Two weeks after the events of Division Zero 1, prior to Lex De Mortuis
Haunted by a repeating nightmare of watching Marisa screaming as she slid down the angled roof of the Intera tower, Kirsten shot upright as the little girl vanished over the edge. Sweat trails raced each other in a slow trickle down her back. She shuddered in place, trying to get the image of the child’s desperate eyes out of her mind. A moment later, she remembered to breathe. Her sheet had come up from the corner, exposing the thick plastic surface of the Comforgel pad, which adhered to her bare skin. The dull orange glow from the viscous slab made it feel even hotter. She cringed as she peeled herself up, and swung her legs over the side.
Cool air washed over her as she sat in a forward slouch. Even wearing only a bra and panties, the malfunctioning unit threw off too much warmth for sleep. Kirsten pulled open the nightstand and frowned at the bottle of SynVod. Couple swigs and I can pass out. She pushed herself to her feet and paced around the bedroom, waving a hand at her face to cool off. Within a minute, her underwear became clammy, damp rags. The idea of flinging them off formed and died within two seconds.
The damn thing is too hot to even sleep naked. She blushed. Never mind Theodore walking in on me.
She grumbled at the silver bar atop the nightstand. It sensed her eyes pointed at it and displayed the time: 3:27 a.m. What is wrong with me? I just got rid of one nightmare; why’d I get another one? That’s not even what happened.
“Ugh.” Kirsten trudged to the bathroom.
A few minutes later, bladder empty, she returned to the bottle and took three healthy gulps. Cheap, synthetic alcohol flowed like lava through her throat; the fumes through her nostrils made her feel like a fire-breathing dragon. Eyes watering, she gasped for air and gagged. Once she recovered, Kirsten screwed the top back on, coughed twice more, and put the booze back in the nightstand. Ugh. Not like I got that crap for the taste. She faced the kitchenette and fell backwards into the hot, squishy pad with a slap like dropping a steak on a marble countertop.
Come on. Kick in. She stared at the pattern of dots on the drop ceiling overhead. Three sips won’t ruin me in the morning. Just enough to take the edge off. Her mind leapt to the image of the bottle that had always been in Mother’s hand. Kirsten rolled on her side and curled up with fear in her eyes, not of her mother, but of what she might become. She swallowed the bile creeping into the back of her throat, and closed her eyes as the first wave of light-headedness came on and made gravity swirl.
Beep beep beep beep.
Kirsten moaned. One instant, she gazed over the soft orange light below her at a dark, grey wall at 3:34 in the morning. The next thing she knew, the clock read 6:30 am and the alarm smashed into her brain. By 6:37, the cruel, monotonous tone became more intolerable than the concept of moving. She tried to swallow, but her throat felt as if packed with cotton. At least I dodged the headache. Kirsten slid off the bed to the floor, sitting with her legs apart and hands on the carpet between her thighs until the world stopped spinning. She got up and trudged to the alarm clock, placed with strategic intent twenty feet from the bed, and clawed her fingers at the air over the clock.
She slipped out of her still-damp underwear on the way to the bathroom and apologized to the white box as she stuck them in the top hatch. The machine thrummed to life, leaking the scent of lavender as it cleaned them, wrapped them in plastic, and added them to the top of the stack inside. After a brief cycle in the autoshower, she took a fresh set from the bottom of the same device and tore open the thin plastic wrapper. By 6:52, she clipped her metallic silver uniform belt in place and shot a forlorn look at her fridge.
I’ll eat at my desk.
“Lock,” said Kirsten, as she exited her apartment.
The door chirped after it closed. She took the elevator to the ground floor, waved at a pair of elderly spirits holding hands in the lobby, and headed for the main entrance. Inspiration flooded her mind as her hand hit the push-bar on the exit. She spun on her heel and marched past the empty reception desk to a silver door much newer than the way out to the street. As expected, it did not open for her as she walked up. Cheap bastard puts a manual door on the building but has a normal one for himself.
Kirsten pushed the button above the access panel. After a minute of silence, she hit it again.
“What?” The voice of the building manager creaked like an old floorboard.
“Sorry to wake you up Kyle, but I need to talk to you about some repairs in my apartment.”
A male groan emanated through the door as well as the speaker. “Who and what?”
She shook a fist at the wall. “Kirsten Wren, 19th floor, apartment 12. The Comforgel pad’s thermal regulator is stuck on ‘small dying star.’”
“You’re already on the list.” His yawn thundered over the small speaker. “Parts take a while ya know. Try sleeping naked.”
“I’ve been on ‘the list’ for six months. I’d like it fixed by the end of the week.”
His reply came as incoherent mumbles from a brain halfway back in the throes of sleep.
Kirsten growled. She held up the armored guard on her left forearm. “Override.”
The police code caused the door to chime and slide open. She jogged down three steps into a pale blue corridor reeking of sweat socks and bleach. Mops, buckets, tools, and spare parts for various appliances and furniture stacked up against both walls. Fifteen meters in, the door to Kyle’s apartment stood opposite the access to the building’s storage room. A little farther beyond that, a red door led to the emergency stairwell. She doubted the ‘do not open – alarm will sound’ sign, its threat likely as empty as Kyle’s promise to fix things.
Kirsten barged into the super’s apartment, halting with her hands on her hips two steps in. Kyle lay sprawled on a queen sized Comforgel slab―his glowing faint violet―in a pair of tight, white briefs. A twig-thin woman with a fuchsia bob and matching panties had wrapped herself around his left arm. Kirsten raised an eyebrow at the cluster of Flowerbasket inhalers on the pillow behind him.
She swatted at the panel to turn on the room lights. “Kyle.”
He moaned, moving only his right arm, which he draped over his eyes. “How’d you get in here? Go away, kid. Trespassing’s illegal.”
“So is Flowerbasket.” Kirsten folded her arms. “Six months, Kyle. I want my damn bed fixed.”
“Dammit, kid―” Kyle sat up and froze with his mouth open, staring at her clingy, black uniform, silver belt, and the conspicuous E-90 laser pistol on her hip.
Kirsten flashed a saccharin smile. “Little less cute than a Hello Kitty tee shirt, right? Yes, it’s real.”
“Y-you’re a cop?” He blinked.
At the word cop, his ‘girlfriend’ leapt from the bed in a flailing mass of bony limbs, and ran into the closed bathroom door―knocking herself out cold.
“If I run her ID, I’m going to find an eighteen year old, right?” Kirsten took a step closer.
“Shit. Uh. Yeah.” Kyle shifted to sit cross-legged and rubbed his face. “She’s like thirty. I don’t go for the young ones, or I’d have hit on you.”
Kirsten glared. “I am not a kid. I’m twenty-two.”
He blinked. “Horseshit. I pegged you for some fourteen-year-old runaway.”
“A runaway who’s paying for an apartment?” Heat flooded her cheeks.
He opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind. “Uh, yeah. About that bed. Fine… fine… I’ll look at it today. Probably a blown voltage regulator or temp sensor.”
Her anger faded some. She kept a glower on him as she walked over to the unconscious woman, squatted, and patted her on the cheek until she stirred.
The woman stared with unfocused eyes at her for a few seconds. Once they both aimed in the same direction, the color drained from her cheeks. “Y-yeah. I didn’t do anything.”
“What are you running for then?” Kirsten offered her a hand.
“Um, wasn’t awake. Bad dream.” She grabbed a shirt from the floor and covered her breasts, cowering from Kirsten.
“If someone associated with the police did something to you, I’d like to know about it.” Kirsten’s anger with Kyle evaporated.
“No.” The woman stood long enough to sit on the side of the bed. Kyle put an arm around her. “Couple years ago, I was with this guy… he got shot by cops. His brains hit me in the face.”
Kirsten cringed. “Sorry.”
The woman shrugged. “It’s okay. The bastard deserved it. Prolly woulda been my ass dead if the police didn’t find me.”
“Sorry.” Kirsten gave her the contact info for victim services. “If you need someone to talk to… Dr. Loring’s great.” She headed for the door, but paused. “Sorry for letting myself in, but six months?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kyle scratched at his head fast enough to frizz his hair, and got up. “I’ll go do it now.” He squinted at her. “If you’re a cop, why are you living here?”
Kirsten held her hands out in a weak shrug. “I was young, didn’t really understand money. Wanted out of the dorms as fast as possible and this was the cheapest place I could find on short notice.” Now I know why.
The terminal on Kirsten’s desk seemed to wave the incomplete report in her face as soon as it powered up. Two text messages from Captain Eze popped up, asking her if she planned on sending in the reports regarding the Intera Tower incident any time soon. She set the clear plastic carton with her jalapeño omelet sandwich on the desk next to her coffee and spent a few minutes trying to complete the report by sheer force of will.
Staring at it didn’t help much.
Officer Morelli glided by, giving her the usual wary look he always did. It didn’t matter if she responded with a pleading ‘I’m not going to melt your brain, don’t look at me like that’ face or an angry scowl. Every time he saw her, he’d scurry away. Today, she tried something different.
He froze like a kid getting caught sneaking out of class early. “Yeah?”
“Is it―and please be honest―that I’m surrounded by ghosts that freaks you out, or my dinky rating in mind blast?”
“Yeah,” said Nicole. The redhead spun around in her chair to look at him. “You know she’s real sensitive. It bugs her when people don’t like her.”
Kirsten bit her lip. Projecting much? “I’m just curious. We’re all on the same side here.”
Morelli’s glance darted back and forth between the two women. The scolded-dog posture left him, and he approached with an almost-confident look in his eye. “It’s not the mind blast. You ever hear about that guy Hawthorne from East City?”
“Yeah.” Kirsten’s gaze dropped to his chest. “Another astral sensitive. Went crazy and killed himself. There wasn’t much in the report.”
“Oooo.” Nicole’s chair rolled over as if motorized, under her telekinetic power. “Crazy?”
“They wouldn’t tell you the unofficial story.” Morelli lowered his voice and leaned closer. “He tangled with a demon. Word is, it got into his head and possessed him.”
Kirsten frowned. “You believe that? There’s no such thing as demons. Wraiths, sure. Demons? It’s all part of the BS.”
“What do you call Harbingers?” asked Dorian, from his desk.
“I have no idea what they are.” Kirsten grabbed her coffee. “But they’re not demons. A ‘demon’ is something from religious mythology.”
“Common among several disparate belief systems.” Dorian winked. “Not to mention, depending on who you ask… ghosts are a figure of religious mythology too.”
Kirsten sighed at Dorian. “You’re not baiting me now. I’ve got too much work to do.”
Morelli and Nicole exchanged looks.
“Yeah, so…” Morelli backed away, headed for his desk. “One of these days, you’re going to have a demon latched on to you, and I don’t want to be anywhere near it.”
“Guess he doesn’t think that little crucifix he wears will help him,” said Dorian in a deadpan voice.
Kirsten’s giggle rattled Morelli, who averted his gaze as he fell into his seat.
Nicole draped herself over Kirsten’s desk, eyeing the egg-on-a-roll. “Looks like I left a mental scar.”
“Hardly. These are good.” Kirsten swiped it before Nicole could ask for it. “Want half?”
“Naah, I’m too hungry. Half ‘a one would tease. I’ll order one for myself.” The redhead pulled out her NetMini. “So you’re still doing the reports on the Intera thing?”
“Yeah, I never should have―”
“Eze wanted to talk to you about that boy.” Nicole thumb-typed on the small holo-screen.
“―complained about those two idiots talking about Lucian in front of his daughter―”
“Oh, I got a 288 outta 300 on my re-qual. You think I should upgrade to a 90, or is the E-88 enough?”
Kirsten leaned her desk, cheek on fist. “―Now the reports gotta go over to Div 1 and everythings gotta be―”
“The 90’s got a blue beam, which goes with my eyes, but the green is pretty too.” Nicole put her NetMini back in her pocket.
“―perfect, in place, and complete.” Kirsten grumbled. “Congrats on the score. Wonder when they’ll make me go to the range again. Seriously, you’re choosing weapon based on if it goes with your eyes?”
Nicole shrugged. “You’re I-Ops. It’s more important for us tactical peons, and the ’88 gets more shots on an e-mag, but doesn’t pack as much punch. Seems like it’s more of a choice of style so, yeah, color becomes important.”
Kirsten rushed a mouthful of spicy eggs. “You’re not a peon.”
“I’m still an enlisted, not like some people with special rare powers.” Nicole gave her a playful raspberry.
“Wren,” yelled Eze, from his office.
“Ut oh.” Nicole winked, and scooted back to her desk.
“I deserve whatever he’s gonna throw at me.” Kirsten lolled her head to the side and rolled her eyes. “I’ve been putting this report off for two weeks.”
She swiped her hand at the terminal to lock it, and trudged to the Captain’s office. He smiled as she entered. Kirsten halted at attention before his desk, staring at the wall above his head.
“First, relax.” Captain Eze gestured at the chair next to her. “Second, this isn’t about the Intera Tower report, although I would appreciate you sending that in before my retirement dinner.”
“Retirement?” Kirsten blinked as she sat. “But you’re not even fifty―” Smooth. He’s being funny.
Captain Eze let his smile speak for a few seconds. “I received your psych report.”
Oh, crap. Her knees clamped together as she stiffened in the chair. She couldn’t bring herself to ask how she did, managing a nervous, mangled smile.
“The report says you’re no longer having that nightmare. I’m glad to hear you’re making progress.” He poked a finger through a few brighter green spots on his holo-terminal. “In regards to your request to adopt the boy you recovered a few weeks ago… Evan Dawson.”
Please… Her brows tilted up in the middle as her eyes widened. “He was so frail when I found him.”
“Medically cleared, but he’s on supplemental nutrition. He’s having some difficulty sleeping in his own room.”
Kirsten slid forward, as if to stand. “I’ll go talk to him.”
Captain Eze held up a hand. “Let me finish. They’ve agreed to let you take the boy in on a trial basis, pending further psychological review―for both of you.”
She leapt to her feet. “When can I bring him home?”
“He’s not a stray dog.” Captain Eze chuckled. “Considering he’s already seemed to attach himself to you and is having nightmares, they were considering as soon as tonight. A week or two to see how it goes. They think the advantage you’d have helping him understand his gift outweighs the worry of a possible… bad situation.” He paused for a moment. “Unless you think it’s too much responsibility.”
“I…” She pictured Evan’s pleading face in that awful apartment, the way he cowered in a ball at the sight of a stimpak. “I’m terrified I won’t be good enough for him.”
“They… and I, think it would do the both of you a lot of good.” Captain Eze stood and rounded his desk.
Kirsten felt more like a teenaged daughter about to be given a new car than a cop staring down her superior.
He offered a hand. “It’s a big responsibility, but I think you are quite capable of it.”
She accepted his handshake. “Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say. I… won’t let him down.”
“I’m sure you won’t.” He grinned. “Now… about that report.”
“Right away, sir.” Kirsten snapped off a salute and rushed out of his office.
Kirsten slumped over her desk, chin on her soft right forearm, poking her left index finger through ‘buttons’ on her terminal, answering ‘yes’ to questions like ‘have you completed this report to the fullest extent of your ability to recall all pertinent facts as they occurred.’
“Yes,” droned Kirsten, clicking again.
“Hmm?” asked Dorian from behind.
“Yes.” Kirsten sighed with relief as the screen collapsed back to a blank desktop. “Finished this damn report.”
She brought her left hand down on top of her head and tried to rub the eyestrain out of her skull. I hate reports. Her massaging hand migrated to the bridge of her nose as she sat up straight and let her weight go back in the chair.
“Agent Wren?” asked a small voice.
Kirsten jumped. “Gah!”
A tween in a tight, black Division 0 admin uniform clamped both hands over her mouth in an effort not to yelp. Straight, dark hair hung down her back to her beltline. Her almond-shaped eyes seemed to vibrate with trepidation. She looked like a tiny version of a Division Zero investigator, except for the lack of a sidearm.
Dorian walked over. “She’s adorable. Those boots are like little copies of your duty-issue ones. They’re cute in an ‘I could stomp your head in’ sort of way.”
Kirsten spared a second to glare at him before she abandoned decorum and grasped the child’s hand while eyeing the nameplate on her chest.
“Sorry, you snuck up on me, Samantha.”
“Cadet Peña, Ma’am.” The girl saluted with her left.
“Oh, this one’s into it.” Dorian chuckled.
Kirsten frowned at the slender hand in her own. What awful thing happened to you to wind up here? “Are you even twelve yet? You don’t have to salute me.”
The girl seemed thrown off balance, hesitating for a few seconds before shaking her head. “I’ll be twelve in eight months.” She stood taller. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’m only going to school here. My parents aren’t asshats.”
Kirsten thought of Nicole’s habit of telepathic eavesdropping. “Did you peek at my thoughts?”
“No, Ma’am. Telempathy is my most developed talent. I can’t help but feel emotion and I recognized that pity spike.” She smiled. “I’m not a dormer. I was about to go home, but Sergeant Reed sent me up here to find you. There’s someone downstairs asking to see you by name.”
The girl raised her arm, revealing a datapad she’d had hidden at her side. She projected a holo-panel image of an older teenaged girl, as pale as a porcelain doll with black hair and blue eyes. The only color on her face was a touch of red at the corners of her eyes.
There is something familiar about her, but I can’t remember ever meeting her. “Did you speak to her?”
“You attract the tragic ones.” Dorian offered a sympathetic look.
“No, Ma’am. I’m only a cadet. I’m not allowed into potentially dangerous situations.” She lowered the datapad and clasped her hands behind her back in an ‘at-ease’ pose.
Oh, sure. They send me out there at sixteen. Kirsten rubbed her forehead. “Thanks, Samantha.”
“Cadet Peña?” The girl fidgeted.
Kirsten grumbled. “You’re not enlisted yet, sweetie. Don’t grow up too fast.” She rendered a reluctant salute. “Dismissed.”
“Ma’am.” The girl saluted, turned, and ran off like a child.
“She’s playing. It’s fun for her.” Dorian stood next to Kirsten. “There’s something familiar about that girl.”
“Yeah.” Kirsten locked her terminal and glanced at him.
He winked. “You’ve recovered a few children in your illustrious career. Maybe she’s one of the early ones.”
I was only a kid myself when I started. Kirsten headed out of the squad room, jogging towards the elevator at the end of a blinding white corridor. “Who sets a sixteen-year-old loose with an E-90?”
Dorian raised both eyebrows. “People with no other way to stop a pissed off wraith.”
She stopped in the small capsule and spun to face the door. “Yeah…”
The walk to the interview offices took three minutes. Kirsten swiped her forearm guard past a scanner to open a set of sliding doors leading to a hexagonal room where a dark-skinned man occupied the only desk. His wide jaw and large frame made him look like a Class 3 cyborg made of flesh and bone. Sergeant Reed’s skin-tight Division 0 blacks seemed about to split open at any of six different places.
“Agent Wren.” He offered a quick salute, though the look on his face said he regarded her as little more than a kid.
“Sergeant Reed.” She saluted him back. “You sent for me?”
“Room three.” He pointed.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” Kirsten went left, down the first of five hallways leading out.
“You’re one of the few officers he doesn’t glare at.” Dorian walked at her side. “I bet it’s because you always act like he’s the one with seniority.”
“Well, he is,” she whispered. “I’m only an Agent because I’m an Astral Sensate. He’s got experience.”
Dorian feigned putting a hand on her forehead. “I don’t feel a fever. You don’t talk like a low-ranking officer.”
She stifled the urge to chuckle as she waved at the silver square on the wall, opening the door.
The young woman stood, hands clasped in front of her with a hopeful, sad smile on her face. Her sheer indigo bodysuit had a series of slits baring skin on the outside of her legs and arms; a few patches of dirt hinted that she’d been staying in a grungier part of town. A dingy jacket draped over the back of a chair carried the unmistakable cloying chemical/sour fruit odor of The Beneath.
“She’s somewhere between exotic dancer and street waif,” said Dorian.
“Kirsten!” The woman ran over and hugged her. “Thank you for seeing me.”
“Go ahead,” said Dorian, grinning. “You know you’re going to stumble over remembering her. Read her surface thoughts.”
Kirsten furrowed her eyebrows. “No, that’s rude.”
“Sorry,” said the woman. “I… Uh―”
“Not you.” Kirsten smiled and took a seat. “I’m really sorry, but I feel like I’ve met you before, but I can’t remember you.”
The woman cried despite smiling. “I’m Adrienne Lewis.”
“I’m leaving,” said Dorian.
“Oh, knock it off.” Kirsten glowered at him. “Adrian? Wow, you look amazing.”
Adrienne bit her lip and melted into the chair she’d been in. “Thanks… I…”
“Please tell me Daniel is okay?”
Dorian edged backward.
“He’s great actually. We talked and talked… He kept telling me it’s who I am and I needed to be happy. On some level, he was disappointed, but he’ll find another guy. The way he is with me now feels like I’ve become the kid sister of his last boyfriend. He treats me like we’re like siblings.” Adrienne smiled.
“That’s awkward with a capital A.” Dorian cringed.
Kirsten blinked. “I really can’t get over how… total it is. If I didn’t know you before, I’d never believe.” Wow, we’re even the same height now… guess she likes short. “You’ll get sick of being short sooner or later.”
Adrienne took a few calming breaths. “Genetically, I’m a hundred percent female. No different from if I’d been born this way. I… had them shave a few years off too. Biologically, I’m sixteen again.”
“You realize he had to steal probably twenty million credits to do that right?” Dorian folded his arms.
“Something’s really bothering you.” Kirsten leaned close. “What can I help you with?”
Dorian shook his head. “Allowing him to steal a small fortune isn’t enough help? You should’ve charged him. Do you have any idea what the media would do if it got out that a technokinetic can manufacture money?”
Kirsten gave him the side-eye.
“Someone’s been following me. Last night, he―” Adrienne broke down in sobs.
Dorian’s expression became a mixture of unease and sympathy.
Kirsten’s heartbeat quickened. “He can’t hurt you anymore. You’re safe here.”
“No…” Adrienne fumbled to open a small, shiny violet purse shaped like a square. She retrieved a tissue and held it to her nose. “I don’t think that’s what he wanted.”
Kirsten hit a button on the table to begin recording. “Tell me what happened.”
Adrienne laced her fingers together in her lap. “I’ve been trying to convince my parents to come topside. They’re considering it.” She smiled despite a case of sniffles. “I’d just climbed up from the Beneath into an alley at the edge of Sector 5128. My apartment’s a little bit north in 5180. Anyway, every time I’d gone through there for the past couple of days, it felt like someone was watching me. Like some hungry thing was staring at me.”
“Welcome to being a woman,” said Dorian, shaking his head.
A twinge of guilt struck Kirsten. The uniform shielded her from similar attention, and she didn’t much go outside except for work. “Go on.”
“Last night, this guy grabs me. My first instinct was to throw him off and punch him in the head, but he was too strong. I couldn’t get away. He dragged me to the ground, pinned my wrists together in one hand and pulled out this massive knife. I couldn’t get away…” Adrienne shook, fumbling the tissue to the floor.
“He threatened you with the knife?” asked Kirsten.
“No. He just smiled at me with this terrifying look on his face. His eyes were completely black.”
Dorian tapped his chin. “Okay, that’s strange… but not beyond the possibility of cybernetics.”
“He hissed something strange. I… couldn’t make out what he said. He never once tried to rip my clothes off, just kept whispering. When he stopped, he raised the knife and I knew he was gonna kill me. He wasn’t a rapist; he was crazy.”
Kirsten reached across the table to hold her hand. “You got away. That’s what counts.”
Adrienne offered a sheepish smile. “I… uh… zapped him.” She cringed. “I’m sorry for shocking you. I’m… Wow, I can’t believe you’re actually willing to help me after I did that to you.”
“She’s a saint.” Dorian smirked.
“I was a little upset with you.” Kirsten felt her cheeks warming with embarrassment. “For leaving me like that. I’m over it. So, what happened?”
“That’s when it got scary.” What little color existed in Adrienne’s cheeks faded. “The bastard hit the ground twitching and dropped his knife. I shoved him off and got up to run, but couldn’t help but look at him once more.” Her voice fell to an emotionless half-whisper. “Black smoke came out of him, and it sounded like a dozen people stood around whispering at me.”
Aw damn, that sounds like Harbingers. She probably killed the bastard. “I need you to focus. Think about what he said to you. I know it’s scary, but try to remember it. I’d like to look at your memories, okay?”
Kirsten locked eyes with her, focusing in on current thoughts. A blur of walls, trash compressors, and rain-slicked metal alley surface flashed by. Reading the memory brought a sharp pain to the back of her head as a hand seized her by the hair from behind and pulled her into a painful one-armed crush. The interview room faded away. Kirsten’s reality became Adrienne’s from that night. A tall man scooped her off her feet, and she struggled, helpless. The ground and sky smeared into a blur seconds before a sharp impact to her back. Wet grittiness seeped into her clothes. A face hovered over her, blocky of feature with prominent eye ridges and a long chin.
His eyes―at least in Adrienne’s memory―were solid black. His breath reeked of rotten eggs. Kirsten’s heart pounded in her head as one huge hand clamped her wrists together. The man slid a fourteen-inch combat knife from his belt, covered in a pattern of thin, red lines. She concentrated on that instant, pausing the memory in time. The markings on the blade appeared to be some manner of ancient writing, a mixture of complex pictograms and small runes.
Adrienne’s internal voice pleaded for her life, though she couldn’t force words past her fear.
The figure loomed down; blood leaked through his teeth as he grinned. After flashing a look of patronizing sympathy, he raised the knife and whispered, “In abyssum irent.”
An upwelling of terror shattered Adrienne’s paralysis. The unfamiliar sensation of an electrokinetic releasing their power followed. Her skin tingled everywhere, followed by a numbing sensation where his hand touched her arms. The man flew ten feet up in a smoking arc and bounced off the side of a dull green trash crusher with a boom that echoed through the alley. Adrienne crawled backwards for a few seconds before attempting to stand, unable to look away from the convulsing body.
Thick, black vapor exuded from the attacker at several points, coalescing into a mass which―despite being a cloud―stared at her. A hint of a humanoid face and fangs manifested, but from there, the memory contained only scenes of panicked running and screaming.
Kirsten released the telepathic link to find Adrienne curled up in the chair, crying. Dorian paced around the back of the room, looking uncomfortable and guilty. Kirsten comforted her for a few minutes with hand squeezes and reassuring pats.
“I killed him, didn’t I?” whispered Adrienne.
“I don’t want to say anything until I have a look. Did you notify Division 1?”
Adrienne shook her head, flaring her ebon hair. “No. I hid in bed for hours until I remembered you. I came right here. I think it followed me home.” Adrienne shifted and looked down. “I feel uneasy there… kind of like I do right now.”
“Many psionics can sense the presence of paranormal energy, even non-astrals.” Kirsten tried to sound comforting. “I need to go to your apartment. Soon.”
Adrienne nodded. “Okay.”
Kirsten pursed her lips and tried to ignore the grumbling emanating from the back seat of the patrol craft. They cruised a hair over two hundred miles per hour at the level of the fifty-second story, about twenty feet above civilian hovercar traffic. She followed the Navcon route to an apartment building in Sector 5182, right in the heart of ‘averageville.’ Ten five-mile grid squares in every direction filled with the same hundred-story residence towers, as if someone had the ability to copy and paste reality over itself.
Adrienne curled up in the passenger seat, leaning against the door and sniffling. A few minutes into their flight, she looked up. “He attacked me. I didn’t mean to kill him. I don’t want to get arrested. I can’t believe this is happening.”
Dorian muttered, “I can’t believe you gave him my seat.”
Kirsten bit back the urge to scream ‘her’ at Dorian, and pulled up to avoid a lumbering advert bot. She rolled the car into a right turn around a silvery office building styled in the shape of an obelisk. The pass-through video display in the armor-plated windscreen edited out the late-afternoon sun glare on the mirrored surface. “From what I saw, it looked like an em-surge.” She tapped her fingers on the sticks. “Oh, sorry. That’s short for emotional psionic surge. Most psionic abilities are tied to the user’s emotional state. Periods of extreme emotion, good or bad, can amplify the output. Usually it hurts afterwards, like pulling a muscle.”
Adrienne bit her lip. “Is that like a crime of passion or something?”
“Not exactly, but I can tell from reading your memory that you didn’t intend to kill. You wanted him off you. I can’t think of a clearer instance of self-defense.” Something’s definitely strange here. “You did see something unusual.”
“Am I gonna have to find a new place? Is my apartment haunted now? My parents were going to move in.”
Kirsten looked at her for a few seconds before nosing the patrol craft into a diving left turn. “How’d it go with them?”
“Better than I thought. When I found them, they didn’t even recognize me.” Adrienne blushed and laughed. “First thing Dad said was ‘nice tits.’ He about dropped dead when I told him who I was.”
“I bet,” said Dorian.
Kirsten sighed at him.
“Once the initial surprise wore off, they told me they suspected for a long time I wanted to be a girl. I don’t think they really understand… inside, I’ve always been a girl. It took them awhile to believe I was me. My genetics are fully modded. I can even get pregnant.”
A chill swam over the cabin. Dorian shivered.
“That’s amazing.” Kirsten smiled.
“We talked over their… uh, extreme views on government and they agreed that maybe they had taken it too far. I got an apartment, and since I look like a teenager, they insisted I needed parents again.” Adrienne swirled a strand of hair around her finger. “It’s kinda nice. I was tempted to go to school, but I’m still legally nineteen so… I wasn’t sure if that was like wrong or something.”
Dorian shook his head. “I’m surprised he didn’t go all the way back to five.”
Kirsten kept silent and forced away a memory of sitting in her father’s lap.
“Okay…” He let off a resigned sigh. “I’m surprised she didn’t go back to five.”
“You had them make you younger?” Kirsten pulled up, heading for the top of the building.
Adrienne shrugged. “My life really sucked from like sixteen to nineteen. I wanted a do-over. I would’ve gone even younger, but it was so damn expensive.” She chuckled. “Would you believe to go under sixteen requires consent from a parent or would-be guardian?”
“There’s so much wrong with that I’m not even going to say anything.” Dorian shook his head.
Kirsten set down in a parking space on the hundredth story roof. “How far can they go?”
“Six or seven if you have two hundred million to burn, are willing to spend six months unconscious in a tank, don’t mind a ten percent chance of death, and can talk someone into accepting legal guardianship for you.” Adrienne frowned. “My parents are a little too old for that. Not to mention I was getting worried about the amount of credits I was pumping. Figured I’d use it and disappear before the banks came looking for me.” She reached for the door handle. “Besides, I didn’t want to be a little kid again. I like my freedom.”
Kirsten zoned out, lost for a moment in a daydream of another chance at a normal life. Mother didn’t get really bad until I was six…
Dorian leaned up behind her, whispering, “Don’t feel ashamed of the beautiful person your experiences have made you. You are strong, tough, and the kindest woman I’ve ever met.”
Kirsten tried to swallow the lump in her throat.
“K?” Dorian smiled. “Evan needs a mother, not a little sister.”
“Yeah.” Kirsten’s sorrow faded to a sense of diligent purpose. She squeezed the exit release, causing the door to rise out of her way.
Dorian flashed a crooked grin. “Besides, where would you get that much money?”
Kirsten swallowed the urge to laugh as she got out. Adrienne led the way across the parking deck to the elevator bank and down to the thirty-ninth floor. Air blowing in through the seam in the doors carried the scent of exotic spices dueling with the stink of wet carpeting. The elevator stopped; a half-second before she wondered if it had malfunctioned, the doors slid open in time with an electronic ping. Kirsten whistled at the lifeless pea green walls and dingy carpet the same brown as cattail reeds. Yellowing light fixtures seemed to suck life from the world.
“Wow.” Kirsten whistled. “This place looks exactly like Albert’s building.”
“I think all these residence towers were built by the same company,” said Dorian.
Adrienne fumbled to pull her NetMini out of her tiny purse. “Who’s Albert?”
Kirsten rubbed her throat at the memory of icy fingers squeezing. “He’s the one I was really looking for when I arrested you. He was a ghost.”
“Oh.” Adrienne trembled.
She waved the little device at the wall, causing the door to open with a weak pneumatic squeak. Kirsten followed her in and walked an orbit around the living room. Nothing leapt out as unusual, though the air held a weak taint of foreboding. Dorian headed into the back while Kirsten made her way into the dining area and kitchenette.
“Not a bad little place you got, except for the uninvited guest.” Kirsten traced a finger along the countertop. “Something’s been here, but it feels like residual energy.”
“Is that good or bad?” Adrienne crossed to a silver fridge. “Water?”
“Sure. Probably bad. Its presence was strong enough to ‘stain’ the apartment from being here.”
Dorian returned. “Nothing in the bedrooms but a strange feeling.”
Kirsten caught a narrow cylinder-shaped bottle, and twisted the end cap. A small straw popped up. She walked in a slow circle around the apartment, sipping water while searching for paranormal energy.
Adrienne leaned against the kitchen counter. “Is it because it’s not dark yet?”
“Nah.” Kirsten smiled. “Spirits don’t go into hiding in the daytime.”
Dorian chuckled. “If something did follow hi―her home, maybe it gave up.”
“Did anything else happen after you got home?” Kirsten still sensed only the same pervasive eeriness in the surroundings.
“Well…” Adrienne sported a light blush. “Since you are a cop, I suppose I can show you. One sec.” She set her water on the counter and walked into the back.
“You should follow her,” said Dorian. “She could be going to get a weapon. You have no idea what she’s capable of.”
“Suspicious,” whispered Kirsten. He’s right. I don’t really know her. She put a hand on her E-90 and edged down the hall.
After a few minutes of doors and drawers clattering about, Adrienne emerged from the bedroom in a lavender satin robe, barefoot, and devoid of weapons. Kirsten relaxed and let her hand off her sidearm.
“My breast and back,” said Adrienne, still blushing. “Scratches.”
She opened the robe enough to show off three red lines, which started at her left collarbone and ran down over her breast. Adrienne faced away, and let the garment fall off her shoulders, catching it at her elbows. Angry red marks crisscrossed her back, six groups of three in varying lengths.
“I tried to use a stimpak.” Adrienne shivered. “All it did was burn so bad I passed out.”
Kirsten took a step closer. “May I?”
Cool skin met Kirsten’s fingertips, though within a quarter-inch of any line, Adrienne’s back felt fever-hot. At a touch, Kirsten sensed the presence of paranormal energy. She raised her forearm guard, capturing several still images of the scratches, including a thermal scan showing 96.4 degree skin marked by red lines reading as 106.66 degrees.
Kirsten frowned. “Oh, this one’s got a sense of humor.”
Dorian leaned into examine the holographic screen floating over her arm. “Or there’s something significant to the number.”
“Nice try.” Kirsten let her arm fall. “Humans made that up, and the spirits know that so they’re messing with us.”
“Huh?” Adrienne shifted to look over her shoulder at Kirsten. “Nice try?”
“There’s a weak presence attached to you.” Kirsten saved the images into a new Inquest Report. “I’m going to get rid of it. This is going to look scary, but I promise it can’t hurt you.”
A sudden peal of techno-trance music rang out, making Adrienne yelp. She pulled her robe up and closed it, grabbing the counter to keep from falling over.
“What the?” Kirsten looked at the ceiling.
“Doorbell,” said Adrienne, shivering. “It’s been going off on its own.”
“I got it.” Kirsten held a hand up. “Stay here.”
Adrienne backed into the counter, fear plain in her eyes.
Kirsten trotted to the door and waved a hand over the silver panel on the wall. The nondescript grey panel slid sideways, revealing a stooped man in a clear vest and Mars-red fatigue pants, riddled with stains and rips. His bare chest bore such a number of purple autoinjector bruises he looked like a ‘connect the dots’ art project. He slouched forward; hair like an enormous azure flamingo died on his head obscured his face.
“Who the hell are you?” Kirsten put a hand on her sidearm, but decided to reach across to her stunrod instead.
The man swayed as if intoxicated while emitting a menacing chuckle.
“Is someone there?” Adrienne peeked around the archway from the kitchen.
“The marked one.” A hiss of a voice escaped the figure in the door. His head snapped up, wild eyes trained on Adrienne. His hair flew back, baring a tattoo of a large ‘carved stone’ O at the front of his throat.
Adrienne’s water bottle slipped through her fingers as she screamed. At first, the shriek formed from terror, but the tone changed to one of pain as she sank to her knees, arms twitching.
A wave of paranormal energy burst forth from the man. He surged into the apartment, swatting Kirsten aside like the ninety-pound sprite she was. She twisted to catch her fall, landing on her hands into a sideways roll. Dorian rushed in front of the charging maniac, though his fingers found no purchase, passing clear through him.
Kirsten leapt to her feet and swung her right arm to the side, calling the lash. A tendril of scintillating blue-white energy unfurled to a ten-foot length. The man seized Adrienne by her arms, lifting and slamming her down on her back atop the kitchen’s island counter. He tore her robe open, exposing her breasts, and reached for a knife handle at his belt.
Adrienne gurgled, seeming in too much pain to move or scream.
“Hey!” Kirsten shouted as she ran at him, rounding the lash into a strike.
The thug arched his back as the energy whip hit him, and loosed a scream mixed of human and something… else. A voice far deeper than any mortal could produce howled at a deafening volume. Lights faltered. Car alarms out in the street sang.
Head titled back, the gang thug moved in a slow, menacing turn. The hate in his all-black eyes gave way to worry at the sight of the lash coiling around Kirsten’s legs. He seemed to forget Adrienne existed, staring with fixation at Kirsten. Simmering hatred bloomed to an angry roar as he stomped at her. Decorative glass sculptures on shelves rattled and windows shook. Kirsten braced against the onslaught of paranormal fear, resisting the terror he tried to force into her mind. She pushed back at him with her psionic energy. He’s not as strong as he looks. She shoved with a surge of mental force, cutting off his bellow and knocking him to the floor.
Adrienne rolled on her side, whimpering. Blood seeped from the claw marks on her chest and back as if the wounds were new. Her expression, red and contorted from pain, begged for help. Kirsten raised the lash as the man ambled to his feet.
Dorian stuck a hand into the thug’s chest, straining and pulling on something inside. “He’s… possessed.”
Kirsten snapped the lash around, but the maniac dove to the side with surprising agility considering his size. Confident the energy whip could cause no harm to the living, Kirsten let it pass through Adrienne to complete the swing, planning to spin into another strike. At the instant the shimmering cord made contact with the woman on the counter, it snagged for a second before pulling through―as if she’d struck a weak spirit.
Adrienne went limp with relief, gasping for breath.
“You…” The man pointed at Kirsten, all trace of malevolence gone. He ambled for the door and broke into a run. “Claustritumus.”
Kirsten looked back and forth from the now-quiet Adrienne to the fleeing man. Sensing no immediate threat to the girl, she bolted after him. He ran down the corridor, heading straight at a window, crossing his arms in front of his face.
“This death is on your soul,” he shouted.
No! Kirsten pushed herself forward with all the desperation she could find, leaping into a tackle at the jumping man. She wrapped her arms around his legs as his upper body smashed the reinforced glass. Kirsten spread her legs to the side, grunting. Her boots slapped into the wall and all the man’s weight tugged at her grip. She leaned back, trying to keep her ass on the floor so he didn’t drag her along with him.
He howled with rage, scrabbling at the window frame. Shards of broken glass clanked around as he strained to pull himself forward. Kirsten roared through gritted teeth and hauled back with as much strength as she could summon. His thighs slipped an inch in her grasp, and another. Her butt left the carpet; her boots acted as a pivot point. The man’s legs slid up around her body as her hips crashed into the wall. He dangled, only her arms between him and a fatal drop.
“Stop.” She growled, a brief reflection of glowing light in her eyes appeared on the wall.
Cold slithered over her and down her back. The struggling man went still for a second, and screamed. Stench watered Kirsten’s eyes; her face hovered less than two feet away from soiled pants. She choked back the urge to vomit, straining to look over her shoulder at another presence without losing her grip.
Behind her in the hall floated a wispy shadow of darkness in the vague shape of a human silhouette. It waved at her, an over-polite finger curling gesture with long, smoky talons.
A voice like scraping glass sent tremors down her spine. “Do not fret if you cannot hold him. His soul is tainted.” The shadow drifted down the hall. “Farewell.”
Kirsten screamed as the man slipped another inch. Her arms shook from fatigue. It’s getting away. She glanced at her boots, spread as wide as the corridor would allow, wedged in the corners. Her thighs shuddered; she couldn’t move her legs. I… can’t let him die. Dammit!
She squeezed her arms tight, fingers aching where she clasped her wrist at his gut, straining to hold on. “Command, B-backup call.”
Her armband beeped.
“Shit!” screamed the man. “Help!”
Dorian raced out of Adrienne’s apartment, chasing the fleeing specter.
I’m not gonna be able to hold this lunk long enough for backup to get here. “Dorian!”
Her partner glanced over his shoulder. “He’s Oblivion. Let him go.”
Kirsten braced her knees against the wall as the man flailed. “I don’t care what gang he’s in. I can’t let him die.”
The thug screamed again, flailing his arms in a futile effort to grab something.
She closed her eyes, tightening her grip on his shins as much as her protesting muscles would allow. Please don’t slip. Please don’t slip.
“Fine,” said Dorian, sounding close.
Kirsten concentrated on her astral power, allowing it to permeate her body and render her tangible to spirits. Dorian wrapped his arms around her from behind and pulled. Inch by excruciating inch, their combined strength dragged the panic-stricken man back. As soon as he could reach, he clamped his hands on the window frame, crunching jagged glass, and pushed. Kirsten fell on her back and turned her head to the side at the last second before he fell sitting on her; loaded pants pressed warmth into her cheek.
“Get off me.” She almost vomited.
The man wheezed and collapsed to the side, staring at his bloody handfuls of glass. “Sixty… stories…”
Kirsten sat up, watery-eyed and gagging.
“Whatever that was, it got away,” said Dorian. “Hope this guy was worth saving.”
“He’s alive, Dorian. He’s worth saving.” She moved to her knees and held her left forearm up to grab an image of the ganger’s face.
“At best, he’s a drug dealer. At worst, a murderer or rapist. Oblivion is a pack of nihilists. They want the world to end and don’t care what happenes.” Dorian shook his head. “Who knows what that thing is going to do? I hope we didn’t just kill someone else.”
“When was the last time a true nihilist begged for his life?” Kirsten frowned at the holo-panel floating over her left arm. Johnathan Breem, twenty-six years old, six active warrants for sexual assault, two for strong-arm robbery, three for assault with a deadly weapon, and two for ‘non-complaining rape.’ She frowned. “Dorian, what the hell is ‘non-complaining rape?’”
“Citycams recorded the assault, but the victim never came forward. It means there’s no complaining witness, but we can charge him based on the video.”
“Thinking you should’ve let him go?” Dorian raised an eyebrow.
“No. That thing wasn’t that strong. I’m sure another decent hit would have destroyed it. It will be licking its wounds for a while. Maybe I can find it before it does something.” She grumbled. “It shouldn’t have left such an imprint on her apartment, not as weak as it was.”
“Maybe it’s a demon?” Dorian grinned.
Kirsten rolled her eyes. “Don’t start. Not now.”
The man clutched his hands to his chest, still breathing hard.
“Johnathan Breem,” said Kirsten. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news after you almost died, but you’re under arrest for”―she pointed at the holo-terminal―“reasons.”
“You’re supposed to read the list of charges,” said Dorian, also smiling.
“I’m too exhausted. Besides, I’m sure he knows.” She shut off the panel. “Div 1 will give him the drill. Now that he’s spirit-free, he’s not my jurisdiction.”
Johnathan sat up and looked at her with a ‘you’re a tiny little woman, what are you gonna do about it’ face.
Her eyebrows flattened into an unimpressed line as her eyes glowed for an instant. “Stay put.”
“Okay.” He laid down. “Do I have to sit in shit?”
“You shouldn’t have crapped your pants.” Kirsten gagged.
Johnathan gestured at the broken window. “Sixty stories.”
“Roll over.” Her eyes flickered again.
She collected his arms behind him and cuffed him. Adrienne poked her head out of her door.
“Wait inside,” yelled Kirsten. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She knelt beside Johnathan for two minutes and forty-nine seconds, eager to be able to get away from the stink. Four figures in gloss black Division 0 tactical armor rushed from the elevator and headed towards her. One look at their height said Nicole wasn’t one of them. A story for later. She forced herself to stand; every sore muscle made itself known.
Kirsten pointed at Breem. “Warrant hold. Div 1 wants him.”
Squad Corporal Forrester raised his visor. “How you wind up stepping in it?”
Ugh, the smell. Did he have to use that phrase? “Wraith possessed him, tried to kill the girl in 60-10”
The one woman among the tactical squad glanced back. “Guess that’s where the crying is coming from.”
“Yeah.” Kirsten edged past them. “Johnathan should behave himself for at least another three minutes. Can you babysit while I deal with this?”
“Sure thing, Ma’am.” Forrester nodded.
“Suggest?” asked Cortez.
“Yeah.” Kirsten muttered. “Too tired to fight, and he’s three times my size.”
“Stunrod?” asked the woman.
“Diaz… Check his pants. I did not want to smell that.” Kirsten cringed at the mere thought of what a stunrod would’ve ‘cooked up.’ She headed for Adrienne’s apartment. “Oh, I need my binders back whenever they collect him.”
“You got it,” said Forrester.
Kirsten jogged back to the still-open door and ducked inside. Adrienne sat in a ball on the floor in front of the couch, still in her bloody robe. She looked up as Kirsten approached and sat beside her on the cushions.
“Yeah, I noticed.” Adrienne sniffled. “I’m not used to crying this much. I mean, I always was kinda emotional, but it’s gotten worse.”
“Gotta love hormones.” Kirsten opened a belt case and pulled out a four-inch red autoinjector with a yellow safety cap over the tip. “I hit something when the lash caught you.”
“I don’t remember.” Adrienne sniffled. “It felt like I was wrapped up in red-hot barbed wire. When it stopped, I was in pure euphoria.”
“The last time you tried a stimpak, it didn’t work, right? Maybe whatever spirit was lingering inside you did that?”
“Sounds like a demon,” said Dorian. “Three scratches… the sign of the Devil.”
Kirsten glared at him. The word ‘Devil’ would be forever associated with Mother. “Mythology. This was a wraith.”
Dorian folded his arms. “The last time you messed with a wraith, its claws were icy, right?”
“So? Maybe there’s different kinds.”
Adrienne looked at her. “Are you okay?”
“Just arguing.” She handed over the stimpak. “You’re still bleeding.”
“Okay.” Adrienne flicked the plastic cap from the tip and pressed the air hypo into her shoulder. The autoinjector emitted a faint hiss.
“Judging by her lack of screaming,” said Dorian, “I think it worked.”
Adrienne stood. “I want to get out of this bloody thing and clean up. I-is it gone?”
“It ran.” Kirsten leaned forward and rubbed her face. “I don’t think it’ll come back for you. I got the feeling the energy in those scratches drew it like a beacon.”
“I’m scared.” Adrienne shivered. “Please tell me it’s not coming back.”
“I got a piece of it.” Kirsten stood. “Even if it does remember you, which I doubt, it’ll probably be a few weeks before it’s got the balls to show itself. I’ll hunt it down. You have my PID. Vid me if you see or feel anything unusual.”
“Okay.” Adrienne wrapped her arms around herself, shivering.
“Hey.” Kirsten put a hand on Adrienne’s shoulder. “Whatever it was, it targeted you at random. I really doubt it’ll come back.”
Division 1 officers in blue armor tromped past the door. A few seconds later, Johnathan shouted angry threats until the electronic bwong of a stunrod silenced him. Despite being at a safe distance in Adrienne’s apartment, Kirsten covered her nose.
I have to believe I did the right thing.
“Thank you.” Adrienne hugged her, careful not to make contact with blood-soaked cloth.
Kirsten smiled. “If you’d feel better having someone along when you go to drag your parents back to civilization, let me know.”
Adrienne reached up and held her hand. “I never thought getting arrested would be a way to make friends.”
Kirsten laughed. “I don’t advise making a habit of it. Have you considered signing on?”
“Nah. I’m not cut out for it. I’m a big ol’ chicken.” Adrienne summoned a weak smile. “I’m still trying to get used to my emotions going all over the place.”
“People with your mechanical talents tend to work in Admin, not front line.” Kirsten glanced at the time on her arm. “Ack! I need to go. Crap. I just got done with reports.”
“You should know better.” A whimsical grin formed on Dorian’s face. “This job is ten hours of reports for every five minutes of action.”
Adrienne walked her to the door. “If I can’t find anything in a couple weeks, I guess I’ll look into it.”
A man in blue armor waited outside.
“Great. Guess the paperwork starts now.” Kirsten nodded at him and smiled back at Adrienne. “You look great. Try to get some sleep.”
“Bye. Thanks, and sorry again about the…” She wiggled her fingers as if throwing lightning.
“Don’t mention it.” Kirsten stepped into the hall.
“That the vic?” asked the cop.
“Yeah, but not Johnathan’s. He was just a vessel for a spirit.”
“Demon,” said Dorian.
Kirsten picked at her eye with her middle finger.
“Uh, okay.” The officer raised his arm, dangling her binders from two fingers. “Thanks for the assist. Mr. Breem’s been staying off the grid. So what filled his pants?”
Kirsten swallowed bile. “The spirit tried to throw him out a window. Guess he’s afraid of heights.”
After giving a statement of events, she made her way back to the roof where she’d parked. Dorian took the passenger seat with the smug grin of a usurped king once more on his throne. The console lit up at her touch. Kirsten clutched the sticks and eased the patrol craft into the air.
Dorian glanced over. “What’s got you so nervous? Your hands are shaking.”
“I’m taking Evan home tonight, assuming he wants to go.” She almost mistimed her entry to a traffic lane, causing an alarm inside as well as a horn outside. “Really? You just did that? What kind of idiot beeps at a police vehicle?”
“They can’t hear you shouting.” Dorian tapped on the ‘window.’ “Inch thick armor.”
She levelled off in the lane, glaring at the silver Halcyon-Ormyr that just had to get in front of her. “So tempted to flick the lights.”
Dorian waved her down. “You did mistime it. Don’t turn into a Div 1 jackass that thinks traffic rules don’t apply to cops.” He paused a moment. “Relax. I’m sure Evan will jump at the chance to get out of the dorm.”
Kirsten clenched and released the sticks, battling the knot of worry growing inside her belly. “What if seeing me makes him think about being locked in his bedroom and beaten? What if he panics as soon as I walk in?”
“He won’t.” Dorian pointed at the windscreen. “Mind that ad-bot.”
She dove two meters to avoid a damaged floating billboard straying into the traffic stream. A few angry pokes at the console sent a feeler over to Div 1 to deal with it.
“I hope you’re right, Dorian…”
The antiseptic white corridors of the Division Zero dormitory shaved eight years from Kirsten’s mind, bringing her back to feeling lost and alone. She walked past small bedrooms; children glanced up from datapads, games, or toys, their faces filled with every emotion ranging from joy at being safe to abject terror. She locked stares with a pale black-haired girl of about five cowering under her bed with her thumb in her mouth.
That was me my first night here, only I was twelve. Kirsten smiled and waved, though the girl didn’t react. Before Kirsten could surrender to her heavy heart and go talk to her, one of the nannies darted into the room with a large stuffed rabbit and an armload of pink datapads. Kirsten stared at the floor and moved on. Four rooms later, she edged up the door of Room 23.
Evan lay on the bed in blue pajama pants and no shirt. He wore an expression somewhere between bored disinterest and a sullen frown. Light from a video game holo-panel flashed, tinting his skin blue while painting an enlarged silhouette of him on the wall. His disheveled mop of hair looked like a puffball in shadow.
He still looks so scrawny.
Kirsten knocked. “Hey.”
“Kirsten!” His eyes lit up; he tossed the datapad to the side and scrambled off the bed. “You came!”
She caught his charge, scooping him into a hug. He clamped his arms around her for a long moment before leaning back to look at her. The gleam in his green eyes destroyed any fear he’d be afraid of her.
Dorian smiled without a word, and wandered off down the hall.
“I keep hearing people tell me you’re not happy here.” Kirsten smiled.
He looked worried. “How long are they gonna let you stay?”
“Oh, not too long. I’ll probably leave in less than an hour.”
Tears collected at the corner of his eyes. His gaze started to fall to the floor.
“Do you want to come with me?”
His head snapped up, mouth agape.
Kirsten sat in an orange cube-shaped chair near the door, setting him on his feet in front of her. “I used to live in here when I was little too, and I know how lonely it can be… especially for astrals. People tend to be creeped out by us.”
Evan stood mute, tears running down his cheeks.
“Since we, uh, have the same sort of power, they said yes when I asked if I could foster you… if you want.” She bit her lip. “I mean, you don’t have to.”
“I wanna.” He jumped on her, sniffling. “Please.”
“Okay. Get dressed. We’ll stop for dinner on the way.”
“Yay!” He bounced around the room cheering for a full two minutes before flinging off his pajamas and beginning a search for underpants.
Kirsten laughed at the sudden shift from sorrow to uncontained happiness. Evan jumped into his clothes, the plain black tee shirt and pants given to every dormer, and stuffed a bunch of datapads, gadgets, and more clothing into a backpack before running back to her.
“Am I gonna stay with you?” He couldn’t stand still.
What am I doing? Am I ready for this responsibility? She clasped his hand. “I’m not sure. I want you to, but they want to make sure it’s in your best interest.”
He looked crestfallen. “How long?”
It’s up to me. I can’t mess this up. “Two weeks. Hopefully longer if things work out.”
Evan’s emerald eyes sparkled as he stared at her. His open mouth stretched to a smile. He nodded in a matter-of-fact way, grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.
“Can we go home now?”
“Okay.” Kirsten led him out to the admin station, where she waved to get the attention of one of the RNs. At least he’s optimistic. “Hi, Agent Wren. I’m signing out Evan Dawson.”
He grumbled. “Just Evan.”
“Got it. Looks like a two week pass. We’ll need him back in three days for about a half hour. Routine medical check.” The nurse held up a datapad. “Wave, please.”
“Oh, he’s still going to school here. Thanks.” Kirsten swiped her armband over the device, making it beep. She faced away from the counter and took a knee. “You ready, Ev?”
“Uh huh!” His sneakers squeaked on the over-polished tiles as he failed to drag her faster than a walk.
Kirsten held his hand on the trip to motor pool. I hope I am.