"Kat! You're here!"
It was a miracle that I could hear Sally's shout over the throbbing music, let alone find her in the madness of the crowd. However, the flashing lights somehow lit upon her cheerful face and I did my best to summon up an answering smile. I'd been wandering around trying to find her for the last fifteen minutes and had almost decided to give up, but I couldn't back out now. As she approached in full on party regalia, I self-consciously brushed a hand across my rumpled sweatshirt and swept my lank hair behind my ears. It just dawned on me that I was wearing the same outfit I'd put on when I got up fourteen hours ago.
At least Sally didn't seem to notice as she bounded up with Chelsea and Rita trailing behind.
"I'm so glad you came!" Sally screamed over the noise as she pulled me into a hug.
Rita pulled me into a hug as well, her smile warm. "I'm glad you could make it, I've been meaning to talk to you!"
"Really?" I asked as Chelsea and I awkwardly side-hugged.
"It's hard to nail you down. We don't see much of you these days."
"Yeah, the doctor keeps me on a pretty tight schedule."
"Well, you should thank your lucky stars that you're not in active training yet because this week is going to kill us all." Chelsea took a big drink of whatever liquid was in her colorful glass.
"We're doing a series of group projects this week, and Chelsea's on Melinda's team," Sally said by way of explanation.
"She can be a little... difficult to get along with."
Chelsea closed her eyes and drained the last of her drink with startling speed.
I had yet to meet Melinda, but all the information I was gathering about her so far was not very promising.
"But let's not talk about work, we're here to have some fun! Right Chels?" Sally bumped Chelsea lightly with her hips.
Chelsea rolled her eyes, albeit with a small smile on her face.
A cheer rang out, and suddenly Leeda appeared above the masses in an intricately woven apricot tunic and matching hijab, an expression of pleasure and embarrassment marring her childish features. The strains of "happy birthday" began to emanate from the center of the room and we added our voices to the song. The crowd parted just enough for me to identify Johnny as the shoulders Leeda was resting upon, with Tito at his side leading the crowd with reckless abandon.
As the song came to an end we all cheered and Leeda disappeared as she was let down to the floor.
"She looks like she's having fun." I offered after the clapping had subsided.
"She's the middle child in a family of nine, so she's still trying to figure out what to do with all the attention."
"And Leeda's a genius, to put it mildly," Sally added. "Marshall put her to work in theoretical astrophysics a few months ago. She's only an assistant now, but give it a year or two and she'll be running her own division."
Leeda, Thomas, Sally, Rita, the Tecker Twins... I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was surrounded by amazingly brilliant people. They were only a few out of a vast organization, but who knows who else Marshall had collected?
I was probably the least intelligent person here. I wasn't sure yet how that made me feel.
"You know I'm kinda thirsty," Sally shouted. "Anybody want anything?"
"Some wine please, and feel free to be generous." Rita shared a grin with her.
"On it. Kat?"
I felt a headache beginning to form behind my eyes and I pinched the bridge of my nose. "If there's any coffee, I will be your best friend."
"Woah, hold up. Everybody heard that, right? She said if I bring her a coffee she'll be my best friend." She pointed at me. "No take backs! Come on Chelsea, we've got orders to fill."
"This is perfect," Rita shouted, as the two of them melted into the crowd. "I wanted to talk to you privately. Shall we find a better place to talk?"
"Alright." I shouted, and together we wove our way to a quieter corner of the room.
"I'm so glad to get you alone. Sally will probably be gone a while because she usually stops to talk to people every couple seconds. But she'll find us again, it's like her superpower."
"She is pretty good at it."
"She is. Well, I just wanted to let you know that I'm currently handling your case files, and I thought you'd like to hear how things are going."
That got my full attention. "I didn't realize there was someone I could go to who knew about my case besides Marshall."
"Well Marshall is the assistant director of the station so he does have his fingers in a lot of pies, but he's currently out on a long term mission and case files aren't his forte. I'm an intelligence analyst so he sent your file my way."
"Could I have been getting updates this last month?"
"No. I was only cleared to give you information this morning." Rita sat back and crossed her legs. "So do you have any questions to start off?"
"How close are you guys to solving my case?"
"I'm afraid not very close at all, but we are making great headway."
"Do you think I'll be able to leave the station any time soon?"
"I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that."
I held back a sigh. "Alright, well what have you guys figured out so far?"
"We spent a lot of time analyzing your memories and put together a sketchy picture of your life from the month before your kidnapping up to the moment you were taken. The data didn't match with any of the previous kidnappings orchestrated by Andrei Vauss."
"Andrei Vauss, the CEO of that big medical research facility?"
She must have heard the confusion in my voice. "Yes. We strongly believe Mr. Vauss is behind a recent slew of abductions, and I had hoped that your case was somehow connected. However, that possibility has been eliminated and I am moving on to the next."
Her twinkling eyes kindled a small flame of hope. "What's the next possibility?"
"Well I finally got a copy of your brain scan results from Houshyar, and some interesting anomalies appeared in the data."
I leaned forward, trying to hear her over the music, which seemed to be getting louder.
"There appear to be some minor glitches in the memory files we collected from Houshyar's algorithms. Just brief moments during conversations, either in the form of tiny blurs or distortions, but sometimes it's actual jumps in time. That shouldn't be possible. It could be a mistake in the programming, but I've got a strong feeling about them. With your permission, I'd like to schedule another scan to collect a broader sample of memories. That way I have a better chance of seeing if there's a pattern to the memories these glitches are connected to."
"Yes, of course. Whatever you need."
Anything to get back home.
"Thank you. I have a good feeling that this is a step in the right direction."
"I hope it is," I answered fervently.
"I'm back!" Sally heralded her return. She had found us, just like Rita predicted.
She danced towards us carrying two glasses of wine. "I've lost Chelsea to the charms of one ab-tastic English boy, but look who I brought back with me instead!"
Thomas and Leeda appeared behind her, the former looking sheepish while the latter's large eyes sparkled. "Hi girls! Thanks for coming!"
"Happy birthday," I smiled at Leeda and stood up to give her a hug.
I tried my best to ignore Thomas, even though he was looking very adorable in a casual suit and Harry Potter-like glasses. Now I wished more than ever that I was dressed more appropriately. "Are you having fun?"
"So much! I'm so glad Doctor McAuley let us put all this together. It's been like a dream come true!"
"I'm glad I could do it." He replied, gracing her with a perfect smile.
I ran my tongue over my teeth and felt the grime of a full day of mouth breathing.
"...And I don't have to worry about eating too much sugar since it's a holiday weekend coming up." Leeda was saying.
"A holiday?" I brought up my watch calendar, but nothing on it indicated that I would have any time off. I looked up and accidentally caught eyes with Thomas. He quickly looked away and cleared his throat.
Sally handed Rita her wine. "Now Kat, I know I promised to bring you coffee but Thomas was so insistent on helping me carry the drinks that I let him take yours. I did pour the cup though so you're still locked into our agreement!"
"No take backs." I agreed.
He hesitated a moment before offering me the cup. It was a latte with a heart etched onto the cream on the top.
I glanced at Sally over the top of the cup.
She was smiling like a Cheshire cat.
The conniving little minx.
"Oh, and wasn't there something you wanted to tell Kat, Thomas?"
"Er," He said, looking awkward.
Sally sat down next to Rita and sipped her wine. "I thought it was nice of him to show up to the party he helped plan, especially since he hates having fun and all that, but I guess he just came here to talk to you Kat, can you believe it?"
I narrowed my eyes at her. She arched her brow, eyes sparkling. Rita was rolling her eyes.
"Well, there are some things I wanted to discuss with you about this week's schedule." Even in the flashing lights, I could tell he was blushing. He pushed his glasses up the brim of his nose. "I was hoping to do it in private but..."
"But?" Sally asked. She was staring daggers at him.
He swallowed hard. "I guess I could just do it now."
She grinned in satisfaction. "Good."
He stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I just wanted to talk about the possibility of moving you into the dorms and adding some basic training into your schedule."
My jaw dropped as Sally cheered. "Yes!"
"This semester of classes only lasts one more month, and I think it's about time you had more interaction with the team you're going to be training with."
"Where is she going to be?" Sally demanded. "In that room you said would be occupied soon? She better be in that room or I'll file a complaint!"
"I wouldn't think of putting her anywhere else."
I barely put my hand up in time to catch her high five.
"You're going to be in our hall!" Leeda told me excitedly.
"Do you like old sci-fi?" Rita asked.
"Good, because Sally and I have a pretty amazing line-up for our next marathon."
"Star Trek for the win!"
Sally and Rita fist bumped.
Thomas' mouth twitched. "I know I've given you a full schedule, but you've proven you're up to the task and I think you're ready for a new challenge. I've been wanting to move you out of the iso ward for a while but... well, we can talk more about the details in the morning if you'd like."
I could only nod, my head suddenly buzzing with all the possibilities of what the next week could hold.
"Good. Well then I'm afraid it's time for me to head back to the office. There's a pile of paperwork waiting for me that I've been avoiding."
I saw my opportunity to get out of the suddenly too warm dance hall. "I should probably go too."
"But you just got here!" Sally balked. "And we have so much to talk about. Girls' nights, anti-grav championships, our movie marathons..."
"I know, and I'm sorry, but I still have homework that I need to finish up and I… I'm getting kind of tired."
It was partially true. Headaches were still almost a daily occurrence, although they were getting more manageable, and the lights and the noise weren't helping. My temples had started to throb to the rhythm of the music.
"Thank you for coming," Leeda told me brightly. "I'm glad you'll be in our corridor soon, we're going to have so much fun!"
"I'm looking forward to it."
Sally hugged me one more time. "We'll talk tomorrow!"
"See you later Kat." Rita took my hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "I'll set up that scan with Houshyar and let you know when I have anything new."
I hadn't realized how loud it was inside the rec room until Thomas and I stepped into the silence of the corridor. I let the quiet wash over me as we entered the lift. Thomas cleared his throat as we began to ascend. "I hope I didn't cross any boundaries back there. I know you're a pretty private person..."
"It's alright," I cut in quickly. "I'm glad you told me."
He let out a breath. "Sally just has this way of..."
"Getting under your skin?" I offered with a smile. "I've noticed she has a talent for getting her way."
"Yeah," He ran his fingers through his hair and it stood on end. "She's not vicious about it, it's just... She can talk circles around me and before I know it I've agreed to things I can't get out of without owing her food or favors or a color changing dogs from the moon of Rakus."
"Do you owe her a color changing dog from Rakus?"
"Yeah, but I've done research and I can't figure out if there actually are color changing dogs, or if she pulled one over on me for the fun of it."
He sounded so distressed that I forced myself to bite back a laugh. "I wouldn't put it past her."
I could feel him relaxing as we walked from the lift to my little room. I put my hand on the door frame as I peered inside my closet sized room. "Thank you."
"For letting me leave the isolation ward. I'm looking forward to actually being a part of things. This place makes me feel like I'm a prisoner."
"I know, and I'm sorry. I would have moved you sooner except..."
He hesitated, then shoved his glasses up his nose. "Well, a few days more and you'll be in your own room and training. I just wish there was more I could do for you."
"I know you do a lot for me already, so thank you."
He had a look on his face that I had come to recognize as his thinking face. He was clearly having some kind of psychological debate, but I cleared my throat before it could come to any sort of conclusion. "Well if there's nothing else Thomas, I'll say goodnight."
He looked startled. "Right, yes, well… good night Kat. Sleep well."
I tried not to feel bad as I watched him walk away, head down and hands shoved deep into his pockets.