The Center for Advanced Neurological Studies: Kansas City, KS
Brandon had been bantering with the three security guards stationed at the front desk when he saw though the steel-mesh inlaid glass on the security doors that Sarah had appeared from out of one of the elevators along the back wall. He liked shooting the shit with security guards. They had good stories, and were always impressed by the federal badge, even the ones that were ex-cops or military.
Sarah wasn’t pleased to see him, but he had expected that. He had spent the ride across town trying to come up with a plausible explanation for this late night appearance, but nothing had occurred to him that she wouldn’t see right through.
Without stopping and with only a curt gestured, she indicated that he should follow her. He followed down a short hallway and then, after a waive of her security badge, into a small meeting room. The lights came on their own, and Sarah took a seat at the end of the table, gesturing him into a nearby seat. Elbow on her armrest, she reseted her chin against her hand and stared intently at him. He made a conscious effort to leave his hands at rest so as not to show any signs of discomforted as he stared back placidly. It went like that for a full minute, two highly skilled opponents wielding the awkward silence against one another, neither of them yielding ground. Finally, Sarah showed she had always had the upper hand as she rose to leave.
“One of your staff told me that Mordecai woke up.” Not true, but it had stopped her. He hadn’t been certain what had brought him, but he had seen the man standing at the window when he arrived, and his face had been in enough articles and videos to make him easily recognizable even if his history with Sarah had left him intimately familiar with the man. The moment he had seen Mordecai he been pulled toward him in a way he had never felt before. He had only gotten a glimpse of the man through The Æther, but even in that brief flash he had seen something else there, something he had never seen before and was beyond any words. He needed to get closer. He knew now that’s why he was here.
“I don’t want to get them in trouble, so I would rather not say who it is.”
Sarah slowly sat back down and resumed her position, her stare as intent and piercing as ever.
“Why would they do that?” she asked without a hint of tension.
“His case is still open, and the bureau considers him a valuable research asset. We’ve been in contact with a number of people over the years involved with his care and research and asked that they reach out to us with any important developments.”
“But not, it seems, the director of the center overseeing the vast majority of that research and his primary care, or your ex-fiance.”
“Given our history, it was decided that it would be better not to include you. It was decided that you were unlikely to be cooperative.”
Sarah considered him, expression never changing.
“You’ve always been a skilled liar. Well studied with plenty of practice. Yet for all you know about lying, you still haven’t learned not to lie to people you care about.”
Pangs of guilt pierced his practiced calm and he winced. The barb had drawn blood and she knew it. She watched to see if he bled guilt or indignation. He didn’t enjoy lying to her, even to protect himself, but it had been telling the truth, not lies, that had cost him their relationship.
“Mordecai is awake,” he said as neutrally as he could manage. “That’s unexpected, isn’t it? Exciting even?”
Sarah raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms, leaning back with a mirthless smile. “He told me he prefers to go by Rocca. When was the last time you took your medication?”
He went stony, not shirking away from her gaze. He pulled his vape from a pocket and took a drag, setting it on the table between as he exhaled.
“Self-medicating with nicotine is a poor substitute for approved schizophrenia treatment.”
Sarah gave a harsh laugh and looked away. “You’re a classic addict, but it isn’t the nicotine.” She turned back to him. “You’ve built your world around your delusions and don’t know how to live without them anymore.”
He sighed and picked up his vape, taking another pull on it. This was an old dance of theirs, and he was so tired of it.
“You’ve seen what I’ve accomplished, and so has the bureau. I solve crimes and save lives, nothing else matters.”
“You matter, Brandon, and you’re valuable beyond this myopic martyr your disease forces you see yourself as. I can tell you as someone who knows people, who knows you, and runs a fact and process centric organization that the bureau’s willingness to accept whatever explanation you’ve been giving them up until now to cover for your psychosis won’t last.”
“My mother’s been talking to you again.”
“She called me recently. She still believes that you will listen to me despite my many assurances to the contrary.”
Sarah leaned in.
“Brandon, you’re a very talented agent, which means you know this is coming. It’s been costing you your health, and if you don’t make a serious change it will cost you your career.”
She was wrong, the bureau understood his value and had accepted the cost. His mother was reading too much into what he told her about the bureau politics as usual. Brandon picked up his vape and took a drag. Sarah sighed and sat back in her seat.
“Rocca may have some new information that’s pertinent to his case,” she said, “and that might help you track down the ghost of a woman he was with. I will let you speak with him tonight, but only if you give me your word that you’ll share anything you uncover about her or his case moving forward.”
“You know I can’t divulge the details of an ongoing federal investigation.”
Sarah nodded slowly, then stood. “I’ll have security show you out.”
He should have known better than to have come into a battle against her unprepared and unarmed. “Fine, deal. Just know that it’s disingenuous for you to tell me to be concerned about my career in one breath and then coerce me into breaking the law in the next.”
“We both know you’re not here on official business. There’s no urgency here. Rocca’s case is five years old. You could easily speak with him in the coming weeks, which means its your delusional addiction that brought you here. Perhaps this will help you see the lengths you’re willing to go to get your fix.”
Sarah moved to the door and held it open for him. “Coming?”
Frustration, self-doubt, and guilt were now tearing him up inside, but he gritted his teeth and gave a curt nod. He needed to know more about Rocca and what he had felt. A countdown to something bad had begun, he was certain of it, and he needed to get ahead of it before something terrible happened.
The elevator ride up was tense and silent. Sarah’s little trick had re-seeded his mind with doubts. She had never believed in his preternatural abilities, and so could only see the harm he was doing to himself, but he couldn’t deny that that harm was real and taking a serious toll on his health any more than he could deny the lengths he was willing to follow those abilities despite not truly understanding them. They had always been dependable, and that had been enough, but what if there were costs to it’s use that he didn’t yet know? What if the addiction analogy held? Could using his abilities make it harder to resist the next time? Would there come a day when he could no longer shut out The Æther?
What about Sarah’s other warning? His quarterly polygraph test was three days away, and so far the bureau had refrained from pressing him on the pattern of suspicious sources for pivotal evidence in his more difficult cases, where those questions coming? The Assistant Director had become more openly hostile and critical when he submitted his reports, as had his fellow agents. It was something he had mentioned offhand to his mother and thought annoying, but he had largely dismissed it. Whatever issues they had with his process, it wasn’t as though he was fabricating evidence, he just had to get creative about how he claimed he had come about the information he gleaned from The Æther. He had to believe that they would continue to understand the value of so many impossible cases solved over any administrative lamentation.
The opening of the elevator doors cut through his brooding. He and Sarah made their way down the hallway to what signs said was the patient research ward. The rest of the center had a very modern and business like aesthetic, which made the sudden transition to the ward’s unmistakable hospital aesthetic feel jarring, even if it looked nicer than any hospital he had had the misfortune to be in.
A pair of nurses who were excitedly chatting at their station went silent and turned their attention to Sarah. She briefly conversed with them about the status of a number of tests she had ordered, then led him to a room at the end of the small ward. A male nurse was there with Rocca who was wearing scrubs. If his reputation hadn’t preceded him, along with the fact that he was standing and looked like a fit nurse instead of someone who had just awoken from a medically baffling coma, he wouldn’t have been remarkable. Male, twenty-five years old, average height, brown hair, green eyes, caucasian, no distinct features. It looked like he had been crying recently, but his smile reached his eyes suggesting that whatever had overwhelmed him hadn’t been sadness.
“What’s the matter, Rocca?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” said Rocca,”I just called my parents while you were away.” Rocca gestured towards him. “I couldn’t see all that well through the rain. Is this the guy who was in the parking lot?”
“Yes. Rocca, this is agent Brandon Sharp from
the FBI. He’s following up on your case. But I would like to make it clear that you’re under no obligation to answer any his questions at this time.”
Sarah was making it abundantly clear that she had given him all the help she was going to. He stepped up and offered his hand to shake.
“It’s nice to meet you, Rocca. I’m hoping that with your help we can make substantial progress on your case.” Rocca took his hand and shook it. He had a firm grip.
“Thanks,” said Rocca, “I don’t mind answering your questions, but I don’t think it’s going to help.”
Now that Rocca was right in front of him, Brandon opened himself up to The Æther, hoping not only to shed light on how he was connected to the event both he and Chris had felt, but also in the hopes that he might glean some insight into Rocca’s case that would make him more amenable to answering questions.
The room burned away like the edges of smoldering paper, the orange lines of fire taking with them everyone and everything except him and Rocca. This was wrong. Brandon pushed back against the Æther with every ounce of will he could muster, but it was as though there was nothing there at all. As panic took him, Rocca stared directly into him, piercing him, holding him. Slowly Rocca raised his hands up on either side of him, palms up.
Above Rocca’s right hand floated a stunning woman with fiery hair. Cracks formed and quickly spread across her whole body. The pieces flaked away, and from beneath the shell an angel emerged. Her left wing — a disconnected arc of evenly spaced symmetrical feathers made of gold and fire — was wrapped around her in a spiral that ended below her bare feet. The other wing was held aloft, as was her arm which held an upturned sword of pure light. She wore layered robes of an iridescent fabric trimmed in gold and back-lit in waves as though by a liquid bioluminescence. Brandon felt, heard, tasted, smelled, and sensed her in ways beyond what he could understand, and the sheer overwhelming presence of her forced him to his knees.
Above Rocca’s left hand spun a chaotic, ever-changing sphere from which every permutation of flora, fauna, and terrain took shape and then melted into the next. Transfixed, the longer Brandon stared into its depths the more of it he could perceive. Beyond the shapes there were ideas, perceptions, patterns, concepts, models, and constructs so shockingly foreign and divergent from anything he understood that he couldn’t begin to parse their meaning, leaving him deeply disturbed. Another layer of the sphere’s nature pealed back; beneath it came distortions and re-imaginings of reality, impossible shapes that folded and twisted in directions that had no names, things beyond the reach of time. Another layer shed away, and the revelations beneath defied his understanding so completely that Brandon felt his sanity was being torn apart by bearing witness to it.
Mercifully, Brandon’s bleeding psyche was pulled from the depths of the sphere to focus on a change that was unfolding all around them. The sphere and angel had disappeared. The void surrounding him and Rocca bloomed into an uncountable number of multi-colored points of light, like stars in the night sky, stretching out in every direction. The view into star-field appeared fractured at regular intervals, as though he was looking into the reflections of mirrors reflecting each other, yet neither he nor Rocca appeared in any of the repeated scenes.
In every direction, at varying distances and angels, round portals began opening. Each grew to a few feet across and seemed to look onto a clear blue sky lit by an unseen sun. Eerily familiar strangers began appearing in each portal, staring out at him with solemn expressions as though peering out a window. Floating above each person’s head was a halo crown of golden light that widened outward from its base to roughly hewn triangular points which shifted slowly and steadily.
“I see you, Agent Brandon Sharp, as you see me,” said the flight attendant from his most recent flight.
Instinctively he reached out with his senses, then immediately rescinded them, terrified of what he might find after what he had seen in the sphere, but there were no dataweaves to read. He was left with the distinct impression of a vast and ancient library with all of its shelfs stripped of books. Had they been taken or hidden? He wasn’t sure.
“Who are you?” he shouted into the star field of faces, with more fear in his voice than he liked, stealing a glance at the serene and unmoving figure of Rocca standing across from him.
“A spirit,” said the clerk from a gas station he had stopped at.
“A shadow,” said the beggar who he had seen out in front of the grocery store.
“A sacrifice,” said one of the officers from the crime scene the day before.
“Now no more,” said one of the subway security guards.
“What does that mean?” he shot back, quickly swiveling to find the faces that were speaking, adrenaline pumping as he tried to find any significance in who they were but finding none.
“Saying more than needed risks affecting more than intended,” said a vape store owner.
“The cost of interferring is high,” said one of the research assistants from his department.
“What do you what?”
“We want what Daria’s children want,” said the stewardess from the flight.
“To see them succeed in the tasks their mother and I asked of them,” said one of the security guards from downstairs.
“All of them,” said a man with olive skin and piercing blue eyes that he didn’t recognize.
Brandon had begun to speak when all the face turned away from him and towards something in the distance. Something was coming, something terrible. Brandon ran up and grabbed Rocca, trying to get him to run, but he wouldn’t move. Points of light in the direction of whatever was coming were being swallowed by darkness, and it was getting closer.
“Time grows short,” said a face he couldn’t find as they all receded and the portals closed.
Everything began to shake. A deep and unsettling thrum filled the air. Cracks formed along the mirrored planes in every direction. He ran up and grabbed ahold of Rocca
“We have to move! Now!” Brandon shouted, but Rocca refused to move. The darkness was almost on top of them. Abandoning the strange man, Brandon turned and ran, arms up and ready to smash through the walls around him. After only a few steps the entire room shattered, and he began to fall. He screamed just as something took hold of his arm and pulled.
“Are you okay?” said Rocca, standing above him in the patient ward room.
“He’s suffered a psychotic episode,” said Sarah. “Help me get him up into the bed.”
He tried to protest as Rocca, Sarah, and the nurse together hoisted him up and onto the bed, but everything was happening through a thick fog that made every action, even though, very difficult.
“You’ve embarrassed yourself and me,” Sarah said in hushed tones to him as she performed a quick physical examination, her voice barely registering through the fog. “You’re done here, and I’m done helping you.”
He tried to form a response, but his mouth couldn’t manage the words. He resigned himself to trying to blink away the haze in his mind as he focused on his breathing.
“I apologize, Rocca,” said Sarah, “I shouldn’t have allowed Agent Sharp to see you in his current state. He isn’t well, and it was irresponsible of him to have come tonight. Let’s relocate and let him rest.”
“Wait!” He managed, the garbled word adding to the already unbearable embarrassment he was feeling. His body wasn’t responding properly to commands, but with a concentrated effort he managed to fumble his card case from a pocket and extract a card which he held out to Rocca in a shaking hand. “Take it, please.”
Sarah’s disapproval was clear on her face. He knew her, and she was no doubt disgusted that he had chosen to continue embarrassing himself, and under her vouch no less, but she remained silent as Rocca stepped over rather than prolonging it by fighting him on it. As Rocca gripped the card and pulled, Brandon held on. Rocca eye’s met his.
“You’re not the only one who’s Touched,” he whispered, then released the card as he passed out.