone in the Rhonheimer, and then everyone in Command…”

“You’re mistaken, Mei,” I said.

“What?”

“You’re operating under a misconception,” I said. “The Gifted don’t die young.”

“Liar!” Mei yelled. Her voice came at me like a shockwave. I raised my arms to defend myself and took a step back.

“I can show you!” I said. I held out my hand, palm open. Powers, please don’t fail me now. A candle flame popped into existence above my palm. What little light it afforded brought Mei’s face back into view. She was standing about seven feet away.

“You… you’re just holding a lighter, aren’t you?” Mei asked, but her voice was uncertain.

“I’m not.” I held out my other hand, palm open like the first. This was going to be tough – I hadn’t tried two flames at once since I was a kid. I brought to mind the image of the helicopter burning again – no, not just one helicopter, but all of them burning, as though the scolopendra had won and were surging towards the city…

Pop. Another flame appeared above my other palm, albeit a little smaller than the first.

“I’m one of the Gifted too,” I said. “And I’m still alive, Mei. The Gifted do not die young.”

It was an outrageous lie. I wasn’t really one of the Gifted. Not everyone who manifested powers was actually fit for combat – I certainly wasn’t. When I was a child, the military brought me to the Rhonheimer for testing. The scientists spent months trying to get me to create fireballs to rain down on the scolopendra. No matter how hard they pushed me, my little flames remained just that: little. They eventually sent me home to my parents, and I grew up as an ordinary child.

My power was so weak that it placed little strain on my body. Mei’s power, on the other hand, would kill her for sure.

Mei blinked. Would she buy it?

I couldn’t hold both flames for long, but she might realize the truth if I let go of them too quickly.

Please, please believe me, Mei. For the love of life, believe me.

Mei broke out laughing. Her laugh was like red wine pouring out of a broken bottle: dark, opaque, and bitter.

“So Jing was wrong!” she said.

“Yes. She was wrong.”

Mei chuckled. “And then she died. How stupid… how completely stupid.”

“She wasn’t stupid, Mei,” I replied. I extinguished the flames – I couldn’t hold onto them any longer, even if I wanted to. Mei’s face disappeared back into the darkness.

“You’re right. I’m the stupid one,” she murmured. “So what now? Are you going to kill me with your Gift?”

“Of course not,” I said. I tried to step towards her, but my legs still wouldn’t move. If I forced myself to walk, I would probably just topple over.

“Is the situation under control, Sokolowski?” Indigo Leader asked.

Under control? Who could call this ‘under control’? Still, this was probably the best chance we would get.

“I’m going to call the soldiers in, Mei,” I said. “Will you surrender peacefully?”

She didn’t say anything. A breeze blew the door to the morgue open a little wider, though. Maybe that was her way of saying that she gave up.

“Come in,” I whispered into the earpiece.

“Roger.”

Indigo Team’s boots pitter-pattered in the hallway. Those eight seconds while they ran towards the morgue felt like eight years to me.

The door to the morgue opened fully, and Indigo Leader stepped in. He didn’t have his gun up, but he looked like he was ready to raise it at any moment. The light from his helmet fell on Mao Mei. She was seated on the floor, slumped forward. She looked up at Indigo Leader.

“So stupid,” she repeated. She laughed, more weakly this time.

Indigo Leader glanced at me. “What now?” he asked.

“Go with these men, Mei,” I said. “They’ll take you to… a safe place.” To the detention center, no doubt.

She didn’t move. Indigo Leader reached down and grabbed her by the forearm. He tugged, but she still didn’t do anything.

The other two members of Indigo Team slipped past me, moving behind Mao Mei. One of them raised his gun and pulled the trigger.

Whisk. It was a sound not so different from the one Mei made when she killed Dr. Eden. A dart flew out of the soldier’s gun and embedded itself in Mei’s neck.

Her eyes widened, and she jerked her arm away from Indigo Leader, but it was too late for her to do anything. Her body went completely limp.

“Target neutralized,” Indigo Leader said. He swept around the room with the light on his helmet. Four or five bodies lay in the far corner, piled up like so many discarded dolls. As for Dr. Eden… at least Mei killed her cleanly.

“Six casualties,” Indigo Leader added. He waved to his subordinates. “Carry the target out. The bodies can wait until later.”

“Affirmative,” the other two said in unison. One of them grabbed Mei by the arms and hoisted her over his shoulder, as though she were a sack of grain. He walked out, while the other followed him with his gun at the ready, in case Mei regained consciousness.

I sank to my knees. I was alive, right? My head was still in place. I didn’t seem to be bleeding. I felt sick to my stomach… and something worse, inside, the way I felt when I was told my powers were too weak to make me one of the Gifted.

Gods above, what just happened?

“Well done,” Indigo Leader said. He walked over and stood in front of me. “Command will be pleased.”

I couldn’t bring myself to look at his helmet. I stared at the tips of his boots.

“Command will be pleased?” My voice was high-pitched and weak. “The chairman of my department just got her head sliced off.”

“She’ll be missed, I’m sure, but Mao Mei could have killed many others if she wasn’t pacified. You did well.” He held out a hand to me. “Let’s go back outside.”

I shook my head. It didn’t feel right. Something about this situation was twisted in a way I couldn’t describe.

Indigo Leader withdrew his hand and said something, but I couldn’t hear it on my earpiece. He must have been speaking on another channel.

Thirty seconds later, reinforcements poured into the room with flashlights. Commander  Ziska patted me on the shoulder, and a few burly men hauled me off to the infirmary. I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

The view from Dr. Eden’s old office was a little different from my own. Her window looked south, towards the Military High Command Center, and past that, to the barren landscape of the 2nd District. The tallest building in the 2nd District was a prison tower.

Mao Mei was brought to that prison after the incident. She didn’t leave it alive.

“Doctor,” a voice said. “Doctor S… you’re acting kinda weird.”

I blinked and turned around. Kate Gooley was sitting on the other side of the desk, staring at me like I was the one who needed counseling. And maybe I did.

I cleared my throat and sat down at the desk. It was made of real wood – almost as precious as silver in Oxrend. I couldn’t help but feel like a fraud, sitting in such luxury. Maybe I’d have the building maintenance people haul my old desk in here.

“Is it ’cause you got promoted?” Kate asked.

I shook my head. Command was pleased, just like Indigo Leader said it would be. I got a medal, a raise, and a promotion, all in one day. A week ago I would have been over the moon if I knew I was going to be so fortunate. Now I couldn’t look myself in the mirror.

“Are you still drawing, Kate?” I asked.

She nodded and grabbed a satchel. “Wanna see?”

I forced myself to smile. “I’d love to.”

She pulled out a handful of papers and set them on the desk. I picked up the first one. The drawing was of a scolopendra’s head, its mandibles open, as though it was about to crush the viewer. Only someone who had seen this firsthand could draw such a detailed picture.

“Do you think about the scolopendra often?” I asked, setting the picture aside.

Kate twisted one of her curls around her finger. “No… or maybe I’m always thinking about them. I dunno.”

“Do they scare you?”

She shook her head. “When I first fought them, yeah, but not anymore. Now I just think about them like… the wind, or the lake, or rain.”

“A force of nature.”

“Yeah, like that.”

I grunted in acknowledgment and looked through the other pictures. More scolopendra, only this time with some of the Gifted drawn in.

The last drawing was different: red-rimmed eyes on a completely black background.

“That’s Mei,” Kate said quietly.

I set the drawing down and clasped my hands together. “What did you think about Mei?”

Kate grabbed her elbows and leaned forward, as though she was afraid of being punched in the gut. “She scared me. She liked to hurt the other kids when the adults weren’t looking. We got into fights a lot.”

“I see.” No wonder Mei responded the way she did when Jing died. Maybe Jing was the only one keeping her in check, all along.

Kate took a deep breath. “Doctor, what happened to her? She… hasn’t come back to the barracks, you know, and lots of people are spreading rumors…”

The usual sort of lie came to mind: She’s been reassigned to a different district. You won’t see her again for a while, Kate. I pushed it away.

“She was court martialed last week for treason and murder,” I said. “The court sentenced her to death by lethal injection.”

Kate’s eyes widened with fear and shock. “Did they… Is she…?”

“She’s dead,” I said, nodding.

Jing was laid to rest in the military graveyard with honors, as a fallen warrior. Mei was thrown into a prison graveyard as a traitor. Ironic, wasn’t it?

Kate sniffled and looked down. Maybe this was a good time to bring up what I had in mind.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Oxrend lately, Kate,” I said. “Did you know that the city used to sacrifice people to the scolopendra, a long time ago?”

She looked up and shook her head. “Why?”

“It kept them at bay. As long as the city gave them sacrifices, they didn’t attack us.”

“Oh.”

I gathered up Kate’s drawings, laying the one of Mao Mei on top, and handed them back to her. She took them and put them in her satchel.

“I’ve been thinking that things aren’t so different now,” I continued. “We still sacrifice people, just in a different way. Have you ever thought about leaving the military, Kate?”

“No!” she said, looking like a startled rabbit. “No, I never… I just… I want to help the city. I do.”

I leaned towards her. “What if you could go back to your parents next week? They have a nice cottage by the lakeside, don’t they?”

Kate eyed me. “That’s…”

I clenched my fist. “I’m not trying to trick you, Kate. I am being honest-to-goodness, one hundred percent truthful with you now. I can make it happen.”

I wasn’t a soldier, or a commander, or a politician. I didn’t have any secret contacts whom I could use to smuggle Gifted out of the Rhonheimer Building. I had just one thing: my job, and that by itself was enough for me do to at least a little good.

“Bluntly put, Kate, I can tell Command that you’re crazy.”

She stood up. “I am not crazy!”

“I know you’re not. Command is on edge about the Gifted after what happened with Mei, though, and if I say that you’re psychologically unstable, they’ll take me very seriously. I can recommend that they send you home to your parents for treatment.”

She sank back into her chair. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Really really?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “There’s just one little obstacle. Command might have you evaluated by another psychologist to confirm what I said. That’s why I need to teach you what to say and do so that the other psychologist thinks you’re unstable. What do you think?”

Maybe this was selfish of me. Maybe I was just trying to alleviate my guilt by saving another Gifted, one of the same age as Mao Mei. Maybe I was even endangering the city by taking away a skilled soldier from its ranks.

But it felt right. Surely there had to be an alternative to our current system.

Kate hugged her satchel tight to her chest. “I want to go home,” she said.

“So you’ll do it?”

“Hmm… Okay.” She smiled. It was the first time I had seen one of the Gifted smile in a long time. I couldn’t help but smile too.

Maybe this would work out after all. If it didn’t… best not to think about that.

“Great,” I said, pulling out some papers I had prepared. “Let’s get started.”

What kind of city uses kids to fight monsters?

Good question. We ought to start asking it again.

_______________

Michael Stevens is a student in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. program. He lives in southern Minnesota, where he enjoys writing stories that explore social psychology and the effects of unusual environments on human society.

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