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Persistence of Vision

 

 

 

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Persistence of Vision

Book 1 of Interchron

 

By Liesel K. Hill

 

Discover more titles by Author Liesel K. Hill on her Author Website or her blog, Musings on Fantasia.

 

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2013 Liesel K. Hill

 

Discover other titles by Liesel K. Hill:

Quantum Entanglement

Dark Remnants

Desolate Mantle

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted material of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

Table of Contents

1. A Void in the Crowd

2. Flash From the Past

3. Breaking Away

4. Hypnotic Eyes

5. The Good Doctor

6. Explanations

7. History

8. More Forgotten Events

9. The Team

10. Creature Comforts

11.Trepidation

12. Trap

13. Brain Power

14. The Deceiver

15. Bad-Guy Hierarchy

16. Karl’s Theories

17. Reunions

18. Explanations

19. A Lonely Way of Speaking

20. Courage to Stand

21. The Question of Memories

22. Wind and Water and Scars

23. Neural Pathways to Light

24. A Light on the Beach

25. The Lighthouse

26. The Strangeness of Roses

27. Hope for Happiness

28. Onto the Island

29. The Problem with a Neurological Sedative

30. The Taste of Blood

31. The Eyes of a Drone

32. The Canyons of Time

33. Meetings and Plans

34. Attractive Forces

35. “The Roses Are in Bloom”

36. Far from Vegas

Chapter 1: A Void in the Crowd

When she first saw him, she thought he must be stoned. Why else would he be staring at a brick wall?

Cursing because she was already late meeting Jonah and the trek was taking so long—she could swear she’d been passing Caesar’s Palace for half an hour—Maggie tried to swallow, but it was like trying to push a golf ball through a pinhole lined with sandpaper. She longed for water—even hot and fetid would do—but the size of the crowds, packed curb to casino and bursting, prevented her from going any faster. Then, up ahead, she caught sight of a man standing perfectly still.

She was headed for him, and a strange, prickling sensation in her stomach had crept up right before she saw him. Maggie told herself that the heat and lack of nourishment was making her hallucinate, but she tried to study the man as she inched along the crowded sidewalk.

August in Vegas meant ungodly temperatures, but somehow this was the peak of the tourist season. Then again, she was here too. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was secured at the nape of her neck, but did little to cool her.

As she moved forward, packed cheek by jowl with hundreds of strangers and praying she didn’t trip—it could mean death by an army of gum-covered shoes—she reminded herself that she was not, in fact, suffocating. Focusing on the motionless man kept her mind off her parched throat. And her looming luncheon.

As she neared where he stood, Maggie saw that a triangular void had opened up around him. The walking tourists made up the sides of the chasm, giving it a bizarre, transitory look. The man stood at the far apex of it. He was tall and dark haired, but that was all she could tell with two hundred tourists in her way.

The sight struck her as odd. The sea of people around her was an ocean unto itself—rolling and pulsating such that trying to stop a single part of it would be like trying to immobilize a single swell of the Pacific; it couldn’t be done. But then there was this man, standing statue-still at the tip of the gap. If Maggie tried to stop like that, she’d be trampled, and that was not overstating the matter. She wondered how he’d managed it.

Suddenly Maggie was in the gap with him. It shouldn’t have surprised her, as she’d been heading right for it, but she was startled to find herself in the space. A moment before, she’d been shoulder to shoulder with twenty strangers. In the natural momentum of the throng, the space should have become occupied. Yet when Maggie reached it, she found herself alone in the vast, triangular void—just her and the stoned guy.

It was as if there was police tape around this particular space—tape she couldn’t see but everyone else could. They walked around it, paying the gap no heed while she pioneered into an alien land, alone and confused.

She’d have thought that a few inches of personal space would help her breathe easier, but it didn’t. She felt more hot and oppressed than ever. And now, she felt…exposed. A moment ago she’d wanted nothing more than to get away from the Vegas throng; now she just wanted to lose herself in the anonymity of the crowd.

Maggie forced herself to move forward. The man was standing marble still, and she was anxious about practically brushing against him as she passed, but she had to in order to leave the gap and rejoin the throng. Finally she came level with the man and put her foot forward to step into the crowd.

Something gripped her arm, anchoring her to the spot. She became aware of breath on her neck—a presence near her. She turned her head slowly, afraid of what she’d find. Her heart pounded in her ears. She couldn’t catch her breath, but she didn’t know why. Trying not to tremble in the thick humidity, she raised her eyes.

He was staring at her, his face inches from hers. It was not at all what she expected. Whatever this man was, he was not stoned. His eyes were a strange color. Hazel, she supposed, but so hazel that they looked almost…amber. His pupils were golden with large flecks of green, brown, and blue. A scar shaped like an upside-down question mark covered the left side of his face, the round part making a semi-circle over his cheek, the straight part reaching from half an inch below his eyelashes to above his eyebrow.

From the side he looked lean, but being beside him, she was surprised to see how broad his shoulders were—how deeply muscled his arms. His hand gripped her so firmly that she knew she would be unable to get away unless he released her. He was not hurting her, though.

He stood there, looking into her eyes for long seconds, his expression a mixture of intensity and sadness. She felt like he was seeing into the depths of her soul. Her heart pounded, and then, for some reason, her eyes watered.

Suddenly Maggie thought she recognized him. Where a moment ago she had been sure he was a stranger, she was now certain she’d seen him before. She ran through reams of memories. A high school classmate? An ex-boyfriend? No, she would remember that. She couldn’t think of when they’d met and then was confident again that they never had. Perhaps it was déjà vu or just a mistake. But she felt a stirring deep in the pit of her stomach. Chills vibrated up and down her spine, but she had no idea why or what the source was.

As she gazed up at him, his brow furrowed; then his face crumpled completely.

His mouth opened, and his lips moved, but no sound came out. He was mouthing her name, silently screaming it.

Maggie!

Maggie’s breath caught. How did he know her name?

He winced, shutting his eyes, and the act of reopening them released a single tear down his cheek.

Shaking herself, Maggie got her bearings enough to jerk her arm away. When she did, she nearly fell, for he immediately let go, and her own momentum nearly knocked her over.

She tore her gaze from his and took a purposeful stride out of the unnatural aperture and into the crowd. Suddenly, she felt forlorn.

She was being idiotic; this was just a bizarre encounter with a man she’d never met. Maybe he was stoned after all. She had just imagined the rest. That was it. Yes, perhaps she was lucky to have escaped with her life. The street was so busy he might have kidnapped her, mugged her, or done any number of other things, and no one would have noticed. Taking a deep breath, she tried to clear her head as she once again forced her feet to match the momentum of the throng.

Then something occurred to her. The strange man had grabbed her arm, kept her there, and looked at her in an intimate manner, but she had not thought to call out for help. But then, she had not felt fear. She’d felt almost…protected. She shrugged uncomfortably at the thought.

The entire interaction had been surreal. It had only taken sixty seconds, but when she’d entered the gap, everything slowed down. It felt like longer than a minute.

Holding tight to her purse and her phone, she used the natural momentum of her stride to swing around and walk backward.

The amber-eyed stranger was still staring at her in a most…familiar way. By now there were hundreds of people between them. From this far away, his hooded eyes looked red, and she thought she saw…no, she must be mistaken. Were those more tears sliding down his cheeks? Perhaps it was just sweat, or the heat was making her imagine things.

A moment later with the sweep of the crowd, he was gone.

***

After what seemed like hours, Maggie reached the little bar. Jonah was leaning against the side of the squat building, looking down the street for her. Not until she was almost in front of him did he actually see her, so thick was the foot traffic.

“Hey, Maggs.” He straightened. “There you are.”

“I told you it would take a while.”

“Well, you’re here now.” He reached out and took her hand. “Vicki’s waiting. Let’s go.”

Maggie groaned, and Jonah turned back toward her, arching an eyebrow.

“Hey. You promised you’d be nice.”

“I have nothing against your girlfriend, Jonah, but as your sister I call dibs on your mercy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m gonna pass out if I don’t get to sit for five minutes.” She nodded toward the bar. “Could we grab a drink?”

Jonah looked doubtful then glanced back the way he’d come.

“Vicki isn’t going anywhere, and we won’t get a table in the restaurant for a while, right? Please?”

He smiled. “I never could say no to those puppy-dog eyes.” Taking her hand, Jonah led her toward the door.

The bar was crowded, but they walked in at the right time just as three stools opened up. They took two of them and ordered mixed drinks. As the bar tender disappeared down the counter, Maggie swiveled around on her stool to look over the room. She found herself wondering about the people in it. Every person in Vegas was there for a different reason. Maggie’s was boring. She wondered if anyone else’s was better.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Jonah called.

The crowd was speaking in normal voices, but a crowd this large meant Jonah had to shout to be heard. He’d turned to survey the room as well. Just then their drinks arrived.

“How was the Luxor exhibit?”

“Great.”

“What?”

“Great!”

Jonah grinned at her, and they didn’t talk anymore. They could catch up in the quiet of the restaurant when they’d finished here.

Sipping her drink, Maggie let her head fall back, savoring the calming of her adrenaline and the chance to be off her feet, along with the comforting feeling of her big brother beside her.

She tried not to think about the long walk to the restaurant or making small talk with Vicki or…

Maggie was gasping, clawing for the surface. She couldn’t breathe. Everything was blackness.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. Two large hands covering hers. A hand with an ugly black burn on the back. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. What was he saying? Gasping, clawing for air.

But she was breathing, so she wasn’t drowning, but still clawing, trying to get out of something or away from something. Or someone. With a final gasp, she clawed her way to consciousness.

Her eyes shot open. There was a white wall in front of her, and she couldn’t move her body. It was like she wasn’t entirely awake: she was totally aware but couldn’t move a muscle. It wouldn’t be so terrifying if she could remember anything before this moment. Where was she? How had she gotten here?

Her heart pounded in her chest so hard it was painful. It was unnatural for her pulse to be going that fast when she had just been unconscious. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and her throat was raw.

Feeling gradually returned to her body. When she could turn her head, she looked to the right. She was in a hotel room, one she didn’t recognize. It certainly wasn’t hers. Hers had grey curtains, and these were a deep, velvet red.

She was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed. The wall she’d seen upon waking was actually the ceiling.

She sat up slowly, fighting a terrifying sense of vertigo all the way, and looked around. Her feet were pointed toward a window where the drapes were partially closed. It was dark outside. A single bedside lamp lit the sparsely furnished room. It might have been cozy if it weren’t so…creepy. Putting a hand to her forehead, which was pounding almost as painfully as her chest, she tried to remember.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. Two large hands covering hers. A hand with an ugly black burn on it. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. Gasping, clawing for air.

Were those memories or just dreams? She couldn’t tell. Whatever those flashes meant, a sickening feeling flooded through her when she thought of them. They meant something dreadful, something harmful.

Jonah! Where was Jonah? Swiveling her head around, which she instantly regretted, she saw him. He was lying on the ground parallel to her.

His eyes were wide open. She wanted to scream, sure he was dead, but didn’t have control of her vocal chords. Then she saw his chest moving. Relief flooded her. When she summoned the strength to toss a lead-filled hand to his neck, his pulse was racing faster than hers.

Not knowing what it meant but afraid that such unnatural cardiovascular activity meant a medical crisis, she looked for a phone. There was one up on the desk. Dragging her body up beside the bed, she fumbled for the receiver and clumsily dialed 911.

*** 

Maggie sat in a small room in some precinct of the LVPD. She had no idea what the station number was or even what part of the city they were in.

The police responded promptly but had been unable to wake Jonah. The medic leaning over his gurney on the drive to the hospital smacked his head on the ceiling and cursed when Jonah suddenly sat up.

They had been checked at the emergency room for injuries, including sexual assault. There was no sign of abuse. All their credit cards, cash, IDs, and other important items were intact. As far as anyone could tell, neither Maggie nor Jonah had been robbed or assaulted.

Maggie heard the doctor quietly asking the nurse to run a tox screen on both her and Jonah. Maggie was officially offended, but she supposed it made sense. Their questions about what substances the siblings had recently consumed weren’t particularly subtle either, but Maggie was too shaken to be indignant.

The examinations did yield some strange things. On the back of Maggie’s left hand, three straight lines reached from the base of her index finger down toward her thumb, as though a miniature Wolverine had dragged three tiny knives over her hand, leaving a two-inch scratch. Maggie didn’t have that mark before she blacked out; she was sure of it. The strange thing was that it was not a red mark or scabbed over blood. It was white scar tissue.

Jonah found something similar. Apparently there was a line, paper-thin in width, but almost eight inches long on his inner thigh. It was a disturbing mark, but he said it didn’t hurt. If the doctor hadn’t asked about it, Jonah wouldn’t even have noticed it.

Like Maggie’s, it looked like an old injury. Maggie didn’t want to think about what kind of injury would leave a mark like that on Jonah’s leg. How could either of them have injuries they didn’t remember that were more than a few hours old?

After getting the okay from the doctors, they were sent to the police station where they waited to speak to a detective. They’d been over what they knew several times, trying to make the pieces fit. Neither of them remembered anything after being in the bar. Maggie asked careful questions, but from what she could tell, Jonah had not experienced the same flashes she had. She did not mention them to him.

They’d lost twelve hours.

It had been between 12:30 and 1:00 in the afternoon when they got to the bar. Maggie had placed the call to 911 at 1:32 a.m. the next morning. Twelve hours of their lives unaccounted for.

Maggie felt violated. What if something terrible had happened and she didn’t even remember? Even Jonah had a haunted look about him. That scared her most of all; nothing ever bothered Jonah.

After hours of waiting under the lights in what could only be described as an interrogation room from the twenties, the door opened to admit the detective. The noise startled Maggie, and she jumped.

The detective put his hands up in a calming gesture. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He was middle-aged with streaks of gray in his thinning hair and thick mustache. His smile was compassionate.

“We’ve put a freeze on all your accounts, but no one has tried to use them. Your tox reports came back negative, and the doctors tell us there is no evidence of physical or sexual assault. What that amounts to…is that we have no idea.”

Maggie’s heart fell. “What?”

“I’m sorry. We can’t find anything that would have caused this. It’s not a known drug, not a reaction to food or drink, not the cause of an obvious injury. There’s simply nothing.”

“It wasn’t food or drink?” Jonah asked. He was sounding more like himself again, confident and able.

“Not that we can tell.”

“But it must’ve been the drinks.”

The detective leaned forward. “How do you mean, Mr. Harper?”

“We made an idiotic, tourist mistake. We both ordered mixed drinks but didn’t watch them be mixed. The bartender could easily have slipped something into them. I was sure that was it.”

The detective leaned back, looking disappointed. “Of course we’ll fully investigate the bar and its owner, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you.”

“Why in the world not?” Maggie burst out. The drinks. Of course! She hadn’t thought of that, but Jonah was right. It must have been the drinks.

“Because”—the detective’s gaze fell on her—“tourist traps often can’t be traced. The two of you ought to count yourselves lucky that the side effects aren’t worse.”

“So that’s it?” Jonah asked after another brief silence. “You have no idea, not even any theories, and we’re just supposed to go on our merry way and act like nothing happened?”

The detective held up his hands in a calming gesture. “Please, try to understand. We do have theories but no evidence. I know it feels violating to you, but we’ve done about all we can do here.”

Maggie had a sinking feeling that she and Jonah might never know what had happened.

“Thank you,” Jonah murmured, “I appreciate the truth.” He sounded far away again, and Maggie wanted to cry.

“I know you’ve both given your statements already”—the detective shuffled through his papers—“but I must ask. Is there anything else you remember? Even the smallest thing might be significant.”

Jonah shook his head. Maggie thought about the flashes. They were fading. As time passed she was more and more certain they were just dreams. They were just fragments really and would be of no help. She opted not to mention them. They would do the detective no good. She’d seen nothing coherent, and the guy needed hard evidence, not delusional images.

“Well then.” The detective stood, and Maggie and Jonah followed suit. “Why don’t the two of you get some sleep before heading home? I’ll be in touch, and if you remember anything at all, please don’t hesitate.”

Chapter 2: Flash From the Past

One Year Later

Maggie awoke with a start. The sun was streaming through her bedroom window and onto her face. She told herself firmly that it was the sunlight that had awakened her and not unpleasant dreams. As she sat up, her dreams faded beyond memory.

As long as she couldn’t remember, it couldn’t bother her. Swinging her feet over the side of the bed, she stretched. Glancing at her bedside clock, she found that it was nearly eight. A bit earlier than she had planned to rise on her day off, but as long as she was awake, she might as well get up.

Pushing aside the voice that said the real reason she didn’t want to sleep more was because she was afraid of her dreams, Maggie stood, put on a robe, and went downstairs. She decided that she would make some hot chocolate and watch the sun rise.

Just as the detective predicted, nothing turned up. A full investigation into the bar revealed that the owners were clean and the establishment honest. It could only be the individual worker, and he or she had covered their tracks.

Of course, that was assuming it was the drinks that had put them out. Perhaps it wasn’t, though neither Maggie nor Jonah had been able to think of what else it could have been.

Neither of them had suffered any perceivable ill effects—perceivable being the key word there—but Maggie couldn’t get over it. She ran everything she remembered over and over in her head, trying to come up with answers.

Since leaving Vegas, the flashes had returned again and again.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. A hand with an ugly back burn on the back. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. Gasping, clawing for air.

For weeks she woke up sweating, her heart racing, fear ringing through her core. The flashes never faded, though. Each time she dreamed them was as vivid as the last.

Each time she saw the images, the impression became stronger that she was trying to tell herself something. Something had happened to her and Jonah, and those flashes were connected to it in some way.

Eventually she stopped being afraid of what she saw. The flashes became her companions. As long as she had them, she felt like she had some hope of one day figuring it all out, of finding out what had really happened to her.

Five months after the incident, Maggie got up the courage to tell Jonah about the flashes. He had been angry with her.

“But it’s not like it was evidence, Jonah! They were just flashes, completely incoherent hallucinations.”

“How do you know that?” he’d challenged. “They might have been memories.”

Maggie had frowned. She’d never considered the possibility that they’d been more than fever dreams. “Do you think I ought to call Detective Jones?” she asked.

Jonah sighed and dropped his face into his hands. When he looked back up, his eyes were haggard. “Do what you want, Maggs, but do it now and move on. I don’t want to keep dredging this up.”

He’d walked away, leaving Maggie feeling hurt. It was the only bitter conversation they’d ever had. She went home and cried herself to sleep.

It was more than just the dreams, though. Maggie felt an overwhelming sense of loss. At first, she thought it was just the feeling of violation, of being victimized, but as time went on, she realized that it was something else. She could not shake the feeling that she had lost something, some major, vital part of who she was.

And she didn’t even know what it was.

That was the most frustrating part: to feel she’d lost something she yearned to have back so much that it hurt and not be able to define it. Whatever happened in Vegas, it was more than just passing out from some tourist trap. Much more.

Still, Jonah had the right of it. Maggie had dreamed the flashes so many times; they were forever seared into her memory. Perhaps she’d never know what happened, but making herself ill over it was not doing any good. She needed to live her life.

Since making that decision, things had been easier.

It was twelve months to the day since the time loss had occurred, and today was Maggie’s day off. It was Friday, and her catering business would be slow. One of the great things about being the boss was that you could take time off whenever you wanted.

After sipping her hot chocolate and watching the sunrise for half an hour, Maggie decided to do her errands first. She had a whole list of things, but if she did all of them this morning, she could have the afternoon to herself. Mentally, she ran through her list as she washed out her cup and placed it in the dishwasher: order some supplies for the business—see, she’d be working a little bit—pick up some things for the party tonight (Michaela had given her a list); go get her nails done; fill up the tank, as the price of gas had gone down several cents in the past few days, and they were predicting it would be back up by Sunday; groceries; dry cleaning…

***

Maggie returned home roughly three hours after leaving for the supermarket.

Had she closed the blinds last night? She hadn’t done it before leaving this morning. Shrugging, she redoubled her efforts to get the door open.

She heard the door close behind her as she lowered the bag to the couch but thought nothing of it. Just the breeze pulling it shut.

Then she saw it. The front of the house faced east, and the sun had not yet reached its zenith. Even with the blinds closed, muted light coming in around their edges cast a pale shadow onto the wall above the couch. She could see another shadow beside hers coming up from behind.

Spinning on the ball of her foot, she had no time to react to the huge man striding toward her. He fashioned his hand into a long, hard chopping tool. Fingers straight out but held together, he swept his hand in a large, controlled arc and hit her in the throat.

It felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She couldn’t scream; she couldn’t speak; she couldn’t breathe. Collapsing onto the couch, Maggie struggled to draw a breath of relief. She couldn’t. Panic sprouted within her.

Then fingers clinched around her neck. The man picked her up by the throat and slammed her into the wall beside the couch. Her face was an inch above his so that he was looking slightly up at her, but he was a good deal taller than she, and her feet dangled above the floor.

The man’s grip tightened around her neck. Then, for no discernable reason, he froze, eyebrows narrowing.

“Is it you?” His voice was harsh, as though he couldn’t clear his throat.

He had chin-length, greasy brown hair and white, sallow skin. A spider’s web was tattooed over his left eye, which held no emotion at all. His eyes were so dead she couldn’t discern their color.

Still holding her against the wall, the man turned to glance at the windows, as though someone might be spying through the closed blinds. His hair was shaved short in the back—it was only long on the sides—and on the back of his neck just below the hairline was an angry, red puncture mark. In his right ear he wore an earring with an X on it and a dot in the space directly below the X. She’d seen that symbol before but wasn’t sure where.

Maggie still couldn’t breathe. Darkness was stealing in from the corners of her vision. So this was it. This man, who had somehow entered her home, was going to kill her. She didn’t even know why or who he was. He seemed content to keep the pressure on her throat until she passed out—or died out. Her limbs felt heavy. Her vision was going. Everything seemed dim.

As she succumbed to the claustrophobic darkness, another man entered the room. There was something familiar about him. He started screaming something, but she couldn’t hear him. Perhaps her hearing was going along with her vision. But she could see his mouth. He was saying her name.

Then it hit her. Vegas. Just before she and Jonah lost time, she had seen that man. She had rarely thought of him since, but it had been such a bizarre encounter that his face had remained clearly etched in her memory. It didn’t matter now, though. The dimness turned to opaqueness, and awareness went with it. Then there was only darkness.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. A hand with a black burn on it. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands—were they her hands? A whisper of a voice. She could never quite make out his words.

Vegas. The spider web tattoo. A man in her house. A man in her house!

Maggie’s eyes snapped open. Awareness crashed in, and she lunged into a sitting position, gulping air. She was on the floor beside the couch. Her groceries were still situated on it. The man—not Spider Web Tat but Creepy Vegas Guy—was leaning over her.

She stared at him, wild-eyed and chest heaving, gulping air through a spontaneously healed throat.

He sat back in a crouch, but his eyes never left her. It was definitely him. There was no mistaking those strange amber eyes or the oddly shaped scar.

Not knowing what else to do under his direct stare, she decided to test her voice. “I was sure he crushed my trachea.”

His voice was solid and calm. “He did.”

A chill ran down her spine. Then her eyes saw past him to the lifeless body of Spider Web Tat. Maggie’s eyes slid warily back to the man crouching next to her. Creepy Vegas Guy might have just saved her life but that didn’t make him safe to be around.

As though reading her thoughts, the man smiled then extended his hand. “I’m Marcus. How are you, Maggie?”

Chapter 3: Breaking Away

She glanced warily at his outstretched hand but didn’t take it. After a moment, it dropped. Silence stretched between them, and she realized he was waiting for her to speak.

“Who are you?”

“That’s a long story. We don’t have time to go over all of it. This man shouldn’t be here. The fact that he is—that he got here first—means we should move quickly. I need you to trust—”

“I saw you in Vegas. Are you the reason my brother and I lost time?”

His eyes narrowed. “You saw me in Vegas? What…” He searched her face, as though the explanation should be written there. “What do you mean?”

“Oh come on. You must remember. You grabbed my arm and looked at me like you knew me. Are you telling me it’s a coincidence that half an hour later my brother and I blacked out and lost twelve hours of our lives?”

Until the words were out of her mouth, Maggie never considered that her encounter with him and her time loss might be related.

He was silent for a long time, and she looked away from his penetrating gaze.

Finally, he spoke. His voice was soft, controlled. “Of course I remember, Maggie. But you shouldn’t.”

Her head snapped up. “What?”

“Tell me everything you remember about Vegas. Specifically, what you remember about me.”

Maggie threw up her hands. Why was he suddenly the one asking the questions? “Who are you?”

He heaved a sigh. His eyes wandered briefly around the room, resting on the dead man. It seemed to jolt him back to his original purpose.

“My name is Marcus, Maggie.”

She opened her mouth to shout again, but he raised his hands.

“I can’t tell you much more than that right now. We have to go. It’s not safe here. I know you have no idea who I am, but I need you to trust me. I need you to come with me.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you explain yourself. And him.” She nodded toward the dead man.

“Don’t be stubborn, Maggie—”

“Then don’t be ludicrous! You come into my house a year after doing heaven-knows-what to me and my brother in Vegas. You kill a man in my parlor, and now you think I’ll go with you? I have no reason to trust you. I’m calling the police.”

She swung around onto her knees. Before she could pull herself to her feet, he grabbed her wrist and yanked her upward. His face was inches from hers, as it had been in Vegas, and she could feel his hot breath on her forehead. His unmistakable eyes—a rainbow of hazel—held anger. His vice-like grip said he wasn’t planning on letting go.

“You dated a man named Jared several years ago, almost married him. When he dumped you, he took things you had told him—personal things you’d never told anyone else—and threw them in your face. He tore you to shreds emotionally. Since then, you haven’t had any serious relationships. You find ways to sabotage them, because you’re afraid of being hurt that deeply again.”

Maggie’s lower jaw slowly cranked away from her upper one as he spoke, her eyes widening in sync with her mouth. When he finished, she snapped her mouth shut, blinking rapidly.

“How do you know that? What are you, stalking me or something?”

He smiled at her. It seemed genuine.

“Even a stalker couldn’t have that kind of insight into your soul. I know because you told me.”

“I did not—”

He raised a hand. “I know you don’t remember telling me, but you did. If you’ve never told anyone, how else could I know? You said you had no reason to trust me. Consider this reason: in another place, another lifetime, you knew and trusted me enough to tell me your darkest secrets. Trust me now.”

When she didn’t reply, he went on, his eyes begging her. “Is there any other explanation for me knowing that?”

She had no answer. She’d never admitted what he’d said, not even to herself. She’d never fully formed the thoughts. Yet, he was right. That was exactly what had happened and what she had been doing since. How could he know that about her?

“Maggie, if you can’t trust me, I understand. But trust yourself, even if it’s another self you can’t remember. More men like this one are coming soon. I need to get you somewhere safe.”

Maggie looked at Marcus then at the dead man on the floor. He had saved her life and healed a serious injury. She took a deep breath and asked herself how she felt.

She reached over and took her purse from the couch. Ever since Vegas she’d carried a small .25 caliber handgun. If he tried anything, she would be able to defend herself. Against her better judgment, she nodded.

“All right.”

***

It was an Instant. A single, inappreciable moment in time. He didn’t understand its significance as it came and went, but he would reflect upon it with near constancy for the rest of his life.

The Others had been with him for so long that he no longer knew what it was like to be without them. In that moment, he pulled away. He walled his mind off from theirs and became Alone.

It was like putting his feet on the side of a swimming pool and using his own weight and momentum to push off, muscling through the water as hard as he could, trying to get as much distance as possible. In his case, the water was cement that was drying too quickly. The pushing was excruciating, and the more distance he got, the more it hurt.

After what seemed a thousand years, the pain became numbness… Then the loneliness set in. To be so Alone in the darkness, to hear nothing, except one’s own thoughts…

The terror that crashed in to fill his chest was consuming.

He curled his body into a fetal position, wrapping his long arms around his head, and screamed silently. He screamed in his heart and in his soul and in his mind…but his voice made no utterance.

He crawled through the grass. He couldn’t raise his belly from the ground, so he had to use his arms to drag himself along.

Strangely, despite the loneliness and horror of his choice, he never reconsidered. He was a revolutionary unto himself, and there was no going back. Not now, not ever. He’d known that in the Instant he made the choice, but that seemed so long ago now. He’d had the others with him only minutes before, but it seemed a lifetime had passed.

The farther he got from the encampment, the more physical strength he found. Soon he was able to get up onto his knees and crawl. He didn’t know if anyone who found him would act unfavorably, but he didn’t know that they wouldn’t either. He had to get away.

He could feel them, pushing at the edges of his consciousness, trying to get back in. His body was weak, but his mind was not. He kept them out. He just didn’t know if they would be able to follow their sense of his mind to where he was physically. The farther he got, the longer he was Alone, the harder they pushed, slamming themselves against the barrier he’d put up around his mind, trying to get in. He succeeded in keeping them out. It was the first time in his life he’d known success against them, but then, it was the first time he’d wanted to.

When he crossed the Boundary, all sense of them left. He could no longer feel them trying to get in. He knew they could no longer feel him. He collapsed, gasping for air.

Hours passed before he could haul himself up and roll over onto his back. Another eternity before he could get to his knees and then to his feet.

The sky was dark, the landscape before him barren. He was Alone. He had heard of others who lived Alone. How could they stand it?

He was going to have to figure it out. The encampment was behind him—a part of his past he could never repossess.

He shivered. Then something strange happened. His vision blurred, and moisture bubbled up from inside his eyes. It spilled over onto his cheeks. He wiped at the moisture with his fingers and stared at it in puzzlement. What was this? This had never happened to him before. It didn’t hurt, so he decided it was a mystery for later.

Strange, to come to a conclusion on one’s own without anyone else’s input.

Unsure what to do next, he looked toward the horizon again and blinked. Was that color in the far sky above the mountains? The firmament was turning the barest shade of pink. His ordeal had taken the entire night. Now the sun was coming up. And it was… He had no words for what it was.

He had seen many sunrises in his lifetime but had never noticed them before. Now he was mesmerized by the color, the progressive change, the rays of light stretching over the landscape, the sheer majesty of it all. Why had the sunrise never affected him so before? He had no answer, but the moisture flowed freely from his eyes.

He had the sense that the beauty of the sunrise and the moisture in his eyes were connected, but he couldn’t explain it.

Still mystified, he knew he had to go. He had no idea how far he’d have to walk to find sustenance, and he was still close enough to the encampment to be wary of danger.

He cast a final glance over his shoulder. It wasn’t regret—not really. It was the bittersweet realization that accompanies all necessary change. He’d made a decision—all on his own—and he had to live with it.

Chapter 4: Hypnotic Eyes

Maggie wanted to sigh with exhaustion but didn’t have time. It must have been four hours since she and Marcus left her house. He’d set the pace and kept a firm hold on her hand, not allowing her to fall behind.

They’d headed east. Maggie lived close to the foot of the mountain. As they headed for the passes and civilization became scarcer, Maggie became nervous. They were still in an area she knew well—she often hiked here—but how long would that last? The sun was not setting yet but would be soon, and Marcus showed no signs of stopping.

The incline steepened as they headed into the hills, and the air got thinner. Maggie kept reassuring herself with thoughts of the gun, but she had no opportunity to get to it. Even when the gradient was practically vertical, Marcus climbed with one hand and kept hold of her with the other.

When they reached more level ground—high enough that she could see the entire valley, including the rooftops of her neighborhood—Maggie jerked her arm away from him. He turned in surprise.

“Something wrong?”

“Where are you taking me?”

He sighed. She was learning that he did that when he didn’t want to answer a question.

“I told you—”

“You told me nothing. You said we were in danger at my house. Given the dead guy in the kitchen, I believed you, but we aren’t there anymore. I’m not going any farther until you explain.” She crossed her arms and stuck her jaw out.

Marcus glanced away, looking annoyed. “We aren’t safe here, Maggie. We’re probably being followed.” He stepped toward her. “I need to take you somewhere. I know we’ve been going a long time, but it’s not much farther.”

“Where?”

His hand dropped. “My team is waiting for us. Where they are is safe.” He glanced around, as if looking for a way to convince her. “I’m not very good at explaining things, Maggie. I don’t have a way with words as you do.”

Maggie shrugged uncomfortably. She did have a way with words, but it bugged her that he knew that.

“Anything I say is going to sound insane or just scare you. Please trust me a little further. When we get there, we’ll explain everything to you. I promise.”

Maggie fought with herself. If she explained this situation to anyone else—her mother, any of her girlfriends, Jonah—they’d tell her to run screaming away from Marcus. And rightly so. Yet in this moment, she found herself wanting to take his hand.

Behind Marcus two men emerged from a stand of trees. Maggie assumed they were hikers or campers and contemplated calling to them for help. Then she looked more carefully. Both of them sported the same awful haircut as the man who’d attacked her that morning, as well as the spider web tattoo over their eyes.

The two men spotted Maggie and Marcus, and their faces did not make Maggie want to have tea with them.

“Marcus!”

Marcus’s head whipped around. When he turned back, there was no fear in his face, only urgency.

He reached out and snatched her hand. “Maggie, run.”

She tried to nod, but he was already dragging her along behind him. He forsook the level path all together and clawed his way up the face of the mountain. After a few minutes, Maggie pulled her hand away.

“Let go. We’ll go faster.”

He didn’t complain, and she managed to stay with him for a while.

Forty feet above the path they’d left was another level dirt road. Maggie thought it might be the same one, and it simply wound higher and higher. It seemed to be what Marcus was aiming for.

Climbing straight up became wearing, and Marcus got ahead of Maggie before they reached the higher road. He pulled himself up onto the level earth then turned and grabbed her arm, pulling her up. Her shoulders and torso made it up, and she was about to throw one leg onto the road and hoist herself the rest of the way when something closed around her ankle.

It was a hand, a strong one, and it was going to pull her off the side of the mountain. She envisioned being thrown away from the face of the incline and bouncing down several hundred feet. Death would be merciful if that happened.

She grabbed a deep-seated root for anchorage. It didn’t help. The hand yanked her ankle down, and all the root did was give her something akin to a carpet burn as it pulled through her hand. If not for Marcus’s grip on her forearm, she would have gone over the precipice.

She gave up on the root and grasped his arm with both of hers, holding on for dear life. Marcus pulled something from his coat and leaned out over the drop-off. She couldn’t see what he had.

Suddenly Maggie felt…bleary. She smelled burning flesh; then her ears were ringing. A white-hot pincer was drilling into her skull. She tried to scream, but the pain was too intense. Unable to hold onto Marcus anymore, she put both hands to her head, but the sensation didn’t stop—if anything, it increased.

The world rang louder and louder. The pain grew so intense that her arms shook. Her throat was hoarse from trying to scream. She wished for oblivion.

Then the hand fell away from her ankle. The sensation, which had come on gradually, was gone so suddenly it took her breath away.

Marcus pulled her up onto the dirt road. She was panting. When her shoulders and torso were up, he grabbed the belt loops of her jeans and hauled her up the rest of the way. She lay down in the dirt, trembling and gasping.

After a moment, Marcus leaned over her. He put his hands on either side of her face and looked intently into her eyes. She was still too overcome by the experience to stop him or even wonder what he was doing.

He was looking at her but not seeing her. He gazed down, but his eyes were out of focus. Those eyes of his—amber with colorful flecks—were so strange and hypnotic… As he stared down at her, she felt better. Her nerves calmed, and her energy returned.

After a moment, his eyes focused again. He was looking at her now, and she was very aware that she was lying on the ground on her back with him nearly on top of her. He was lying alongside her, but his body was right up against hers, and with him leaning over her and holding her face in his hands, it felt…intimate.

She shrugged uncomfortably, and he dropped his hands from her face, resting them in fists on the ground on either side of her head.

“You okay?” he asked.

She nodded, unable to find her voice.

He hesitated another moment before pushing himself up and taking her hands. “Take it easy,” he said, gently pulling her into a sitting position. He watched her warily, as though she might explode at any moment. “Any headaches?”

She shook her head. “What just happened?”

“He grabbed your ankle, tried to hurt you.”

She glanced at his hands, but they were empty. If he had a weapon, he’d already put it away.

“How are you, Maggie? Are you sure you feel all right?”

She didn’t want to tell him how shaken she was. Instead she crawled to the edge of the cliff and looked down. She could see both men on the road below them, lying on their backs. They were stirring.

“You didn’t kill them.”

He joined her. “No. Only stunned them. If nothing’s broken, they’ll pursue us again. We have to keep moving.”

He pulled her to her feet, chose a direction, and they jogged along the dirt path. Maggie didn’t protest. She was too shaken to do anything but allow herself to be led.

She didn’t know who those men were, but she knew they were evil. She could feel that. She didn’t know anything about Marcus either, but something told her that he was the safer of the two choices.

***

Twenty minutes later they were still jogging. When the path wound upward again, they left it, forging their own path through virgin woods. Maggie kept thinking she heard footsteps behind them, but her nerves were so frazzled that she knew she could be imagining it. Marcus made no sign that he’d heard anything, but every time she heard a noise, his pace quickened.

They came to a massive clearing. Maggie was vaguely reminded of a football field; only there wasn’t as much color. Or any hot guys in football gear.

A loud crunch came from behind them, and both Maggie and Marcus whipped around. The two men from before were standing not ten feet from them. The taller of the two glared at Marcus with a hateful, unforgiving stare; then his eyes shifted to Maggie. His mouth slid into a greasy grin, revealing crooked, yellow teeth.

“It is you.” His whisper was guttural enough to send a chill down Maggie’s spine.

This wasn’t the same man who attacked her in the parlor. How did he know what that man had said to her?

Marcus took her shoulders and turned her to face him.

“Maggie, there’s a huge boulder across the clearing. I want you to run toward it. I’ll be right behind you.”

“A rock? How is that going to save us?”

Marcus put his hand on the back of Maggie’s neck and pulled her face close to his. His fingers dug into the skin at the nape, though not painfully.

“Maggie, these are not decent men. Don’t let them touch you. Understand?”

Maggie nodded. The two men were talking to one another, but she couldn’t tell what they were saying.

Ready, Marcus mouthed.

She nodded.

“Go!”

She took off as fast as her legs could carry her. She’d never been a great runner, but she’d never had the motivation of raw fear before. As soon as she turned, she saw the boulder. It would be taller than her when she reached it and at least twelve feet in width. She wondered how a boulder would help them. Perhaps Marcus had guns hidden behind it? Or a car?

She still had her gun in her purse. When she reached the boulder, she would pull it out—to defend Marcus, if nothing else.

When she was halfway across the clearing, Maggie suddenly felt as if she were running in slow motion, pushing through jell-o instead of air. It was like a nightmare where she was being chased and her pursuers were running at normal speed, while she floundered at a snail’s pace.

Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie could see a dark, towering figure coming toward her, but whether to meet her or catch her, she couldn’t say. She tried to turn her head to see the figure more fully, but it was like trying to push her face through rock; it just wouldn’t turn that way.

Then an arm was wrapped tightly around her waist, and she couldn’t breathe. Or see. The meadow, the boulder, the mountain…it all fell away into opaqueness.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. A hand with an ugly black burn on it. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. Gasping, clawing for air.

With a painful inhalation of breath, Maggie opened her eyes and kicked viciously away from whoever had her. She was lying on the ground in the arms of a stranger she couldn’t see. She half rolled, half dragged, half clawed away before realizing it was Marcus.

He didn’t try to stop her. Rivulets of sweat were rolling down his face, and he was panting.

Maggie looked around. They were in the same place—the meadow on the mountain—but it was…different. Where the day had been bright and sunny, it was now dark and ominous. The sun had gone down when Maggie blinked, but it was more than that. Dark-gray clouds covered the sky all the way to the horizon.

Maggie swiveled around to see the boulder. At first she thought it was not there. Then she realized it was, but it was no longer one big boulder. It was in pieces. It looked like it had been struck by lightning and shattered.

A rock formation.

Maggie put a hand to her forehead. The flashes. One of them was a rock formation. Now, standing ten feet in front of the shattered boulder, under an overcast sky, she was seeing that formation.

So Jonah was right; they were memories. She’d been here before, and ever since Vegas she’d kept seeing this very spot, this very formation.

In her flash it was different, though. For some reason, she’d never realized before that there were people sitting on top of it. It was dark in the memory, and the people were merely darker silhouettes that blended in with the night. A light that struck Maggie as artificial illuminated them, and their eyes glowed when it hit them.

“You all right, Maggie?”

Maggie yelped and scrambled toward Marcus, for he was not the one who had asked her. Whirling around, Maggie came face to face with an enormous black man. His eyes were blue, which was striking in an African American, and he looked at her with concern.

The tall, dark figure who’d been running toward her before must have been him.

His eyes slid sideways to Marcus, who got to his feet.

“Maggie, this is Karl.”

Maggie didn’t know what to say. Karl was four times her size—simply gargantuan—and she knew nothing more about him than she did about Marcus.

When she didn’t answer, Karl addressed Marcus. “Mission accomplished?”

“Yes, but with more questions than answers,” Marcus said.

Karl let out a soft, rumbling chuckle. “Naturally.”

Maggie got to her feet. The earth felt different. The air smelled unusual. The wind felt strange. Marcus came up beside her. He peered down at her in that disconcerting way again, as though seeing into her thoughts.

“What just happened?”

“Everything’s all right now, Maggie. We have some time. I’ll explain everything.”

“Marcus, I swear if you say that to me one more time—”

He surprised her by laughing. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what this must be like for you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “We just need to get over to that rock.”

Maggie dropped her head back in exasperation. “Why?”

“Because that’s where the rest of our team is.”

“What, like, inside the rock?”

His eyebrows went up, and his smile widened. “Precisely.”

Chapter 5: The Good Doctor

Marcus held out his hand, and against her better judgment, Maggie took it. He led her to the shattered boulder with Karl trailing behind. Walking to the opposite side of it, he let go of her hand and knelt in the grass. His hand disappeared under a steering wheel-sized rock, and she heard high-pitched tones, like the dials of a cell phone.

A square of sod to the left of where they stood caved in several inches then slid out of view. Beneath it Maggie glimpsed a granite staircase leading into the depths of the mountain.

A slender figure emerged from the hole, rising by quantum degrees from the earth.

Despite the gray light of…whatever time of day this was, Maggie could tell the woman was Caucasian with dark hair. She looked steadily at Marcus with hooded eyes.

“What time is it?” The woman’s voice was steady and resonating.

“It is late,” Marcus answered.

“Too late?”

“It is never too late.”

The woman’s face softened into a smile. She held out her hand, which Marcus took, smiling.

“Lila. Everything quiet tonight?”

“Yup, how about you? Mission uneventful?”

“Not exactly.”

The woman called Lila looked alarmed. “What do you mean?”

Marcus waved her off. “Not to worry. Everyone’s fine.” He turned and pulled Maggie up to stand beside him.

“Maggie.” Lila stepped toward her, and for a moment, Maggie thought the young woman would hug her.

Marcus grabbed Lila’s arm. “Lila,” he said quietly.

Lila froze, her smile fading. She looked down at the ground. “Sorry,” she said, matching Marcus’s quiet tone. “I forgot.”

Marcus gave her an understanding look. “So did I.”

Their eyes met. Lila looked back to include Karl in the unspoken understanding.

“Maggie,” Lila finally said, “I’m so glad to see you. I know you don’t know us, so you’ll have to excuse us if we seem a little too…acquainted with you. I’m Lila. I know we’ll be great friends.”

Maggie didn’t know how to answer. She hadn’t stepped back when Lila moved to hug her, but she’d wanted to. Not that Lila was physically intimidating—she was no larger than Maggie was—but after running for her life, Maggie’s nerves were frazzled. Yet Lila seemed friendly, and Maggie didn’t want to be rude.

“How do you know that we’ll be friends?” She kept any malice out of her voice.

It was Karl’s deep, rumbling voice that answered. “Because we all were before.”

“Come.” Marcus took Maggie’s hand and pulled her into the mountain.

Lila led the way down the stone staircase. Karl entered last, doing something Maggie couldn’t see to shut the entrance behind them.

“Going to reintroduce her to everyone, then?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Marcus answered. “She needs to see Doc first.”

“Not hurt, are you Maggie?” There was concern in Karl’s voice.

“We’re both fine,” Marcus chimed in for her. “It’s just a precaution. Anyway, he’s the best one to explain things to her.”

“I suppose you’re right.” It was dark, and Karl’s voice came from high above her. “I’ll see you later then, Maggie.”

She felt like he wanted her to answer. “Al-all right.”

She and Marcus passed Lila, who waited at the base of the staircase. She flashed Maggie an encouraging smile, but Maggie couldn’t return it. Marcus was pulling her by the hand into the darkness.

Disturbed as she was by her surroundings, she was more disturbed by the fact that the familiar pressure of Marcus’s hand closing over hers was somewhat comforting.

The staircase had been shallow, leading down for only eight or ten feet. They reached a smooth landing, which turned into a ramp that sloped slowly but steadily upward. They were heading into the higher elevations of the mountain.

The underground bunker was laid out simply. The corridor they were in seemed to act as a central traffic lane. It was large—enough for three or four people abreast—and other rooms and hallways led off from it. There was no way to tell where the other passages led or how large the entire structure was, but Maggie peered into rooms as they passed.

She expected to find something akin to the bridge of the Enterprise, but it was nothing like that. The corridor was dank, musty, and humid like a cave, though she couldn’t perceive any moisture. The lighting was terrible. She could see, but it was like dusk when it’s too early to turn on lights but just dark enough that it’s difficult to see.

In the rooms was equipment she couldn’t identify that she was certain hadn’t been invented yet. Rather than the colorful, flashing lights she expected to see on an otherworldly craft, the strange equipment gleamed dully in the dim light like cast iron. Not pretty, not colorful, but imposing.

After walking uphill for an eternity, her calves burning the slow rot of hot coals, Marcus stopped in front of a doorway. There was neither a door nor partition of any kind over it, just as there hadn’t been over any of the others. Marcus tightened his grip on her hand and towed her behind him through the doorway.

To Maggie’s astonishment, the room was ablaze with light. It wasn’t a censored light that came on when they entered the room. The lights were already on when she came in.

Twisting around to look behind her, Maggie found exactly what she thought she would: an unprotected doorway separating this room from the dark corridor. The illumination from this room could not be seen in the corridor. There should have been a doorway-shaped bar of light falling on the opposite wall. There wasn’t.

All these contradictions were giving her a headache.

She looked at Marcus and found him smiling down at her. “She’s really forgotten everything, Doc.”

A man about Marcus’s height but much older with white, shoulder-length hair and a well-groomed salt-and-pepper beard was sitting on a chair behind a desk.

“Did you expect anything less, Marcus?”

Marcus shook his head. “I suppose not. I just didn’t realize how far reaching it would be.”

The older man nodded then got up and came around the desk, extending his hand. “I’m Johann Carver, Maggie, but everyone calls me Doc. I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same. Welcome to Interchroniter.” His clothes were similar to Marcus’s—earthy tones and plainly cut—and around his neck he wore a delicate chain. A pendant with a whirl on it lay in the small of his throat.

Maggie took his hand uncertainly. Both her surroundings and these people were completely alien to her. She’d been attacked in her home, witnessed a man’s death, then been chased through the mountains by what could only be described as homicidal psychopaths. And here these men were, shaking hands as though attending a business meeting.

Yet they were so calm, genuine, even friendly, that she would have felt strange to refuse.

“Inter-what-iter?”

“Interchroniter. It’s the name of this mountain compound we inhabit. You’ll hear abbreviated forms of it like Chron or Interchron, but I try to reiterate the full name whenever I can.”

Doc’s smile was kind, his eyes understanding.

“I know this has been a difficult day for you, Maggie. I can only imagine what you must think. Please, take a seat, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.”

Doc motioned her to a chair beside the desk. He sat in one opposite her. Marcus remained standing by the door.

The room wasn’t large, no larger than the master bedroom of Maggie’s house, but the white lights made it seem bigger. Long tubes the circumference of baseball bats coiled around the room near the ceiling and emanated the light. They were unlike any light source Maggie had ever seen before.

A twin-sized cot sat in the corner, and the rest of the room, other than the desk, was lined with more dull, unfamiliar equipment.

Her eyes swept around the room and came back to rest on Doc. She found him studying her intently.

“Well,” he said, repositioning in his chair. “Where to begin?”

“Actually, Doc,” Marcus spoke up, “why don’t we start with what she…remembers?”

“I just told you, Marcus, she won’t remember anything.”

“But she does,” Marcus’s voice was quiet. “She remembers me.”

Doc looked at Maggie, raising an eyebrow. “Do you?”

Maggie was unsure how to answer. She had no idea who Marcus was, after all. She remembered him from Vegas, but what did that really amount to? “No.”

Doc gave Marcus an annoyed look, and Marcus raised his hands defensively. “She doesn’t know who I am, Doc, but she remembers seeing me in Vegas.” He said the word “seeing” as though it tasted funny.

Doc looked at Maggie again.

She nodded, and the older man sat back in his chair, looking poleaxed.

“Doc”—Marcus’s voice was still hushed—“how is that possible?”

Doc didn’t look at Marcus. He was studying Maggie in a calculating way. “I have no idea.”

Chapter 6: Explanations

After several minutes of silence, Maggie could stand it no longer.

“Is someone gonna tell me what’s going on, or are we just going to sit here and stare at each other?”

Doc smiled, glancing behind her to Marcus. Maggie turned to see him looking amused. Marcus saw her glaring, took on a chastened look, and directed his gaze to the floor.

“I’m sorry, Maggie,” Doc said. “I know you have numerous questions. I will endeavor to answer them all. But we have a few questions for you as well. Why don’t you start by telling me everything you remember of what happened in Vegas?”

Maggie regarded him with suspicion. Marcus had been in Vegas, of that she was sure. They were surprised that she remembered that. Didn’t logic suggest that these were the people responsible for what happened to her? It must have been sinister, and yet here she was at their mercy and answering their questions!

Doc seemed to sense her reservations and leaned forward, putting a hand over hers.

“I know this is confusing, Maggie, but if you’ll just trust me a bit further, I’ll explain everything.”

Maggie knew she ought to object, but what could she do? She’d come this far. Besides, her curiosity for the answers they would give was too strong to ignore. With a sigh, she related what happened in Vegas as she remembered it, beginning with seeing Marcus and ending with the fruitless police investigation.

She left out a few details, such as how she felt when Marcus grabbed her arm and the fact that he’d said her name and cried. It might be embarrassing for him, but more importantly, it would be embarrassing for her!

When she finished, there was silence. Minutes passed. Maggie was annoyed.

“So we’re back to silence again?”

Doc smiled at her, but it was Marcus that spoke.

“Does that make any sense to you, Doc?”

Maggie turned toward him with indignation. What? He didn’t believe her? Doc was sitting right in front of her and must have seen her angry response, but he answered Marcus in a detached way.

“Not any linear sense, but we’re not dealing with linear time, are we? In view of everything, I daresay it almost…fits.”

“How?”

Maggie didn’t look at Marcus when he spoke, though she’d nearly chimed in with the same question.

Doc looked like he would venture an explanation then shook his head. “I’m not sure. I can’t vouch for the science of it. I’ll have to look up some things…” He trailed off, looking at the walls of his office as though he was a professor and there were books lining the walls.

A few strange, flat panels that resembled flat-screen TVs were all that adorned the walls. If they were electronic, their condition suggested that they’d stopped working years ago.

“For now”—Doc sat forward and clapped his hands together—“we owe Maggie some answers.”

Maggie leaned forward eagerly, but Doc sat staring at the ground for several seconds. She considered slapping the guy.

“Forgive me, Maggie,” he said. “I’m trying to decide where to begin. Before I do, I must ask you two favors. The first is patience. I will allow you to ask questions as we go along, but I may not answer them right away.”

Maggie nodded, dreading what was sure to be a long explanation.

“Second, please wait until the end of my story before you dismiss any of it. Based on where you’ve come from, it’s going to sound quite fantastical to you. I appeal to your good sense—which I know you have—as well as to your excellent judgment of people and the world, which I’ve seen firsthand.”

She opened her mouth to object, but he raised a hand. “I know that makes no sense to you, but that is exactly what I mean. Let me tell my story. We will address any additional questions you have afterward. Agreed?”

Not seeing much of a choice, Maggie nodded, willing him to get on with it.

“You were born sometime near the end of the twentieth century, is that right?”

Maggie frowned. “Yes.”

“Not many years from now, then, uh… What I mean to say is that in your not very distant future, a man by the name of—well, I suppose his name is not important. A man we’ll call…Smith will be born. He’ll be one of the foremost minds in the study of the neurological field.”

Maggie almost interjected but remembered that she’d promised to be patient. Scowling, she held her tongue.

“In your time, the human genome has been mapped, but the human brain, specifically, has not. Tell me, Maggie, what do you know of the human brain?”

Maggie had once entertained thoughts of entering the medical field. She’d even taken anatomy and psychology classes in college. She was no doctor, but she knew more than the average civilian.

“I know that little is known about why the brain works. Neurosurgeons say that they do certain procedures because they work, but no one can explain why. We don’t have the technology to study the brain on the level we would have to in order to fully understand it.”

“Exactly. In your time, the technology does not exist to map all the pathways, biochemical processes, and neurological miracles that are the human brain. This man of whom I speak, who is born a decade or two from the year you come from, is the man who will invent that technology.”

“You’re saying that you’re from the future? Maggie looked back at Marcus, who met her gaze steadily.

“So are you, for the time being.”

Her eyes widened. She looked at Marcus again. “That thing in the field? We…jumped…through time?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but yes.”

Maggie’s mind raced, making connections. “So what does that mean about Vegas? Is that how you all know me? Because I met you in the future?”

“Actually,” Marcus said, “you met us in the past.”

“What?”

“All right!” Doc was looking back and forth between them, trying frantically to break in. Now he stood and waved his hands for silence. “This is exactly what I want to avoid. If we don’t get through the entire explanation without deviating, it will only confuse you further.”

He sat back down, throwing Marcus a shut-up-or-get-out look. “We are from your future. That’s what we’re telling you, Maggie.”

She laughed without humor and rested her eyes in her hand. Seriously?

“I know this is a lot, Maggie, but you promised you’d hear me out, right?”

She looked up to find him staring at her anxiously. “If you’re from the future, why don’t you know what year this neurologist was born in?”

He looked pleased. “Astute as ever, I see, Maggie. It’s because our calendar system has been lost. You will understand why as I explain further, but suffice it to say that we don’t know what year we are in, relative to yours. I can’t tell you how far in the future we are from you. We’ve adopted a calendar of sorts to record the time, but we have no way of comparing it to yours or using it to pinpoint ourselves on your timeline.”

She sighed. “So what did he find?”

The doctor’s eyebrow went up. “Pardon?”

“This neurologist. When he mapped the brain, what did he find?”

The doctor smiled. “A great deal. He mapped every neurochemical interaction in the brain on a smaller level than ever before. He discovered that every part of us is mapped out in our brains. It’s a collage of who we are. There are signatures for every aspect of our physical beings, yes, but also for our mental and emotional beings. Chemical states exist in the brain that identify our personalities, our tendencies, and—most importantly—the choices we make.”

Maggie frowned. “How do you mean?”

“Imagine two people standing side by side. They are the same age and gender, let’s say male. One is taller, has a more defined body, better skin tone, and a healthy glow about his face. The other is less physically toned, has sallow skin, yellow teeth, and bloodshot eyes. What does this tell us about these two men?”

“The better-looking one is healthier. He takes care of himself. The other has unhealthy habits.”

The doctor nodded his approval. “This is an obvious example. Their basic activities and the substances they put into their bodies show up in their physical makeup. But what if I told you that every choice you make, even the ones that have nothing to do with your physical body, show up in your brain chemistry? Every moral choice, every piece of knowledge you acquire and what you decide to do with it, every decision at every crossroads shows up in your brain.”

Maggie considered this. It was an intriguing idea. “It would mean that everyone’s brain chemistry is vastly different.”

“Indeed, but do you see the import of this discovery? The origin of every disease could be traced, weeded out, eradicated. Even psychological neuroses could be identified and dealt with.”

“It sounds like a golden age of health.” Maggie gazed back and forth between the two men, compiling everything she was being told and taking into account what had happened over the last twelve hours—Vegas, time travel, all of it.

“So what went wrong?”

Doc’s lips smiled, but his eyes were cloudy. “Human morality was not up to the challenge these discoveries posed. We made all the right discoveries but drew all the wrong conclusions.”

“How so?”

“People used brain chemistry as an excuse. Consider a criminal—let’s say a killer. His brain chemistry is different from the average person’s. People saw this and said it was not the criminal’s fault that he was a criminal. His brain chemistry was a mess. His behavior was due to a chemical imbalance and not his own fault.”

Maggie thought about the implications. She’d always been a strong believer in accountability for one’s actions, but didn’t this discovery support the opposite argument?

“You’re saying,” she ventured, “that isn’t the case? That there aren’t chemical imbalances?”

Doc shook his head. “I’m saying there are. That was the discovery. But the conclusion was wrong. Think about what I’ve already told you. Every choice changes our brain chemistry. It happens on a zeptoscopic—uh, I mean, very, very, very small level, much smaller than a microscope can see—but it does happen. The killer does have a choice. He doesn’t kill because he has a chemical imbalance. He has a chemical imbalance because he kills. Granted, he may have been set on the road to this behavior from a young age by something he couldn’t control, such as abuse. That varies from person to person and is quite irrelevant for our purposes.

“The point is that within a few years, the world’s criminal justice systems went down the toilet, if you’ll excuse the expression.”

“So…what? They just opened the prison doors and let everyone go?”

“In a manner of speaking. No one could be punished for their crimes anymore. They were blamed on altered brain chemistry due to prior negative circumstances. The criminal was put in therapy to correct their brain chemistry. Now, don’t get me wrong. Therapy can work if a person truly commits themselves to it, but these were criminals. They had no desire to change or do good in society. They did what was required and then went back to their same nasty habits.”

“Let me guess,” Maggie said drily. “They went after law enforcement first?”

Doc shook his head. “They didn’t have to. The politicians and psychologists had already done that. It was believed that law enforcement was all but obsolete in view of the new psychological discoveries. Oh, a few arresting officers were still needed to bring those who ‘needed help’ to where they could get it, but prisons became obsolete. Investigators of every kind went out of fashion. Psychologists and neurologists were the new detectives. They held every individual’s sanity at their fingertips.”

“Were they corrupt?”

“In every group there are a few bad apples, but I think most of these men and women believed in what they were doing. They hoped to make society a better, more peaceful place. Their motives were good, if naïve.

“The criminals became roving bands of mercenaries, laws and kings unto themselves. They went after politicians and other civic leaders. The short of it is that society fell completely apart within a few decades.”

Doc sat back and was silent.

Maggie felt depression sinking in. What a world to come from! But it wasn’t another world. This was her future too. “Is that the end of the story?”

Doc smiled, a twinkle in his eye. “Not exactly.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “There was a group, Maggie, a small, obscure group of men and women who saw it coming. They knew the instant Smith’s discovery hit the airwaves that it would be the downfall of society. Or at least they knew it was a possibility and began to plan for it.

“Understand this discovery itself is not evil. It was a miraculous discovery with infinite potential for good. The problem was that people did the wrong things with it.”

“Potential for what kinds of good things?”

“So glad you asked! This brain mapping opened the door to super-brain stimulation. There are parts of the brain that human beings were not using. Scientists didn’t know what those parts were for. They knew humans used only a fraction of their brainpower, especially in the cerebral cortex, and that it had something to do with human evolution. That was all. Just another brain mystery. The mapping of the brain was the first step of many that led to stimulation of the unused parts of the brain.”

Maggie rubbed her forehead, hoping to forestall a headache. She was having trouble keeping up with him.

“What are we talking about here, Doc, telekinesis?”

She was joking, and her face fell when the doctor cocked his head to the side and answered, “Among other things.”

Maggie’s mouth fell open. Her head whipped rapidly between the two men. So many things raced through her head that she had trouble putting them into words. The first to make it out were, “Can you two read my mind?”

Doc chuckled and Marcus smiled, both shaking their heads.

“Relax, Maggie. Neither Marcus or I can do any such thing. Your private thoughts are your own.”

Maggie tried to regard them both warily, but that was tricky as they were standing one hundred and eighty degrees apart.

“So what can you do?”

“Everyone has different strengths. Think of physical genetics. Everyone has a different body type. Some people are tall and, no matter how much they eat, will always be thin. Others have to work for it and, even if they are thin, will always be short. In a similar fashion, everyone has different strengths, tendencies, and abilities when it comes to brain stimulation.

“Telepathy, as you are thinking of it, is possible, but extremely difficult. I have only met a handful of people in my lifetime who are capable of it, and even their abilities are sparse. I am particularly adept at sensing atmospheric changes, especially heat.”

Maggie frowned. “Like what?”

“I can sense the change in the air when a warm body comes within a mile of me. It can be a valuable ability when moving through enemy territory or trying not to be a predator’s next meal.”

The last was said with a mischievous smile, and Maggie had the feeling that Doc had been in just such a situation before.

“So,” Maggie hurried on, “what’s all that got to do with the degradation of society? This group you spoke of—”

“BCO. It stands for Brain Chemistry Optimists. It’s what they called themselves.”

“Oh. Well, they…did what exactly?”

“They knew they had to preserve humanity for the future. They began experimenting on themselves. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds. All they did was use the discovery of the brain map to manipulate their own abilities. They did research, conducted experiments, and taught themselves to use their minds in extraordinary ways. They told as many people as would listen that it is choice, not brain chemistry, that determines our actions and that only by being accountable for our actions could society continue to function.

“Few listened to them. As those who could profit from the downfall of society rose in the ranks, the BCO became hunted. Eventually they had to go into hiding. They knew society would continue to decline and would eventually hit rock bottom before it could be rebuilt. They taught their children to be patient and vigilant and look for the opportunity to rebuild.”

He didn’t go on right away, and Maggie still didn’t understand why she was here or what any of this had to do with her. She was certainly no telepath.

“So…you’re saying that this BCO group… You’re part of it—”

“We’re their children and descendants.”

“And…what?” She looked back and forth between them again. “Society has hit rock bottom, and now you’re trying to rebuild it?”

The doctor smiled. “Not exactly. I’m not so sure society is at rock bottom yet. Or perhaps it is but is staying there for the time being. However, another phenomenon rose about twenty years ago—uh, in our time.”

“What phenomenon?”

“At the time, roving gangs did as they pleased, terrorizing normal people. Most people fought tooth and nail simply to eat and keep their children safe. Fewer children were being born, because no one could trust each other enough to form lasting relationships, let alone intimate ones. People began banding together for security. At least, that’s all it was at first. Think of it like a circle of wagons—men and women coming together, agreeing to abide by a certain set of rules and watch each other’s backs.”

“Makes sense.”

“Perhaps. But now throw in the element of neurochemical stimulation.”

Maggie frowned. “Meaning what?”

“Meaning that now people were joining not just physically but mentally too. They were linking the networks of their minds like so many lines of needlework—too intricately to be undone, at least by any outsider.”

“You’re saying that they became…a collective?”

“Precisely. A collective conscious that moves, thinks, and acts as one. Oh, it’s understandable, I suppose. The world was such a crazy place back then. There was no society anymore, no civility. People wanted safety, security, peace of mind. The collectives gave them that.”

Doc fell silent, lost in thought. Maggie glanced at Marcus and found him far away too. Maggie realized this was a real and disturbing issue for them. It was one Doc had lived through. She wasn’t sure how old Marcus was, but he looked a bit older than her twenty-four years. That meant that he would have been a child while this was going on. What a strange atmosphere to grow up in.

Maggie sagged against her chair, not sure what to feel. From the way Doc was talking, he didn’t approve of the collectives. That was good; she didn’t either. Yet that meant that the BCOs were the freedom fighters of individuality in a century so far from her own in every way as to be quite alien to her. What could men like these want with her? And what had Marcus meant about having met her in the past but her not remembering?

“So,” she prodded, “these collectives sprang up and…”

“Oh, right. At first there were just small groups, but they galvanized. Soon whole collectives were joining together. Then it was odd not to be part of one. Those who still had individual minds were the minority. Long story short—eventually only four large collectives governed the entire world.”

“Four?”

“Yes. Essentially they were North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Not that they stayed within these geographical boundaries, mind you. They migrated around, and such continental distinctions can no longer be made in terms of political boundaries. The world as you know it is completely non-existent here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Here is the same place it is in your time, only now you’re in our time.”

“So this cavern doesn’t exist in my time?”

“No. It was built years after you were born—actually, years after you died”—Maggie winced—“by the BCO’s.”

“Now we come to the crux of the matter, Maggie. The problem with collectives is that, in theory, they work. Far be it for me to criticize any political theory. Most of the philosophical logic is sound. The problem is that reality is not philosophy, and political theories fail to take in the human element.”

Maggie’s headache was getting worse. “Doc, you lost me.”

“Sorry. In theory, collectives can exist in perfect harmony. In reality, they exist less like communism and more like Marxism.”

Maggie had to turn that over in her head. “Are you saying that one person is controlling each of these collectives?”

Doc smiled like a proud teacher at a prize pupil. “Yes. We don’t know the particulars. It may be an elite group or a single person.”

“But how can you tell they’re being controlled and are not a perfect collective?”

The doctor looked at her steadily. His easy smiled had vanished. “Because ten years ago, the collectives began hunting individuals.”

A chill started in the middle of Maggie’s back and vibrated outward. It took her breath away. Doc’s words hung in the air like the after image of a fluorescent light, but blinking didn’t take them away.

Maggie leaned forward. “Doc, what’s this got to do with me?”

“When the individuals began to die mysteriously or simply disappear, other things began to happen as well. The world began to…shift, almost imperceptibly. We aren’t sure what went on during those years—no one kept records that we know of—but what we do know is this: there are now only two collectives.”

“Wait. Two were killed? Or did they join together?”

“The latter. The thing is that two and two did not join together. Rather, one absorbed two of the other three.”

“You think the mastermind is trying to absorb everyone in the world into a single collective?”

Doc nodded. “Such an individual or group of individuals would control the world through one collective conscience. The crux of it, Maggie, is that we in the BCO are trying to stop it.”

“How?”

“In order to bring down the collectives, we must know more about them. We are continually gathering information, intercepting messages between the collectives, trying to infiltrate them, and trying to learn more about them in any way that presents itself. As of right now, we are a long way from our aims, but we remain positive and keep moving forward.”

Maggie thought about that for a moment. “It sounds like you’re ants on a sandy beach trying to stop the tide.”

He smiled without mirth. “That’s one way to look at it.”

“Then why try?”

“How can we do anything else? All of us have sworn that we will not live as part of the collective. We see it as a form of slavery. We will live free or die fighting. That is our creed.”

Maggie shivered. “So what happens next? Will the two remaining collectives fight?”

Doc spread his hands. “Though I can tell you a great deal about your future, Maggie, I can tell you nothing about ours. There is a lot we don’t know: who the mastermind or minds are, how the smaller collectives are being absorbed, if they’re putting up resistance.”

“What do we know?” Maggie asked, surprised to find that she’d included herself in their group.

“We know that individuals are being murdered. A true collective would have neither the ability nor the inclination for such an act, so there must be someone else behind it. A collective might try to convince other individuals to join them, sell them on what they believe is a better way of life. But murder takes passion and individual decision, which true collectives don’t have.”

“How are the individuals being murdered?” The question came out before she thought about it. In truth, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Assassination, mostly. They send men called Arachnimen. They come on their own or in small groups. We’ve captured a few but have not gotten much information out of them. They may be individuals—and by that I mean not tied to the collective—but just brainwashed. Or they may be intricately tied to the collective mind. We simply don’t know.”

“You met some of them,” Marcus said, “back at your house. They got their name from the spider web tattoo they all have over their left eye.”

Met some of them?” Doc’s face contorted in alarm.

“I didn’t get a chance to fill you in, Doc. One of them beat me there and hurt her. Two more chased us to the meadow. They grabbed her ankle and tried to drill. I did my thing, and I think she’s all right, but I wanted you to check her out, just to be sure.”

“What thing?” Maggie burst out. “What did you do to me?”

Doc made calming gestures with his hands. “It’s one of the neurochemical abilities I was referring to earlier. Marcus can reconnect torn or shattered neural pathways, or if that’s not possible, forge new ones.”

“Meaning…he healed me?”

Doc smiled again with pleasure. “Exactly.”

Maggie looked at Marcus in a new light. He’d saved her in more ways than one. He was still leaning against the wall near the door and looking particularly uncomfortable.

Maggie sighed. She still didn’t have the answers she wanted.

“Doc, I don’t mean to belittle any of this. I understand the magnitude of everything you’ve told me. I think. But you still haven’t said what this has to do with me. What am I doing here?”

“I’m getting there, Maggie. I promise.”

“But how can you even be sure you can win? Maybe this is simply the next phase in human evolution.”

“That question is a perfect segue into the next part of the explanation.”

Maggie crossed her arms in exasperation. “Which is?”

Doc went to the other side of the desk and rummaged through the drawers. Maggie turned questioning eyes on Marcus, but he just gazed at her steadily.

Finally Doc found what he was looking for and came back to his seat. In his hands he held a shiny, silver rock. It was small enough for the doctor to cup easily in his hands but looked heavy. Its height and thickness seemed to be roughly equal, but it wasn’t perfectly round. The surface seemed almost metallic.

“What is that?”

“This is called a conduit stone.”

“What does it do?”

“Only what I tell it to. Hold still please, Maggie.”

Holding the stone out a few inches from his body, Doc closed his eyes and was silent for long seconds. A low humming sound began somewhere deep in Maggie’s ear canal. Perhaps it had always been there and she was just now noticing it because of the silence. Or perhaps it was the very silence she was hearing. The hum stopped as soon as Doc opened his eyes.

He smiled brightly. “Everything’s fine.” He shot Marcus a reassuring smile.

Marcus nodded, looking mildly relieved.

“So.” Doc twisted around in his chair and set the stone on the desk. “Back to our explanation.”

“No, no, no!” Maggie waved her hands around. “What was that? What did you do? Stop being so cryptic.”

Doc looked taken aback. His eyes widened in almost comic surprise, and he chuckled.

“I see what you mean, Marcus. It is disconcerting, isn’t it? Forgive me, Maggie. This may happen to you a lot at first. We are all going to assume that you understand certain things. We know logically that you don’t, but we have memories of you so we just naturally assume…”

He stopped, chuckled again, and took a deep breath.

“Forgive me. This stone amplifies my neurochemical abilities. As a doctor, I use my gifts mostly for medical purposes. I was conducting a medical scan. I use the stone to scan all systems of your body to make sure that you are in complete homeostasis. Marcus did a good job when he healed you. You are in perfect health. I also scanned him, since he did battle with the Arachnimen, and he’s fine as well. Now, to move on…”

Doc started talking again, but Maggie couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. This was getting more farfetched by the minute. He used his mind and a shiny rock to do a medical scan? She felt like holding her shirt more tightly closed.

“And then—” Doc was saying. “Maggie? Are you all right?”

She looked up at him. “This is a lot to take in, Doc.”

His smile was sympathetic.

“I mean, forgive me if you’re not, but how do I know that you aren’t both crazy?”

She prepared for an outburst or at least indignation on his part. No one liked to be asked if they were nuts.

Doc leaned forward, took both her hands in his, and smiled. “You are forgiven, Maggie.” He said it with such empathy and steadiness that she regretted her assertion. Could a lunatic be so genuine?

“The truth is that you can’t be sure. I can only ask you to trust me. Or better yet, trust yourself. That was one thing that always amazed me about you. You have an uncanny ability to discern the truth in any situation, even when you don’t have all the facts. I always thought it might be a neurological ability of some kind, though I can’t be sure of that. Trust your instincts. Do you really think we’re crazy? Or that we mean you any harm?”

Maggie considered her experiences over the last few hours. When the Arachniman entered her home, even before it became obvious that his intentions were malevolent, she’d been afraid of him. He inspired panic, stark fear. But here that was not the case. She wanted an explanation and was a bit nervous to hear what it was, but despite the two strange men, the alien surroundings, and the crazy-sounding history, Maggie was not afraid. She actually felt very calm.

She shook her head. “I suppose I don’t. Please go on.”

“One woman in the BCO found that she was able to interact with the fabric of the space-time continuum in such a way as to wrap it around herself.”

“Physically?”

“That I can’t answer with certainty. There are things we don’t understand about certain abilities. For example, you would probably say that telepathy is not physical. It has to do with thought waves traveling between two people but does not affect the physical body. Yes?”

Maggie nodded. “I guess.”

“Yet the ability for telepathy shows up in the brain chemistry. It takes a certain type of physical brain to have the ability. So where is the line between physical and nonphysical? We don’t know. This woman could envelope herself in space and time, but whether that was happening physically or in some other way, I couldn’t say. It was she who explained it this way—that she could wrap herself in the linear timeline, curling it around herself like a blanket.

“To what purpose?”

“Why to see beyond the present, of course.”

Maggie felt her eyebrows rise. “She could see the future?”

“Yes, but only bits and pieces of it. We can’t see every part of a blanket when it’s wrapped around us, can we? She became a prophetess, writing down what she could see. There was just one problem: immersing herself in this phenomenon took a lot of energy. It was exhausting and prematurely aged her brain. She lived only a few years after discovering the ability.

“She left us glimpses. If it was a pleasant future, we would have something to hope for. If not, then perhaps we could change it.”

“And?” Maggie leaned forward in her chair. “Which was it?”

“It was both. And neither. Most of her early prophecies were just what I said—glimpses. They were statements of fact. Just before she died, she gave a final prophecy. And you might say that we live our lives by it.”

“How so?”

“The prophecy states, and I quote, that a ‘too common slavery’ will come upon humankind.”

“Too common, meaning the collectives?”

He nodded. “Yes, we believe that to be the interpretation. It says that an end must be put to this slavery, or humanity—as a trait, you understand—may be lost forever.”

Maggie swallowed. This was heavy. “And who is to stop it?”

“Not one person alone but a group of people working together. It’s interesting to me that it’s a group working together that must stop it. A group that works together like a well-oiled machine shares many traits in common with a collective. The question is, where should individuality and collectivism meet?”

“So where’s the dividing line?”

“There isn’t one. We must simply be on our guard about becoming too like the collectives while still finding ways to work together for the greater good.”

Maggie frowned. “Sounds difficult.”

Doc smiled. “It can be, but not as much as you might imagine on a day-to-day basis.”

“So…what? You two are part of this group that’s trying to break up the collectives?”

“Yes, we think so.”

“You think so?”

Doc leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees again. “You may wonder why I don’t let you read the prophecy. I’d be happy to show it to you, but I don’t think you’d be able to read it. It’s not written in any conventional, communicative language.”

“What’s it written in?”

“Chemical equations. The only people who could hope to read and truly understand it are organic chemists. The prophecy mentions a group that must work together to end the collective slavery, but it only mentions specific traits about the members of this group. Each member has a specific function, and the prophecy gives the chemical formula for a specific brain chemistry that must perform that function.”

“So, if your brain chemistry matches the one named in the prophecy, then you must be a member of the group?”

“Yes, but please understand me. When I say the prophecy gives the formula for a certain brain chemistry, I don’t mean that it gives the complete formula for an individual’s brain map. A person’s brain changes so drastically from day to day, based on sense experiences and mundane decisions, that it would be impossible to pinpoint it in so specific a way. No, the prophecy simply mentions certain traits that must be present for an individual to qualify for that role on the team.”

“And let me guess,” Maggie said with a sigh, “many people could possibly fill that role?”

“Theoretically.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I think we shouldn’t second guess ourselves too much. If a person meets the criteria and happens to show up in the right place and time to know about it, they are the right person for the job, no matter that others possibly could do it.”

“So you believe in fate?”

Doc smiled. “I consider myself more religious than superstitious, Maggie, but I do believe everything happens for a reason, yes.”

Maggie held up her hands. “Could you give me an example of what you mean by these roles?”

Doc sat back in his chair. “Of course. There is one brain chemistry mentioned in the prophecy, whose role is Healer.”

Maggie nodded. “And that would be you?”

Doc smiled cryptically. “No. I am not the healer mentioned in the prophecy. The brain chemistry required is one that has neurochemical aptitude for healing. This is just my chosen profession.”

Maggie’s eyes slid toward Marcus, who was looking at the ground.

“Yes, Maggie.” Doc nodded. “You’ve guessed correctly. Marcus is the Healer. The roles in the prophecy have to do with our neurochemical abilities not our academic prowess, personalities, or outward appearances. And even then we don’t know their full scope.”

“What do you mean?”

“The roles are very ambiguous. I, for example, am named as Witness. I’m not sure what that means, and the prophecy gives no clues. I believe that I am the one who will not only live through the fulfillment of the prophecy, but also document it for future generations. I keep meticulous records of all we do and am acquainted with every aspect of our mission. That is what I believe my role to be, but I could be wrong. Or perhaps I am right, but there is more to it than I presently understand. There’s simply no way to tell. But that’s a discussion for another time.

“Now to the point. We reached a time a few years ago when three roles cited in the prophecy were still unfilled. We searched everywhere but couldn’t find anyone, anywhere on earth, that met the brain chemistry requirements the prophecy mentioned. Of course, we can’t count on those minds in the collectives, and that includes most of the earth’s population. We were at a loss.

“Then we found Karl. His brain chemistry matched one of the vacant spots listed in the prophecy. Karl is a Traveler, which means he has time-travel capabilities. He’s the first we’ve seen with that ability in years.”

The pieces clicked into place so quickly that it took Maggie’s breath away. Doc seemed to sense her comprehension and waited for her to speak.

“You started looking for people in other time periods to fill the vacant roles.”

“Precisely. I’ll let Marcus fill you in on the details of what happened last time you were here. The short of it is that a year ago we found you, snatched you up, and asked you to help us. You agreed and were with us for almost a year. We know you because we all formed close friendships during that time. Things happened that made it necessary for us to return you to your own time but without your memories.”

“So why have you snatched me up again?”

“Because once again we need your help. We only sent you back because we hoped that we had brought down the collectives. It was a small hope and one that took a long time to be certain of, but it’s obvious now that we’ve failed, and we don’t even know why. So we’ve brought you back.”

Maggie frowned. “So…you came to get me because the collectives are coalescing again?”

“That’s why we needed to bring you back in general. We have networks of individuals who are committed to helping us fight the collectives. We sent Marcus to get you today because one of those networks intercepted a message that said the collectives were going to assassinate you. We thought we had plenty of time to collect you. The message said they wouldn’t be sending the Arachniman for weeks. That he made it there before Marcus is…disturbing. They changed their timeline for some reason.” He trailed off, lost in thought.

“My memories…can they be restored?” Maggie asked.

“I’m afraid not.” Doc shook himself. “They aren’t blocked but completely erased. You will have to learn and meet everything and everyone anew. I know it will be difficult, but if we are to give humanity a future, all members of the team must be present. So here we all are.”

Doc leaned forward, taking both of Maggie’s hands. “Maggie, if there’s one thing we believe in, it’s freedom, specifically free will. If we undermine our own free will or that of each other, we’ll be no better than the collectives we fight against. I want you to know you have a choice in this. We’ve forced it on you thus far, and we need your help, so we’ll try and convince you to help us. But if, in the end, you don’t want to, we’ll take you back to your own time and leave you alone. The choice is entirely yours, and we will respect it.”

Maggie opened her mouth, but he put up his hand.

“Please don’t answer now. You still don’t have all the information you need. That may take a few days. You need to meet the team so you know who you’ll be working with. Give it some time. There’s no rush. Let me know when you’ve made your decision.”

Maggie nodded, relieved he wasn’t pressuring her.

“Well.” Doc looked around and stood up. “I know I’ve laid a lot of information on you, and I suspect you’re exhausted. I recommend that you get some sleep and food before Marcus relates the particulars of your time spent with us before. I’ll let him take you to your lodgings. I have some things to see to before I turn in myself.”

He started for the door then hesitated. “Maggie, I know you don’t know me, but may I just say that I’m glad you’re here. You and I were close friends, and…you’ve been missed.” His smile was affectionate and, had Maggie not felt vaguely sick to her stomach, she would have been touched. He turned to leave the room.

“Doc?”

Doc stopped beside Marcus and turned to look at her.

“What’s my role?”

Doc looked at the floor between them. Then he and Marcus exchanged worried glances.

“You said the prophecy named a role for each person. What role does the prophecy assign me?”

Doc swallowed before looking up at her. “Executioner.”

Chapter 7: History

After Doc left the room, Maggie and Marcus sat in silence for several minutes. Maggie hardly noticed Marcus’s presence at all. She was absorbed in her own thoughts.

The information Doc imparted was giving her a headache. Executioner? What did that mean? What would her role be? To execute the…bad guys—whoever they were? What if she had to kill someone other than the bad guys? She would have to discover the true meaning of the role as she went along. Her imagination reeled with macabre possibilities.

Maggie jumped when something touched her hand. It was Marcus. He pulled her out of her thoughts then gently to her feet. He led her out of the room and into the dimly lit corridor. They passed several doors as the corridor twisted in its course but never intersected with any other hallways. This time Maggie did not try to peer into the rooms; she was too exhausted.

They stopped outside a doorway that looked the same as all the others. Unlike Doc’s office, which gave the appearance of darkness from the corridor but was light inside, this room was dark when they stepped through the doorway. Marcus did something—she couldn’t see what—and brought lights on. These lights, unlike in Doc’s office, were dim and orange. There was a small cot, a bureau of drawers, a washstand, and two conventional doors that led off to one side.

Marcus guided her over to the bed. “Stay here. Try to relax. I’ll bring you something to eat.”

Then Maggie was alone. She flopped backward onto the bed. It wasn’t that she kept expecting to wake up exactly, but more that she thought she ought to expect to wake up. Everything seemed real. When you’re asleep, sometimes you don’t know if you’re asleep or awake, but when you’re awake, you knew for sure, didn’t you? Maggie was sure this was real. But how could she take everything she saw and heard at face value? It would sound insane to anyone else.

When Marcus didn’t return after a few minutes, Maggie got up to explore. One door led to the facilities, including a standup shower with a nozzle but no knobs. The other door led to a small closet. It was full of clothes, and she wondered whose they were. They had probably belonged to the previous occupant, but she wondered who it was.

Picking a green, long-sleeved shirt from the rack, she held it up to herself. She had no mirror, but it was obvious that it was a perfect fit for her. Doc said she’d been here before, so…did that mean…?

“I hope you don’t mind. I brought enough for two.”

Maggie jumped when Marcus spoke.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

She hastily replaced the shirt. He glanced at it but said nothing, so she shut the closet door.

“Do you want company?”

She shrugged, hoping she looked nonchalant. “Sure.”

She wouldn’t admit it, but she didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t know Marcus well, but if he intended her harm, he’d had plenty of chances for it. She felt safe with him.

He’d brought a covered tray. He sat at the foot of the bed, facing the head, and crossed his legs. She sat down facing him and did the same. When he uncovered the tray, it smelled delicious. Her stomach growled loud enough to make her cheeks warm. Marcus didn’t seem to notice, but she knew it was all pretense, because the corners of his mouth lifted slightly.

The meat tasted like beef, though the texture was a bit strange. The potatoes had obviously come from flakes in a carton, but they were good. Marcus gave her a cup of sweet liquid. It tasted like water flavored with fruit and honey.

“What is this I’m drinking?”

“It’s water, but for meals we infuse it with a mixture of vitamins and greens. There is virtually no produce here, so in order to get what you would normally get from fruits, greens, nuts, and things, we have to use this.”

Maggie nodded. There were similar things in her time at health food stores, but they didn’t taste this good.

The silence as they ate wasn’t awkward, but Maggie felt compelled to fill it. When Marcus wasn’t looking at his food, he was staring at her, which was unnerving.

“So are you going to tell me about last time or what?”

Marcus shook his head. “Not tonight. It’s getting late, and you’re exhausted.” He smiled. “I think we’ve bombarded you with enough information.”

Maggie sighed. She wanted to know everything, but Marcus had a point. Besides, the insides of her eyes were burning for sleep.

“Can I ask you a question, Marcus?”

He regarded her warily. “You aren’t going to con me into telling you anything tonight, Maggie.”

“Not about that. About you.”

He stared at her steadily for a moment before shrugging. “What do you want to know?”

“How’d you get into this? What’s your stake in it?”

Marcus chewed his food silently for a moment, his eyes searching a blank spot on the wall. “It was inevitable for me, only a matter of time before I found the team and became a part of it.”

“Why?”

He set his plate down. “My father was an individualist. By the time I was born, the collectives were in full swing. When my younger brother was born, the violence against individuals was just beginning.”

“You have a brother.”

Had a brother.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. All of us have lost loved ones to this cause.” His eyes were far away, but he shook his head and continued. “From the time my brother, David, was born, we were in danger. The collectives were trying to forcibly assimilate all of us.”

“That must have been terrifying for a child.”

Marcus gave her a crooked half smile. “Not for us. My father was a remarkable man. He never lied to us, but he concealed harsh realities, especially when we were young. We traveled around, always looking for a better place to camp or to hunt. We never stayed in the same place for long.”

Marcus smiled his mischievous smile again, and Maggie could tell he was lost in memory. “I have these memories of my father coming to David and me, urgently telling us it was time to go. He would say he was craving adventure and that we should be off to seek it. He used quests and games and ruses to disguise what those journeys really were—us running for our lives.

“Looking back, he must have gotten wind of an Arachniman on our trail. He knew he had to get us out of there fast or…” Marcus blinked back to reality and looked at Maggie then smiled sheepishly. “Anyway…”

“What do you mean when you say assimilate? How do they do it?”

“We don’t understand the science behind it, but it nearly happened to you a few hours ago.”

Maggie frowned. “When?”

“When the Arachniman grabbed your ankle, you grabbed your head and screamed.”

Maggie shrugged uncomfortably, not sure why she was embarrassed to have him see her vulnerable.

“Let me guess,” he went on, apparently not noticing her discomfort, “you felt like something metallic was drilling into your skull?”

Maggie’s eyes widened. “Yes. That’s a perfect description. How’d you know?”

“It’s been reported before. Arachnimen can assimilate with a touch. They drill into your head and attach you to the collective. It’s done without your consent, and it’s painful. I barely managed to keep it from happening to you.”

Maggie shivered. She elected not to tell Marcus that the ache at the back of her skull hadn’t completely gone away. She hoped it would after a good night’s sleep.

“How did you meet Doc?”

“After my brother David…was gone, it was just my dad and me.”

“What about your mother?”

Marcus shook his head. “I never knew her. My father said she died giving birth to my brother. I would have been five or six, but I have no memories of her.”

Maggie suddenly felt guilty for asking personal questions, but Marcus didn’t seem sad. He answered matter of factly.

“We traveled around, looking for others like us. It’s difficult when you can’t trust anyone. We happened upon a group of people who were traveling in the opposite direction. Everyone was supremely paranoid of one another, but we managed a few civilities and had a meal together. Doc was among them. He was scouting for people—not only for individualists, but those that fit the prophecy’s neurochemical requirements. Unbeknownst to my father, he scanned us and found that my chemistry matched that of the Healer. He waited until the others had moved on then approached us.

“My father was sick. He was hiding how bad it was from me. Doc was a godsend. My father knew he was dying and was relieved to be able to leave me with people who believed the same things we did—who were fighting for something.”

“When did he pass?”

“Six years ago.”

Maggie couldn’t imagine the sadness of burying your only two family members in a world that was so rife with danger.

“Sounds lonely.”

He smiled. “Only at first. This team has become my family. We live for each other and for our mission. We keep each other from getting lonely.”

“And you’ve been with them ever since?”

He nodded, staring at her with that disarming gaze again. After a moment he gathered their dishes onto the tray. “Any other questions?”

She sighed. “Tons. But I suppose they can wait.”

He stood, smiling down at her. “Get some rest, Maggie. You need it.”

“How will I know when it’s morning? There are no windows.”

“I’ll wake you with breakfast. You get used to it down here—learn to judge time by your internal clock.”

Maggie raised what she hoped was a skeptical eyebrow, but she was so tired she might have been grinning maniacally and she wouldn’t have known. She still didn’t relish being alone, but she found the idea of sleep appealing.

“I guess I’ll see you in the morning then.”

He nodded. “Good night, Maggie.” He walked to the door and paused, half turning. “Maggie?”

She could only see him in profile, but her eyes had adjusted enough to make out the details of his face. Creases raced across his forehead, making appearances in different places and combinations. He was trying to control his emotions. Something stirred in her when she saw it, and she stood up in alarm, about to ask what was wrong. She didn’t get the chance. He turned to her, completely in control again, and gave her an easy smile.

“It’s really good to see you again.”

Maggie couldn’t think of anything to say, so she remained silent. The vulnerability slipped through his smile just a bit before he disappeared into the corridor.

Chapter 8: More Forgotten Events

Maggie slept fitfully, plagued by dreams of being chased by men with spider web tattoos over their eyes. Sometimes they caught her and would delve into her mind—which felt like being stabbed behind the eyes with a hot poker—and then she was riding behind her own eyes with no control over her body. And thousands of voices would whisper in her ears until she thought she’d go mad. Sometimes she escaped. When she didn’t, she would wake in a sweat. When she did, it was because Marcus appeared and held his hand out to her.

The rap at the door was soft, but it drew her from her troubled respite.

“Morning.” Marcus smiled as he entered, holding a tray identical to the one they’d eaten from the night before. “How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” she lied. She didn’t want him to know about the dreams, as he was in some of them. She hadn’t dreamed anything embarrassing, but the thought still made her face hot. She hoped he wouldn’t notice.

“I brought breakfast.”

She excused herself and went into the room that held the shower. She was able to figure out the toilet easily enough, though it looked different from what she was used to. She hoped it had a censor for the flusher. As soon as she thought it, the toilet flushed.

Leaning over a square sink, she wished she had a mirror. She also wondered how to get water to come out of the nozzle, as there were no knobs. As soon as she rested her hands on the counter, a mirror appeared in front of her.

Maggie jumped at her own reflection, wondering what button she’d pushed to make that happen. She looked haggard but not terribly so. Her makeup had collected in dark spots under her eyes as she slept, and it made her look tired. Deciding that perhaps the water functioned on a sensor, she put her hands under the nozzle, hoping for water. She got it. It was warm and felt good.

Splashing some on her face and arms, she washed the makeup from under her eyes and found a brush in a drawer. After running it through her hair, she looked decidedly better.

When she emerged from the bathroom, Marcus was sitting in the same place he’d occupied the night before at the foot of her bed.

“Hungry?” he asked, handing her a plate.

She nodded, not wanting to admit that she was ravenous. “So,” she said after a few well-controlled bites, “what’s on the docket today?”

He smiled. “I want you to meet the rest of the team. I’ve decided to give you an overview of what happened while you were here last time. That way you’ll have a frame of reference when I introduce you to them. As you spend time with each of them, they can fill in the details for you.”

Maggie nodded, studying her gray, flaky food.

“Don’t look so excited.”

She looked up at him, and he grinned. She smiled back.

“Sorry. I’m just still chewing through the last information overload.”

He nodded. “I promise there’s an end in sight. Once you know this, you’ll know most of it.”

Maggie nodded, taking a deep breath and heaving it out. “You might as well get started.”

“When you got here last time, we finally had someone to fill each of the positions the prophecy mentions.”

“How many?”

“Seven. I’m the Healer, as you know. Doc is the Witness. Joan is the Protector. Karl is the Traveler. Clay is the Concealer. And you are the Executioner.”

Maggie frowned. “That’s only six, isn’t it?” She counted mentally again.

Marcus smiled, though there was sadness in his face. “Yes, it’s only six. There is one more position, the Deceiver. When last you were here, it was filled. It no longer is.”

“What happened?” Maggie asked quietly.

“That’s part of what I need to tell you about.”

“Did someone die?”

“Yes.”

Maggie wondered what a Deceiver did. It didn’t sound like an asset to a secret team that was trying to work together to bring down a collective.

“Will you explain what each role does? Deceiver? And I’m…Executioner?”

He smiled. “I wish I could. Doc thinks each role is many-tiered. I can heal people physiologically, but Doc thinks my role may be bigger than that. Perhaps it has to do with psychological healing or healing the team as a whole.”

“Or humanity as whole?”

He winced. “I hope it’s not that all-encompassing. Anyway”—he shook his head—“Doc is the Witness. He’s a doctor by profession, but Doc is a genius in his own right. He sees the way things fit together. I don’t mean machines—though he does have a fascination with schematics and blueprints. He sees the way people fit together, the way a plan will play out even before it does. His role as Witness has so far been seeing all our missions and plans. He has a clear vision of contingencies, so he can make decisions about the best course of action. You might call him the engineer of the team, as he brought us all together. He deals with the logistics of our team and our missions.

“Joan is the Protector. I’ll let her tell you about her gifts, but she has powers that can protect all members of the team from harm.

“Karl is the Traveler. He can wrap the fabric of space-time around himself and then decide where he wants to go. He’s the reason we were able to come get you at all.”

“Clay is the Concealer. Like Joan, he has powers that can hide us from the collectives.”

“How is that different from Joan?”

“Joan’s powers can shield us from harm—from mental attack. Clay can hide us, keep us from being found at all.

“And you are Executioner.”

Maggie’s eyes went to her empty plate. She didn’t know why she was self-conscious about it, but she felt like a killer.

Marcus put his finger under her chin and tilted her face up to meet his. Her heart pounded against her rib cage when her gaze came level with his.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Maggie. Or afraid of. It simply is.”

“But what does it mean?” Her throat had gone dry, and the question came out in a raspy whisper.

He hesitated before answering. “We can’t be sure, but I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with death.”

She looked up hopefully.

“Think about it. One can execute a plan or process. Perhaps it simply means that you are the one who must implement whatever plan or mission will eventually lead to the downfall of the collectives. We were operating under that assumption when we started looking for you. If that’s what the prophecy meant, then you’re absolutely necessary to our success. We had to fill the vacancy in the team.”

Maggie tore her gaze away from his. It was too hard to think when he was staring at her. Besides, sitting so close to him, she found herself staring at his scar. It wasn’t large or distracting, but, trying to avoid his eyes, her gaze just went there.

He took her hand. “Maggie, don’t stress over this. I think we should continue to operate under the assumption we did before until we have reason to think otherwise.”

After a moment, Maggie nodded. He was right. “So what about the last position? Deceiver doesn’t sound conducive to team work.”

Marcus chuckled. “We all thought the same thing for a long time, but when we found Colin, we knew he was perfect. He found us, actually. He believed in our cause and wanted to join us, even before anyone realized his brain chemistry matched one of those mentioned in the prophecy. When we realized he could fill the spot, we tested him to see what his abilities were. What we discovered was remarkable.”

“How so?”

“He had the ability to close off portions of his mind and keep them hidden from other telepaths. This meant that he could be part of a collective without completely submitting to them. They would think that he had, because they would absorb his mind, but the closed-off part would retain his individuality. We could now penetrate the collectives and study them. We had no idea what the collectives were like before Colin came to us. His role was deceiver not to his allies, but to his enemies.”

“So what happened to him?”

Marcus cleaned his plate and set it on top of hers on the tray.

“Before, you were here for almost a year. We had all members of the team but didn’t know how we were going to bring down the collectives. We tried several times to use Colin to infiltrate them. It sort of worked, but not really.”

“Why not?”

“As I said, Colin could keep a part of his brain private and individual from the rest of the collective, but it was difficult for him to do. It took tons of energy. Doc was afraid that he was lysing his brain cells.”

“Lysing?”

“Sorry. Destroying his brain cells. Simply put, it was killing him. He built up his strength as he went. The first time, he only stayed in for fifteen minutes. He got to where he could do it for several hours. The last time, he was under for two days. When he came out, he was in a coma for almost a week. The strain on his mind was too much.

“We kept trying but had only limited success. Each time Colin went under and came out, he brought valuable information but never anything that would tell us how to bring them down.

“A month before you left us, we discovered something. There were spacecraft in orbit around earth.”

Maggie felt her eyes round out. She couldn’t help it. “Spaceships?”

He smiled. “Yes. Before the world fell apart, the technology to build galaxy-traversing craft existed. It was never utilized to a great extent though, because the world came crashing down, and while the knowledge still existed, the materials and motivation didn’t.

“Doc was able to construct long-distance scanners. He originally built them so we could monitor the collectives but found that he could also scan the atmosphere of the planet. He discovered ships in orbit there.

“By that time, we’d scoured most of the earth’s surface, looking for where the leaders of the collectives were hiding, but without success. We thought the masterminds might be underground as we were, and we would just have to wait until they showed themselves. We never considered they might be above us instead.”

“So they were in the ships?”

“We’d searched everywhere else, but we couldn’t be sure what was in the ships until we looked. Our scanners didn’t penetrate their outer hulls—a weak Concealment that didn’t Conceal the ships themselves, but what was inside—so we knew we’d have to board. It was risky, because we had to go without any prior information and absolutely no idea what we’d find. We had no choice, though. If we wanted information about the ships, we had to observe it first hand.

“You, Colin, Joan, and I were the boarding party.”

“Why us?”

“You, being the Executioner, went on all of them. As Healer and Protector, so did Joan and I, for obvious reasons. We brought Colin in case we got a chance to infiltrate any enemy minds that might tell us something. The plan was to get aboard, look around, plant small censors that would allow us to scan the insides of the ships once we were off them, and get out. Preferably alive.”

“Things didn’t go smoothly?”

“No. There was one large ship and five smaller ones in orbit. We started with what we affectionately called the Mother Ship. We decided that would be our most important source of information. If there was enough time and things went smoothly, we would move on to the smaller vessels.

“The four of us split up once on board so that we could get censors quickly to each part of the ship. After that, you were captured, and Colin tried to save you. Neither Joan or I were privy to the details.”

Maggie leaned back, a sick feeling ballooning in her stomach. “He…died…trying to save me?”

Marcus gave her a sympathetic look. “Yes. An alarm was raised. Joan and I found each other. We were in communication with the rest of team on the ground, and once our censors were in place, they started getting readings and were able to direct us somewhat. You were in the custody of the Masterminds for three hours. When we found you, you were in a coma, and Colin was brain dead.

“Joan and I were both injured trying to get to you. I knew you could be healed and brought out of your coma. Colin couldn’t. His cerebral cortex had been destroyed. We couldn’t carry both of you. We could have dragged him, but we had to hurry if we were to get ourselves out, so we left Colin’s body behind.”

Marcus swallowed, his eyes searching the blank wall. Maggie could tell the memory was a painful one.

“I’m sorry, Marcus. Were you and Colin close?”

He looked up at her, surprised. “Yes. We all were. I don’t know if it’s a mercy that you don’t remember him or not, Maggie. You and him were especially close. If you had your memories, you’d miss him terribly.”

“Do you know what happened?”

Marcus shook his head. “Not in detail, though we can guess. The two of you found the Mastermind, an individual that could control the collective. Colin tried to infiltrate this person’s mind—to cut him off from the collectives or perhaps kill him.

“Colin was a hero, Maggie. Not only did he save your life—from what Doc could tell, your coma was caused by the Mastermind attacking your brain, trying to destroy it from the inside out. He nearly succeeded. Colin’s interference kept him from turning you into a vegetable—but Colin also managed to kill the Mastermind. Like Colin, the man we found was physically alive but brain dead. Colin destroyed his own mind to kill the man that was annihilating individualism.”

“So…” Maggie rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to process everything. “So then what happened? Why did you send me back? Why don’t I remember this? And why didn’t killing him work?”

“Doc and I worked on you when we got back to Interchron. Whatever that man did, it destroyed your memories. He didn’t destroy your entire mind, but he got some of it. That’s not something I can fix. If the memories had been blocked or clouded somehow, I could have helped, but no one can reconstruct memories for another person. An individual must construct memories for themselves.

“Yet we had killed the Mastermind. We dared to hope that we’d accomplished our mission. We kept you with us, sedated, for a week to see if anything changed.”

“And?”

“It did. Inside a week, the collectives started falling apart. We told you that they joined together until there was only two? A week after this happened, there were suddenly four. Then seven. Then more. Individuals were breaking away from the collectives by the hundreds. We had succeeded.”

Marcus hung his head and sighed. “And then there was you. Doc did some tests and realized that roughly one year of your memories were gone—the entire time you’d spent with us. You had another history you were born to, meant to be part of—you needed to be returned to it. In plucking you from your own time, the plan was always to take you back when we achieved success. Your memories of us were gone. It was decided that the easiest, most ethical thing to do was to put you back in the same time we took you from—when you were in Vegas.”

Marcus raised his hazel eyes to hers, and she couldn’t have looked away if her life depended on it.

“Maggie, I want you to know that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. None of us got to say good-bye. We never woke you up. You’d have just been confused and scared. So we sent you back. That was the last time I saw you before yesterday. It’s been about a year.”

He continued to stare into her face for several seconds before blinking rapidly and looking down.

“Two months ago, the collectives began coalescing again. There are once again only two large ones. And reports of the murders of individuals are reaching record numbers.

“We did succeed, but only for a time. We hoped that it was that simple—that we’d succeeded with only one casualty. Now we know it was wishful thinking. How can you succeed against an enemy you don’t know anything about and can’t understand? We must try again, even though the team isn’t whole. At least we have you. We’re already looking for another to fill Colin’s role, and we’ll start over.”

“How do you know this time will be any different?”

He smiled. “We have a lot more information this time. We know how the Mastermind was controlling the collectives. We gathered information from the censors we planted, so we know a lot about their ships and the level of their technology. We have a good idea of what to expect.”

He sounded optimistic, but Maggie felt hopeless.

Marcus took her hands in his. They were warm and large enough that one could encompass both of hers. “I know it sounds bleak, but it’s not as bad as you think. Everyone’s happy to have you back. We’re family here. If we almost succeeded before, when we had no idea what we were doing, I have no doubt that we can succeed for good. We just have to put our hearts and minds and muscles into it.”

She returned his smile, though she didn’t feel it. She hoped he was right.

 

Chapter 9: The Team

After eating, Marcus led Maggie out of the room. The corridors were dark, and lights turned on and then off again as they passed.

“Why not just leave the lights on during the day?” Maggie asked, thinking of censor lights in her time that turned on with motion and didn’t turn off unless several minutes passed without movement.

“To conserve energy. This place takes a lot of power to run.”

“But how do they work?”

“Like a lot of the basic needs of living, the lights in this place are always ready to work. Everything is in place for a complete circuit. I’m the one turning it on and off.”

“How?”

“With my thoughts. I complete the circuit in any area we’re in, so we can see where we’re going. When we’ve passed, I turn it off.”

“But…you can do that just by thinking about it?”

“So can you.”

Maggie shook her head. “Maybe I could before, but that’s something I’ll have to relearn.”

“You already did it once, Maggie.”

“No I didn’t.”

Marcus smiled over at her. “You just don’t realize you did.”

“When?”

“In the facilities this morning. I heard the water running in the sink.”

“I just put my hands under the facet. Isn’t it on a censor?”

“No. Not in the way you’re thinking. We don’t build handles and knobs anymore, because we can use our minds to do things. If water came out, it’s because you told it to.”

“You make it sound like I commanded it or something. All I did was put my hands under the tap and hope for water.”

“That’s often good enough. Maybe just by being here your brain is remembering things. Not your memories themselves but some sort of cellular memory.”

Maggie was skeptical. “But if I don’t know what I’m doing, if I’m not concentrating, how can it just…work for me?”

“The answer is partially in this facility. We’ve discovered that when unintelligent objects are manipulated by humans for a time, they become more docile, more pliable. If someone tries to manipulate an object that is, say, out in the forest and has never been worked on by a human, the object puts forth resistance.”

“What kind of resistance?”

“It’s hard to describe unless you’ve tried it yourself, but you can feel the molecules pushing against your influence. Not that it can’t be done, especially by someone experienced in manipulating unintelligent matter, but it’s harder.

“The point is that we’ve all lived and worked here for years now. Where other objects might require a lot of concentration, this facility is very malleable to our wishes, so simply wishing for something is enough to bring it forth.”

Maggie sighed. “If you say so.”

“Here we are.”

Marcus led her through a maze of hallways and intersections. After five minutes she was completely lost. They moved steadily up an incline and came to a long, straight corridor. At the end, which she sensed might be the highest point in the facility, was a double doorway, though with no doors, just like all the other rooms.

“This is the team’s command center,” Marcus said, leading her through the doorway.

Just as before, it seemed dark from the corridor, but once she stepped through, the room was well lit.

It was as big as the entire main floor of her home. Consoles lined the perimeter, complete with chairs pushed up to them, but like the other equipment she’d seen, they were dead machines. The surfaces looked like solid metal with no colors, buttons, or anything to evidence a working machine.

There were a few notable exceptions. Three chairs were occupied: two on the far side of the room and one ten feet from the door she and Marcus had just come through. Where there were people sitting, the consoles were alive with lights and designs.

In the center of the room, two large tables had been pushed together to make an enormous one. It was piled with maps, books, and documents she couldn’t identify.

When they entered, the people in the room turned toward them, and Maggie was immediately uncomfortable. When each of them saw her, they broke into broad smiles, said her name, and got up from their chairs. Obviously they knew her, but other than Karl and Doc, none of them looked familiar to her.

Marcus stepped up beside her. “Yes, everyone. Maggie is here. She’s going to need everyone’s help filling in details, but try not to overwhelm her. I think I’ve already done an excellent job of that.”

He smiled down at her, and she smiled back but didn’t bother denying it. What was the point?

“Let’s start with introductions. You remember Doc and Karl from last night.”

Maggie nodded at each of them.

“How are you feeling today, Maggie?” Doc crossed the room and took her hand.

“Still a bit confused, I’m afraid, but that’s all.”

“No headaches? Nausea? Nightmares?”

“…No.”

Doc cocked an eyebrow at her hesitation. “If you have any trouble sleeping, let me know.”

Maggie nodded.

“Good to see you again, Maggie.” Karl’s grin was like a bear’s—so huge it was a little scary. He was all teeth.

Marcus directed her toward the person who’d been sitting at the console a few feet from the door. He was standing now, staring at her intently. He had light-brown hair and a slightly freckled complexion. Maggie’s first impression was that he was way too thin, like a musician. His hair was slightly rockstar-ish too, but his eyes had depth, and his smile was beautiful.

“Maggie, this is Clay.”

Maggie stepped forward and took his outstretched hand. “Concealer?”

He smiled. “That’s right.”

His voice was soft; he was either very shy, very soft spoken, or both.

Clay said nothing else, and Marcus steered Maggie around the center table to where the other two had been sitting at their consoles.

One was a dark-haired woman in her late thirties. The wrinkles adorning the crannies of her face and the circles under her eyes relegated her to handsomeness, but as a younger woman, she must have been quite stunning. Her dark hair was bobbed and framed a full face, and her eyes were kind.

“Maggie, this is Joan.”

Joan’s smile was warm as she took Maggie’s hand. “It’s so good to see you again, Maggie.” Joan glanced from side to side. “It’s good to have some relief from all the testosterone around here.”

The men all chuckled.

“And finally, this is Dillon.”

Maggie shook his hand but was confused. She’d not heard his name before. “And what do you do?”

It was Marcus that answered. “Oh, he’s not named in the prophecy, but there are many here who aren’t. Just because they don’t have a direct role doesn’t mean they don’t believe in what we’re doing. They volunteer their time and skills for our cause.”

“And believe me,” Doc chimed in, “we’re grateful for it.”

Dillon couldn’t be much older than Maggie herself, but his hairline had receded enough to make him look quite bald in front. His bulk gave him extra skin around his eyes and mouth, making him look perpetually tired.

“I am a security advisor, Maggie. I helped build Interchron, so I know its ins and outs and secret passages. We have a large security force, and I’m its leader.”

Maggie nodded. “Nice to meet you.” She turned, letting her gaze light on each of them. “Nice to meet you all. Again.”

They all chuckled or smiled and bobbed their heads at her.

“Actually,” Dillon said, “I’m glad you’re here, Marcus. There’s a matter on the lower level that needs your attention.”

Marcus turned to Joan. “What are you working on?”

“Nothing pressing.”

“If I go with Dillon, can you show Maggie around a bit? Try to re-familiarize her with everything?”

“Of course.”

“Take her down to meet some of the families. Talking with them will help her get a feel for the place. Tell her as many details of what happened before as you can remember. That goes for everyone.” His gaze swept around the room. “In lieu of a memory, we need to give Maggie as rounded a picture of what happened as possible. Remember she’s starting from scratch. She doesn’t know our technology or how things work, so be patient and answer her questions.”

Everyone nodded as he spoke. Marcus turned to her and lowered his voice so only she could hear. “Will you be okay without me for a while?”

Maggie hoped her smile was confident. “Sure.”

Marcus smiled back, laugh crinkles forming around his hazel eyes as he did, before turning to Dillon. “Lead the way.”

“I’ll take you around the whole facility,” Joan said, “but would you like a quick tour of the command center first?”

Maggie shrugged. “Sure.”

“We all know how to do everything, but we each have our specialties. The station I’m at has censors that focus on the collectives and their activities. We usually call this the specs station because we can hone in on a specific place or hive and monitor their movements and activities.”

Joan turned in her chair and motioned to where Clay was sitting. “Clay is monitoring NetworkInfo. We have several different networks of spies. They are all individuals, many with families living here in the compound. We’ve been unable to infiltrate the collectives, but we watch them closely and monitor their communications with each other.”

Standing, Joan moved over to the area Dillon had been at. At some point his console had gone dead and Maggie hadn’t noticed, but as Joan sat and put her hands on the smooth, metallic surface, it came to life again, showing what looked like an interactive blueprint.

“This shows us Interchron. From here we can monitor any part of the compound. We can superimpose scans for different substances or chemicals to tell if certain areas are affected by them. We can also overlay infrared to see where people are at all times. Things like that.”

“So you have to touch the consoles to turn them on?”

Joan’s eyes grew wide. After a moment of awkward silence, she said, “You really are a greenie at this.”

“That’s gotta suck.” It was Karl. He was probably trying to mumble, but his voice was so loud and deep that it carried clearly to her.

She looked over at him, but he was pretending to ignore her.

“Don’t mind him,” Joan said. “He’s got a weird sense of humor.”

Maggie ignored the deep, indignant huff from behind her.

“The expression sucks is still around?”

She couldn’t help but notice everyone’s speech patterns. They were speaking English, and she could understand them perfectly, but their words had a different sound than she was used to, like they were dragging out the ends of their words or just forming them differently than she did. She supposed the evolution of speech was to be expected, but this was the first time she’d heard any of them use that expression.

Joan laughed when she realized what Maggie was asking.

“Actually, no. He learned that from you the last time you were here. You kept saying that, and no one knew what you meant. Finally you taught us, and Karl hasn’t stopped saying it since.”

Smiling, Maggie looked over at Karl again.

He grinned and saluted her with two fingers. “You single-handedly preserved that figure of speech for posterity, Maggs.”

Maggie rolled her eyes, noting how natural it felt to have him call her that. “Yeah, that’s what I want to be known for.”

He shrugged. “Hey, everyone’s got to be known for something. You can’t pick and choose.”

Joan laughed. Over against the opposite wall, Clay was working quietly, but Maggie could see that he too was grinning. Suddenly Maggie had a very real, disconcerting sense of being home.

Chapter 10: Creature Comforts

Interchron was a maze Maggie wasn’t sure she’d ever figure out. The entrance she’d used the previous night was not a main one. It was at the top of the mountain and, as it led to the corridor near the command center, was used mostly by the team.

Maggie was surprised to find a thriving community hidden within the mountain. Nearly a hundred people lived in the mountain’s shelter, most of them down low in the depths. These were people who believed in individuality and didn’t want to be forced into collectives. Though they weren’t mentioned in the prophecy, each in their own way contributed to the goal of bringing individual freedom back.

Interchron was a series of hollowed-out caves. The farther down she went, the more places there were to explore. Unlike what she would have expected, there was no dampness in the caves. They were completely dry and filled with soft, beach-like sand. There was evidence of electricity and plumbing throughout, though she couldn’t always see it. The only difference between this community and the ones Maggie was used to—other than the occasional technological tweak that made Maggie feel as if she were on the movie set of a sci-fi—was the lack of natural light. This place felt just as advanced as anything Maggie was used to.

Joan took her through the corridors without ceremony. She met many people, most of whom recognized her.

One looked a lot like Joan.

“Maggie, this is my daughter, Lila.”

Maggie smiled. Lila couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, but she was a spitting image of her mother. “We met the other night. Nice to see you again, Lila.”

“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” With a little flit of a wave, she disappeared around a gigantic stalactite.

“How old are you, Joan? You don’t look old enough to have a daughter Lila’s age.”

Joan smiled. “Thank you, but I assure you I am. I’m forty-three. Come, I want to show you something.”

They wound through the maze of corridors, passing more people with whom Maggie had similar conversations. They recognized her and tried to speak to her in a familiar way, but Joan stopped them, and they would offer to help Maggie in any way they could. They were some of the kindest people she’d ever met.

They walked for twenty minutes before the number of people in the corridors thinned out. Then they went several minutes without meeting anyone. They came to a long, dark passageway. Unlike other places they’d been, there were no lights in it.

Joan located a box built into the wall from which she pulled what Maggie guessed was this century’s equivalent of a flashlight. Joan cupped it in her hands, and soon it radiated a warm, yellow glow. She held it out above her like a lantern and started down the passageway.

“No lights in here?” Maggie asked, following.

“No. We could put them in, but no one ever comes down here. It’s cold and far away from the others.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Because you used to come here. It’s one of your favorite spots.”

The passageway opened into a large cavern. As soon as Maggie entered, a cool wind hit her full in the face. It was cold enough to send chills down her spine, but she liked the freshness. None of Interchron felt close or stuffy, but this was more open, more free.

“I see why,” Maggie said, and Joan laughed.

The ground stretched out for fifteen feet before dropping off sharply. Maggie went to the edge and knelt, peering out into the darkness.

“What’s down there?”

“We don’t know. Because of the lack of light, no one’s ever been down there. I think it’s a canyon of some kind.”

“So a river used to run through here?”

“Listen. What do you hear?”

Maggie listened. There were no people nearby, so when one of them wasn’t talking, there was absolute silence. Then she became conscious of a muted whooshing sound. It was soft, as though coming from deep within the mountain.

“You mean that wind sound?”

“Not wind. It’s a river. Our scanners show that it’s not down below in this canyon. It’s behind the rock wall. That means that there are other hollowed-out caverns in this mountain.”

“Meaning what?”

Joan shrugged. “Nothing, just an interesting fact. There may be ways to get to them, which means there may be room to expand in the future.”

“Are we out of space?”

“Not at all. We’ll need a lot more people for that. I just wanted to bring you here. I thought it might give you some comfort.”

“I’m glad you did. It’s peaceful.”

Joan chuckled. “Most people would go with creepy, but you always did like it.”

“Joan, can I ask you something?”

“Of course. You and I were good friends before. We talked about everything. I hope we can be that way again.”

“I’d like that,” Maggie said. “You’ll just have to be patient with me until I feel more comfortable.”

“No one expects you to open up right away, Maggie. What do you want to ask?”

“About Marcus.”

Joan smiled. “I wondered how long it would take you to bring him up.”

Maggie was glad for the relative darkness. She could feel warmth in her cheeks. “What exactly was my relationship with him?”

“The two of you were romantically involved.”

Maggie supposed she had known that. “Yes, but…how did I feel about him?”

Joan put her lantern on a rock and sat next to it. “I’ve known Marcus for a lot longer than I’ve known you, Maggie—since he was a teenager. He was completely in love with you. I’ve never seen him act toward anyone the way he did toward you.”

“And what about me?”

“I think you loved him too.”

Maggie sighed.

“You’re not happy about that?”

Maggie shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how to act around him. Everyone here looks at me like they remember me, but he looks at me like he really knows me. Did he and I…”

“Were you physical?”

Maggie nodded.

“Yes.”

“Oh dear.”

“Is that so surprising? You were here for a year.”

“I just hate the idea that he knows all these really personal things about me and I can’t even remember him.”

Joan was silent for a time. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, Maggie. I’ve never lost memories that way. Do you know what cellular memory is?”

Maggie nodded. “It’s a theory that says cells, even though they don’t have brains, can remember certain things. Right?”

“Sort of, but you’re thinking of it backward. It says memories are stored in cells, not just the brain. It was of interest in your time because organ transplant recipients sometimes developed the habits of their donors. It’s a subject I’m very interested in, but it’s not a priority, so it doesn’t have much claim on my time.

“I believe that, to a certain extent at least, memories are stored in the body. I’m not sure of the details, but I believe they’re there. Even if you can’t remember Marcus with your mind, perhaps you’ll start to remember him in some other way.”

Maggie sighed. “I wish I could remember. I wish there were some way. Not to question Doc, but are we certain there isn’t?”

“I’m no physician, but both Doc and Marcus said your memories were gone. There was nothing there to work with. Even if they could make something out of nothing, they couldn’t make memories for you. Each individual must do that for themselves.”

Maggie nodded. “That’s what Doc said. I just wish…”

Joan stood and took Maggie’s hand. “Me too, Maggie. Me too.”

 

Chapter 11: Trepidation

Maggie and Joan stayed in what Joan called the Canyon room for more than an hour exchanging stories. Maggie told Joan what happened the day before at her house, and about running from the Arachnimen.

Joan talked about her life and family. She was married when she was younger than Maggie and stayed with that same man until he died six years earlier. He was killed fighting the collectives, fighting to keep Joan and Lila free. Joan didn’t go into details, and Maggie didn’t press her. She could feel that the subject was an emotional one.

“Marcus and Doc said everyone on the team ought to give me their point of view of what happened before, on the ships.”

Joan nodded. “It’s a good idea, but we’ve been down here for a while. Why don’t I tell you as we walk back?”

Maggie nodded. Using the lantern, Joan lit their way out of the dank passage. Once they reached the lighted pathway again, she put the lantern back into the box in the wall.

“Joan, did you use your mind to make that work?”

“To emit the light? Yes. This is a rock that can channel and emit light waves. The ability to produce light is already there—I just have to pull it out.”

Maggie shook her head in wonder, and Joan chuckled.

“You can do this too. You just have to be re-taught. Actually, you’re quite good at this particular ability. It’s one of your talents.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were always good at finding light. Certain materials can emit more or better light than others. You’re drawn to light sources. We always joked that if we were ever thrown into a dark room, we’d want to be with you. If there was light to be found, you’d coax it forth.

“That particular item”—Joan indicated the lantern she’d replaced—“is quite simple. It’s made of light-conductive material, so I know exactly what to do, where to look for what I need. In an unfamiliar place, it’s much harder for most people.”

Maggie sighed as they curved their way along the abandoned bedrock corridors. “It’s frustrating that I already knew this and now I have to start from scratch.”

Joan nodded. “I can imagine. But don’t worry too much. Everyone was amazed at how quickly you caught on last time. You’re smart and good at this. Now that you’ve done it once—have it in cell memory, perhaps—I think you’ll pick it up even faster. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll learn in a short time. Besides—”

A deafening chime flooded the corridors. It was so jarring that Maggie’s head ached instantly. Her hands flew to her ears. The chime’s bleep was so loud and high pitched that Maggie felt like a bat was screeching down deep in her ear canal.

Joan put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, looking apologetic. “Sorry.”

Maggie didn’t know if she’d said or just mouthed it. The chime drowned out anything verbal.

The sound continued for thirty seconds before coming to an abrupt stop. Maggie dropped her hands with relief.

“What was—” She realized she was shouting. “That,” she finished in a more normal tone. She opened and closed her jaw, trying to get her ears to pop.

“Sorry. I haven’t had time to warn you about the alert system. Come on, we have to hurry. I’ll explain as we go.”

Joan took off through the compound at a walk brisk enough that Maggie had to jog to keep up with Joan’s longer strides.

“Is something wrong?”

“I don’t suppose you noticed the number of alert sounds we heard?”

“I was supposed to count them?”

“You’ll learn to. This system is in place because Interchron is so big, and we don’t have a particularly great internal communication system. If two people want to talk to each other from across the mountain, there are ways to do it, but this gets everyone’s attention at once.”

“Why would we need everyone’s attention?”

“Because something is happening that requires all hands on deck. The first two groups of sounds tell what entrance to go to. There are five main entrances. Each entrance has a specific number assigned to it. There were three tones in what we heard. That tells us we’re going to the middle entrance on the west side. The tones were repeated twice to make sure nobody misses them.

“The next two groups of sounds tell us the alert level. Depending on the level of alert—one through five—people know whether it’s urgent, whether to bring weapons, and whether to bring their children to help.”

“Why would they bring their kids?”

“It’s not always an emergency. Sometimes it’s something simple like getting a large shipment of supplies and everyone has to help unload so there is less chance of being seen. It’s not dangerous, just time sensitive. The collectives don’t know where we are. It’s crucial that the Arachnimen not see any of our entrances.”

Maggie nodded. “I take it the tones told you that this is an emergency?”

“Yes. The highest alert level. I don’t want to give you a weapon, Maggie. You won’t know how to use it. When we get there, just help where you can.”

Maggie nodded, but her stomach was suddenly carsick. She could feel that they were walking into a dangerous situation.

She followed Joan through complicated twists and turns until the hallway they were in finally opened into a wide chamber. The far wall was gone, like an enormous garage door. The only things in the cargo bay-like space were people.

Maggie recognized many of those who came to help as people she’d met earlier. More were pouring in by the dozens. A few asked how they could help, but most just went to work. Either they already knew what to do, or they summed up the situation, found something to do, and dove in.

“Karl, what’s happening?” Joan crossed to the center of the room where Karl stood amidst a swirl of activity.

Maggie stayed close to her.

“Individuals. The reconnaissance team is bringing a group in, but they’ve got Trepids on their tale.”

Joan spun to face Maggie as Karl turned his attention to someone on the other side of the room. “The reconnaissance team is bringing in a group of outsiders, but they’re running from what we call Trepids.”

“What are they?”

“They’re Arachnimen but worse than the ones you saw. These are trained to hunt down and torture enemies. Doc told you that the individuals are being murdered? These men are committing the murders. They have a reputation for terror, torture, even rape.”

“So what do we do?”

“We’re here to welcome the group in. Most of them have been on the run for a long time. They will be untrusting of large groups and confined spaces, such as these.” She motioned to the mountain that surrounded them. “We women have to be the nurturers here.”

“Nurturers?”

“These people are frightened, desperate, and flighty. They’ve probably suffered at the hands of the Arachnimen before, so they’ll be afraid of men. We have to calm them, tell them they’re safe, get them to trust us.”

Maggie nodded. “So we go out and bring them in?”

“Absolutely not. We stay within the shelter of the mountain at all times. It’s protected by the minds of hundreds of people. The reconnaissance team will bring them in. They’re being chased, so getting them in won’t be hard. But once inside, many of them will rethink their decision and try to get away from us. We have to make them understand that they’re not in danger. Staying is the safest choice. If the Trepids catch them, it’ll be horrible.”

“Okay. I understand.”

Maggie looked around and could see what Joan had described taking shape. Many of the people who responded to the alert were carrying blankets, water bottles, and dried food supplies. A dozen people had lined up around the opening to the cave. They had what might have been weapons in their hands, though Maggie couldn’t tell. Karl was directing things.

“They’re coming!”

The shout came from a man Maggie didn’t know who stood near the mouth of the cave. Everyone turned toward the opening.

Despite the fact that there were thirty or forty people gathered, the opening was large enough that Maggie had no trouble seeing what was happening.

The day was gray and overcast, yet the daylight was bright compared to the artificial light of the caves. A flat, grassy area lay just outside the bay. It dipped out of sight a hundred yards away, and Maggie was sure the mountain dropped away just beyond it.

A ragtag group came into view. Two-dozen people of all ages and both genders were running toward the cave. Most were adults, but there was a handful of young people and four or five children. Their progress was agonizingly slow. Many of them had limps or other injuries, and Maggie wondered how long they’d been fleeing.

It was easy to pick out the reconnaissance team from among them. Maggie didn’t know how many people constituted such a team, but four people—three men and one woman—were dressed similarly to those who lived in the caves. They were cleaner, moved with more ease, and had an obvious focus on the cave’s opening.

As they covered the final stretch of land before reaching the cave, the group became strung out. The faster, more able ones reached the cave quickly, while the less agile ones lagged behind. Each person had to make it to the cave themselves, but once inside, they received a barrage of help. The cave dwellers picked them up, escorted them to an out-of-the-way spot, and offered blankets, water, and other comforts.

Then Maggie saw the Trepids. She immediately understood the name. They looked like Arachnimen but were larger, more formidable. Their faces were darker, but from this distance she couldn’t tell why. Perhaps they were wearing dark paint.

The reconnaissance team was trying to fight back the Trepids and hurry along those members of the refugee group who were falling behind. It was agony to watch from the cave. Maggie had an overwhelming urge to run out and help them, but no one else was moving, and Joan had warned her not to go.

When only a few individuals remained outside the cave, the reconnaissance team left them altogether and turned their attention to warding off the Trepids.

One woman was close to the cave and hauling three children along. She had an infant in one arm and two older children—probably each four or five years old—in the other. Just before she reached the cave, she stopped. There was so much going on that no one noticed her.

Except Maggie. The woman and her children were within an arm’s reach of safety, and yet she was standing in place, turning in circles and yelling something. The other stragglers passed the woman and entered the cave. The woman and her three children were the only ones other than the reconnaissance team left outside.

Helpers from the cave called and motioned for her to come in. More Trepids flooded over the rise and crashed down on the reconnaissance team with renewed vigor, hacking and whaling. The fight was becoming more violent, and those in the cave were frantically trying to get the woman’s attention.

Finally Karl stepped outside the cave—only one enormous step for him—and grabbed the woman by the arm, hauling her and the three children inside.

The woman became hysterical, screaming, fighting, hitting those that were trying to keep her in place.

Maggie hurried over to her and put a hand on Karl’s arm. “Please, let me try,” she said.

Karl stepped away from the hysterical woman.

Maggie took the woman by the shoulders and turned her firmly so she was looking directly into Maggie’s face. “Ma’am, you are safe here. Please, let us help you.”

“Not me,” the woman wailed, “my baby. He’s two! He hides when he’s scared. He’s still out there somewhere. I’m not sure how long ago he left my side! Please don’t let those monsters get him!”

Maggie looked up at Karl, who gulped. No one had stopped to wonder what the woman was searching for. Maggie ran to the edge of the cave, eyes sweeping the mountainside for signs of the lost child.

The reconnaissance team made it into the cave, sweeping past Maggie and those guarding the opening. Six Trepids lay in her line of vision, cut down by the reconnaissance team. Dozens more were running toward her. Maggie didn’t know how they were going to close up the side of the mountain, but the Trepids were fifty yards away and closing fast.

Then she saw it—a flash of color in her peripheral vision. She turned her head. It was the top of a tiny head peeping up from behind thick underbrush. It came partially into view then swiveled back and forth for several seconds before the commotion of the Trepids startled it back into hiding again. It was the woman’s son. He must have gotten afraid and hidden in the bushes, but now he couldn’t see his mother.

“We can’t go back out again,” Karl was saying. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Truly, I am. But we don’t know where your son is. He might have strayed from you a mile back. We have to close up the mountain. If you join us, you may have the opportunity to save your son. But we simply can’t go out looking for him with dozens of Trepids around.”

Maggie wanted to tell Karl that the boy was there, not twenty yards from the opening, but the Trepids were closing too quickly. The boy was half the distance between them and the cave, and they weren’t slowing down. Explanations would take precious seconds they didn’t have.

Suddenly, one of the Trepids—a giant of a man with swinging jowls and a crooked nose—broke off from the main group and made a beeline for the bush. He’d spotted the child.

Maggie didn’t think, she just reacted. She lunged into the clearing, vaguely registering voices calling her name from behind.

Her feet barely touched the ground as she zipped across the field and skidded into the knee-high bush. From the other side two frightened, tear-filled eyes peered up at her.

She knew the child would probably be afraid of her, but she didn’t have time to consider it. Bending at the waist, she hefted the little boy up, over the shrub, and into her arms then spun on her toe to run back to the shelter of the mountain.

It wasn’t that simple. In the time it had taken her to reach the boy, the Trepids had closed their distance to the bush. They were almost on top of her.

Maggie ran, knowing she wouldn’t make it, and got all of ten feet before huge, vice-like fingers closed around her elbow. In one movement, the man whipped her around to face him and knocked her onto her backside. The weight of the child falling on top of her drove the air from her lungs.

Now that she was right next to the Trepids, there was no denying it: they were bigger than the Arachnimen she and Marcus escaped from. This man stood well over six feet tall with tree trunks for legs and boulders for arms. He could probably kill Maggie with his bare hands without even breathing hard.

She could also see why their faces had looked darker from a distance. The Arachnimen had spider web tattoos over their eyes. The round, web part had covered their orbits with only bare strings stretching out over their faces. These Trepids had much larger webs that covered most of their features. The man she was looking at had strange symbols tattooed where lines of webbing came together and gems encrusted at certain junctures. He had an earring in his right ear that looked like the one the Arachniman who had attacked Maggie in her home had worn—only this one had a dot both below the X and to the right of it.

Maggie didn’t have time to think about what it all meant. Her right hand moved frantically over the earth, searching for a weapon.

I have to find one, she thought. I will. I will! Her palm closed over a smooth, round rock, perfectly fitted to the curve of her hand.

The boy was not fighting Maggie now. He was facing into her chest, legs wrapped around her waist, tiny fingernails digging into the back of her neck.

The Trepid put one Godzilla foot on Maggie’s knee, letting his entire weight rest there so she had no chance of twisting away. He reached down and gathered a handful of the boy’s shirt.

Maggie held her rock with one hand and the boy with the other. When the Trepid tried to yank the boy out of her grasp, she twisted her hip, arced her arm, and used the upward momentum of the man’s own pull to swing around and clock him in the cheek with the donut-sized rock. She felt more than heard the faint clacking sound, like plastic fence slats bumping together, and knew she had shattered his cheekbone.

Her blow didn’t knock him down, but he staggered backward, clutching his cheek in surprise. The second he let go of her, Maggie twisted around onto her hands and knees and crawled away. The boy was clinging to her, which left her free to use her hands to push up from the ground. She gained her feet and ran toward the cave again.

Before she got far, an immense weight thudded into the back of her calves. Her knees buckled, and she was grateful that the blow had been below her knees, which allowed her to catch herself on her hands rather than landing on top of the tiny, terrified child.

Strong hands grabbed her waist, sausage-like fingers digging into the tender skin of her sides, and flipped her over. It was the same man she’d just hit. He’d taken her down with a flying tackle.

Maggie pushed the little boy over her head toward the caves, knowing if he stayed between her and her attacker he was going to be hurt. She’d dropped the rock after getting away the first time and now had no weapon.

The man closed one massive hand around her neck and pulled her toward him. His other hand went behind him like a slingshot winding up. If he hit her she’d lose consciousness. She could be killed, raped, taken hostage, or absorbed by the collective. At the very least the child wouldn’t be saved. She couldn’t allow that to happen, so she couldn’t allow him to hit her.

She kicked her legs and twisted her body; she whaled on him with her fists and connected a few times near his groin, but it did no good. It was like kicking a boulder and hoping the mountain would move.

Darkness came in from the sides of her vision like curtains. Weakness seeped into her arms and legs, and she knew she was losing.

Through the hazy, opaque net that was her vision, she saw her attacker look at the caves behind her in surprise. Then he let go.

The impact of her shoulder blades hitting the ground was jarring, even though she’d only been a few inches above the earth. A reflex in her diaphragm spasmed, and she inhaled air sharply. Her throat was instantly raw and throbbing.

Another pair of legs was standing over her, but it was not her attacker. This person had his back to her and was jolting back and forth, blocking and slashing at the Trepid. Maggie knew who it was without seeing his face.

Rolling onto her side, she pulled her knees into a fetal position before looking toward the cave. The little boy was still sitting three feet from her head. His head was in his lap, elbows over his ears and tears streaming down his face. Despite the weakness that had expanded like gas to fill every part of her body, Maggie dragged herself toward the child and gathered him into her arms. He collapsed against her, clutching her with tiny, trembling hands.

Only then did Maggie turn to watch Marcus fight. He was not the only one. A group of eight men had come out of the cave to Maggie’s rescue. Karl was the only other one she recognized, but they were all large men; they had to be to take the Trepids on.

A flat, gray rock rested against their palms and was secured by some kind of elastic that stretched across the back of the hand. While Marcus traded blows with Maggie’s attacker, he kept aiming the flat rock at the man. She wondered if it was some kind of weapon.

Marcus also had a large stick. He held it like a walking staff but didn’t use it to fight. The Trepid swiped at Marcus with a knife, but Marcus ducked under the Trepid’s arm and slammed the flat of his foot into the back of the Trepid’s knee. The man went down. With the upper hand, Marcus brought his elbow back and drove the palm of his hand—and the flat rock—into the Trepid’s forehead. Maggie could feel the energy of the impact from where she sat. Something about the blow told her it was a killing one.

It occurred to her that the flat rocks allowed the wearer to channel enough energy to kill a person with their bare hands. The thought made her shiver.

Marcus’s chest heaved as the man hit the ground. The cave dwellers had bested the first wave of Trepids, but more were coming toward them, appearing over the rise a hundred yards away. They were pouring in by the dozens.

A hand grabbed Maggie’s shoulder, and she turned to find Joan staring down at her.

“Maggie, are you deaf? Come on. Back to the mountain. Hurry!”

Maggie had been sitting in one place for several minutes. She now followed Joan to the safety of the cave, berating herself for not moving earlier.

Once there, Maggie placed the little boy into the grateful arms of his mother. When the boy saw who he was being handed to, his chest shuddered and heaved anew, and fresh tears flooded his cheeks while he plastered himself to his mother’s neck. She was led away, and Maggie whirled to see what was happening outside.

Joan closed a hand around Maggie’s wrist, anchoring her to the spot. Maggie hadn’t intended to run back out—she didn’t think—but what happened next she wasn’t prepared for.

The men with Marcus had fallen back, leaving him out in front of them before the oncoming Trepids. The ground was littered with those they’d already killed, but the approaching wave of violence was gargantuan in comparison. Maggie’s heart quickened with fear, and she wondered what they would do. Marcus, standing twenty feet ahead of the others, still holding that wooden staff, would surely be crushed.

He stood perfectly still, staff in hand, as dozens of Trepids rushed toward him. It was an army coming toward him like a moving wall. The other cave dwellers were taking slow, tentative steps backward toward the cave.

“Joan, what’s he…?”

Joan still held fast to Maggie’s wrist, but she gave Maggie a reassuring look.

With the Trepids less than ten feet from him, Marcus finally moved. He hefted the staff in his left hand, tossing it up a few inches so he could get hold of it farther down. Then he took a knee while slamming the staff into the ground. He timed it perfectly so that his knee and the butt of the staff hit the ground at the same time.

The wave of energy that radiated out from him was unlike anything Maggie had ever felt. It came up from the ground, through her shoes, and into her body, spiking her heart rate and making her skeleton vibrate against her flesh. The very mountain quivered as if from a seismic aftershock.

It was a similar sensation to the one she’d felt when running across the field the day before, when they’d come through time. It wasn’t exactly the same, but similar. Everything was moving in slow motion; the power radiating from Marcus had caught and absorbed everything around him. His warped bubble of energy had trapped them all, and for only a heartbeat, connected them…

A pair of boots moving across the ground at eye level.

Maggie couldn’t move. Her mind was reeling, but she couldn’t make her fingers obey her brain. She didn’t know what had happened, but fear lay over her chest like a restraint. Everything was blank—or almost. Everything she knew—everything she was—was slipping through her fingers, and she had no way to stop it. She couldn’t even move.

But that was what the woman said would happen, hadn’t she? What had her name been?

A pair of brown boots walked across her field of vision. They were walking directly in front of her eyes, though at a slightly askew angle. She was lying on the floor.

The boots turned so the person they belonged to was looking at her. After an almost imperceptible pause, they ran toward her. The legs fell into a squat, and she could see a torso—obviously a man’s. Then she was looking at the ceiling.

Marcus’s face came into view. He had a black eye and his question mark scar seemed fresher. His mouth was moving, but it was like someone had hit the mute button. Focusing on his lips, Maggie realized he was saying her name. She could feel his hands on her shoulders, squeezing and shaking.

Maggie,” his mouth was saying. “Maggie, are you okay?”

But even her ability to move her eyeballs was receding. She forced them away from his lips and to his eyes. If she remembered anything, she wanted it to be his eyes.

She screamed his name in her mind. He was slipping away from her. Everything he—they—were was leaving her, and she was powerless to stop it. She had a sensation of sobbing, but her body was paralyzed, so it was only her soul weeping. Her memories, her identity was fading. She was slipping into oblivion.

Marcus’s arms were under her now, lifting her. Joan came into her view, but everything else was blurring out.

Where was she? What was this strange place? Who were these people?

Marcus!

Vertigo made Maggie step back with one leg to catch herself. It was like a dream where you feel like you’re falling until you kick yourself awake. The instant her foot hit the ground, the dizziness was gone, and then there was only silence in the cave and Joan holding Maggie’s hand, looking at her speculatively.

Maggie looked out to where the battle had taken place. Her mouth dropped open. All the Trepids who’d been coming—every single one of them, and there must have been close to a hundred—had fallen to the ground. The utter silence made Maggie’s breathing sound loud, and she knew they were all dead. He’d killed them all.

People began moving and talking around her in the cave, but Maggie took no notice until Joan turned Maggie firmly to face her.

“Are you all right, Maggie? Anything broken?”

Maggie shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“You’ve got finger marks on your throat. How’s your breathing?”

“Fine.”

Joan looked skeptical but said nothing else. When Maggie’s eyes went back to what was happening outside, Joan followed her gaze.

Marcus hadn’t gotten up. Two men—one was Karl—had put a shoulder under Marcus’s arms and were hauling him toward the mouth of the cave. Marcus was trying to walk, but his feet were dragging through the grass.

They brought him inside and set him gently on the ground. Maggie squatted down beside him. His body slumped, his chin on his heaving chest.

“We’ve got to get this door shut,” Karl called as soon as he set Marcus down. “More are bound to show up, and Marcus is out of commission.”

People moved to the cave door. It comprised an entire wall of the cavern, so they stood with hands on the adjacent walls as close to the opening as they could get. They shut their eyes and placed their palms against the rock. When room ran out, others simply put their hands on the shoulders or arms of those touching the stone. They also shut their eyes.

Maggie could feel the energy they were calling on. It was different from the wave she’d felt when Marcus and his staff hit the earth. That had been urgent, powerful, overwhelming. There was still a power to this, but it was steady, calm, expectant, and well controlled.

With a rush of air, the cavern was suddenly whole—completely entombed in rock and no longer open to the outside world. Maggie looked over to where only seconds before daylight and wind had been streaming in. Now there was only a thick wall of stone.

The magnitude of what had just happened—her own brush with death, the child, the monstrous men, the dead bodies on the other side of the rock, the way these people lived, the awesome power of it all—hit her with such force that it took her breath away. She clapped a hand over her mouth and let her weight fall heavily to the ground, her body wracked with sobs and tears spilling over her cheeks.

A hand rested heavily on her shoulder, and she turned her head. Marcus was looking at her. It probably took all his energy to do so, but his gaze was penetrating, now more than ever.

“It’s all right, Maggie,” he whispered between deep breaths. “Everything’s okay.”

“Are you okay?” she sobbed.

He nodded. “Just exhausted. But I’ll be fine.”

“Of course he will.” Karl’s booming voice behind her made her jump. “But we should get him to Doc, just to be safe.”

Karl hoisted Marcus up again. Maggie watched them disappear around a crusty stalactite. Marcus wasn’t making much effort to walk anymore.

“You too, Maggie,” Joan said, taking Maggie’s arm and pulling her to her feet. “I want Doc to check you out.”

Maggie wiped her eyes. “Joan.” She looked at the blunt rock wall that obscured the battleground from view. “Did Marcus just kill a hundred men and save us all?”

Joan’s eyes slid sideways as she considered. “Pretty much. Yeah.”

Maggie passed a weary arm over her face. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why isn’t he the protector?”

Joan chuckled behind her hand.

 

Half an hour later, Maggie was in an area of Interchron everyone referred to simply as Medical. Several of the individuals who had arrived were injured and needed attention. A frenzy of activity buzzed around the room for the first twenty minutes Maggie was there, but Joan stayed close to her, holding her hand.

Finally Doc made his way to her.

“Maggie, are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I wanted her to be checked out, Doc,” Joan said. “She was a bit overwhelmed by what happened.”

Doc nodded. “That’s to be expected, I suppose, but I heard you were knocked down by one of the Trepids. Did you really run out of the cave to get a child?”

Maggie nodded. Both Doc and Joan gave her annoyed looks, and she shrugged.

Doc shook his head, the corners of his mouth turning up. “Well, it’s nice to see that you’re still exactly the same person.”

“Meaning what?”

“You were always doing insane things like that before. But hold still. Let me make sure you’re okay.”

With one hand on the smooth gray rock he’d used before, Doc closed his eyes. She felt a tingle of energy run through her and knew it was his scan. The scan took longer than before.

When Doc opened his eyes, he was frowning. “How do you feel, Maggie?”

“Fine. A bit weak. Why? Is something wrong?”

He gave her a reassuring—albeit tight—smile. “Probably not. Just something strange—a spark of energy in your brain that I can’t quite identify. But if you feel okay, I’m sure it’s nothing. Just adrenaline or something.”

Maggie had debated over how much to tell everyone. “Doc, what part of my brain is this energy in?”

“That’s what’s strange. It’s in the part that houses memory.”

Maggie’s heartbeat quickened. She kept trying to tell herself that what she’d seen was just a hallucination—sparked by the information overload she’d had in the last two days. But if what Doc was saying was true…

“Maggie, what is it?” Doc leaned forward and took her hands.

Maggie hesitated. “Doc, how’s Marcus? Is he going to be okay?”

Doc sat back, frowning at her change of subject. “Yes. When he—that is, what he…did takes a lot of energy. He’s not injured, but he’ll probably sleep for eighteen hours. It’s a matter of recuperation.”

“What was it that he did?”

Doc and Joan exchanged glances, but Maggie was not going to volunteer any information until they explained. She folded her arms and jutted out her chin.

Doc sighed. “Marcus is the Healer, Maggie, but that is only one of his unique gifts. He has the ability to seek out and find anything he needs in the universe.”

“Anything…like what?”

“It’s what makes him a great Healer. In any situation, the energy needed for whatever task a person is performing exists somewhere in the universe. Marcus can…send his mind out, if you will, to search for it. He identifies what he needs and brings it to him. He has the ability to assess exactly what kind of energy an injured person needs and how much he needs in order to heal the injury they have. He does all this instantaneously, with greater ease than anyone I’ve ever met. That’s what he did today.”

“Are you saying that he reached out to the universe and found the energy he needed to kill?”

Joan squeezed Maggie’s hand. “Don’t think of it so negatively, Maggie. Marcus wouldn’t have. Most likely he thought of needing the energy to protect all of us.”

“Yes.” Doc nodded. “He pulled in the energy he needed and unleashed it on the enemy. He did it with such power and force that they died instantly. All of them.”

“But how could he target specific people? Members of the reconnaissance team were out there with him. All of us in the cave were only yards from him.”

Doc shook his head. “You’re thinking too linearly. It’s not a matter of who he could see. He simply felt and identified all the malevolent energy that existed close by. The energy he called to him obliterated all of it within a mile’s radius. There were probably dozens of Trepids still making their way up the mountainside—many we couldn’t see yet—but he was able to decimate them all based on their neural signatures.”

“What was the staff for?”

“All organic things—things that are or once were alive—have a powerful energy of their own. Plants are second only to animals and humans in the power they engender. Marcus was using the staff as a conduit to focus and streamline the energy. It was simply a tool.”

Maggie nodded, but the whole thing seemed bleak. This explanation did nothing to explain her flashback.

“Maggie, what is it? What aren’t you saying?”

Maggie looked from Doc to Joan and back again. She was afraid of what she’d seen, but she had no reason not to tell them.

“I saw something.”

“What do you mean?”

“When the shockwave, or whatever you call it, from his…energy hit me, I saw something. In my head.”

Doc’s brows had furrowed, and Joan was looking at Maggie with concern.

“What did you see, Maggie?”

“I…I think it was a memory. I think it was from what happened before—when we were in the ships and I…was captured.”

Doc’s eyes had gotten continuously wider as she spoke. Now they looked like tiny rotating planets. “Maggie, that’s not possible,” he whispered.

Maggie shrugged. “Okay. I don’t know what it was, but now you’re telling me there’s something strange going on in the part of my brain that deals with memory.”

“You’re memories can’t come back. They aren’t present in your brain to come back.”

Maggie nodded. “Only Marcus can tell me if what I saw really happened. He was the only one there.”

“Doc,” Joan said, “if it was a memory she saw, how could that have happened? Could someone else be planting it there?”

“I don’t see how. It is doable, but she would have experienced intense pain upon the intrusion into her mind.” He looked at Maggie, eyebrow raised.

Maggie shook her head. “No pain. Only a rush of images.”

Doc nodded. “Maggie, I want you to write down everything you remember. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m afraid it might leave you again.”

“Doc, I feel exactly the same way.”

He gave her a brief smile. “When Marcus wakes up, we’ll ask him about it.”

 

Chapter 12: Trap

The monotony of the days was interminable. Every day he rose, walked, ate, and slept when it got dark. Each step forward was a battle with consuming loneliness. It was eating him alive. Just when he thought he’d gotten used to not having the voices around, he would have another nightmare or be awakened again by the silence.

He knew the isolation would eventually drive him mad. Perhaps it already had. How long had he been travelling? The man he was looking for—it was a man, he now knew—could he be certain that man existed?

He still couldn’t remember who the man was, but he knew he had to find him. That man had existed once, of that he was sure. He could only hope that the man was still alive. And that he could find him before his own madness set in. If only he could find even one other person…

He crested a hill and started down the other side. His feet stopped dead, but his heart pounded against his rib cage. It was the most alive he’d felt in days.

In the shallow valley between the hill he stood on and the next one farther on, a man crouched warily beside a small campfire. It gave off so little smoke, he hadn’t smelled it. Three dark mounds lay horizontal behind the man, unmoving. The man stood upon seeing him, hand clutching something that hung at his belt.

The two of them regarded each other warily for several minutes. He concluded that if this man was going to kill him, there was nothing for it. He’d already been seen. All he could do was take the chance that the man would let him live. He was in no position to defend himself, much less attack.

He limped crookedly to the fire—he’d fallen and injured his leg some days before. It wasn’t serious, but it hadn’t healed all the way either—and sat down hard in the dirt near the rock-lined pit. The man, who sported a shaggy, unkempt beard, watched him with wide eyes and furrowed brows until he sat down, but then the hand on the weapon—it looked like a crude hatchet—relaxed. After a moment the man bent his knees, falling into a crouch.

Without a word, Shaggy Beard reached into a cloth bag beside him and pulled out a fist-sized bundle. The sight of real bread was mouthwatering. Shaggy Beard broke a chunk off and passed it to his guest.

The man kept his eyes on Shaggy Beard as he devoured the bread, not caring if it could be poisoned. He hadn’t had enough to eat since leaving the Union to have the luxury of caution.

“So,” Shaggy Beard said.

It startled him so much he jumped. It was the first human voice he’d heard in more than ten years.

“Where you from, mister?”

He heard and understood, but he realized Shaggy Beard was expecting a verbal response. It had been ten years since he’d spoken as well. He hadn’t thought to practice on his journey. It simply hadn’t occurred to him. Now he tried to force air through his voice box but could only make a vague hissing noise.

“Can’t you talk?”

The man glanced at Shaggy Beard, considering how to answer.

“Can you hear me? Do you understand?”

He looked around for a way to communicate. It was so much easier in the Union when all minds were one. With a single glance, he and Shaggy Beard could have spoken, understood one another’s intentions, purpose, and entire life stories.

Shaggy Beard shook his head, and the man recognized the gesture. He shook his head then nodded it, testing out the motion. It was easy enough. Shaggy Beard raised an eyebrow.

He pointed to his own chest then his ears and nodded. Then he pointed to his throat and shook his head.

Shaggy Beard nodded. “So you can hear and understand but can’t talk?”

He nodded.

“I don’t suppose you can tell me where you come from?”

He considered but couldn’t think of a way to communicate it, so he shook his head.

Shaggy Beard nodded. “Are you alone?”

He nodded, sadness creeping over him. He knew that word—Alone—didn’t hold the same meaning for Shaggy Beard as it did for him.

Shaggy Beard stared at him for a long time before speaking again. “As you can see, I’m not. My woman and our children are asleep. I usually wait until the sun is up before rousing them. We are headed west. There’s an organized resistance there.” He sighed and scratched his beard. “Look, mister. I don’t think it’s good for a man to be alone for too long. You can travel with us. You appear harmless enough. But understand this. If I so much as sense a threat of any kind from you, I won’t hesitate to protect my family. They are my only priority. You…understand?” He nodded.

“I’ll expect you to pull your own weight. How have you been eating?”

He pulled out one of his homemade vine traps. It was one of the few skills he remembered from his life before the Union. The small acts of creation in weaving the traps had kept him moving forward day after day through the bleak terrain.

Shaggy Beard held out his hand, and the man tossed it to him across the fire. Shaggy Beard pulled it in every direction, testing its strength and efficiency.

“It’s a well-constructed trap. Yes, this could come in handy for small game. I’m Nat. What should I call you?”

The man frowned. He’d had a name once. It was lost to him when he joined the Union. He couldn’t remember it now. The memory of his former life was just behind a thin partition. He could feel it getting thinner and thinner. Eventually he’d break through it, but he couldn’t just yet.

And simply having a conversation—even a verbal one—with another human being was enough to make him feel more grounded. He tried to force air through his throat again but didn’t produce any recognizable sounds.

“How about if I just call you Trap?” He held up the vine-trap as explanation.

He nodded. Trap. It was a good a name until he could remember his own.

“I’ll wake my family, introduce you to them. Then we need to get moving.”

***

“It sounds accurate to me.” Marcus nodded from where he was sitting up on a bed in Medical.

Doc, Maggie, Joan, and Karl were standing around him. Karl had been filled in on Maggie’s flashback.

“I walked into the room ahead of Joan and found you on the floor. Your eyes were open, and you weren’t moving. I couldn’t get you to respond, so I picked you up and eventually got you back here. You were awake for that?”

“I don’t remember anything afterward. It’s a blur. I had an actual sensation of information—identity, memories—leaving me. I knew it was happening but couldn’t stop it.”

An uncomfortable silence fell. Maggie shrugged her shoulders just for something to do. It was horrible. That’s what they all weren’t saying, and it had been—an overwhelming helplessness she never wanted to feel again.

“What about before?”

Maggie turned to Karl. “What?”

“You said you don’t remember anything after Marcus picked you up, but do you remember anything before that?”

She didn’t. It seemed like she should, but it was all blank. “No. Why?”

Karl glanced at Marcus. “You were in the custody of these people for nearly three hours. We still haven’t accounted for what happened to you during that time. Whatever it was led to Colin’s death and your memory loss.”

Maggie nodded. “Marcus told me.”

Karl shrugged. “If you could remember the events of those hours, it might answer a lot of questions. It could give us some insight into the collectives themselves. Who knows how much you saw and…”

“Enough, Karl.” Marcus’s voice wasn’t harsh, but it had a quiet finality that instantly silenced Karl.

“N—no. Not enough,” Maggie sputtered. “What are you—what is he saying?”

Silence answered her, and no one would meet her eyes except Marcus, who stared at her intently.

Maggie rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to follow Karl’s thoughts. “What, you think that maybe the reason I lost my memories is because I saw something that would help us defeat them?”

Marcus looked sad. “We don’t know anything for sure, Maggie. Which is why”— he glared at Karl—“we don’t want to jump to conclusions.” His gaze returned to Maggie. “We don’t want you to feel pressured, Maggie. You need to take this one day at a time.”

“Ahem. Marcus?” It was Doc.

Marcus looked at him.

“Of course we don’t want to pressure Maggie, but I think we’ve got to face reality here, don’t you?”

“How do you mean?”

Doc rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t think any of us believes the attack today was coincidental. I’ve never seen this many Trepids together in a single group. They’ve never come this close to discovering Interchron before. And we’ve always thought it impossible for Maggie to regain her memories. We obviously have much less of a grasp of the situation than we previously thought.”

“But Doc, what can we do about it?” Joan asked quietly.

“First, I’d like Maggie to learn how to use a weapon. Things are too dangerous for her not to be able to defend herself. Second, I think we should get the entire team together and go over what happened before, piece by piece so it’s all fresh in our minds. And to see if there’s anything we missed before that we might pick up on now. I don’t like that things we don’t understand keep happening. If we don’t figure this out soon, we’re going to drown in it.”

 

Chapter 13: Brain Power

“Okay, Maggs. Time to learn this. Again.”

She eyed Karl warily. “Is it hard?”

He shrugged. “It took you a while to pick it up before, but you got it eventually.” Karl pulled up a crate and sat on it, motioning with his hands as he spoke. “There are two kinds of energy in the universe: potential and kinetic. Potential energy is stored energy, while kinetic is energy that is actively being used for something. Everything in the universe has potential energy stored in it that we can make use of. The instant you draw it out and direct it, it becomes kinetic.” He paused to raise an eyebrow. “Understand?”

She nodded, remembering the same terminology from her high school science class.

“Good. In terms of kinetic energy, there are two types. One is constructive, the other destructive. These terms have less to do with the nature of the energy and more to do with what you’ll be using it for. Constructive energy you pull to yourself and use to build something up. Destructive energy you send away from yourself and often use to tear something down.”

Maggie was already feeling overwhelmed. “For example?”

Karl nodded. “For example, if you pull energy to you to use as a shield—what we call Defensive energy—that’s an example of constructive: you build up a shield of protection around yourself. To use it as a weapon, you pull it to you but then lash out at others—strike at them with the intent of incapacitating them. That’s destructive energy. Understand?”

Maggie nodded.

“There are dozens of sub-categories, which you’ll pick up as you learn. Offensive and Defensive energy are only two. Then there’s the energy needed for Healing, Seeking, and other abilities—you get the idea.”

“So what will I be doing?”

“Destructive energy is easier to control, which is why we’re starting with constructive. I want you to build a force you can push the crates with. Use the stone I gave you to help you.”

Maggie looked forebodingly at the wall of crates in front of her. She was in a large cavern in the upper part of the mountain. An array of boxes and crates were stacked against the far wall. Maggie would be using them for target practice with only a conduit stone for help. Conduit stones were used by everyone in the compound, but there were different sizes, densities, and types of stones.

“Depending on your abilities and the type of stone being used, different amounts of energy can be controlled and concentrated,” Karl was saying. “Stones with fewer impurities are easier to use. Any crude rock can be used as a conduit, but it will be more difficult to use than unadulterated minerals. The characteristics of the stone will affect how much energy you can pull through it. Because granite is much denser than, say, sandstone, it is much harder to pull energy through. It takes a lot more effort. However, sandstone is soft and more likely to crumble if you put too much strain on it. So you have to be careful how much energy you’re using. If you’re defending yourself and your conduit stone crumbles, you’re toast.”

“Thank you for that…astute explanation, Karl.”

It was Joan’s dry voice. She came up behind Maggie. Trailing behind her was Clay.

“We’re here to help.”

“How?” Karl looked skeptical.

Joan glared at him.

“What she means,” Clay chimed in, “is that we’re here to observe.”

Maggie sighed. Great. An audience.

“Here, Maggs.”

Karl pressed a flat rock, the circumference of a quarter but half an inch thick, into her palm. It was connected to two leather cords that could wrap around the user’s hand so that even if they weren’t curling their fingers around the stone, they wouldn’t drop it.

“This is an average gravel rock. You won’t be able to pull much energy through it, but it’s a good practice tool.”

“I have to be holding it then?”

“Actually, no. Once you get the hang of this, you can use any source as a magnifier, but since you’re still learning, it’s better if the stone is in contact with your skin. We often make these conduit stones from pure, powerful materials. They come in handy if you’re somewhere where the natural materials at your disposal are limited.”

“What kinds of materials make powerful conduit stones?”

“As I said before, hard stone like granite can handle a lot of energy. Obsidian would be phenomenal, if we had any. We even have a few that are made of pure elements, like gold and silver.”

“How do they compare to rock?”

“We only let seasoned experts use those. Pure elements are just that—pure. They can handle obscene amounts of energy. Something like gold is malleable, right?”

Maggie shrugged.

“In the same way, gold and such elements can be…unpredictable. The user can not only focus tons of energy through it, but can use the gold itself to direct the flow of energy. That kind of power is difficult to handle. There aren’t many people who can do it safely.

“Now.” Karl positioned himself behind Maggie, placing hands on her shoulders, and turned her toward the wall of crates. “Close your eyes. Think about all the energy in the universe. There are vast quantities of it lying dormant—simply there for you to use. I want you to imagine pulling energy from somewhere. It doesn’t matter where you imagine it comes from—the earth, outer space, the very air around you, it’s all the same. Just visualize it.”

Maggie obeyed; she didn’t feel any different. Karl’s hand left her shoulder and took her right hand, pressing the stone firmly into her palm.

“Imagine bringing that energy to you. See it coming into a focal point inside your conduit stone.”

Maggie nodded as Karl guided her hand out from her body, stopping at neck height with her palm facing outward.

“Once you have a focal point in mind, I want you to think of that energy exploding outward from the stone. Think of it as a forward-sweeping force, one that will knock over anything in its path.”

“You want me to explode something?”

“No. But at first you’ll only be able to summon a trickle of energy, even imagining a massive force. It takes practice. If you imagine a trickle, nothing at all will happen. You ready?”

She nodded.

“Take a deep breath, open your eyes, and aim for the cra—”

Before Maggie could do more than open her eyes, a shockwave of some kind hit her. The force of it threw her backward into Karl and crushed the air from her lungs. At the same time, a skull-splitting crack came from the far wall, and Maggie was sure the mountain would come down around them.

More crashing noises were coming from all around her. These were smaller than the first but still loud, and they kept happening for several minutes.

Karl pulled Maggie back toward where Joan and Clay had been standing. The smaller crashes became fewer and farther between then stopped all together. Maggie looked up.

The air was caked with dust that was just beginning to settle. Maggie was crouched against the wall with Karl hunching over her. Joan and Clay were in much the same position a few feet away—crouching low against the wall, arms covering their heads.

“You all right?” Karl asked.

She nodded shakily.

“Clay? Joan? You two okay?”

Clay’s answer seemed muffled for only being a few feet away. “Yeah. We’re both fine.”

Maggie heard Joan’s muffled voice but couldn’t make out what she said.

Karl helped Maggie to her feet as the dust cleared, then went over to help Clay and Joan.

Maggie opened and closed her jaw at staggered intervals, trying to get her ears to pop. When she succeeded, her hearing came back full force. Only then did she look up to find the other three staring at her in astonishment.

“What?”

Karl leaned in close to Joan, but Maggie heard what he said. “I’m not crazy, right? She couldn’t do that before?”

Joan shook her head emphatically. “You’re not crazy.”

“Who couldn’t do what before?” Maggie asked. “What was that?”

Maggie wouldn’t have thought Karl’s eyes could get any bigger, but they did. Clay and Joan also stared at her in shock, but then Joan broke into laughter.

“She feels different,” Clay said. I didn’t notice it until now, but when I focus on her, I can tell a big difference.”

“I noticed it before,” Joan said when her chuckling subsided, “but I didn’t think much of it. I thought it was a result of her memory loss.”

“Could this be a result of her memory loss?” Karl wasn’t recovering from his shock.

“I don’t see how,” Joan said.

Maggie sighed, confused and bored. She was learning that these people explained things in their own time. She turned, looking around the cavern. A huge, jagged crack ran along the far wall from the top right corner to the bottom left. The fissure it left was several inches thick.

The smaller crashes she’d heard were crates falling. Only the outer ones had fallen. The ones near the center of the stack had been blown to bits. Pieces of them littered the cavern amidst a fine, powdery dust, which she suspected had also been part of the crates; some of them had been pulverized.

“Maggie, do you still have the conduit stone?”

Maggie held her hand up to show Karl. The cords were still draped over her hand, but the stone was gone, and the ends it had been connected to were charred.

Karl sighed. “I suppose we couldn’t expect such a small stone to survive a blast like that.”

“You gonna explain what happened?”

Karl cocked his head to the side, looking like a dark, shell-shocked pigeon. “It was you, Maggie. You made that blast.”

Maggie stared at him, blinked, and stared some more. “What?”

Karl looked at her steadily, but Joan was still chuckling behind him.

“But…I didn’t feel anything. The shockwave must have come from somewhere else.”

“What do you mean you didn’t feel anything?”

“If I had harnessed that kind of power, shouldn’t I have felt it? Shouldn’t it have tingled through my body or something?”

Karl looked confused, but Clay was shaking his head. “No, Maggie. You are calling the energy, directing it. If you felt it in the way you are thinking of, you would be the conduit stone. This energy is obeying you, not being focused through you. You call it, direct it, and see its results. You don’t feel the energy itself.”

“But how can you know what you’re doing if you can’t feel the energy?”

It was Joan that answered this time. “You’re thinking too tangibly, Maggie. Conduit stones allow a person to call up any amount of energy they need for a specific purpose. You don’t see the energy. You see the need. Then you call the amount of energy needed for your specific situation.”

Maggie frowned. “But how did I…” She motioned to the catastrophe behind her.

Karl stepped forward. “I’m not sure. We use conduit stones because most of us aren’t capable of pulling more than a small amount of energy to our fingertips at any given time. The energy we gather is used in our specific talents. If Marcus is going to Heal a room full of people, he’d need a conduit stone. On his own he can only call a small trickle of energy to him, and that won’t be enough for what he needs.

“The first time people use conduit stones, they can usually only do small things. I expected you to barely brush the crates at first, then nudge them, then hit them, and then gradually work up to knocking them over.”

“But I did more than that?”

“Obviously. But Maggie, you didn’t pull all this energy through that little stone.”

“I didn’t?”

“No way that small a stone with so many imperfections could have focused this much energy. This is energy you called to you without aid. And we’re pretty sure you couldn’t do that the last time we saw you.”

“What the…”

The three of them turned to find Marcus and Doc standing in the doorway. They were canvassing the mess.

“We heard a crash,” Doc said. “People down below thought the mountain was being bombed. What on earth happened?”

Karl’s expression turned smug, and he gave an exaggerated shrug. “Clay pissed Maggie off.”

Clay looked up in surprise, giving Doc and Marcus a deer-in-the-headlights look. Then a smile slowly crept across his face. He turned his palms to the roof and shrugged.

 

Chapter 14: The Deceiver

Twenty minutes later, Maggie sat on an examination table in Medical. Marcus stood around her with the rest of the team. Doc was scanning her to make sure she was unharmed and to look for some clue as to where all her power had come from. When he finished, he frowned.

“Any ideas, Doc? At all?” Maggie asked. Her voice sounded scared, even to her. She glanced at Marcus, who was looking at her with sympathy. He slid his hands up and down her arms.

“I’m not even detecting traces of the power,” Doc answered. “Are we sure it came from Maggie?”

“I felt the energy when she wielded it, Doc,” Marcus said. “We all did. None of us can draw energy of that magnitude. It could only have been her.”

“The question is,” Karl said, “how on earth are we to teach her to harness it?”

The fact that Karl sounded rattled did nothing to calm Maggie’s stomach.

“Are we certain she didn’t have this ability before?” Joan asked.

“Don’t you think we would have known about it?” Karl asked. “Wouldn’t it have manifested itself before? It took her all of five seconds to nearly destroy part of the mountain. How could we have not known about that?”

“She didn’t have it before. I’m certain now,” Clay said. “She feels different.”

Maggie frowned. “Excuse me?”

Karl chortled.

Clay’s mouth went up a bit at the edges, but he turned kind eyes toward Maggie. “I haven’t spent much time with you yet, Maggs, but you know my role in the prophecy is Concealer?”

“Yes.”

“In order to Conceal anyone, I have to know what their brain chemistry feels like. You’ll understand what I mean as you learn to use your neurological muscles again. You’ll be able to tell who someone is by what their neural energy feels like—to send your mind out and feel the energies of the others around you and identify them by it. Just as our names or faces or…smells—”

Karl guffawed again.

“—can let others know who we are, so too do our neural energies. I must know the energies of the people I am to Conceal, or I can’t do it.”

“So you don’t Conceal everyone in this mountain?”

“Think about it, Maggie.” Doc interjected gently, “If Clay could Conceal each and every one of us, we wouldn’t need to hide in the mountain. It takes energy and skill to conceal people. Most people who have the talent can only do it for a few people at a time—themselves and their families. The remarkable thing about Clay is that he can do it to a much greater extent than anyone we’ve ever come into contact with. The prophecy calls not only for one with the power to Conceal, but for a Concealment talent with a vast magnitude, which Clay has.”

Maggie leaned her head toward her right shoulder, thinking. She wasn’t aware she was doing it until she saw Marcus smiling at her. She had the uneasy feeling it was because of her movements. She straightened her neck and focused on the conversation.

“How many can you Conceal at once?” she asked Clay.

“Twenty or thirty. But at that number only for a short time—one, maybe two hours. I can do it longer if there are fewer people, but distance is also a factor. It’s easier to Conceal two people standing right next to me than two people who are a mile away.

“I had to Conceal you many times when you were with us before. I knew the feel of your neural energy very well. When I saw you in the command center, it was the first time I’d been around you since you came back. I noticed a difference then, but I didn’t think much of it.”

“Why not?”

“Yeah, Clay,” Karl chimed in, “why not?”

Clay shrugged. “I thought it had to do with her memory loss or simply with the fact that we haven’t seen her in so long. A person’s life experiences can change their brain chemistry. It wasn’t a big difference I felt, and I thought that some small changes were to be expected.”

Karl still looked skeptical.

“Trust me, if I’d known she’d gained abilities of this magnitude, I would have said something.”

“Abilities of this magnitude?” Maggie blurted out. “Why do people keep using that phrase? I’m not even sure I understand what I did.”

Marcus gave her a pained look and rubbed her arms some more. He opened his mouth several times but then clamped it shut, not saying anything. The other team members were doing much the same thing.

“It’s like I told you before,” Karl offered. “You reached out into the universe and pulled energy to you. You focused it for your own use. What’s amazing is the amount of power you pulled to you. Even with a conduit stone, most people couldn’t have summoned that amount of energy.”

“And I couldn’t do that before?”

Doc shook his head. “Not that we’re aware of, no.”

“What could have caused my abilities to increase like that?”

Doc laughed without humor. “I have no idea, Maggie. If you’d asked me this morning, I would have told you that such a thing was not possible. As far as I know, a person is born with certain abilities. Their individual talents can be honed, but this is almost like…”

“Like what, Doc?” Marcus asked. It was the first time Marcus had spoken, and they all jumped as though they’d forgotten he was there.

“I don’t know. Like nothing I’ve ever heard of before.”

Doc fell silent, and Maggie realized Marcus was scrutinizing him, as though trying to figure out what Doc was thinking. Of course, Marcus had known Doc much longer than Maggie, so if he thought Doc knew something then…

Maggie watched Doc out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly, Doc’s eyebrows shot up—he’d thought of something. He threw furtive glances at each member of the team, gauging whether they’d noticed. When he saw Marcus watching him, he jumped, then put his eyes on the floor. Maggie was the only other team member who’d noticed the exchange.

“Doc.” Marcus’s voice was wary. “What aren’t you saying?”

The others looked at Doc, and he sighed. “We don’t know anything for sure, but…”

“Tell us anyway,” Maggie said. “Doc, if you can shed any insight on this…” She placed a hand on Doc’s forearm. “Please?”

Finally Doc nodded. “I was thinking that I’ve only known of three people in my entire life who possess abilities of that magnitude.”

General shock registered around the group.

“Three?” Joan asked.

Who?” Karl folded his arms across his chest.

“Two of them are gone. David”—Doc’s gaze slid to Marcus—“had the potential, but of course never realized it.”

The others turned empathetic smiles toward Marcus. David had been Marcus’s brother’s name. Marcus said he’d died when Marcus was just a teenager. Still, the team’s reaction made Maggie think there was more to it.

“Who else?” Marcus seemed eager to prod the conversation on. Maggie made note of the fact that he didn’t want to talk about his brother.

“There is a man whose abilities come close,” Doc was saying. His name is Nathaniel Strellend.”

Karl nodded. “I know who you mean. But I wasn’t aware he could do…that.” No one else registered familiarity with the name.

“Strellend is an individualist, but he’s also a loner.” Doc said. “We see him every now and again when he passes through. He knows where we are, knows all our secrets and even trusts us. He just prefers to live on his own.”

“Why would anyone choose to live alone out there rather than take advantage of the safety Interchron provides?” Maggie asked.

“I’m not sure. I’ve known him a long time, but he’s a private man. I suspect that something terrible happened to him in the past at the hands of other people, and he simply doesn’t trust anyone anymore.”

Maggie’s eyebrows went up. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” She saw Marcus smile to himself again.

“He’s a decent man and has offered me his help more than once,” Doc went on. “Only a handful of people know of his powers. He prefers to live quietly and doesn’t want to get involved in causes such as ours. I think we should send a team out to find him. If he’s willing to come here, he could teach Maggie in ways none of us can. In fact, he may be your only hope of learning to control your abilities. The amounts of power the rest of us deal in are so miniscule in comparison with yours that any instruction we try to give may prove useless.”

“I doubt that,” Joan said quickly. “I think all abilities follow the same basic concepts. We can teach her the basics to start, but Doc is right.” She turned to Maggie. “It would be a limited lesson.”

Maggie nodded but didn’t feel any better.

“Well,” Karl said, “I can round up a team and send them out to find him. But will he come back with them?”

“I doubt he’ll be jumping for joy at the prospect,” Doc admitted. “Your team will have to convince him. But if they drop my name—say that it’s me asking for a favor…” He shrugged. “He’s a reasonable man. If he doesn’t have anything pressing, I don’t see why he wouldn’t come.”

“Who’s the third?” Doc turned a questioning look at Marcus. “You said you knew three but two were gone. Who is the other one that’s gone?”

Doc averted his eyes. “Well, I—”

“Out with it, Doc. No secrets among the team, remember?”

Doc sighed. “You may all despise me for this, but…well, it was Colin.”

“Colin?” Karl sounded like Doc had just announced that the sky was green.

“Colin couldn’t tap into that kind of power,” Marcus said. “We were all good friends. We’d have known if Colin could do anything like that.”

“Yes, actually, he could. He just hid it well.”

“Hid it?”

“Yes. As you know”—he included Maggie in his sweeping look—“Colin was the Deceiver, which meant that he could close off portions of his mind to others. This was important in infiltrating the collectives because he could maintain his individuality without them knowing.

“Once, when he was injured, I found out that there was a part of himself he was hiding from us. It was just after he saved your life in the Grand Canyon, remember Marcus?”

“Of course.”

“He was hurt badly enough to need days of recuperation, even after you Healed him. He was in Medical sleeping. While doing a brain scan, I felt something I’d never felt before. It was a wall—a barrier of some sort—in his mind. I should have left well enough alone, but my curiosity got the better of me. I pushed through it. I found that he had the ability to call on vast sources of energy—much like what Maggie did today.

“He awakened when I broke through his barrier and was not pleased that I’d found out his secret. He made me swear not to tell anyone.”

“And you did?” Joan sounded incredulous.

Doc held his hands up. “Please listen. I asked why he didn’t want anyone to know about this ability. He could do so much good with it. He told me he didn’t want the responsibility it engendered. Colin was a pacifist. He didn’t like violence, didn’t want to take part in it in any way. He knew the collectives were evil and understood the need for a certain amount of force but was unwilling to inflict it.

“That was why his ability suited him so well: he was useful in ways that meant he wouldn’t have to inflict violence on anyone else.” Doc heaved a deep breath. “He feared that if people knew how much power he could draw, they would ask him to do things he was uncomfortable with.”

“What a crock,” Karl muttered with disgust.

They all looked at him.

“What? Colin could have single-handedly defended all of Interchron with powers like that.”

Maggie shifted uncomfortably. By extension, that meant that she could as well. The thought made her sweat.

“He might have defended Maggie on that ship, and things would have turned out differently,” Karl got louder by the word. “Instead, she has several hours of unaccounted for time, no memories, and Colin is dead, all because he wasn’t man enough to take responsibility for his own God-given powers? What a waste.”

“Karl.” Joan’s voice was low and calm.

“What?”

She gave him a scathing look. “Colin isn’t here to defend himself or his actions, is he? You should be ashamed to speak ill of the dead.”

Karl waved his hand dismissively and turned away from the group, chest heaving.

“I’m sorry, Karl,” Doc said. “I’m sorry to everyone. I should have told you long ago—when Colin died, if not before. But once he was gone, he was gone, and I truly didn’t think about it much after that. Believe me, I wasn’t happy about keeping his secret. I told him time and again that such power could do great good. I couldn’t convince him, so I didn’t think any of you would be able to either. A conflict such as that would have driven a wedge between us all, and I didn’t want that.

“So I kept his secret, hoping in time to convince him to let the rest of you know and find a way to use his abilities to our advantage. And then he was gone. As was Maggie. And it became a moot point.”

“So,” Joan said, “Colin had this ability no one knew about. Then he dies, but Maggie is probably the last one to see him—other than his killers, whoever they were. Now she has powers very similar, perhaps identical, to his?”

Maggie frowned. “Are you saying he…conveyed his abilities to me…or something?” She looked at Doc. “Is that possible?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“I’m not pretending to know what happened”—Joan spread her hands—“but Colin had this ability. Something we can’t account for happened on that ship. Now Colin is dead, and Maggie has these same abilities. Does anyone think that’s a coincidence?”

Silence stretched as everyone shifted uncomfortably. Maggie supposed the question was rhetorical.

Clay’s quiet voice broke the tension. “So what now?” he asked.

Doc looked around. “We should send that team to look for Strellend. I think he would be an asset to us—to Maggie. Other than that, we should keep doing what we’re doing. We need to find out more about the collectives if we’re to defeat them. We need to teach Maggie more. There’s much to learn before she’ll be of any use to the mission.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Maggie asked.

Doc turned to her, arching an eyebrow.

“It’s not that I don’t want to help. I really do. But I nearly brought the mountain down around us. What if I can’t control it? I don’t want to hurt anyone. I could accidentally get us all discovered.”

Beside her, Marcus shook his head. “No, Maggie. You have to learn. I need you to be able to defend yourself. We didn’t know this ability existed before. We do now. We’ll take it slow, but you must learn. I’ll teach you myself.”

“He’s right, Maggie, Doc said. “We will have to take precautions, but now that we know about it, we can work around it until Strellend gets here. Karl, assemble a team of Trackers. I’d like to speak with the leader before they go.”

“I’ll have Dillon lead them. He’s the best Tracker we have.”

Doc nodded. “Good. Everyone else should get dinner and some rest. It’s been a long day.”

Chapter 15: Bad-Guy Hierarchy

The next day, Marcus continued giving Maggie tours of the compound.

“So,” he said as they trudged along, “what questions do you have? What do you need to know?”

Maggie sighed. There were so many questions; she didn’t know where to start.

“Tell me about your abilities. Doc says you’re a great healer. Can you Heal anything?”

He smiled. “I wish I could. The truth is, I must get to an injured person quickly, especially if the wound is potentially fatal. A broken arm can be Healed at any time, but if a person isn’t brought to me quickly, they can go into shock, bleed out, or simply expire from the injury. And then there’s brain damage.”

“Brain damage?”

“Brain damage is particularly hard to Heal. Often it can’t be Healed at all.”

“Why not?”

He was silent for several minutes as they made their way through nearly deserted corridors carpeted in inches of sand. Finally he stopped and turned to her.

“When I Heal a bodily injury, I use the victim’s brain to help facilitate the healing. I have to pull energy to me in order to do it, but I’m using parts of the person’s own physiology to Heal them.”

“How do you mean?”

“If I were to Heal a broken bone, I’d do it using the body’s own functions. I build up the broken area with blood and tissue. I direct the body to replicate more at a fast rate so the marrow of the bone can knit together and become whole again. The energy I pull to me is used to direct the person’s brain to Heal them quickly, before it’s too late. Do you understand?”

Maggie nodded.

“If the brain has the injury, there’s no smaller brain to direct the function. Sometimes damage can be Healed if I get there quickly enough, but it’s often impossible. As with your memories, I can’t regenerate anything that won’t regenerate on its own. Brain damage often results in tissue that is necrotic. I can’t re-grow brain tissue, so brain damage is difficult to Heal.”

Marcus gazed down at her, eyes asking if she understood. She nodded to show that she did. She could see frustration, even anger in his eyes when he spoke of brain damage. His limitations wore on him.

Feeling self-conscious, she turned and began walking again. Marcus fell in beside her.

“Anything else—other than brain damage, I mean—that you can’t Heal?”

“As I said, if someone goes into shock or loses too much blood, I sometimes can’t stimulate their brains to produce more blood fast enough to save them. But I don’t think that’s what you mean. Any injury, given enough warning and assuming that there is something there to work with—no regeneration necessary—can be Healed. One injury is the same as another to me.”

“Except brain damage.”

“Yes.”

Maggie nodded.

They walked in silence for a time. The corridor took on a slight incline. Maggie wondered where he was taking her.

There was one thing she wanted to know more about but was afraid to ask. It wasn’t a very pleasant topic. He seemed to sense that she was thinking things over and didn’t speak. After several minutes, she got up the courage to ask him.

“Would you tell me about the Arachnimen? And the Trepids?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Who are they? How do they function? Are they related to one another somehow?”

“We think so. We haven’t ever had much success in penetrating the collective mind, so it’s hard to say for sure. The Arachnimen are directed by the collectives. They don’t make their own decisions—they’re just brute muscle. They carry out assassinations, absorb people into the collectives, and generally cause mayhem.”

“And they always absorb by drilling, like the one on the road did to me?”

“Yes.”

“But why didn’t the one who was in my house do that? He touched me but just tried to kill me.”

Marcus took a deep breath. “I’ve thought a lot about that. Based on what he said, I think he recognized you but didn’t know what to do. He was sent to assimilate you—and I don’t know what the grounds for that were if they didn’t know who you were—but when he recognized you, everything changed. It’s almost like there was a standing order or something.”

“A standing order to kill me?”

Marcus gave her a sympathetic look. “I don’t know.”

Maggie didn’t want to dwell on it; it was too unsettling. “So the Arachnimen are brute assassins. What about the Trepids?”

“We know less about them.” Marcus started walking again. “They are higher on the hierarchy.”

“There’s a bad-guy hierarchy?”

Marcus chuckled. “In a manner of speaking. The Trepids are still tied to the collectives, but they have more individuality than the Arachnimen do. They can make tactical and logistical decisions in the field independent of what the collectives tell them. If there were a large-scale attack, an ambush, a battle—anything like that—the Trepids would be leading it. They would act as generals to the Arachnimen and other collective drones.

“Where the Arachnimen can assassinate people, they have to be given something very specific to look for, or they get confused. Trepids can wander about, looking for random people to assimilate. They don’t need as specific orders as the Arachnimen do to function.”

“I notice that their tattoos extend over more of their faces and have jewels in the joining points of the webs. What does it all mean?”

“We aren’t sure. It’s at least partially a status symbol. Beyond that, perhaps the jewels show how many people they’ve assimilated? Killed? Other things? Who knows?”

Maggie gave him a sidelong glance. “And by other things you mean…?”

He sighed. “Because the Trepids have more individuality than the Arachnimen, they have the motive and ability to do a great deal of violence. They like to brutalize people before forcing them into the collectives.”

He glanced at her as if uncertain whether more explanation was needed.

“The jewels could symbolize how many people they’ve raped or otherwise tortured.”

Marcus nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. “It’s possible. There’s just no way to tell.”

After a moment she felt her cheeks heat under his eyes. She couldn’t think of any more questions.

Ten minutes passed before they came to a doorway. They stepped through it and found themselves in the back of a cavern that was open to the air on the far side. The natural light was blinding after being in the mountain for so long.

When Maggie turned around, she couldn’t see the doorway they’d come through. Anyone who wandered into the cave wouldn’t be able to detect the entrance into the compound. Another safety precaution.

Marcus took her hand and guided her through the cave, around rock formations and stalactites to the opening. They were in a different spot from the one she’d originally entered through, but the view here was stunning.

She could see the entire valley below them, decimated though it was. The distant mountains were a deep, hazy gray, and the sky, which was light gray today, went on forever. She took in the scene with awe, aware of Marcus watching her reaction from a few feet away.

“What are we doing here?”

“This used to be one of your favorite spots. You loved the view.”

She smiled at him. “Still do.”

Marcus led her onto a smooth rock outcropping, and they sat down together.

“Can I ask you something?” he said quietly.

“Of course.”

“You told me when we were in your house that you saw flashes of things—that you’ve seen them over and over since—but you never elaborated on what they were.”

Maggie took a deep breath. She owed him answers, but it had been her secret psychosis for so long that talking about it now felt strange.

With more than a little hesitation, she launched into a description of the flashes.

“The flash of light could be anything,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s something specific or just what I see as my mind succumbs to the memories. The rock formation is the entrance we used that first night to enter Interchron. In the flash there are people standing on top of the rock, but it’s dark and I can’t make out who they are. Any ideas?”

Marcus was quiet for a time before shaking his head. “Maybe you’re just seeing a time when the team stayed outside training until after dark. We didn’t do that often, and no particular instance comes to mind, but that’s the only thing I can think of.”

“Maybe,” Maggie said, doubtful. “The big hands covering mine have to be masculine. They’re too large to be a woman’s. And I’m sure they’re covering my hands, because my wolverine scar was visible.” She arched an eyebrow at him.

He reached down and covered her hands with his. “Like this?” he asked.

She nodded, watching his eyes.

He sighed. “I might have done that a few times: taken your hands that way.” He glanced back at her face. “I don’t know. No specific memory comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

“But don’t you think there must have been something specific and important about it for me to remember it when everything else was gone?”

After a moment, he nodded. “I’m sure you’re right. I just wish I could be of more help. What else?”

“There’s a blackened hand, but it’s less clear. It’s so shriveled and burnt that I can’t tell if it’s a man’s or a woman’s hand. Can you think of anyone who burned their hand like that before?”

Marcus couldn’t.

“Then there’s the woman standing in front of the lighthouse. That flash is the most vivid but the least clear. It’s so beautiful, like an oil painting. A woman is standing in front of a lighthouse. Its windows are broken, and the entire structure is in disrepair. I can’t see the woman’s face because the sun is setting behind her.”

“Then how can you be sure it’s a woman?” Marcus asked.

“She has feminine curves and long, wavy brown hair. I’m sure it’s a woman, but I don’t know who she is. Any ideas?”

“None. And I haven’t seen any lighthouses in years. I’m not even sure if there are any still standing. Sorry.”

Maggie shrugged.

“Is that all of the flashes?”

“No. One more. Blood on my hands. Again, I’m certain they’re my hands, but my hands themselves aren’t bleeding, so I don’t know where the blood is coming from. I don’t even know if it’s my blood or someone else’s.”

When she paused, Marcus again shook his head. “I don’t know, Maggie. I can’t think of a time there would have been blood on you—you were never injured severely enough to bleed like that. Maybe these aren’t memories at all.”

“Then what?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“At the end, I always hear a whispering voice. Whispering takes away the identity of the voice, so I can’t be sure of anything. Whatever the voice is saying, I think it’s important, but I can’t decipher it.”

Marcus sat silently for a long time. “Nothing’s coming to me,” he said.

Maggie sighed. “I appreciate the effort. I suppose I’ll never know.”

He surprised her then by taking her hands in his. “Of course you will, Maggie. We’ll figure it out. Now that I know all the details, I’ll keep trying to puzzle it out too. The more minds that work on a mystery, the more likely that they’ll crack it. We’ll figure out what they mean eventually.”

He smiled at her, and she smiled back, her stomach tingling.

“One more question?”

“Of course.”

“Karl was really angry when he found out about Colin. Were you?”

Marcus sighed and looked out over the precipice for a long time. Maggie wondered if the question was too personal. When he answered, he looked straight into her eyes.

“I wouldn’t have handled it quite that way, but then I’m not Doc. The thought that maybe Colin could have saved your memories and his own life and saved the team a whole lot of heartache makes me want to put my fist through a wall. But we don’t know any of that for sure. We don’t know how Colin died. What’s the point of dwelling on it now? Dwelling on the past won’t help us move forward. Colin is gone. Your memories are gone. And you’re back here with us again.” With that last, he took her hand.

Despite their exposed position and the bleakness of the landscape in front of her, Maggie suddenly felt very safe.

 

Chapter 16: Karl’s Theories

A few days later, it was decided that Maggie should shadow Karl. They would be working in one of the lower storerooms. Some supplies had been dropped off there but hadn’t been put away. They needed to be inventoried, which was where Maggie would come in, and put in their proper places.

After breakfast, she followed Karl through the twisting corridors of the compound. She felt the ever-subtle descent as they walked and, not for the first time, was glad she didn’t have a fear of close spaces.

“Does anyone ever get claustrophobia?”

He gave her a sidelong glance. “No. When the brain was mapped, all phobias were dealt with. They don’t exist in our world anymore.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Do you have claustrophobia?”

“No. I was just wondering. It occurred to me that living so far down in the earth might cause it.”

“You probably have it a little bit.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because if you didn’t, such a thing wouldn’t even occur to you.”

Maggie scowled but didn’t answer. She didn’t want to contradict him, but she didn’t like being accused of having a phobia either.

They worked for a few hours without saying much. The work didn’t accommodate much talk. Karl would tell her what a box of supplies was, and she’d write it down. Then he’d disappear with it back into the cavern. They only had a few seconds in between each box to speak, so there was no point in starting an actual conversation.

After what couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours, Karl began digging in a small knapsack he’d brought with him. “I think it must be lunch time,” he announced, sitting on a nearby crate.

Maggie chuckled. “Uh, Karl? I don’t think there’s any way it’s lunchtime yet. We only ate breakfast an hour or two ago.”

He raised an eyebrow and shifted his eyes from side to side as though alarmed. Then he shrugged. “Well, this is morning-lunch then.”

Maggie smiled. Karl dug into his bag of provisions with the exuberance of a child who’d been given permission to raid the cookie jar.

When she didn’t move, Karl motioned her over to him. “Come on, sit down.”

She obeyed and took the cheese and crackers he offered her. She wasn’t really hungry, but she could eat something. Karl didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, but she supposed someone so large needed more food than most.

“So,” she ventured when they’d been chewing in unison for some time. “What’s your story, Karl? Who are you?”

He leaned back against the cavern wall. He’d torn into the food with gusto at first, but now that some was already in his stomach he seemed more content to savor it.

“My upbringing was about as normal as they come—uh, for this century, anyway.” He grinned. “Marcus and I were fast friends when we met because our childhoods were so similar. We both came from individualist parents who were supremely decent and loving. We were both sheltered from the realities of the world we live in when we were little. The biggest differences are that I was an only child, and I knew my mother, where Marcus didn’t.”

“Did you ever know his brother?”

“David? No. He was already gone before Marcus came to Interchron. His father was sick and wanted to leave Marcus among good people. They were both so scarred by life already.”

“If no one ever met him, how did Doc know that David had abilities like mine?”

That gave Karl pause. “I don’t know the whole story. I remember Doc saying he’d met Marcus before Marcus and his father showed up here, but Marcus didn’t remember the meeting.”

“How would that have happened?”

“It doesn’t happen much anymore, but there was a time when Doc would roam around, looking for people who could fulfill the prophecy. This was years ago when there were a lot of individuals still roaming around. There aren’t very many anymore. Doc may have met Marcus’s father—I think his name was Danic—when Marcus and David were young.”

“But wouldn’t he have realized then that Marcus could fulfill the prophecy?”

Karl opened his mouth then snapped it shut again, considering. Finally he shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t know the whole story. I’m sure Doc would tell you if you asked. I’d say it’s one of two things: either Marcus’s brain chemistry as a child wasn’t developed enough to be recognizable, or Doc did recognize it but had to wait to act on that recognition.”

“Why would he have to do that?”

“Maybe Marcus’s father wouldn’t hear of going with Doc at that point. I mean, despite needing people to fulfill the prophecy, we aren’t in the habit of just taking children from their parents. Marcus and David might have been children at the time.”

Maggie nodded, turning it over in her head. She wondered how David died. She was about to ask, but Karl was studying her and spoke before she could.

“You could always ask Marcus about it. I’m sure he’d tell you.”

Maggie studied the clipboard she’d been writing on all day. She was curious about Marcus’s past but felt strange asking him about it. It felt like prying, and she didn’t know him well enough to justify that. But even worse, he did know her, and asking him to tell her something she probably knew before felt ridiculous and awkward. She knew her feelings were irrational given the circumstances, but knowing that didn’t change them.

Karl was watching her, so she decided to change the subject. “How did your family come to be here?”

“My father happened across Doc while hunting one day. I was just a child at the time, and my father was very untrusting of other people. He was determined that we would live apart and he would keep the family safe by himself. Then a group of Arachnimen ambushed us. We got away, but my mother was hurt, and I was nearly assimilated.”

Maggie’s mouth cranked open as he spoke. He spoke of horrific experiences as though discussing the inventory she held.

“Karl, I’m sorry. That must have been awful.”

He shrugged. “It was a long time ago. But it changed my father’s mind. He realized that alone he didn’t have the strength to protect us. It took us a year to track this place down, but we did. I’ve lived here ever since.”

“So your parents are still here?”

He smiled, and it was a bit sad but more affectionate. “They’ve both passed on.”

Maggie’s cheeks heated; she wished she hadn’t asked. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. My parents lived long, full lives. They helped bring people here, helped keep them safe, and taught me to be strong. They both died peacefully, asleep in their beds surrounded by friends and family. Not many people in our world can boast that, Maggie. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of—that they died free and at peace.”

Maggie smiled. “That’s a beautiful sentiment, Karl.”

He stared at the opposite wall without seeing it for several minutes, lost in memories. “Well.” He straightened up. “Enough of the sissy stuff. Time to talk about you.”

“I thought you knew all about me.”

“I know everything up until we took you back. Now I’m missing a year of your life. Fill me in!”

Maggie smiled. He was prying, but it didn’t feel that way. “We were good friends before, weren’t we, Karl?”

He flashed his teeth again. “Yup. Still are. Good friends tell good friends their deepest secrets.”

Maggie laughed aloud. She didn’t know about that.

She started with explaining what she remembered when she woke up in Vegas and what she’d done with herself afterward. She talked about her business, her relationship with her brother and parents, and how she was the only one still looking for answers a year later.

“I think it’s great you started your own business, Maggie. What about men? Exploit many male suitors?”

Maggie’s face warmed. “No.”

Karl looked confused. “Female ones?”

“Karl!”

He tucked his chin into his chest and laughed at his own joke. “Seriously, Maggs.” He wiped tears from the corner of his eye. “You told me last time that you dated a lot but hadn’t found the right guy. Why didn’t you date after Vegas?”

Maggie sighed, unsure what to say.

“Come on,” Karl pressed. “I know this would be an awkward question for Marcus to ask you, but you and I told each other everything before.”

“How do I know you aren’t just saying that?”

He grinned then shrugged. “You don’t.”

Maggie hesitated again.

“Hey, I just told you my most personal memories.” He donned a mock-melancholy look. “Do you know how upsetting it is to speak about my parents?”

“You just said you were proud.”

He opened his mouth then snapped it shut, his grin returning. “Yeah, okay. But it was still hard to get over!”

“I think you’re managing reasonably well,” Maggie said, but she felt like she’d known him for years. Suddenly she believed him when he said they’d told each other everything.

“I…”

He leaned forward as she began, like an eager child watching cartoons.

“I don’t know why I didn’t, exactly. I dated somewhat, but it never developed into anything more than first dates. I…” She sighed, frustrated. This was something she’d hardly explained to herself.

“Did anyone show any interest for more?” he prodded.

“Yes,” she admitted, “but I couldn’t bring myself to pursue it.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “After Vegas, it was like some part of me was missing. It all makes sense now that I know I have lost memories. At the time, I couldn’t imagine why I felt like I did. It just seemed to me that there was something I’d forgotten, something that was beyond my grasp. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. All I did was think about it. I felt like the only way to get rid of that feeling was to find answers to what happened to me in Vegas.

“Well, I never found those, and now I realize why. I suppose I couldn’t bring myself to share someone’s life until I figured my own out.” She shrugged again.

Karl smiled down at her. “I’m sorry it was so hard for you,” he said quietly.

“Thanks.” She smiled back. “What about you? Why aren’t you married yet?”

Karl grinned. “I like being a bachelor.”

“I’m not sure what’s more disturbing—that in this world you’d want to be alone, or that the word bachelor still exists.”

Karl’s booming laugh echoed off the walls. He shook his head. “In truth, Maggie, I’ve never had the opportunity. Most women who come to Interchron come with family. Many of them are so exploited on the outside that they come to us broken. Then there’s the fact that I’m not exactly a little guy. Most women who come in from the outside are afraid of me. But don’t worry. The only reason I’m not married yet is because the best woman on earth is still searching for me.” Karl grinned again, and then he went back to serious contemplation of the food he was shoveling into his mouth.

Maggie smiled as she watched him. In the few minutes they’d been talking, she already felt like Karl was a much larger, darker-skinned version of Jonah, like she’d known forever and could trust him implicitly.

“What about Marcus?” he asked suddenly.

She looked up at Karl warily. “What about him?”

“He says you remember him. Tell me about that.”

Maggie told him what she saw in Vegas before the time loss: Marcus standing in a void then taking her arm and looking into her eyes. She told him what she remembered of waking up in the hotel room and what the police told her, which made Karl harrumph in amusement.

He leaned back thoughtfully. When she finished, he was silent.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s weird.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “How insightful of you.”

Karl grinned. “I’m not sure how to explain it. I never saw Marcus grab your arm and stare aggressively down into your eyes like that. I would have been creeped out if he had. But maybe you guys did things like that in private?”

Maggie laughed out loud, and Karl’s smile widened.

“I hope not.” Maggie chuckled. “‘Cause that doesn’t sound like a very functional relationship.”

Karl turned serious. “It was, though, Maggs. I know this is awkward for you because you can’t remember him, but the three of us were best friends. Take it from me, you two were very happy together.”

Maggie’s smile faded. “What did you see? How did he react when I lost my memories and had to be sent back?”

Karl heaved a deep breath. “Marcus doesn’t show much emotion, Maggie. But even so, he was devastated. He didn’t think he’d ever see you again, and he didn’t even get to say good-bye. It was horrible. You were the love of his life.”

Maggie sighed, suddenly finding her hands fascinating. “How could I have seen him, Karl, when my memory was gone? How is it even possible?”

He was quiet for several minutes before answering. “You said you saw him but didn’t remember him, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what persistence of vision is?”

She shook her head.

“It’s the term science uses when you see something that is no longer there.”

“Isn’t that a hallucination?”

Karl chuckled. “No. When you hallucinate, you see something that was never there. In a persistence of vision, you keep seeing something that was there, even after it’s gone. You look at the sun and then shut your eyes, and you’ll still see a purple sun flaring behind your eyelids.”

“Like an afterimage.”

“Exactly. The afterimage is what you see. Persistence of vision is the term for the phenomenon of seeing it, even after it’s gone. Maybe that’s what happened in Vegas.”

“How do you mean?”

“Your memories were gone. The fact that you had no idea who Marcus was attests to that. But you still saw him, even after you stopped remembering him.”

Maggie frowned. “But persistence of vision is a physical phenomenon, Karl. It has to do with images imprinted on your eyes. This had to do with my memories.”

“Anything to do with the body is tied to the brain, Maggie.” Karl shook his head. “And though it’s less scientific, I believe that anything tied to the brain is also tied to the soul. Some part of you remembered him, Maggie. It just wasn’t your mind.”

Maggie sighed. “I don’t know how to act. I don’t know what to do or say around him.”

“Just talk to him. Get to know him like you would one of your first-and-only-date suitors or like you and I are doing.”

“It’s different, though. You and I never made out that I don’t remember.” She frowned at him and narrowed her eyes. “Did we?”

Karl grinned. He leaned forward conspiratorially and motioned for her to do the same. Maggie gaped at him for a moment, taken aback. Then she closed her mouth and leaned in to hear his secret.

When Karl spoke, his eyebrow went up and his head swayed cockily. “Not telling.”

Maggie threw her clipboard at him. He shifted his weight to duck and fell off his crate—head, shoulders, and torso disappearing behind it.

Before she could ask if he was okay, she heard a deep, muffled voice. “Nice shot.”

***

Trap smiled. He was becoming used to smiling again. He remembered why the individuals did it so often: it felt good. Nat’s children were having fits of giggles by the fire. Supper was finished, and the sun was sinking in the west. Nat was telling the children a bedtime story, making funny voices and noises. The children were rolling in the dirt and holding their stomachs.

“Nat, you’re riling them up when they should be settling down.” Kamra, Nat’s wife, was a kind woman with a gentle way about her. Even when she was cross she sounded sweet.

Despite that, Trap could sense an underlying ferocity. She would become a lioness to defend her children, sweet disposition or no.

“All right. Everyone settle down,” Nat said, though his smile spanned his face. He only smiled like that in the evening when he had time to play with his kids.

The two children—Lenna, eight, and Snap, six—continued to giggle and roll.

“Come on, now.” Nat turned more serious. “Do you two want to hear the story or just go to bed?”

“No, Dad, no!” The children mended their ways and turned rapturous gazes on their father.

The story Nat wove was a familiar one. It was about two brothers, one named Jacob, the other Esau. As soon as Nat began the tale, Trap knew he didn’t want to hear it. Memories stirred for him from deep within the story. He thought his own father might have told it to him once, and that was an avenue he wasn’t willing to venture down yet, even in his own mind.

He straightened his legs and walked away from the campsite and up a rise twenty feet away—far enough that he could still hear the murmur of Nat’s voice but was unable to understand what he was saying.

The sunset had blasted the firmament above with a collage of colors. They were seeping away now, trailing after the sun, their master, as he ducked below the horizon.

It amazed him how much a few individuals could drive the loneliness away. Nat was good to Trap but guarded, like he expected Trap to do something sinister at any moment. Kamra was kind and treated him much the way she treated her two children. But it was the children Trap felt the most kinship for.

Though it had taken a long time to remember how to speak and his voice muscles had tickled and ached from non-use for the first few days, once he began, he couldn’t stop. The words came back to him in droves. He could say almost anything he could think of now, though it sometimes took time to remember how to form the words. Nat and his family were patient and encouraging.

Despite the return of his language and some of his memories, there were parts of his past he still shied away from—things he was afraid to explore. Those memories were synonymous with pain.

Even if he were willing to delve into them, he had no wish to inflict his own pains on this family, especially on such happy children. They had no idea what the real world held, and he envied them that. Perhaps innocence such as theirs was a delusion, but he would not be the one to shatter it.

The crunch of footsteps announced Kamra’s arrival. He knew it was her because Nat’s footsteps were much heavier than hers, but the children’s were less steady. She came up beside him, but he didn’t turn to look at her. The soft hum of Nat’s voice told him the story wasn’t over yet.

“What are you thinking about, Trap?”

“The…sun…s-sets.”

“Yes. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

He shrugged—something Snap did often. It had taken Trap a while to figure out its meaning. “We…like…sun…rising…more.”

“Are they so different, as to like one more than the other?”

He nodded but wanted to say more. “It’s…first thing…I…s-saw.”

He wondered what she’d make of that. He hadn’t told her or Nat about the Union, though from the way Nat sometimes looked at him, Trap wondered if he suspected. Kamra was never suspicious. Even now, she looked at him, weighing, calculating, but not judging.

She nodded. “Then I understand why you like it more.”

“Kamra?”

She jumped. Nat had come up behind them without either of them noticing.

“I thought we agreed not to pester Trap with questions.”

You agreed,” she said, raising her chin. “And you decided that I had as well, but I didn’t.”

“Leave the poor man alone and go say goodnight to the children. They’re asking for you. Now, woman.”

Kamra gave Trap a tight, practiced smile before turning to go. She glared at Nat as she passed him, reaching up to swat him on the top of the head as she went. Nat turned a glare on her, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was headed toward the two dark bundles beside the campfire, head high and shoulders back.

When he saw she wasn’t watching, his scowl faded to an affectionate smile and he chuckled. He turned and found Trap watching him, and his smile quickly dissipated. He cleared his throat.

“Sorry about that. She’s wanted to interrogate you for days. I keep telling her to leave you be. She can’t help her curiosity, I guess.”

Trap held his hands up. “Don’t…worry.”

“Thank you.”

Nat was making a straight line for something. He’d only deviated from his course once to take the long way around some rocky cliffs that were too treacherous for the children, but once around them he’d gone back to the same course again. He must have a specific destination in mind. Trap decided to ask him.

“Where…you…go-going?” With the last word he jutted his chin out in the direction they were traveling.

Nat looked surprised, probably because Trap had started the conversation, which had not been their custom thus far. Generally Nat did all the talking and Trap listened, only supplying sparse answers when asked direct questions. Now he was initiating the conversation. Nat recovered quickly.

“You noticed, did you? I’m heading toward a place I know of, name of Interchroniter. There are individuals there. They band together for protection. I’ve never seen fit to live with them, but I have a woman and young ones to look after now. They offer safety and company. I would like Lenna and Snap to be around other children their age. I know there will be many in this place, so that’s where I’m headed.”

He turned a quizzical look on Trap. “Is there somewhere in particular you want to go?”

Trap considered for a moment, unsure how to answer. He knew for certain that he needed to find the man he’d left the Union in search of. He had some idea now of who that man was, but he didn’t yet have the words to express it. He wanted to go to wherever that man was, so in that sense, the answer to Nat’s question was yes. But he had no idea where the man was or how to find him.

“We…look…for…him.”

Nat took a step closer. “For who, Trap?”

“For…someone…a…m-man.”

“Do you know where he is?”

Trap shook his head.

“Is he an individualist?”

Trap nodded. That answer he was sure of.

“Without more information I can’t advise you on how to find this person. This place I’m going has many individuals in it. He might be there. If he’s not, someone there might be able to help you locate him. The best advice I can give is to stay with us. Once you get there, you can decide what you want to do next.”

Trap nodded. What else could he do? The thought of travelling alone again terrified him.

“Does this man have a name?”

Trap nodded but struggled. Finally he shrugged.

“You can’t remember how to say it.”

Trap nodded.

“Well, don’t worry. You’re learning fast, and my children are in love with you. I’m sure it will come to you in time. Have patience.”

Nat looked to the west, and Trap followed his gaze. Only a sliver of sun could be seen above the horizon. The sky was a deep purple around it and faded into the black directly overhead.

“We should sleep when the sun does,” Nat said. “We’re still a few weeks from Interchroniter, so I intend to push hard until we get there. I know it’s barely fall, but the cold is already setting in. I want to be there long before winter arrives.”

Trap nodded and followed Nat down the hill. The nights were his least favorite part of the day. They brought dreams, and dreams brought unwelcome memories.

He dreaded the memories.

 

Chapter 17: Reunions

Maggie crouched beside Marcus, focusing. They were on the slope of the mountain, squatting side by side in four-foot grass, looking out at the dreary view of the landscape the mountain afforded.

It was a nice day. Clay said it was the nicest the world ever saw anymore. The clouds were thin enough for the sun to show through periodically, and the weather was crisp but not cold.

“Concentrate, Maggie,” Marcus said. “What do you feel?” He was crouching a few inches behind her but not touching her—close enough to be a presence and a guide but not a distraction.

Maggie didn’t close her eyes. She’d have thought closing her eyes would help her focus, but it didn’t. Keeping her eyes open and taking in everything before her helped her to more clearly pick out the thing that didn’t belong—the thing that was not part of the earth, the air, or the natural landscape.

Then she felt it—slight, warm, and pulsating with the quiet strength of guardianship. It was coming from a grove of trees a mile downhill.

“There,” she said. “Joan is in that stand of trees.” She turned her head in time to see a smile of approval creep across Marcus’s face. He was glad she was finally getting the hang of this.

“She is.” He nodded. “Good. Keep going.”

Maggie cast her mind out again. She’d already unearthed Karl’s hiding place behind a boulder to the southwest. His mind was kind and affectionate, but it was laughing too. It reminded her of jelly but not in a visceral way—more like jellybeans, colorful and fun. That was Karl. A few minutes after she identified his location, he came walking up the slope. Marcus had somehow communicated to him that he could come out, but she didn’t know how. Now Karl sat nearby, watching the exercise in silence.

For ten minutes, she looked for the final hider: Clay. Learning to identify things by their neurochemical structure was trickier than Maggie would have thought. It was a subtle process. She had to learn not to think directly about something but rather to brush past it and let it reveal itself to her.

A tree felt different than a rock, but each type of tree felt different than the others. Even individual trees within a species had subtle differences, much as human beings had, so there was much to learn, to notice. Maggie wished she could spare a lifetime to learn the intricacies of such a system. She was sure it would take years to master. She got headaches just trying to identify the members of the team, and she’d gotten to know them pretty well over the last month.

A month wasn’t nearly enough time, though. It felt like they were sitting on a ticking time bomb. At any moment something would happen—the collectives would strike, bad news would come, the world would change somehow—and then the time for training would be past. Maggie would have to rely on her team, her instincts, and what she’d learned so far to keep her alive.

For now, she tried to find Clay’s hiding place. She felt along the green-and-yellow covered slopes, the rocky ridges, and the stands of bushy foliage but did not feel a human presence. She swept the terrain three times then turned to Marcus.

“You said he wouldn’t go far, right? Not more than half a mile?”

“He’s no farther away than Joan and Karl were.”

“But I’ve scanned as far as they were—and farther. I can’t find him.”

Marcus shook his head. “That’s because you’ve only scanned what you can see. You’re allowing yourself to be limited by your senses again.”

Maggie turned back to the view before her. What did he mean? Was it possible for Clay to be hiding inside rocks? Should she scan the mountain itself? Or was…?

Suddenly she got it. From the slope of the mountain she had a circular view—two hundred and seventy degrees, and that’s what she’d been scanning. She opened her mind to what was behind her—all three hundred and sixty degrees—and immediately found him. Still squatting, she spun on her toe and looked toward a cluster of peppermint shrubs that bearded the lip of an overhang.

Karl laughed out loud, nodding his approval.

“You can come out, Clay,” Marcus called.

Maggie was mortified to see Clay emerge from under the overhang. It was shallow, but he’d pancaked himself against the mountain so he was completely hidden. He was less than twenty feet away—close enough to hear Marcus’s verbal call. She dropped her face into her hands.

“He was right there the whole time?”

“Relax, Maggie.” Marcus put a hand on her arm, and it made her stomach tingle. “You did fine. It takes practice to go beyond the five senses. You have to allow your mind to penetrate all mediums, times, and planes.”

“If you say so.” Maggie rubbed her eyes.

Marcus looked toward the sunset. “We’re losing the light, but I’d like to do this once more, if everyone’s game?”

The team nodded. Maggie was exhausted, but she needed practice—and in truth she did like these exercises—so she nodded too.

“This time we’ll all hide, me included. Clay, you stay behind for ten minutes to distract Maggie.”

This was the reason Marcus hadn’t hidden the first few times. It was too much of a temptation for her to watch which way they went and track them from there. He wanted her to have no idea where they were so she was searching for them with her mind, rather than with what her eyes told her.

“Then when we’re hidden and she’s looking for us, you can steal away and hide yourself.” He turned to Maggie. “We’ll just have to trust that you won’t cheat.”

Maggie put a hand on her chest, feigning insult. “I would never.”

“If you say so,” Karl muttered.

The others grinned, including Marcus. Maggie thought he had a beautiful smile.

“But if it’s just me, how will you know when I’ve discovered you?” she asked.

“Come find us. None of us will go far.” His eyes swept over the other three with a stern look. “And you will have to use your mind to bring yourself to us. This will be good practice. Especially if it gets dark. You’ll have to use your mind rather than your eyes to see. Feel the rocks in front of you and move around them. Feel the slope of the earth before you put your foot down. Go slowly so you don’t get hurt, but come find us.”

Maggie nodded, not sure if she liked this. Marcus, Joan, and Karl got up, and Maggie turned to face the cave. She could hear their footsteps retreating down the slope but tried not to focus on them so she couldn’t be accused of cheating.

“So.” Clay came to sit beside her. “How’re you doing, Maggs?” His voice was soft but steady, just as his presence was.

She shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”

“Don’t be so glum, Maggie. You found us all.”

“Only after a hint from Marcus. I know I’ve come a long way, but it still feels like a setback when I can’t figure it out on my own.”

Clay shook his head. “You always were independent. Don’t worry so much. You’re trying to learn in a few weeks what we’ve all been taught since childhood. It’ll come naturally. Give it time.”

“What if we don’t have time?”

Clay looked at her steadily. “We haven’t gotten any information about new movement from the collectives. For all we know, we have all the time in the world.”

“Isn’t that the problem? They’ve been too quiet. I know you all don’t want to worry me, but don’t insult me either.”

He sighed, dropping his gaze. “All right, yes. Things are too quiet, and we don’t know why. But the fact remains that we don’t know anything and we won’t…until we do. So you should relax and stop being so hard on yourself.”

Maggie didn’t have any more comebacks, so she dropped her gaze to her lap.

Over the past few weeks Maggie had spent time with every member of the team, but none more so than with Clay. Clay’s wife, Kara, was five months pregnant with their first child. Maggie ate dinner with them when Marcus was working and frequently spent evenings in Kara’s company. She thought they were some of the sweetest, most loving, down-to-earth people she’d ever met.

“So,” Clay said after several seconds of silence. He pulled a water beaker from a bag Marcus had brought out with them. “Any questions, comments, wonderings, things you’ve thought of that I can help with?” He tilted his head back and drank deeply from the beaker’s spout.

“Clay, what…is the meaning of life?”

Clay laughed mid-gulp, choked, and then coughed and sputtered fountains of water into his own lap. Maggie giggled and scooted away to avoid being sprayed.

When he recovered, Clay turned flat eyes on her. “You know, I really wish I could experience the feeling of having water come out my nose. Oh, wait, I can!”

Maggie wiped tears from her eyes as Clay swatted water from his shirt. “I’m sorry, Clay.”

“You’re spending too much time with Karl.”

“Yeah, I s’pose.”

“So.” He made a show of carefully putting the water beaker away. “Are there any other questions you have for me, before I find a place to hide that you’ll never think of?”

“Hey, low blow!”

Clay spread his hands, eyebrows arching in mock innocence.

Turning serious, Maggie took a deep breath. “There is one thing I’ve wanted to ask, but I think it’s a sensitive subject. You can tell me to back off if you want.”

Clay laughed. “I’m not going to tell you to back off, Maggie. You can ask me anything you want.”

Maggie cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. “Do you know how David died?”

Clay’s smile faded. “You mean Marcus’s brother?”

She nodded.

“Honestly, Maggie, I have no idea.”

What?” She’d asked Joan, and Joan hadn’t known either. It was a mystery that no one felt the need to explore.

“Really, I don’t. David was gone before I met Marcus. It doesn’t take a telepath to see how mention of David affects him, so we haven’t pressed him about it.”

None of you know?”

Clay considered for a moment. “Doc might. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. But the way he sometimes talks to Marcus about David—with a certain measure of, I don’t know, authority?—makes me think he knows more than the rest of us. Have you asked Karl? I’ve never heard him say anything, but he and Marcus have known each other for something like twelve years. They’re best friends. I can tell you two things for certain.”

“What?”

“One, whatever happened, it was tragic. The kind of thing that changes a person. And two, that Marcus feels responsible.”

Maggie cocked her head to one side. “Why do you say that?”

“He wouldn’t have such a visceral reaction to it otherwise. Marcus didn’t know his mother. She died when he was little, so it was just him, his father, and his brother growing up. Marcus’s father died before I met him too and much more recently than his brother did. Yet mention of his father doesn’t evoke the same reaction as mention of his brother does.

“His father is gone, and I’m sure Marcus misses him, but when David’s name is mentioned…it’s just different. His stance and mood change. Marcus isn’t opposed to showing emotion, Maggie, but when he shows it, he’s always in control. He shows what he wants to show. Anytime David is mentioned, what I feel from him is uncontrollable emotional vulnerability…on the edge of collapse. Mention of David is the only thing that can do that to Marcus.”

Maggie’s frown had deepened as Clay spoke. This wasn’t the answer she wanted, and it was more disturbing than anything she would have expected to hear.

“Do you think it was his fault?”

Clay shook his head. “I don’t know. Marcus is a loyal guy. I don’t believe it could have been anything malicious, especially given his reaction to it now. He was a teenager at the time. Maybe it was a negligence thing. People tend to blame themselves for loved ones’ deaths, even if it wasn’t anything they could have prevented.”

Maggie nodded. That was true enough. “You have amazing insight into people, Clay.”

He smiled his soft, shy smile. “Well, I listen more than I talk.”

Maggie’s smile widened. “I’ve noticed. You’re going to be an amazing father.”

Clay looked more pleased—more proud—than Maggie had ever seen him. “Thank you.” It was said softly, despite the obvious pleasure he felt at her compliment.

“Well.” Clay shook off the serious mood. “I’d better get to hiding, and you’d better get started. The sun will be gone before you know it.” He got to his feet, dusting off the back of his pants. He started to leave but turned to throw an index finger up. “No cheating.”

She flicked her wrist in his general direction. “Yeah, yeah. Get going.”

Tuning out the sound of Clay’s retreat, Maggie began canvassing the landscape, feeling for the presence of the others.

She had almost asked Marcus about his brother a few times but kept chickening out. It was common for the team to assume Maggie knew something and be surprised when they remembered she didn’t. Maggie often wondered if she had known Marcus’s history before, and if he didn’t realize she didn’t know it now.

She started far away, scanning the land much farther than she knew they would have gone, and worked her way in. Far off in her periphery, she felt something, but it was unfamiliar and much farther away than Marcus said they’d be. Probably just an animal or something. She kept looking.

There. She’d found Marcus. She felt drawn to him in a way she couldn’t explain. Every time they did these exercises, he was always the first one she found.

Still, her relationship with Marcus was more awkward than with the others. She was becoming comfortable enough with the team to laugh and joke with them, but it wasn’t that way with Marcus. He hadn’t mentioned their prior relationship, but Maggie couldn’t imagine he didn’t know that Joan had filled her in. She supposed he was just giving her space, trying to keep the awkwardness away. That was gracious of him, but a part of her thought it would be less awkward if they got it out in the open. But she could be wrong about that, and she was too shy to bring up the subject. She wished he’d do it. He was the guy.

Straightening her legs, which felt good after squatting for half an hour, Maggie picked her way down the slope. One thing she knew for sure was that she felt safe with Marcus. Despite the uncomfortable avoidance of certain subjects, when they were alone and found something to talk about, the conversation came easily, and she found comfort in the fact that he knew her well and had loved her once.

She hadn’t gone fifteen feet when someone called her name. It startled her both because she hadn’t expected a break in the silence until she got to Marcus and because it hadn’t come from a member of the team. Skidding a few inches in surprise, Maggie quickly regained her footing and turned around. Lila, Joan’s daughter, was emerging from the cave.

Perhaps Lila needed her mother for something. Maggie turned and walked back toward her. “Joan’s out there somewhere, Lila. Do you need her?”

Lila came to stand a few inches in front of Maggie and looked at her steadily but didn’t answer right away.

“Lila? Are you okay?”

Lila cocked her head to the side. “It is you, isn’t it?”

Shivers ran down Maggie’s spine, and she stepped back involuntarily. “Where did you hear that, Lila?” she demanded. “Why would you say that to me?”

Lila smiled in a way that made Maggie’s hair stand on end. Something was off about her eyes—they had an iridescent glow, and her voice sounded deeper, more guttural than normal.

“Lila?”

Lila stepped closer and reached a hand up to Maggie’s forehead. “You can call me B.”

Her fingertips rested between Maggie’s eyes, and white-hot pain exploded inside Maggie’s skull. She felt something thud against her knees, and in the flashes of sight between bursts of blinding pain she realized it was the ground. She wanted to wrench away from Lila’s fingers, but the pain was too intense to think about moving.

Whatever Lila was doing, Maggie couldn’t fight it physically. She tried to fight it with her mind. She didn’t actually know how, but she thought of a barrier. It helped, dulling the pain ever so slightly. She pushed the barrier, using it as a shield to push the assault away from her brain, but Lila’s power struck downward with renewed force.

Maggie’s throat was raw, but she couldn’t think why. Just when she thought the pain couldn’t get any worse, it burrowed down more deeply until the entire length of her spine felt like it was on fire.

She heard other noises she couldn’t identify. They were drowned out by the sound of the pain in her skull. Then there was nothing.

***

Marcus didn’t need to see Maggie to know what she was doing. She stayed crouching just outside the cave where he’d left her for about five minutes after Clay moved off. Clay was hiding on the north side of the cave under some aspen trees. Joan and Karl were to the south, spread out between Clay and Marcus.

Then Maggie zeroed in on him. He felt Maggie recognize him. Then she started walking toward him. He’d climbed into the low branches of an oak tree. Now he jumped to the ground and waited to see her. He let his gaze wander around the landscape, even as his thoughts wandered.

He didn’t realize Maggie had stopped until he heard her screaming.

“Maggie!”

Racing out of the stand of trees, Marcus made a straight line for where he could both hear and feel her. She was in intense pain. He could feel Karl, Joan, and Clay become aware and start moving toward her as well.

Marcus willed his legs to move faster, but his body couldn’t respond as quickly as his mind. He cursed himself for leaving her alone. Based on the Destructive energy at work, if he didn’t get there soon, Maggie’s mind would be completely destroyed.

 

Chapter 18: Explanations

After what felt like a millennia of white-hot pain, Maggie heard voices. The first was feminine.

“Lila, what are you doing?” Joan’s voice was raised but controlled.

Then there were masculine voices around her as well. She was pulled into someone’s arms, leaning against a masculine chest. Odd, that she could absorb such details with the pain searing into her. She focused on the voices around her. It seemed to help keep the energy from destroying her consciousness.

“Joan.” It was Karl yelling. “You’ve got to stop Lila. You’ve got to give it your all. I know she’s your daughter, but she’s doing damage. We must protect Maggie. She’s the key to the prophecy.”

“Joan!” Marcus yelled. “Do something.”

Maggie focused in on his voice. It was clearer in her head than the others and gave her strength against the energy.

“She’s my daughter. I can’t hurt her!” Joan yelled.

“Joan!” Clay yelled. “That’s not Lila!”

Suddenly, a thick bar of power, like a brick wall, slammed between Maggie and Lila. It sheared through the energy between them.

The fiery pain ceased all at once, and darkness enveloped her.

She could still hear faraway voices, but they were indistinct, floating in the ether of her mind. She felt soft pressure on both of her temples, but it was a faraway sensation, as though the sides of her head were miles from her brain. Something forced her lungs to inflate, and it was as though with the air she sucked in, she also drew reality and consciousness toward her. Colors and sounds and sensations came rushing at her as she inhaled, arching her back so her diaphragm could fully extend.

She opened her eyes to find Marcus lying over top of her. His hands were on the sides of her face, his forehead pressed against hers. He’d healed her, brought her back. She was sure of it. She told herself the weakness in her limbs was from the ordeal, not from the feel of his breath on her face.

His eyes focused and he sat up a few inches so he could gaze down into her face. His expression was worried, and Maggie was acutely aware of how violently she was trembling against him.

“Marcus.” Karl’s voice interrupted Maggie’s thoughts.

Marcus looked up.

“Is she okay?” Karl’s voice was much too serious for him.

Marcus nodded. “We need to take her to Doc, but all her synapses are firing again.”

Karl looked relieved, then apologetic. “I don’t mean to…interrupt, but there’s something you should see.”

Marcus started to shake his head, but stopped and studied Karl. Maggie saw it, too: there was fear in Karl’s face, and that wasn’t like him. Marcus looked at Maggie one more time before getting to his feet. She sat up on her elbows, following him with her gaze. He glanced behind her and then Maggie felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Clay give her a reassuring smile.

“You okay, Maggs?”

She tried to nod but wasn’t sure if she actually did. Her body wasn’t cooperating the way it should.

“What is it?” Marcus asked Karl.

“It’s Nathaniel Strellend—the one Doc said we needed to find. He’s the one who put the shield between Maggie and Lila.”

Marcus frowned. “But he’s a friend, right?”

“You need to see who he brought with him.” Karl pointed with his chin over Marcus’s shoulder.

Marcus turned slowly. Maggie followed his gaze.

A middle-aged man Maggie didn’t recognize stood nearby. Behind him were a woman and two small children. Another man stood there as well, but he was hidden behind Strellend’s tall figure.

“I hope”—Strellend stepped forward—“that both women are all right. I can see none of you recognize what just happened. I knew the moment I saw it. I only hope I wasn’t too late to prevent irreparable damage.”

Marcus frowned then arched an eyebrow at Karl.

Karl looked at Strellend. “Show him who you brought with you.”

Strellend looked at Karl in a way that said he too was mystified as to what Karl was getting at, but after a moment he stepped aside, motioning the man behind him to come forward.

“We found him along the way. We call him Trap.”

The man stepped up beside Strellend.

Marcus looked at the second man and his expression became utterly still. His eyes widened only a bit and a single wrinkle appeared his brow, but the horror his expression conveyed made Maggie afraid. She was sure Marcus didn’t breath for a full ten seconds.

The rest of team looked at Marcus with confusion, except for Karl, who just looked sympathetic.

Marcus looked again at the man called Trap and his whisper was so soft that Maggie had to strain to hear it.

“David.”

***

“What do you mean no? How did you know to come then?”

While Karl yelled in Nathaniel Strellend’s general direction, Maggie studied the man Marcus had addressed as David. He was shorter than Marcus and more thickly built but an otherwise spitting image of his brother. Same strange eyes, same hair, same mouth. Dark circles resided under his eyes, and they seemed shallower, less grounded, somehow.

“I mean I haven’t met your team. Other than Trap, we haven’t seen a single person in weeks. And I didn’t know anything. I was coming here anyway.”

“Why? And who’s Trap?”

Marcus’s hands were on either side of Lila’s head, and he was looking intently into her eyes. Maggie knew he wasn’t really seeing her though. After a few minutes, his hands dropped and he got to his feet. Lila’s eyes fluttered open.

“Lila.” Joan leaned over her daughter. “Lila, say something.”

Lila blinked, looked around, then rolled out of her mother’s embrace and vomited.

He’s Trap. That’s what we’ve been calling him because he couldn’t talk at first, and he wouldn’t give us a name.”

Marcus came to kneel beside Maggie again, putting a hand on her arm. She looked up and saw concern in his eyes. He slid his hand up her arm until it came to rest on her neck. He was scanning her again. She could feel it as the slightest vibration touching the tips of her fingers and toes, her nose and knees and earlobes.

All eyes turned to Marcus when Strellend pointed to his shorter look alike and called him Trap. Marcus straightened his legs.

“That’s my younger brother. His name is David.”

David’s eyes were on his boots. He made no attempt to meet anyone’s gaze, especially Marcus’s.

“But what are you doing here?” Karl persisted, looking at Strellend again. “We sent a team of Trackers out to find you weeks ago. You’re telling me that you’re not here because of them?”

Strellend shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

Karl looked at him as though he’d just announced there were fish in the sea. “But—”

“Karl,” Clay interjected. “We have about six stories that need to be told. Let’s get Maggie and Lila to Doc. We’re going to need his input.”

Karl’s lips pressed into a tight line, but he nodded after a moment.

“Karl,” Marcus said, “carry Lila. I’ll bring Maggie. Clay, you bring up the rear. Everyone else, follow us.” He bent and scooped Maggie up into his arms.

It took her by surprise, and she clutched his shoulders. “I can walk, Marcus.”

“You’re not walking.”

Sighing, Maggie looked over to where Strellend was gathering up his family—an auburn-haired woman half his age and two small children—and pushing them in Marcus’s direction. David’s eyes came up to follow Strellend, but then they fell on Maggie. Their eyes locked, and it was as though he was seeing her for the first time.

He crossed the space between them until he was standing directly in front of Marcus, who had Maggie in his arms. David was still looking directly into her eyes.

“It’s you,” he whispered.

He raised a hand to touch her cheek, and she shrunk away. Marcus turned to the side, pulling her back from David’s hand, and David snapped out of a haze.

He looked at Marcus, who was glaring at him, then immediately away. He seemed unable to meet Marcus’s gaze.

“Let’s go,” Marcus said coldly, turning toward the cave.

Over his shoulder, Maggie watched as David took a step toward them and reached out a hand.

“Marcus.”

Marcus turned around. David looked away, shutting his eyes. A tear leaked down his cheek. He fell to his knees.

Clay and Strellend were immediately at his side. Marcus whirled to face his estranged brother. Maggie studied his face from inches away. Despite the hard set of his jaw, she could see concern in the way the lines of his face deepened.

“Go, Marcus,” Clay said. “Take Maggie. We’ll bring him.”

***

A short while later, they were in Medical. Maggie sat on one bed while Lila lay on her back on another. The rest of the team, along with Nat and David, clustered around the two beds, listening. Another woman from the compound had taken Nat’s wife and children to where they could wash up, get something to eat, and rest.

“We were doing the exercise…and I’d located Marcus,” Maggie explained. “I was heading toward where you were, but then I heard my name. I saw it was Lila…and thought maybe she was looking for Joan…but her voice sounded strange.”

“Strange how?” Karl asked.

Maggie scratched her temple absently. “I don’t know. It was deeper…but not. It had an edge it doesn’t usually have—like an echo of a deeper voice.”

“When you say deeper,” Clay interjected, “you mean…”

“Like a man was speaking with her or over her. And he said, ‘You can call me B,’ and then there was just the pain.”

“B?”

Maggie nodded at Doc’s question.

“What could that stand for?” Marcus furrowed his brow.

“Bastard,” Karl muttered.

Maggie tried to conceal a smile, but no one else reacted.

After a moment, Doc spoke again. “Lila? Are you up to speaking to us?”

Marcus’s healing of Lila had been impeccable. Physically she was fine. She was traumatized though. Her eyes were shifty, and her hands hadn’t stopped trembling. Joan hovered protectively around her daughter, daring anyone to get too close.

Lila sat up shakily.

“You don’t have to if you’re not ready, Lila.” Joan’s voice was quiet.

Despite her trembling, Lila shook her head. “It’s all right. I want to know what just happened to me, Mom.” She straightened her spine and met Doc’s gaze levelly, though the bravado was ruined a bit by her quivering limbs.

“I was going about my day. I don’t remember what I was doing, but then I felt something.”

“Something?”

“A presence I couldn’t identify. You know how you can sometimes tell who’s coming up behind you, how you learn to recognize their neurochemical signature?”

“Did you recognize who it was, Lila?” Doc asked, nodding.

She shook her head. “No, on the contrary, but I felt like someone was there, standing right beside me—someone completely unfamiliar. And then”—her voice grew heavy—“there was this intense pain, like someone was drilling into my skull with a metal pincer. I tried to fight it and did for a while, I think, but every time I pushed against it, it pushed back a hundred fold. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t breathe.”

Her voice broke, and tears rolled down her cheeks. “He took over, and I was watching myself, riding around behind my own eyes, unable to control my movements.”

The silence that followed was broken only by Lila’s dainty sobs. Joan put her arms around her daughter, and Maggie felt for her.

“Lila,” Doc said gently, “you said he. He took over?”

Lila nodded, wiping her tears away. “It was a man. I could tell that much.”

“Were you able to get a sense of his purpose? What he wanted?”

Lila nodded again. “Yes. I knew exactly what he was doing. But that made it all the more terrifying because I couldn’t stop him.”

“From doing what?”

“Killing Maggie.”

Silence swept through the room again. Maggie shivered. Her fingers felt cold. Marcus’s hands were on her upper arms, and he squeezed with gentle reassurance. She glanced up at David to see him frowning. He was watching Marcus’s hands on her arms, and it seemed to disturb him for some reason.

“But, Lila,” Karl said, “could you tell who he was? Where he was from? Why he wanted to hurt her?”

Lila shook her head. “I couldn’t hear actual thoughts, so I can’t tell you any specific details about him. It was more a sense of purpose. He had a single purpose at any given time, and I could feel what it was. First, it was to overpower me. Then, it was to find Maggie, which he did through me. Once he saw Maggie, he said, ‘It’s you,’ and I knew right then that he would try to kill her.” Her voice grew thick again. “But I couldn’t stop him. I tried, but…”

Maggie suddenly felt the urge to comfort Lila. She hopped off the bed and crossed the room, putting an arm around Lila. “Of course you couldn’t, Lila. It’s not your fault.”

Lila cried into Maggie’s shoulder for a few moments. She glanced up to find David watching her. He looked…impressed.

“Lila,” Doc said when Lila had gotten a hold of herself, “do you remember anything else, anything from when Nathaniel severed the link between you two?”

Lila shook her head slowly, her eyes searching the ground. “Not really. I think you hurt him, though.”

“What do you mean?” It was Strellend asking the question.

“As I was blacking out, I think he screamed—like he was in pain. I think when you severed the flow of energy, he might have gotten some kind of backlash.”

“Do you think it killed him?” Marcus asked.

“No. It was a cry of pain, but it didn’t feel final enough to be obliterating. I felt him retreating. If he’d been killed, I think he would have just suddenly been gone.”

Doc nodded. Then he turned to Strellend. “Well, Nat, old friend. How are you? It’s been many years.”

Nat nodded. “It has.”

“I wish you were back under better circumstances, but would you like to tell your view of the story?”

“You said outside that you knew exactly what had just happened,” Karl said. “Well?”

“Her mind was invaded,” Nat said it as if he were announcing what was for dinner, and David saw the others in the room shift uncomfortably.

“I didn’t even know such a thing was possible,” Joan said quietly.

“For the most part, it’s not,” Doc said. “I’ve heard of such things before, but they take a great deal of knowledge and skill. Most people don’t know how to do such a thing. Those who do wouldn’t, for the most part, have the ability to follow through with it.

“We each have a great deal of control over our own minds. Trying to drill into someone else’s is a tremendous feat. The fact that he achieved it with so little time and trouble is worrisome. Especially because, as far as we can tell, he’s not here. We have a man who can force his way into someone else’s mind, a kind of neurological rape, if you will, from—who knows?—maybe hundreds of miles away. He must be very powerful.”

“Very powerful, yes,” Lila murmured. “When this B attacked Maggie, the amount of energy he used…it was unreal. I’d never felt anything like it.”

Marcus nodded. “He’d have to call on a lot of power to do the damage I felt.”

Lila shook her head. “It was more than that. It was almost as if…I don’t know, as if he weren’t channeling it through another tool, but rather that he himself, I mean me, my body, was the conduit stone. The energy was flowing through me, and he was directing it. I thought all my organs were going to be cooked.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Lila,” Karl said. “This energy can’t affect you physically.”

Lila glared icicles at Karl. “I know that. I’m just saying that’s what it felt like.”

“Is it possible, Doc? To use a human body as a conduit stone?” Maggie jumped in, hoping to forestall an argument.

Doc’s gaze shifted, not settling on anyone. He didn’t look like he was going to answer.

Marcus immediately jumped in. “Out with it, Doc. What do you know?”

Doc flashed quick looks at Lila, Nat, and David. “We should give Nat and David a chance to freshen up. And Lila should rest. Perhaps we should move this into—”

“No!” Lila jumped off the bed and shook her fist under Doc’s nose. “I’ve always tried not to pry into the team’s missions, Doc, but I was attacked today. I’m a part of this now, and I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what you know.”

“As do I,” Nathaniel said. “My family is here, and I feel I have a right to know what’s going on around us.”

After a moment Doc sighed. “All right, then. Let’s lay it all out on the table.”

 

Chapter 19: A Lonely Way of Speaking

Maggie watched Doc carefully. He sat at the head of the conference table, leaning forward on his elbows and regarding them all over steepled fingers.

A cozy light came on as they entered the conference room. It had an oblong table with five chairs on each side. The group clustered to one end.

“Maggie,” Doc said, “just so we’re all on the same page, why don’t you tell our newcomers what your role in the prophecy is.”

“Executioner.”

Doc nodded, as did the other team members. Nat, who was seated on Doc’s right, looked at her with raised eyebrows. Then he took on a weighing, speculative look. She shifted her gaze to David, who sat across from her. He looked downright shocked. Maggie sat back in her chair, suddenly self-conscious.

Either Doc didn’t notice the reactions of the two men, or he was ignoring them. “When you got here, I told you about the prophecy as well as the Prophetess who gave it. Very little about her has survived. I know more than most, but before what Lila said today, I never deemed it relevant to our cause.”

Joan shook her head with a soft laugh. “The secrets you keep, Doc.”

“What do we know?” Karl asked.

Doc took a deep breath and exchanged significant looks with Nat. “The woman who gave the prophecy was named Adaiah. Her abilities included being able to wrap the space-time continuum around herself.”

“She was a Traveler,” Karl said.

“No,” Doc said. “She could not travel through time. She could only see and understand through it.”

“Hence the prophecy,” Maggie said.

“Yes. But understand this: what she saw was never absolute. She would see several—sometimes dozens—of outcomes of a certain thing. Her prophecies tell what must be done to produce a certain outcome or to keep a certain outcome from coming to pass, but they are by no means certain. In our case, she told us that a group of people with particular neural signatures—that house particular abilities—had to come together in order to defeat the collectives. That doesn’t mean it will happen for sure. Only that if it doesn’t happen, the collectives will eventually take over.”

Everyone shifted uncomfortably. Maggie didn’t blame them. A prophecy had a certain connotation attached to it. It had to come true, didn’t it? Doc was saying that, despite being named as a prophecy, that wasn’t necessarily true. There was a good chance the collectives would win.

“But,” Maggie chimed in, “we still don’t have anyone to fill the Deceiver’s role, Colin’s role.”

David frowned. Doc nodded. “I don’t believe we’ll fully accomplish our aims until we fill that role. Our Seekers are working on it as we speak.

“Adaiah was someone who gave many prophecies of this kind throughout her life. She lived in the time when society was in its final stages of collapse and the collectives were just beginning to rise. As things got worse, the individuals began to lose hope of ever defeating the collectives. Adaiah realized she had the ability to look into the future and figure out how to defeat the collectives. She knew she could give a prophecy explaining what was needed to bring them down for good.

“The problem was that Seeing, just as with all our other abilities, takes a great deal of energy. When Marcus has done a great deal of Healing, he gets tired. Clay can only hold a Concealment for so long before he loses strength. So it was with Adaiah’s prophecies. In order to do this, she would have to See every outcome of every decision for hundreds of years before her. She began by doing it in small chunks so she could recuperate between sessions, but even that was aging her too much.

“Her hair turned white. She was aging too fast to stay at that pace. She decided she’d have to give the prophecy all at once. In order to do that, she did what Lila described earlier: she used her body as a conduit, pulling more energy through it than any person could wield through a regular stone. It took several hours, but she succeeded, producing the prophecy—the key we need to preserve our individuality.”

Everyone was silent around the table. Maggie scarcely dared breathe, afraid to break the trance that had descended on them as Doc spoke.

“And what happened to her?” Clay’s voice was soft.

Doc looked older than Maggie had ever seen him look. “She spoke the final words of the prophecy…and died.”

Karl leaned forward, resting his massive forearms on the table. “So if this man, this B was using his body as a conduit stone, and—you know—not dying, he must be a man of unbelievable power.”

“Yes.” Doc’s face was unreadable.

“The next question,” Strellend said, “is why does he want Maggie dead?”

“Actually,” Doc answered, “we may have a part of the answer to that.”

Maggie looked up in surprise. They did?

“We’ve discovered that Maggie has the ability to call upon a great deal of Offensive energy, even without a conduit. As far as we know, she couldn’t do that when she was here before. She’s stronger that even you are, Nat, but the reason Karl sent a team looking for you is that you are the only one anywhere close to her in strength. We thought you could help teach her to harness and direct her power.”

Strellend scratched his beard, studying Maggie again. She wished he wouldn’t do that. She felt like she was at a meat market, only it was her mind on display rather than her body. One would think that would be a compliment, but in a future where the mind was everything, such scrutiny was still uncomfortable.

“Why would she have not had it before?” Strellend asked.

“We don’t know.”

“Doc,” Maggie said, causing all eyes to turn to her. “Isn’t it possible that I did have it, but we just never discovered it?”

Karl shook his head. “I considered that, Maggie, but I don’t think so. We taught you to defend yourself before. If you’d had that ability, it would have manifested, just as it did this time. Why wouldn’t it?”

“In a way,” Doc said, “it makes sense to me for you to have that ability, Maggie. You’re named as Executioner in the prophecy. We don’t know what that specifically entails. Most of us have thought that it must be you that kills the person or people controlling the collectives. Or you are simply the executer of the plan that will bring the collectives down. Either way, you are the key to the entire thing working. It seems fitting that you would have unparalleled Offensive power.”

“Yes, but Doc,” Maggie said, unsure how to communicate her point, “if I need this energy to fulfill the prophecy, why didn’t I have it before? You said the prophecy told what people—what specific abilities—were needed. If I didn’t have what I needed before, I wouldn’t have been named in the prophecy, would I?”

Everyone considered that in silence.

“Except,” Joan said, “that Doc also said Adaiah foresaw the outcomes of everything. Maybe she saw that you had to acquire that energy, so it was all supposed to happen the way it did.”

Strellend’s thumb and forefinger had gone to the bridge of his nose. “This is turning into a brain bender. But what you mean to say, Doc, is that you think this B was trying to kill Maggie because of this power she holds?”

“I think it’s a possibility. He said ‘it’s you,’ as though he’d been looking for her and finally found her.”

“He’s not the only one who’s said that to her.” Karl threw an accusatory look at David, whose eyes were on his hands.

“Actually,” Marcus said, “he’s not even the first. When I went to get Maggie, an Arachniman beat me there and attacked her. He said that exact thing…and then tried to kill her.”

“Yes,” Doc said, “I remember you telling me that, Marcus. Do you think that man was being controlled by this B as well?”

“I don’t know. Either that or the collectives in general are looking for her and keep sending people to find her.”

Maggie shrugged uncomfortably, and Marcus covered her hand with his. She glanced up to where David was sitting at the far end of the conference table. He was frowning, and he kept opening his mouth as though to say something then snapping it shut and returning to the study of his hands.

“Well, Nathaniel.” Doc broke the awkward silence. “Why don’t you tell us how you came upon David?”

“Not much to tell.” Nat shrugged. “My family and I were travelling here. I always preferred to live on my own in the past, but having children changes a man’s perspective. One morning he just trudged up to my campfire. I probed his mind and found it to be very underdeveloped. I knew right away that he wasn’t a threat. In fact, as disorganized as his mind was, I suspected that perhaps he’d just endured some kind of trauma.”

“Like what?” Clay asked.

“A run in with the collectives or some of their goons, which can leave a person shell shocked—damaged, even. Or perhaps that he’d just come out of one of the collectives.”

“Come out of the collectives?” Karl asked, wide-eyed. “You mean—”

“Yes. Forcibly breaking away from them, severing his mind from their influence.”

“Is that even possible?” Karl looked astounded. “The collectives forcibly absorb people. If those who don’t want that can simply pull away—”

Nat shook his head. “No, most people can’t. Most have no hope of such a thing. It takes an extraordinary person to manage it, if indeed that is what he did.”

All eyes turned to David, who was staring intensely at the table, chest heaving. Shocked silence filled the room, and Maggie thought perhaps she finally understood Marcus’s reluctance to speak of his brother.

After a moment, David closed his eyes as if steeling himself for something. Then he took a deep breath and raised his head to look at Marcus. When he did, he winced but managed to hold the gaze.

“How much…do they know…about us?”

Marcus’s face was unreadable, but his hands in his lap were clasped so tightly that they were trembling. Maggie realized it was taking everything Marcus had to keep his face passive, his emotions just below the surface.

“Most of them believed you were dead.”

David nodded, dropping his gaze to the table. “Suppose it…was…easy… to…let them…believe that.”

His speech struck Maggie as odd. He had to stop and think about what he wanted to say before he said it, yet he spoke perfect, eloquent English. For some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, the way he spoke made her sad. She didn’t have time to muse on it though, because David turned his body to face the group more fully but kept his gaze on the table.

“Our father was a…a…freedom fighter, an individualist. Taught us to think…for ourselves and to fight the Union—uh, the…collectives. Back then we never came across anything…like this.” His eyes indicated the compound around them. “Our lives…lonely. We never knew…M-mother. When was…teenager, met some others who were individualists. Cared…for a young woman that was with them. She was…killed in…skirmish with some Trepids. Couldn’t live that life anymore. Decided— ” He glanced up at Marcus, but Marcus wasn’t looking at him. “Decided…it wasn’t…worth it anymore. Ch-chose to go into the collective. Thought it would be easier that way…less lonely.

“Marcus and father begged…not to go. They tried to show us the…evils of the choice but…wouldn’t listen…went anyway. That was ten years ago. Have lived in the collective ever since.”

Silence followed. Maggie’s eyes were on Marcus. Not just his hands, but his arms and shoulders were trembling now too. His emotions were boiling just below the surface, raw and explosive. These were deep wounds that were being reopened or perhaps had never healed at all.

Doc spoke, his voice gentle. “And what made you decide to leave the collective now?”

David glanced up at Doc, but his gaze quickly returned to the table. Suddenly his voice was thick, his eyes misty.

“Couldn’t…condone what they were doing. We have…gone along with it for so long…turned our face away…but couldn’t anymore.” He put his fingertips to his hairline and then slid them through his dark hair, grasping it in handfuls at the apex of his skull. “The screaming…begging…brutality… Couldn’t ignore…father’s voice…echoing…in the deepest chambers of…our mind…where even Union couldn’t…penetrate.” Tears coursed down his cheeks. “What they were planning…”

Karl sat up a little straighter, and Clay and Joan exchanged looks.

“You know what they’re planning?” Karl asked.

David sniffed and straightened. He nodded. “Known for a while…didn’t know the details. Didn’t want to leave until…had some solid information to bring”—he looked directly at Marcus—“to you.” His gaze fell again.

“Don’t know how to stop it, or even what…all of you can…do with it. Just knew had to…find someone, someone stronger…than us… that might be able to…stop them.” He looked at Marcus again.

Marcus looked away. Maggie could tell he harbored a lot of anger for David’s abandonment of the family, and understandably so, but he also had compassion for his brother. He visibly softened when David started crying. He was suddenly about to lose control in an entirely different way.

“What about Dad? Why look for me and not him?” Marcus asked, eyes still turned away from his brother.

David frowned. “He’s dead.”

Marcus looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Yes. But how do you know that?”

David shrugged. “Felt him die…knew when it happened, just as…could feel you…still living…somewhere…far to the west. Just had to find you.”

Maggie noted that David had a hard time saying I or my, and she realized that was why his speech patterns made her sad. The speech of someone without a personal identity came across as terribly lonely.

Marcus leaned forward, forearms on the table. “You know who Maggie is.”

David glanced at Maggie and nodded.

“Do you know that she’s from the past?”

David’s head came up, his eyebrows hiked. They settled slowly as he thought about that. “Didn’t know, but…makes sense.”

“When I went to get her an Arachniman was waiting for me. He nearly killed her before I got there. Can you explain that?”

David nodded slowly. “Yes.” He looked at Doc. “Do…you know about the…c-counter prophecy?”

The more David spoke, the fewer pauses he needed. His speech was becoming better by the minute.

Doc’s ears perked up. “Counter prophecy?”

“Yes. When a prophecy is given, a counter prophecy also comes…into existence. Two halves of a whole. Your prophecy tells what must happen to…make sure the Union doesn’t prevail. Union has a prophecy outlining what needs to happen to…ensure that they do.”

There was silence as everyone absorbed that.

“I didn’t know that,” Doc murmured.

“Their prophecy says many things… Most don’t make sense or seem…relevant. It says that one person in particular will rise up. You were right…Doctor, when you said M-Maggie was the key. She’s the…lynchpin to the entire thing.”

“What entire thing?” Karl sounded alarmed.

“The…destruction of the Unity. If the Union wants to survive, Maggie has to…die. As long as she lives, they are in…jeopardy. Our…their prophecy says they must kill you.”

“But,” Maggie sputtered, “but how do they know who I am? How did you know me?”

David sat back in his chair. “The prophecy mentions certain…attributes to…identify you. Brain signature is laid out… A certain…level of abilities, which can be sensed when you are…close by. Even mentions a triple-taloned scar.” He nodded to her hand, which rested on the table in front of her.”

She had the urge to hide her hand under the table but resisted it. “So each of the people who said ‘it is you,’ they knew me? They’d been sent to find me?”

David shook his head. “Every person in the collectives or linked to them is taught to search. They all have the…authorization and…instruction to kill you on sight. It’s likely that each of those people was sent for a…different reason, but they recognized you when they came into contact with you. What you call…Arachnimen are too far down in the…hierarchy. They act as…muscle. They would never be given such an…important mission. This B person is…different matter. Don’t know who he is or what his intentions were.”

“If I may interrupt,” Doc said, “I think he, whoever he is, might have been really looking for Maggie. I agree with you about the Arachniman, but if he was able to communicate to his collective before he died that they’d found her, the collective might have immediately sent someone to seek out and execute her.”

David nodded as Doc spoke, getting more vigorous as he went on. “Yes…you are right. Have heard things…whispers of things that didn’t make sense. Now it does.”

Maggie could feel Marcus seething again. “So this is what you came to tell us?” he asked through clenched teeth. “That the collectives are going to kill Maggie and then prevail?”

Maggie put a hand on his arm, lowering her voice for his ears only. “He didn’t make the prophecy, Marcus. He’s only telling us what it says.” Some of the tension went out of his arm but not much.

“No,” David said. “What we came to tell is…worse. They plan to…dominate all individuals.”

Everyone leaned forward, eyes and ears trained on David.

David sighed. “They have time travel—two people working on this plan. One of them does what your…Seekers do. He finds specific people based on their brain signatures anywhere in time. The other person is a Traveler. Their plan is to reach back in time and find persons of…importance and…neutralize them.”

Maggie glanced around the table. Karl was supposed to be the only Traveler alive, but no one looked shocked at this information. Doc and Marcus exchanged meaningful glances. Joan was nodding; even Karl was supremely calm.

Maggie’s head whipped toward Doc. “You already knew that.”

“About the Traveler? Yes, we suspected.”

“Why?”

“Because an Arachniman showed up at your house, Maggie. If Karl didn’t get them there, then some other Traveler must have.”

“Oh.” Maggie supposed it was an obvious conclusion and felt foolish for not making it earlier.

“What do you mean persons of importance?” Doc asked David.

“They will reach back in time and brainwash…Gandhi or John Locke. If the collectives get them to…preach something different—even…subtly—then the world will be more…susceptible to Unity. If they get rid of people like A-Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King…”

“People will be more open to slavery,” Maggie finished for him, the full import of what he was saying washing over her. They would turn the greatest chapters of history into grey, second-rate occurrences, ensuring that humanity would remember only oppression and mediocrity. They had to be stopped.

“But,” Lila chimed in, “if they change something, especially something that huge in the past, they might change the future more than they can control. How can they assume things will go their way?”

David shook his head. “Perhaps…more to it than we…are aware of—surely there is. Only…know what they are planning. Without those…influential people, if enough of them are silenced and erased from…history, the human race will be easier to control when the Unions rise.”

“David,” Doc said at length, “we’ve tried to infiltrate the collectives before, and it’s never worked very well. Colin was the only one that ever came close, and he’s dead now. Can you tell us about the inner workings of the collectives?”

David gazed steadily at Doc for several seconds. “Can tell you everything.”

***

The next several hours were spent listening to David.

When someone was integrated into a collective, the individual had to establish a link between his mind and the rest of the collective. To do that, he or she had to let the collective drill into their brains to produce that link. David said that it was terrifying and painful, but once finished the other voices flooded in, leaving no room for fear, pain, or loneliness. The collectives could all hear one another’s thoughts, feel one another’s emotions, and understand one another’s beliefs. A person was never alone with his or her own thoughts in a collective.

When Marcus and David’s father had died, David felt the loss of him and was profoundly sad. All the others in the collective immediately felt his loss. They sympathized with and comforted him.

The collectives all worked together for mutual survival. They did different jobs—some planted and plowed, some sewed and knitted, some baked, some cleaned, etc.—but each person in the collective knew how to do each job, and they were rotated regularly so no one person could specialize or excel in any particular field. David described at length what daily life was like and how different experiences felt.

“David,” Doc broke in, “who controls the collectives? How are decisions made?”

David nodded. “Yes, that’s…important. They are controlled by the Council of Six.”

“The Council of Six?”

“Members of the Union don’t make any…final decisions. They discuss and debate, but the ultimate decision is left to the Council. There are three major collectives.” David looked around as though to ask if they knew this.

The members of the team exchanged looks. “Last time we checked there were four,” Doc said.

“Two of those will…merge soon if they haven’t already. Originally there were six. There were dozens to begin with, but the smaller ones were absorbed into six large ones. Each member of the Council controlled one of these large entities, but the Council members themselves are individuals. They counsel together and make decisions as a group, but they are not part of the…collective mind. Now that there are only three, two members of the Council control each Union. Eventually they will all merge into one, enveloping Union, and the Six will rule it.”

“So.” Karl leaned forward. “If we locate and destroy this Council…”

David nodded. “The Unity would p-probably collapse.”

A general buzz of excitement could be felt around the table.

Clay looked at Doc. “Can it really be that easy?”

Doc held up his hands. “Let’s not make the mistake of assuming it will be easy. We didn’t know anything about this until now. They’ve obviously gone to great lengths to keep themselves hidden. I doubt they’ll be vulnerable.”

“Actually,” David said, then seemed to back-pedal. “It depends on h-how you…look at it. There isn’t much physical defense to break through, but that’s because of the Concealment. They have the best Concealers working for them. Even knowing about them, you won’t find them unless you already know where they are. Because of that, they are…confident they don’t need much physical protection.”

“And,” Marcus said, “do…you know where they are?”

No one breathed.

“Yes.”

Everyone exhaled, their excitement returning.

“But it may not be that simple,” David said.

Karl turned flat eyes on David. “Naturally.”

David shrugged. “The bigger problem to worry about is this Traveler and Seeker. Even if the Council is…brought down, if they go ahead with their plans, they could restore the Council in the future by changing the past.”

“So”—Doc nodded—“we have to deal with them first then worry about the Council.”

“But,” Joan said, “you’re implying that they haven’t started their time travel brainwashing yet. What are they waiting for?”

“For the collectives to merge. A…logistical thing. It will be easier to…gauge change with all of humanity in one collective mind rather than worrying about separate…entities. That’s why…had to leave. Things are happening fast now. As soon as they…merge, which won’t take long, they’ll start changing history.”

“And where are they?” Doc asked.

“On an…island in the South Pacific. It’s a…dormant…volcano. They have a…facility there. The Traveler and the Seeker are kept there. The Council resides there most of the time. Sometimes they travel, but most, if not all of them, should be there.”

“We’ll have to do the best we can with what we have,” Karl said. “Killing any one of them is bound to put a dent in the collectives somewhere.”

“Must kill both leaders of any one collective for it to collapse. If you killed two but they were the leaders of two separate collectives, there would still be one leader for each, so both Unions would…remain.”

The team nodded.

“I suppose,” Doc said, “we’ll have to travel to this island, do some reconnaissance, and go from there.” He looked around the table. “I don’t mean to offend anyone, but the team needs to discuss this and decide what to do. Nat, Lila, David, would you excuse us?”

Lila and Nat rose, but David didn’t. He opened his mouth then shut it again, looking frustrated.

“Something else you wanted to say, David?” Doc asked.

David’s eyes locked on Maggie’s, but she put her gaze on the table in front of her. His eyes were exactly the same as Marcus’s—amber-hazel with a rainbow of flecks—and for some reason she couldn’t pinpoint, it unsettled her.

“It…” David struggled, “it would be…dangerous for you to do this.”

Doc nodded patiently. “We all understand the danger, David. If we were repelled by it, we wouldn’t be individualists.”

David shook his head. “No…I mean…for Maggie. It is…dangerous. They’re looking for her. They’ll recognize her.”

Doc looked at David in a calculating way. Then his eyes went to Maggie. The rest of the team followed his gaze, and Maggie felt her cheeks heat. Doc’s gaze went back to David without a word though.

“Yes, Maggie’s safety is something we’ll have to take into account.”

David still didn’t look satisfied. “But…”

“I hear you, David.” Doc cut him off gently. “We all do, but this is more important than any one of us. Of course we’ll take precautions to make sure none of our lives are forfeited, but danger won’t keep us from our task. We’ve all dedicated our lives to this cause.”

David didn’t look happy. He looked at Maggie again, and this time she made herself meet his gaze. His eyes bored into hers, unreadable. Finally, still looking frustrated, he nodded and got to his feet.

“Lila,” Doc said, “perhaps you can take Nat and David to Dalia? She will know which rooms have been assigned to each of them.”

“Of course.”

The three of them filed out of the room.

“So,” Doc said after a few moments of silence. “What does everyone think?”

“If I may say,” Clay said, “it feels a lot like what happened before.”

“What do you mean?”

“Before, we knew the leadership of the collectives was in the ships. We didn’t know who they were or how many, just that they were there. We went in blind with no information, and look what happened. Colin died. Maggie lost her memories. I feel like we’re making the same mistakes all over again. Chances are this island compound won’t be penetrable to our scans.”

“But we have to try, don’t we?” Joan asked. “This is too good an opportunity to pass up, isn’t it? And if David’s being truthful and we do nothing, they may change history to the point that we’ll no longer have the ability to resist them. Can we really chance that?”

Karl nodded. “He has intel on the collectives we aren’t even capable of collecting. He’s an invaluable source of information. That could be all we need to prevail.”

“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” Marcus said, and all eyes turned to him. He looked very tired, and Maggie wished she could say something to comfort him.

“Look,” Marcus said, “he’s my brother, and I want to believe him, but should we? If he were anyone else who’d spent a decade with the collectives and just showed up volunteering information, would you trust him? If he weren’t my blood, would anyone trust him?”

Maggie realized he was right. She hadn’t even thought of that. She’d taken what David said at face value.

“Perhaps not, Marcus, but the fact that he is your blood is quite the mitigating circumstance.”

Marcus shook his head. “I don’t know, Doc. He let me down once before, shatteringly so.”

“Maybe he’s trying to atone.”

“Or maybe the collectives sent him on a mission, because they knew he could get close to me, to kill Maggie and make sure the rest of us don’t fulfill the prophecy.”

The group was silent again. They were looking at Marcus with concern. They all wanted to try—Maggie could feel that they did—but this was an issue that was too close to Marcus, and because they were his friends, they didn’t want to be insensitive. Maggie made a decision. She turned to Marcus, taking his hand.

“We have to try, Marcus.”

He turned his gaze on her, and his piercing amber eyes bored into hers.

She forced her voice to be steady, though it was all false confidence. “We don’t have optimal information, but we’ll never have that. We have more now than we ever have before. Of course we can’t discount how dangerous this might be. We’ll have to watch David closely, look for any double meanings, discrepancies, strange behavior. But Joan’s right. If we don’t stop the Traveler, the world as we know it will cease to exist. And if we manage to bring down the Council as well, we might end up accidentally fulfilling the prophecy. Then everyone wins.”

As she spoke, his gaze didn’t leave her. All the ferocity drained out of him.

It occurred to her that she’d never given Doc a formal answer as to whether she was willing to become part of the team or not. She turned to Doc, who was looking at her questioningly. She gave him a meaningful smile, hoping he would take it as her answer. Then she turned back to Marcus.

“We have to try.”

He shut his eyes, letting his breath out slowly. “I know.”

 

Chapter 20: Courage to Stand

Doc sat in the conference room after the team adjourned, thinking about all he’d heard. The muffled thud of feet in the doorway announced a visitor. Doc didn’t have to turn to recognize that it was Nathaniel. He hadn’t seen the man in years, but he could still identify him without the other five senses.

“Is your family settling in well, Nathaniel?”

“They are, Johann. Thank you. What are you thinking about, sitting here alone in the dark?” Nathaniel came to sit at the table beside Doc.

“Everything. Marcus’s brother returned from behind enemy lines with valuable information. I didn’t see that coming.”

“No one did. No one could have.”

“The collectives have a Traveler now. Someone whose abilities recently surfaced, do you think? Or someone who’s been hiding up until now?”

Nathaniel spread his hands. “Who can say? Abilities as rare as Traveling are difficult to hide and even harder to repress. The real question is whether this Traveler is helping the collectives voluntarily or being forced.”

Doc rubbed his forehead. “For years we’ve been looking for answers to the prophecy. Sometimes we go so slowly, it feels like we’re moving backward. When Maggie lost her memories, sending her back was the only logical choice, but I was so disappointed. I was sure she would be the one to fulfill the prophecy. Now she’s back with new abilities and unimaginable powers.”

Nathaniel nodded, gazing at the table in front of him.

“And David showing up now? It can’t be a coincidence. What do you think?”

Nathaniel shrugged. “I was surprised you had a connection to Trap, er—David. Did you know him before he went into the collective?”

Doc shook his head. “I came across them once as children, but that was long before David left. Marcus didn’t come to live here until years later when his father was dying. He was lonely, depressed, ready to give up. I found them and brought them to Interchron. He was still young then, and he told me the entire thing. I’m the only one who’s always known the whole story.”

“What did the others know before?”

“Only that something had happened to Marcus’s little brother, something he blamed himself for.”

They were both silent for a moment.

“I would like to have you along,” Doc said. “You’d be a valuable asset. Maggie is still very unsure.”

Nathaniel nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll spend some time with her tomorrow and see what she can do. I’ll have to discuss the journey with my wife, but I don’t think she’ll object. I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.”

Nathaniel looked up at Doc and smiled. “So how have you been these many years, Johann?’

Doc smiled back, spreading his hands. “As you’ve seen. Strange that the first real promise we’ve had toward the fulfillment of the prophecy comes as we are reunited. Unless you’ve had more progress than I?”

Nathaniel smiled in a way that made Doc wonder what he was thinking. “We have much to discuss. I came back to find a safe place for my family, but that was not the only reason. I have things to tell you.”

“You had ways of contacting me without traveling all this way on foot.”

“Yes, but I didn’t want to risk it.”

“I must admit, I never thought you’d settle down.”

Nathaniel laughed out loud. It was a sound Doc hadn’t heard from Nathaniel in more years than he could count, and it made his eyebrows raise.

“Where did that expression come from?” Nathaniel asked. “Settle down? Children bring more excitement than any amount of adventure that came before them.”

“You were right, you know,” Doc said. “If you hadn’t warned me to go get Maggie when you did, they’d have killed her. Marcus barely got there in time to stop the Arachniman.”

Nathaniel nodded. “So I surmised from what Marcus said. Was she all right?”

“They hurt her, but Marcus was there. There were no lasting effects.”

“What did you tell your team about how you knew to go get her?”

“I didn’t entirely. They know I have ways of getting transmissions from the collectives. They also know I’m reluctant to speak about it, so they don’t ask. They trust me. Either that or they assume that we intercepted an actual physical message. I usually don’t specify.”

Nathaniel nodded, lost in his thoughts.

“What do you make of what David said?” he finally asked. “The screaming, the terror? What’s going on in the collectives?”

Doc sighed. “It was a chilling description, wasn’t it? The collectives are forcibly absorbing people. It’s a brutal business, nothing less than neurological rape. We’ve heard stories of parents whose children are being attacked. If the parents are too strong and the collectives can’t absorb them, they are simply killed. Then the children are forced into the collective. Imagine the terror of a child who has just watched loved ones be murdered then had a foreign entity drill into their heads and steal their thoughts. I think everyone in the collective can feel the terror and exploitation of the victims. David’s conscience wouldn’t allow him to stay in the hive any longer. Others may feel the same, but they aren’t strong enough to break away as he did.”

Nathaniel nodded thoughtfully. “He may be the missing link.”

“I agree, but he’s only one of many. He will provide valuable information, but we still don’t have a Deceiver, and the prophecy remains ambiguous. But then you didn’t come here to muse on this. It’s merely something unexpected that crossed your path. So.” Doc leaned forward. “What do you have to tell me?”

Nathaniel turned serious as he began.

***

“Okay, let’s try this again.”

Maggie opened her eyes. She was trying to move a crate again, but for the third time had succeeded only in blowing it to smithereens. The force of her own shot had thrown her back against the wall.

Nat was crawling out from under a table he’d dived toward for cover.

Maggie got unsteadily to her feet and sighed, massaging her right temple with her fingers. “I’m sorry, Mr. Strellend. This isn’t working.”

“It’s Nat, Maggie. And we haven’t been at this very long. You can’t give up yet.” He studied her for several seconds. “Do you know what I think the problem is?”

She shook her head.

“You have an inferiority complex.”

Inferiority complex?”

“Yes. You’re overcompensating.”

“Isn’t that a male problem?”

Nat ignored her. “On some level, you don’t believe in your own power. You see yourself as small, incapable. So you’re putting everything you have into this.”

Maggie didn’t respond. Nat was uncomfortably close to the truth. She’d been exploring her abilities for a month, but she still felt like a baby just learning to walk who was expected to dance the tango in a few days. She didn’t let on about it, but everything about this plan, this mission—this life—made her nervous.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” Nat was saying. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. For someone who’s small or untalented, putting their all into something is the way to make something of themselves. But Maggie”—he came to stand in front of her and took her hands in his—“that’s not you. You aren’t small or untalented. You have more power than you can imagine. You must learn to control it.”

“I’m trying.”

“Close your eyes, Maggie.”

She frowned up at him.

“Just do it.”

She obeyed. She was being difficult, but they’d been at this for an hour with only a handful of crates reduced to kindling to show for it. Maggie felt tired and crabby.

“Now.” Nat walked around behind her, his voice in her ear. “You have to get it out of your head that you are inadequate. You’re not. You have more power in you than you can conceive of. Know that. Feel that.”

Maggie opened her eyes and turned around. “It’s not that I don’t think I have power, Nat. I’ve seen it.” She swept her hand out, indicating the room full of wooden shrapnel. “But I’m not prepared. I don’t know anything yet. What if I can’t…can’t…?”

“Stop thinking like that, Maggie. You have more Offensive power than anyone we’ve ever come across. Learn to let yourself be a leader.”

“But—”

“No, listen to me. No matter what you’ve thought up to this point, no matter why, forget it. Believe in your own power, in your own strength. Turn around. Shut your eyes again.”

Not really seeing the point, but out of arguments, Maggie obeyed.

“Now, I want you to do what you’ve done before. Call the energy to you.”

Maggie did. In their first lesson Karl told her to visualize it. Now she was beginning to feel something familiar each time she did it. It felt like a rushing wind in her chest that echoed in her eardrums. Wind, except she couldn’t hear it—she could only feel it. When it came, her heartbeat quickened, and her breathing became deeper.

“Good. Now hold it there for a second. Now I want you to imagine the immensity of the power you are holding. It is so great that you must hold most of it back. Siphon off just a trickle of it—imagine a tiny straw it might flow through. Now”—he pressed a cold, smooth, flat stone in her hand—“keep your eyes closed, put your hand out in front of you, and push that trickle of power through the conduit stone. Use it to nudge the crate.”

Maggie opened her eyes just in time to see the crate fly off the table and slam into wall behind it. It slammed hard enough to elicit a loud crack from the wooden crate, but that was it. She hadn’t blown it to smithereens! Her mouth fell open.

Behind her Nat laughed out loud and slapped her on the back hard enough to jar her organs against her ribs. “There you go!”

“I still slammed it against the wall.”

“Kinky.” It was Karl’s voice coming from the doorway.

Maggie turned to see him grinning broadly at her.

“I see we’re making progress.”

Maggie shrugged. “Not really. I still almost broke it.”

Almost broke it, Maggie, but you didn’t actually,” Nat said. “It may not be perfect, but the crate is all in one piece. Now, I want you to do that again. Each time I want you to try to use less. If by the end of the day you can get to the point that you can just nudge the crate—”

“Which is not the same thing as abusing it,” Karl put in.

“—then you’ll have made real progress.”

Nat crossed the room, picked up the crate, and put it back on the pockmarked table.

Maggie nodded wearily. She would be at this for a long time yet. She turned around to look at Karl, who was leaning against the doorway folding his arms.

“You just gonna stand there and make fun of me all day?”

He held his hands up, grinned, then strode from the room.

Maggie turned back to her task. She imagined pulling the power to her again. Her heart rate quickened, and her breathing deepened.

“Wait ‘til I get behind you!” Nat dove for cover once more.

***

Maggie didn’t know how many hours she’d been practicing with Nat when Joan came in. She told them that dinner would be served soon but that Doc wanted Maggie to swing by Medical first. Then she took a closer look at Maggie.

“You all right, Maggie? You don’t look so good.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“She really ought to practice up until dinner.”

Joan glared at Nat. “Well, she can’t. Doc needs her, and she’s obviously exhausted. We aren’t leaving for two more days. She can practice more tomorrow.” Without another word, Joan put an arm around Maggie and guided her toward the door.

Once they got out into the corridor, she turned Maggie to face her. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, of course. I’ve just been at this all day.”

Joan scrutinized her before nodding. “I’m sorry I can’t go with you. I need to find Lila. Will you be okay getting to Medical by yourself?”

Maggie forced a laugh. “Of course I will be. Stop worrying.” She gave Joan a quick hug. “Go find Lila.”

She watched Joan go around the corner before turning to go to Medical. She didn’t want Joan to know how exhausted she really was. She trudged through the corridors, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Had Medical always been this far from the cargo bay?

As Maggie neared the door to Medical, she heard voices she immediately recognized.

“Marcus. Think we ought to talk sometime? Haven’t seen you in ten years.”

“Whose fault is that?” Marcus sounded angry.

“Not yours. Of course. But we’re here now.”

“You mean you’re here now.”

Maggie peaked around the corner to see David nod.

“So you are.” Marcus turned toward a door across the room from Maggie.

“Can’t you just…curse? Or fight? Or something other than this…silent treatment?”

Marcus turned his head to the side but kept his body facing toward the door. “You want me to do something to make you feel better?” he asked quietly.

“No. I want you to get it out. Know you hate me—”

Maggie saw Marcus shut his eyes, face pained.

“Know you’re angry…rightfully so. But isn’t it…better to get it out now before you go on…mission where you need to be…emotionally stable?”

Marcus did turn toward David then, eyes flaring. “Don’t tell me how I need to be on a mission. You know nothing about it.”

“Know you’re already…unstable anyway. Because of her.

Marcus clenched his fists. “Excuse me?”

“Maggie. You have…feelings for her. You have feelings for her, and she doesn’t remember you.”

Marcus’s jaw clenched and his arms shook.

David took a deep breath and shook his head. “Not a good idea, Marcus. You must…understand what her…role in the prophecy is.”

“I know what her role in the prophecy is!”

“She’ll…die trying to bring down the Unions. That’s…understood.”

“That’s your prophecy, not mine. And I do not accept that.”

David shook his head again. “No. It’s not one prophecy or the other, Marcus. That’s what…trying to tell you. If we…the Uni—collectives, win, it’s because they’ll kill her to make sure she can’t destroy them. If you win, she’ll destroy herself bringing down the…collectives. Either way, your feelings…putting the team and the mission at stake.”

“I won’t let her die.” Marcus grated through clenched teeth. Even from her hiding place, Maggie could see that his vision was misty.

“Everyone dies sometime,” David said quietly.

“That’s easy for you to say. You haven’t been around. You weren’t there when our father died. He whispered your name—yours and our mother’s—on his death pallet. But you couldn’t deal with emotion, good or bad, so you took the coward’s way out and chose not to deal with it at all.”

“Yes. And we make no excuses for that.”

Marcus stared at his younger brother, tears escaping down his cheeks. “No excuses, or no apologies?”

David sighed. “Neither. Don’t regret what…happened. Maybe it was the cowardly thing to do, but…was what we had to do. Was logical. Easier to live in a collective mind. We still believe that.”

“Then why come out at all?”

“Because what they’re doing isn’t right!”

David made the outcry while looking Marcus straight in the eye. It was the first full sentence Maggie had heard David say with that kind of conviction. He immediately looked wary and lowered his voice.

“Father instilled a sense of morality that…couldn’t ignore. Marcus”—David stepped closer to Marcus and put a hand on his own chest—“know how much wrong has been done to…you. And father. He’s gone now, and…can never make amends to him, but…here with you, now. Don’t expect you to trust or like…us right away. Have to earn that. But would rather you yelled and cursed—but talked—than keep…avoiding… us like this.”

“So what? You’ve gone from being a coward to a coward with a morality complex?”

David looked at Marcus steadily, his gaze never wavering. “If that’s the way you need to see it, then yes. Will always tell you the truth, brother. Never was a liar. Maybe a coward, but at least was…up front about it.”

Marcus guffawed, and David held up his hands.

“Not something to brag about, but it is the truth. And…will always give it to you straight, even when you don’t want to hear it.”

“Leave Maggie out of this.”

“Can’t. She’s too important. And she’s not for you.”

Marcus clenched his teeth, balled his fist, and struck. His blow connected solidly and sent his younger brother sprawling. David twisted mid-air and landed on his side.

Maggie clamped a hand over her mouth and hid behind the wall again, praying neither of the men had heard her. She held her breath, wondering if she should intervene, but something told her this was a situation that needed to remain between brothers. After twenty seconds, Maggie gathered her courage and peered into the room again. Neither brother was looking in her direction.

David sat up on one elbow. Blood trickled from his nose, over his lips, and down his chin.

He didn’t try to get up. He just looked at Marcus, expressionless. After a moment, he dropped his gaze. Maggie didn’t think it wasn’t out of deference but out of defeat.

Marcus fell into a crouch at his brother’s feet. “Get up, David.” He said it quietly, but not with menace.

David’s eyes rose to Marcus, and there was surprise in his face.

“Get up,” he said again when David didn’t answer.

“Why?” David muttered. “What’s the…point?”

“If you want me to respect you and trust you as an individual, then you’ve got to start acting like one. No matter how hard it is or what the consequences are, you’ve got to get up on your own. So get up.”

David stared at the ground for several seconds, and Maggie didn’t think he would do it. Finally he turned over and pushed himself up onto all fours. He stayed there for several seconds. Then he sat back on his knees and slowly dragged one knee up until he could put his foot flat on the floor. He put his hands on his knee and tried to push himself up to his feet. It took several tries. Tears escaped his eyes and scurried down his cheeks. When he was standing straight, he lifted his chin and put his shoulders back. Only then did he turn to face Marcus.

Maggie thought David looked a little taller. Marcus swallowed several times but didn’t say anything. He nodded at his brother then turned and left the room.

***

Maggie counted to sixty before entering the room, trying to look casual. The man across the room digging into a box of medical supplies was David. At first she thought it was Marcus—David did look a lot like him—but he was shorter and stockier with slightly lighter hair.

“David?”

He whirled to face her. There was a line of dried blood from his nose to the tip of his chin.

“David, what happened?” She crossed to him, hoping she sounded genuine.

“Uh…had a little run in.”

“With what?”

He shrugged. “Someone’s fist.”

Maggie sighed. “Is that someone Marcus?”

He looked down at his feet but didn’t answer.

“Here.” Maggie took the towel out his hands. “Let me help you.”

She found an open bottle of what smelled like rubbing alcohol and put some on the rag then began wiping the blood away. They both sat on one of the examination beds, legs hanging over the side.

“Why’d he hit you?”

“Was a long time in coming. He feels abandoned because…went over to the Unio—collective.”

Maggie suddenly felt awkward. He spoke nonchalantly, but this was a personal issue between him and Marcus. She tried to think of a way to change the subject, but nothing came to mind, and she had only what he’d said to work off of for conversation.

Did you abandon them?”

He gazed at her with steady eyes. “Yes.”

He was very close to her, and his piercing eyes made her uncomfortable. She kept her eyes on the blood she was wiping off his jaw.

“Why come back now?”

“Couldn’t condone what they were doing anymore.”

“Yeah, but I don’t understand. When you’re in the collective, can’t everyone hear every thought you have? Why didn’t they know what you were planning?”

He shook his head. “Hard to explain. They do know everything you think. So when…started realizing that couldn’t be a part of it anymore, had to be careful not to think it. More like a feeling. And then the first time we…thought it, decision was made. Once the thought was there, had to act. Otherwise, would have been punished.”

“Punished how?”

He gave her a tight smile and studied his hands. She realized he had no intention of answering, so she changed the subject.

“Why’d you decide to go into the collective in the first place?”

“Thought it would be easier.”

“But it wasn’t?”

“It was. Don’t agree with what the collectives are doing, but as a way of living, still prefer it.”

Maggie frowned. “Why?”

“Just easier. There are always others…to share pain and…life with. No loneliness, no uncertainty, no vulnerability.”

“But there’s no privacy either, right? Always voices in your head?”

He shrugged. “Yes, but…get used to it, eventually.”

Maggie thought about that. She thought about everything she’d been told about him and what had happened before. She didn’t understand his reasoning, but then she didn’t think even he fully understood it. But it wasn’t her place to say anything.

He was staring at her again. She gave him a fleeting smile and then averted her eyes. She hopped the short distance from the bed to the floor and started to cross the room, looking for a place to put the soiled towel. She got half a step before he grabbed her wrist and turned her back to face him.

“If…have something to say, say it.” There was no anger or even challenge in his voice. It was a simple statement.

He reminded her of Marcus in that way. They both had a way about them, a calm steadiness that bored into her soul.

She looked down at his hand clasped around her wrist. She didn’t want to offend him, and she didn’t know if she could say this without doing just that.

“Please don’t think I’m judging you. I’m not. And maybe this is none of my business, so you can tell me to butt out if you want.”

His eyes went briefly from side to side. “Okay.”

“You say that you went into the collective after a girlfriend of yours was killed?”

“Yes.”

“Again, this isn’t a judgment, just more of an observation.”

He nodded for her to go on, and she did, thinking through every word before she said it.

“You say that living as an individual is hard and lonely, but I don’t think you’ve really lived as one.”

He frowned. He didn’t look angry, just confused. “Did, though. For seventeen years.”

“Yes, I know, but…life as an individual doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t want to be lonely. You want someone to care, to share your troubles. That’s exactly what being with another person is all about. Romantic relationships, if they are decent and fulfilling, expel the loneliness and give you a companion. I’m sure you cared deeply for this girl, and I’m so sorry for your loss, but…it kind of sounds like puppy love.”

His frown deepened. “What’s…the point?”

“That going into the collective was a rebound move. You did it because you couldn’t deal with the tragedy, not because you didn’t believe in individuality in general.”

He nodded slowly. “Somewhat true, but that…experience solidified…beliefs about individualism. Life is full of tragedy. Easier to deal with even the day-to-day stuff in a collective.”

“But that wasn’t day-to-day stuff. It was one tragedy. And I’m sure it was terrible, but it doesn’t happen every day.”

“Doesn’t matter.” David’s voice remained level.

“Why?”

“Because…have been in the collective for ten years and still feel exactly the same as when…went in—depressed, lonely, hopeless.”

“Yes.” Maggie had to force herself to speak slowly and not let her impatience get the better of her. “But that’s because you’ve been in the collective all this time.”

He frowned, tilting his head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“In order to overcome hardships, you have to deal with them. You have to wade through them and let yourself heal. By going into the collective, you were running from your problems. The collective stagnates you, keeps you from moving forward.”

“Wading through is exactly…negative aspect of individuality that…is the point,” he said. “It’s pain and heartache and anger and sadness. Why would anyone want to go through that?”

“No one wants to go through it, David, but we do because that’s how we grow. If you could live through the tragedy of your first love dying, get through it, heal, and come out on the other side, you would be so much stronger than before.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“In many ways I think you already have.”

David looked up at her, curious. “How?”

“You pulled away from the collective. Nat says most people, even strong individualists and freedom fighters, wouldn’t be able to do that. You did. Something of what your father taught you must still be there, just buried deep. David, will you do something for me?”

He frowned. “What?”

“Earlier, you said you couldn’t condone what the collectives were doing any longer, right?”

He nodded.

“But you won’t say I. Pulling away from them, especially when it meant great pain for you, because they were doing things that are immoral, was a good thing. It was heroic. You should be proud of that. Take responsibility for it. Say I couldn’t condone what they were doing anymore.”

David looked uncomfortable. He opened his mouth and worked it into different forms, but no sound came. Finally he hung his head. “Can’t,” he whispered.

“Yes, you can. David, you must. If you want to help us stop the collectives, to stop the terrible things they’re doing, you must become a person. I know it’s hard, but you must do it. Say I.”

He opened his mouth wide as if to say ahhh but then had a hard time forcing sound past his lips. It came out as more of a grunt than anything else.

“That was good,” she lied. “Try again.”

He formed the sound slowly. “Ahh-y-eee. Ah-ye. I.”

She nodded, the thrill of excitement running through her veins. “Now say the whole thing.”

I couldn’t condone what they were doing anymore!”

As soon as he said it, his mouth fell open. David was looking at her as though he’d never seen her before. After a moment he looked away. She could see the wheels turning in his head. He was considering the arguments she made, considering this newfound speech. He looked back at her and frowned. He seemed deeply disturbed by something.

“But…would still be alone.”

“You mean I would still be alone.”

He nodded. “I am still alone.”

She shook her head. “Only if you want to be. The team is with you. Marcus is here. I know he’s angry with you, but he’s your brother. And as I said, it doesn’t have to be like that for individuals. Romantic relationships can be very fulfilling. They make life worth living. They chase away the loneliness.”

“You…speak from experience.”

The statement heated her cheeks and made her cough out a laugh.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Actually, now that you say that, I realize I’m a bit of a hypocrite to lecture you about this. I’m more the type to run from relationships.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “I guess I just never found anyone it felt natural with, no one I really connected with.” She thought of Marcus, wondering for the millionth time what their relationship had been like.

David reached out and tilted her chin up toward him with an index finger. “Are you thinking of Marcus?”

She gave a little self-conscious laugh. Was she that obvious? “It’s just typical of my luck.” She shrugged.

“What is?”

“That the only fulfilling relationship I’ve ever had is one I can’t remember a thing about.”

He dropped his hand and laughed softly. After a moment, she joined him.

“You’re a surprising person, Maggie.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Why do you say that?”

He shrugged. “Suppose—I suppose…I made a lot of assumptions about you, about who you’d be, based on the prophecies and what…I know of the collectives’ plans and how you fit into them.”

Maggie frowned. “What do you know of that?”

“Yes, what do you know of that?”

The voice came from behind Maggie and made her jump. She turned to see Doc standing in the middle of the room with Marcus at his shoulder. She’d been so intent on her conversation with David that she hadn’t heard them enter. She wondered how long they’d been standing there. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to meet Marcus’s eyes.

“What do…I know of what?” David asked.

“You said you knew about the collectives’ plans for Maggie and how she fit into them.” Doc spoke casually with no challenge in his voice, just a simple inquiry.

Marcus was another story. He stood at Doc’s shoulder glaring lightning bolts at his brother.

“It sounds,” Marcus said, “like you know more than you’re saying.”

David’s posture slumped. “I suppose…I do. And…I will tell you, but none of it relates to this mission. If you succeed and pull down the collectives, none of it will matter anyway. Suggest you focus on your current task. We can talk about the specifics of my memory afterward.”

After a moment, Doc nodded. “I suppose that logic is sound.”

Marcus said nothing, but after a pause he gave Doc a grudging look, which Maggie took to mean he didn’t intend to challenge it further.

Doc stepped toward Maggie and David. “David, Marcus came to get me because he thought you might need medical attention. Are you in a lot of pain?”

David shook his head. “Hardly any at all.”

“Good. Then if you’ll give me a moment, I’ll see to Maggie first. That way she can be on her way to dinner. I understand Nat worked you hard today, Maggie. You need to eat.”

Maggie shrugged but got up to follow Doc into the next room. At the last minute, she turned back to David and lowered her voice.

“I understand you think our way of life is hard, but isn’t there anything you can think of that would make it worthwhile to stay out of the collective? Any feeling you’ve had that you’d like to feel again?”

He didn’t answer, but she hadn’t expected him to. After a moment, she put her eyes on the floor, still avoiding Marcus’s gaze, and followed Doc into the other room.

“What’s going on, Doc?”

“I need to hook you up to a transponder.”

“What’s that?”

“The team will be connected to each other and to me through a system of transponders. We will all be aware of each other’s locations and vital signs. That way if anyone is captured, the rest of the team will be able to feel their way to them. If anyone is hurt, the team will know it and find them to lend help.”

Maggie frowned. “Did we have this technology last time?”

“No. If we had, you wouldn’t have been with the enemy for so long. This is a technology that very recently fell into our hands. Before when you went missing, we had to search blind.”

“Just started opening up all the doors on the ship to see if I was inside?”

Doc smiled. “Something like that. This time we’ll be more prepared and better equipped to go in. I’m hoping that that will spell success for us.”

Doc had what looked like an all-metallic wrist watch in his hands. He was holding it between his palms, concentrating on it intently. She knew he was channeling energy into it that she couldn’t see.

“Doc,” she said after a moment’s silence, “how long were you and Marcus standing behind us?”

Doc gave her a tight smile. “Not long. Though I feel I ought to tell you that before we entered, we stood in the corridor and listened for some time.”

Maggie threw her hands up. It wasn’t that she’d said anything particularly personal, but it had been a private conversation. One in which she’d talked at length about romantic love only to find that a man she’d once had a romantic relationship with—and, once again, couldn’t remember!—was standing outside the door listening. It was just…kind of embarrassing.

Doc chuckled softly. “I apologize if we invaded your privacy, Maggie. It was unintentionally done, uh, at first. But you made a good case. I think David understood what you were saying. That’s more progress than the rest of us have made with him.”

He finished what he was doing with the transponder. “Here.” He fastened it like a watch on her wrist with a delicate silver chain and clasp. “This records your vitals and transmits them to the other transponders the rest of the team will be wearing. If they need you, they can simply follow the waves to the source of transmission.”

He tightened the transponder until it was snug but not uncomfortable. “There. Now go with Marcus to dinner.”

 

Chapter 21: The Question of Memories

Maggie stood on the mountainside just outside the cargo bay entrance to the compound, letting the cold wind blow her hair back over her shoulders. Marcus and David were arguing behind her.

“But you may need me, Marcus,” David said. “Karl said it: I’m a wealth of information. If you get into a tight spot, I may be the only hope of getting you out again.”

Marcus was shaking his head. “We’ve been over this, David. You’ve only been with us a few days. We don’t trust you yet. Maybe it’s harsh, but there it is. If you want to prove your loyalty, stay here and lay low. Let us do this mission. We can all get better acquainted when we return.”

“But I—”

“No, David. This discussion is over. It’s not like it was my decision alone. The team has decided.”

The rest of the team remained silent with heads lowered. It was true that they had come to a unanimous decision to leave David behind—there was too much potential for him to double cross them when they were behind enemy lines. It felt like a personal argument, so everyone was staying out of it and letting Marcus take the lead.

Doc stepped forward. “What he says is true, David. You must understand our reasoning. Try not to take it personally.”

“I do understand your reasoning, and I’m not taking it personally. I know you don’t trust me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I ought to be going with…you. If anything goes wrong, if you’re detected or captured, I may be your only hope. I know how these people think, how they run things. Can…you afford to leave me behind?”

Doc gave David a sympathetic smile. “We are confident that our team is well-rounded and can deal with any contingency that arises.”

David opened his mouth, but Doc put up a hand.

“Please. Your argument is sound. It is true that you might be a great asset to us, but you could also be a major liability. We’ve decided we will go as a team and nothing more.”

“But you aren’t well rounded. Deceiver is still vacant…the team is vulnerable.”

Doc cocked his head to the side. “Do you have the Deception ability, David?”

“I…no, but—”

“Then what difference does it make?”

For the first time in half an hour, David seemed to be out of arguments, but he looked deeply frustrated.

“David”—Doc put a hand on his shoulder—“you have given us more information than we’ve had in”—he waved a hand around—“in Marcus’s lifetime. If this mission works the way we hope it will, we will owe our success almost exclusively to you. Be content with that.”

David didn’t answer. He didn’t look content, but he didn’t argue again.

“Now.” Doc turned to the team. “We should be on our way by morning. The vehicles are being loaded up. It won’t be a difficult journey, but it will be a long one, so I suggest everyone stretch their legs for as long as possible before we leave. Perhaps go through a mental checklist one more time and make sure you have everything.”

Everyone went in their separate directions, and Maggie sighed. She had been through her “mental checklist” at least six hundred times in the past twenty-four hours and didn’t need to go through it again. Anything she didn’t have was long forgotten already.

She wished they could just leave. She’d been practicing with Nat for three days and had made great strides. The team was right; even she was impressed with how quickly she’d learned under Nat’s tutelage. With just a bit of time and concentration, she could control her flow of energy fairly well now. Of course, she was not at all convinced she would have either luxury if caught in a battle with a member of the Council or the Traveler.

All the time cooped up, practicing for a fight that didn’t seem real had made her stir crazy. The adrenaline built and built but had nowhere to go.

To make matters worse, everyone was worried about the Tracking team that had been sent out. Dillon had led a team of himself and three other Trackers out to find Nat. Marcus explained that they had neurological abilities that allowed them to trace the abilities of others, like a hound dog on a scent. Using certain abilities left a signature, and the Trackers could focus on it and follow the path of the person they came from.

Doc had told Dillon what to look for—what abilities Nat had—so that Dillon could feel for them and use their signature to track Nat. Normally, the Seekers would have been consulted to find out what general location Nat was in, but Doc knew where he was and told Dillon, so the Seekers weren’t needed.

What Doc hadn’t counted on was that Nat was coming to Interchron and was already almost there when the Tracking team left. He wasn’t worried, because he knew Dillon would feel Nat’s abilities close by, and while they might make a superfluous circuit, they would undoubtedly make their way back to Interchron in a few days.

It had been over a week since the Tracking party left, and there were still no sign of them. The Seekers couldn’t feel their neurological signatures anywhere nearby, and though they didn’t voice it, Maggie knew the team feared the worst. There was nothing they could do, though, except wait and hope.

And they couldn’t wait for word of Dillon to leave on the mission to the island. Dillon wasn’t part of the team, so there was no point. They would head out without knowing his or the other Trackers’ whereabouts. They could only hope that when the team returned, Dillon would be there waiting for them.

It would take two days to get to the coast. From there they would take a watercraft of some sort to the island where the Council and the Traveler resided. Apparently the team had a watercraft somewhere along the California beach. They hid it so the collectives wouldn’t find it, but it was there when they needed it.

Once they reached the island, the real danger would begin.

The best Scanners could map out a place from far away. Several such talented people lived at Interchron, including Doc. But it didn’t matter. The island had a shield around it that was impenetrable to Doc’s scans. Doc said it felt like a void in the ocean. It was a Concealment of sorts, as the ships had before. This time it was Concealing the entire island, though. If David hadn’t shown them where to look for the void, they wouldn’t have known the island was there.

Until they got inside the shield’s barrier and could properly scan the island, they wouldn’t know what they were up against.

Maggie walked to a small stand of trees she was fond of. Half a dozen aspens grew close together in a near-perfect circle, creating a small, shaded cocoon of space. The sound of the wind through the aspen leaves was like nature’s lullaby. She always felt peaceful here.

Inside the copse of trees, she leaned her head back against the thickest one and shut her eyes, willing the weight to leave her chest. It worked. Sort of. As long as she didn’t think about a single thing going on in her life, she felt pretty peaceful.

“Maggie.”

She jumped.

“Sorry,” David said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She smiled to let him know he was forgiven.

“You like this place, don’t you?” He glanced around at the quaking trees.

She shrugged. “Come on in.”

He turned sideways to fit between two of the trees. Then he was standing in front of her. The copse was small, but she wasn’t nervous. She was more comfortable around David than around Marcus. With Marcus there was always the awkwardness of the relationship she couldn’t remember. She didn’t have to worry about that with David.

“I need to talk to you. Marcus doesn’t want me with the team, but—”

Maggie held her hand up. “David, if you’re here to try and get me to talk to the team about changing their minds—”

“I’m not. It’s not that.”

Maggie eyed him warily. “Okay, then what?”

“You asked me if there was anything I had felt since leaving the collective that I’d like to feel again—that would make me want to remain an individual.”

“Yes.” Maggie tried not to let her delight show. She hadn’t expected him to bring this subject up again.

“There is one thing I thought of. When I first came out of the collective—the first few minutes that I was Alone, I saw the sun come up. I’d seen it many times in my life, but for some reason when I was in the collective it never affected me the same way. It was bright and colorful, and…I cried. I’m not even sure why. I haven’t been touched by something like that since…since…”

“Since the last time you were an individual?”

David frowned. He seemed to struggle with himself, and when he didn’t respond, Maggie went on, hoping an explanation would help him.

“That’s exactly the kind of example I hoped you’d come up with. In a collective, no one can be higher than another in any sense. Don’t you see how wrong that is?”

“People ought to be equal.”

“No. People ought to be treated equally and given equal opportunities, but no two people are exactly alike. They exude their own kind of beauty—strong in some areas, weak in others, and just as beautiful for their weaknesses as for their strengths.”

David frowned, but whether because he was confused or simply didn’t agree with her, she didn’t know.

“When you saw the sunset, you thought it was beautiful.”

“Beautiful.” He said it as though he’d never heard the word before.

“Yes. You were seeing beauty—perhaps for the first time in seventeen years. It was the first time you had the ability to appreciate it in that long. Do you really believe that the sun should not be allowed to be beautiful simply because it’s brighter than the moon?”

David’s brow was furrowed again. “The moon is not as bright…but it’s a different color…more subdued…”

“Exactly. They are beautiful in different ways but equally magnificent in their spheres. Should they be punished and not allowed to show their beauty simply because they are not equal?”

A light of understanding came into David’s eyes, and Maggie’s chest swelled with satisfaction. This was what teachers must feel like when their pupils finally grasp a difficult concept.

“People are the same way, David. They ought to be allowed to show their individual beauty, no matter what form it takes. The collective robs them of that.”

David was staring at her levelly, his unreadable amber eyes never flickering from her face. She shrugged uncomfortably, not able to hold his gaze.

Then he stepped toward her. “I don’t like you going into this without me.”

“You mean the team?”

“No, I mean you, specifically. I told the team the first day I was here that you were the key to the prophecy, but I don’t think I impressed upon everyone the full extent of what I mean. None of you realize how much they want to find you, what lengths they’ll go to, or what they’ll do to you if they capture you.”

Maggie sighed, all semblance of peace long gone. “So why don’t you tell me?”

He took a deep breath, eyes searching the dirt for where to begin. “Maggie, you are the only thing standing between them and world domination—for all time. It’s not a matter of not telling them who you are. They’ll know you the instant they sense you. You will bring down the collectives. You’re too important to put at such risk.”

“And what happens, David, if they do capture me? What will they do?”

He pressed his lips together and looked away.

Maggie’s annoyance flared. “If you aren’t going to tell me everything, then why tell me anything?”

He still didn’t answer but looked distressed.

She decided to prod him along; maybe if she began the thought, he’d finish it. “The last time I was captured, they killed Colin and took my memories.”

David gave her a guarded look, but his face was unreadable, and he stared at her for several seconds before speaking again. “Maggie, I don’t think they did that.”

“What?”

“It’s not something they would do. They would have killed you or forced their way into your mind and taken over. It’s all or nothing with them—complete control or death. Why would they erase your memory and let you go?”

Maggie frowned. “They didn’t let me go. Marcus came in and got me.”

David shook his head. “Joan told me what she remembers about that.”

Maggie noted that David hadn’t asked Marcus.

“She said they were looking for you. Blindly. They stumbled into some random area of the ship and found you lying on the ground. From the way she described it, I think it was a storage space, not a place they would have kept you in captivity. If you were there, someone put you there, meant for them to find you.”

Maggie put a hand to her forehead. “But if they didn’t take my memories, then who did?”

“All I can tell you is that they knew who you were back then too. They would have tried to kill you. Maybe you fought back. Maybe it was something this Colin person did. Either way, you getting out of there was luck. It may not work that way this time.”

“David, why are you telling me all this? What do you expect me to do with it?”

He sighed then dug into a pocket on the outside of his pants. He pulled out a small, gold-colored ring. “This is a conduit. I took it from the collective. I want you to take it with you.”

Maggie regarded it warily. “What’s it made of?”

“Gold. Fourteen karat.”

“Karl said only people with special training are allowed to use pure elements like that. They’re too unpredictable. I don’t think I can—”

“You can. Most people can’t control them because they don’t have the strength. You do. You’ll be fine. With the power you can wield through this, you can protect yourself and the team.”

“That’s not my job, David.”

“Make it your job, and get yourself home safe.”

Maggie looked up at him, and their eyes locked. She saw distress there and desperation. She saw something more than his wish to preserve her for the prophecy’s sake. His eyes were pleading, his hand thrusting the ring out toward her.

“You’re in danger, Maggie. Take it to keep yourself safe.”

In that moment when the cool breeze blew through the mountain foliage, a chill rolled down between Maggie’s shoulder blades, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. In that moment, she believed him utterly; not just that he believed it, but that it was something he knew and was trying desperately to warn her about.

She looked down at the ring he was holding out, wondering if even that would keep her safe now. Not knowing what else to do, she took it. It felt no different from an ordinary ring. She rolled the simple gold band around on her palm. It felt like a brick.

She’d assumed the conversation was over, but David stepped closer, their arms brushing, and when he spoke, his breath fell directly onto her face.

“Keep this in touch with your skin. Don’t wear it on your finger, but put it on a chain or something. Don’t let the team know. You’re right. They won’t let you use it. If anyone other than one of them recognizes you, attacks you, looks at you strangely, pull through the ring and lash out. Don’t hesitate.” He tilted her chin up to meet his eyes. “Do you understand?”

She nodded.

“I’ve experienced the kind of punishments the collectives dole out. I wouldn’t have that happen to you.”

He brushed his fingers through her hair before turning and striding away.

 

Chapter 22: Wind and Water and Scars

That night Maggie couldn’t sleep; her mind was reeling. After hours of staring at the darkness, she gave up on rest and threw her legs over the side of the bed.

The clothes she slept in were neither uncomfortable nor revealing, so she didn’t bother to change. Instead she stole out into the darkened hallway on bare feet, her long pajamas swishing as she walked.

The room directly beside hers was where Marcus slept. Despite the fact that there were no doors, she knew his room would be dark and he wouldn’t be able to see her go past, but she tiptoed on the other side of the hall anyway, feeling paranoid. After all, they would be going on a dangerous mission in the morning.

Once she was beyond Marcus’s room, she made her way through the twisting tunnels of the compound. All was dark and quiet, as most people were sleeping this time of night. There were always a few people up on patrol, but they wouldn’t be on the lower levels.

Maggie didn’t think about where she was going until she got there, but when she stood before the passage to the Canyon room, she knew she’d meant to end up there all along. She felt drawn to the spot for reasons she couldn’t explain.

Maggie found the conduit stone Joan had used as a lantern. After a month’s learning, doing simple things like producing light and using stones meant for specific purposes were coming easily to her. Cupping the round stone in her hand, she thought of light, and immediately a beam came from the rock, stretching out in front of her. It was dimmer than Joan’s had been, but she preferred it that way; it seemed cozier.

She made her way into the vacant cavern, holding the rock out in front of her. Unlike the last time she’d visited with Joan, a soft but constant wind was blowing through. It was strange, counterintuitive. She was deep in the mountain, but the wind was blowing as though she was standing on a mountaintop. She could see the precipice of the drop-off only because the ground she was on was a lighter darkness than the far bank. She felt drawn to that precipice but forced herself to stay several feet back. She had visions of being blown off into the emptiness, and when she shone the light toward the cliff, it looked foreboding.

Maggie sat on the same rock she and Joan talked on before and set the light down beside her. It went out, but she closed her eyes and envisioned bringing light from it. It was harder to do when her skin wasn’t actually in contact with the object. It took several tries, but finally a dull light came from the rock again. She made it stronger over several seconds, but it wasn’t as strong as when she was touching it. She pulled it into her lap with resignation. Would she ever be able to make this second nature?

Wondering what she was even doing here, she shone the light around the cavern, running the beam over the walls and turning in a circle. It jumped and dove as the rocks bubbled and caved in the natural formation of the mountain. The sound of the water from behind the far wall couldn’t be heard, drowned out by the soft moaning of the wind. The cavern was cool and dry, formed completely of dull, gray rock, and there was a man standing in the doorway.

Maggie jumped to her feet, dropping the light, which went out when it hit the floor. Her heart pounded against her rib cage, and though she tried, she couldn’t bring it back on.

“It’s me, Maggie.”

Maggie let her breath out in a whoosh at the sound of Marcus’s voice. She wished he would stop sneaking up on her like that.

His steps padded toward her in the loose dirt, and then his hand was on her arm. She could feel his breath on her cheek.

“Find the light, Maggie.”

She bent her knees, but his hand tightened on her arm, keeping her from crouching down.

“Use your mind. Find it, and imagine pulling light through it. You have to be able to do this.”

“I usually can. You just scared me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. But anytime it’s necessary to be able to create light out of non-luminous objects, you’re probably going to be afraid, so it’s crucial to master this despite your adrenaline.”

Maggie knew he was right, even if she was a bit annoyed that he kept challenging her to do things she wasn’t completely comfortable with. She closed her eyes and tried to think of where the conduit stone was, tried to imagine the light beam again. She opened her eyes. Darkness pressed in from all sides. She tried again. Still nothing.

Marcus stepped behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. They were warm and large enough to encompass her entire shoulder, front and back.

“Reach out with your mind, Maggie.”

“I did.”

She could feel his patient smile as his breath came hot against her right ear.

“Don’t think of the rock for a minute. Think of the air. It’s cool and refreshing. It’s all around you. You can feel it flying past. Concentrate on it.”

Eyes closed, Maggie imagined she could see the air as it whooshed past. It was blue laced with white.

“Now,” Marcus continued, “where are the voids in the air?”

The most obvious was the ground. The air was all around her, but it wasn’t rushing under her feet. Next was him. He was standing close enough that she couldn’t feel the air on her back. He wasn’t pressed up against her, but she could feel the mass of his body behind her. She could feel its warmth, the way it displaced the air around it, the energy of his bodily functions, the beat of his heart.

For the first time understanding what it meant to cast her mind out, she did it, reaching farther. She could feel the far wall of the canyon. It was twenty feet thick and laced with mineral deposits. The canyon reached down for hundreds of feet. She couldn’t feel its bottom. She reached farther, trying to feel for its depth.

Marcus’s hands seized her around the waist and yanked her backward. Her eyes flew open, and she gasped. She had been leaning out over the edge of the cliff, looking down. He’d grabbed her just as she’d begun falling over. She hadn’t even realized she was walking forward.

Marcus spun her around to face him. There was still no light—she hadn’t gotten around to finding the conduit stone—but she could feel his breath on her face and neck. When he spoke, she realized his face was even closer to hers than she’d thought, only inches away.

“You’re finally grasping what we’re trying to teach you. More than just feeling what’s around you, you were exploring it, understanding it. That’s good. You just have to learn to root your feet to one spot. Explore with your mind, not your body.”

He was smiling as he said it; she could feel his mirth, but then he turned more serious.

“Now, find the light.”

Trying to ignore the fact that she was actually touching him now and could feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, she felt again for the void in the wind. There was the ground, and then there was a small, round void near where she had been sitting. It was about the right size.

She felt movement from Marcus and realized he was nodding. “Good. Now, feel what it’s made of—the potential energy it houses. Imagine the elements, the very atoms coming together to produce luminescence. Imagine them clicking together like the ignition of a flame.

Maggie imagined exactly that, and the cavern was flooded with milky, fluorescent light. Both of them tensed, eyes shutting. The light was so bright that they wouldn’t have seen the cavern even if they could’ve kept their eyes open.

“Uh, okay,” Marcus said, “now tone it down before you blind us both.”

Maggie chuckled in spite of herself, and Marcus laughed with her. It took a few seconds, but she brought the light down to a more humane spectrum. The light was no longer coming out of the rock on one side in a beam, but rather the entire rock was like a perfectly round bulb, emanating light from every part of its surface.

“You must have some kind of imagination, Maggie. Every time you successfully visualize something, everyone’s senses go into shock.”

She softly laughed again. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It’s amazing.”

They both realized at the same moment how close together they were standing. Marcus cleared his throat and stepped back.

“You know, you really shouldn’t be walking alone next to plunging drop-offs in the middle of the night. You could die.”

“Hey! If you hadn’t startled me, I wouldn’t have had to go looking for the light to begin with.”

A look of amusement stole onto his face. “Fair enough. Still, what are you doing down here in the middle of the night?” He looked around. “It’s interesting that you chose this place.”

“Actually, it’s not. Joan brought me here the first day I met her. She said I used to love it here.” Maggie sighed, letting her eyes run over what the light revealed. “I totally understand why.”

Marcus’s smile widened. “I never understood what you saw in this place. Why do you like it so much? Most people would find it…depressing.”

“I don’t know. It’s peaceful, I guess. It’s like—” Maggie turned toward the drop-off and crossed her legs, plopping down onto her backside in the dirt. “There’s all the possibility of hope but without any of the weight.”

“The weight?” He sat down beside her.

“The weight of life.”

Marcus sat close enough that their shoulders brushed, and when she looked at him, he was leaning slightly toward her. His face was inches from hers. His piercing eyes bored into hers, and she found she couldn’t tear her gaze away. He smiled and looked toward the precipice.

“Maggie, this place is completely solitary. No one lives down here, and it’s dark most of the time. Most people think it’s lonely and creepy. You find peace and hope.”

Maggie chuckled. She supposed it did sound crazy. “Well, I’m not saying I’d want to live here all the time. That would be lonely. But when I need the quiet…”

She let her head fall back and closed her eyes, listening to the comforting whoosh of the wind through the caverns.

“It’s not exactly quiet.

“Yeah,” she opened her eyes and found him looking over at her. “Wha—uh, why is that? When Joan brought me here before, there was no wind, and we could hear the sound of the water from…you know, wherever it comes from. Why is there wind, now?”

He shrugged. “No one has explored these caverns. We don’t know how deep they are, how far they go, or to where. The sound of the water could come from anywhere—underground springs, rivers from the center of the earth. But the wind is different. Even if it’s miles away, one of the caverns must eventually open to the outside. The mountain can’t produce the wind, and it only comes at night. You can hear the water during the day. We don’t know why that is.”

“Can’t you just cast your mind out and follow the caverns until you find their entire path?”

“Sure. Most people don’t care enough to try. You used to though.”

“I did?”

“Yeah. You’d come down here when you couldn’t sleep. You’d spend hours feeling out the course of the caverns with your mind. From what you told me, you never found the end of them. They’re too vast, too extensive. Actually, because you used to do that, you may know the inside of this mountain better than anyone.”

“You mean, I knew the mountain better than anyone?”

He gave her a sad smile. “Right.”

Maggie sighed. “Another wealth of information, lost forever.” Marcus didn’t answer, but he’d said know rather than knew. “Do you think there’s a chance my memories could come back?”

He kept his gaze on the chasm a few feet away. “I’d like to believe that the memories are locked away inside you somewhere, Maggie, and that you could recover them. Everything we know tells us otherwise, but the fact that glimpses have come back gives me reason to hope. I also think we shouldn’t get our hopes up about it. If they come back, wonderful. But they might not.”

Maggie nodded. “So why haven’t the caverns down here been explored physically? Why doesn’t anyone live down here?”

“Too much to do all the time. Not enough leisure time to go looking for adventure. And as for living, there aren’t enough of us. We don’t need to come down this far for space.”

“I’d like to explore it someday.”

He barked a laugh. “Yeah, I know you would.”

Silence followed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Maggie saw an opportunity. The thought of it made her stomach turn, but she decided to ask him anyway. “Maybe we should talk about something else.”

Marcus looked over at her, and those piercing, amber eyes almost robbed her of her courage. “Like what?”

She took a deep breath, not caring how obvious it was. “You’re the only one that hasn’t told me the details of what you remember from the last time I was here.”

Marcus turned away, looking annoyed. She knew he wasn’t actually annoyed. She was learning that what looked to her like annoyance actually meant he was worried or distressed about something.

“That could get complicated, Maggie,” he said quietly.

Maggie leaned back to rest on her elbows. “So you want me to keep relying on Joan for information about our relationship?”

He swiveled around to look at her, eyebrows hiked in surprise. “What? What did she tell you?”

Maggie shrugged. “Just that we were romantically involved.” She tried to sound nonchalant, but her voice quivered ever so slightly on the word romantically.

Marcus frowned. “What does she know about that?”

Maggie put her palms up. “Only what I told her before.” She pulled herself into a sitting position again, bringing her knees up so she could rest her forearms on them.

“And what did you tell her before?”

I don’t remember.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Marcus, we’re the only two women on the team. You said yourself that I was really close to Joan.”

“Yeah. So?”

“So, unless they hate one another, women tell each other everything.”

Marcus suddenly looked very tired. “Great.”

“I know you’ve been trying to give me space, and I appreciate it. But it’s just making things between us more awkward.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“I never know what you’re thinking or if you’re…imagining things about me.” She hoped her face was in shadow enough that he couldn’t see her blush.

The corners of Marcus’s mouth went up, his eyes going out of focus.

“Hey!”

He grinned and put his hands up, leaning away from her for the first time. “Sorry.”

“No you’re not.”

“I, well…I…I’ll…try to be.”

Maggie clapped her hands over her face, sure her embarrassment was rolling off her in waves. “Look,” she finally said, not looking at him, “I know it will be uncomfortable, but I also think that, overall, it will be easier if we just talk about it.”

Marcus took a deep breath and heaved it out. Then he shrugged. “Okay. What do you want to know?”

“Everything?”

His shoulders slumped again.

“How did we first meet and what led to us getting involved and, you know, what…happened?”

His eyes searched the ground, but he didn’t make as if to answer.

“You know,” she said, “no one’s ever actually told me what happened when you guys…took me. I mean, the last thing I remember before waking up is being with Jonah in that ratty little bar. Was it like a beam of light taking us up through the ceiling?”

He laughed. “Of course not. Actually, we did something that’s kind of…illegal.”

“Illegal? There aren’t any laws here. How can something be illegal?”

“Okay, well, it’s against the rules. We don’t believe in invading people’s minds. The way Lila was attacked? It’s a kind of neurological rape, and it’s the biggest no-no we have—right up there with physical rape or murder.”

Maggie thought about that. “Can you murder someone by going into their mind?”

“Oh, definitely. You can do one of two things: destroy their brain function, which will then stop sending messages to the body so it dies—physical murder—or you can do something else.”

“Which is?”

“There’s such a thing as leaving the physical function alone but murdering other parts of the brain so the body stays alive but the person is no longer there.”

“So they’re a vegetable?”

“Yes. There’s brain death, and then there are reports that people have been conscious, alive in their own heads but unable to move their bodies. They can live like that, trapped for years—unable to control their own limbs and feeling their bodies slowly die around them.”

Maggie shivered. “Sounds awful. But how do you know all this? Has someone come back from it?”

Marcus shook his head. “Not in our lifetimes. Our knowledge is based on medical reports that were handed down. These kind of things happened when people started experimenting with their abilities. If you had, say, a telepath who this happened to, they could communicate their thoughts to others from inside an uncooperative body.”

“Ugh.” Maggie grimaced. “Must be terrifying.”

Marcus took her hand, and Maggie was dismayed by how much his touch comforted her.

“So,” she said after a moment, “what’s all this got to do with me?”

“As I said, we don’t believe in invading people’s minds and controlling them. It takes away their agency, which is what we are fighting against the collectives to preserve in the first place. But with you that’s exactly what we did.”

“You invaded my mind?”

“Doc did. He used a neurological sedative.”

“So we passed out?”

“No. The sedative he used put to sleep the part of your mind that’s you—your decisions, your personality. The bodily functions stay awake. Doc then took control of you and walked both of you out of that bar and off the strip to a place where we were waiting to pick you up.”

“What did you do with Jonah?”

“We found a place to put him. There was an overpass with a colony of hobos living under it. We laid him down in an out-of-the-way spot where he wouldn’t be disturbed and covered him with sacs and cardboard boxes.”

“But”—Maggie rubbed her forehead—“what if he woke up before we got back?”

“You’re thinking too linearly again. The sedative would have lasted several hours, and we planned to return you to the exact moment we took you from. So it would have been like you and Jonah had walked out of the bar to that spot and then come to. You wouldn’t have remembered how you got there, but that was it.”

“But even if I had retained my memories, what story would I have told my brother?”

Marcus shrugged. “We never figured one out. We thought we’d have time later to think of something. But then your memory was gone, and it was a moot point.”

“So why weren’t we returned to that same moment? We woke up in a hotel room.”

Marcus turned to her. “Yes, I suppose we all ought to be more curious about that.”

“What?”

“When we brought you back, you were unconscious. It was still afternoon, which is when you left, but your brother was gone. It had only been a few minutes since we’d left him, but he wasn’t there anymore. It took us hours to find him. Our Seekers had to figure out where he was. When they found him, he was lying on the floor of that hotel room.”

Maggie waited, but he didn’t go on. “And, you just left me there with him? You didn’t ask any questions?”

“We didn’t have time. The sedative was wearing off. We figured that someone—maybe his girlfriend or a good Samaritan who didn’t want the cops picking him up, had brought him there, thinking he was drunk, to sleep it off. So whose hotel room was it?”

Maggie opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t. The implications of what he was saying sunk in, leaving her speechless.

“Maggie?”

“I don’t know. Marcus, that’s disturbing. Where was Jonah during that time? The hotel room was rented to some businessman in Vegas for a conference. Imagine his surprise when he returned to his room at the end of the day to find it swarming with cops and two people who woke up inside a locked door with no memory.”

Marcus’s brow had furrowed as she spoke. “You didn’t know the guy?”

“Not at all. And then there were the scars.” She looked down at the wolverine scar on her hand. “How did I get this? Do you know?”

He took her hand in both of his, running his thumbs over the scar. “Yes. It was a mission. We were trying to infiltrate one of the collectives. One of the drones attacked you. He had some sort of three-pronged tool, and he scratched you. It was minor, so I didn’t Heal it right away. By the time I did, it left a scar.”

Maggie nodded. That was the first straight, definitive answer she’d gotten about what happened in Vegas.

“But Jonah had one two.”

Marcus glanced down at her hand. “He had a scar like this one?”

“No. Not like this one. His was bigger, on his leg.”

Marcus frowned. “How big? What did it look like?”

“I don’t know. He said it covered his whole thigh. I didn’t actually see it. He would have had to take off his pants to show it to me, and that would be weird.”

Marcus smiled, but Maggie plowed on.

“A doctor examined us both. And like mine, it wasn’t some fresh cut he got during the time we were out. It was old scar tissue. He swears up and down he didn’t have it before Vegas, just like I didn’t have this.”

Marcus’s frown deepened, and his eyes wandered around the dark cavern. She knew he was trying to think of a logical explanation. Finally he shook his head. “I…I don’t have an answer for that. But you’re right. It’s disturbing. We’ll have to talk to Doc and the team about it in the morning.”

“But…” Maggie rubbed the bridge of her nose. “But why did I see you before that, on the Strip?”

“That I don’t know either. Doc and I talked about it. The only thing I can think of that makes any sense is that the time travel messed up your perception.”

“How?”

“What you saw must have been a recollection from before, a fragment of a memory, but now you perceive it as having happened before you met me rather than after.”

“But how is that possible? If when you took me back I had no memories at all, then how did I—”

“That’s just it, Maggie. We don’t know. You shouldn’t have any memories at all, but you remember me finding you on the ship, which was right after you lost your memories. And you have those other flashes. Somehow, some shard of memory got knocked around in your head and reinserted into your brain in such a way that you remember it as having happened before you met me. But it didn’t. It couldn’t have.”

Maggie sighed. Fat lot of help this was, but it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t figure it out. His explanation was more than she could have puzzled out on her own.

He ran a hand through his hair. “We’re messing with time, which we really shouldn’t be. There’s too much potential for things to go wrong, to change or get messed up. And when they do, they’re the sort of things that hurt to wrap your head around.”

Maggie nodded. She definitely knew the feeling.

Marcus smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Sorry. Everything I say seems to bring you distress.”

“It’s hardly your fault. So, you did your invasion-of-the-body-snatchers thing and took me through time. Then what?”

He shrugged. “Not a lot different from this time around, actually. We—meaning Doc—explained everything to you. We showed you around and demonstrated our abilities so you’d believe us. Then we started teaching you, training you for missions. Doc wanted me to stay around you for healing purposes. Because of that, I did a lot of your training myself, and we spent a lot of time together.”

Maggie’s eyes went to the ground beside her. She wished she had a nervous tick, like tapping her foot, so she’d have an outlet for her pent-up nervousness, but she’d never been a foot-thumper.

“And then what happened?”

Marcus looked over at her again, but then he did something she didn’t expect. He laid one hand on the ground behind her and put all his weight on it, leaning in. With his other hand he tilted her chin up and let his lips brush ever so slightly against hers.

Maggie froze but shut her eyes when their lips met. He didn’t do anything more, simply let his lips linger against hers, and she realized he was waiting for her to react. She pressed her lips back against his with the smallest of movements, holding her breath. When she did, he turned more fully to her, cupping her face in his hands and kissing her more deeply.

She didn’t pull away. Despite its heat, his mouth on hers sent a rush of cold tingles down her spine that radiated out all the way to her fingertips.

It didn’t last long. When he pulled away, she gasped forward, wanting more, but stopped herself, taking in a shuddering breath.

He leaned back only far enough for his mouth to reach her ear.

“That’s what happened,” he whispered. Then he leaned away, looking back toward the chasm.

Maggie looked away from him. Despite all her attempts to be an adult and just talk about the relationship, the emotions had seeped in, and a profound sense of sadness settled over her. She could feel the passion he had, and clearly still did harbor for her, but she couldn’t remember it.

“Marcus, how long did it take us after we met before we…became involved?”

“Not long.”

“So we were together romantically for the better part of the year I was here?”

“Yes.” His voice was calm, matter of fact.

Maggie put a hand over her eyes. “That’s a lot of history to lose,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

When she got up the courage to glance over at him again, he was looking at her with compassion.

“And how did you feel when…when I lost my memories and you had to send me back?”

His face was unreadable even though it was only inches from hers.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” He looked forward again. “I cried for three days straight.”

Again, it was said with no sadness or bitterness, no emotion at all. Maggie wanted to cry.

“You seem to be okay with it now,” she offered.

His head swiveled toward her again, and he shrugged. “You’re here now.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like we’re…together, or anything—”

“I don’t care. You’re here. I’m here with you.” He took her hand in his and looked out around the cavern. “In a depressingly lonely yet somehow peacefully hopeful cavern, and the wind is cool, and the light is shining, and…” He looked down at her and shrugged again. “And…you’re here now.”

He smiled, looking down and away. It came off as a shy gesture, and she wanted to melt. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Maggie didn’t know why she thought talking about it would make it less awkward. Their relationship had just become exponentially more complicated.

“Come on,” Marcus said suddenly. “We should head back.”

“Back?”

“You’ve got to get some sleep, Maggie. We’re leaving tomorrow. You’ll need your strength.”

He held out a hand, which she took, and hoisted her easily to her feet. She let him hold it as he guided her through the dim corridors.

When they reached her door, she started to go in but then turned back to him.

“Marcus?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”

He stepped toward her and put a hand on her neck, his fingers digging softly into the hair at the nape. She thought he’d kiss her again, but his lips came down just between her eyes, and she wished he’d aimed a little lower.

“I wish you remembered us,” he whispered. Then he stepped back. “Get some sleep.”

She turned and walked through the doorway where the darkness of her room swallowed her. She tried to feel for him, to sense his presence. She thought she could. But he would have gone back to his room as soon as she went into hers, and she didn’t feel his presence receding, so perhaps she wasn’t feeling him after all. Perhaps it was just the lingering feelings he’d aroused in her.

It was nearly an hour before her mind wandered into sleep. As it did, she thought she felt a presence withdrawing from her. Her last thought as sleep took her was whether she was imagining things or if Marcus had really stood outside her door for that long.

 

Chapter 23: Neural Pathways to Light

The next morning, Maggie climbed into what everyone referred to simply as the “cart.” It looked like a technological covered wagon. Made of a metallic material, it was large inside with comfortable seats, but the roof was rounded like a covered truck, and the wheels on the outside were large enough to be wagon wheels. They climbed up into it and all sat facing each other in a circle, except for the driver, who faced forward. The windows were spacious and had no glass in them.

Karl explained as they piled in that the propulsion system was neurologically powered. It took only a miniscule amount of energy to make the thing go, and the driver could put it on the equivalent of autopilot but hook himself up to the system so that it would alert them to any problems along the way.

Maggie noted that Nat was coming. She supposed it was understandable, but Doc had said that only the team was coming; Maggie couldn’t imagine David would be too happy about that.

They would travel all day then stop for the night to sleep somewhere. They would then travel for the entire second day and then all night too, arriving at the coast in the morning. From there, they would sleep away the third day on the watercraft, as it would take about ten hours to arrive at the island. Doc said they’d arrive at the island at nightfall. This would work well, as Doc didn’t want to try to infiltrate until dark when most people would be asleep and only a few guards would be on patrol.

There wasn’t much talking during the first day. The problem was that they couldn’t plan anything about the island until they got there and had some idea of the landscape and set up of the place.

For the most part they rode silently, staring out the window at the passing landscape. The silence was companionable though, not unpleasant. The cart moved fast. Maggie couldn’t be sure, but by the speed the landscape rushed by, she would have guessed at least a hundred miles an hour, yet it was much smoother and calmer than a car ride at that speed. Despite the open windows, the rush of air past the cart wasn’t loud or disagreeable, and the atmosphere inside remained comfortable.

Maggie leaned her head against Marcus’s shoulder and rested her eyes. After a few minutes, he lifted his arm and put it around her so her head rested on his chest. Definitely not an unpleasant ride.

***

They stopped to make camp as the sun began to set. Despite sitting all day, Maggie was exhausted—not unlike the effect of road tripping in her own time.

They found a small, concealed glade where the grass was thick and there was plenty of room to park the cart and lay out bedrolls. There was no need to start a fire. The night was warm, and the foodstuffs they’d brought didn’t need to be cooked.

“So, why stop?” Maggie asked Marcus as she helped him unload the cart. “Why not drive all night? We’d get there faster, and the lack of light isn’t a problem, right?”

“That’s true. We can feel obstacles and guide the cart around them, even in the dark. It has more to do with our own stamina. It’s amazing what the simple act of sleeping at night and waking during the day does for your health. People who sleep away the day and stay up all night don’t have as much vitality or mental acuity. We all need to be as alert and healthy as possible for this, so we stop at night. Besides, the collectives don’t know our plans. I don’t see that an extra eight hours before our arrival will make a difference.”

Maggie laid her bedroll next to Joan’s, and Marcus lay beside her, which she wasn’t displeased about. Maggie wasn’t entirely clear on where they stood. Still, she felt safer with Marcus close by.

Karl had been driving all day and was tired, so it was decided that Marcus would keep the first watch and after four hours would wake Clay to take over. They were only planning to sleep eight hours, so no one else would have to take a turn.

As Maggie settled down for the night, she thought about all that had happened. She wondered what would happen at the island. Thinking about it made her heart race, so she tried not to. She felt like she was on a doomed mission in an alien world she knew nothing about and was completely unprepared for. Death, enslavement, bodily harm—these were all plausible outcomes.

Deciding to think about more pleasant—or at least less unpleasant—things as she drifted off, she turned her thoughts to the ever-elusive flashes. She still had no idea of what they meant, and that bothered her.

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. Two large hands covering hers. A hand with an ugly, black burn on it. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. Gasping, clawing for air.

With thoughts of the visions running amok in her head, Maggie fell into a troubled sleep, where strange women died in her arms in front of broken buildings and blood-red sunsets, and where sinister whispers became tiny, sharp pincers, picking away at the inside of her head.

And then she felt it, far to the west.

***

Marcus finished his watch and woke Clay, who slapped his own cheeks loudly to fully awaken and then walked grudgingly toward the cart.

Whoever was on duty sat on top of the cart, keeping watch over the camp. From up there it seemed one had more control and could take more in. It was an illusion, of course—a psychological thing. He could cast his mind up to where the owls nested or below the ground to where the earthworms crawled with equal ease. But from atop the cart Marcus just felt more in control, as though he could take in a larger dominion.

Besides, there was less temptation to sleep atop a metal cart than if you were sitting on your soft bedroll.

Marcus lay down beside Maggie. She’d slept peacefully so far, but he could tell she was troubled, nervous for the coming mission. He didn’t blame her. She’d been here so short a time and with so little training.

More than anything he wanted to pull her into his arms, but he didn’t know if she would be comfortable with that. And he didn’t want to disturb her sleep.

Content that for now she was close by and sleeping peacefully, he rolled over and told his mind to rest.

He judged by the moon that he’d been sleeping for about two hours when Clay shook him awake.

“Marcus, wake up.”

Marcus sat up on one elbow, trying to clear the mist from his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Maggie.”

Marcus was instantly awake. He sat straight up and looked down beside him. Maggie’s bedroll was empty.

“Relax.” Clay put a calming hand on his shoulder. “She’s over there about a hundred yards west of us.”

“Why didn’t you stop her?”

Clay shrugged. “I thought maybe she was going to relieve herself. But it’s been half an hour, and she hasn’t come back. I can sense her. She’s just standing there. I don’t want to startle her or invade her privacy. Besides, I’m on watch. I’m really not supposed to leave the camp.”

Marcus nodded, getting to his feet. “It’s all right. I’ll get her.”

It didn’t take Marcus long to find her as he made his way through the darkness, casting his mind out for anything that might trip him or be a pain in the toe. Clay was right; she hadn’t gone far.

He didn’t want to startle her. Any other member of the team would have sensed his approach, but Maggie was still new at this and obviously occupied by something, so he purposely stepped on leaves that would rustle and dragged his feet through the grass.

Her back was to him as he approached her, but when she turned her head to the side, he knew she’d heard him. As he got closer, she turned her body as well so she could look back at him.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yeah. Did I wake you?”

“Clay did when you didn’t come back.”

Maggie sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Marcus stepped up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Just tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing, really. Just couldn’t sleep.”

Marcus cleared his throat. “You were sleeping pretty soundly when I was on watch.”

Maggie laughed softly. He loved the sound of her laugh.

“Okay, so I could sleep. I just kept waking up. Disturbing dreams.”

“About what?”

She gave him a look that said really, and he put his hands up.

“Okay. I guess there’re a few things to choose from. You want to talk about it?”

She gazed up at him and spoke softly. “No.”

The moon was fully above them, and she was looking at him in a way that heated his blood. He thought about leaning in to kiss her, but then she turned away.

“Um, Marcus, what’s that?”

Dejected, Marcus followed her pointing index finger out into the darkness. He didn’t see anything.

“What?”

“That light.”

Light?” Marcus was instantly alarmed. A visible light could mean trouble—other people, patrols of Arachnimen, other unknown dangers. “Where?”

She continued to point, but Marcus only saw shades of black and gray. They were in a forest of sorts, but it wasn’t dense. The stand of trees they’d made camp in was the only enclosed area for miles, and he and Maggie were now outside it. He could only see the stillness of the landscape that the moon revealed and the shadows of the places it didn’t.

“Maggie, I don’t see anything.”

She dropped her arm and huffed at him in frustration.

“Do you still see it, or did it go out?”

“No, it’s right there. I’ve been watching it for fifteen minutes. It flickers sometimes, like someone’s walking in front of it, but it hasn’t gone out.”

Disregarding what his eyes told him, Marcus cast his mind out, searching for some source of thermal or radiant heat. He found several heat sources nearby, but most weren’t any larger than his fist—tiny forest animals sleeping tranquilly in their dens. A few miles south, he came upon what he thought was an owl, and a huge one at that, perching high overhead in the canopy. Then he came upon slightly larger nocturnal animals—raccoons, he thought—squabbling over the corpse of chipmunk. But there was nothing that would give off light.

He went out farther, searching. When he’d reached a distance of seventy miles, he stopped. Even if there was light out there, there was no way she could see it from this distance.

Marcus looked down at Maggie, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was staring out at the supposed light, focusing on it. Confused, Marcus tried to figure out what she might be seeing. Then something occurred to him.

“I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, Maggie, but you are quite good at finding light.”

“Joan said that,” Maggie said. “She said I had a gift for finding it.”

“You do. Maggie, I don’t sense anything close that’s giving off light. I don’t think you’re actually seeing it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I am. It’s right there. I’m looking at it right now.”

“I know, but listen. I’m not calling you a liar. I’m saying that you’re not actually seeing the light.”

She gave him a blank stare.

“Okay.” He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to him, her back to the supposed light. “Do me a favor. Stop looking at it. Instead, cast your mind out and try to sense it. Tell me how far away it is.”

Looking none too happy about it, Maggie obeyed. Marcus could sense her putting her feelers out, but he didn’t follow her progress too closely. He wanted her to figure this out on her own. They stood like that for ten minutes before Maggie’s eyes flew open, shock written across her features.

“What? Did you find it?”

“I…I think it’s on the beach.”

“On the coast?” Marcus laughed out loud. “You see, Maggie. This is what I’m trying to tell you. The coast is another twelve hours’ ride away. There’s no way you could see the light from here.”

“But, then how…?”

“Turn around. Tell me if you still see it.”

Maggie turned around, eyes searching the darkness. “No. I don’t see it anymore. Why can’t I see it anymore?”

Marcus smiled down at her. “We’re going to have to tell Doc about this in the morning. It’s the kind of thing that would fascinate him. You know something about the way the brain works from your education, right?”

Maggie nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, but not much.”

“Do you know what happens to a child’s brain when it is damaged?”

Maggie kept throwing glances into the darkness toward where she’d last seen the light. “Children’s brains are more resilient than adults’. Their brains will create new pathways so the functions of the damaged parts aren’t lost.”

“Exactly. Adult’s brains aren’t that adaptive. As we age, our neural pathways become set, but barring damage, our brains are still always growing, learning, and creating new pathways for us to process new information. I’ve heard of this before, but I’ve never actually seen it. Until now.”

“What?” Maggie was getting more exasperated by the second.

“Sometimes we—human beings—come across something that’s alien to us. It’s something that can’t be sensed with our five senses. Our brains are only trained to process information gained by those five senses. When we sense something in a different way, we have a hard time processing it. So our brain creates a new pathway to help us understand what we’re sensing. It converts the information into something we can identify by one of our five senses.”

“So, you’re saying”—Maggie rubbed her forehead then glanced to the west again—“what exactly?”

“I think you sensed that light on the beach, because finding light in the darkness is one of your natural abilities. But you don’t have your memory of doing it before, so you were confused by it. Your brain created a neural pathway. It took the information your mind had already gathered and converted it into something you would recognize—a visible light. It’s a way to help you understand what you’re sensing. Then, when I told you to close your eyes, you found a superior way to identify and understand what you were sensing. You realized the source and the distance, and though you didn’t realize it consciously, your brain figured out what was confusing it about the sensation. So you no longer need the neural pathway it created before. It’s become obsolete.”

“And that’s why I can’t see the light anymore?”

“You never saw it, not with your eyes. Your brain just told you that you did.”

Maggie’s head went back and forth between him and the surrounding darkness for several seconds. “That’s weird,” she finally managed.

Marcus laughed and wrapped his arms around her from behind, pressing his face into her neck. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to do, and she didn’t pull away. Rather, she leaned back against him and let him kiss her neck. He sighed. Why was there never enough time? He wanted to rekindle his romance with Maggie, and she seemed open to the idea, but they were on a mission that could change the world as they knew it. There was simply no time for romance now.

After a minute he reluctantly released her, taking her hand. “Come on. We need to get some sleep.”

Maggie immediately went rigid, planting her feet.

“Don’t worry,” Marcus said, gently putting an arm around her waist. “I’ll be close by if the dreams return. Besides, if we don’t get back soon, Clay may send Karl out after us. And trust me, Karl’s a bear when you wake him up in the middle of the night.”

He could still sense her reluctance, but she smiled and nodded. Without another word she let him lead her through the darkness to the camp.

 

Chapter 24: A Light on the Beach

The next day Maggie sat beside Marcus while the team flew along in the metal cart, listening to him relate what had happened the night before. Everyone was interested, and as Marcus predicted, Doc in particular was fascinated by what he learned. He asked Maggie the same questions over and over again until Marcus chided him about it.

“I’m sorry to pester you, Maggie. I just want to know everything about the experience.”

Maggie shrugged. “Sorry, Doc. It was strange and unsettling, but there’s not much to actually tell.”

“Fascinating,” he said over and over again. “Simply fascinating.”

“Maggie,” Karl said, “did you sense anything else around the light? People, machinery, anything?”

“No. The beach is too far away. I just zeroed in on the light for some reason. Why?”

“We’ve covered about half the distance to the beach from where we stopped last night. We’re still a good way off, but I’m pretty good at scanning from this distance. I’ve been scouring the beach for the last hour. I can’t sense anything that would put out light. Nothing at all.”

Maggie shrugged. “I don’t know what the light source was. Maybe it was people around a camp fire and they’ve moved on now.”

“Maybe.” Karl didn’t sound convinced.

“Do you want me to help search for it?”

He put up a hand. “No. We’re still far enough from the beach that it doesn’t matter yet. Let’s hope it’s not anything that will be an issue. For now, you should conserve your strength. We’ll deal with it when we get closer.”

As day faded into night and night wore into the witching hours, Maggie wasn’t entirely successful at staying awake. Her head bobbed frequently before reaching the beach, but then everyone’s did. When they arrived and vacated the cart, Maggie’s muscles felt like wood. They’d spent double the time in the cart today than they had yesterday. But the air was fresh and cool and salty. Walking up over a small rise revealed the sandy beach below them. The sky was still black, but a tiny ribbon of light blue was making an appearance in the eastern sky.

The men set about finding the watercraft. They located some ropes that were as thick as Maggie’s waist and pulled on them.

“Where’s this ship hidden?” Maggie asked Joan.

“In the water, half buried in sand.”

Maggie watched with fascination as, little by little, a grey-blue, metallic mass came up out of the water. It was huge. It looked immensely heavy, but the guys, despite a bit of straining, managed to pull it toward the beach without popping any blood vessels.

“Joan, how are they doing that? Are they using their minds, or are they all a lot stronger than they look?”

Joan laughed. “It’s the material the ship is made from—an alloy not discovered in your time yet. It’s extremely lightweight material and has incredible floatation properties. That craft will float on the surface even with all of us and our supplies aboard.”

“Then how did you get it to sink?”

“By taking on water. It takes on as much as necessary depending on what depth you want to go to. All the guys did was use their minds to release the water so the boat would float to the surface.”

“So this is an underwater craft? We’ll be traveling below the surface?”

“Yes.”

Maggie giggled nervously.

“It’s actually kind of fun,” Joan said, patting Maggie’s hand. “We’ll be sleeping, but it’s interesting to watch the ocean going by, all the sea life only inches away from you on the other side of the glass.”

“Yeah, but does it make you claustrophobic?”

Joan laughed. “No. It’s very spacious inside. You’ll be fine, I promise.”

Maggie was helping Joan unload supplies from the cart when she remembered the light. She cast her mind out…and found it. It wasn’t that far away—just a few clicks to the south. She wondered why Karl hadn’t been able to sense it earlier in the day. Perhaps whoever was responsible for it had left and come back?

Maggie looked around. The others would have used their abilities to explore the beach the moment they reached it—probably much earlier than she had. Nat was even looking south toward the source of the light she was sensing, so they must have all sensed it. No one had brought it up though. Perhaps they were hoping they wouldn’t have to. Soon they’d be aboard the watercraft traveling west, and who or what else inhabited the beach would be a moot point.

Deciding not to worry about it until someone else brought it up, Maggie turned her attention back to the task at hand.

The sky had lightened several degrees when the craft was finally beached. It was enormous—twelve feet tall, fifteen or twenty in width, and twice that in length. Maggie thought it was magnificent.

Doc went to the side of it, put his hand into an invisible crevice, and pulled. A door opened outward, revealing light within. Maggie hadn’t seen the outline of the door when it was closed, but she supposed it had to be that way to be watertight. Joan had talked about seeing marine life through the glass, but Maggie couldn’t see a single window in the ship. But then she couldn’t see the roof, so maybe the glass was at the top.

The team loaded the supplies from the cart into the craft while Doc and Nat went in and out, muttering together. Maggie handed crates to the rest of the team until the cart was empty. Then she and Joan had to hide it. They found a copse of dense foliage that would be a sufficient hiding place a short distance away. Joan showed Maggie how rather than trying to push the cart, she should use her abilities to move dirt, brush, and other obstacles out of the way so the cart moved forward on its own. It was remarkably easy to move and maneuver that way.

“Is this the way the ship works too? You move the water out of the way to move it forward?”

Joan shook her head. “That’s how we drive the cart and many of our other vehicles. The ship is an older model. It has a propulsion system, more akin to what you’re used to in your time.”

“If you still have the technology for fueled propulsions systems, why don’t you use them more? Wouldn’t it be easier than expending your own energy?”

“Easier, yes. But not always safer.” They walked back toward the beach as they conversed. “When you have neurological control of a craft, you can see every obstacle and compensate for it well before you reach it. You can travel safely in the dark, if necessary, and using senses other than the normal five almost completely eliminates human error. Many people in our world are superstitious about engines. They don’t like trusting their lives and safety to a man-made machine with no mind and no soul.”

As they neared the beach, Maggie could see that the guys were clustered near the craft, speaking in quiet tones with grave looks on their faces. There was a problem.

“The ship has been dormant for several years,” Doc said as Maggie and Joan joined them. “The computer hasn’t been used. We just have to work out a few kinks and reprogram it.”

“How long will that take?” Karl asked. The sky was light blue now, but it would be close to an hour before they saw the sun.

“An hour,” Nat said. “Two tops.”

“Nat and I will figure this out,” Doc said. “I suggest everyone get as much exercise and fresh air as possible before we confine ourselves to another small space for several hours of travel.”

Doc went over to a small, square console that Nat had removed from the ship and was tinkering with. Doc started working on the opposite side of it.

Maggie gaped. Was that the propulsion system for the entire craft? It was the size of a basketball!

Shaking her head, Maggie plunked herself down in the white sand. She was too tired even for curiosity right now; she certainly didn’t want to think of exercising. Joan sat down beside her, and Karl took the seat on the other side. Marcus and Clay walked up beside them. Obviously none of them would be doing cartwheels in the surf. They’d been up most of the night.

“Well,” Karl said after a moment, “at least whatever you sensed the other night won’t be a problem, Maggie.”

Maggie turned to look at him. “How do you know that?”

His eyebrows went down in confusion. “Uh,” he faltered, “because there’s nothing here. Like you said, who or whatever it was must have moved on.”

Now Maggie was confused. She looked at the others for help, but none of them seemed to disagree with what Karl was saying. They merely looked back at her. Maggie looked back at Karl, who was eyeing her warily.

“What?” he said.

“What are you talking about? It’s right there.”

Karl looked alarmed. He turned to look in the direction she indicated, but she knew he was looking with his abilities more than his eyes.

“Where?”

Maggie looked around at the others in the group. They were staring at her in stunned silence. That included Doc and Nat, who looked up from their work to gape at her.

“Maggie,” Clay said, “there’s nothing else on this beach for miles. If we cast out, there’s wildlife and plants but nothing that would give off light or heat—not in the way you described it the other night.”

“I’m not crazy,” Maggie said, “I’m telling you something is there. And I think there’s a person too.”

“What?” The pitch of Karl’s voice was getting higher by the sentence.

Marcus walked over to stand by Karl. It looked like both of them were simply staring into the murkiness of predawn, but Maggie knew they were seeing much more than their eyes could account for.

“Where?” Karl asked again.

Maggie was annoyed. It wasn’t like she could give him the name of a specific place. “I don’t know. It’s not far—half a mile, maybe a mile away.”

After a few minutes, Marcus turned around to look at her. His pleading look said he wanted to believe her but couldn’t. The others looked skeptical too.

“That’s it.” She got to her feet. “I’m going to see what it is.” With that, she set out resolutely down the beach.

She could hear Marcus’s stuttering voice from behind her.

“Wha-huh…uh…”

She heard his feet crushing sand just before his hand closed around her wrist. He pulled her back hard enough to force her to turn around and look at him.

“Wait.” His voice was calm but firm. “You’re not just going to waltz out there by yourself.”

“I don’t think we should go waltzing out there at all,” Nat said.

Maggie looked at him, surprised that her teacher would try to rein her in.

“I’m sorry, Maggie,” he said, seeing the look on her face, “but we are already on a mission. Who or whatever you’re sensing doesn’t seem to pose a threat to us. I think we should focus on the mission. If it’s doable, we can explore this thing on our way back.”

Maggie wanted to punch him just to knock some sense into him. He said that like they were just going on a reconnaissance mission. For all they knew, they might not return; they had no idea what to expect.

Maggie had her reasons for wanting to lay eyes on what she was sensing, reasons that scared her, but perhaps that wasn’t the team’s problem. She looked back and forth between the team that held her loyalty and the unseen source of energy that held her curiosity, wondering whether she should argue or not.

Karl stepped up beside Marcus, who still held Maggie’s wrist in a vice-like grip. “Say what you gotta say, Maggs,” he said.

“I need to find out what this is. I’m new at this, so maybe it’s not what I think it is, but if that’s true, I need to know that. I think the light is from a fire. It doesn’t feel like the hum of electricity. It feels like the lick of flames, energy, other things being consumed. If I’m wrong and it’s really…a rock or something, then I’m not nearly as prepared for this as everyone thinks. If I’m right, maybe it’s important that I can sense it and no one else can. It’s too much of a coincidence that something this strange is happening so close to the place we’re going to perform a mission that might change the world as we know it and where the highest directors of the collectives reside, don’t you think?”

Doc’s eyebrows climbed higher and higher as she spoke. Joan and Karl and Clay were shifting uncomfortably. She was right, and they knew it. Both Nat and Marcus stared at her steadily, faces expressionless.

Doc nodded. “If Nat and I stay, I think we can have the ship ready to go in less than two hours.” He turned to Joan. “You’ve been driving all night. Can you protect the team if necessary?”

Joan waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, I’m fine.”

“All right, then,” Doc said with gravity. “Go see what you can find. Clay and Joan will do their things to keep everyone safe. Be careful but quick. No matter what you do or do not find, Maggie, I want everyone back here in two hours. Your arguments are logical, but I tend to agree with Nat. We are already on a mission and this”—he threw a hand out toward the ocean—“is our priority. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” she said.

Joan got to her feet, and the five of them started south.

 

Chapter 25: The Lighthouse

They walked in a tight, silent bundle, leaving Doc and Nat far behind. Maggie could sense it getting closer. Soon, she didn’t know why they couldn’t see it.

“Where are you sensing this at, Maggs?” Karl asked.

He and Marcus were in front of her, while Joan walked beside her, and Clay brought up the rear.

“We should be right on top of it.”

Marcus and Karl stopped, looking frustrated.

“Maggie,” Marcus said gently, “none of us feel anything for miles in any direction. There’s nothing here that’s obvious.”

Maggie sighed. How could she be mad at them? She was sensing something, but whatever it was couldn’t be seen. She looked up toward the ridge. As they’d walked, they’d left the beach, keeping to the foliage for cover. The rise that acted as a boundary between sand and forest had crested high enough that it concealed both beach and ocean from their view, though it could not conceal the smells or sounds of the sea.

Clay walked out from behind them and climbed the ridge. When he reached the top, he stared silently out at the sea for several minutes. Then his voice carried to them.

“Uh, guys?”

His tone put a hook around Maggie’s middle; he’d found something. A look around showed that it had the same effect on the others. In record time they all scrambled up to join him on the ridge.

Every one of their jaws dropped to their chests.

On this stretch of beach at the tip of a sandbar peninsula stood a tarnished, broken-down lighthouse. The glass panes of all its upper windows were broken out, and where its spotlight beacon should have been a bonfire blazed. The sun was coming up from behind them, leaving the lighthouse in shadow at this time of morning, but that only made the fire burn with more obviousness and strength.

The others were amazed because they hadn’t been able to sense it, and now it was before them. Maggie was amazed because she was looking at the lighthouse that was in her flashback—the memory she’d seen over and over since Vegas. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse.

The team stared in shock at the lighthouse for long seconds.

“I take it this is what you sensed, Maggie?” Marcus asked.

Maggie couldn’t pull her gaze from the hauntingly familiar scene, so she answered without looking at him. “Yes, but, Marcus, I’ve been here before.”

“What?”

All the others were looking at her too.

“Remember when I told you all about the flashes I saw after Vegas? One of them was of a—”

“Woman standing in front of a lighthouse,” Karl finished for her, nodding as he remembered. “This is that same lighthouse? Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. I’ve seen it again and again. I’ve been here before.”

Marcus sighed, rubbing his forehead. “But how is that possible? We didn’t come here before, Maggie. One of us would remember. And one of us was with you at all times.”

“That’s not true.” Joan’s voice was calm. “The time that she was captive on the ship we weren’t with her.”

Marcus turned to Joan. “Are you suggesting that she got off the ship, which was orbiting the atmosphere, made it to this beach, spoke with some woman who lived at this lighthouse, then somehow got back on the ship before we found her?”

“I’m not saying I understand what happened, Marcus. I’m only saying that that unaccounted for time is the only time we weren’t with her. It’s really the only time she could have gone anywhere without us knowing. Isn’t it?”

Marcus sighed. “More unanswered questions.”

“Let’s add to them the fact that we can’t sense this,” Karl said. “At all. Even with closed eyes I can feel the sand, the rocks, the wildlife, and the sea. That’s it. There’s nothing tall, nothing to break the wind.”

“But there is no wind,” Clay said. “That’s the point.”

“What do you mean?” Marcus asked.

“We can’t sense it because it’s Concealed from us. Even with wind, we wouldn’t sense it, but we might sense that something was blocking the wind. We just wouldn’t know what it was.”

“You’re saying,” Karl said, “that someone is Concealing that entire lighthouse?”

“Yes.”

There was a moment of silence while everyone took that in.

“How large is the Concealed area?” Marcus asked.

“We can figure that out by deduction,” Clay said, closing his eyes. “If you feel without looking, the sand extends from where we are out for about thirty feet where it meets the water. In reality”—he opened his eyes—“the sand meets the rocks there, which stretch for another fifty feet, followed by the sandbar and then the lighthouse. It’s like we just skip over that area to feel the sea. If you follow it around and compare what you feel to what you see, it seems to be a circular area with the lighthouse as its center point.”

The others were nodding as they did what Clay told them to. Marcus looked over at Maggie.

“You all right, Maggie?”

“Yes. I want to go explore.”

“Well, shouldn’t we—” Karl began.

“We’re losing time. We’ve been gone an hour already.”

Maggie started down the sandy embankment with Marcus right beside her. The others followed.

“Where does the Concealment begin?” Maggie asked when she was roughly thirty feet from the ridge.

“You can’t tell?” Clay asked.

Maggie shook her head. “It’s not Concealed to me.”

Clay looked at Marcus. “Do you think she has the ability to see through Concealments?”

“If she does,” Karl answered, “that’ll sure come in handy.”

“It’s right in front of you, Maggie,” Marcus answered her question. “Another stride forward and you’ll have crossed the line.”

“Okay,” Maggie said. “Stay there.” She turned and took a giant step toward the lighthouse now looming up before them. She turned back toward them. “Can you sense me?”

Marcus closed his eyes then shook his head. “No. You’re behind the Concealment. If I couldn’t see and hear you, I wouldn’t think you were there.”

“Now, see, that’s odd to me,” Clay said. “I didn’t know you could Conceal an area and use it like a boundary that people can go in and out of. When I Conceal, I block out a person’s individual energy. No matter where they go, they’ll be Concealed. This is…strange.”

“Now that you’ve seen it,” Marcus said, “could you reproduce it?”

Clay shook his head. “I’m not sure. Concealments are deeply personal in nature. Because they’re hidden, no one but the maker can see them. I couldn’t look at someone else’s Concealment and compare it to my own. They may do things exactly as I do them or completely different. There’s no way to tell. I could study this more, but anything I learn will be by deduction, not actual observation.”

Marcus started toward where Maggie was standing, but Karl grabbed his arm, stopping him.

“Wait. Maggie, come back this way, please.”

“Why?”

“Let’s make sure this is only a Concealment and not a cage. Make sure you can cross back over.”

Maggie frowned. She hadn’t thought of that. She stepped toward them, half expecting to hit an unseen wall, but she didn’t. Marcus let his breath out when she stood beside him.

“Maybe one of us should stay outside, just in case. If anything happens, they can run and get Doc and Nat to help.”

“I’ll do that,” Clay said. “I don’t need to be with you to Conceal you. I can feel you all and will know if you’re in trouble. I’d like to take the time to study the boundary of the Concealment further.”

Marcus nodded. They moved forward as one.

They jumped lightly from rock to rock until they reached the sandbar. The sand was saturated, the ocean’s water continually flowing over and through it. Maggie feared it would collapse into the sea below them, but it didn’t. Their feet sunk several inches with each step as though they were walking through particularly gritty mud.

At the end of the sandbar, an island rose up out of the ocean. This is what held the lighthouse, which, despite its magnificence, was in shambles. Chunks of brick were missing in various places around the main cylindrical structure, and an entire side had fallen away, landing on a squat, rectangular structure that probably served as the light keeper’s residence once. The black, spiral staircase that led to the upper light chamber could be seen clearly from the outside, and the door at the base hung crookedly on its hinges.

Even the yard around the lighthouse, which looked to have once been seeded with grass, now grew only crab grass and weeds and was strewn with debris of every kind. Maggie thought she recognized some rusted car parts, which would have been truly ancient in this time period.

When they reached the structures, Karl stopped. “How about if Joan and I look around in the…house…barn…whatever that little building is?”

Marcus nodded. “Maggie and I will take the lighthouse. Meet you back here in fifteen?”

Karl nodded, and the four of them went in separate directions. Marcus took Maggie’s hand, and she was glad of it. There was a queasiness in her stomach she couldn’t squelch. If she was this nervous in a situation that so far had posed no obvious danger, how much worse would it be when they reached the island?

When they got through the askew door, they could hear the crackling of the fire above. The winding staircase was only wide enough for one person.

The upper light chamber was small and, like the rest of the structure, in pieces. Large chunks of floor were missing around the spot where the fire was blazing, making it look like there were only a series of catwalks around the fire pit. Maggie could see the entire top chamber clearly, and it was vacant.

Marcus scanned the top chamber as well, probably both with his eyes and with his other senses. He didn’t go up. Instead he pulled Maggie along toward one of the four doors on the ground floor.

The first two were rooms, empty save for the skeletons of beds and some loose, random debris. The third door turned out to be a supply closet. The fourth revealed a staircase leading down. The staircase itself was dark and narrow, but there was light coming from the rooms below.

Marcus turned to Maggie, arching an eyebrow. She shrugged.

Checking his grip on her hand, he started down.

The large room that made up the basement was well lit and well kept, especially considering the disrepair of the rest of the lighthouse. It was a crude setup with a fireplace, wood stove, palette of straw, and uneven, unsanded table, but it was also clean, uncluttered, and obviously looked after.

Marcus and Maggie exchanged glances, but they could see all of the room at once; there was nowhere to hide. Maggie noticed a door on the far side of the room and pointed to it. Marcus crossed to it. He paused with his hand on the doorknob then threw the door open all in one motion to take anyone hiding inside by surprise. It was some kind of pantry or root cellar. A rush of cold air came from it—cold storage, then. This was probably below water level.

Marcus stepped inside, but there wasn’t enough room for two, so Maggie didn’t try to follow him. He was knocking on the walls between shelves, trying to find any hollow spots. Maggie cast her mind out, looking for life. Obviously someone lived here. And earlier on the beach she thought she’d had a sense of someone. Now she sensed nothing.

The next thing she felt was a warm hand settling on her shoulder. She inhaled loudly, whirling around and backing up at the same time. She backed hard into Marcus, who had burst out of the root cellar when he heard her gasp.

Standing before them was perhaps the most beautiful woman Maggie had ever seen. She was tall and slender with dark hair and skin the color of pearls. Her features were perfect, and she moved with a lithe gracefulness that meant she was either a jungle cat in disguise or a yoga goddess.

“I…I didn’t sense her,” Maggie whispered.

“Neither did I,” Marcus answered. His stance was defensive.

“Neither will your two friends.” The woman’s voice was deep, throaty, but somehow still feminine. “It’s meant to be that way.” Her smile was pleasant, and it seemed genuine.

This was the woman from Maggie’s memory. She was sure of it.

“Who are you?” Maggie asked.

The woman’s smile faltered a bit, but it returned quickly. “So you’ve made your way back here, Maggie. I admit I didn’t think I would see you again so soon. You must tell me how you managed it without the aid of your memories.”

Maggie frowned up at Marcus and saw her own expression mirrored in his face.

The woman followed her gaze to him. “Is this your Marcus?”

Maggie looked at her again. “What?”

The woman cocked her head to the side but didn’t repeat herself.

“His name is Marcus, yes,” Maggie said.

The woman nodded. Her look was discerning, and Maggie got the feeling this woman knew more about Maggie’s relationship with Marcus than she herself did—not that that was uncommon.

“Who are you?” Maggie said again.

The woman stared at her for long moments before speaking. “What do you remember, Maggie?”

Maggie knew she ought to be exasperated that the woman wasn’t answering her questions, but she had the feeling that this woman knew what had happened to her before, that she could give Maggie information that no one else could. In her urgency for answers, she forgot to be annoyed.

“Very little. I have a flash of a memory of seeing you in front of this lighthouse at sunset. I think I was walking away from you.”

The woman was nodding. “A true memory. Is that all?”

“It’s…all that concerns you. There are other flashes, but you aren’t in them.”

The woman nodded. “Your friends may as well come the rest of the way down. I can sense them lurking on the staircase.”

Maggie turned to see Karl emerge from the stairway, looking chagrined. Joan was behind him.

“There was nothing in the other building,” Karl said quietly, “so we came looking for you.”

Maggie turned back to the woman, who was regarding them with perfect tranquility.

“Who are you?” Maggie asked for the third time.

She was having a hard time putting an age to the woman. Her eyes were like Doc’s—they spoke of infinite wisdom and a quiet knowledge that only those who’ve been through hell on earth can comprehend. Yet, there were no lines on her face, no white or gray in her hair, no stiffness in her body that would name her age. Maggie would have thought the woman younger than herself if not for those searching, brown eyes.

The woman’s expression was utterly unreadable.

“I am the Remembrancer.”

“Remembrancer?” Maggie played the word over her tongue and sifted it through the caverns of her mind, trying to decipher it’s meaning.

“Yes. I am a keeper of memories.”

“Meaning what?” Marcus asked. Though he stood behind Maggie, he had one hand wrapped protectively around her upper arm and had put one foot and one shoulder slightly in front of her.

The woman walked slowly toward him. “Meaning,” she said as she moved, “that I can keep memories hidden or bring them to light. I can find memories you never knew you had.” She was standing in front of him now, her face inches from his. “Or”—she reached up with two fingers and touched him between the eyes—“bring memories to the surface that you’ve tried very hard to forget.”

When she touched him, Marcus’s body shuddered violently. He staggered backward, slamming into the wall behind him.

The woman hadn’t moved to follow him, but Maggie put herself between Marcus and the woman, shoving her back a few steps from him.

“What are you doing?”

The woman remained calm, utterly unaffected by Maggie’s anger. “I’m not hurting him.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” Karl snarled at her from behind Maggie. He’d crossed to Marcus’s side and was helping him to his feet.

Joan had come to stand by Maggie’s side between the strange woman and the two men. The woman made no move toward them and seemed content to simply stare.

Maggie looked over her shoulder at Marcus. He was on his feet now but was jerking his head from side to side.

“Are you all right, Marcus?”

He blinked rapidly and put a hand to his forehead. After a minute, he was able to look down at her. His gaze went to the woman, and a look of awe stole over him. Then he looked back at Maggie. “I’m fine.”

Maggie turned back to the woman. “What did you do?”

“I brought a memory to the surface that he’d tried to bury. Sometimes the emotional impact of such memories can be rather…shocking.”

“If he tried to forget it, it was probably unpleasant. Why would you force him to remember it?” Maggie was shouting. That the woman remained utterly calm made Maggie want to kick her in the shin.

“Because our unpleasant memories are usually the most important ones we have. They shape us in more profound ways than all our happy memories combined, much as we all hate to admit it.”

Maggie dropped her head, rubbing the bridge of her nose. This was getting them nowhere. Was this woman incapable of giving a straight answer? Was she required to speak in riddles for some reason?

“Are you going to tell me who you are or not?” Maggie asked. “I recognize you. I’ve been here before. Please tell me when and why.”

She looked steadily at Maggie for a moment. “Do you know what the law of conservation of energy is, Maggie?”

Maggie ground her teeth but forced herself to remain calm. “Yes. It says that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It only changes form.”

“That’s true of all things, Maggie, not just energy. All things human, all things in the universe are eternal. They cannot be created or destroyed.”

“So you’re saying that my memories are still…around, but they’re just in a different form?”

“Or location,” Karl said from behind her.

The woman looked up at him.

“Doc and Marcus scanned her extensively. Her memories are not in her head.”

The woman smiled. “That’s true, but they haven’t been eradicated either.” She looked back at Maggie. “Once something comes into existence, it becomes part of the fabric of the universe. It cannot be destroyed. This is especially true of memories.”

Maggie could feel a ball of tension accumulating between her eyes. “David said the collectives wouldn’t have taken my memories. They would have invaded my mind and tried to take over or simply killed me, but they wouldn’t have taken my memories and then let me go. So”—she stepped toward the woman—“did you steal my memories?”

The woman surprised Maggie by laughing out loud. Her laugh wasn’t evil or mocking but had genuine delight.

“I’m sorry, Maggie,” she said when she’d gotten control of herself. “I should be offended by such a question, but the truth is that it’s been so long since I’ve spoken to anyone that even false accusations are kind of…fun.”

Frowning, Maggie looked back at her other team members. Karl was looking at the woman like she’d just asked if there were fish in the sea. Marcus was still staring at her with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Joan showed less emotion. Her eyes weighed and calculated the strange, beautiful woman, but her face showed no hint of what she was feeling.

Maggie strove to be like Joan.

She turned back to the woman, trying to keep her face tranquil and not at all sure she was succeeding.

The woman had become stoic once more.

“I didn’t steal your memories, Maggie. You gave them to me.”

 

Chapter 26: The Strangeness of Roses

Maggie felt her stomach bottom out. “What?” she whispered. She swallowed the metal lump in her throat. “Why would I do that?”

“You didn’t give me a specific reason.”

“No, I mean, why…how…this is just something you do for people?”

“I’ve done it for many people. You are one of the few to return, though, and certainly the soonest.”

“How many is many more?” Karl asked.

She looked up at him over Maggie’s head. “Dozens.”

“So,” Maggie said, her head hurting again. “How does it work? I gave you my memories and then…?”

“You had me remove your memories for safe keeping.”

“So you can restore them?”

The woman shook her head. “It’s not that simple. You came to me in desperation, but what you did was dangerous. There was no guarantee it would work—that you would be able to regain your memories. There was no guarantee you would survive it, and there was certainly no guarantee that you’d make it back to where you wanted to be before your memories seeped away. I have no idea how you fared after you left here. Can you tell me?”

“I made it back to where my friends would find me, but I never got to tell them what I’d done. And now even I don’t remember.”

The woman nodded. “An unfortunate side effect.”

“Can you reverse it?” Marcus growled over Maggie’s shoulder.

The woman hesitated before responding. “I can start the process. But it’s different for everyone. Maggie’s memories may come back or they may not. If they do, they may come back in a day, a year, or a decade. They may seep back little by little or come back all at once. I told you this was a dangerous thing to do. It does little bodily harm, but there are those who’ve gone mad from the effects of it.”

Maggie felt herself recoiling. “Why?”

“Because you’ll never know if your memory is whole or if there’s more you’ve not yet remembered. Some go mad waiting for memories to return that never do.”

Maggie considered for a moment. “Do it anyway. Try to bring them back. Slim chance of their returning is better than none any day.”

“Maggie.” Marcus stepped toward them from where he still stood against the wall. “Maybe we should talk—”

But before he could finish, the woman put the palms of her hands over Maggie’s temples and shut her eyes. Her face was inches from Maggie’s, and Maggie watched it contort through every possible emotion for a full minute. In contrast, her body was rigidly still—a perfectly toned marble sculpture. The woman’s face smoothed out, and she opened her eyes, dropping her hands from Maggie’s head.

“How do you feel?” Joan asked, taking Maggie’s arm.

Maggie shrugged. “No different, really.”

The other three were staring either at Maggie or the strange woman, and an awkward silence descended.

“Okay,” Maggie stepped toward the woman. “Tell me everything that happened last time I was here. Tell me everything I said to you. What reason did I give for wanting to do such a thing to myself, and how did I find you? Tell me.”

The woman studied Maggie’s face for several seconds before nodding. “I will, but only to you.” Maggie started to object, but the woman talked over her. “This is sensitive information. When you leave here you can tell anyone you want, but for now I will only speak of what happened before when we have privacy.” With that she turned and walked calmly to the fire.

With a sigh, Maggie turned toward her friends.

“I’m not leaving you down here alone, Maggie,” Marcus whispered, taking her arm. “We can’t sense her. What if she whisks you away from here? What if it’s all a lie and she works for the collectives?”

“Marcus, can you sense me?”

He looked taken aback. “Yes.”

“Then you’ll know if I’m in trouble. This may be the only way to find out what happened to me during those unaccounted-for hours. I have to hear what she knows.”

“And if it’s a lie?”

She shrugged. “That’s a chance I’ll have to take. Please?”

Marcus looked back and forth between her and the woman. Reluctantly, he nodded. “We’ll be at the top of the stairs.”

The three of them ascended, casting angry glances at the woman over their shoulders.

When they were gone, Maggie went to stand by the woman in front of the fire.

“Maggie,” she said, “I don’t have all the answers you want.”

Maggie’s shoulders slumped. “What?”

“I can only tell you what you told me, and it wasn’t a complete picture of your motives. I think you found me by accident. You didn’t seem to know who I was, but when I explained what I could do, you jumped to do it as though it were the solution to your problems.”

“How could I accidentally find a place and person hidden by Concealment?”

The woman smiled cryptically. “There are ways.”

Maggie’s eyebrows went up. “Like?”

The woman shook her head. “That’s a different issue. What do you want to know?”

“Everything. You said dumping my memories was dangerous, but then you also said it does little bodily harm. Which is it?”

The woman’s eyebrows went up, and it took her a moment to answer.

“If the person survives it, there are not long-term physical affects, aside from the memory loss itself. However, ripping memories away from a person is intensely traumatic. It can cause enough shock to kill the brain the instant it happens. In asking me to do it, there was a chance you could have dropped dead on the spot.”

Maggie tried to absorb that, tried to imagine what on earth could possibly make her risk such a thing. Terror spread through her like so much undergrowth. She clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. “But I did survive it.”

“Even if the person survives the initial experience, there’s no way to tell if there won’t be delayed shock or later trauma. There could be injury to the brain that didn’t show up right away. And then there’s the fact that the memories don’t go away completely for about an hour. Once they do, there’s a danger of shock setting in again, and by that point, the person wouldn’t have any idea why. You managed to come through both. As you can see, what you did was…”

“Foolish, selfish, irresponsible?”

The woman smiled sadly. “The word I would use is desperate.”

Maggie’s chin trembled, but she swallowed and managed to control her voice. “And what reason did I give you for that desperation?”

“All you told me was that there was something, some piece of information hidden in your memories. You were afraid of someone else getting a hold of it, so you wanted your memories to be gone, at least for a time. You spoke of a man you loved more than life itself. You said his name was Marcus. More than anything else, you were afraid of losing him. That’s why you did it.”

The tears reared up in her eyes as the woman talked. They burst their dam and flooded over her cheeks.

“But I lost him anyway. He’s a good man, and our relationship obviously had passion, and it’s not fair to him that I can’t remember it.”

“Not fair only to him?”

“No! Not fair to me either. Why would I do that?”

The woman looked at the ground, considering. “Maggie, that’s all I know that is fact. But perhaps I may tell you a bit more. Not things I know, but things I surmised based on what you said, how you acted, what I saw.”

“Yes.” Maggie wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Tell me.”

“Understand, this is only my opinion.”

Maggie nodded.

“I think you stumbled upon something, some piece of information when you were…wherever you were.”

Maggie nodded. The ship.

“It scared you, terrified you. You knew you had to get rid of it right away. I honestly don’t know what it was. As I said before, once the process begins, it takes a while—about an hour—before your memories are gone. You were going to try and make it back to your friends before that happened. I understand you didn’t succeed?”

Maggie shut her eyes, willing the memories to return. A pair of boots walking across the room at eye level. “I made it back to where they found me, but by then my memories were being siphoned away. I fell into unconsciousness and…remembered them no more.”

The woman put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and Maggie looked up into her face. She saw genuine empathy there.

“I’m so sorry, Maggie.”

“Do you have a name?”

The woman searched her face for a time before slowly shaking her head. “Just the Remembrancer.”

Maggie sighed. “Can you tell me, Remembrancer, why, if my memories were taken away, I still have flashes of some of them?”

The woman leaned her weight against the roughly hewn wooden table. “Yes.”

Maggie waited for her to go on.

“Memories are intensely personal things, Maggie. You can’t make memories for another person, and no two people’s memories, even if they are of the same event, are the same. You can’t…” The woman’s brow creased, and she seemed perplexed for the first time since Maggie had met her. “You can’t…unmake a memory. Your memories are part of you. Despite the fact that your memories were…excised, they’re like rivers of identity that seep into the pores of your soul. What you’re seeing are echoes. If your memories don’t return in full, you’ll never be able to fill in the blanks, but the flashes are bouncing around inside your brain. Your subconscious is trying to remember, trying to figure out what happened and fill the empty space, so the echoes become more vivid.”

“But why those specific memories?”

The woman shrugged. “Who can tell? As I said, memories are intensely personal. Perhaps they were key points in what happened. Or perhaps it’s something as simple as memories that are evoked by a specific, random sensation. If you can interpret the flashes, they may be of use, or they may not.”

The woman went silent, and Maggie sensed she was done speaking on the subject.

“Is there no more you can tell me? Who are you? Why are you here? What is this place, and why is it Concealed?”

The woman put up a hand to stop any more questions.

“I cannot answer all your questions. I can tell you only a few more things. I have been here for a very long time. Now that you’ve come back and the path to restore your memories has been set in motion, my time here is finished. When you are gone from this place, I will be too. If you return in days or weeks, you’ll find only an empty lighthouse. I don’t know if the Concealment will go away immediately, but it will break down over the years, and soon this lighthouse will be naked to the world once again.”

Maggie was confused, but she was also tired of asking questions she knew wouldn’t be answered.

“I want to say one more thing, Maggie. There’s something I want to warn you about. Everyone has negative memories, whether they’re tragic, scary, or simply hard times that we’ve gone through. As human beings, we only deal with one thing at a time. Oh, many things can come to a head, or we can have tragedy pile upon tragedy, but because time is chronological, we only deal with one day, one moment, at a time.”

Maggie frowned. “Okay.”

“If your memories come back more than one at a time, you may get a rush of overwhelming emotions all at once. There’s nothing to be done about it, especially now that the process of true Re-membrance has begun, but I want you to be prepared for how brutal it can be.”

Maggie nodded. “Is that all?”

The woman smiled, cupping Maggie’s cheek in her hand. “Yes, that’s all. Good luck on your mission.”

The way she said it made Maggie curious. “What do you know of our mission?”

“Nothing of the logistics. I assume it’s against the collectives, as it was before.”

“Hey! You said I didn’t give you details.”

“You didn’t. I surmised it. You’re an individual, Maggie. Any danger to you would have to come from the collectives.”

Annoyance flared, and Maggie couldn’t stay silent. “Forgive me, but you’re cloistered on this peaceful, albeit somewhat worn-down piece of paradise, and yet you know of the war between the individuals and the collectives? How?”

“I’m closer to it than you think, Maggie. But that’s not important. I know a lot of things. I know that man loves you. I know all your companions are fiercely loyal to you. I know there are two more of them to the east working on the beach. In fact—” She looked to the east where Doc and Nat were working. She seemed to be undecided about something. Finally, she took a deep breath. “Will you tell the good doctor something for me?”

“The…good doctor?”

“Yes, the doctor. He’s an old man now.”

“You mean Doc? You know him? Well let me go get him. He’s just—”

“No. There’s not time for that. I haven’t seen him in more years than you could imagine, Maggie. He wouldn’t even recognize me. Would you just tell him something for me, when you think of it?”

“I…well, yeah, I guess.”

“Tell him…tell him the roses are in bloom.”

Maggie was so confused. Who was this chick?

“The roses?”

“Yes. They’re in bloom.” The woman smiled at Maggie’s expression.

“The roses are in bloom.” Maggie sighed. “Okay.”

“Good. Now join your companions upstairs and head back to the beach. There’s no sense in keeping the good doctor waiting.”

Maggie started up the stairs with the woman coming up behind her. Halfway up, she realized that the only creaks were coming from her feet. She turned around, but the woman was gone. She hurried back down and let her eyes sweep the room.

“Marcus!”

Marcus was instantly beside her, not bothering with the staircase at all. He put his hands on her shoulders and followed her gaze around the room. “Where did she go?”

Maggie could only shake her head. “She’s gone.”

 

Chapter 27: Hope for Happiness

“The what-what?” Doc asked and Maggie sighed, knowing exactly how he felt. Doc turned to Nat, who was behind him and wearing an expression that was just as confused as Doc. The sky was much lighter than when the team left he and Nat on the beach two hours earlier, but it had glassed over with gray clouds, and the day, despite being early, was bleak.

“Re-mem-branc-er,” Maggie said.

The five of them had walked back to the beach in silence. When they’d arrived at the craft, Doc and Nat had looked worried. They explained that they had lost all sense of the team at some point. It wasn’t hard to figure out that it had happened when the five of them went behind the lighthouse’s Concealment. Marcus quickly explained what had happened—the Concealment, the lighthouse, the strange woman.

“And what did she tell you, Maggie”—Nat stepped in—“when the others left the room?”

Maggie glanced around, feeling trapped.

“She…said she didn’t know.”

Karl guffawed. “What?”

“She said I found something out, something on the ship, and I was afraid the collectives would invade my mind and find it, so I asked her to get rid of my memories.”

Silence descended as everyone thought about that.

“But how did you leave the ship?” Doc asked. “And how did you get back on afterward?”

“Who is this woman?” Nat asked, looking at Doc. “Why is she here? It can’t be a coincidence that Maggie found her before, and now we’ve run into her again.”

Silence again.

“What could you possibly have found out?” Marcus whispered.

Maggie turned to Marcus, wishing desperately that she could convey her horror at what she’d apparently done, but not sure how.

“I don’t know.” She couldn’t keep her voice from shaking. “I have no idea what would’ve made me…” She ran her hands through her hair. “I can’t imagine making such a decision for…any reason.” She sunk down into a crouch, keeping her heels up and wrapping her arms around her knees.

Marcus crouched down beside her, putting his hands on her shoulders. She shut her eyes, and a tear leaked down her cheek.

“Maggie,” Doc said gently, “do you think that whatever she did will bring back your memories?”

Maggie sighed, passing a hand over her eyes. “I think she believes it. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think.”

Doc sighed, looking south. “Perhaps I should go and speak with this person.”

“You can’t.” Karl said. “She disappeared. Even before we left, she was gone.”

“She told me she would be,” Maggie said, and they all turned to her with raised eyebrows. “She said that she’d been here a long time, but that now that she’d gotten the ball rolling to bring my memories back, she would leave as soon as I did.”

“So,” he said, “this is about you. Specifically.”

Maggie shrugged.

“What else did she say?”

Maggie looked at the ground between her toes. She didn’t have the courage to tell them the rest. “Nothing of consequence.”

“If I may, Doc,” Nat said. “I know I’m not an actual member of the team, but I think this needs to take a back seat. I don’t mean to devalue any of it, but we’ve been out in the daylight for far too long.”

After a moment, Doc nodded. “He’s right. Are you okay, Maggie?”

She nodded, though it was a lie.

“Is everyone else okay?”

Everyone nodded in response.

“Then let’s get on the ship. We’ll speak more of this when we’re through with our current mission.”

Nat looked relieved. “Good. Doc, let’s get a move on.”

The way he said it struck Maggie as strange. Good. Doc. Good doc. Memory stirred. Hadn’t the Remembrancer wanted Maggie to tell Doc something? Suddenly, Maggie couldn’t remember what it was.

“Something wrong, Maggie?” Doc was gazing at her with concern.

Everyone had begun moving toward the ship, but they stopped at Doc’s question and turned.

“I think she wanted me to tell you something.”

Doc was taken aback. “Me?”

Maggie nodded. “She said she could sense two more team members on the beach, and she wanted me to tell you something when I thought about it.”

Maggie glanced around at the rest of the team. They all looked wary.

“Me, Maggie? Or me and Nat? Or the entire group?”

Maggie rubbed her forehead. “I can’t remember.” She cursed softly. “Why can’t I remember?”

Marcus took Maggie’s face between his hands, looking intently down into her eyes. She didn’t resist, but a minute later, Marcus dropped his hands and shook his head.

“There’s nothing there.”

Maggie massaged her temples then froze, face snapping toward Marcus. “Hey!”

The corners of his mouth went up. “I mean there’s nothing out of place in your mind—no one keeping you from remembering, from what I can tell.”

Maggie felt slighted but went back to massaging her temples. “Oh.”

“If you do remember, be sure to tell us, Maggie. Beyond that, Nat’s right. All this needs to go on the back burner for now. We have to be focused on this mission if we’re to succeed. Come, let’s board.”

Maggie let Marcus help her onto the ship. When she stepped inside, her jaw dropped. From inside the ship she had a clear, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the landscape around her. It was as though the entire ship were constructed of clear window glass. Yet the outside looked metallic and had no windows.

Maggie gaped for several seconds. “How—”

“It’s an alloy that allows light to flow through only one way,” Marcus said quietly at her shoulder. “Not yet invented in your time.”

Maggie gave him her best wide-eyed look. His face softened into a smirk.

“Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe.”

The ship consisted of one huge room. The back right corner had a table and benches bolted to the floor. Along the wall behind them was what looked like this century’s version of a condensed kitchen. The back left corner had ten cots in two rows of five, also bolted to the floor. The entire front wall was a console that was obviously the center for ship operations, and behind it were benches for passengers, secured like the rest of the furniture.

“The ship is ready to go,” Doc announced. “We’ve plotted a course for the island David identified. We’ll put the ship on autopilot so we can all get some sleep. We’ll need to be as fresh as possible by tonight.”

The ship submerged smoothly and glided effortlessly through the dark ocean. Small schools of fish whispered past the thin hull-like pieces of phantom sea monsters from another world. Everyone lay down and was asleep almost instantly.

Except Maggie.

She reached out with her mind to find Marcus. He was sleeping on the cot next to hers four feet away. Her back was to him. Usually being able to sense him close by was enough to bring her comfort, but she felt lonelier tonight than ever.

The fear of the mission to come, the worry over what had happened the last time she’d gone on a mission with the team, the sickness in her stomach about the fact that she’d given up her memories for something more terrifying than she could conceive of—it all pressed in on her with such force that she couldn’t keep the tears in. She cried silently, knowing she ought to let it go and let her body sleep. She needed the recuperation.

Then she felt the hand on her shoulder. She’d been concentrating so hard on being quiet that she hadn’t heard him get up. She sat up and turned toward him. Marcus sat down on the bed and put his arms around her. He kissed her shoulder, and when he spoke, she could feel his lips moving against the fabric of her shirt.

“What is it?”

She shrugged. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m just overwhelmed.”

He nodded, brushing the back of his knuckles against her cheek. “You need to sleep, Maggie.”

She nodded but twisted at the waist so she could wrap her arms around his torso.

“I’m so scared,” she whispered.

With one hand on her back and the other at her knee, he pushed her over a few inches and lay down on the bed beside her, wrapping himself around her as completely as he could. Maggie turned toward him and curled up against his chest.

With the hum of the ship gliding through water and the rise and fall of Marcus’s chest, she fell asleep.

***

Maggie was pulled out of a deep sleep some hours later when Marcus rose. He disentangled himself from her and left the cot, but she was a light enough sleeper to register the movement. The quiet murmur of Marcus’s voice reached her ears. She thought it was Karl he was talking to. She caught snatches of mundane conversation—something about Karl letting them all sleep longer than he was supposed to because it was still too early to consider leaving the ship, yet.

Maggie barely registered it, letting her mind weave in and out of sleep. Then she heard her name. Her eyes snapped open. She shut them again immediately, not wanting the two men to know she was listening.

“I don’t know that it has a whole lot to do with me, Karl.”

“Why not?”

“Think about it. If you were in a strange place with people you don’t know going on a mission you don’t feel prepared for and you kept learning about disturbing things you did but you don’t know why and can’t remember doing them, wouldn’t you be reaching out for comfort too?”

“Yeah, but she could reach out to any of us for that, man. She’s gravitating toward you.”

“Yes, but she knows we had a relationship before. As much as I wish I did, I know I don’t hide my feelings well. She knows how I feel about her. And with that, she knows I’ll be loyal to her—that I’ll protect her no matter what.”

Maggie could almost hear Karl’s frown. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Marcus, but do you really think Maggie’s that shallow?”

Marcus chuckled. “No. I think that it’s a natural thing to do. You or I would probably do the same thing if we were in her shoes.”

“You’re selling yourself short, Marcus. Have some faith in Maggie. Have some faith in what we know to be true.”

“Like what?”

“Well, there’s cellular memory.”

“You been talking to Joan again?”

“I think she’s got a point. Look, man, I’ve never been in love with a woman the way you are with Maggie, but I had one of the best families growing up that a man could ask for. The love I’ve experienced in my life has been a different kind than yours but no less powerful for all that.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’d like to think that if when I was a child I lost my memory and then suddenly saw my parents again, that I’d know them. Even if I didn’t consciously recognize them, I believe that something, some part of my soul, would call me to them.

“Think about it. All of us were there when we left her in that hotel room. Yet you’re the one she remembers. You’re the memory she managed to retain. And that memory of you was so intense that, from what she’s told me, it ruled her life during the time she wasn’t with us. It echoed inside her so loudly that she couldn’t let it go and move on. She was haunted by it. That doesn’t sound random to me. Besides”—he adjusted his position in a chair that was too small for his massive frame—“she fell in love with you once before when she didn’t know you. Why wouldn’t she again?”

Maggie heard Marcus sigh. “It’s different now. She’s been here before and experienced bad things. Even if she doesn’t remember them, she’s still dealing with the consequences. We all know her when she doesn’t know us. Before, none of us knew each other. It creates a different sort of energy—a different sort of pressure.

“Give it time, Marcus. Maggie will come back to you. She’s in love with you. I’m sure of it. She will remember it eventually. In many ways, I think she already has.”

They lapsed into silence, and Maggie wished she hadn’t heard. She tried to control her breathing, sure they’d hear it if she didn’t.

“I hope you’re right, Karl. I really hope you’re right. It almost killed me to lose Maggie the first time. I can’t go through that again. I just can’t.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself for hoping for happiness, Marcus. What man doesn’t?”

The others were beginning to stir, and the two men’s conversation became too muted for Maggie to hear anymore. Maggie yawned and stretched, pretending to wake as the others did.

The ship travelled only a few feet below the water’s surface so that the natural light was enough to illuminate the ship during the day. When it got dark, the ship descended to a lower depth so they could turn on artificial lights without being seen from the surface. The lights were all glowing now, turning the window walls into mirrors and revealing only blackness around the outside of the ship.

Doc sat up and swung his legs over the side of the cot he was on. “It’s dark. Karl, have you gone and let us oversleep?”

“Yes, I have, Doc.”

Doc padded over to the consol. “Are we inside the Concealment?”

“Yup.”

“And what do your preliminary scans show?”

“Lots of people still up and kickin’. But I’m not as good as you at the whole thermal-energy signature, logistical-layout thing.” He got up and indicated his seat for Doc to sit in. “Have at it, Doc.”

Maggie looked at Marcus, who was seated in the other seat behind the bridge console. He smiled at her, and she returned it. Joan came to sit on Maggie’s cot and ask how she’d slept. Maggie gave a murmured response. Nat and Clay were awake, but they made no attempt at conversation. Rather they stared at one another, half asleep and bug-eyed.

Twenty minutes later, when Nat had broken out some food rations for everyone and they were all more awake, Doc shook himself out of his concentration.

“All right, everyone. I have the information I need. Time to hatch a plan.”

 

Chapter 28: Onto the Island

“The facility is divided into three wings,” Doc explained. He laid some paper on the console and drew a crude sketch. “The center wing is made up of all the community rooms—work stations, mess hall, sick bay, rec rooms, library, etc.—while the outer two wings house individual quarters and living spaces.

“We’ll be coming up the southeast side of the island. In the northwest corner of the facility, opposite where we are, I’ve found some unique living quarters. There is a large conference room, which has a rectangular table with three chairs on each side.”

“Six people,” Karl put in.

“Precisely. Around this conference room are six individual rooms, each with an individual sleeping in it as we speak.”

“But, Doc,” Maggie said, “how can we be sure these are the Council of Six and not just six others who…control the facility perhaps?”

“We can’t be absolutely sure at this juncture, but we can be reasonably sure. David said this was where the Council resided. Assuming we still believe he was telling the truth, it would be quite a coincidence if this wasn’t them. These six are clearly individuals, and they have extraordinarily powerful minds. I couldn’t tell much more about them than that, as they have their minds guarded behind thick, powerful shields.

“All the other people on the island are connected in some way to the collective mind. Some are completely absorbed in it, others only partially so. I’m sure the degree depends on what function they perform here and what the Council needs them for.

“The point is, if everyone else on the island is part of the collective except these six, then they must be the Council.”

“It’s so hypocritical,” Maggie murmured. “They try to force the entire world into collectivism, yet remain individuals themselves.”

“That’s the thing people don’t understand,” Karl said. “Whether collectivism works or not, there will always be one or a few people at the very top making the decisions, holding the power, controlling everything below them. The question is not which is better, collectivism or individualism. The question is, are you willing to submit completely to another human being and let them live your life for you?’”

Maggie nodded.

“I’d like us to split into three groups. Maggie, Marcus, and Nat will head into the east wing first. There are two other individual, well-protected minds there.”

“If the six you detected in the east wing are the Council, then who are these other two?” Maggie asked.

“I believe one of them may be the Traveler.”

A loud silence spread among them. This was the reason they were here. Of course they wanted to bring down the Council, as that might bring down the collectives, but their immediate problem was the Traveler. With him the collectives could enslave the world throughout history.

“Who’s the other one, the second individual in the east wing?” Marcus asked.

“That I don’t know. It’s probably someone important, someone high up whose role we have not had occasion to discover.”

“I guess we’ll remedy that tonight,” Karl murmured.

“Yes,” Doc said. “As they are shielded too, I cannot discover from this distance which one is which. I can only show you what room they are in. You’ll have to get close to them from there.”

“But,” Maggie said, “how will we know which is which, even when we find them? They’re not likely to volunteer their identities so we’ll know which one to take out.”

Doc smiled. “First of all,” he said, “you may end up having to take out both, so it may be a moot point. Secondly, that is the reason I’m sending Nat with you and Marcus. Nat has some small ability as a Seeker.”

Everyone turned raised eyebrows toward Nat, who remained stoic. Even Karl looked impressed.

“As you know,” Doc went on, “our best Seekers can see across space and time and zero in on a specific neural signature that matches the criteria they are looking for. That’s how we found you, Maggie, in answer to the prophecy. Nat’s talent has nowhere near that scope. He has to be within—what is it, Nat, twenty feet?—in order to be able to sense what talents a person’s neural signature supports. So you’ll have to get close to these two individuals, but once you do Nat will be able to tell who the Traveler is.”

Maggie took a deep breath. “And then what?”

Doc turned a sympathetic smile on her. “As you three will be doing this part of the mission, you’ll have to discuss that between you. I suggest you come up with a plan for several different contingencies you may encounter, but the truth is, until you get there there’s no way to tell what to expect. You’ll probably have to improvise a great deal.”

“That’s one thing no one’s talked about,” Clay piped up.

“What is?” Doc asked.

“If Maggie is the Executioner, how do we know that the rest of us are even capable of killing the Council members? She might have to do it.”

Maggie felt her arms and legs go weak. She understood the importance of the mission, of course. Killing the council members would free thousands of people from enslavement in the collectives. Despite that, she didn’t relish walking into the facility and killing eight people.

“Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” Doc said. “We don’t know that that’s what Maggie’s role entails. The word Executioner could have several connotations. If killing is involved, perhaps it will only be one key person in the highest levels of the collective’s controllers.”

“Yeah, but Doc,” Joan said quietly, “isn’t that what the Council is? Who else could there be controlling them?”

Doc didn’t answer. He looked perplexed.

Marcus leaned down to speak in Maggie’s ear. He spoke quietly, but Maggie knew the rest of the group could hear him. “I’ll do it, if I possibly can, Maggie. I promise.” Then he spoke more loudly. “I think it will take all three of us working together to accomplish it.”

Doc pounced on that. “I agree. If this were entirely up to Maggie, the prophecy would only have been about one person, not an entire team. It’s dangerous to enter any mission with any preconceived notions about how it might or might not go. We’ll all do the best we can, believing we will be successful, and we will be. End of story.”

“End of story?” Karl gave Doc a wide-eyed look. “But you haven’t given the rest of us our assignments yet.”

Doc looked confused. Joan raised one hand robotically and swatted Karl on the back of the head. He ducked his head, chuckling. “Ow.” He gave it a few mock rubs before grinning at Doc.

Maggie smiled, grateful for the break in the tension.

“Karl and I will go into the west wing to deal with the Council, if we can,” Doc continued. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to take all of them out, but even a few is a start and will give us a feel for what we’re up against.”

“What about Joan and I?” Clay asked.

Doc took a deep breath. “I feel strongly that you and Joan should remain outside the facility.”

Both Clay and Joan jumped to their feet, protesting.

“We can do more than one thing at once, Doc.”

“You’re going to need us in there!”

Doc held up his hands for silence. “Please, I know you’re both capable of doing your jobs and multitasking. This is not about talent. It’s about the fact that we are going in blind. Both of you can remain outside and still Protect and Conceal us. I don’t want to belittle anyone’s contribution to the team, but the simple fact is that if something happens to any of the rest of us, the team can go on, escape, and live. If anything happens to one of you, the entire team becomes vulnerable.”

Both Clay and Joan scowled, but they didn’t argue anymore.

“Besides, there’s another thing we should discuss. I expected this facility to house around two hundred people. There are only forty or fifty. In terms of detection, that will work in our favor—fewer people we could run into. On the other hand, if the Council only has fifty people protecting them, those fifty must be immensely powerful and skilled. If we’re discovered, the chances of our escaping will be slim to none.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“That said, I think it’s important to leave one or two of us on the outside in case the rest of us are captured. So you see, you two will be playing a duel role. I want your respective talents to be your only job for the mission. If we get captured, that will change, but I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”

Joan and then Clay nodded reluctantly.

“All right.” Doc indicated the crude blueprint he’d been drawing. “Familiarize yourselves with the layout of the facility. I’ll lead us in across the island. Come up with generalized plans in your groups. Then eat. We’ll leave in an hour.”

***

It was midnight before the team made it onto the island. They left the ship five hundred yards out hidden in the black ocean, and swam ashore. They couldn’t make noise, so they had to do their swim strokes beneath the surface, gliding slowly and noiselessly through the water.

The island was somewhat tropical, and though it wasn’t particularly hot, the humidity was oppressive. The brush was jungle-like, and Maggie hoped there weren’t snakes. That was one thing that might make her scream before she could catch herself.

A cinderblock wall surrounded the entire facility. Two guards paced around the outside of it in circles. The team’s minds were concealed, so the guards would be unable to sense them, but they still had to get inside the wall without being seen. That meant they’d have to wait until the two guards were as far from the entrance as possible before they used it.

“I’ll be able to sense when they reach the opposite side of the compound,” Doc had explained. “Then we’ll move. We’ll have to be sure that nothing is disturbed. They can’t sense us, but if they sense that something is out of place—the door not shut all the way, more dirt moved than an animal could have done—then they’ll be onto us.”

They reached a small side entrance that was used very little. It consisted of a cinderblock door carved out of the wall, which swung outward on rusty hinges. Doc motioned for them all to duck down behind the shrubs that faced the door from ten feet away. A few seconds later, a man marched by. He was alone, but the two patrolling guards marched in opposite directions, which gave them much smaller windows of opportunity.

Once he was gone, Doc got up and motioned for the others to follow him. Marcus and Clay each put a hand over one of the doors hinges. Maggie couldn’t be sure, but she thought they were inserting air between the parts to make sure the hinges didn’t creak or groan when moved.

Doc swung the door outward, and it moved in utter silence.

Karl was the first one in. He had a conduit stone wrapped around one hand and a small wooden stick in the other. He could use them as either physical or neurological weapons. He jumped inside, ready to surprise anyone waiting for him. Apparently seeing no one, he did a quick three-sixty then motioned the rest of them in. The door shut silently.

As soon as it was done and the men stepped away, Doc threw his hands up in alarm. Everyone looked at him. He put a finger to his lips, and everyone became perfectly still, rooted to the ground where they stood. The wall was made of cinderblock but was not tall. From the other side they could hear footsteps crunching toward them—the other guard.

The footsteps bypassed the cinderblock door and went another six feet. Then they stopped. Maggie was six feet to the left of the door. The guard was level with her. If not for the cinderblocks, she’d be face to face with him. The guard turned around and went back to the door. He seemed to be inspecting it. He jiggled and prodded around for several minutes. Then there was almost two minutes of complete, deafening silence.

He was listening.

Finally, the footsteps crunched slowly away. When they could no longer be heard, everyone let out their breath.

Doc made a placating motion with his arms.

They went on. The courtyard looked like a civilized place from Maggie’s time. The grounds were landscaped and well kept. There were plants, strategically placed rocks and boulders, little stone pathways, and even fountains. If the place weren’t so foreboding, it would have been beautiful.

Doc led them through the grounds, stopping only twice when night guards walked by. The team hid behind rocks or shrubs until the guards passed. Maggie knew these guards were probably doing all kinds of scans with their minds, but because Clay was Concealing the team, the scans would pass right over them.

They came to a large garden of shrubs situated against the main building. Doc pointed to a small, round cove created by the intersections of several plants. He motioned Clay and Joan into it, indicating that this is where they would be stationed. Joan gave Doc a thumbs up, and Clay gave an a-okay sign. Then they both disappeared into the brush.

Doc led the rest of them around the side of the building to a small, mostly concealed door. Once there, he waited for what must have been five full minutes. Maggie decided that he must be waiting for people inside to pass before he opened the door. Either that or he’d fallen asleep.

Finally he pulled the door open and motioned everyone in.

The first noticeable thing about the interior was air-conditioning, or whatever it was called in this century. The humidity of the outdoors disappeared completely upon coming inside. The corridor they were in was carpeted with the thin, tough, industrial carpet for high-traffic areas.

Three sets of lights lined the ceiling above them. The row in the middle was large and looked to Maggie like the white, fluorescent lights of her own century. They were probably the main light source, but they were not on—probably turned off when most people were asleep. The other two rows on the outside gave off a soft, orange glow, making the corridor cozily dim.

Once inside, Doc turned to Maggie. He took one of her hands in his and then one of Marcus’s in his other. He gave them each an encouraging smile. Marcus returned it, and Maggie hoped she did as well, but she couldn’t be sure whether she was smiling or grimacing. Doc and Nat also exchanged glances.

Karl did the same thing, taking each of their hands. Maggie wondered if it was a ritual, a way to connect and tell each other good luck even when they weren’t allowed to speak.

Then Doc and Karl disappeared down the corridor to the left. Marcus took Maggie’s hand and went right. Nat followed.

Well, Maggie thought, here we go.

 

Chapter 29: The Problem with a Neurological Sedative

Marcus led the way through the silent corridors. He held tight to Maggie’s hand, which was just fine with her.

Maggie’s heart pounded in her ears, and she had trouble controlling her breathing. More than once Marcus and Nat would hurry into a shadowy corner or dark, intersecting passageway and stand silently for a time. She never saw what they were hiding from, but she knew they were sensing things she could not, so she did what they told her—or rather motioned for her—to do.

Marcus paused in front of a pair of double doors. He turned and raised an eyebrow at Nat. Nat nodded, held up two fingers, pointed at the doors, and nodded again. The two individuals they were looking for, including the Traveler, were behind those doors. Maggie’s heart pounded harder.

Marcus gave her hand a reassuring squeeze then guided her back behind him and let go. He and Nat went to the doors. Eyes on each other so they were moving at the same time, they swung the doors silently inward. For two or three seconds, Maggie was left alone in the corridor before she followed them in, but it was enough to make her heart lurch with a terrifying loneliness.

Something flashed before her eyes. Memory was stirring.

She was in a well-lit corridor, crouched against the wall, trembling. She was disoriented.

She knew this place, but it seemed so long since she’d been here.

The ground hummed beneath her feet.

The ship. Yes, she was on the ship.

She looked down. Her hands were covered with blood. Blood on her hands. She knew what she had to do. She also knew it would hurt everyone she’d come to love, but she had no choice.

They were looking for her, looking for what she had buried down deep in the cortex of her brain. She didn’t have the ability to keep them from it, not yet. She didn’t know that she ever would, but for now she had to get rid of it, or this war would be lost.

Her eyes wandered down the corridor. Marcus and the rest of the team were here somewhere. She wished she could see them—especially him—again before she did this. She wished she could explain, but she couldn’t risk it. She didn’t have time. Her vision blurring with tears, she got shakily to her feet.

She had to find a way off this ship.

Maggie shook her head, trying to clear it. Another time she would welcome a memory, would try to stay in it as long as possible. But there were more important things going on right now.

The entire thing had taken only a few seconds. Marcus and Nat had passed through the doors, leaving them open, and taken a few steps beyond. Maggie hastened to follow.

Marcus half turned, though his gaze stayed ahead of him, and held out his hand. She hurried forward and took it. Nat was on her left, and the three of them moved forward as one.

The room was large and bare, easily the size of one of the cargo bays at Interchron. It had a high ceiling and was cavernous. There was no furniture, but on the far side three circular indentations, equal in size, were carved into the floor. Maggie wondered what they were for.

The room was empty. Maggie glanced at Nat. He looked confused. He’d motioned that he was sensing two people inside this room. So where were they?

Nat moved off to the left, eyes scanning the walls and crannies of the room. Marcus was doing the same thing on the right. Maggie wanted to help, but she had no idea how.

Something pinched the back of her neck, like a needle going in. She hunched her shoulders, leaning her head forward to get away from it, but the instant she felt it, her voice left her. She wanted to scream at Marcus for help but couldn’t.

The ground hit her knees, and a raspy voice puffed air against her ear.

“Hello, Maggie. Nice to see you again.”

Darkness filled her vision.

***

Doc and Karl made their way through the dim corridors. Other than having to dodge a few patrols, which hadn’t been difficult, they’d encountered no resistance at all.

An itch at the back of Doc’s neck kept him looking over his shoulder.

Finally, Doc and Karl reached their destination.

Signaling to Karl that this was the place, Doc put a hand on the door. Karl placed a hand on Doc’s shoulder. When Doc turned to him, he motioned that he wanted to go first. Doc acquiesced.

The door swung silently inward. Inside it was utterly dark. The dim light from the corridor showed them the first four feet of the hallway; the rest was inky blackness.

Doc shivered. Six individuals made decisions here for hundreds of thousands of people. This was where the decision was made to forcibly assimilate individuals, to send Arachnimen and Trepids to do murder.

The room was cold, and fittingly so; there was no warmth or inspiration here. There were only those who held almost absolute power and their glee at wielding it.

Doc and Karl had decided beforehand to split up. Facing one of the Council members alone was daunting, but if they both entered a single room and were overpowered, they would have utterly failed. Splitting up gave them a better chance to get more done.

Karl started around the left side of the conference table, so Doc turned to the right. Just then, he felt the hot whisper of a mouth near his ear.

“Hello, Johann.” White-hot pain exploded in his brain. He hadn’t been prepared for it, and he screamed. “Did you really think,” the voice hissed, “that we didn’t know you were coming?”

***

Voices, heard from the end of a long tunnel, were the first thing Maggie was aware of. Then a collage of blurry colors swam in front of her eyes, and the voices were closer. What they were saying still wasn’t clear, but two of them sounded familiar.

Maggie turned her head, and a wave of paralyzing nausea swept through her. It was so intense she was afraid she’d vomit, but there wasn’t anything in her stomach to get rid of. No matter how still she lay, she couldn’t bring the world to a standstill; it spun continually before her eyes.

She focused on what the voices were saying, and that helped. After a few minutes the voices became clear, and the world stopped gyrating, though it was still on a slant.

“I don’t understand.” It was Marcus. He was right above her. “How can this be? How can you be here?”

“Of course you don’t understand, Marcus,” an unfamiliar voice sneered. “You individuals think you know enough to save yourselves, but you don’t. Your understanding doesn’t come close to ours. This is why you fail at every turn.”

Maggie found the will to turn her torso toward the second voice. It was dripping with disdain. Not until she rotated her shoulder back did she realize there was a weight on it. It was Marcus’s hand. When she moved, he looked down at her.

“How are you, Maggie? Are you okay?”

“Take it slowly, now.” It was Nat’s voice. He was leaning over her too.

The two men helped Maggie into a sitting position. She was having a hard time holding her head up. It felt like her neck was asleep. She let her head fall back to rest against Marcus’s arm. Her eyes, however, had no problem moving.

They were still in the spacious room. The three of them were sitting against the wall opposite the door. The three circular rings she’d noticed earlier were beneath them. Two other people were in the room.

The man, tall and dark of hair and eye, was standing with his feet planted and his arms crossed. He was the one talking to Marcus.

A woman with dark, crew-cut hair, a plain face, and blasé, shapeless garb, was pacing back and forth behind him. Her eyes swept all corners of the room and the door in succession, like a human watchdog waiting for something to happen.

It took several minutes for sensation to return to all parts of Maggie’s body. In the meantime, she tried to focus on what was being said.

“Answer the question!” Marcus was yelling at the other man, and it was hurting Maggie’s head. “How are you here? What happened?”

“Oh come, Marcus, let’s not be absurd. Surely you know most of it. The only obvious difference is that I wasn’t as deceased as you thought me to be.”

“You were…playing dead?”

“Something like that.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I wanted to be left behind.”

There was silence for a few seconds, and Maggie took the opportunity to try to sit up. Marcus helped her shakily to her feet. She still felt groggy, like she’d just come out of a long, deep sleep, but things were getting clearer by the second.

“You okay, Maggie?” Marcus’s mouth was very close to her ear.

“What happened?” Her tongue felt thick and sluggish in her mouth. She sounded like she’d thrown back a few too many shots of something heavy.

“They injected us with a neurological sedative.”

It was like he was speaking Russian. Maggie couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. Her eyes fell to her hand where her conduit stone was still strapped. Instinctively, she tried to pull through it. A wave of vertigo washed over her, heaving her stomach. The sickly sensation of vomit tickled the back of her throat, and she almost collapsed, but Marcus caught her and kept her upright.

When she recovered, the first thing she saw was the other man looking at her quizzically. He glanced at Nat, seeming mystified.

“Why did she do that?”

Nat kept a level gaze on the man, his mouth set in a hard line.

Marcus’s lips were on her ear. “Don’t pull through the stone, Maggie. The sedative affects our neurological abilities. The physical sedative is wearing off, but the other will stay in place so we can’t use our abilities to escape. If you try, you’ll only make yourself sick.”

His whisper had an air of desperation to it. Something was going on. There was a connection that she should be making. Why was he whispering? What didn’t he want the other man to know?

The man in front of them clasped his hands together in mock delight, plastering a sickly-sweet smile on his face.

“Maggie, how wonderful to see you conscious again. I had quite hoped we’d killed you last time, but you outsmarted everyone, didn’t you?”

Maggie could feel the rage rolling off Marcus as he glared in the other man’s direction. She thought about all she’d heard in the last few minutes, and there seemed to be only one conclusion. She didn’t know how she came to it; she’d have to figure out her own line of reasoning later, but somehow she still understood.

She looked up at the man standing in front of them. “Are you Colin?”

His smile faded into a blank line then went in the opposite direction, ending in a frown. Marcus was still at Maggie’s back, his hands resting on her upper arms. His grip tightened as the man’s expression changed.

“What do you mean, am I…” His expression swept over the three of them and an astonished understanding came into his face. He looked delighted over what he’d just realized, and that worried Maggie.

He turned to the woman behind him. “She has no memory.” Then he looked back at her. “How extraordinary.” He paced in front of them, gawking at Maggie as though she was the newest exhibit at the local zoo. “But she didn’t know what the neurological sedative was either, so she’s lost not only her memory of me, but all of it? What did you do, Marcus, put her in hibernation for a year? Or did you actually send her back to her own time and then grow desperate and bring her back again?”

The mocking tone of his voice made the question rhetorical, and Maggie wished she hadn’t said anything.

“So I’m not the only one confused about what happened on that ship. Do you remember what happened the last time we saw each other?” He tilted his head inward, showing that he was speaking to Maggie.

The cat was out of the bag, so why not get more information? She just had to be careful not to reveal anymore.

“So you are Colin.”

Putting one foot in front of the other and bending at the waist, he gave her a bow worthy of the medieval courts of Europe. “Colin Demigog at your service. You and I have much to discuss. It seems I’m not the only one confused about what happened that day. But we’ll worry about that later. Now—” He turned to the woman and nodded. She turned her full attention to Colin’s three prisoners and stared hard.

Nat and Marcus fell to their knees, holding their heads and gasping in pain.

“Stop!” Maggie screamed. “Leave them alone!” She turned to Marcus, but before she could touch him a hand closed around her wrist and dragged her away.

Colin pulled her six feet from where Marcus was writhing on the floor and threw her down. She rolled, stopped only by the hard wall of the bay. The wind was knocked soundly from her lungs, and then she was gasping for air.

When she raised her head, he smirked at her.

Marcus and Nat had stopped squirming. They were breathing hard, the breath of relief. Marcus turned to where Maggie was laying against the wall, trying to catch her breath as well. He moved toward her.

“Stay where you are, Marcus. If any of you tries to move toward one another, there will be more pain for both you and her next time.”

Marcus glared lightning bolts at Colin, but he stayed where he was. Maggie put her hand up to show him she was okay, but she hadn’t totally recovered yet, so she remained on the floor, sitting.

“Now.” Colin steepled his fingers like a teacher about to start class. “First things first. Maggie, stand up.”

Maggie looked up in surprise. Marcus and Nat were still on their knees. Why was he singling her out? Her back hurt from where she’d struck the wall, and she could take deep breaths now, but they were painful.

“What?”

“I said, get up.” His face and voice had gone hard.

Maggie struggled shakily to her feet. Despite how pathetic she knew she must look, she put her shoulders back and raised her chin a few centimeters.

Colin walked aggressively toward her until he was standing so close that she had to tilt her head far back to look up at him. Even from six feet away she could feel Marcus tense up. Maggie didn’t blame him. It almost seemed like Colin was preparing to kiss her.

Then he did.

He lowered his lips to hers. She gasped, turned her face away, and tried to step back, but he reached out and grabbed her chin, his fingers digging into the flesh of cheeks. She struggled but was no match for his strong hands. He forced his lips down over hers for several seconds.

His kiss was slimy and smelled foul, and she supposed she ought to be glad he didn’t try to get inside her mouth. Still, when Colin shoved her backward so she fell against the wall, she wanted to spit.

The instant he leaned in, Marcus lunged for him, but the creepy woman was still watching them like a hawk. Marcus covered all of six inches before collapsing to the floor, holding his head in his hands again and groaning in agony.

Nat didn’t move at all. He struck Maggie as being a lot like Doc—too wise to be hasty. He didn’t try to defend Maggie because he knew he couldn’t. Yet his stance was like a hunting panther, poised to pounce at the first opportunity.

“I’ve always wanted to do that.” Colin smirked, wiping his mouth theatrically. “You always were a little too possessive of her, Marcus.”

“Stop it!” Maggie screamed as she struggled to her feet. “Stop hurting him!”

The woman must have stopped, because Marcus sunk with relief to the ground, his chest heaving, but Colin turned to Maggie.

“His pain will continue unless you do what I say.”

Maggie regarded him warily. “Which is?”

“First, you’d better give me a better kiss than that.”

Sheer annoyance bubbled up in her. He was like a teenage trust-fund baby with a perverse streak. She’d had enough. “Really? Really? You have us utterly at your mercy, and this is what you decide to do with that kind of power?”

Colin’s grin went from lascivious to genuine. “Still the same old Maggie, I see. You always did manage to make the rest of us feel like bumbling idiots. And no, this is not what I have planned for you.”

“Then what?” It was Marcus’s rough voice. He was dragging himself to his feet again.

Maggie could tell the pain the woman was inflicting was wiping him out. Much more and he wouldn’t be able to stand on his own.

“Oh, Marcus, you’ve made this so easy for us.”

Marcus’s eyes took on a dangerous cast. “What does that mean?”

“You’ve walked blindly into our domain, put the key to our prophecy’s demise” —he indicated Maggie—“into my lap, and brought your entire team under our control. And you did it all of your own accord.”

Marcus’s chest was heaving, but Maggie didn’t think it was a side effect of the pain he’d been in earlier.

“Tell me what you’re getting at, Colin. How did you get us here? Was David sent to trap us?”

Colin smirked but made no reply.

“Answer me, Colin. Gloat all you want, but tell me the truth. After all this, you owe me at least that much.”

Colin bowed his head a bit as though he were showing supreme magnanimity. “I suppose you’re right.”

Maggie wished she could knock that condescending smirk off his face. Fear of what he would tell Marcus made her feet and fingertips numb.

“I wish I could tell you your brother had betrayed you, Marcus. I know all about your little family drama. I’ve known since before I first became part of the team, but David did what he did believing it would save you. All we had to do was wait for you to cross the Concealment.”

“For what?” Marcus growled.

He didn’t elaborate, but Maggie saw Marcus and Nat exchange troubled glances.

Maggie watched Marcus’s face. He’d been so sure Colin would tell him that David had led the team into a trap. Yet Colin’s answer was still vague.

“So what?” Maggie said, causing all three men’s eyes to swivel to her. “You manipulated David into telling us to come here so you could enslave us?”

Colin grinned. “Something like that.”

Marcus frowned, and Maggie could guess his question. How was that possible? Collectivists shared thoughts, so how could David not know he was being manipulated?

Colin read the question in their faces. “Come now, how incompetent do you think we are? Do you really think we didn’t know the second he decided to break away? The first instinct was to kill him. He intended to come to you, and he knew too much. But then we realized that we could use him to our advantage. He knew where this place was and that the Traveler, as well as the Council, resides here. We assumed the team would show up eventually to stop the Traveler. He delivered his message perfectly, even if he didn’t understand its consequences.”

Maggie’s heart sank. If that was true, and there was no reason to think otherwise, then they were good and trapped. They had walked into their own demise.

“So what now?” Marcus said after swallowing loudly. “You’ll force us into the collectives?”

“If the rest of your team is here—and I assume they are—yes, you will all be absorbed. But Maggie, naturally, dies.”

Maggie knew she should have seen that coming. David warned her that their enemies would kill her on sight. Her stomach still dropped though, and fear seeped into her joints.

David. David had warned her. David! The ring!

She hadn’t touched it since leaving Interchron. She was afraid one of the team would sense that she had it. She’d put it in the pocket of her jeans for safekeeping. She wondered if, using the ring, she would be able to transcend the sedative. Perhaps it was powerful enough that she could grasp her neurological powers despite the drug.

Or…it would make her so violently sick that she’d vomit her innards onto the cargo bay floor. Still, he was going to kill her anyway, so it was worth a shot.

The problem was that the horrible woman was still watching them. As Marcus had so painfully found out, any sudden movements were punished. Maggie had to stall and hope for a chance to grab the ring.

“Who’s your lady friend?” Maggie nodded with her chin toward the woman behind him.

“Of course. How rude of me.” Colin was being a courtly gentleman again. “I suppose I should introduce you all to Borna, especially as she’s the one who will change the world as we know it. You see, she’s a Traveler.”

 

Chapter 30: The Taste of Blood

Doc felt it coming even as the voice whispered in his ear. He knew what tactics they would use, because he had used them once; he had even taught them to others. He fought off the attack on his brain and kept it at bay as a dozen drones ambushed Karl.

“Karl, watch out!”

Karl whirled, pulled energy through his conduit stone, and knocked the tall, lean, Asian man coming toward him against the wall. The blow was hard enough to leave an Asian-man-shaped dent. The man crumpled to the ground.

A woman tried to strike from behind Doc.

“Karl, there!” Karl quickly took care of the situation.

This went on for ten minutes before all the attackers were lying on the ground. Doc had been so focused on the six individualistic minds that resided in these rooms that he’d completely passed over the dozen or so collectivized ones that were also present. The collective drones were part of the background of this place. Doc assumed they acted as servants to the Council; it didn’t occur to him that they might be walking into an ambush.

As the fight progressed, the feel of the six individual minds melted away. They’d used the drones as a diversion so they could escape.

When the floor was littered with unconscious bodies and Karl’s chest was heaving, he swung around to look at Doc.

“Where are the Six?”

“Gone to other parts of the compound. These were a decoy.”

“So what now?”

“They said they knew we were coming. I’m not sure how, but if we were ambushed…”

“Maggie, Marcus, and Nat might have been too. They may need help.”

Doc nodded. “Let’s go.” He turned and headed for the door. Then he felt it—the whisper of something both achingly familiar and hauntingly evil. He shivered as the age-old sensation ran down his spine. Then he heard a dull thud. He hesitated out of fear but only for an instant. Then he whirled around. Karl was unconscious on the floor.

The Asian man Karl had thrown into the wall had risen and clocked him in the head with a heavy vase. Doc could sense that Karl was all right, just knocked out.

This was not the same man Karl had fought with earlier, though. The same body, yes, but not the same entity. He was a lean, lanky Asian man with black hair and dark brown eyes.

Now the whites of his eyes glowed with an otherworldly light, and he was seething anger in a way that no man enslaved by a collective could. Collectivists couldn’t show that kind of passion; they were part of a whole that constantly monitored and mediated emotions. This man looked ready to attack.

It was not the look but the earlier sensation that told Doc exactly who this was. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

“It is me, Johann. It has been many years since we’ve spoken face to face.” His English was perfect, and there was an echo of a deeper voice over the top of his. The effect of the two voices together was a deep, dull, droning sound, like a voice echoing in a cave. It was all the more sinister for its droll quality.

“You call this face to face?”

The young man merely looked at him.

“And was it also you that invaded Lila’s mind a few weeks ago?”

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“To kill the Executioner.”

Doc sighed. He had hoped this man didn’t know who Maggie was.

“Come,” the unnatural voice said, seeing Doc’s sigh. “Did you really think I wouldn’t know her when I saw her, that I wouldn’t have people looking for her and know the moment she was found?”

“I suppose I hoped you wouldn’t. Foolish hope.”

“Indeed. But you were always foolish, Johann. It is foolish of you to come here. Aren’t you afraid I might kill you?”

“I stopped fearing death long ago. Besides, if you had the power to kill me, you’d have done it already. So you still haven’t found an answer to the Binding.”

The man didn’t answer for a time. When he did, the pompous smirk was on his face once more. “You are right, Johann, and I am impressed. Your…people are far better than any other time you’ve come against me. But they are still not good enough.”

“We’ll see.”

“Indeed we will. I’ll make you watch them all die as you watched her die. Until we meet again, Johann. I pray that the next time will be the last.”

“You always say that, but I seriously doubt that you pray.”

“I’m always sincere. I always hope that the next time we meet will be the time I am finally able to kill you. Praying is merely a figure of speech.”

“Nat is with me again.”

The man barked a laugh. “The two brothers together again. How quaint.”

“There were more than just the two.”

“But not anymore, not for a long time now. Good-bye, Johann. I wish you luck. You’re going to be in desperate need of it.”

Karl was stirring, but whether he’d been awake for several seconds or had just awakened, Doc wasn’t sure. Either way, Karl was playing dead and listening closely.

“One more question. You told Maggie to call you B. What does it mean?”

“It stands for Beholder. I watch you more than you know and see more than you could possibly imagine. Remember that the next time you believe a rogue member of my collective.”

He walked away, and as he did, the strange light left the young man’s eyes, and his body slumped forward, falling heavily and awkwardly onto the hard floor. B was gone.

***

She’s the Traveler?”

Maggie had been throwing glances—glares, really—at the woman for the better part of fifteen minutes, but she hadn’t consciously taken the woman’s appearance in. She did now and found it to be strange.

Borna had large eyes, full lips, and almond skin. She would have been strikingly beautiful had she made an effort to be, but she seemed to be doing the opposite. She had thick, silky black hair, like that of a native American, but it was cut close around her head in a disheveled, spiky do most often seen on teenage boys. The woman had an hourglass figure but it was hidden beneath a boxy, colorless tunic that looked like a pillowcase. She moved with a lithe, sinuous grace, and her gaze was both challenging and seductive.

She was the epitome of femininity but sought to hide it behind the plain, blasé, and mediocre.

“Yes, she is the Traveler. I will find and identify the minds we need to destroy. She will take me to them.”

Marcus’s head came up at hearing this. “You’re a Seeker?”

“I have many abilities you know nothing of. That’s what you get for trusting a Deceiver.”

“But.” Marcus looked bewildered. “We had no choice. The prophecy says we must have one, and you fit the brain chemistry.”

“I don’t know the answer to that one,” Colin cooed, “but know this: any Deceiver you trust will be hiding something from you. Perhaps it will be necessary to work with one—a necessary danger—but a danger nonetheless.”

As they talked, the woman called Borna walked small circles around Maggie then Marcus then Nat, letting her eyes wander up and down their bodies.

“I still don’t understand why you think this plan will work,” Maggie said. Her finger ran lightly over the stitching on the pocket of her jeans. The ring was in there, but she couldn’t get to it. “How do you know if you change the past you won’t change the future irrevocably? What if you accidently make it so you aren’t born?”

Colin gave Maggie a pitying look. “My, you individualists are closed-minded. When we control the world in the past, we can control parentage. We will simply make certain that all the right people are born on schedule.”

Marcus shook his head. “No one can trace their ancestry back even to Maggie’s time. Hundreds of years of records have been lost.”

Colin turned his condescending smile on Marcus. “But we can Travel. We can go through, decade by decade, discovering and taking notes, until the lines are complete. We’ve thought of everything, and we will see our plans come to fruition.”

Borna was still circling the three of them ominously. Maggie felt like the woman was trying to decide how best to cook them for supper.

“We can change the past,” Colin continued, “control the present, and manipulate the future.” He stepped toward Maggie and tilted her chin up to look into her eyes. “Is it any wonder I have chosen the collectives over the individuals? They have become gods. And I will be one too.”

“You are not gods,” Maggie spat. “You’re evil people with an insatiable desire to control others. You had no control over some part of your lives in the past, and now you’re addicted to the feelings of power and control because you’re scared to death of the lack of it. That does not make you God, not by a long shot.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose slightly during her tirade, but that was the only reaction he gave. “Do you believe in God, Maggie?”

Maggie thought about everything that had happened over the last few weeks, her life before, what her life would be now, especially if there wasn’t much of it left.

“Yes,” she said. Her voice was solid and confident, which surprised her. “I didn’t realize it until just now, but I do. And you are nothing like Him.”

Colin reached out to touch her face, and she found that, for some reason, she was less afraid than she’d been a moment ago.

“Very soon, Maggie,” he whispered, “we’re going to kill you. Perhaps then you’ll realize the error of your beliefs. We’ll have the entire human race under our control. They will move as one mind and forget how to think for themselves or feel the emotions that make us all so pathetically human.”

Rebellion flared in Maggie’s sternum. “And one day you’re going to wake up in hell and have the audacity to act surprised.”

Colin gave her a long-suffering smile. Marcus and Doc looked at her with surprise and amusement, but they said nothing.

“Why kill her, Colin?” Marcus asked quietly. “She would be a valuable asset to your collective. There’s no reason to kill her when you can catch her.”

Despite his nonchalance, Maggie could tell that Marcus was scared. For her. He couldn’t protect her here, so he was pleading for her life.

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Marcus.” Colin was annoyed again. “She’s far too important to let live. Or can you give me some other explanation for why, despite her memory loss and the hassle she’s caused, you went back and got her, and she’s with you again? The impression you make must be a powerful one.”

Marcus looked at her with haunted eyes. He answered Colin in a calm voice. “She’s here because she’s an individual, and she wants to stop you. Anyway, the impression I had of you being trustworthy was wrong. Impressions are worthless things, apparently.”

Colin looked amused, but he turned to Borna again. Maggie wanted to stop him before he could tell her to do any more harm. She decided to try a different approach.

“Colin, I thought you believed in collectivism.”

His face went hard. “I do.”

“But you’re an individual. Your mind isn’t linked to the collective. How do you reconcile that?”

He grinned. “Sometimes certain evils are necessary to obtain long-term goals. Once all individuals are under our control, we’ll all link together and be a worldwide collective. Imagine the power we’ll have. We’ll be unstoppable.”

“But not powerful enough to bring the individuals under your control when you’re all linked,” Maggie said. “You have to have individuals to bring other reluctant individuals under your control. Doesn’t that put a hole in your argument?”

“There won’t be any need for individuals once everyone is under our control.”

“You’re wrong.” It was Nat speaking.

When Colin’s gaze turned to him, he stared back with steady confidence.

“David was under your control. He broke free.”

Colin’s smug grin was gone now. He glared angrily at Nat. “Steps are being taken to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And like I already said, we let him go.”

Nat shook his head. “You decided to let him get away once he was free, but you didn’t even know it was possible for a single individual to break away, did you? Do you think you can compensate for hundreds of thousands of minds? For that many different levels of will power? This is what collectivists don’t understand—there will always be someone who is so strong, who is such a force of rebellion against those that would oppress him that he will get away. There will always be a fight for freedom.”

Colin’s glare grew darker as Nat spoke. By the last line, he was practically snarling, but his eyes shifted to Borna.

She sauntered over to Nat, standing directly in front of him. She put her hand up, palm toward his face, and left it there, an inch in front of him for several seconds. Then it traveled downward, running in front of his neck, chest, waist, and stopped in front of his groin.

She never actually touched him, but Nat’s entire body went rigid. His head went back, the muscles in his jaw seizing up so he couldn’t scream. His body convulsed, but the shudders of opposing muscle groups were equal enough to keep him on his feet, quaking spastically. It looked excruciating.

“Stop!” Maggie screamed. “What is she doing to him? Tell her to stop.”

Colin wasn’t listening to her. He was looking at Nat with smug satisfaction.

“Hey!” Maggie knew she couldn’t stop Borna from whatever she was doing, but the Traveler obviously took orders from Colin. She had to get his attention. She ran straight at him.

When she reached the edge of the circles she, Nat, and Marcus were standing on, her vision blurred, and her senses went dull. When she came to, she was sitting on the floor on her backside, listening to Marcus calling to her from behind.

It was as though she’d struck a brick wall, rebounded, and landed on the floor.

“Maggie. Maggie. Answer me.”

She turned toward Marcus.

“These circles act as barriers. They’ve imprisoned us in them. That’s why they didn’t want us to touch each other. They wanted to put physical barriers between each of us.”

Maggie put her hand out to touch him and found an invisible wall of air between them. She felt claustrophobic.

“Don’t touch the barrier, Maggie. It’s toxic. It could affect your neurological powers.”

Maggie dropped her hand and looked over at Nat, who was still being tortured. Tears welled up in her eyes. There was nothing they could do for him. The Traveler would kill him right in front of them, and there was nothing they could do about it.

She looked up at Colin. “Please stop,” she whispered.

Colin looked at her like she was a fascinating specimen to be studied, but after a moment, he looked at Borna, and as though obeying some unspoken command, she stopped. Nat dropped to the floor, his full weight hitting the ground hard.

Borna walked slowly toward Maggie. Somehow the Traveler was able to walk through the barriers without any problem. When she reached Maggie, she fell into a crouch beside her then turned on her toe to arch an eyebrow at Colin. Borna was asking Colin if Maggie was next.

Out of sheer desperation, Maggie looked at Borna. “Why are you doing this? You aren’t tied to the collective either. Have you ever been?”

Borna turned cold, calculating eyes on her. Her eyes were black and deep. Marcus’s eyes were deep too, but they held a wealth of warmth and integrity. This woman’s eyes held only darkness, like a dim room where something is lurking in the shadows, waiting to suck up all the light.

“No,” Borna said. Her voice was solid and chilly. “I was found as an individual and recruited by the collective when they realized my talents.”

Maggie got up onto her knees. “I know your life must have been tremendously hard before. You were probably alone and scared. I’m sure they promised you the world if you’d help them, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can—”

The woman held up one finger, and Maggie stopped speaking.

“Don’t think that you can talk me out of my loyalties or appeal to my sense of decency or try to make me listen because we are both female. It won’t work.”

The way she said it was angry and final. Maggie thought it odd, robot-like that she said female rather than women.

“Because we’re both…female?”

“Gender is irrelevant, a trick of genetics. It has no bearing on anything. When you enter the collective, your sense of gender identity will be annihilated.”

Maggie took in what Borna said along with how she looked and made deductions.

“You are trying to look the part of one who has no gender, but underneath you are feminine, and you use it to manipulate men.”

The woman’s snake eyes bored into Maggie, unblinking. “Sometimes we must do things we don’t condone to achieve our aims.”

“But it’s all a lie, an illusion, a contradiction. How can you hope to make a stand anywhere when you have one foot on either side of the fence?”

The woman smiled, and it chilled Maggie’s blood. “You think we are just going to randomly go through history and take over any mind we come across, but we won’t. We have a meticulously laid-out plan, a step-by-step process that will bring all the world—past, present, and future—under our control. By the time history gets around to birthing you, Maggie, you won’t care about any of this. You’ll be a good little drone and do exactly as you’re told.”

Colin came to squat next to Borna.

“Terrifying, isn’t it?” he said. “That someone could forcibly change your identity, your fate, the person you were meant to become, and there’s nothing in the world you can do about it?”

He crawled forward, putting one hand on either side of Maggie. She put her palms on the floor behind her and tried to scoot back away from him, but he moved too quickly. He put his hands over hers so she couldn’t retreat any farther. When he leaned forward, he was practically on top of her.

“Colin.” Marcus’s voice had a deadly warning in it.

“What?” Colin looked up at Marcus like an annoyed child.

“Leave her alone.”

“Do you think you can stop me, Marcus? Gender may be a trick of genetics and our…desires merely a byproduct of our hormones, but while our minds are still individualistic, they have needs. And I mean to fulfill mine.”

With that last phrase, his eyes returned to Maggie, running down the length of her body.

“I’d rather be dead,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I know you would.” He smiled and leaned down to whisper in her ear. The forced, fraudulent intimacy of it made her wince. “But that is not an option for you.”

He produced a knife from somewhere, and Maggie yelped as he administered a swift, stinging slice across her cheek.

Marcus was growling softly, clenching and unclenching his fists, but encased behind the barrier, there was nothing he could do.

Then Colin did the strangest thing he’d done yet. He leaned down and licked the blood from Maggie’s cheek, gulping theatrically.

“Ugh.” Maggie wiped the saliva off her face.

Nat was still unconscious, but Marcus’s anger had faded somewhat in favor of disgust.

“What?” Maggie said. “You fancy yourself a vampire now?”

Colin grinned. “Not at all. But why do you think the legend of vampires was born? Human blood has power people in your time only guessed at. The qualities in our blood are remarkable, powerful, and addicting.”

Despite her disgust, Maggie was interested in what he was saying. “What qualities?”

“Our ability to reason. We have logic, can solve complex problems, but still have all the passion and emotion of the ages.”

“Yes.” Maggie nodded. “That’s what makes us human.”

“Exactly. An animal lives on instinct but has no higher reasoning capabilities. A computer can solve complex problems but feels no passion or attachment. Humans have the best of all possible worlds in them. Why do you think that men who taste human blood crave it forever afterward? Why do you think animals that taste the blood of man must be put down and never return to hunting their natural prey? The blood calls to them, compels them on a neurological level. They’ve ingested something their minds are too small to understand and their bodies too primitive to absorb, but they become drunk with the power of human life, with the feel of it all.”

Maggie took a shuddering breath. She tried to concentrate on what he was saying while not trembling and also keeping an eye out for a good time to grab the ring.

“What you speak of is perversion of the human spirit—a spirit you want to destroy by taking away emotion and individuality in the collectives—yet you speak of it with awe and admiration. Why destroy it, then?”

He leaned forward until his nose was almost touching hers. “Because collective minds feel no passion—good, bad, or otherwise. And people with no passion can be controlled.”

“S-so what? You think by drinking my blood you’ll be able to leech away my passion?”

“No. You’re too independent for that, Maggie. But I am a Seeker, and this is merely a precaution. By tasting your blood I establish a link between my brain and your body. From now on I’ll be able to zero in on your location. I’ll be able to point right to where you are, no matter where in the world, or off it for that matter, you go. After your little stunt last time, I’ve learned to be cautious. If by some miracle you escape for a time, I’ll be able to go right to you. No one will be able to hide you or protect you from me, Maggie. Ever. Again.”

Shivers raced along Maggie’s veins as Colin looked up at Borna and some silent communication passed between them. Borna stood and walked through the barriers toward Marcus.

Maggie needed to distract Colin to buy Marcus more time. She didn’t know if Nat was dead or not, but the woman was going to hurt Marcus now, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She rambled, grasping for straws.

“What is she doing? Because for wanting so much to absorb them into the collective, I gotta say, it looks like you’re killing them instead.”

“Your friend is not dead,” Colin said, eyes shifting briefly to Nat. “For now she is only inflicting pain.”

He turned to Maggie then, and she wanted nothing more than to escape his drilling eyes.

“But don’t think for one second that she couldn’t do it. She could destroy their masculinity with the flick of her wrist. She could destroy your femininity, your memories, your frontal lobe, the way you perceive the world. She could annihilate any part of any person with a mere thought. And she will, if called upon.”

Marcus got to his feet as Borna approached. He didn’t back away from her, but his body was tense with caution. She walked right up to him and did the same thing she’d done to Nat, palm starting at his face and moving downward. When she got to his waistline he tried to grab her hand in an attempt to fend off what he knew was coming, but it did no good.

Just as Nat had done, Marcus’s head went back and every muscle in his body went into micro spasms of intense pain. His jaw locked up, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He made no sound except for dangerously irregular rasping breaths.

Something in Maggie snapped. She no longer cared about anything except killing this woman and helping Marcus.

Forgetting to be inconspicuous, she jammed her hand into the pocket of her jeans. Colin was watching Marcus’s torture with that smug grin again, but he must have registered Maggie’s movement because one hand went up absently, as though to swat her attempts at escape away.

Maggie’s fingers found the metallic surface of the ring, and she looped it around her index finger.

Using the ring as a conduit stone, Maggie immediately felt vast amounts of energy at her fingertips. Oceans of power flooded toward her, ready to do her bidding. She understood why precious metals were only given to experts. Even as she drew more deeply on the energy, scooping as much toward her as she could, she wondered whether she would be able to control it or whether she was about to incinerate them all.

As though struck by the fiery tongue of a whip, Colin shuddered then retreated. He crawled off her and backward, trembling visibly. The arrogant, condescending expression had been replaced with bewilderment and, could that be fear? Borna too was retreating. The instant Maggie’s finger found the ring, Borna dropped Marcus and backed away. The expression of utter shock on her face was one Maggie could see clearly, though not with her eyes.

Maggie didn’t know if Marcus was still alive. She didn’t see him at all. She didn’t see Nat, who had begun to stir and now was trying to sit up.

She only had eyes for the Traveler, who had to be stopped, and the secondary threat of Colin.

They were backing into opposite corners of the room. Colin’s corner held the door. The only thing in Borna’s corner was a cabinet of some sort, built into the wall. She was moving cautiously toward it.

Maggie was good at finding light. She focused on the closest, most accessible, most gargantuan local source. It was encased in the earth beneath them—volcanic activity dormant for thousands of years.

She found she could control thousands of tendrils of liquid fire and could elongate and manipulate them. She used the energy she was pulling through the ring to raise the lava to her, sucking both pure energy and volcanic rock toward her while the Traveler moved closer to the cabinet.

As the volcanic material neared the surface, Maggie drew more energy through the ring. She had to attack her enemies while protecting her friends. Liquid fire broke the surface, shooting upward in a molten pillar and desiccating the one individual in its path, and white-hot light broke in Maggie’s head, searing the image into the retinas of her eyes and the back walls of her mind.

And then her sensory perception went too. She witnessed but did not retain—just another forgotten memory.

 

Chapter 31: The Eyes of a Drone

Nat was trying to peel back the layers of pain and find reality again when he felt Maggie pull the energy to her.

The woman called Borna was evil in the extreme. It all happened too quickly for Nat to process what she’d done, and he knew he’d have to think about it more later.

Nat sat up as Colin and Borna backed away. Nat had never seen anyone wield the kind of energy Maggie was handling. She still wore her conduit stone, but she’d been given the neurological sedative, which should have prevented her from using her abilities. Nat reached for his own abilities, wondering if the sedative had been burned off somehow, but the wave of nausea that washed over him meant the sedative was still potent, so how was Maggie doing it?

He was sure Colin and Borna’s fear was mirrored in his own face. With that magnitude of energy, Maggie could blow this entire compound off the planet. All that would be left was an oozing volcano within a raw crater.

Then the lava broke the surface. A pillar of liquid fire came from directly under Borna, encasing her in its roaring destruction. It vaporized her in a matter of seconds, evaporating flesh, muscle, and then bone like sand before the desert wind. As her liquid ashes dissipated, Nat felt the imprisonment barriers disintegrate as well.

Movement to the left brought Colin to Nat’s attention. He turned and fled through the door. Nat knew he ought to follow the man, but there were more pressing things at hand. He had to stop Maggie before she killed them all.

Staggering to his feet, he lurched toward her. Marcus raised his head as Nat went by. Nat pulled him to his feet, but they were both still so weak that it was like two drunks trying to keep each other upright. Eventually they made it to Maggie’s side, collapsing to their knees on either side of her.

Marcus shook Maggie, trying to get her to focus on him. Her eyes were glazed over, glowing with the reflected light from the pillar of fire she had summoned. It was spouting up through the roof and out the top of the building.

“Maggie. Maggie, look at me. Maggie, stop this. You must stop!” Marcus pulled the conduit stone off her hand, but it did no good. He looked as confused as Nat felt. How was she doing this?

A sound brought Nat’s head toward the door. A man was entering, striding aggressively toward them. Colin, no doubt, returned with reinforcements. They were defenseless. He and Marcus were still feeling the effects of the neurological sedative, and while Maggie wasn’t, she was so drunk with electromagnetic power that she was barely conscious.

He cast his eyes around, looking for something he could use as a weapon, though he doubted any physical weapon would be a match for the neurological weapons of the collective. Then he heard Marcus’s voice, and his head whipped around in surprise.

“David?”

The man striding toward them wasn’t Colin.

“David, what are you—” Marcus began, but David had already reached them. He fell to his knees and slid the last few inches toward Maggie. Grabbing her left hand, he held it up.

Nat and Marcus gaped when their eyes fell on the delicate gold band rattling around on Maggie’s index finger. Where had she gotten that?

David grasped the ring and yanked it off her finger.

Maggie slumped to the side, and Marcus pulled her into his arms. Immediately the lava spray ceased. Mostly it fell straight back down into the chasm it had come from, but some of it hit the sides of the hole at odd angles and sprayed outward. Marcus threw his body up to protect Maggie, but it was unnecessary. The instant he had the ring, David threw up a wall of protection. The lava spatter seemed to hang in the air as it hit the invisible wall of energy. Then David lowered it safely to the ground.

The three of them knelt, chests heaving and staring at one another. Nat put his hands on either side of Maggie’s head. Her life signs were not faint but distant somehow. Nat was not a Healer, so he didn’t understand what he was sensing, but she was alive.

Marcus was grasping for words. “David, how did you…? Where did she…? What are you doing here?”

“Rescuing you,” David said. “We have to go.”

“Go where?”

“The team is under attack.” David looked to where the pillar of lava had been a moment ago. “If I’m not mistaken, Maggie just killed the Traveler. We’ve accomplished our principal aim. Now we have to retreat. I’ll carry her.”

Marcus recoiled protectively, and Nat suppressed a sigh. He understood. He’d experienced this kind of sibling rivalry himself as a young man, but now was not the time for it.

“Marcus,” David said, “you’re hurt. You can barely walk. You have two options: either drag her or try to carry her and hope you don’t drop her.”

Marcus looked sullenly at the ground.

“Let me carry her. I’ll make sure no harm comes to her.”

Reluctantly, Marcus nodded.

David wriggled one arm under Maggie’s shoulders. The other cupped her knees. He hoisted her up and turned toward the door while Nat and Marcus got to their feet.

“Follow me. We have to hurry.”

 

Chapter 32: The Canyons of Time

The first awareness Maggie had was that she was being carried. Just as when B had attacked her using Lila’s body, Maggie was aware of noises around her and sensations, but she couldn’t make her body respond to her commands. She tried, as before, to focus on the voices around her, hoping they would bring her toward recovery.

“What happened?” It was Doc’s voice.

“Is she all right?” Karl asked. “David what are you doing here?”

David’s response was calm and came from directly over Maggie’s face. He was the one carrying her. “Questions for another time. We have to get out of here. The entire place is on alert. Reinforcements are being awakened and given orders to find and kill us. If they catch us, we won’t get out of here at all.”

“How do you know all that?” Marcus’s voice, from Maggie’s right, sounded suspicious.

“Because I know how the collectives think. I know their protocols, the way they react to threats. They’re very efficient. We don’t have time to be standing here. I know another way out—it’s how I got in. If we hurry we can make it.”

“But how can we trust—” Marcus began, but Karl cut him off.

“I know you don’t like it, Marcus, but deal with it. The collective drones are converging on us. We don’t have any other choice.”

Maggie heard an exaggerated sigh, which she assumed was Marcus, though there was no more argument.

“Let me take Maggie, David,” Karl said. “You’ve been carrying her for a while now, and you need to lead the way.”

Maggie was handed from one pair of arms to another.

Maggie was carried what felt like a long way in silence. She tried to force her eyelids up, but they wouldn’t budge. At one point, she thought she’d moved her finger, but when she tried, she couldn’t do it again. She wished someone would speak so she’d know what was going on. Then, David did.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to go down to the basement level.”

“Wait,” Karl said. “What about Joan and Clay?”

“Where are they?”

“Outside.”

Maggie hadn’t thought about Joan and Clay since she’d become conscious again. Now, as she focused on them, their energies felt strained. They were both exhausted and expending more energy than their bodies could replace. Based on the types of energy they were pulling to them, Maggie could tell they were fighting off an assault, using everything they had to defend themselves.

David sounded annoyed. “If we go out into the courtyard, we’ll all get caught.”

“They’re under attack.” Marcus snapped. “We have to help them.”

“How? Maggie’s unconscious and Nat is still under the influence of the neurological sedative. I have power, but I’m not skilled enough to take out an onslaught of drones all at once.”

“I am,” Marcus said, “but they gave me the sedative, too. I can’t touch my abilities.”

“Then what?” David asked.

“I don’t know,” Marcus said, “but we aren’t leaving without them. We have to figure something out and fast.”

There were several seconds of silence before David spoke again.

“Okay. I’ll help you, but there’s no guarantee it will work.”

“What?”

“I can supply the energy you need since you’re still cut off from it, but you have to let me into your head.”

“How will that work?” Doc sounded worried.

“I’ve seen it done before,” David answered. “It’s forbidden in the collectives, but I know how. The neurological sedatives they use make the part of the brain that draws energy to you fuzzy, so you can’t use it. It’s like putting a limb to sleep. It doesn’t cut you off from the part of your brain that directs that energy once you have it. We have to link our minds together. I’ll be the conduit. You’ll direct the energy.”

“And why wouldn’t it work?” Karl asked.

David shrugged. “Because he’s never done it before. Just like anything else, it takes skill and practice. You have your staff, and that’s the only reason I’m willing to try this. You’re used to focusing energy through it, so you’ll have a lot more control than you would without it. But you have to let me into your mind.”

Silence followed, and Maggie wondered why Marcus didn’t want to try.

“Look, Marcus.” David sounded annoyed again. “We’re trapped here. The plan’s gone to hell. If you want to help them, if you want to save her, this is the only way.”

Maggie still couldn’t move and her eyes were shut, but she had a sneaking hunch that she was the her David was referring to.

After a short silence, Karl’s voice came from directly overhead. “Marcus, come here.”

Maggie felt Karl walk a few feet from the rest of the group. A moment later there was a second presence. Marcus.

“What’s the matter,” Karl whispered. “Why does this freak you out? You can feel as well as I can how desperate Clay and Joan are growing.”

“Of course I can. It’s not that I don’t want to help them, Karl. It’s just…”

“What?”

“I’ve been fighting the collectives my entire life. I swore an oath to myself a long time ago that I’d never willingly let anything invade my mind. Our minds are the only frontier of individuality we have left. It’s the most absolute law I have for myself, and now he’s asking me to break it. I don’t trust him. He betrayed me once before. You’re asking me to give him the chance to do it again.”

Maggie wished she could talk. She wished she could say something to help Marcus.

After a short silence, Karl spoke, still in a whisper. “I understand, Marcus. I do, but you are the only one capable of doing this. It’s your choice, but the alternative may be losing Clay or Joan. Or Maggie.”

Maggie wanted to shout that she was okay, or would be, and Marcus shouldn’t use worry over her to make his decision, but she couldn’t.

Marcus cursed softly. “When did life become so contradictory,” he muttered, and when he spoke again, Maggie could tell he’d turned away. “All right.”

There was a sound of footsteps crossing toward Marcus. “You have to trust me,” David said.

The team was quiet for a time, but Maggie felt the tension spike, like static electricity. She wished she could see what was happening. She could move her eyeballs around, and she thought the lids were coming up a bit—just enough to let some light in, but not enough to see what was going on.

Then someone was grunting and gasping. It had to be Marcus. He cried out in pain and Maggie wanted to scream. What was David doing to him?

A commotion followed and Doc’s voice reached her ears. “We’ve got you, Marcus. We’ve got you.”

“Marcus.” It was David’s voice again. “I’m done. Can you still do this?”

“Yes.” He gasped. “Yes. Just get me out there.”

Then Maggie felt it. It came through the bracelet. She could even tell who it was: Clay. White-hot energy burned into his brain, and then there was nothing. No energy, no emotion, only a void, where before the power of Clay’s life had pulsed. Maggie felt sick.

The other team members must have reacted because David asked, “What is it?”

“Clay,” Karl said. “He just went down.”

“He’s hurt badly,” Doc said. “We have to get out there.”

The air went from cool to humid as they left the building. Maggie could hear the commotion of footsteps in the courtyard. She wondered how many drones the team would be fighting off tonight. Dozens, by the sound of them.

“What do I do?” Marcus shouted.

“The pathway I made through your brain,” David answered, “I know you can feel it. Feel your way along that pathway until you cross over the connection into my mind. Only then will you feel the energy.”

The team was silent, and Maggie fought against her paralysis while hundreds of feet stomped nearer. When the wave of energy hit her, she knew exactly what had happened. It was just like what she’d felt that day at Interchron when the Trepids attacked them. Marcus had obviously found David’s energy and directed it through his staff. She could almost see him taking a knee and obliterating the oncoming drones.

A few moments later, Marcus was screaming. Then, there was only silence. Maggie panicked, but what she felt from Marcus wasn’t what she felt from Clay. Marcus’s life signs were still pulsing, just more faintly, as though he’d gone to sleep. Clay’s couldn’t be felt at all.

“Pick him up,” Doc’s voice commanded. “If more drones show up, he won’t be able to do that again. We have to get back to the ship. Nat, can you carry Clay?”

Then they were moving again. The only indication Maggie had that they’d reached the ship was David’s voice.

“Careful as you get in. Don’t touch the water.”

“Why not?” Joan’s voice was more subdued than normal, as though she’d been crying.

“When Maggie called that lava up, it fountained into the ocean. Can’t you feel the heat coming off the water? Look down by the hull. It’s boiling.”

Karl set Maggie down on what she recognized as one of the cots in the ship. She could hear several people crying, but couldn’t identify them. A presence hovered over her, but she couldn’t identify it, either.

With no way to know what was happening, no idea if Marcus was okay, and no way to deny that Clay wasn’t, the gravity of what had just happened crashed in on Maggie. She wished she could cry; it would have been a relief.

Her body was exhausted. It wanted to sleep and, not knowing what else to do, she stopped fighting it. The dark, warm oblivion was a welcome respite.

***

It was like trying to push his eyelids up against glue. Marcus heard muffled sounds around him but couldn’t make them out. When he finally got his eyes open, the world filled him with fear, doubt, and a sadness he couldn’t explain.

He was on the ship, and the comforting hum told him that it was whizzing through the Pacific once more. The water around them was still black, the inner lights of the ship throwing perfect reflections of them onto the glass, but the light coming from above was a slightly bluer shade. Dawn was beginning to break over the ocean.

Three of the ship’s beds were occupied. Marcus himself was lying on the middle one. To his left Clay was laid out. Doc, Karl, and Joan were all standing around him. Their faces were tear-soaked, and Joan was holding Clay’s hand, running her thumb over the back of it.

Nat was at the helm of the ship.

To his right, Maggie was sleeping. David was sitting on the bed, holding her hand and staring down into her face. The way he looked at her, the way he held her hand…Marcus didn’t like it. The world was fuzzy though, and he couldn’t remember how he was supposed to react to these green-tinged feelings.

He tried to sit up and groaned loudly. His head wasn’t ringing anymore, but it was throbbing painfully, and when he sat upright, pain lanced down his neck and across his shoulders. His spinal cord, all the way down to his coccyx, felt like it was pulsating. Pain feathered out along his nerves, making his fingers and toes feel numb.

Karl came over as he threw his legs over the side of the cot.

“What’s wrong with Clay?”

Ignoring the question, Karl put a hand on his shoulder, and Marcus winced. It stung to be touched.

“How are you feeling, Marcus? Are you okay?”

Marcus looked up at him. “I feel like my head’s been used as an anvil, but other than that, yeah.” He twisted his neck painfully to look behind him at David. “Is she okay?”

David nodded. “She needs to recuperate. She’ll sleep for a week. Literally. But she’s not hurt.”

Marcus nodded, turning slowly back to Clay. There was an acorn-sized bore in Clay’s right temple. There was no blood or brain matter that Marcus could see, but the hole was black around the edge, like he’d been struck by lightning or sustained some kind of electrical burn.

“He needs healing,” Marcus said, putting hands beside his hips to push himself up.

“Marcus, you can’t—” Karl began.

Marcus got to his feet, but once there the wave of nausea that swept over him was overpowering. He lurched back onto the cot, and it was all he could to keep from vomiting on Karl’s shoes.

Karl put a firm hand on Marcus’s shoulder to keep him from standing, though Marcus had no intention of trying that again anytime soon.

“Marcus, you don’t understand. You can’t. No one can.”

Marcus shook his head at Karl, bewildered. He thought he knew where Karl was going with this, but he didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe it.

“He has severe brain damage,” Karl said quietly. “There’s nothing to be done.”

Marcus shook his head, not caring that it made his headache worse. “No. I can do something. I know I can.”

“Marcus,” Doc said gently, “you know that injuries, especially brain damage, have to be healed quickly. You’ve been asleep for nearly two hours. It’s far too late.” His voice cracked.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Marcus was shouting, but he didn’t care.

“We tried,” Karl said. “We tried everything we could think of. Your brain was too traumatized from…linking with David. You wouldn’t wake.”

“I don’t think it would have mattered anyway,” Doc said, wiping tears from his face. “By the time we got you back here and could think about healing, it was already too late—too much time had passed.”

“Doc and I can both heal small things,” Karl said. “We healed his small bruises and lacerations, internal and external. There weren’t that many. Whatever caused this was white-hot. It cauterized as it destroyed.”

“What was it?”

“We don’t know. We don’t know if it was a physical weapon or scorching neurological energy. Joan didn’t see it. It happened too fast.”

Marcus looked over at Joan, who was sobbing quietly

“His body is actually functioning quite well on its own,” Karl continued. “But he’s not going to wake up.”

Marcus lunged to his feet but succeeded only in landing on his knees beside Clay’s cot. He put his hands on either side of Clay’s face and reached out into the universe. They were right. Clay’s body was functioning as though he were just sleeping, but there was a crowbar-sized hole that started at his right temple and reached half way through his brain. There was too much missing now—too much that simply wasn’t there anymore.

Clay would never wake up.

Because of him. Because Marcus hadn’t been strong enough to both rescue his friends and heal them. He’d saved them—one of them—only to let the other one die. Or perhaps his failure was much earlier. He hadn’t been strong enough or smart enough or quick enough to keep himself and Maggie and Nat from being injected with the sedative. If not for that, Clay might still be alive. And who knew what condition Maggie was in?

Marcus slumped back in defeat. The simple, pathetic truth was that they, as a team, as a rebellion, didn’t have the strength or knowledge to defeat the collectives. Each time they went in confident that they could do it, they not only failed but also found that they were far less prepared than they originally thought. Each time disaster struck and a member of the team was lost in one way or another.

Would this war never end? He supposed that if it did, it would be with the individuals defeated and mankind forever enslaved to a collective consciousness with all the originality of the human spirit fading into mediocrity across the canyons of time.

Marcus rested his head against his forearms and cried. Sometimes it was the only thing a man could do.

 

Chapter 33: Meetings and Plans

Maggie woke on her back staring at a blank ceiling with a profound sense of confusion. She had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. She couldn’t remember what had happened the last time she’d been awake.

She turned her head, finding that her muscles were stiff, but it felt good to move them. She felt like she’d been sleeping for days.

It looked like she was in Medical back at Interchron, but she couldn’t think why or how she’d gotten here. Two men sat on stools on either side of the door. One looked vaguely familiar; she thought she might have met him when she first arrived. The other one she’d never seen before.

Maggie raised her head, and the pain that lanced through her skull brought horrifying memories of the island—Colin, the Traveler, fear of rape, worse fear of Marcus and Nat being killed, David’s ring. Clay! How was Clay?

With a groan, she pulled herself into a sitting position. Every muscle in her body creaked. The two men by the door jumped to their feet.

They exchanged glances. Then the familiar one stepped halfway out the door. Maggie could hear the murmur of his voice as he spoke with someone in the outer room. Then Marcus appeared.

Concern was etched in the lines of his face, which she could swear were more pronounced than before they’d left for the island. He strode across the room and took her hand.

“How are you, Maggie?”

He’d said those exact words several times over the last few months, always when she’d been hurt or upset. There was something so comforting about them that she smiled, despite the pain in her head.

“I’m…confused. Are we back at Interchron?”

He nodded.

“How…did we get back?”

“The same way we went away from it.”

Her eyes narrowed. “How long have I been sleeping?”

“Five days.”

Maggie gasped.

Marcus put his hands on either side of her face and looked down intently into her eyes. They seemed sadder than she remembered. “What do you remember?”

“We were captured…Colin…then the ring.”

He nodded. “You pulled so much energy through that ring, you nearly killed us all.”

“I did?”

“David pulled it off you, and you passed out.”

“Then what happened?”

Marcus didn’t answer for a long time. He looked down into her face, searching it.

“Maggie, there’s something I need to tell you.”

The sweeping sadness had returned full force. She could see unshed tears in the corners of his eyes, and behind them a deep-seeded grief lay waiting, barely controlled.

His hands covered hers, thumbs stroking her palms absently. He looked down at them, but she reached up and tilted his chin up, forcing him to look into her face.

“Marcus, what is it?”

“Clay.”

Maggie sighed. She’d been hoping Marcus would tell her that Clay had pulled through; that Marcus had healed him somehow. She remembered the void when Clay was struck as well as anything else, though. She supposed she’d known from that moment on the island that he was gone.

“What happened to him,” she asked through quivering lips.

“He took a hit to the head, to the brain. He’s not dead, but he won’t be waking up either.”

Marcus’s gloom immediately infected Maggie, crashing over her like a tide. Clay, who’d always been so kind to her, so sweet, so quiet; whose wife was expecting a baby; who had his whole life in front of him—gone, just like that.

She hung her head, and tears slid down her cheeks and fell on both their hands. Marcus, feeling them, pulled her into his lap. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and buried her face in his neck.

After a few minutes, she turned her head, laying it on his shoulder. The two men, whoever they were, were gone. She wasn’t sure when they’d left, but she and Marcus were alone. Casting her mind out, she could feel others nearby but not close enough to hear their conversation or their grief.

Pulling back, she wiped her face then his. “Where is everyone else?”

“Around. We’ve been letting everyone mourn for Clay. The team…we haven’t talked about what happened on the island. At all. We’ve been waiting…”

He trailed off, and Maggie knew with conviction that this talk the team would have would not be pleasant. Not only was there sadness—and no doubt bitterness—about Clay, but there would be anger over things they didn’t understand and hadn’t anticipated, mistakes that were made. And then there was David.

“Do you feel like walking around a bit?”

Maggie nodded. “I’m kind of stiff, but the more I walk, the better I’ll feel.”

“We should take you to Doc and then get you something to eat.”

Maggie let him pull her to her feet.

***

Two days later, no decision had been made about Clay. He wasn’t dead, so no one wanted to bury him. And his wife, Kara, wouldn’t have it. No one blamed her for not wanting the finality of burial.

Maggie sat with Joan in medical while Marcus and Karl paced nearby. The team hovered continually near Clay’s bedside but tried to give Kara space. As a result, they’d spent the better part of two days huddled in the room adjacent to Clay’s, staring at each other and listening to Kara’s intermittent weeping.

Two people—sometimes the two who’d been there when she woke up, sometimes others—were always around Maggie. They followed her around like armed guards, staying a short distance behind her as she moved through the corridors, standing outside the rooms she was in. They didn’t seem to disconcert anyone else. The team acted like they couldn’t see them. A few times Maggie caught Marcus’s eye and nodded toward the guards, raising an eyebrow. He always looked away, though, not offering any explanation. Sadness over Clay hung thick in the air, and Maggie didn’t press the issue.

Doc was with them first thing that day, but he’d ducked out midmorning without explanation. Now he re-entered the room.

“Will all of you please follow me? It’s time we talked.” He kept his voice quiet enough not to disturb Kara, who had fallen asleep holding Clay’s hand.

Doc led Maggie, Marcus, Joan, and Karl through the quiet corridors of Interchron. He turned into the conference room they’d used before just after David arrived.

The five of them filed in. David and Nat were already inside. David stood leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Nat sat at one end of the table, staring at his steepled fingers. He looked strangely reminiscent of Doc in that pose.

Marcus threw a glare in David’s direction, and Maggie knew her premonition was correct—this would not be a pleasant meeting.

Marcus pulled out Maggie’s chair then sat beside her. The others took seats around the table. David took one on the other end away from the rest of them, just as he had when he first arrived. It was a strange, lonely sort of déjà vu, especially in light of the vacant seat Clay had occupied before.

“I know this is going to be difficult,” Doc began, his eyes on the table in front of him, “but it’s been days, and we need to talk about what happened, what we know, and what we’re going to do next.”

“What about Clay?” Joan asked quietly.

Doc sighed. “I honestly don’t know what to do.”

“Doc.” Maggie felt their eyes turn to her but couldn’t bring herself to meet them. “I’m sure you’ve already thought of this, so maybe it’s a dumb question, but can’t we search for some way to Heal him?”

She glanced up to see Doc frowning at her. “I know we don’t know how, that Marcus can’t regenerate tissue, but what if the answer’s out there and we just haven’t found it yet? Karl’s a Traveler. Can’t you look in the future for the answer?”

“I have, Maggie.”

Maggie turned to find Karl’s face grave. He’d taken the seat on the other side of her.

“As soon as the ability of Traveling became known, we Travelers began walking through almost all periods of human history. I’ve taken Seekers to the future in search of certain abilities and technologies, but I’ve never found anything that would help us heal Clay. I’ve never seen a time or place in which human beings can regenerate what’s been lost. I think that’s God’s work.”

“We need to talk about what happened on the island,” Doc said, then ran his hands through his thick, white hair. “But where to begin?”

“How about with the fact that Colin is alive and always has been?”

Bitterness seeped into Karl’s voice, and Maggie was surprised he already knew. He must have spoken to Marcus or Nat before this. Her surprise must have shown, because when Doc spoke, he directed his comments at her.

“Marcus, Nat, and David have told us what happened in the cargo bay. We all know everything Colin said and did, unless you have anything to add?”

Maggie shook her head. “I don’t see that I would. We were all in the same room the entire time.”

“Maybe you should tell us what you remember, anyway,” Karl said. “Everyone was under stress, and a conversation is difficult to remember word for word. Maybe you would remember something the other two forgot.”

The thought of trying to repeat her entire conversation with Colin was daunting. She was afraid she’d get emotional, which would be embarrassing.

Joan saved her from having to try.

“One thing I don’t understand,” she said. “Colin wants to find and kill us all. So why doesn’t he? He knows where the compound is and how to get in. Why not just lead them here? Is there a chance that he was putting on an evil show for the Traveler’s benefit?”

Nat shook his head, but it was Marcus who spoke.

“No. I understand why you want to believe that. We all trusted him. But if you could’ve seen him—the things he said, the look in his eye—he’s one of them through and through. He was never as decent as he led us to believe.” Marcus heaved a sigh. “As to the first question, I can’t be sure, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

Maggie was glad someone had been. The conundrum hadn’t occurred to her.

“When he realized Maggie had no memories of him, Colin was surprised. Happy, but surprised nonetheless. He said something about not being the only one who didn’t know what happened aboard that ship. He may have simply been referring to the fact that Maggie escaped, but I don’t think so.” Marcus turned to her. “I think some part of what you did, of what happened to your memories, affected him. Now I don’t think he can remember where Interchron is.”

Maggie thought about that for a few seconds, but it didn’t compute for her. “But that doesn’t make sense. Colin was a member of the team before I ever arrived here, wasn’t he?”

Marcus looked confused but nodded. “He was with us for about a year before we found you.”

“So if his memory of the compound is gone, then he wouldn’t have remembered me at all. He wouldn’t have remembered anything about being on the ship.”

All the men around the table looked confused by her argument, but Joan, as usual, understood.

“You’re thinking too linearly again, Maggie. Remember when I explained to you how Marcus could send out a wave of Offensive energy and kill all the Trepids without hurting any of the individual minds that were out in front of him?”

Maggie nodded. “You said he honed in on antagonistic energy. He could select who he wanted to target.”

“Yes. And this is similar. With neurological abilities, choice is always a factor. If Colin’s memory loss is the result of a neurological ability, especially if it’s something you did, it might have been a matter of choosing specifically what someone didn’t want him to remember.”

“But how would I…do that?”

“I don’t know.” Marcus passed a hand across his eyes. “I’ve never heard of anyone doing it before. Has anyone else?”

Around the table, heads shook slowly.

“But either way,” Maggie said, “we’re talking about selective memory loss?”

Marcus shrugged. “Like I said, there’s no way to be sure, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me. Unless anyone else has any thoughts?”

Silence greeted the question, and Maggie supposed it was the only explanation they had for the present. She didn’t like it, though. It placed even greater responsibility for what had happened on her shoulders. She had found something out, decided not to trust the team with it, dumped her memories, knowing full well she might never recover them, then she’d also blocked or stolen some of Colin’s memories?

“The only reason to hide the location of the compound is to protect those that live here,” Joan said. “It stands to reason, then, that Maggie was afraid he’d come after them. So perhaps some of what she found out was Colin’s true nature.”

Silence followed as that sunk in.

“So,” Karl said after several minutes, “we don’t know anything for certain about his memory, but then there’s the question of what he did—this whole drinking-Maggie’s-blood thing.”

Maggie shuddered at the memory, and Marcus reached over and took her hand under the table. She gave him what she hoped was a grateful smile. That he understood the fear, the exploitation she’d felt at what Colin had done, that he could see how much it still bothered her, was a great comfort.

“I’m not sure I even believe it’s true,” Karl said. “I’ve never heard of drinking someone’s blood to find them. Maybe he was just screwing with us.”

“I don’t think so.” It was David’s voice, and they all turned toward him.

“You know something of this?” Marcus’s voice was iron when he addressed his brother.

David hesitated a moment before answering. “I could not speak of it with any authority, but I’ve heard rumors of it.”

“Rumors?” Karl asked. “There’s such thing as gossip in the collectives?”

David shook his head. “Not in the way you’re thinking of it. Sometimes a new idea will be introduced into the collective mind. It comes through a single person who’s heard or observed it. Then it travels along the collective pathways. We are no different from individuals in the way we observe and process information. Ideas and experiences are introduced through a single person, but then they are shared and processed by the entire collective mind. If the ideas and experiences are good, the collective absorbs and makes use of them. If they are negative, they are put down.”

Karl frowned at David. “Put down by who?”

“By the collective. It is agreed and understood that something is negative, vile, or forbidden, and everyone simply stops thinking about it. So the rumor is no more.”

It was not lost on Maggie that David said we like he was still part of the collective. Even after all these weeks, he was not far removed from the collective in his own mind.

Karl turned his head to frown at Doc, and they shared a knowing look.

“How do you know”—Karl turned back to David—“that it’s the drones in the collective making the decision to squelch the rumor?”

“Who else would it be?”

“What’s this got to do with Colin…tasting Maggie’s blood?” Marcus cut in.

David heaved a deep breath. “I’ve heard of it before. I don’t know any details. It was just a rumor that once floated through the collective. This kind of thing was forbidden to know or think about because it was dark and evil, not to mention unsavory. But what you describe…it has the ring of truth to me.”

“He’s right.”

All heads swung toward Doc.

“I too have heard of this before. Consuming blood is an evil thing because it exerts a pull over the drinker. I think it’s true of all blood—drinking the blood of a turkey it would have a certain amount of pull on you to drink more. I also believe the strength of the leveraging force increases with the intelligence of the creature whose blood you are drinking, which is why human blood has the greatest pull of all. Unfortunately, Colin was telling the truth. By tasting Maggie’s blood, he’ll be able to come straight to her.”

Maggie’s eyes dropped to the table. She was hoping Doc would tell her that what Colin said was rubbish—that he’d just been trying to scare her. Hearing Doc speak of it now with such finality made it all too real. An unpleasant cold settled in her stomach, making her want to pull her knees into her chest and hide.

Maggie wanted to ask what they were to do next, but she couldn’t force the words out. No one else seemed to want to either. After several moments of silence, David spoke, addressing Karl.

“What did you mean about the collective not making its own decisions? Who else would make them?”

“The Counsel of Six,” Karl said, as though it was obvious.

David shook his head. “They only have final say.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve been part of it.”

“I don’t think you’re as informed as you think you are, David.”

The rest of the team was following the conversation with confusion, but with Karl’s last comment, Marcus’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“What do mean, Karl?”

Karl looked at Doc, who nodded at him.

“The person that invaded Lila’s mind, who called himself B? Doc spoke with him while we were on the island.”

Gasps and exclamations came from around the table. Nat didn’t look particularly alarmed. Joan, on the other hand, was suddenly very attentive.

“What did he say?” she asked.

Doc spoke. “We haven’t had a chance to talk about it since getting back. How much did you hear, Karl?”

Karl’s brow furrowed. “Not much. I got hit on the head,” he explained to the others. “It seemed like the two of you knew each other. I know he said something about some brothers. Then Doc asked what B stood for. He said it was for Beholder, because he was watching us. And he implied”—his eyes shifted accusingly to David—“that he had sent you here to spy on us.”

David’s eyes widened. “I don’t know what he means.”

No one else spoke, but Marcus stood. He simply planted his feet and straightened his legs, his stance lithe and dangerous. He addressed Doc. “You’ve known this the entire time since we left the island and you haven’t…restrained him?”

Doc put up a weary hand. “Marcus, listen—”

“No. Don’t tell me to listen. Clay is dead!”

It was a word no one had voiced about Clay, as though using euphemisms might keep him with them longer. Marcus’s voice made the word crack like a whip, and the entire team shuddered as though slapped.

A tear escaped over the rim of Maggie’s eye, but she wiped it away quickly. She thought David might have seen it—he was the only one looking at her—but she pretended he hadn’t.

“For all intents and purposes, he is!” Marcus was still shouting. “They were ready for us. They knew we were coming. You have a testament that David is a spy and yet you let him roam freely around Interchron? You let him near Clay? ”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because the man I spoke to was lying.”

Marcus’s anger withered a bit under Doc’s glare. Maggie knew Marcus couldn’t contradict Doc. He loved him like a father and trusted him implicitly. Still, Marcus didn’t sit. Rather, he turned slowly toward David, who wore a disturbed frown.

“Marcus.” David gave him a pleading look. “What I did, I did on my own. It was my choice, just as I told you before. You must believe me.”

“I don’t suppose you can prove that,” Marcus snapped.

David shook his head. “Only to myself.”

“Meaning what?” Karl asked.

“It was painful. Terribly painful. If they had wanted me to go—to spy and infiltrate—they would have just let me go. I had to rip myself, physically and neurologically, out of the collective body. And when I did, they tried to pull me back to them. I could feel them—thousands of minds digging into mine, trying to reunite me with the collective. This B is lying. When I got away, they tried to claw me back. Does that sound like them letting me go to come and trap you?”

Marcus stared at David for a few seconds, chest heaving. “Why did you give Maggie that ring?”

Maggie lowered her head and hunched her shoulders, waiting for an explosion. So they had finally come to the crux of it.

David looked surprised. “I…I was afraid…of exactly what happened. I thought you might be going into a trap.”

“Then why didn’t you just say so?”

David looked frustrated. “I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words. I have more words now than when I got here, but they’re coming slowly. I tried to tell you how much danger she was in—that they were looking for her and would kill her without mercy. I could tell that I wasn’t being clear, that you didn’t understand me. So I gave Maggie the ring as a precaution.”

“You could have killed her.” Marcus spat. “You could have killed all of us.”

“You mean she could have?”

Marcus looked like he was ready to strangle David, but Karl answered. “Yes, she could have. And it would have been your fault.”

David shrugged. “She didn’t. She saved your lives and gave you the chance to escape. Not to mention, she killed the Traveler, which was our principle aim.”

“You gave her a dangerous weapon,” Marcus said, “an obscene amount of power she had no hope of controlling. Everything else was just luck, and you’re defending your actions?”

“It wasn’t luck.” David snapped, raising his voice. “I knew she’d be able to handle it. Both her brain chemistry and the prophecy say so. I was being practical, not irresponsible.”

Marcus looked angrier by the minute. David’s arguments were not pacifying him.

It occurred to Maggie that, despite still placing himself somewhat in the collective mind, David had come a long way since they’d first met him. He was not only saying I, but giving forceful opinions in opposition to everyone else at the table. He wouldn’t have been able to do that at first.

Maggie reached up and touched Marcus’s arm. He looked down at her.

“If you’re going to be mad at David for this, you’ll have to be mad at me too. I accepted the ring. I knew”—she spread her gaze around the room—“none of you would approve. I kept it from you.”

“Why did you do that, Maggie?” Karl asked quietly.

“Because, I…I was affected by what David said to me.”

Marcus glared accusingly at David, as if David had tricked her somehow.

“Why didn’t you say something, Maggie?” Joan asked, taking Maggie’s hands across the table.

“I…I don’t know. Maybe it was more a feeling than a conscious thought. I felt that David was afraid for us, and that made me afraid. I was never planning on using the ring. I had it, but I figured if we got ourselves into a dire situation, I’d give it to one of you to use. I never thought…” Her voice cracked, and she trailed off.

“It’s not your fault,” Marcus said softly.

“Yes, it is. Every bit as much as it is his.” She indicated David.

There was a brief silence, which Doc broke. “Marcus, sit down. I have some things to explain.”

Marcus lowered himself into his seat, looking reluctant to do so.

“It’s true that Maggie has the ability to use the kind of power the ring afforded her. If she hadn’t, she would certainly have vaporized us all. That she didn’t means that David was right in his assumption that she could handle it.”

Marcus opened his mouth but Doc threw a hand up, forestalling him.

“It is also true, however, that Maggie is completely untrained in this regard. As such, it was wrong to send her into battle with such a weapon, no matter your certainty of her abilities.”

David looked chastised but made no comment.

“Now, as to the accusations the man I spoke to made.” Doc drew a deep breath. “Karl’s right. I do know this man, B, or did a long time ago.”

“More things you haven’t told us, Doc?” Joan’s voice was quiet.

Doc spread his hands. “Please understand. I’m certain there are things I haven’t told you, but not because I’m trying to keep anything from you. I wouldn’t have thought this would be…relevant to the mission.”

“So who is he? What does he want?” Karl asked.

“Didn’t you know who he was when he attacked Lila?” Joan said.

“I suspected when Lila was attacked, but he said so little, and it was so ambiguous that there was no way to be sure. After all, as David had told us, there are many people who might want to kill Maggie.

“As to who he is, I don’t think the details are important just now. I knew him a long time ago, but we had different beliefs. I believed in freedom and individualism, while he leaned more toward collectivism. It was this core difference that tore our friendship apart. I haven’t seen him since. Obviously he is a powerful man in the collectivist world. He simply wanted me to know that he’s still around and watching.”

“What was he saying about brothers?” Karl asked.

Doc was staring very hard at the ceiling. Maggie could swear, though no twitch of his face or wet gleam in his eye betrayed it, that he was fighting with his emotions. He finally brought his gaze to their level.

“Just an old figure of speech—a private understanding between us.” His voice was a whisper. “The only reason he brought it up was so I would know his identity, unequivocally.” He cleared his throat and thudded his palms on the table. “More to the point, because I know this man so well, I know him to be deceptive. He would do anything to plant doubts among us, turn us against one another.

“That he tried to tell me that David was his pawn is what makes me more certain than ever that David is and always has told us the truth. If David were doing his bidding, B would have tried to convince me of how trustworthy David was, and I would have known it to be a lie.”

“But Doc,” Maggie said, “how do you know that he doesn’t know you as well as you know him? What if he’s manipulating you because he knows you’ll believe the opposite of anything he says?”

Doc smiled. “Maggie, that’s one of the things I love about you. You have such a fantastic mind that you can think in extremely complicated equations.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “Is that your way of saying I’m over thinking it?”

Doc chuckled. “No, but you’re giving him too much credit.” He leaned back in his chair. “Evil men are always narrow minded. They can’t see beyond their own intentions. Those of us who are both more educated and more compassionate often can’t comprehend their stupidity. We think that if only they would do x, y, and z they could manipulate us, but they rarely do. They don’t have the capacity for it.

“Oh, there are plenty of evil geniuses in the world, but even they are limited in their own way. I daresay B is quite the genius himself, but it would never occur to him to use my own understanding to manipulate me. He wants to deceive, because it will cause us to doubt each other. He wouldn’t think of layers of deception or psychological manipulation. He doesn’t have the intelligence for it.”

Maggie was silent, letting the information sink in. So David was not a traitor, Clay was really gone, Colin was going to find Maggie sooner or later, and they were no closer to bringing down the collectives, regardless of the fact that they had succeeded in killing the Traveler.

“Do you think he—this B guy, I mean—was the one that killed Clay?”

Doc gazed at Marcus for a long time before answering. “What makes you ask that?”

“Whatever Clay was hit with, and whatever neurological energy was attacking us in that courtyard, it wasn’t coming from the drones. It was coming from somewhere else. I could feel it. I just couldn’t identify the source. I don’t think the drones have the ability to attack us that way. They were being directed by someone else—by the collective. But someone was leveling a neurological attack at us from somewhere.”

“I can vouch for that,” Joan said. “I had to throw up shield after shield against the barrage of Offensive energy coming our way. It was difficult because the attack was so powerful. I couldn’t tell where the energy was coming from either. I hadn’t really thought about it until now. What do you think, Doc?”

Doc was quiet for a minute before answering, and no one was willing to break into his thoughts, so they waited for him to speak again. Joan looked to be on the edge of tears. Karl’s expression was a mixture of worry and anger. Nat was lost in his own thoughts. David looked haunted. Marcus was studying Doc’s face intently, as though to discern his thoughts by studying the emotions running across Doc’s face. When Doc spoke again, they raised their faces to his in unison.

“I don’t know the answer to that. It may have been B. Or the Council of Six. There’s no way to tell.”

“You aren’t telling us everything you know, Doc.” Joan’s voice was soft and dangerous.

Maggie was beginning to see what Joan saw when Doc was withholding something. It wasn’t anything he did that was the tell; it was the way he studied the table in front of him, and the skin around his eyes took on a look of tension.

Doc sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I’m thinking of something the prophecy says, but I want to go back and read it again. I’ll share what I know with you when I’m sure of what it is myself.”

Silence followed, and Maggie ran through everything that had been said in the cargo bay. “So, we’re assuming that B is lying, but we’ve said that Colin was telling the truth about things, right?”

“Why do you ask, Maggie?” Doc leaned forward.

“He implied that their barrier—the one our scans couldn’t penetrate—was booby trapped somehow—that they knew when we’d crossed the border.”

Doc’s eyebrows went up, and his eyes whipped to Karl and Marcus. Marcus nodded.

“She’s right. That’s something we both forgot, but Colin did say that they were just waiting for us to cross the Concealment. I’d assumed the barrier was some kind of Concealment, like the one over the lighthouse. Is it possible to put some sort of alert system on a Concealment that way?”

Doc thought for a time. “I don’t know. Perhaps. Or perhaps it isn’t actually a Concealment but something else. What was everyone else’s impression?”

No one had any insight to offer. There had been too much going on at the time for them to study the barrier. It was a secondary concern. If it had been a Concealment, Clay could have offered the most insight, but again…

“So what now?” Joan asked. “Do we even have anywhere to go from here?”

“Of course we do,” Doc said resolutely. “Thanks to David’s information, we have more to work from than we ever have. We’ll have to do something about Colin, of course. But we know there are six minds that are controlling the collectives. We don’t know where they’re going next, but the simple fact that we know they exist is a starting point. We’ll hunt Colin and start gathering information on the Council of Six.”

Sensing that the meeting was nearing its close, Maggie cleared her throat. “Anyone care to tell me why I have guards following me around?”

Maggie had assumed there was a logical, benign explanation for the guards, but the way everyone turned away from her made her afraid.

“They aren’t guarding you, Maggie,” Joan said. “They are acting as bodyguards to you. They are Concealers.”

Suddenly it made sense. Why hadn’t she thought of it? Colin was looking for her. These people were making sure he couldn’t find her for the present.

Doc looked weary. “Maggie, I don’t think you’ve been given a complete run down on what happened after you passed out, but any one of us can tell you. For now, we need to focus on your safety.”

Maggie swallowed. “Okay.”

Doc leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “It takes two Concealers together to do what Clay could have done alone. Clay could Conceal a person for days at a time without tiring. When he grew tired, we could have had these other Concealers take over so he could rest. It only took two to three hours of recuperation for Clay, and he’d be good as new. But Clay…isn’t here anymore.”

Doc sighed. “What you must understand, Maggie, is that we don’t have the power to protect you here. There are six people in Interchron that can participate in protecting you this way. Two work at a time in eight-hour shifts. That means they always have sixteen hours to refresh themselves. That is not enough time.”

“Not enough time for what?”

“For them to recuperate. They’ve been guarding you for several days already since you returned to the compound. They sleep away the entire sixteen hours they have off, and when they come back for their next shift, they’re still not one hundred percent. I give it a week before we’ve exhausted them completely. At that point, they’ll all need a week’s worth of rest before they’re themselves. Even then we’ll only have them until they wear out again.”

Maggie nodded, understanding what he was getting at. “And when they’re abilities fail, Colin will be able to point straight to where I am.”

Doc smiled without humor. “I’m afraid so.”

Maggie studied her hands on the table. The thought of coming face to face with Colin again terrified her, but she couldn’t let him find her here amongst friends.

“Then I have to leave Interchron.”

The clicking of tongues and other sounds of protest came from around the table.

“Maggie, that won’t work,” Karl said. “You can’t hide from him. He’ll find you wherever you go.”

“Exactly. So the least I can do is be far away. If he’s going to find me anyway, I have to protect the people living here.”

“And what will you do when he finds you?” Marcus looked earnestly into her eyes.

“I…I don’t know, but—”

“You could always give her the ring.” David’s voice was tinged with irony.

The team immediately turned on him.

“I can’t believe you just suggested that!”

“That’s irresponsible, and you know it!”

“Absolutely not. Not an option!”

David shrugged, seeming unperturbed by the onslaught of criticism aimed at him.

Maggie held up her hands. “I’m not saying I want the ring. I don’t want to deal with that kind of power again. It terrifies me. But I’m not sure I understand why you’re all so against it.”

“This kind of power is extremely dangerous, Maggie,” Joan said. “We can’t control it. We don’t understand its full consequences. You have the potential to be able to control it, but we don’t have any way to train you, because no one’s ever done it before. This kind of power can change the physical structure of the planet. Used improperly, it may even rip a hole in space-time itself. Consider this. What if, in your century, someone discovered the ability of mind control?”

“Like brain-washing?”

“No. That’s a form of psychological manipulation. I’m talking about controlling someone by taking over their mind, getting into someone’s head and telling them to…scratch their nose, and they do it.”

Maggie thought about the mess society already was in her century. “That would be disastrous.”

“Why?” Joan asked. “With such power your society could control the minds of those who are criminals. They could make it so that murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and even just petty thieves saw the error of their ways. Society could be completely peaceful.”

“Yeah,” Maggie admitted, “but at what cost? There is always someone willing to use a good tool for a bad thing. People would use it incorruptly. We would never know if our thoughts were our own or someone else’s.”

“Precisely, Maggie.” Doc took over. “The power pulled through pure, supple elements, such as gold and silver, could have vast consequences, including some we know nothing about. It’s irresponsible to wield a power of that magnitude when we don’t understand it. The risks outweigh the potential rewards.”

“Okay.” Maggie sighed. “So what do you propose? You don’t want me to leave, but I can’t stay, and I have a week before Colin will be able to find me anywhere on the planet. I’m assuming you have a plan.”

Everyone looked at their hands. Even Marcus studied the table in front of him, and when she turned to fully look at him, he turned his head away from her.

Alarm reverberated in Maggie’s chest. What could be so terrible?

“It’s hardly a plan, Maggie,” Doc said. “It’s just the only option we have left.”

“Which is?”

“We’re going to send you back to your own time.”

The words hit Maggie in the chest like a ton of Kevlar. The fear of facing Colin was nothing to the fear that knotted her stomach at the thought of leaving.

“Wh…what?”

“We have no way to protect you. Colin can still find you, because he is a Seeker, but without the Traveler he is impotent. He has no way to navigate time. He’ll know where you are, but you’ll just be a ray on the horizon to him, completely unreachable.”

“But…how can I…”

“Karl will take you back, of course. Marcus, I’m sure, will accompany you.”

“Doc, I’ve been on this insane mission for months now. You expect me to go back and try to live my life again, knowing what I know? This is exactly what happened before—I was here for a time. Then you sent me back. Don’t you think this back and forth between my time and yours is getting old?” Maggie spoke at lightning speed and was out of breath by the time she finished.

Doc gave her a sad smile. “It’s not the same as before, Maggie. You’ll retain your memories this time. You may even have recovered a few of the old ones before you see us again, if the Remembrancer is to be believed. Besides, when we took you back the first time, we had every intention of leaving you to your life. This time, we’ll be planning on coming back for you.”

“Which will be when?”

“When we find a way to deal with Colin or otherwise keep you safe.”

Maggie looked around the table for help. Surely they couldn’t want this.

“This is the only way, Maggie,” Nat said. “Not the easiest way or the most efficient way—the only way.”

“The team is in pieces, Maggie,” Joan said. “Clay is gone, and we still have no one to fill the Deceiver role. We must regroup and gear up for the next step.”

“Exactly. You need me here.”

“We need you period, Maggie,” Karl said from beside her. “We need you alive. We need you safe and protected. To our shame, we cannot accomplish that here, but we can’t afford to lose another team member, logistically or emotionally. When it’s safe, we’ll come back for you.”

Maggie turned misty eyes on Marcus. He was staring at his hands, but when she turned to him, he shut his eyes, and she realized this was painful for him.

“Marcus?”

He turned his body to her. “No one wants you to go, Maggie, least of all me. I hate this. But I won’t let Colin have you, either.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I just won’t.” He reached up and touched her cheek with his index finger.

After a short pause, Doc spoke again, and Maggie’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “We’re all exhausted. We need to chew over all the information we’ve gotten. And we need rest. Karl will take Maggie back in three days. Before she goes we’ll have another meeting to talk specifics on what we’ll do next.”

“One more question?” Maggie asked timidly, and Doc nodded at her. She’d been thinking over everything that had happened, and she remembered something she’d forgotten completely about for the last week.

“Dillon and the Tracking team, did they ever make it back?”

Doc’s face slid from curiosity at her question into a mournful droop. “No. There’s still no sign of them. Nothing at all.”

Maggie hung her head. She felt as though a hundred-pound weight was sitting on her chest and more on her shoulders as well. Why hadn’t they returned? Were they as gone as Clay was? Or worse—forced into enslavement in one of the collectives? Maggie put her hands on her upper arms. An inexplicable cold settled on her.

The meeting went for another twenty minutes, but Maggie wasn’t listening. She felt numb. Marcus participated in the discussion, seeming nonplussed, but his hand stole slowly over to cover both of hers in her lap. He clutched her hands tightly in his, almost to the point of pain, but she didn’t care.

The fact that he was as upset about her going as she was made the pain worse, but it also afforded some small spark of relief.

 

Chapter 34: Attractive Forces

Two days later, Maggie worked with Marcus in a supply room. They had talked little about her leaving. By unspoken consent, neither of them wanted to draw out the good-byes, so they left them for the last possible moment. Maggie was not looking forward to that moment. The Concealers, shadowing her in pairs, were a constant reminder of the burden she was to the team and to the entire rebellion effort.

She’d kept busy since the team last met. Thinking about leaving, about what the team would be doing without her, about the threat Colin posed—obsessing about all of it would drive her crazy if she let it, so she worked continuously to keep her mind occupied.

Today, they were restocking linen supplies.

“You want to finish up here?” Marcus asked. “I’m supposed to meet Karl before dinner.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

She nodded, and he leaned in and kissed her lightly before heading out the door. She listened to his footsteps fade. The idea of leaving him made her panic. She kept telling herself that it would only be temporary, but when she allowed herself to think about it, her insides ached.

Just as his footsteps faded almost into inaudibility, they suddenly returned, getting louder and louder. Maggie glanced around the room, wondering what he’d forgotten.

The door opened, but Marcus didn’t say anything or enter.

“Forget something?” Maggie turned and sucked in a quiet breath. “David. I…thought you were Marcus.”

“Can I talk to you?”

The supply room, though really more of a closet than a room, was spacious enough to fit them both comfortably, but butterflies still flared in Maggie’s stomach as she nodded. He came the rest of the way in, closing the door behind him.

He stayed by the door, staring at his shoes for a time as if unsure how to begin.

“I’m not…happy about sending you back to your own time.”

Maggie shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t think anyone’s happy about it, David, but it’s necessary.”

He nodded. “I know. I just…wanted you to know that.”

When he didn’t speak for a moment, Maggie raised an eyebrow. “Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Nat told me everything that was said between you and Colin on the island. You said some interesting things—things about God and freedom. I wanted to ask you about them.”

“What do you want to know?”

David shrugged. “How do you know such things with such conviction? I’ve never been able to do that, to feel those things and believe them.”

Maggie sighed. “That’s a long conversation, David. I was raised to believe in a higher power, and I think I always did, but I never truly felt it until that moment. I thought about what Colin was saying, about what the collectives espouse, and I came to the conclusion that belief in anything hopeful supersedes all pessimistic beliefs. Optimism and belief in something greater—something good—is what keeps the human race going, and there’s nothing ignorant or superstitious in that. You don’t have to believe the same things I believe, but belief in good will always out-weight negative philosophies. So, I choose to believe in God. Colin couldn’t comprehend that argument on any level. That’s why the collectives will eventually be brought down. They can’t stand up to the positive force of true beliefs.”

David was staring at the floor and nodding.

“Does that answer your question?”

He raised his eyes, and his gaze bored into hers. “Are you angry at me for giving you that ring?”

Maggie frowned. So perhaps this was the real reason for his visit. She hadn’t thought about it. Should she be angry? Probably. But was she? Anger wasn’t an emotion she felt about the entire situation. She was angry at Colin, of course, especially as he was the reason she had to be sent back to her own time. She was broken-hearted over Clay, but not really angry about anything else that had happened. It simply was.

“No,” she said slowly. “It saved Marcus and Nat’s lives and maybe everyone else’s too. I understand why the others are angry, but I don’t really share that feeling.”

David twitched when Maggie said Marcus’s name. For him, that was more akin to a grimace. He was still relearning how to show his emotions in his face.

“Good.” He breathed. “I hated the idea of you leaving while angry at me.”

Maggie smiled, but the conversation still felt awkward. “Is there anything else?” she asked after another pause.

His penetrating gaze locked on her for several seconds, but then he shook himself. “No. That’s all.” He turned to leave.

“David.”

He froze but didn’t turn.

“Is there something you aren’t telling me? Something you want me to know?”

He turned back to look at her. “There’s a lot I…can’t express yet.”

Maggie put her gaze on the ground briefly before meeting his again. She hadn’t missed his neat side step of the question. “All right, fair enough, but is there something you can tell me but are choosing not to?”

He said nothing, but his look gave the answer.

“David, why wouldn’t you want to tell me something?”

“It’s…personal.”

Maggie immediately felt guilty. David was still getting used to social rules, and she didn’t want him to feel like he had to share something he was uncomfortable with.

“I’m sorry, David. I didn’t mean to pry. Don’t let me invade your privacy—”

He shook his head and put up a hand to stop her. “That’s not what I mean. It may be personal to you. You aren’t mad at me now, but you may be if I…”

Maggie studied him for a moment. He was such a mystery to her. Though she wished to high heaven that her memories of Marcus would return, she did think she was beginning to understand him, but that didn’t help her understand David. Despite being brothers, David and Marcus were mysterious in totally different ways.

Marcus was always in control of his emotions. While he sometimes hid them, at least he was doing it consciously. David, on the other hand, was not in control of his emotions, or at least not of how he expressed them. She often got the feeling that he was as confused about how he felt as she was.

“Just tell me, David.”

He turned fully to her. “There are things they’re hiding from you.”

“Who?”

“The team.”

Maggie tried to keep her face passive. What was he getting at? “I’m sure there are things I don’t know, yet, because no one’s had time to explain them to me, but—”

“No. I’m sure that’s true too, but other things, important things—things they didn’t tell you before, even the last time you were with them.”

Maggie frowned. He was making a serious allegation against the team’s communal honesty. And furthermore, how would he know?

“Like what?”

David sighed. “Maggie, I’m still trying to figure myself out. I’m trying to figure out my past, my feelings—even my break from the collective is hazy. I’m trying to puzzle out what everything was…what everything meant. Maggie, I feel…drawn to you.”

Maggie’s cheeks heated. Was this what his whole I-want-to-talk-to-you thing was about? There was chemistry between them, but she didn’t want to do anything about it. He was Marcus’s brother.

“What I mean is.” He backpedaled upon seeing her expression but then rubbed his forehead, obviously frustrated. “My brain chemistry is drawn to yours.”

Maggie glanced from side to side, unsure what to say. That had to be the worst pick-up line she’d ever heard, or at least the geekiest.

“David.” She tried to be tactful. “What on earth are you talking about?”

There was still frustration in his eyes, but he laughed in spite of it. “What do you know about attractive forces, Maggie?”

“Do you mean magnets or between two people?”

“Both. Our universe is made up of polar objects, so everything exerts an attractive force. Physicists can calculate the attractive force between two people. When it comes to romantic interest, when a person finds something they like or want in another person, their attractive force toward that person increases.”

“You can measure that physically?”

“Yes. By the same token, people who need one another or who can be united in a common purpose are also drawn to one another. Even if they don’t know it consciously, they find themselves in the same place. If you talk to the people of Interchron, many of them didn’t know that this rebellion existed before they found it. They were simply wandering the earth, looking for a safe place and trying to stay alive. They stumbled onto it, and it was exactly what they were looking for. These are attractive forces at work.”

“Okay, but you said you felt drawn to me. Why?”

“When I left the collective, I was looking for Marcus, or at least I thought I was. I could feel what I was looking for in a particular direction, and I just kept walking toward it. But when I got here”—he stepped toward her—“it was you I zeroed in on, not him. I think it was you I was looking for all along.”

Maggie shrugged uncomfortably. “Why would you be looking for me? You were looking for your brother, for the rebellion, to give them the information about what the collectives were up to.”

David shook his head. “It was you I felt drawn to. I thought, consciously, that I was looking for Marcus. I thought it was him I was feeling far out in front of me, but I would have walked straight to you. The fact that you and Marcus were in the same place was just coincidence.”

He looked down into her face, but she was unable to meet his gaze.

“What’s your point, David? Why are you telling me this?”

“This is what I didn’t have the words to tell everyone before—why I gave you the ring. Maggie, I’m not the only one that feels drawn to you. The entire team does.”

A mental image of Joan hitting on her came to mind. Maggie wanted to laugh but didn’t because she didn’t want David to think she was mocking him.

“The entire team is…attracted to me?”

“They feel drawn to you. Think about it, Maggie. They have Seekers who look for the correct brain chemistries laid out by the prophecy. How do you think they are able to find them? It would take years to search the entire globe physically. More often than not, the people with the right neurological abilities just showed up, drawn here as surely as the sun is drawn to the western horizon. Then there’s you.”

“What about me?”

“You were the only one not born in this period of human history, the only one they had to travel across time to find. How do you think they found you?”

Maggie didn’t know where David was going with this, but she didn’t like it.

“This is what I’m trying to tell you, Maggie. Everyone who is part of the collectives will feel drawn to you—every Arachniman, every Trepid, every drone, this B person, Colin, all of them. They can find their way to you. You exert this magnetic force that everyone on earth can feel. The collectives have been taught to kill you on sight.”

The weight of what he was saying bore down on her, and she felt sick. Why was he telling her this twenty-four hours before she was to go back to her own time?

“Why would I exert this force while no one else does?”

He put his hands on her upper arms. “Because you’re the key, Maggie. The key to the prophecy.”

That got Maggie’s attention. She had heard several others, including Colin, call her that, but she’d never questioned it until now. Why was she the key? What did that make the others? Weren’t they just as important in the prophecy? She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Just when she thought she had everything straight, more mind-numbing questions arose.

“David…wh, why are you—”

“Because I want you to understand what kind of danger you’re in. I want you to understand how important you are. The team knows all of this and is keeping it from you.” He paused then lowered his face until it was only a few inches from hers, and his voice was only a whisper. “And because I want you to understand that Marcus’s feelings may only be a result of the attractive force you exert.”

It took Maggie a second or two to realize what he was saying, but when it sunk in she recoiled from him, putting a hand on his chest and pushing him backward. He didn’t resist, letting her push him back several steps.

“But…I…how can you…” She fled the emptiness that his implication made and let the anger swallow her up. “You’re implying that I’m somehow, unconsciously manipulating Marcus into feeling something for me? If that’s so, how do you know I’m not doing the same thing to you? To all of you?”

He looked at her steadily for several seconds. “Because I can tell the difference. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a neurological ability emerging. Perhaps it’s a result of being in the collective, but I can feel, differentiate, almost see the pull you have on people, Maggie. I can even feel the pull you have on me. And I can tell the difference between an attractive pull and the other feelings I may have for people. I’m just not sure that everyone on the team can tell the difference.”

Maggie covered her eyes with her hands then let her finger slide up, digging into her hair and pushing it back. “I’m leaving in less than a day, David. Why are you telling me all this, now?”

She would not have thought there was room for him to get much closer to her, but he stepped forward so that they were toe to toe. He touched her cheek with the back of his index finger.

“I think you know. I’m sorry to upset you, but I couldn’t let you go without knowing you understood.”

He lingered there, hovering above her for another moment before stepping back, turning, and walking toward the door.

Maggie marveled at his retreating form. It was amazing how far he’d come. Less than two weeks before, David had been unable to use the word I or form his own opinions. Now he was processing information, coming to his own conclusions, and acting on them. She couldn’t sense fear in him anymore, only quiet confidence.

“David, wait.”

He turned to her.

“Can I ask you a favor?” She’d wanted to say something to him for days, and what he’d just said made it more awkward.

“Anything,” he said.

“Be patient with Marcus? I know he’s angry at you. I don’t think he’s told me everything that happened when you were kids, so I can’t make any judgments about it.”

“Do you want me to tell you?”

“No. That’s not the point. I think it’s important that the two of you mend your relationship. No matter who you were headed toward when you followed your…senses to Interchron, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you ended up where Marcus is. He’s your brother, and you two need to come to terms with each other. I know Marcus is being stubborn, but will you be patient with him and keep trying?”

David didn’t answer. His gaze was on the floor.

“Will you do it for me, if not for yourself?”

After another pause he nodded. Then he was gone.

 

Chapter 35: “The Roses Are in Bloom”

An hour before Maggie was set to leave, the team met once more in the conference room. As before, Clay was glaringly absent.

“Maggie,” Doc said from the head of the table. “I want you to know that we have our Seekers and our networks looking for three different people. One is Colin, one is another Concealer to fill the spot on the team, and we are still looking for a Deceiver to take Colin’s spot. Should we find any one of these people, it should be enough to bring you back.”

“How will finding any one of those people help?” Maggie asked.

“If we find Colin, we can find some way to capture or kill him or otherwise neutralize him as a threat.”

Maggie gave him her best suspicious look. “How?”

Doc opened his mouth then hesitated, looking wary. “I don’t think we ought to go into details about that. You won’t be here, and I don’t want to worry you.”

“Which is code for it’s really dangerous and I’m not allowed to be part of it because I have to go to my own time where I’ll be safe?”

Doc gave her a sad smile.

“That’s pretty much the gist,” Karl said.

Maggie opened her mouth, but Doc hurried on.

“If we find a Concealer with Clay’s abilities, he will be able to hide you from Colin. And I have a hunch that if we can find a Deceiver to fill Colin’s spot, he or she may be able to posit a solution to the Colin problem as well.”

“How?”

“I think he or she may be able to Deceive Colin about your whereabouts, or something along those lines.”

“But Colin’s a Deceiver too, Doc,” Joan said from across the table. “How do you know that will work?”

“As I said, it’s only a theory. Not being a Deceiver myself, I’ve no idea how one can stack up against another, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since we came back from the mission, and it makes sense to me. My point”—he directed his words to Maggie again—“is that I don’t think it will be long before we see you again.”

Maggie cleared her throat. “About that, won’t it be a short time for me one way or the other?”

“What do you mean?”

“Karl’s a Traveler.” She turned to look at him. “You can travel to any point in time you want. Can’t you just come to pick me up a week after you drop me off, regardless of how long it’s been for you guys?”

Karl snorted. “So we have to age ten years, but you’ll still look exactly the same when we see you again? How is that fair?”

The others chuckled, but Maggie’s mouth fell open. “You’re going to wait ten years to come get me?”

Marcus’s hand closed over hers. “Of course not.” She turned to look at him. “He’s exaggerating.” The corners of Marcus’s mouth had turned up, but the look in his eyes was warm and reassuring.

“I’ll leave the exact timing to Karl, as he’s the expert, and from what I understand, time travel is an inexact art. I don’t mind giving you some time, though. You’ve had a lot to deal with these past weeks. For the rest of us, this war is a way of life, and with the exception of Clay’s loss”—his voice cracked when he said Clay’s name—“the drama has built up slowly over time. This has been thrown at you all at once, and I think it would be prudent to give you some time to absorb it. You need time to rest and recuperate.”

Maggie tried not to sigh. “I just don’t want it to take too long. What am I supposed to do with myself? I can’t build up relationships or my business when I know I’ll be severing all my ties again soon. How can I go back to living a normal life, knowing what I know?”

“You have my word, Maggie, that we’ll come for you as soon as possible,” Doc said.

It wasn’t the promise she’d been hoping for, but Maggie felt somewhat reassured.

“Now,” Doc continued, “we have plans for what to do next. We have plenty of work to do, but does anyone want to say anything before Maggie leaves?”

“I do,” Maggie said. “I have two things to say.”

Doc nodded at her.

“Actually, one is a question. The other is something I remembered that I need to tell you, Doc.”

Doc’s eyebrows jumped. “A memory you’ve recovered?”

Maggie smiled. “Not one of the original lost ones, no. Just something else I was supposed to tell you.”

“Go ahead.”

“First the question. Colin said I was the key to the prophecy. I’ve heard a few people say that. What does it mean? Aren’t we all necessary to bring down the collectives?”

“All the roles in the prophecy are essential,” Doc said. “You are right about that, so perhaps your status is something like first among equals.”

“But I am first?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Doc sighed. “It’s difficult to explain. It has to do with the structure of the prophecy.”

“I’ve been here for almost two months, and I haven’t actually read that, you know,” Maggie said quietly.

“I’ll translate it for you.” David had so far been silent at the rear of the table sitting across from Nat.

All eyes turned to him now, but his face remained passive. “It will take some time,” he said, “but I’ll translate it into English for you. I’ll have it for you when you get back.”

An awkward silence descended, which Doc broke after only a moment. “In calling you the key, I believe it means two things. The first is the function you play as opposed to the others. Each of us has a part in the prophecy, but it’s a part we perform individually that contributes to the whole. Your role, Maggie, integrates all the other roles. You bind them and bring them all together. In short, you’re the key that makes the entire thing work.”

“But what does that mean? What will I do?”

“I can only tell you what the prophecy says.”

“What’s the second thing it means?”

Doc nodded. “The second is something I have personally come to believe after years of studying the prophecy. I’ve come to believe that you are unique, Maggie. For each of the roles the prophecy names, there are a number of people that could fulfill the role. The prophecy calls for certain characteristics, certain abilities inherent in the brain chemistry. If a person meets these criteria, they can fulfill the role. I don’t think that’s true of you, Maggie.

“I think your brain chemistry is so unique that only you can do this. That is why we must keep you protected. As insensitive a thing as this is to say, even without Clay we can prevail over the collectives. We can find another to fill his spot and move forward. That’s not true of you, Maggie. If anything happens to you, all is lost.”

Silence followed Doc’s words, but Maggie noticed that no one else around the table seemed as stunned as she felt by Doc’s explanation. David had been right then about them keeping things from her. Yet when she’d asked, Doc had been completely forthcoming. She wasn’t sure she believed, as David implied, that they were lying maliciously.

“Does that answer your question?” Doc asked.

Maggie shrugged. “For now, I suppose. I could think of a whole lot more questions though.”

Doc smiled. “I’m sure you could. Perhaps David’s idea is a good one. Perhaps we should have translated the prophecy for you earlier so you could study it for yourself. I should warn you, though, that there are people, including myself, that have studied it for years. The prophecy is vague, and its interpretation is ambiguous at best.”

Maggie nodded. She suddenly had a keen interest to read the prophecy. She wished it was already translated so she could take it with her when she left.

“So,” Doc said, sounding cheerful to move onto another subject, “what did you remember that you needed to tell me?”

Maggie was still pondering the prophecy, and it took a minute to realize what he’d said.

“Oh. Remember when we were on the beach and I told you the Remembrancer told me to tell you something? I just remembered what it was.”

One of Doc’s eyebrows went up. “What was it?”

Maggie shrugged. “Didn’t make any sense to me, but she said to tell you that the roses are in bloom.”

All the color drained from Doc’s face. His eyes widened to the size of saucers, and his mouth fell open. He slumped back in his seat as if his life force were draining out. Meanwhile, from the other side of the table, Nat jumped to his feet so suddenly that his chair crashed to the floor behind him.

Maggie’s head swiveled back and forth between the two, fear boiling in her stomach. Her expression was mirrored in the faces of the others.

“What?” Marcus yelled, looking alarmed.

“Doc, what is it?” Karl had gotten to his feet. “What does that mean?”

Doc was staring at the table in front of him, lost in his own horror.

“Doc!” Joan yelled, and Doc’s head snapped up.

He looked surprised to see them all standing there.

“Forgive me,” he whispered, sitting forward in his seat again. “I…was not expecting to hear that.”

Maggie thought Doc had a gift for stating the obvious. “What does it mean, Doc? Do you know that woman, the one that called herself the Remembrancer?”

Doc looked at Maggie. It took him a moment to focus on what she was saying. When he did, he leaned forward, becoming intense.

“Yes, the woman. What did she look like, Maggie? Tell me exactly what she said.”

A bit taken aback, Maggie recounted what the woman looked like and the conversation they’d had. The others put in details as she went. Doc and Nat kept exchanging confused glances as she spoke.

When she finished, Doc still said nothing.

“Doc!” Joan was more exasperated than Maggie had ever heard her. When Doc didn’t respond right away, her gaze swiveled to Nat, who had righted his chair and was sitting again.

“I think,” Doc finally said, “that she is a woman I knew a long time ago.”

“You think?” Marcus asked.

Doc smiled without humor. “I was sure she was dead.”

An awkward silence descended. Maggie couldn’t think of any way to break it except to ask the obvious question. “Why?”

“I saw her die. Sometime after that, a Prophesier told me she would come back into my life again. I always assumed it was figurative or something dealing with my own death, perhaps. Now it seems I was wrong.”

“Who is she?” Karl asked.

“She was a Prophesier herself, a great studier of the prophecy and an advocate against the collectives.”

“Did you know she had abilities with memories?” Marcus asked.

Doc shook his head. “No. I never heard anything like that from or about her. She never called herself a Remembrancer when I knew her.”

“What does…the thing about the roses mean?” Karl asked.

Doc waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing to anyone else. It was what you might call an inside joke, though it wasn’t really a joke, just something we often said to one another. It was a metaphor meaning that things were looking up. I don’t think she meant anything by it, except to use it to identify herself to me.”

“And to Nat, it seems,” David said quietly.

“Yes,” Doc said. “Nat knew her too.”

Everyone’s eyes went back and forth between the two older men. Maggie could tell that everyone was drawing the same conclusions she was. Nat and Doc had obviously known each other longer than anyone realized. Suddenly there were so many questions and no time to answer them.

“Well.” Doc regained his composure. “I’m glad you told me this, Maggie. I’ll have to think on it some more. I would also like to know more about where this woman was staying—the lighthouse. I wish I could have studied it.”

“Clay did,” Joan said quietly. “He said it was a Concealment, and he studied it at length. Now there’s no way to know what conclusions he drew.”

There was a minute of silence while they all thought about what they’d heard.

“Does anyone want to say anything else?” Doc asked.

No one answered.

“Then everyone say their good-byes to Maggie.” He turned a solemn look on her. “It’s time for you to go.”

 

Chapter 36: Far from Vegas

The good-byes were not drawn out. Joan hugged Maggie, assuring her they’d see her soon. Nat hugged her as well, but she wasn’t as close to him as she was to the other two, and it was slightly awkward. Doc smiled at her and held her hands in his for several minutes, making her feel needed. Even Lila turned out to give her a quick hug and wish her well.

No one else came, but Doc said no one else knew. Her leaving was temporary and was the business of the team, so no announcements had been made. If asked, the team would tell people that she was on a mission and would return soon.

Maggie took a moment to wander into Medical. She wanted to say good-bye to Clay, though she knew the notion was silly. He had left long before she had. She stood in the doorway, peeking in. She’d spent a good deal of time with Clay compared to some of the others, and she felt close to him. She’d come to feel his goodness and gentleness. The fact that his child would never know him filled her with loneliness. Clay’s wife sat beside his bed, one hand holding his, the other resting on her swollen belly.

Maggie couldn’t bring herself to go in. She trudged back to her room.

She did her best to push away the pain of leaving, telling herself it was only temporary. She wasn’t sure she really believed it.

Karl and Marcus were accompanying her, so she didn’t say good-bye to them. They left the compound the same way Marcus brought her in when they’d first arrived. It seemed like such a long time ago now.

The door closed behind them, and they walked out into the field Maggie had crossed running from the Arachnimen two months before.

“It tends to make you dizzy,” Karl said, “so it may be best to hold onto each other.”

Maggie nodded, remembering hitting the ground before. Marcus walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She knew she ought to stay firm on her feet, but she rested her weight against him, knowing it would be her last opportunity to feel close to him for a while.

With Karl beside them, the world lurched. The shapes and colors of the landscape around them made blurry, elongated strides, and everything seemed hazy, as though seen through the heat mirages of Vegas.

Vertigo followed, and Maggie had the sense that she was falling. Then, with what was probably an imagined thud, it all stopped. Marcus steadied her, and she shook her head to rid it of the cobwebs.

“You all right, Maggie?”

Outside of Interchron in the future, Marcus’s soft question would have carried clearly. The landscape was so vacant, the world so unpopulated, that the silence was easily penetrated. Here, even from a distance, the lights and sounds of civilization could be heard. He was whispering in her ear so she could hear him, but the sound of his voice in her time seemed marred somehow.

“I’m fine.” Her voice sounded small.

She looked at Karl, who was completely unaffected by the vertigo, and he grinned at her. She smiled back. Mischievous as it was, she realized she’d miss his endearing smile.

“Come on.” He motioned down the mountain with his head. “Let’s get you home.”

Maggie took in the surroundings more fully. The sunset had come and gone, and the sky was still light blue but darkening rapidly. It would be dark before they reached her house.

Maggie and Marcus fled her neighborhood before, running for their lives. As they made their way back, Maggie realized how far they must have come in a short time. It seemed much longer walking back, and everything moved around in the dark, so nothing looked familiar to her. She wasn’t worried though. She was with the two men she trusted most in the world, and she knew they’d get her home. She just didn’t want them to.

She rehearsed the story she was to tell when she returned. With Traveling being inexact, there was no way to tell exactly how long she’d been gone. It could range anywhere from a few hours to a few days, Karl said. At first she thought she could claim total ignorance. No one had explained what had happened in Vegas, so perhaps she could chalk it up to another unexplained, memory-affecting event in her life.

Then she’d remembered the dead man Marcus had left in her parlor. Perhaps ignorance wouldn’t be enough.

She was to say that two men had broken into her home but were fighting each other. Hopefully everyone would believe it was some kind of gang warfare she’d gotten caught up in. She would say others of the same gang had taken her captive, drugged her, and held her for…however long she’d been gone. Then they decided to release her—simply dropped her off a few blocks from home without any explanation. Memory loss as to more details would be a convenient side effect of the drugs she’d been given.

Doc helped her work out what to say and gave her some ambiguous symptoms to report so that the exact drug she was given couldn’t be nailed down. The truth peppered with vague embellishments was the best path to believability, he said.

When they entered her neighborhood after two hours of trudging on foot through the all-too-familiar city, Maggie knew the body had been discovered. From several streets away, she could see the flashing lights of police cruisers. A large number of people were gathered out in front of her house.

Maggie halted them when they were under the canopy of a fully flowered Dagwood tree. It was totally dark now, but the moon was out, and it might be enough for nosy neighbors to witness the fact that she’d traveled here with two men, which was not part of her cover story.

“I think we’d better say good-bye here. I don’t want you two to be seen.”

“All right,” Karl said, turning to her. “Take care of yourself, Maggs. We’ll be back for you before you know it.”

Maggie smiled at him, though she wasn’t sure if he could see it or not. “Thanks for everything, Karl. I’ll miss you.”

“Stating the obvious, but thank you.” Karl grinned, winking at her.

Maggie grinned back. Then she looked over at Marcus.

Karl cleared his throat. “I, uh, saw an interesting stump a ways back. I think I’ll go sit on it for a while.” He turned and jogged in the opposite direction.

When his thudding footfalls had faded, Marcus reached out. He twined his fingers through the belt loops of Maggie’s jeans and pulled her close to him.

They stared at each other for a moment.

“Marcus,” Maggie began, but found herself at a loss for words. “I…I’m sorry. I feel like I have so much to say, but now I don’t know where to start.”

He stepped closer to her, which didn’t help.

“I want you to understand something. I’m sorry I don’t remember our time together from before. I want to remember, but—”

Marcus put a hand up, shaking his head. “Maggie—”

“No, please, let me say this. I want to remember, not just out of curiosity or because I feel badly about how unfair it all is.” She paused then took a deep breath. “After Vegas, I felt empty, like something was missing. I thought it was just the trauma of having unaccounted-for time, but it wouldn’t go away. Jonah moved on. I couldn’t. I realize now what really happened.

“You became a huge part of me, of my soul, and then you were gone, ripped out of my head and my life…” She shut her eyes. She wasn’t making much sense, but Marcus said nothing.

“Some part of me was gone, and I couldn’t explain it. I was lonely, and I missed you, even if I didn’t know it. I’ve been searching for you for a year. I want to reclaim those memories, because—” She could feel her emotions welling up. She wished she wouldn’t cry—it was really annoying—but she’d begun, and she wasn’t going to stop until all her words were out. “Because I’ll finally find that piece of me that’s been missing for so long.”

He closed the small gap between them and put his hands on either side of her face. Resting his forehead against hers, his fingers gently kneaded her scalp.

“I heard what you said to Colin on the island, and maybe it was only for his benefit that you said it, but I want you to know that the impression you made on me was not worthless or negligible or something to be swept under the rug.”

“Perhaps”—he ran his finger down her cheek to wipe away a tear—“it’s a gift you have, an ability to see that which is no longer there. That’s why you saw flashes of kidnapped memories.”

“Or maybe some things are so vital that they imprint themselves on your very soul. All the flashes had something to do with you, Marcus. They couldn’t take away my memories of you, even…when they did. You had such a pull on me…”

A term Karl had used came to her mind just then. “You were my persistence of vision.”

He kissed her deeply on the mouth, pushing her backward until they were completely engulfed under the protective shadow of the Dagwood tree.

The kiss ended, leaving Maggie breathless. Marcus put his hands on the sides of her face and rested his forehead on hers once again, as though that would cement them together even after they parted.

Butterflies flared in Maggie’s stomach, but she reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. He pressed his face into her shoulder, his breath hot against her skin.

“Come back soon,” she whispered.

“I promise.”

She could feel his reluctance to let go and walk away. She shared it.

“Marcus, will you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

She hesitated, knowing he wouldn’t like her request. “Will you try and mend things with David?”

His hands dropped to her shoulders, his gaze going to the ground, and she could feel the barrier his reluctance put up between them.

“I know you don’t want to, but I think it’s important that you do. I’m not saying you should be best friends, but at least get to where you can be civil. I think it will help you both to talk about the past and be…brothers again.”

She heard him swallow before answering. “That’s complicated, Maggie. You don’t know what it did to me—what it did to our father. When he left—”

“I know it was wrong, Marcus. I’m not asking you to condone what he did or put aside the pain it caused you. I’m asking you to…let yourself feel the other things you feel for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“You feel compassion for him. I can see it when you look at him. He’s still your little brother, and you want to protect him. You’re fighting that urge out of anger. The anger’s understandable, but let yourself feel the way you ought to about him. It may be the only way you can finally heal.”

He raised his gaze to her again. “I can’t promise anything, Maggie. We may be doing different tasks while you’re gone, but when I’m with him, I’ll try. For you.”

She reached up on her toes and brushed her lips against his. “Thank you.”

“I have something for you.” He dug into the pocket of his pants and pulled out something that sparkled in the moonlight. It looked circular, but she couldn’t be sure in the dim light.

“What is it?”

“A bracelet. It’s something I gave you before, last time. When we had to send you back, I took it. I figured without your memories it wouldn’t mean anything to you. Now that you know who I am again, I’d like you to have it back.”

It was too dark to try and clasp it onto her wrist, but she took it and slid it carefully into the pocket of her jeans, glad to have a memento of him. Silence descended, and she felt her emotions flare again.

He wrapped his arms around her again, crushing her so tightly against his chest that her ribs hurt, but she didn’t pull away.

“Be careful,” she whispered into his shoulder.

“Shouldn’t I be telling you that?”

“Me? Are you kidding? With my abilities I could be attacked by a rape gang and totally kick their butts.” She paused, thinking. “Is it wrong that I kind of want to be?”

He laughed softly, kissed her on the forehead, and backed away. She felt his recession, and it hurt.

“I’ll watch you until you get around the corner.”

“Okay.” She wanted to say more—felt like she should—but didn’t know what or how, so she turned and walked toward the bright lights that shone from the place that used to be her home.

***

Marcus waited under the shadow of the sweet-smelling tree. The moonlight glinted off the blossoms, making them look white against the black sky and gray, residential shadows. In daylight they were probably light purple or pink.

Maggie’s silhouette disappeared around the corner. A few minutes later an audible commotion sprung up from the next street. She’d been spotted. There were voices, sirens from farther off, more lights being turned on.

Marcus heaved a sigh. At least she’d be taken care of. His feet felt heavy as he trudged back the way he’d come. Karl had actually found a flat, sawed-off stump to sit on. As Marcus passed, Karl got up and fell into step beside him. They walked without speaking, their steps thudding in unison on the concrete sidewalk.

Marcus’s mind was full of all the things he had to do. He planned to stay busy, if for no other reason than to keep from missing Maggie, and there were other reasons to keep busy as well. He had to do things that would ensure her protection and her return to him.

“You aren’t going back to Interchron, are you?” The two of them had been walking in such unison that Karl’s voice made him jump.

Marcus glanced over at his friend, wondering how much Karl had already guessed. “I am…”

“But not for long.” Karl nodded. “I’m coming with you.”

There was no sense in lying about it. Karl knew him too well. “There’s no way to tell how long I’ll be gone, Karl. You may be needed.”

“I assume you’ll be gone long enough to take care of Colin. And what would they need me for? Until we go get Maggie, I won’t be doing any Traveling. We can’t function as a team until she gets back, and we have others to fill the vacant roles. I might as well be with you. You may have need of me.”

Marcus couldn’t see any way to debunk Karl’s arguments. Until the team was whole, they stood no chance of bringing down the collectives. “You may be safer at Interchron. The collectives are actively searching for a Traveler.”

“And they have no reason to think I’m anywhere but there. If you’re going after Colin, I’m coming with you. End of story.”

After a moment, Marcus nodded. “Thank you.”

***

Maggie glanced out the window as she sorted her laundry. The day was overcast and windy. A storm would be here by noon.

Nearly three weeks had passed since her return to her old life, and this was the first morning she’d had to herself.

Of course Jonah and her parents had refused to leave her side ever again. One of them had slept on her couch every night since her return. Only recently had they begun to feel normal again, which meant they were willing to leave her alone for longer periods of time, at least during the day. Maggie wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jonah showed up again tonight.

Not that she minded the company. She didn’t relish being left alone to dwell on everything. She just wanted her family around for different reasons than they thought she did.

No one had been able to make heads or tails of her story. The police couldn’t prove any of it, but they couldn’t disprove any of it either. Maggie could tell several of the detectives thought she was hiding something, but it wasn’t as if they could suspect what it was.

What did it matter? She had the morning to herself, which meant that it was all starting to blow over. Everything was getting back to normal.

Maggie picked up her hamper and headed into the laundry room. She’d been dragging her feet since returning home, but she had to find something to occupy her or she’d go mad wondering when she would see Marcus again. It had to be something she could really sink her teeth into—something that would distract her completely. Yet she had to be able to drop it at a moment’s notice if certain friends who hadn’t been born yet came to call.

Maggie woke up this morning, deciding that she would start by cleaning her house top to bottom. She tossed lumps of denim and colorful cotton into her washer. At the bottom of the hamper the jeans she’d worn both times she’d time traveled were balled up. She picked them up, examined them for answers, and finding none, threw them into the bottom of washer. A loud clang announced that something was in the pocket.

She’d completely forgotten about the bracelet Marcus had given her until she pulled it out. It was like one of those plastic children’s bracelets strung on a rubber band so they can expand to fit over your hand without unclasping anything. The only difference was that there was no elastic band that Maggie could see. It was like the metal itself was stretching. On it was what looked like gold nuggets, interrupted periodically by colorful jewels. It made for a beautiful piece.

Maggie remembered the night Marcus first gave this to her. He’d taken her down into one of the deepest caverns below Interchron. The walls sparkled with un-mined diamonds, and an underground waterfall splashed rainbows over any artificial light. He’d wrapped his arms around her, and they’d spent hours there together, watching rainbow water drops dancing in front of the diamonds.

Maggie’s head snapped up. Where had that memory come from? Had she had it before?

She shook her head, trying to rise above the recollection so she could think clearly. She couldn’t. She kept losing herself in the memory. Soon, there were others.

Waking up in the compound…where was she? Who were these people?

Meeting the team…they all seemed nice. Colin kind of gave her the creeps, though. And why did the one called Marcus keep staring at her like that?

The prophecy…what was her role? Going on missions…trying to infiltrate the collectives…the ships, they must be on the ships…the one called B cornering her in a glass room…Karl washed up on some jagged rocks, bleeding from the neck…Joan holding a baby…Clay on his knees, mouth open in a silent scream…Lila curled up in a ball, crying…Doc burning parchment by candlelight… Karl… Joan… Clay… Colin… Doc… Marcus… Marcus… Marcus!

Maggie’s basket dropped to the floor, forgotten. She fell onto her knees, holding her head. The tears came unbidden, and everything behind her nose, all the way up to her eyebrows, was on fire.

The memories flooded back so fast that she couldn’t breathe. They melted together, becoming blurry collages, spectrums of colors and emotions. Unable to separate them or her feelings about them, she writhed on the floor, gasping.

At first, each memory had a particular emotion attached to it, but as they came faster and faster, the emotions ran together as well, threatening to consume her. She opened her mouth but couldn’t control her voice box to scream.

She tried to focus on the first memory she’d recaptured—the one of Marcus giving her the bracelet. It was a pleasant memory, and focusing on it took the sting out of others as they came. She’d felt safe, then. Protected. Happy. She would feel that way again. She believed that.

The barrage went on for more than an hour. Eventually it slowed, but it was another ninety minutes before it stopped completely. The memories were all in her head now, there for her to examine, but she suddenly understood what the Remembrancer meant about going mad.

How could Maggie be certain all the memories were there? Despite the overflowing recollections, she felt emptier than ever. She felt lonelier for the team—and for Marcus—than she would have thought possible.

She focused on the memory of Marcus again, held it close to her chest, and eventually was able to rise. She felt like she’d been walking through the desert for days. She made it to her bed where she collapsed, pulled her knees up to her chest, and amidst cascading tears, slept.

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Author’s Note:

Thank you for joining Maggie and the team on their adventures. Like Persistence of Vision? Book 2, Quantum Entanglement, is available from most major retailers!

 

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Also by L.K. Hill

 

Do you enjoy other genres? Visit L.K. Hill’s website to check out her crime fiction and historical fiction series.

 

Crime Fiction:

Dark Remnants, Book 1 of Street Games (Writing as L.K. Hill)

Desolate Mantle, Book 2 of Street Games (Writing as L.K. Hill)

 

Historical Fiction:

Citadels of Fire, Book 1 of Kremlins

Bastions of Blood, Book 2 of Kremlins (coming soon!)

 

 

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Liesel K. Hill is an award-winning author who writes across three different genres. Her historical fiction and crime drama is written under her initials, L.K. Her sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian are written under her full name, Liesel K. Hill. A graduate of Weber State University, she comes from a large, tight-knit family and lives in northern Utah. She plans to keep writing until they nail her coffin shut. Or the Second Coming happens. You know, whichever happens first. ;D

 


Persistence of Vision

In a world where collective hives are enslaving the population and individuals have been hunted to the verge of extinction, Maggie Harper, and independent 21st Century woman, must find the strength to preserve the freedom of the future, but without the aid of her memories. After experiencing a traumatic time loss, Maggie is plagued by a barrage of images she can't explain. When she's attacked by a creep with a spider's web tattoo, she is saved by Marcus, a man she's never met, but somehow remembers. He tells her that both he and her creepy attacker are from a future in which individuals are being murdered by collectives, and Marcus is part of the rebellion. The collectives have acquired time travel and they plan to enslave the human race throughout all of history. The flashes Maggie has been seeing are echoes of lost memories, and the information buried deep within them is instrumental in defeating the collective hives. In order to preserve the individuality of mankind, Maggie must try to re-discover stolen memories, re-kindle friendships she has no recollection of, and wade through her feelings for the mysterious Marcus, all while dodging the tattooed assassins the collectives keep sending her way. If Maggie can't fill the holes in her memory and find the answers to stop the collectives, the world both in her time and in all ages past and future will be doomed to enslavement in the grey, mediocre collectives. As the danger swirls around her and the collectives close in, Maggie realizes she must make a choice: stand out or fade away...

  • Author: Liesel Hill
  • Published: 2017-02-08 19:05:24
  • Words: 112263
Persistence of Vision Persistence of Vision