Unlocked

Emma

The animals were her favourite, and she liked to watch them when she could. Today she was near a watering hole somewhere on the plains in Africa. Emma marveled at the different kinds of animals that gathered around: the cranes, the gazelles, and even the beetles crawling around on the ground.

When she turned her gaze to the tall grass, she wasn’t surprised to see several pairs of hungry eyes poking from the tall grass. Lionesses were poised and ready to pounce on one of the unsuspecting creatures trying to drink from the muddy pool. As one of the big cat’s legs twitched in anticipation of the pounce, there was a sudden flash of blinding white light. All of the startled animals fled from the sudden pulse which seemed to come from the ground itself.

Emma giggled. She didn’t like it when the big animals went after the small ones. She knew it was a fact of life that some animals needed to eat meat to survive, but she didn’t like to watch it happen. As long as she was around, the smaller creatures of the world were safe.

There was a rustle at her door, so she looked out in the hallway. It wasn’t Rebecca, her usual doctor, but it was that new one with the bad breath. She didn’t like him. He reminded her too much of the man from the foster home where she used to live. He was fumbling with keys with one hand, and holding a tray of food in the other. She hadn’t realized how long she had been visiting the animals, but the clock on the wall said it was almost noon. It was lunchtime, and she was as hungry as the lions had been.

“Hello, Emma,” he said. “How are we doing today?”

She sat down at her table where the doctor had set down the tray. “Fine.”

As she reached for a french fry, he pulled the tray away. “No, you know the drill,” he said. “We need to take a sample first.”

Emma rolled her eyes and dropped her shoulders in exasperation, as only a nine-year-old girl can do. She held up her arm so he could swab her finger and apply the tester. The prick of the little device barely hurt anymore. It was more of a nuisance than anything.

“Normal, right?” she said.

He looked at the digital readout on the tester, nodded, and pushed the tray back towards her.

“It’s always normal.” she said. “Why do I have to do that stupid test anymore?”

“First of all,” he answered, “don’t talk with you mouth full.” He handed her a napkin so she could wipe the ketchup from the corner of her mouth. “And secondly, diabetes is a very serious disease. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can get very sick and die. Nobody wants to see that happen.”

“But it’s always normal,” she said. “It’s been normal ever since I got here two years ago.”

“Rebecca must have told you that we need to understand why you’re not getting sick anymore,” he said. “If we don’t know why then it could happen again. You remember how you were almost blind before you came here? You don’t want that to happen again, do you?”

“No, I guess not,” she said.

“Besides, it could help a lot of people like you,” he said. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Yeah,” she answered. “It’s just…why do I have to be locked in here? When can I go outside and play with the other kids?”

“I’m sorry, dear,” he said. “That’s not up to me.”

She continued to eat her lunch. The answer was always the same, no matter how many times she asked. She wondered of they were ever going to let her out of this room again. If they didn’t, she thought, at least she could still travel in her mind to anywhere on the planet.

It wasn’t the same as being there, of course. She couldn’t hear or smell anything outside of this room, but she could imagine. With a thought, she could move from this room to wilds of the Amazon or the bottom of the ocean. She would pretend to read or watch television, but in reality she was on the other side of the globe. She only came back here to eat and sleep.

As far as she could tell, no one else could do this. Emma had never seen it mentioned in books or television, except for witches and fairies and the like. In the stories, bad things always happened to the witches, so she never told anyone what she could do in case they wanted to hurt her too. She had looked all over, but she had never found them anywhere.

As she got older, she realized that they probably weren’t real. She was unique. That was exciting, but it was lonely too. She wished she could have some company other than the stuffy doctors and the mean soldiers.

“How about a pet?” she asked. “Rebecca said I might be able to get a kitten or a puppy if I was good. I’ve been good, haven’t I? I do everything you ask, and I never complain.”

“You’re a very good girl, Emma,” he said, “but that’s something you’ll have to ask Rebecca about tomorrow.”

“Fine.”

When she was finished eating, he took the tray and left. Emma sat down in front of the television, but she wasn’t watching the show. In her mind, she followed the doctor out in the hallway as he got in the elevator and went up to the cafeteria. After dropping off the dishes, he went back down to the basement laboratories and began poking at the buttons on the machines. She didn’t understand what the machines were for, and watching him work soon became boring.

She started looking through the other labs until she found the new woman. Like Emma, she was different from the other people here. The woman had metal arms and legs but they were covered up so they looked almost real. She spent almost all of her time locked up in her lab, working on her inventions. Emma wasn’t sure what all the things she made were for, but the best one was the little robot kitten that she had made. It was so lifelike that she had screamed the first time the woman had peeled back the skin to show the gears underneath. If she couldn’t have a real cat, maybe she could get one of those robot ones. It was almost worth the risk to ask.

Cassidy

Even though it had been months since she had learned the truth, Cassidy still had trouble believing that there were functioning nanobots all around her. Tiny little machines scurrying about hidden from all but a select few, and even those people knew nothing of their origin or purpose. One thing they did know was that they could give some people extraordinary powers, such as near instantaneous healing. For someone who had spent her life on the cutting edge of engineering, the urge to study them was overpowering.

At the same time, it forced her into veritable imprisonment within the military compound. She had always been independent and suspicious of authority, and these feelings had been strongly reinforced by the manner in which she had come to be here. Kidnapped from her home, and then locked-up and humiliated, she had been the victim of mistaken identity. They had believed she was one of these comic-book superheroes, and they had brought her here to study her. After realizing that she wasn’t, they turned to her to help understand and control the bugs.

Her first task had been to modify the protective collars that everyone on the base wore to protect them from the effects of the machines. The collars were uncomfortable to wear, and periodically gave off small electric shocks, even when you were trying to sleep. After running some tests, she determined it was the rapidly changing electric field that interfered with bugs, not the charge. She she able to quickly prototype a new device that was both painless, and could be worn around the wrist like a thick watch band.

When the new devices had been distributed to base staff, it had earned her a standing ovation the next time she had walked into the cafeteria. She was uncomfortable in crowds and not used to being the centre of attention, yet she still found herself smiling that day. It had been a long time since she had felt like she belonged to a group. She had always been better with machines than with people, but she made quite a few new friends that day.

It wasn’t long before she was back in her lab working on her next project. She had wanted to take a stab at trying to decipher how the bugs communicated. It was the key to ultimately controlling them. She knew the variable electric field that disrupted them must be the key, but the military brass had other ideas. They wanted an improved weapon against the supermen.

They couldn’t appreciate the real cause and threat, she thought. Instead they try to deal with something they can understand, and they put a human face on the threat. There were more important things going on that these few freaks. You have to deal with the root of the problem. You have to understand the bugs.

She was distracted by the sound of something falling over in the corner behind her. When she went to see what it was she found her little toy robot kitten, Fuzz Aldrin, pawing at some unseen creature on the floor. Cassidy had been unable to give the cat the attention it needed since she had started working on the base. Completely lifelike in its appearance and behaviour, she had thought the little creature was going to be her meal ticket to a better life. It made her realized how much her priorities had changed in the past few weeks. She decided she would shut it down until she had more time to devote to finishing her pet project.

When she bent down to pick up the toy kitten, she saw what it had been chasing. A tiny point of white light raced around on the floor. She looked up to find the source, but there was nothing that could have projected a beam. Intrigued, she leaned in closer but the light instantly vanished. Cassidy knelt on the concrete and looked for what might be causing the tiny glow. Perhaps a firefly or bio-luminescent beetle had found its way into the basement lab, but she couldn’t find any trace of it or even a crack it might have escaped into.

She stood up again and took the cat to its charging station to put it into storage. She laid it on the bed and gave it a couple of strokes to induce it to go into a dormant mode. Once it seemed to be asleep she reached to touch the hidden switch that would shut it down.

 I like your cat

 The words appeared on the wall in the same glowing light that the kitten had chased earlier. To Cassidy, it seemed as if they were being projected with a laser on the surface in front of her. She waved her hand in front of the message, but no matter where she put her hand, it did not block the light. It must be coming from wall itself.

“Who are you?” asked Cassidy. “How are you doing this?”

 I can’t hear you

 “What does that mean?” Cassidy considered the strange message before she realized perhaps it was not a taunt. Maybe it was meant literally. She took a piece of paper from her workbench and wrote the questions out again.

 Emma

 “Where are you?” she said as she wrote.

 don’t tell secret

“I won’t tell anyone,” said Cassidy. “I want to know more about you.” She held the paper up to the wall as if there were a camera there.

I have to go

The light disappeared as suddenly as it had come. Cassidy tried for several more minutes to get it to answer her, but she soon realized that what ever it had been, it was now gone. Every day she was in this place it seemed to her like she was falling deeper down the rabbit hole, she thought.

Cassidy didn’t know what was going to happen next. She left the cat on its bed to charge its batteries, hoping it would draw the strange entity out into the open again. If it did, she was going to be ready.

Michael

It had been a long couple of days cleaning up after the Smilin’ Bob fiasco. Michael had needed to do a lot of fast talking to explain how two men could have survived the intense garage fire that had nearly destroyed the car dealership. And they had not just survived, but escaped without a scratch on them.

There had been dozens of people at the scene, all of whom had seen the two men in various states of repair as their powers had started to heal their bodies. As he had spoken to the first responders, he’d fed them all the same false narrative of how the men had been barely alive, but had died at the hospital. Burns can be tricky things, he would say. Sometimes it can be hard to judge how badly someone was hurt just by looking at them, he would tell others. In the best case scenario, he knew that eventually they would start to doubt their own memories, and the consistent story he had given them would be reinforced when they ever talked to each other. At worst, the incident would join the ranks of urban legends like spontaneous human combustion.

As usual, the tip from the hospital had come from their plant, a young doctor in the emergency ward. The project had agreed to pay off his student loans in return for any information about unexplained or extraordinary patients, his help making them disappear, and his silence about the things he saw. Freaks often found their way to the hospital, whether because someone got hurt by their abilities, or as often happened, because they thought they were going crazy.

Freaks. That’s what they were called around the base, and he counted himself among them. He had been in law enforcement since graduating with degrees in psychology and sociology. Working with the local police, he had quickly risen up through the ranks to become the youngest detective in the history of the department.

He had been happy and successful in his new job for a few years when one day he noticed he was having trouble doing up the button on his pants. When the weakness didn’t clear up on its own after a few days, he had finally broken down and gone to his doctor. It took many more visits to doctors and countless tests to confirm it, but eventually he had gotten a diagnosis. It was ALS, a death sentence for him, his career, and his entire future.

Michael had begun to do feverish research into the causes and treatments of his condition, but ultimately, he’d had to accept that there was little hope for anything but a slow decline into total body paralysis. He’d decided to use what little money he had saved up and take a trip around the world while he still could. After travelling through Europe and India, he had finally made his way up the east coast of Asia to Japan. Along the way he had met many mystics and charlatans who claimed to have a cure for him, but he knew they had about as much chance of working as tossing a coin in a wishing well.

His money almost gone, he had come home to put his affairs in order. It was just when he had given up hope, that he woke one morning feeling completely healthy. He had thought he was still dreaming, until it finally sank in that he was cured, and he was going to stay that way.

Michael had begun to make plans again. He even thought about getting his old job back. That was when the colonel and mad scientist had shown up on his door. He never did learn their real names, but they knew everything about him. They had heard about his spontaneous remission and had gotten curious. There had been a lot of questions about people he had met, places he had gone, and things he had seen. It had all been a ruse, however. These men were there to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

They already knew what Michael would only find out later. Somehow in his journey, the nanobots in his body had become activated, and he had become one of those freaks that so frightened the men in power. They usually locked them up and threw away the key when they found people like him, but the professor was starting a new program to study and control the freaks. Since Michael’s power was effectively benign and only affected him, they gave him the choice to join the enforcement arm of this new operation. Looking back now, he supposed it had been a far better fate than the alternatives of imprisonment or death.

In truth, he enjoyed the work. It had been a little surreal at first, running around the planet trying to capture people with abilities that defied imagination. There was an entire secret world that only a privileged few knew anything about.

It bothered him when they tracked down someone who was obviously completely innocent of what was happening to them. They ended up suffering the same fate as serial murderers, locked up in a cell for the rest of their lives, or worse, experimented on like guinea pigs. It was sometimes hard, but Michael knew that even a beneficial power like healing could lead to widespread panic if it went unchecked.

There were other, darker reasons as well. If the mechanism for giving one abilities could be isolated and replicated, the one who figured it out would have the makings of an army of self-healing super-soldiers who would be stronger, faster, and deadlier than anything the world had ever seen. That was the ticking time bomb, that like splitting the atom before it, simultaneously promised to save the world and destroy it. No one could be trusted with that kind of power. It had to be kept secret at all costs.

At the same time, the number of cases was growing. It used to be that only one new freak would be found every few years, but there were more now than ever before. The scientists had done a statistical analysis and concluded that there may be dozens of freaks worldwide at any given time, more than double what it had been only a decade before. At that rate, they would not stay a secret for much longer.

When that reality of the situation sank in, the upper echelons reacted as they always do to problems they don’t fully understand – they threw lots of money at the problem and hoped someone smarter than they were would come along and figure it out. That was when The Farm had come into being. A re-purposed paratrooper training facility in the middle of nowhere, the base had grown into a world-class research lab, but they were no closer to a solution than they had been then.

That had been forty-one years ago, and in all that time, Michael had not aged a day.

Lost in thought, he didn’t hear Cassidy approach with her lunch tray.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “Haven’t seem you around for a couple of days.”

“What? Oh, sorry,” he said. “I was lost in thought. What did you say?”

“I asked what was keeping you so busy that you couldn’t stop by for lunch.”

“You know I can’t tell you, it’s…”

“Top secret,” she mocked. “Have to kill you if I told you. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. Try breaking a few rules now and then.”

“Breaking that particular rule would be considered treason,” he said, “so I think I’ll pass.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “I think you just like playing the man of mystery card.”

“Well, I am a secret agent.”

Cassidy flashed Jim a warm smile. “And yet you still strike out with all the girls,” she said. “You’re certainly no James Bond.”

Michael frowned. He didn’t like where this conversation was headed. Between her fishing for details of classified operations and her flirting, he wasn’t sure which was making him more uncomfortable. The first would land him in prison, and the second would send him to hell. He was old enough to be her grandfather, even if he didn’t look it to the outside world. “I hear you’re working on something new,” he said. “How’s that going?”

“Boring,” she answered. “They have me working on a modified taser, that will continue to suppress abilities even after the initial charge. It’s basically just a calibration job at this point. I’ve been using Rodriguez as a test subject. I’ve already shocked him eight times this week. He’s starting to get a little cranky.”

“Just make sure you get it right,” he said. “They’re going to want to test it on me at some point.”

“It’s something anyone could do at this point,” she said. “I’m more interested in doing core research at this point. I want to find out what makes those bugs tick, not just better ways to shut them down.”

“I may not be James Bond, but you make a decent Q,” he said. “Your toys are going to help keep guys like me alive.”

“That’s sweet of you to say so,” she said, “but it’s not the reason I signed on.”

“You’re still new here,” he said. “They need some time to know that they can trust you.”

“Do you trust me?” she asked.

“Of course I do,” he answered. “but I’ve spent more time with you than anyone else here.”

Cassidy took a sip of her coffee. She stared at Micheal for a moment before she asked, “Who’s Emma?”

Michael looked at her with stunned amazement. “Where did you hear that name?”

“That’s not an answer,” she said. “People chat. I hear things. Who is she?”

“I suppose there’s no reason you shouldn’t know,” he said. “Emma is one of our long-term guests. She has a minor healing gift, but she’s far too young to be offered a deal like the one I got.”

“How young?” she asked.

“Nine, maybe ten years old.”

“Jesus,” she swore. It was loud enough to make some nearby heads turn to look. She continued in a hushed tone, “I just realized exactly how horrible the people I work for really are.”

“They used to kill them all outright,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now they keep them around for long-term studies.”

“Fuck me.”

“It would be kinder to put a bullet in her brain,” he said.

“That’s terrible,” she said. “How can you say something like that?”

“I speak from personal experience.”

Cassidy stirred the food on her plate for a couple of minutes, only taking the occasional bite. “So what, she spends her whole childhood locked up in a cell like the one you put me in?”

“No,” he said, “she has a private room with everything a girl her age could need.”

“She doesn’t have everything she needs,” she said. “What about family and friends?”

“From what I understand,” he said, “she’s an orphan.”

“Fuck,” she said and winced at the thought. She knew what it was like to lose her parents at such a young age.

“As for friends,” he added, “do you suggest that we lock up other normal children with her? Because we can’t let her out, so that’s the only option left.”

“I hate that word,” she said.

“Which word?” he asked.

“Normal.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “If you want to know any more, talk to Dr. Solomon. Emma is her project.” He stood up to go. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Cassidy’s questions had scratched a lot of old wounds that he had thought were healed over. He had stopped asking himself long ago whether what he was doing was right or wrong. It was enough that it was necessary, and that there was no one else to do it. If he started to doubt the morality of what he did, he might get himself, or worse, some innocent person killed. When your job was rounding up people with superpowers, any doubt could be lethal.

Still a nagging feeling, forced him to stop by Emma’s quarters on the premise of a random security check. She was sitting in front of the television with a blank stare in her eyes, like she was a world away. It was one of the nature programs that she loved. He watched as she smiled.

It was a cruel irony that a girl who loved animals so much should be completely removed from them, and in a place called The Farm, no less. The base kept some crop fields and a few head of cattle to help maintain its cover as an agricultural research station. Tomorrow he would ask if he could escort the girl around to see some of the cows. She hadn’t asked for what had happened to her. It was the least he could do.

He left her as he found her, and made his way down to the cells. The two new prisoners did not elicit the same sympathetic response that the girl had. These two had chosen to exploit their gifts and a great many people had suffered as a result. They were sedated for now, as the medical teams performed their initial assessments. After that they would undergo weeks of testing and evaluation. For a moment, Michael missed the old days when freaks like these came to The Farm in a body bag.

Cassidy

Wandering through the unfamiliar corridors of the office building, Cassidy finally found the one marked Dr. Rebecca Solomon. She knocked lightly on the door, uncertain of what she was going to say. She felt strangely like she was back in university on her way to ask her professor about some obscure fact she had read at the library.

A muffled acknowledgment came through the door, so she opened it. She was surprised to see her imagination was not far off from the truth. The small room was overstuffed with shelves of books, and mounds of papers and file folders, like many of the offices she had seen at college. Undoubtedly there was a system underlying its arrangement, but it wasn’t immediately obvious. The one incongruous element was the doctor herself. Cassidy wasn’t sure what she had expected, but the small dark-haired woman she found inside was barely older than she was.

“Dr. Solomon?”

“Yes?” she asked without looking up from her computer screen.

Cassidy continued, “I wanted to ask you about…”

“Oh, it’s you!” the doctor exclaimed. “You’re the one that got rid of those nasty dog collars. I could kiss you. Come in, come in.” She stood up and moved around the desk to sweep up the stack of files that was filling the only other chair in the room. “Please have a seat. I’ve been meaning to stop by and thank you, but I never seem to have the time. You know how it is.”

“I was just wondering if I could ask you a few questions,” said Cassidy.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Bear in mind that there are some things that are off-limits. The military are very fond of keeping their secrets. I think I spend half my time writing reports just so they can shred them.”

“Thank you. I’ve been working on a few things,” said Cassidy, “but I realized that I don’t know what we’re up against. I mean, not really.”

“So you came to see the zookeeper,” said Dr. Solomon. “You’re in luck. I was just about to do my morning rounds. You can tag along and see them for yourself.”

“That would be great,” said Cassidy. “I hope it’s not an imposition.”

“Nonsense,” the doctor replied. “I could use some company for a change. You’ll be doing me a favour. Let’s go.”

As they walked though the hallways, Dr. Solomon droned on about her theories. Much of it was technical and over her head, but Cassidy found it interesting, if a little dry. The doctor’s specialty appeared to be psychiatry, and her research was focused on finding a causal link between personality traits and people with powers.

“Abilities almost invariably lead to isolationism and avoidant behaviour, especially where such tendencies were already established. Sometimes this is a result of post-traumatic stress. Many of affected have had significant personal injuries or diseases, either physical or mental. Anyway, the withdrawal from support systems can allow other traits to fester, from simple anxiety and depression to more sociopathic behaviours. In any event, once they realize they are different, they become unable to operate in normal society.

There’s that word again, thought Cassidy. Normal. She wondered what the doctor would think of her if she were to lie down on the proverbial couch.

“We have a good cross-section in custody at the moment, even if it is a small sample. Of course, we would have many more of the military would stop gunning them down. You know it wasn’t that long ago that they would put these people to sleep like they were stray dogs. These individuals need care and support, not to be depersonalized and slaughtered. While it’s true that may mean an investment of resources in long-term care and housing, I believe in the end it will be shown that the knowledge acquired will more than offset the cost.”

“I’m not the appropriations committee, doc,” said Cassidy. “You don’t have to convince me.”

“Sorry, I have a bad habit of slipping into lecture mode,” said Dr. Solomon. “I must be boring you to tears.”

“Not at all,” replies Cassidy. “It’s why I came.”

They arrived at one of the cell doors. This one was guarded by two soldiers who were dressed in full riot gear. The doctor nodded at the men, but they did not return her acknowledgment. One of the guards walked up to the door and opened the narrow slot and peered inside for a moment, before stepping back and unlocking the door.

Dr. Solomon went inside and waved Cassidy to follow her. Her anxiety level climbed sharply as she crossed the threshold into the small dark cell. The memory of her own imprisonment was still fresh in her mind.

“Don’t worry,” said the doctor. “He’s heavily sedated. He can’t hurt you. We keep them under for the first few days so we can do a full assessment and background check. They are usually a complete unknown when they come in the door, so we like to err on the side of caution, as it were.”

Cassidy looked at the stocky Filipino man curled up on the cell’s cot as Dr. Solomon checked the intravenous drip. He had an odd expression on his face like he was simultaneously pissed off at the world and yet amused by it.

“He looks almost peaceful,” she said.

“Don’t be fooled,” said Dr. Solomon. “What we have here is a unique case. While many of our patients have had increased pain tolerances, this one goes a step further and actually induces nerve stimulation in others. Think of the advances in pain management if we can figure that trick out.”

In the next cell block, there were again the two guards outside the cell, but instead of the typical riot gear they each wore a firefighter’s coat, hat and, boots. When it came time to open the flap and check inside, one of the guards pulled a small mirror from a pocket. Apparently, he was unwilling to stick his face anywhere near the opening. When they walked in, Cassidy immediately recognized the man.

“I know him,” she said. “That’s…”

“From the late night car commercials, no doubt,” interrupted the doctor. “That was apparently just a cover for his real activities. You’re looking at the city’s biggest crime boss. Or he was, at least.”

“What can he do?” asked Cassidy.

“This is another rare find,” said the doctor. “A true pyrokinetic. Also, a classic narcissist.”

“Pyrokinetic?”

“He is able to generate and control fire, at least to a limited degree.”

Cassidy wrinkled her nose in bewilderment. “How is that even possible?”

“At first we thought he was secreting some sort of accelerant, but the physics say that’s not possible. It would consume his entire body in seconds. The working theory is that nanobots are rapidly denaturing ambient water vapour into its component hydrogen and oxygen through some unknown mechanism. The patient then ignites these pockets of gas to direct the flames. It’s a fascinating case study. There’s only been one recorded case before, and that was in the nineteen-twenties.”

“You have records going back that far?” asked Cassidy.

“To one degree or another,” answered the doctor. “In the Americas, we have decent documentation going back to the Civil War era. In some European countries, there are good records going back centuries. Of course, there has never been any significant scientific or medical data. That research only began in earnest in the fifties.”

To Cassidy, it seemed that every time she answered a question, three harder ones appeared to take its place. Every story she had heard as a child was suddenly called into question. Were the proverbial monsters under the bed just more of these affected people trying to deal with their abilities? Just how long had this been going on? Why some people affected and not others? There was more to this than she had ever imagined.

Richard

The big day had finally arrived. Richard Slusarski paced back and forth in his cell even though five short steps at a time was all that he could manage. Too excited to read or take a nap, he was trying to pass the remaining hours until he would leave. After months of questions and doctors examining every crevice of his body, he was more than ready to move to his new quarters.

While they still did not trust him, he had done everything he could to be a model prisoner. He had hoped that the people here would be able to answer some of the questions that plagued him, but after many months they still had revealed very little to him. Richard had concluded that either they knew what was going on but weren’t going to share it, or they didn’t know and were trying to hide their ignorance.

He had managed to glean some information by inference and from snippets of overheard conversations. To begin with, he wasn’t crazy. Either that or he was so completely gone there was no coming back and none of this mattered. But they weren’t giving him any drugs or making him sit through therapy, so it was a good bet he was sane.

He had also learned that he wasn’t alone. There were whispers of other prisoners. Even some of the staff at the prison had abilities of different kinds, but they were allowed to wander free on the condition that they kept an inhibitor on all the time and reported their whereabouts at regular intervals like a parolee.

Richard had no problem with those conditions. He would have given up his ability in a second if he knew how. Sensing the emotions of everyone around him had nearly driven crazy. He had been so relieved when he had woken up here with no one in his head but himself.

They had told him that the collar he was forced to wear canceled out what was making him sense other people’s feelings. That meant they knew how to control this phenomenon, whatever it was. At the same time, everyone remained cautious and jittery around him, so he could tell that their grip on it was tenuous at best.

A couple of weeks ago, they had taken off the collar and replaced it with a much more comfortable wristband. They also wore similar devices although his was thicker and locked on to his wrist more like a shackle. An advance in technology meant there was a research lab somewhere working on the problem, and they were making some headway. The knowledge that they might be able to cure him had been his first glimmer of hope in a long time.

Richard wanted nothing more than to move away to another city and start fresh. He had been a successful lawyer before all of this started, and he knew he could be again. The only thing stopping him was this damn curse. If he could only get rid of it, he could go back to his old life. He would do whatever it took. If that meant cooperating with these people then so be it. .

Lost in his thoughts, he was startled when the flap on the door opened and the guard peered inside. He held up his hands and stood facing the door. Was it time to go already? The door opened to reveal Dr. Solomon and a young Latina woman he had never seen before.

“Good morning, Richard,” said the doctor. “Excited are we?”

“I’m looking forward to the change in scenery,” he answered. “Is that why you’re here?”

“No, the move won’t happen until this afternoon,” she said, “so you’ll just have to be patient a while longer. How are you feeling today?”

“I’m good,” he said. “A little anxious, mostly bored. It’ll be good to get out of here. Who’s that with you?”

“This is Miss Miramontes,” she answered. “She made the new inhibitors that everyone is wearing.”

He studied the young woman intently. There was something off about her but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He held up his arm to show his bracelet. “So you’re the responsible for this. You must be a very popular girl around here.”

“I suppose,” she said. He thought he caught a hint of her blushing. She continued, “how is it for comfort? Some people say the electric fields make them feel sick, but that’s just nonsense. There’s no scientific proof…”

“Miss Miramontes, remember when I said earlier that some things are off-limits?”

“What? Oh, sorry.”

“That’s quite all right,” said the doctor, “but why don’t you wait out in the corridor?” When the woman had left, Dr. Solomon turned back to Richard and said, “I’m glad you’re doing well. We’ll talk later once you’ve settled into your new room, all right?”

“Of course, doctor,” he said. “I’ll see you then.”

As the door closed behind her, his mind kicked into overdrive. So it definitely has something to do with electric fields, he thought. He wished he had studied more physics so that he might better understand the implications of that information. As it was he was playing catch-up. That other woman, Miramontes, she obviously knew a lot about what was going on, and she was still green enough not to know when to shut up. If he could get some time alone with her, he knew he could get her to spill some secrets.

But first, he would have to get out of this room. He would have to find some way to become of value to them other than as a test subject. Richard had always had a keen mind, and with the kinds of civil rights abuses that he saw going on here, they probably needed all the legal help they could get. When he had gained their trust, he could parley that into more freedom, and he could start getting some real answers. When his chance came, he knew he would have to act quickly.

Emma

The cat lady’s coming! The cat lady’s coming!

Emma had watched her and the doctor as they visited the men in the prison cells. Dr. Solomon almost always came to check on her next, and today was no exception. She was so excited she didn’t even bother to pretend to be drawing. She just sat at the table and watched until they came down the hall. It wasn’t until they were right outside the door that she picked up the yellow pencil crayon and returned to her picture. The doctor came in without knocking as she always did, so Emma looked up and smiled.

“Hello, Emma,” said Dr. Solomon. “How is everything today?”

“Hello, Dr. Solomon,” she answered.

“I’ve brought someone to meet you today.” Dr. Solomon motioned for the cat lady to step into the room. The doctor said in her whispered voice that for some reason she thought Emma couldn’t hear, “She’s shy around new people. Go ahead and introduce yourself, but don’t be surprised if she runs off.”

As if to contradict her, Emma ran right up to her and said, “You’re the lady with the cat. Can I see him?”

Cassidy bent down on one knee so she was looking the girl in the eye. “Hi. I’m Cassidy, and yes I do have a cat. He’s not a real cat though, he’s just a toy.”

“I know he’s not real, but can I play with him sometime? Please?”

“I’ll have to ask Dr. Solomon if it’s okay first,” answered Cassidy.

“Can you give us a moment alone, Emma,” said Dr. Solomon. “We need to talk in private.”

“Okay,” she said and went pack to the table to continue with her colouring. The two women stood by the door and spoke in hushed voices, but Emma could still hear them. She was desperately hoping that Dr. Solomon would say yes. She was almost giddy, but she tried not to show it. If the doctor knew how much she wanted it, she might ask for something in return. Chances are it would be something she didn’t want to do, like cleaning up or more math problems.

“What is this about a cat?” asked Dr. Solomon.

“Before I came here I was working on lifelike toy animals,” said Cassidy. “I have one finished prototype in my lab, but I don’t know how she could have heard about it.”

“Kids always know more than we like to give them credit for,” said Dr. Solomon. “They are always watching and soaking up every experience like a sponge. Undoubtedly, one of my colleagues must have mentioned something. The girl has a fondness for animals, so the idea of having a pet is almost an obsession with her.”

“Why don’t you just get her a real cat?” asked Cassidy.

“Guidelines are very strictly enforced on the base,” said Dr. Solomon. “No pets of any kind allowed. No exceptions. But if you say the cat is a toy, I don’t see that it would do any harm to let her play with it.”

Emma involuntarily raised her arms in victory and let out a hushed, “Yes!” She looked over to see of either of the woman had noticed, but they hadn’t. She went back to drawing, happy that she was going to finally get her way.

“I don’t have time to work on it now with all the other projects I’ve got going,” said Cassidy, “but I could use someone to beta test it. I can’t think of anyone better for the job.”

“She’ll be thrilled to hear that, I’m sure.”

Cassidy looked over at Emma and said, “I noticed that she doesn’t wear an inhibitor.”

“No, she doesn’t,” said Dr. Solomon. “Emma has Type 1 diabetes and a rare degenerative bone disease. With an inhibitor, all of her symptoms would return within hours. Both conditions are manageable, but there are serious side effects to the treatment. A few of the medical staff and I petitioned to have the band removed on compassionate grounds. We were also interested in studying her long-term to see if her abilities evolved as she got older. Since she’s only a class four regenerist, she’s not a threat to anyone, so they agreed.”

“I’m sorry,” said Cassidy. “Regenerist?”

Dr. Solomon frowned. “I keep forgetting that your new and haven’t picked up all the jargon yet. Regenerist is the fifty-cent word for healer. They didn’t like all the spiritual connotations that came with that word so they rebranded them. Class four means she can heal her own major injuries and any disease, but her ability only extends to herself. She can’t heal others.”

“They can do that?” asked Cassidy.

“That and a lot more,” said Dr. Solomon, “but this isn’t the place to discuss it.”

Cassidy looked over at Emma again and asked, “What about other children? Doesn’t she get a chance to socialize with other kids?”

“Unfortunately for her, abilities in people under the age of about sixteen is extremely rare.” The doctor looked over at Emma as well and Cassidy could see that under her austere exterior, the doctor was genuinely concerned for the girl. “We can’t allow her to interact with other children until she understands the consequences of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. There are people in this world who would like to get a closer look at her, and they would not be as considerate to her needs.” The warmth receded from her and she was the taciturn doctor once more. “All the more reason for her to have a pet, even if it’s not real. Would you like to tell her, or shall I?”

“Please, you go ahead.”

Emma looked up from her drawing as the woman walked over to the table. “Cassidy has agreed to let you take care her cat for a while…”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” screamed Emma as she jumped up to hug Cassidy.

Dr. Solomon ignored the outburst and continued, “…on the conditions that you take good care of it while it’s here, and it’s only temporary. It’s still Cassidy’s cat and you’ll have to giver back if she asks for it. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Emma. She could barely contain her enthusiasm.

“All right then. Now Mr. Carstairs has suggested you might like to go see the cows later, but that’s not going to happen if you don’t pass your math test this afternoon. Did you do all of your assigned problems?”

“Almost.”

“Well get to it, young lady,” ordered Dr. Solomon. Emma pulled a textbook from under the stack of drawings and leafed through it until she found the place she had left off.

“Is that everyone, doctor?” asked Cassidy.

Dr. Solomon paused for what seemed a long time before she answered. “Yes, that’s everyone.”

“I should probably let you get back to work then,” said Cassidy.

“I’ll send you over the summary of all the patient files we’ve collected,” said Dr. Solomon. “Most of it is technical and will no doubt be hard to understand, but there’s a lot of useful information there even for a lay person. It will give you a better idea about the kind of people you’ll be working with at any rate.”

“Thank you doctor,” said Cassidy. “Goodbye Emma. I’ll bring Fuzz over tomorrow if you pass your test.

“Goodbye,” said Emma as she waved. Emma knew she would see Cassidy and her kitten tomorrow. Passing the test would be easy since she had already seen the questions and the answers sitting on Dr. Solomon’s desk. She smiled as she finished another math problem. This was turning out to be a great day.

She looked at her drawing of the kitten and smiled. “Tomorrow,” she whispered.

Cassidy

She didn’t know what she was hoping to find, but an odd little girl locked in a room wasn’t it. There was no indication that Emma was anything more than she seemed, if she was indeed the source of the strange messages in her lab. Still, she felt for the girl. She knew what it was like to be cut off from the world.

As she had promised, Cassidy had delivered the kitten the next morning. He had been received with squeals of delight from the girl, who had immediately started cuddling and stroking him. Cassidy couldn’t stay for a longer visit because she still had work to finish, so she had left a list of care instructions for him and had gone back to her lab. The rest of the day had passed without incident until, tired and disappointed, Cassidy had gone back to her room.

She lay on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. Her limbs her nearly out of power after the long day of running around, so she was forced to rest while they recharged. Her mind was still racing, however, as she tried to make sense of her situation. She was beginning to doubt whether working for these people was the right choice, or whether she should try to get out of here and run as far and as fast as she could.

A pulsing light penetrated her closed eyelids and woke her. At first she thought it was her computer, but then she realized the light was coming from the ceiling above her. She sat up and grabbed her laptop. Opening a new document, she typed “Hello” and waited. On the wall across from her the same wavy letters that she had seen in her lab appeared as if an unseen hand had drawn them.

thanks for cat

A life-size rough sketch of the toy kitten lit up the wall. It quickly resolved into a high-definition line drawing. Cassidy was amazed at the detail that could be seen in the patterns of light. She gasped when the kitten moved its head. This was a live feed, not just a static image. She typed, “How do you do that?”

it’s secret

“You can tell me,” typed Cassidy. “I thought we were friends.”

ok but don’t tell dr. S

“Why don’t you want her to know?”

make me do tests

hate tests

“Okay, I won’t tell. It will just be our secret.” Now that Cassidy had her talking, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to ask first. She continued typing, “How do you make the lights glow on the wall?”

I don’t know I just do

“Can you make the lights look like anything you want?”

I guess

The scene changed as of a camera had zoomed out. Cassidy could now see Emma sitting on the couch in her room, stroking the kitten in her lap. The girl waved.

I can make up things

but mostly I draw things I see

“What do you see, Emma?”

everything

The word seemed ominous, hanging there by itself. Cassidy typed, “What do you mean by everything?”

The image of the little girl dissolved into a jungle scene, with banana trees rising above rain-drenched ferns. Seconds later a coral reef with a giant school of fish swam across her wall only to be replaced with a herd of what looked like wild horses. The lights moved again and this time Cassidy was staring at herself, as if there was a camera mounted on the wall. When she raised her hand, the image raised its hand as well. Although she knew the girl must somehow be able to see her, experiencing it like that sent a chill up her spine.

“That’s quite a trick,” she typed. “I bet you know a lot of secrets. What’s the biggest secret you know?”

The image on the wall changed to show an intense white light, so bright that it lit up the room around her. As the scene pulled back behind a pane of plate-glass to a control room, the light vanished, and Cassidy could see it was a laboratory. A couple of men wore hazard suits and were taking readings from an oblong, metal container with various protrusions. Looking at the equipment and signs on the lab, Cassidy suddenly realized that Emma “saw” not only saw the visible spectrum, but high energy photons as well. The light had been gamma radiation spewing out from a nuclear reactor. The design was unlike anything she had seen before, yet with her innate understanding of machines, she recognized it as being exceptionally efficient and powerful. The whole contraption would have fit in the back of a pick-up truck, but from what she read on the gauges, it could generate enough electricity to run a small city.

These men hadn’t built it; the technology was beyond them. They were only struggling to understand what it was, and where it had come from. This reactor was decades ahead of anything she had ever seen. To her it was a thing of beauty.

the bright machine

Emma’s words reminded her that she wasn’t alone. “Where is this?” she typed.

The scene seemed to move up and away at dizzying speed, right through solid obstacles. A second later she saw the squat building that housed the bunker. It was the same building that she had seen dozens of times from the cafeteria window. Cassidy could hardly believe it was sitting right there under her nose the whole time. She had to admit that, as far as secrets went, this was a big one.

The patterns on the wall shifted again, and she saw doors at regular intervals in a long hallway. She recognized the construction as being similar to the underground cells where she had been earlier today, but in each of the cells lay a body covered with a white sheet. Then she noticed what looked like medical monitoring devices hooked up to the bodies. They were alive but being pumped full of drugs to keep them comatose.

the sleepers

There must be a hundred people or more here, she thought, all kept sedated and locked away from the world. This was the fate for the all the souls unlucky enough to show up on the government’s radar.

Moving to the end of the hall, she saw what looked like a morgue. As the perspective moved across the room, she noticed a man lying naked on a metal table also hooked up to a monitor. She recognized him as Richard, the man she had met earlier today. Apparently, these were his new quarters. Cassidy felt like she was going to throw up. The situation had suddenly become very real to her.

Suddenly the wall dimmed and new words appeared.

I’m tired stop now

“Okay, we can talk more later. Get some rest.”

good night C

“Good night, Emma” she typed, and the room went dark again. But Cassidy knew she wouldn’t sleep after what she had seen.

Michael

Michael sat hunched over on his couch, swirling a glass of scotch in one hand. In all of his years of working for the government, he had rarely doubted whether what they were doing here at the Farm was necessary. He often had qualms about how they achieved those goals, but in the end he knew these things had to be done.

However, the latest announcement from Dr. Solomon had pushed him to the edge of his endurance. She had decided that they had learned all they could from little Emma, and they were going to ship her down to the cellars. The thought of her spending her childhood pumped full of drugs in the basement was gnawing a hole in his gut. She had never asked for what had happened to her, and now when some ambitious tool figures that she has enough data, she wants to stick the girl in a drawer like she was nothing more than a lab specimen. But he was powerless to stop it, so he sat alone in the dark and drank.

There was a light knock at his door, but he ignored it. The knock repeated, a little louder this time.

“Go away!” he shouted.

“Michael, it’s Cassidy. I need to talk to you.”

He downed the scotch in one gulp and slammed the glass down on the end table. When he opened the door, Cassidy was standing there alone with a concerned look on her face.

“What is it?” he mumbled. “I mean, can it wait ’til tomorrow?”

“I’m leaving tonight,” she answered.

“Oh, you’re leaving, are you?” he asked. “Sure, why not? Everybody’s leaving. Except me. No, I’ll be here forever.” Michael walked away, leaving the door ajar. He poured himself another glass and plopped down heavily on the couch. Cassidy slipped in and closed the door behind her.

“What’s wrong, Michael?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you like this before.”

“Entropy. It’s inevitable. Sooner or later, everything falls apart and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Do you want to know a secret? We’re all just guinea pigs in someone’s experiment. They poke you, and prod you, and run you through their mazes, but then, when they’re done with you, they put you to sleep or cut you open so they can poke around your insides. Well, this hamster has had enough running on the wheel for a lifetime. I’m going to conduct an experiment of my own and see if I can drink myself to death.”

“You’re drunk,” she said. “You don’t mean that.”

“I’m not even sure anymore what I’m doing,” he said. “Do you know what they do with the prisoners here when they’re done studying them? Do you?”

“Yes, I do,” she answered. “That’s one of the reasons I’m leaving. I don’t want to have anything to do with these people anymore.”

“Noble words, princess,” he mocked, “but did you really think it would be that easy to just walk away?”

“I didn’t say it would be easy,” she answered.

“It’s worse than you know,” he said. “You see, when they need something from you that they can’t take by force, they’re very subtle in their coercion. They send out people like me to poison every possible employer against you and get you blacklisted from every institution. Hell, they’ve even been known to turn family members against you. In the end they’ll keep coming at you from all sides until you have no choice but to come back. They own you now. I suppose you’ve got me to blame for that too.” He went to take a sip of his drink but saw that it was empty again, so he poured himself another one.

“I’ll take my chances,” said Cassidy. “They can’t control everyone.”

“Maybe not,” he said, “but do you really want to deal with those sorts of people either. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

“So your answer is to sit here and get drunk?” she asked. She stood there for a moment waiting for him to say something, anything to stop her, but he only sat there in silence. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”

It wasn’t until she had her hand on the doorknob ready to pull it open and walk out that he finally said, “They’re sending Emma downstairs.”

The words stopped her cold. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Wasn’t I clear? They’re going to stick a needle in her arm and lay her out on a table where she’ll probably grow old and die, never having…”

“I know what you meant,” she interrupted. “When does this happen?”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “If you want to say goodbye, you should do it now.”

“We’ve got to stop this!” she said.

“It’s out of our hands,” he said. “I can’t stop it.”

“Then I’ll take her with me.”

He laughed bitterly. “Good luck with that.”

“I could use your help.” She said.

“I can’t even help myself,” he said. “What do you think one person can do against an entire government determined to crush you?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I have to try. The only question I have left is whether you are going to help or not.”

“I’m a prisoner too,” he said. “I’ve just got a longer leash.”

“Then all is ask is don’t try to stop me.” She turned and walked out, letting the door close behind her.

Michael drained his glass again and studied the wet crystal in the faint light that found its way around the window blinds. He hurled the glass against the far wall where it shattered to pieces. He couldn’t even find solace in a bottle, thanks to Cassidy’s little display of bravado. He knew there was only one choice left open to him now, and he was going to need his wits about him. He screwed the cap back on the bottle of scotch and went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

Cassidy

“I heard it was her last day,” said Cassidy. “I came to say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry, Cassidy,” said Dr. Solomon. “She’s already gone.”

“Oh, I see,” she said. “Do you think I could see her anyway?”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” said the doctor. “It’s better if you remember her the way she was. Besides, that area is restricted. You’re not even supposed to know about it. How did you find out by the way?”

“People talk,” she answered. “Sometimes they say more than they realize. You fill in the gaps.”

“You should just forget you heard anything,” said Dr. Solomon, “and go back to your work. What happens here can be unsettling for someone not trained for it. I let you examine the patients because I thought it might help you to understand the need to control them. They are extremely dangerous, not only to themselves but also to society.”

“I understand the threat, doctor. What I don’t get is why you have to treat a child that way.”

“Emma was an extreme example,” said the doctor. “What happened to her was a tragedy, but it wasn’t one that could be avoided any longer. The threat is real. That’s why we need people like you working for our side.”

“I don’t disagree on any particular point,” said Cassidy. “It’s just…she’s only an innocent girl.”

“Look, I’m not a monster, Cassidy,” said Dr. Solomon. “You’re upset. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and relax. If anyone asks, tell them it was doctor’s orders.”

“Thank you, Dr. Solomon,” she said. “I’ll try to do that.”

“Please, call me Rebecca. And here, I’ll write you a prescription if you need something to help you sleep.” The doctor scribbled on her pad and handed the folded slip of paper to Cassidy. “The dispensary is on the first floor of the main building. If you need anything else let me know.”

“I’ll come by later to pick up the cat.”

Cassidy hurried back to her room. She had a lot to do of she was going to save Emma. Taking out a blank sheet of paper, she began practising the doctor’s signature. When she was confident that she could do a fair approximation of it, she forged a work order to give her access to the lower levels.

Yesterday, she had found the old knapsack among her belongings that the agents had confiscated when they first brought her here. In it she packed a couple of changes of socks, underwear, and t-shirts, as well as the basic toiletries and her laptop. She slung the bag over one shoulder and headed down to her lab.

She wished she could take everything she owned with her, but she wasn’t that sentimental and she needed to travel light. Almost everything could be replaced with enough time and money. She bundled up her custom set of precision tools and tucked them neatly in her bag, and stuck her folding multi-tool I’m her pants pocket. She took a large mallet and smashed two of the taser prototypes that she had been working on before shoving the third in her bag. Cassidy took one last look around to check if there was anything else she desperately needed, but all she found was a flashlight and some energy bars. She threw them in the bag as well.

Satisfied that she was ready, she went to the networked computer terminal in the lab and got to work. She had made the inhibitors with built-in GPS so that anyone wearing one could be tracked through the cellular network. When no listing for Emma appeared, she searched through the all the bands for an unidentified user and found one that had been activated less than an hour ago. It was in the same tunnel that Emma had shown her earlier. Cassidy had expected to find her there, but seeing it still made her heart sink.

She knew she would have to hurry now. Moving quickly down the halls, she made her way to Emma’s old room. The guards were gone and the door was unlocked, so she went inside. It only took a minute to find Buzz Aldrin curled up in a corner snoozing. She lifted him up indelicately and flipped his off switch before stuffing him in the bag. She pulled the induction pad from the cat’s bed and took that as well. She would need it to recharge her own prostheses soon enough. Into the remaining room in the knapsack, she stuffed clothes for Emma to wear, along with her hairbrush and toothbrush, but she was careful to leave the taser sitting on top of everything else. With no more room in the bag, she set off for the lower levels.

She got a weird feeling of déjà vu as she entered the tunnels, even though she had only seen the area before as a projection on her wall. The guards let her pass without more than a glance at the work order until she got to the processing room. As she walked in she could see Emma lying prone in a gurney with an IV drip already in her arm. One of the Dr. Solomon’s nurses hovered over her. When he saw Cassidy enter, he asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I need to adjust the girl’s inhibitor to compensate for her unique physiology,” said Cassidy. “If it’s set too high, she’ll die. Likewise, if it’s set too low she’ll metabolize the anesthetic too quickly and wake up.”

“I haven’t heard anything about this,” said the nurse. “I need to talk to Dr. Solomon.”

“If you must,” said Cassidy, “I’m just going to get set up while you do that.” She put the knapsack down on counter and opened it up while the nurse went over to the phone hanging on the wall by the door. As he picked up the receiver, Cassidy fired a shot from the taser into his back. The modified cartridge sent its charge through his muscles to incapacitate him long enough for enough a shot of tranquilizer delivered at the same time to knock him out. He slumped to the floor with hardly more than a stifled grunt.

“That worked even better than I thought it would,” said Cassidy before she realized she was talking to her self.

Putting the taser down on the counter, she picked up a paper clip from a stack of nearby papers and bent out one end. She went over Emma sleeping and pulled out the needle in her arm. Using the paper clip, she accessed the five tiny recessed switches that deactivated the inhibitor on her wrist. As she had expected, they had not bothered to change the code from its default setting. The indicated light flashed red to show that it was deactivated before going dark.

She took Emma’s hand in hers and leaned in close. “Wake up, sweetie,” said Cassidy. “I need your help.” While her being in a restricted area would have been suspicious, shooting the nurse would bring an armed assault team down on top of her. She only had minutes before they got here and locked her back in that cell, and she knew this time they would throw away the key.

Emma’s eyes popped open with a suddenness that startled her. When she saw Cassidy standing beside the gurney, she reached out and hugged her. “You came for me,” she cried. “I knew you would come for me.”

“Of course I did,” said Cassidy, “but we don’t have time. We have to get out of here as fast as possible. The guards will be coming soon…”

“I can see them,” interrupted Emma. “They’re in a room with a lot of guns.”

“The armoury,” said Cassidy. They were already closer than she had hoped. They needed to leave now. These tunnels were a dead-end, and they would be trapped if the guards arrived before Emma and she could get out.

Emma was dressed in her pyjamas and her feet were bare, so Cassidy dug the pair of running shoes she had brought from the girl’s room. She slipped them on hurriedly and hopped down to the floor. Taking her hand, Cassidy pulled the girl towards the exit, but Emma resisted and pulled back. “No,” she said, “we can’t go that way. There’s another way through there.”

Cassidy knew Emma could see things that she couldn’t, so she had to trust her. The other door opened to a long tunnel, lit by dimly burning bulbs running the length of the ceiling. Inside were dozens, maybe a hundred more gurneys, each with a person hooked up to a mobile monitoring station.

Poor bastards, she thought. She wondered how many rooms like this were there around the world. How many more had been planted in an unmarked grave in some field or been cremated so no trace would ever be found? She shivered. If they didn’t get away soon, Cassidy would likely be joining Emma in one of these body dumping grounds.

At the end of the tunnel, ladder rungs were set into the wall leading up a ventilation shaft to the surface. Cassidy went up first. She could feel the fresh air coming down and see the sky, but it did little to ease her dread. When she got to the top there was a grill, but it was padlocked. She was going to try to force it open, it suddenly started to glow. The light became stronger, doubling in intensity every few seconds until it became hard to look at. She could smell burning dust realized the metal must be heating up from all the energy being dumped into it. She shielded her eyes and pulled herself close to the wall until the brightness started to fade and she heard the lock clatter on the ground below. The remains of the latch still glowed red hot where the lock had been. Cassidy tried the grill again and it opened easily.

They climbed out into an open field. Cassidy could see the main complex of buildings to the east, but no one was out in the open chasing them yet. Unfortunately, the tunnel had ended with them still inside the perimeter fence. She asked Emma, “Do you see any way through the fence, Emma?”

“This way,” she answered. “Hurry!” She ran about fifty paces down the fence line, until they came to a small culvert. Barely more than a drainage ditch for the service road that ran around the base, the pipe was a tight squeeze for Cassidy, but would be easy for Emma. A grill of welded steel rebar covered the entrance anchored deep into the muddy soil. “I can get through that”

“No,” said Cassidy, “you’ll draw too much attention to us. I can do it.” Using her bionic legs and arm she grabbed the rebar and pulled with all of her strength. The grill refused to budge at first, but then it slowly started to rise up as she pulled it out of the ground. She nearly fell backward as the earth suddenly let go and crumbled. She tossed the useless wire cage away and ushered Emma into the pipe before following after her. The far side of the culvert was unobstructed and let out not far from a patch of scraggly trees and thorny shrubs.

Cassidy’s plan was hike the three hours to the city where they could catch a bus and disappear into the crowds. Emma could keep them away from any search parties, but they had to get away from here first. She asked Emma to look around and see if there were any people coming. A blank stare went across her face for a moment, but then she smiled brightly. “C’mon, this way.”

Emma ran off through a narrow path in the trees that Cassidy had not seen from even a few steps away. Probably made by deer, it went straight though shrubs while avoiding the worst of the undergrowth. “Slow down,” she called after the girl, “I don’t want to lose you.”

The path ended at the edge of a two lane highway that ran into the city. A car was parked along the shoulder, and a man was leaning the trunk as if he was waiting for them. It was Michael. Emma ran straight towards him to give him a big hug. He picked her up and swung her around so that she giggled loudly. Cassidy walked up to him and tried to guess his intentions from the look on his face.

“So what happens now?” she asked.

He looked back at Cassidy and smiled. “I’ve decided I’m long overdue for a vacation. How you go like to go for a long drive through the mountains?”

“Sounds good to me,” she answered.

They hugged and all got in the car. After Cassidy had deactivated his inhibitor, Michael started the car and headed off away from the city. “That’s the first place they’ll look for us.”

Cassidy turned back to tell Emma in the back seat, “There’s some clothes in the knapsack for you to change into. Unless you’re going to wear those pj’s all day.”

To Michael, she asked, “Do you know where were going?”

“We’ll have to go dark for a while and live off the grid,” he answered. “I have some acquaintances who owe me a favour or two. That should keep us going for a while. We’ll have to see where we are then before we can plan out next move.”

“We should go to the party,” said Emma.

“What party, sweetheart?”

Emma handed her a folded envelope. It was a formal embossed invitation, like one would send out to for a wedding. She opened it up and read it out loud.

“If you have received this invitation, know that you are not alone. You have been invited to a join a gathering of people with remarkable talents like yourself. If you need help or answers, join us there and we will try to help.”

“Emma, where did you get that?” asked Michael.

“I found it in my drawing book,” she answered.

To Cassidy he asked, “Does it say who it’s from?”

“No, there’s just a time and place for the meeting,” she answered. “Do you think it’s a trap?”

“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he said, “and I wrote the book on catching freaks. Um, I mean gifted people. We have to come up with a better name for people like us.”

“Agreed. But do you think it’s worth the risk to go?” asked Cassidy.

“I think we could use all the help we can get,” he said. Michael slowed down to a crawl and turned the car around so they were headed into the city. “It’s only a few days from now. I think we can find a place to hole up until then.”

“Do you think there will be other kids there?” asked Emma.

“I don’t know, maybe,” said Cassidy. “It’s in a park.”

“One thing’s for certain,” said Michael. “Everything is about to change.”

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