Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 4

Boise, ID

Brandon brought his rental car to a stop a block away from his destination, taking a long pull on his vape as he surveyed the crime scene. The thick cloud cover above cast an unnatural darkness over the neighborhood for early evening at this time of year, making the seven cop cruiser lights all the more pronounced as they blanketed the neighborhood in flashing red and blue. 

Seven cars, and an enforced perimeter. It had to be a lot uglier in there than he had expected to warrant that kind of response. Taking another pull on his vape as he considered what he was about to walk into, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Despite being clean shaven and having his hair perfectly in its place, his sunken, weary eyes more than hinted at his perpetual exhaustion. Brandon briefly tried to recall when he’d last slept, or had slept more than five hours at a stretch, but quickly pushed such useless thoughts away and popped a caffeine pill and chased it with another pull on his vape.

Brandon’s phone rang. He clicked the answer button on the steering wheel. 

“Tell me that we won the auction, Chris.”

“Well…” came Chris’ response through the car’s sound system.

“Don’t tell me we got outbid.” If Chris let someone poach the reliquary from him he would kill him.

“No, it was just…a lot.”

“Jesus, Chris, you had me thinking we’d lost it. Just give me the number.”

“…Twenty two thousand.”

“You have got to be shitting me! Twenty two thousand!?”

Silence. 

Brandon sighed, “Doesn’t matter, we got it, that’s all that matters. Any jobs call?”

“PenPharm called again with another offer.”

“Tell them my answer hasn’t changed.”

“They said they’d pay ten thousand an hour.”

Brandon hesitated as shamefully materialistic thoughts danced through his head. “Still no.” 

“The rest are the usual. Missing kids, suspicious deaths, and a bunch from various police departments.”

“Email me the summaries. What about this case? Anything useful from your dreams?”

“I tried, but…just…more nightmares.”

“Alright. I need you to try again; soon.”

“Does it even matter?”

“Chris, this is important. People are dying. I need any help you can give me.”

“I’m not sad they’re dead.”

Brandon sighed and rubbed his eyes. He didn’t have time for this kind of juvenile shit right now. “Just try again.”

Silence. Chris could be so difficult when he was being stubborn.

“I need to go. Anything else?”

“…Did you feel it, whatever it was?”

Brandon took another pull on his vape, staring out the window as he recalled the feeling. “Yeah, I did.”

“What was it?”

He had no idea. He had never felt anything like it before. Something big, something dangerous. It felt like a bomb going off, and when the shockwave hit he had seen and felt so many things, none of which he understood and even less he liked. A whispering, oppressive darkness; strange, masked figures; men and women, some he thought he had recognized and far more he didn’t; and all in such a garbled flurry of overwhelming emotions and hallucinations that he couldn’t even begin to parse.

“We’ll talk about it when I get back.”

Brandon ended the call, looped his messenger bag over his shoulder, and stepped out of the car. A wind too cold for the season ruffled his suit jacket, bringing with it the terrible stench of rot. Someone had opened a window they shouldn’t have. Brandon covered his nose with his sleeve, waiting for the breeze to pass as he searched the crime scene downwind for the source of the stench.  Sure enough, a small window on the upper floor of the dull-green two-story was open, above which a dozen or more crows had gathered on the roof and in the nearby trees. 

Brandon scanned the neighborhood around him. He noticed that most of the houses here were new, but the size of the trees said the neighborhood was old. The new builds weren’t the kind of place you’d go out of your way to gloat about to your friends, but there was a lot of trendy suburban eye-candy in the landscaping and architecture to seduce first-time homebuyers into a false sense of superiority. But the gentrification hadn’t been enough to keep the nightmares out. 

Scared faces peered out from behind window shades or from open doorways, all telling the same story. They had heard and seen more than they wanted, and talk of moving was sure to be on the tip of every tongue. It was the same every time. This close to the darkness no one felt safe. There wasn’t a door thick enough to keep out the feelings of vulnerability, or a lock strong enough to keep the taint from creeping in. The citizenry wasn’t equipped to deal with violent aberrations like this. A yapping dog before sunrise; college kids with their music too loud after ten; a fighting couple with their crying kid two doors down at it again, these were the troubles of suburbia, not, well, he’d find out soon enough.

Brandon marched swiftly toward the nearest officer at the perimeter who watched him, suspicion plain on his face as spoke into his shoulder radio. He held up his hand as Brandon reached the yellow crime scene tape.

“Sir, I’m going to need some identification.” 

“Detective Parkson already told you who I am when you called in my description, and she told you to let me in, so why are you wasting my time?”

The young officer looked surprised. Brandon chuckled dryly as he badged him, not waiting for permission before ducking under the line. The not so quiet words “smart-ass” reached him as he made his way to the door, giving a weary glance at the unblinking black-eyed audience above.  

An ashen looking officer stepped out of the house and a new wave of rot reach him. It shouldn’t be as strong as it was. How many dead were there? 

“It’s not pretty in there,” said the officer.

“It never is,” replied Brandon, taking a deep pull on his vape.

“She’s not going to want you using that inside.” 

Brandon nodded, took one last pull, then tucked his vape away. 

“Here, take some Vicks. You’re going to want it.” 

Brandon shook his head. Working a crime scene required all your senses, even if it hurt.

The living room was sparse, unkempt, and unremarkable. Detective Parkson turned when he entered. She smirked, the gesture full of undisguised  derision as she looked him up and down.

“So this is the famous Agent Sharp? I expected you to show up in wizard robes and carry a crystal ball.”

Some of the officers laughed. Some stared or tried to get a better look at him. He was used to it.

“People are dead, Detective. Let’s dispense with pleasantries and get to work.”

“Not much for conversation, huh? I guess you save that for the cameras.”

There was another ripple of laugher. Brandon’s love for the camera was a popular element of the narrative aimed at discrediting him, despite the fact that he had never given an interview to any of the multitudes of reporters who had clamored for the opportunity.

“Why don’t we start with why you’re even here,” said Parkson. “I get a call from my captain telling me there’s been a murder, and that the FBI is sending you to assist, all before a single report is filed. Now that sounds to me like this is your mess, and you should be in there cleaning it up instead of us.”

“How the FBI was informed of this situation has no bearing on the case itself.”

“So it’s going to be like that it, is it?” Parkson sneered.

“It is,” Brandon said flatly. “Now let’s discuss what you’ve gathered on the killer so far.” 

“You suits are always dumber than you look. I had you pegged for a fraud and this proves it. If that twisted piece of swinging trash up there had been murdered, I’d be searching the streets for someone’s hand to shake instead of trying to sort out the ugliest mess of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen.”

“So nothing,” Brandon said dismissively. “I’ll need to see the crime scene.”

Parkson scowled at him, then just shrugged.

“Suit yourself, suit. I expect watching you vomit all over your nice shoes will brighten my day considerably. After you.” Parkson made an exaggerated presentational gesture toward the staircase up to the second floor.

Brandon made his way up the creaking wooden stairs with Parkson a step behind. Following Parkson’s direction, he made his way to the last bedroom at end of the hall. He took a deep breath to steady himself and regretted it due to the wretched smell, then moved into the doorway. He hadn’t been prepared for what he saw there. His stomach twisted violently, but his constitution held down its meager content. 

A pair of bright work lights on either side of the door flooded the room with light. More than a dozen dogs and cats hung from the ceiling, suspended from thin steel wires looped tight around their necks. Tongues hung from agape muzzles, and at least one of the rotting, emaciated frames had a claw hooked under the treacherous wire it hung from. Brandon’s jaw clenched tight, as did his fists. He had to force himself to set aside thoughts of the last, painful moments these poor pets suffered through and focus on the details of the scene.

At the center of the innocent hung the guilty, done up the same way, an overturned and soiled chair beneath him. On the inside of on of his wrists, drawn in sharpie, were drawings of a spent sharp-angled hourglass — black for the outline and red for the sand. The far wall was covered in a disturbing collage of photographs all of the same woman. 

“Were they alive when he strung them up like this?” Brandon asked.

Parkson was silent long enough that Brandon turned to look back at her. He had expected more “clever” insults, but the wire gallows seemed to have taken her enthusiasm for it.

“CSI is saying yes — the sick bastard. We had one report of a pet in the area going missing, but none of us took it as anything serious. Coyotes are pretty common around here, and they’ll kill and eat cats and small dogs if they’re out after dark sometimes. I’d guess most people just put up missing posters, asked their neighbors, or knew about the coyotes. No one would have suspected…this.”

Brandon nodded and turned back to survey the scene. 

“He was practicing. Getting up his nerve for the real thing, for whoever she is.”

“We’ve been asking around the neighborhood, but no one has recognized her yet, not that it matters anymore. Like I said, suit, this is a suicide. CSI haven’t turned up any signs of a struggle, extra prints, or evidence that anyone but him has been here in a long time, and none of the neighbors saw anything. You can see the chair and that he did himself up in the same way as all the rest. The motive? Suicidal self-loathing. We’ve sent his computer off to forensics. I’ll bet you we find he was one flavor of misogynist or another, planning a revenge murder of some woman who he thought owed him sex, or some insane shit like that. It happens more than you’d think. We just got lucky that this time the sicko offed himself before anyone else. If only we were always so lucky. You’re in the wrong place, suit, so unless you’re going to clean this up, get out of our way.”

 It was unprofessional and dangerous to make assumptions about the case before forensics came back with evidence off the guy’s computer, it could bias the investigation. Still, Parkson was right that no had strung him up, and was probably right about the rest of it, but between Chris’s dream that had brought him here and the symbol on the dead guy’s wrist, he knew this suicided had had help.

“Under normal circumstances I’d agree with you,” said Brandon. “I’ve seen the same uptick you described in recent case studies, but this is more than just that.”

The Æther — the name he had given to the turbulent and foggy layer of shuddering information that lay outside of human perception and connected information in unseen ways — had been slowly creeping in around the edges of his vision as the effects of the nicotine waned, threatening to overwhelm him. Focusing on grisly scene before him, he stopped fighting and let the Æther in. 

Unseen knowledge and staggering clarity of awareness welled up from every surface. He dwelled too long on a dataweave — a chaotic roiling amalgamation of dates, names, memories, and countless threads of information — around one of the dogs, and was thrown into it’s last thrashing moments. Fear. Panic. Pain, such pain. Pleading. He wanted to know what he did wrong, to fix it. He wanted his family. Blackness. 

Brandon tore himself from the waking nightmare of memory and back into the room. Several more of the poor animals dataweaves thrust themselves at him, but used his will to push them back. Every part of the room from the smallest nail to the hung man held dataweaves that clamored to tell him their past, present, and predictive future. He forced them all back with a great effort and focused only on the hung man.

Where the dog’s frightful emotions has been so strong, so simple, so singular and sharp that they had come to him clearly articulated, the hung man’s thoughts, as with all people, were nigh impenetrable, coming to him only in fragmented whispers, emotions, and etherial notions. But places remember too, and people left strong imprints upon them, and vice-versa. He wouldn’t be able to tell what the man had thought, but he’d be able to see what he head done and felt. 

 Delving into the recent past, Brandon could see the man drugging a dog with ketamine laced bacon. Brandon pressed the dataweave away, seeking a more recent memory. He touched another and saw the man rocking violently on the floor beneath his hung hecatomb, digging fingernails into his scalp hard enough to draw blood as he screamed for someone to get out of his head. Moving ahead again, Brandon saw the man on the chair, this time calm and glazed, as in a trance, as he drew the hourglass on his arm. He finished the sand, then looped the wire around his neck.

This was why he was here. With an effort he pressed out of the memories and began searching the dataweave’s threads. He knew what he was looking for, and it didn’t take long to find. From the clutter of dataweaves he pulled forth one that was pitch black, covered in bizarre burning runes, and capped at both end with the same empty hourglass drawn onto the man’s wrists. Brandon took a deep, shuddering breath and braced himself, then touched the thread.

Pain. Hopeless, unrelenting, everlasting pain. It had been built from and woven into countless of the man’s memories to give it deep, torturous roots.

He released the thread almost as soon as he had touched it, but it had been too much. From outside himself he watched as he slumped against the doorframe and slid down to floor. He watched himself fish his vape out of a pocket with shaking hands and take deep pulls on it. The distance between his two selves lessened until they were one again and room came into focus.

Brandon stole a glance at Parkson who had a hint of genuine concern on  her face, but as soon their eyes met it vanished and the sneer returned.

“You suits are all the same. Eggs pretending to be rocks, throwing yourselves against walls and expecting them to chip, all with predictable results. You’ve seen what you came to see, now go home, suit, you’re not cut out for this.”

Brandon chuckled. “I wish you were right, then I wouldn’t have to put myself through this, but I’m the only one who can work cases like this, and until that changes it’s not a choice, it’s my duty.”

“Spare me your psychic speeches, suit.”

Brandon pulled a tablet from his bag, navigated to the case reports, then handed it to Parkson. 

“That hourglass symbol on your perps inside wrist, the same symbol was found at more than two dozen other ‘suicides’ around the country over the past seven years, all of them either active serial killers, or killers in training like this one. We only caught the killer’s trail nine months ago, but we’re trying to catch up.”

Parkson eyed him suspiciously, but took the tablet and started reading through the reports as Brandon got to his feet.

“We don’t normally share this information with local law enforcement, and it goes without saying it’s not public, and cannot become so without risking a panic and tipping off the killer, so don’t say I never shared anything with you, and be sure you forget that I did.”

“The killer is meticulous, as you’ve noticed. No prints, no sign that they was ever here. They’re a comfortable killer, they’re in twenty five deep that we know of, and they’ve gotten more efficient each time. They’re a hunter. We haven’t been able to piece together any connections between the victims beside their murderous proclivities. We’re looking into medical records and institutions, social media groups, and more, hoping we’ll find they all passed through the same facility or therapist or chat or whatever at one time or another, but so far it’s all been dead ends.”

“We sent pictures of the symbol to forensics to look into it,” said Parkson without any bite, “but they said it wan’t any gang or cult marking they were familiar with, and since it was in sharpie and not a tattoo we didn’t put much importance on it.”

Brandon went on.

“The killer blends in. The degree of control over the situation needed to convince someone to take their own lives strongly suggests that they have to be near by, yet, like you’ve seen, no one seems to remember anyone or anything strange.”

“How is he killing them?” 

“Let’s talk outside.”

 

Parkson and Brandon stood on the concrete slab of a back porch which looked out on a poorly maintained back yard. Brandon dialed the head office to report in as he eyed the storm clouds overhead, hoping they wouldn’t delay his flight out.

“Yes sir, same as the rest…No, nothing yet…I’ll see that they do…Yeah…Yeah…No…Yes sir, will do…Thank you, goodbye.” 

Brandon hung up the call and looked to Parkson. What he couldn’t tell her was that the killer was like Chris and him — Chris called it “Touched”. Unlike his or Chris’s ability, the killer’s was lethal, and resisted his own ability. The runes in those dark dataweaves were unlike anything he had encountered. With something intimate like a wedding ring, Brandon could discern almost any detail from a person’s life. These dark dataweaves, which were a part of some innate power the killer had, should have created a strong tether back to them, yet the threads yielded nothing at all. Brandon could barely control his own ability, and this case kept reminding him of how little he really understood about his own or anyone else’s. 

“The official FBI stance is that we don’t know how he does it. Everything at a scene suggests suicide, until you start lining them all up side-by-side.”

“Wait,” said Parkson, “you have no evidence of how they’re being killed.”

“Not officially.”

“Then you have nothing, no reason to believe there’s a killer. A suicide cult, or some other connection is far more likely. And here you had me doubting myself over nothing.”

Brandon took another drag on his vaporizer and sighed out a cloud. “I’m certain there is a killer.” 

“How?”

“I can’t explain it.” Not without sounding insane. “I just do.”

“So more psychic bullshit, huh suit?”

Brandon shrugged. “This is why I have a polarizing reputation. The best I can do is point to my success rate with cold cases anyone you ask would have asked tell you was unsolvable. I can’t alway articulate how I put the pieces together, but no one can argue with my results.”

Parkson crossed her arms and glared at him. “That is pure bullshit.”

Brandon just shrugged again and took another pull on his vape. “I’ve got a flight to catch. You see the connection between the cases now, that much is undeniable. I’m telling you something is killing these people, and we need to know what.”

“They’re scum, suit. We’re better off without them.” 

“Vengeance isn’t justice, detective, and if you don’t understand that you don’t deserve to wear a badge.”

“That’s rich coming from a psychic.”

Brandon sighed and held out his agent card. “Just let us know if you find anything, and we’ll do the same.”

The two stared hard at each other. Parkson snatched and pocketed the card. 

“Thanks for your help, detective.”

The rain had begun. Brandon left through a door in the fence, slipping between houses in the next block to avoid the news trucks he had seen pull up. He snuck back to his car and made his way to the airport.

 

Brandon stared out the window from first class as the plane prepared for take-off. With a burst of speed and G’s the plane left the runway. The grid of homes and highways below became like toys, and as they gained altitude the scene grew vast — a dark sea speckled with streetlamp stars and shooting stars cars. 

Brandon scowled up at the crossed-out cigarette light, then turned back to the window, rubbing the nicotine patch beneath his shirt and jacket. The Æther loomed on the edges of his consciousness, but the slow release kept it from coming in any further. Event though it required regular upkeep, he preferred his vape as the large burst pushed the Æther all the way out.

Brandon shifted nervously in his seat. He had little to show for this latest trip except for another random dot on a map, bad relations,  and the promise of more nightmares to come. The more cases he worked like this the more his ability had begun to feel like a curse rather than a blessing. In the beginning his superiors and fellow agents had been willing to look the other way and let cases get solved, but as time went on resistance had mounted. Judges too, having caught wind of his unaccountable insights, had become far less forgiving with warrants and convictions, and seeing justice go undone was always incredibly frustrating no matter how well he understood their reticence academically. He had seen this coming, and had made sure his investigative skills were sharp and current, but still too many cases had missing pieces that couldn’t be filled through conventional means. At times he had even resorted to bribing the homeless to call in anonymous tips, but that was risky, and he’d be far less effective outside the bureau than in it. 

Brandon traded the stewardess a fist-full of vouchers for their equivalent in novelty-sized liquor bottles and mixers. Flying made him anxious on its own; the added stress of the Æther and the mounting failures of the case was threatening to see his anxiety explode into a panic attack. He downed a bland double Bloody-Mary, and was half way through a more potent screwdriver before his head began to swim and his anxiety waned enough to allow him to think straight. 

The killer had perfected his unnatural technique. The rune pattern had remained the same over the past three victims, and caused such intense and tortuous suicidal depression that his whole body tensed at the memory of it. For some reason neither his nor Chris’ powers could track the perp, and more conventional methods continued to yield nothing useful. He had hoped that maybe the two other people Chris had found who he said were also touched might either be his perp or have some insight into it, but that had just been another dead end. He was running out of options. Whoever the killer was they were incredibly dangerous, and as things stood there was no one out there who could stop them, himself included.

The whole ordeal soured his stomach, though that could also have been the five drinks on empty. He thought, and not for the first time, that he should keep tabs on other Touched and their abilities. Chris would’t like that, he thought of them all as family and wouldn’t reveal their identities. Brandon set the idea aside for future consideration as he got out his tablet to finish his report, but decided to rest for a few minutes instead. He was out as soon as his head leaned back against the seat. 

 

 

Kansas City, MO

Brandon had arrived at the Hearty Heartland Cafe just after they closed at 1am, having weathered a stomach churning flight that had managed to slip between severe thunderstorms to land. He sat in a booth — his elbows on the table and his head held between his hands as the heavy rain came down outside – across from his brother Chris who was clicking away on his laptop. His mother, a sharp-eyed woman eighteen years his senior who owned the cafe, set two glasses and several pills on the table in front of him. One glass was water, the other was filled half-way with a brownish red liquid rife with suspicious looking globs.

“What’s this?”

“A hangover cure,” she said, “drink.”

“I haven’t—“

“Spare me,” she said, looking away has she held up her hand. “Your Seroquel is in there with the Advil. You should take it.”

Brandon sighed. “Can we not go through this every time I come here? I can’t do my job when I’m taking it.”

The antipsychotic would silence the Æther entirely, but no matter how difficult it was to manage, it had helped him solve a lifetime’s worth of cold cases in less than two years. When you have the power to affect great positive change in the world, you can’t just turn your back on that because it’s inconvenient.

 “So instead you’re an alcoholic smoker who never sleeps? You’re racing to an early grave, Brandon, and you’re not going to save anyone from in there, I can tell you that.”

Brandon didn’t have the strength to argue with her. He took a pull on his vape and exhaled. He downed the gloppy glass, then picked out the Advil and took them with the whole glass of water, leaving the Seroquel where it sat. He grimaced, but his stomach’s threats of upheaval died down as as everything settled. He turned back to his mother. 

“I can’t take antipsychotic and do my job, but I’ll find an alternative to the alcohol. Fair?”

She stared at him with weary eyes. “ I’ll believe it when I see it.”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“All I want is for my son’s to be happy and outlive me, and for your father to not.”

Brandon had been about to reply, then frowned, processing that last part, which seemed out of character for her despite the constant tension between her and Chuck. He turned to Chris. 

“Has Chuck been sending you more of those bigoted podcasts?”

“You mean Dad,” said Chris, sarcastic and perturbed.

Brandon gave a snort. “He’s never been anyone’s father, least of all yours.”

 Chris shrugged. “Yes, Dad sent another one. Want to hear it?”

There were few things wanted less, especially with his head pounding, but Chris played the audio without waiting for a reply. Out of laptop speakers came the oily, sanctimonious of voice Pastor Levi.

“The homosexual, the most perverse of society’s many degenerates, is an infectious cancer that steals our boys and sissifies them. They renounce God’s grace and his promise of eternal life and succumb to Satan’s promise of flesh and pleasure.  Full of drugs, their minds polluted with twisted pornography,  they sodomize each other into a diseased, hellbound grave!”

Brandon reached across the table and violently slammed Chris’s laptop shut. Fuming, his anger threatening to boil over as he glared at his brother who wouldn’t look back at him. He took a deep breath and spoke as calmly as he could manage.”

“Why do you let him treat you this way? Why do you do this to yourself?”

Chris shrugged. “It gives us something to talk about. Did you hear Pastor Levi is running for the Senate? He said he’ll deport all the radical Muslims. I like that part at least.”

“Chuck is turning you into a fucking racist, do you realize that?” 

“Brandon, don’t swear at your brother!” his mom shouted from the table she was wiping down. “Chris, your dad is scum, don’t listen to him or whoever that pastor is. You know God loves you and we do too. Don’t waste your time with hate, go find a nice boy to date instead.”

“Just because neither of you have a relationship with him doesn’t mean I can’t, and friends of mine are dead because of Muslims.”

“One muslim, and radicalized with the same homophobic rhetoric Levi spews, so if you’re eager to have your rights trampled and more of your friends gunned down in night clubs, by all means help him get elected.”

“Brandon!” shouted his mother, throwing a wet rag at him. “Why would you say that to your brother?”

Brandon looked from his mother to Chris, who was scowling at the table and had shut down completely, and back again.

“Am I wrong?”

“Brandon, no one cares if you’re right. You’re being incredibly hurtful.”

“Chuck…”

“Hurting someone to make a point is exactly the kind of self-serving justification your father would give. Is that what you want, to be right like your father?”

Brandon struggled for the right words to reply, his frustration eager to retort that it was Chuck’s fault Chris had never felt comfortable enough to date anyone, but in the end he knew she was right and so he gave it up. Sighing, he leaned back in the seat, rubbing his forehead as his hangover and the Æther fought inside his head for the title of most painful. He picked up the wet cloth from the table and tossed it back to his mom. “Alright, I’m sorry. it’s been a very long and ugly day.”

“Don’t make excuses,” said his mom, “and don’t apologize to me.”

Brandon rolled his eyes, but turned back to his brother. “Chris, I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I just don’t want you listening to that vitriol, okay?” 

Chris opened his laptop and started typing again without responding.

Brandon desperately needed this day to end, and real sleep. He stared out the window into the storm as he took a pull from his vape. A sudden bright flash of lightning set off a sharp burst of pain in his head. The momentary lapse in focus let the Æther creep in just before the nicotine hit, and in that fraction of a second before thunder shook the windows, he had glimpsed something bizarre in the distance. 

Telling the Advil to hurry the hell up and kick in, he did his best to narrowly open himself up to the Æther, with mixed results. Staring out the window and into the distance he saw what looked like the after-image of a person falling, repeated over and over as though someone had pasted cells from a movie reel against the backdrop of the night sky. Craning his neck to peer up into the night sky, he saw that the image dulled as it gained altitude until it disappeared into the clouds, but near the ground it was brilliant white like lightning.

And then he knew. He hadn’t even needed the dataweaves, it was somehow there as clear as when he knew the sun was in the sky. Whatever he was looking at had been the source of what he and Chris had felt. And of all places it looked like the epicenter was at the Neurological Center. He took a deep pull on his vape and the scene was pressed back to the edges of his vision and then away entirely.

“Chris, what exactly did you feel earlier, can you describe it?”

Chris scowled at him over the top of his laptop.

Brandon sighed. “Please, Chris, it’s important. Whatever it was happened here in the city. Looking out the window I could see it from here through the Æther.”

Chris’ expression turned surprised and pensive. He seemed to be mulling over this new information while fighting with himself over whether he was willing to talk again so soon or not. His interest in the subject must have won out. Chris looked out of the corner of his eye at their mom, who Brandon could see was on the other side of the room cleaning, then leaned in close and spoke in low tones. 

“It was like getting hit by a wave, or maybe like getting electrocuted? That happened to me once at the comic shop. One of their display cases weren’t grounded or something, I don’t know. Anyway, it started like a tingle, then got super intense super fast. I saw and felt a bunch of stuff. I’ve been trying to draw it like one of my dreams, but it’s been slippery, I can’t seem to get it out of my head and down on paper. I saw a lot of people, and a bunch of really strange things.”

Chris picked up the prismacolor pen that sat on his sketchbook and started scribbling something, then just a quickly set it back down, looking frustrated.

 “I wish I could remember, it was so weird! I remember feeling intensely scared, happy, and depressed, but it also felt like I wasn’t the only one feeling it? Does that make any sense? I don’t know how to explain it.”

Brandon recalled his own experience. “That’s about what I felt. I can’t remember it any better than you. Just a bunch of intense, vague impressions. I—”

How could he have forgotten? He really needed more sleep.

“Chris, quick, give me that drawing you did a few weeks ago, the one with all the spheres.”

Chris picked up his sketchbook and flipped back through the pages until he found the one he found the one he was looking for and handed it over. Looking at it now, Brandon was in awe of just how good of an artist Chris was, and he was always getting better. 

The piece was drawn on black paper. When Chris first showed him, he said the images he had seen in his dream were floating in a darkness that had frightened him so badly that he hadn’t been willing to dream again for days, though he never said why. Thick rings radiated out from the center of the page so they appeared to be above and below the viewer, the largest and closest of which contained five spheres each. The spheres above each contained a symbol representing the four elements and love. The spheres below were each inlayed with harsh, blood-red sigils made of overlapping arcs and claw-like gashes. At the center of the scene was a large mirrored sphere split by a jagged fissure out of which light shown. And at the center of all of this was the outline of a falling man. 

Brandon pointed to the falling man. “I know you said you didn’t understand this dream like you normally do, but think! Is there anything you can tell me about him?”

Chris looked at him and then at his drawing. “I wasn’t scared of him, that was all I remember. Otherwise all I know is that everything there is somehow connected. Why?”

Brandon handed back the drawing. “Because when I look out the window through The Æther, I see that same outline of a falling man. I think he landed nearby, and,” Brandon took a pull on his vape and sighed out the vapor, “I think I know where.”