Three hours – four, tops – later, I awoke once again, but this time I knew it to be the infirmary at the Omega Training Facility. The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes brought a smile to my face: Amy Warner was hovering over me with a look of concern in her large eyes, and as I watched she reached up to bring a cool rag to my forehead. She saw me, and color came to her cheeks. "I – I was worried," she said in a small voice, as though I was suddenly going to demand some kind of explanation.
"No, I really appreciate it, Amy. Thanks."
I shifted to look around, but to my surprise we were completely alone. "Sarah and Adrian are trying to get some form of communications restored," Amy explained. "And Kara still hasn't come back with any news." She was quiet once more, and I could see that she was fighting with herself about something. Her shoulders would alternately scrunch up and relax, and she was fingering the collar of her shirt. Finally – "Um, Jacob? Can I ask you something?"
"What was Adrian talking about during dinner?"
"She said – she said something about how when Sarah rejects the advances of other cadets, she's usually the one Sarah turns to. Adrian, I mean. What did she mean?"
I slid my arm from beneath the blankets to rub my eyes. It was bound to come out in the open sooner or later. Until now only Sarah, Adrian, and I knew what had happened during my drunken night at the Eidenberg Center, but now Amy suspected something was going on. I couldn't decide how keen I was on the idea of her knowing, but to my surprise I began to realize that, of the four girls on Alpha Team Alpha, she was the one I'd become the most comfortable around. It had been that way ever since the morning I overheard her supporting me when I first joined the team, and now I found that I wasn't feeling as awkward as I would have expected. I wanted to tell her the truth.
"I told Sarah that I, uh, loved her."
But as soon as those words were out, I had a sudden crushing feeling that I had just done something very, very bad. I don't know where it came from, but at that moment I would have given anything – absolutely anything – to take it back. I knew somehow that this was a terrible thing to tell the young girl, although from my view there wasn't really any reason not to tell her. But her reaction was immediate: the hand that had been so tenderly nursing me suddenly jerked to a stop, and her expression changed completely to – I don't know. I couldn't read it.
"Oh, Amy, I'm so sorry!" Wait – why am I sorry? "That kind of came out before I really had a chance to think about it. I mean, why you would even care if—"
"Do you love her?" Her eyes met mine, and I had never seen the expression that now greeted me before. She looked completely different.
It's funny, but for me Amy Warner had always been the most difficult girl on the team to figure out. The others wore their personalities right there on their sleeves, and for the most part I knew exactly where they stood regarding my presence on Alpha Team Alpha. Amy, on the other hand, was different. She had always been in the background, the quiet girl who was so often overshadowed by the confidence and assertiveness of her teammates on Team Yellow, and for that reason was probably unfairly remembered more for the way she had miscommunicated a set of coordinates to Sarah during the Alpha Team Competitions than for the many, many other truly amazing things she had done for them. I'd always felt like I had more in common with her than with anyone else, but even though she was the one most willing to show concern for me, I could never really talk to her. She would almost always get quiet and bashful, and I could never understand why she could be so open for her concern for me one point, then turn around and close up when I tried to treat her like a friend.
But now, who was this? Amy was regarding me with an air of directness that was almost confrontational. It wasn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, but there it was, plainly for me to see: a strength of resolve that I had only occasionally seen with her: appearing now and then to be boiling just beneath the surface of this seemingly fragile young cadet. Sometimes I forgot just what real courage it took to be in her position, having faced ridicule once upon a time just as I had, and even now perhaps viewed by others (myself included, I realized with shame) as the weak link of ATA.
I had to take a moment to remember what she had asked. I'd been too caught up in my own thoughts toward the girl to realize that some time had probably passed since her question. "Yeah, I do."
"How did she react?"
Well, I was drunk at the time, so we'll have to filter her reaction through that factor somewhat. "Not too good. I'm pretty miserable about it, honestly. Until this evening, she hadn't said anything about it, except to criticize my timing. Then all of a sudden she asked me if I meant it, and I told her yes."
"I see." Amy took a deep breath. I could only watch her and wonder what was going through her head. "I've known Sarah a really long time, and she likes to be absolutely sure about her decisions before she acts on them." Another breath. "I don't know what'll happen next, but – I think you're an amazing boy, Jacob. I think" – she squeezed her eyes shut – "I think almost any girl would be lucky to have your lo—"
She opened her eyes, and I think I saw the beginning of tears, but before I could say anything she relaxed into a warm, gentle smile. I straightened up, somewhat alarmed by the sudden change. She looked absolutely luminous at that moment, and before I even knew what happened she leaned in and kissed me.
No – really.
It was a quick kiss, over in an instant, but I never forgot a single detail about it. The way her hand was gently touching the back of my head, or the weight of her delicate body (not that part of her body – seriously, your dirty thoughts are ruining a very tender moment) as she leaned down over me, or even the feel of her soft lips, which had a sweet taste to them that surpassed even Tiffany's kiss.
She was looking down at me, and there was a slight sense of self-satisfaction to the smile she gave me, as though she was enjoying my look of complete shock. "Does that make you feel better, Jacob?"
"Um," I said intelligently.
"Good," she replied.
"I'm going to go tell the others that you're awake." She started for the door, stopped, and turned back to me. "And Jacob? I really, really like you. I always have. I really wish you the best of luck with Sarah, and I think she just needs some time to sort through her feelings, okay?" Without another word, she bounded to the door.
I gazed after her, totally and completely floored. Maybe I had been wrong about her. Maybe we all had. Amy was always in her element as the technical operative, but no one would ever say she had that same self-assurance when she didn't have a computer in front of her. She was like a completely different person. But I had witnessed that confidence here, now. And that expression on her face as she left me alone in the room? I've never seen her look happier, and I think I understood why. She took a risk and tried something different, and had just made one of the most wonderful discoveries I think anyone can ever make about themselves: that she – the shy, timid Amy Warner – still had the power to surprise people.
She returned not fifteen minute later, and brought with her the rest of ATA. Kara had at last returned from her trip to the Psi Preparatory Facility, and the news she brought was of the same level we were quickly growing accustomed to: bad. The preparatory facility had been cleared out too.
"So," she said, after having given us the sobering news and folding her arms. "Apparently the Delta has figured out what's been going on."
"Ahh, did you say 'Delta?'" Adrian held up a hand. "Not so fast, Kara my dear. Our illustrious telepath has been lying to us this whole time."
"Hey, how was I supposed to know?" I demanded.
Kara gave Adrian an inquisitive look. "He's an Epsilon," Adrian explained. "He failed his last quarterly review."
It would be the closest thing to sheer joy I would ever see on Kara's face. I glared at Adrian.
"No more joking around." Sarah shot Adrian a warning look, which told me even she didn't seem particularly in the mood. Then, to me— "Jacob, what's going on?"
I took a deep breath. Now that I knew what was happening, the sheer audacity of Andrew Schauer's master plan was second only to how ridiculous it would sound if spoken aloud. Nevertheless, I had no choice but to say it: "Andrew Schauer wants to install a puppet President of the United States during the next election."
"I said no more joking around."
Oh boy. I reached up and massaged my temples. "I'm serious. Matthew Hughes is brainwashed. Right now. And apparently some cheeky bastard from Andrew Schauer's clan felt the need to drop a little hint by swapping out that portrait of Theodore Roosevelt back at the White House, remember?" I mean, if I saw it, then I know they saw it.
"That's awfully poor evidence there, Jacob," Adrian said. "That thing with the portraits is something I would do."
I laughed, amused at the grand absurdity of it all. This was it, apparently. This was what everything had been leading up to: some megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur. I knew it sounded preposterous, and I knew there were going to be many logical problems with the plan they'd start asking me. Unfortunately, I knew every answer to those questions, which meant I was responsible for explaining them to Alpha Team Alpha without coming across as a raving lunatic.
Which – come to think of it – I might be.
"I know that," I said. "But that's where the Kontra Company comes in."
"The Kontra Company? What the hell does that have to do with anything?"
"Do you remember what happened back in '53? It involved Mike's father."
"When everything became public about their genetic experimentation, all the evidence fingered him as the guy who had authorized it," Adrian explained. "He got sacked halfway through his Senate term.
"Exactly," I said. "And it turns out that was a lie. Senator Larsen wasn't involved. Schauer made the company's experiments public years later expressly for the purpose of getting him relieved. Andrew already had someone under his control that he knew the administration would replace the Senator with."
"Why couldn't Andrew just mind-control Senator Larsen directly?" Adrian asked. "He seems to be pretty good at it."
"Andrew wasn't strong enough – may never be," I explained. "Some folks could withstand it. I suspect that there's pretty much only one person on the planet who wouldn't have that restriction – Tiffany. So over the years he's been systematically filling the Senate and House with his people, and if he gets the President in as well, with the legislative and executive branches in his control all that remains is the Court. And I'm sure he's working on it."
"But why?" Amy asked. "Why does he need to control our government? What does he hope to accomplish?"
I really didn't have an answer to that, and I confessed as much. "Still though, that's his plan. And he was using the Lieutenant General to try to lure Alpha Team Alpha back here. You were the only genetically engineered cadets he hasn't gotten ahold of yet."
"He went to an awful lot of trouble to get us," Sarah mused.
Adrian shrugged. "He knows quality when he sees it."
"The only thing that could have stood in his way were the folks at the Eidenberg Center," Sarah said. "That explains the bomb."
I nodded. I was glad to see that she was at least willing to entertain my story, instead of writing it off as Kara was so obviously willing to do. "And that's where Team Red came in."
"He has to know by now that his plan failed," she reasoned. "Whoever was responsible for trying to blow up the entire Eidenberg Center, I'm guess it must have been one of his more powerful telepaths, if they were able to take out every student in one fell swoop." She looked at me. "Right? You guys just can't do that willy-nilly can you?"
"You're asking me?"
She sighed. "Regardless, if whoever took out the Eidenberg Center was one of the best, I'd hate to think what he could do with Tiffany by his side."
I shook my head. "No way. Tiffany would never help him."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"Because she helped me," I explained. "Just now – well, just a few hours ago. She was with me, in my head, and it was mostly thanks to her that I was able to read the Lieutenant General's mind."
"And you believed her?" Sarah was regarding me with a look of shock. "Jacob, you can't let your feelings get in the way of this. If we know they can control peoples' minds, then who knows what she is capable of!"
"She couldn't lie to me. It's not possible."
"How do you know?"
"You don't understand the connection we share. Hell, even I don't really. But it's not like anything you could ever hope to understand. It – goes beyond any connection I've ever had, or could ever possibly have."
Sarah was quiet for a moment. Just a moment – but she appeared to tense up just a bit, and her eyes got this bizarre, far-away look to them, as though she had momentarily lost her train of thought. Again – just for a moment. "If you say so, Jacob."
"At last the pieces are falling into place, huh Jacob?"
I blinked. "What did you say, Sarah?"
"You can't win. You must know that by now. We have the advantage. And you can rest assured we won't be giving away our advantage by chucking acorns at your head."
"I said, 'If you say so, Jacob.'"
"Tiffany?" But I knew it wasn't Tiffany.
"Nope. Try again."
"Jacob, what's going on?"
I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew that voice. I'd known it a long time. But who was it? Who the hell was—
"Jacob, WHAT IS GOING ON?" Sarah moved quickly to my side, and to my surprise she gripped my hand firmly. She knew something was wrong.
"Derek, what are you doing in my head?"
"I'm doing what I do best – winning."
I bolted upright in my bed. "You're not strong enough to be able to do this!" Then I hesitated. Was he?
"I'm stronger than you. Do you even realize that you're still talking out loud? You should know better than that. At least try to convince me that you're the threat everyone else seems to think you are, and communicate like a true telepath. Oh, and tell Team Yellow I said hi."
"Derek's talking to me," I said. "In my head. I don't know how, but um – he says hi."
Such was my inexperience that I found holding two conversations almost unbearable. I tried to distinguish between the two – the real conversation I was holding with Sarah and the one in my head – but I couldn't. Derek was there, and his voice was just as real as Sarah's. Whatever support Alex and the other's had been giving me at the Eidenberg Center was gone, and now I was beginning to really understand the discipline that was required to be telepathic.
"How are you able to communicate with me?"
"Hey, there you go! Now you're doing it! It's all kind of surreal, isn't it? I mean – when you really take a step back and think about it. How much can change in such a small space of time. I remember when I was first approached a few months ago, and they explained to me about telepathy and how there were cadets who could read minds, and the threats they represented. Here I was, gifted with the best genes government spending could buy. I was an Alpha-level; there was nothing I couldn't do. No doors closed to me. But suddenly all these Epsilons, all of these under-developed cadets who couldn't even keep up with the rest of us, who were cast out of the HEP – they had the potential to be better than me! All because of some roll of the dice – some random sequence of nucleotides that gave them this magical ability to read minds."
"Don't blame this all on a roll of the dice, you jackass. It was only a roll of a dice that gave you those Alpha-level genes."
"But my abilities are legitimate. My abilities MEAN something. You pit one of me against one of you, and I'LL WIN. But" – and I had some odd image of him holding up a hand to stop my protest – "I'll give you credit where credit is due. Telepathy has some use. Now I have both: the genes of an Alpha-level and the freak assortment of DNA that gives birth to telepathy. If I wasn't perfect before, I am now. The strongest cadet, and the strong telepath."
"You're neither. Sarah's the strongest cadet, and Tiffany's the strongest telepath."
"I'M the strongest cadet. If it weren't for the dead weight that is the rest of Team Red, I would have won the Alpha Team Competition! I would have been Alpha Team Alpha."
"Does your team know how you feel?"
"They don't need to. And with Tiffany here, I've become the strongest telepath. How else do you think I'm talking to you?"
A sudden, sickening feelings of dread came over me. How could I forget the frail, hollow look of Tiffany Paris? What had they done to her?
"We've almost broken her. She's become the hub through which we can reach out to all the telepaths in the world, regardless of distance, and bring them together. The whole world's against you now, Jacob. Those we've reached, those we haven't – they're all feeling the call. They don't know it, but they'll come. Sooner or later we'll have an army against you. Even the stronger ones – the ones who are holding out – can't resist for long. Your friend Alex is finding himself in a small civil war at the Eidenberg Center. The weaker telepaths against those who can resist. There's a war breaking out, and it has no borders. The world's changing right now – right outside your window – and your side is the losing side."
"You're lying. You have to be. I haven't felt any call."
"You can thank Tiffany for that. Whatever part of her that is still her own belongs to you as well. She's protecting you, with all the strength she has left. It's admirable, if a little foolhardy. She can't hold out forever, and neither can you. It's only a matter of time before we break her completely, and then you'll feel it. Above all else, above your loyalty to Alpha Team Alpha, above your loyalty to Alex and the others, even above your love for Sarah – oh yes, I know all about it – you'll feel it. Then you'll join us, and for the first time in your life you'll finally know what it's like to be on the winning side."
And just like that – he was gone. I blinked a few times, before becoming aware that Sarah's hand was still on my arm. I looked up at her, but it took awhile before I could focus on her eyes. "Derek just contacted me. It was a threat."
"What did he tell you?"
So I repeated it all back, almost verbatim. It turns out that telepathic conversations tend to linger in the memory with a lot more clarity than regular conversations. The thing I didn't tell them, which concerned me the most, was that the only thing I got from our little talk was what he told me. I know what you're thinking – Um, yeah. That's kind of how conversations work. Well quit being a smartass. The thing is, there wasn't any extra level to the communication, no extra thoughts or feelings that I had grown accustomed to receiving when I was communicating with Alex or the other telepaths. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's like the difference between talking to someone on the phone and holding a conversation in person. In person you can get so much more information about how someone is feeling, just by reading their expressions and body posture. It was like I was talking to Derek on a phone, when communicating telepathically with someone is more like speaking to them in person. I know – the comparison is awful, but if you've been reading this you've no doubt noticed that I don't excel at drawing similes. The point is, somehow Derek was able to block everything except what he wanted to get across, and that left me (and Alpha Team Alpha) at a severe disadvantage.
"So," Sarah said, "Tiffany contacting you during the Lieutenant General's interrogation" – I winced at the word – "might have been a last-ditch effort to warn you. That means we were fortunate she was able to step in and assist you when she did."
"Hopefully that will also convince you that, yeah, Tiffany's on our side."
"All right, agreed." Suddenly she chuckled.
"You," she replied. "You really were born with a tremendous amount of luck."
I grinned, and let myself relax a little. "Maybe to offset the lazy genes."
"Well, something needed to."
We all turned and looked at Kara, surprised. "Um, Kara?" Amy asked hesitantly. "Did you – did you just make a joke?"
"N – no."
"You did!" Adrian cried.
"I did not!"
"Oh yes you did! I know the difference between a joke and the usual vitriol you're slinging at him, and that was definitely a joke. There is hope for you! Do it again – make another joke!"
Kara glared so fiercely at Adrian that I had some notion that she was trying to make Adrian's head explode with her mind.
"So where are they?" Sarah said loudly, trying to refocus the conversation. "Where do we find Andrew and Derek?"
"At the Matthew Hughe's national campaign headquarters in Dallas," I explained. "Right down the street from the Kontra Company's HQ, where it all started – the independent genetic research, Derek's surgery…who knows what else."
"Probably gearing up for Super Tuesday then," Sarah said, drumming her fingers against the table beside my bed. "They won't be going anywhere anytime soon."
"Oh, I know that look," Adrian said. "You're planning something, and I think I'm going to like it."
"You're damned right I am," she replied. "Until now all we've been able to do is sit on the sidelines while we try to figure out what's going on. In the meantime they've done pretty much whatever the hell they damn well please. But now we know. For the first time we know who they are, where they'll be, why they'll be there, and what they're doing. I say it's high time we went on the offensive, and took the fight to them."
"Oh, I love it when you get like this," Adrian said, squirming and grinding her thighs together. "Every time you start formulating one of your plans, it gets me all hot and bothered."
"You get all what?" Amy asked.
"Hot and bothered. It means I get arou—"
"Adrian," Sarah warned. "And I won't be formulating the plan this time. I saw the results from the Alpha Team Competitions, and they don't lie. When I give you more control over the planning, the results are always better. Always. And for something like this, something way beyond what we're used to – what I'm used to – Alpha Team Alpha is going to need that."
"Well I – I don't know what to say, Sarah." Adrian brought a hand to her chest. "It's all true. All of it. If anything, you give me too little credit." She turned to me. "Well, let's get started then, right? First and foremost, you cannot know the whole plan. Jacob. I'm terribly sorry" – she didn't look it – "but if Derek can tap in to that noggin of yours whenever he wants then you can't know what we're going to do. Common sense, right?"
"I don't think he can 'tap in' at will," I said defensively. "Tiffany's still protecting me. That was just a moment of weakness on her part, and if I know her – and I do – it probably won't happen again."
"'Probably?'" she repeated.
It was a good point. "All right, fair enough."
"We spent enough time at the Eidenberg Center to get some idea how all of this mindreading stuff works," she resumed, "but I'm still going to need you to be the bait." Suddenly she clapped her hands together in a moment of pure, unrestrained glee. "Oh, I've waited so long for a chance to use another human being as bait! This is the happiest day of my life!" She clapped a hand on my back. "I am going to have some fun with you, Jacob my boy!" Then she winked. "And not the kind of fun I always pictured the two of us having together, either."
"Wait – what!?"
I know that's usually my catchphrase, but this time it wasn't from me. It was Sarah.
So yeah. They were off doing their thing: formulating an intricate scheme to overtake a heavily-armed federal building that housed an evil telepath bent on national domination, who no doubt had at his disposal untold millions in campaign contributions to purchase the best protection money could buy.
I, meanwhile, was sitting on my old desk back in the boy's dormitory. I could see myself, all those months ago, getting up early to avoid waking the others off with my alarm. I could see myself, being as quiet as possible, trying to sneak out. And I could still see them – Matt, Aaron, and Eric, and those words of encouragement they had offered up. Where are you guys? I thought. I could really use some of that support right now.
I crossed the room and opened my closet. There, having been left hanging untouched for going on a month now, was my Army uniform. I don't think I've ever gone this long between wearing it, I thought idly, removing it from its hangar. And while it did feel good to be back in uniform, I did find that I'd grown accustomed to wearing civies. Oh, well.
It was when I sat back and pulled my boots on that I felt it. Something was in the bottom of my boot, and it felt like a crumpled up piece of paper. For a second I was reminded of the medallion my friends had sneaked into my boot all those weeks ago, and I realized that could very well mean something. I took it and opened it up, and to my surprise there was a small message waiting for me: "You have help. 39.62 110.95."
In an instant my heart began racing. The Omega Training Facility is about fifteen miles north of Price, Utah, at latitude and longitude 39.64N 110.75W. The coordinates on the message (and they were obviously coordinates) were only about fifteen miles away. I swallowed hard. Every cadet advanced enough to learn how to count has to commit a series of numbers to memory at the earliest age possible. They are – surprise, surprise – coordinates that lead to a series of old fallout shelters designed as safe houses should the pair of facilities ever come under siege. I knew mine by heart of course, and I knew there were multiple safe houses strewn about. I could only assume this was one of them.
It took about a minute to find my way back to the briefing room. Sarah took one look at the paper and I could tell she immediately had her doubts. "What makes you think this isn't a trap?" she asked.
"Okay – yeah, it could very well be," I replied. "But it wouldn't make any sense. The trap was already waiting for you and the others when you got back here, right? Why would they set up another trap so close by?"
"Do you recognize the writing?" she asked. "It's a woman's handwriting, which rules out your roommates."
"Not necessarily," Adrian said. "Aaron Kalchik could forge a mean signature. He's good. Not good like me, but still good."
I shook my head. "He may have tried to get to know the handwriting of every Alpha-level in the facility, but he told me before he was never able to master the handwriting of the technical or intelligence operatives." I shrugged. "There's a reason you guys hold those positions, after all."
"So you're saying this is authentic. Let the intelligence operative have a peek." Adrian took the sheet of paper and examined it closely. "She's trying to hide her handwriting," she said almost instantly.
"So it is a she," Amy said. "Are you sure?"
"Better than sure, my dear, sweet girl," Adrian replied. "This is Roberta Sprague." She handed the paper back to me. "The intelligence operative of Team Red is trying to send you a message."
"Send him a message?" Kara replied, incredulously. "Why would she be sending him a message? Doesn't she know he's a Delta?"
I sure do hope you've been paying attention. I told you way back in Chapter 1 that this story required some concentration, and the reason I'm suddenly bringing this up now is because I'm trusting you noticed that a very significant thing just occurred. Kara Takanshi, the cadet who has always been the first to remind me of my shortcomings, the cadet who absolutely revels in reminding me of my shortcomings, the cadet who coined my 'Delta' nickname all those weeks ago, and the cadet who I would have assumed would be the first to call me by my new nickname when the chance became available – well, she slipped up just now, didn't she? She still called me Delta.
"Epsilon," Adrian corrected. "I'm surprised at you, Kara. You've hated him since day one. I figured you of all people would be chomping at the bit to call him Epsilon."
Kara's expression was blank. "Of course," she said. "Epsilon."
"The question is, why would Roberta be sending me a pair of coordinates?" I asked, holding the paper up. "I think I've talked to her a grand total of zero times my whole life."
Adrian shrugged. "I say you go investigate, Jacob." She grinned, and I had the distinct impression wheels were turning in the back of her head, and that rarely bodes well for yours truly. "But since you're technically no longer part of Alpha Team Alpha, I say someone from the team should go with you to provide protection. Lord knows your combat skills aren't quite up to par."
Sarah sighed, and turned to Kara. Kara saw the look and instantly bristled. "I don't like it any more than you do," Sarah said quickly. "But we've still got an assault to plan, and I'm going to need my technical and intelligence operatives right now more than I'm going to need my combat operative."
"I would rather commit Seppuku than protect some insignificant little weakling."
"Thanks, Kara," I muttered.
It turns out that Kara didn't screw around. Most of the M12 LRVs we have on base are for the Vehicle Profiency portion of the quarterly reviews. As I've mentioned elsewhere, these vehicles are outfitted with sensors along the surface to detect and grade incoming UV pulses from other LRVs. But it turns out that the Omega Training Facility also comes equipped with standard LRVs, the ones mounted with traditional M41 Vulcan anti-aircraft guns. These are the guns capable of firing 450 to 550 12.7x99mm armoring-piercing rounds per minute, and are frankly not the kind of weapon you or I would want to come across anytime soon. Remember dissecting frogs back in Anatomy class? Imagine running that same frog through a cheese grater at high speed, and you'll get a fairly good idea of what the M41 can do.
So Kara was obviously expecting some resistance. She let me do the driving while she manned the machine gun, and I've got too admit that driving one of these bad boys in a non-academic setting was one of the few great joys I've experienced in my life. Winter may have been raging on in other parts of the country, but the dry, arid landscape of sea-level Utah provided perfect conditions for the rugged M12. It may still be cold, but at least it's not wet. In the nineteen years of my life I'll confess I never saw myself in the position I was now: barreling across the land in a state-of-the-art all-terrain vehicle heading for a cryptic destination with the most intelligent and experienced combat operative in the history of the Human Enhancement project manning a gun turret just behind my back.
It was such a departure from any previous experience that, were I not engaging in it firsthand I would not have believed it was happening to me. I'd spent most of my life growing up in and around the Psi Preparatory and Omega Training Facilities, but that had always been on base. I was remarkably unfamiliar with the nearby land, so to find myself with so much freedom as we bounced along the uneven terrain was quite a bit of joy.
Once we arrived at the coordinates, I begrudgingly left the LRV idling while Kara and I set out to investigate. "Be on your guard, Epsilon," Kara called out, drawing her coat tightly snuggly around her neck and breathing frost. "Something about this isn't right."
"What isn't right?"
She waved her hands around, encompassing the entire land. "The Alpha Teams are required to have to commit the location of every safe house to memory. Not just their own. Unfortunately, the set of coordinates you gave do not correspond to any that I'm aware of. And as part of my search of the Preparatory Facility and checked every safe house out here. They were all abandoned."
"Except this one."
"We won't know until we find out, will we?"
We continued searching in silence. On one hand, the safe houses are meant to be easily discernible to people who know what they're looking for. On the other hand, they're meant to be difficult if not impossible to find for those who don't. My safe house was located directly between two good-sized rocks and had a rocky formation looking west. If you had the right two set of rocks (rocks and rocky formations are fairly common in Utah, after all), looking directly west would reveal a small cave-like formation that was ultimately unexciting. Still, which would you rather examine? Two rocks in the middle of nowhere, or a cave? Its location near my safe house presented the perfect distraction.
Kara suddenly cleared her throat, and it was enough out of character that it brought me out of my thoughts. "So, telepathic, huh."
I laughed, not without some bitterness. "Apparently so. And I'm not quite sure I'm a big fan of it."
"I see." She nodded. "So can you read anyone?"
I realized with some surprise (not to mention a good deal of gratitude) that Kara and I had rarely been alone since this field training had begun. Not since that night at the Hay Adams. And now, all of a sudden, we were out here on the edge of nowhere, and here she was actually trying to engage me in a conversation. And not some work-related conversation, but one that was almost personal, almost as if we were – dare I say it? – teammates.
"Oh no. I'm not even close to that level yet, and frankly, I doubt I ever will be. So far everything that's happened has been a fluke or with Tiffany's help."
"Ah yes, being her Avatar."
"I know, I know. It's kind of ridiculous. But it's true."
"Your friend Alex explained it all to me. Is it true Tiffany Paris loves you?"
Whoa. I stopped my searching and turned to face her. The look on her face was one of mild skepticism, and although my first instinct was to defend myself I began to realize that, yeah, I was still a little skeptical myself. Considering how extraordinary she was, I still had trouble understanding what exactly she would see in someone like me.
"I guess so. That's what she said."
"She does not strike me as someone who would say what they do not mean," Kara said after some thought. I came close to taking that as encouragement until she added, "She must be a very foolish girl," and turned to resume her searching.
"Well, okay then!" I shot back, in a moment of stupidity that I still look back on with awe, even to this day. "So tell me about Ambassador Kamatsu?"
Kara turned and gave me a look that made my soul shrivel. But no, I thought, even before the customary panic began to set in. This is different.
I'm guessing it's another latent telepathic effect, or maybe the fact I knew I was telepathic was giving me more confidence to start trusting my gut instincts with people. So rather than fall to knees and pray for life (which I'd gotten to be very good at doing with her), I decided to press on.
Screw the consequences.
"You guys had a long talk that night at the Yule Ball. What did you talk about?"
My brazenness must have caught her off guard, and for the briefest of moments I think she was even a little impressed with me. "Nothing you would understand," she replied, and turned once again, signaling the conversation was over.
And here we go again, I thought. Just when I thought we were making some progress.
It took a good while of searching before we found it. And in all honesty it was purely by accident: there were no obvious markers, and it was only through our sheer diligence that we found it. I recognized it as another safe house entrance, although one that had clearly been abandoned. That of course raised our alarms somewhat, but after a careful inspection we agreed that it was probably safe to enter.
Not that that kept Kara from using me as the guinea pig once the hatch was removed and we found ourselves facing a dark hole. I grabbed a rock and tossed it in, and the sound that came back told us it was only about twenty feet down.
"Surely even an Epsilon-level can make that," Kara said.
"Yes, but an Alpha-level can do it even better."
"Sometimes I fear you are becoming a little too comfortable with me," she said thoughtfully. "Especially of late. And it may even be partially my fault, since I have become too lenient towards you." She looked me in the eye. "But that can be rectified."
And she was right: even I could handle a twenty-foot drop. Or so I thought. But remember that piece of tailpipe that had become lodged in my thigh? While it's true that it had been removed without any complications, and had in fact been giving me very little trouble since, I hadn't exactly been doing any real strenuous activity. I bring this up because as I soon as I landed on the ground and attempted go into a roll, a sharp pain ran right up my thigh and mucked the whole landing up pretty effectively. I managed to stifle the shriek of agony, partly because it would have alerted everyone in the state about our presence, but also because I knew Kara would never let me forget it.
Kara landed nimbly beside me, and saw me rolling around on the hard concrete floor. "Oh, you're fine," she said sympathetically.
"No," I hissed, "I'm not. Give me a shoulder up."
"You're really going to abandon a civilian in an unknown and possible hostile environment?"
Kara sighed and made a big show of hoisting me up. "That was low, even for you," she whispered.
"You know flattery will get you no—"
"Freeze! Hands in the air!"
Kara's hands shot up, and I toppled over, bellowing in pain – again.