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“Dr. Jansen? This is Rita in Security.”

Jansen sighed, glancing up from the data in front of him. The young liaison from the Program, Larkin, had dropped it off less than thirty minutes ago. Jansen had asked not to be disturbed for the rest of the day, hoping to synthesize the new catalyst and complete an initial analysis before dinner. Director Willard would be expecting a response within the week, though of course he hadn’t given an explicit deadline. Men like Willard never did, but as head of the Republic’s most prominent surveillance company, Jansen was accustomed to reading between the lines.

He took a long pull from the wine glass beside him, swallowing his irritation. “I presume this is urgent?”

“I-- I’m not certain, sir,” the security officer replied. “Were you expecting your son here today?”

It was an odd question. Both of Jansen’s boys were on winter leave from school, and both often stopped by the facility in their spare time. Jansen had given them free rein to roam the premises, and had made his staff aware of this fact.

“Sir.” Rita’s voice rose in pitch ever so slightly. “I think you should take a look at room 114.”

“Understood.” The back of Jansen’s neck prickled, but he kept his tone even. “Thank you, Rita.”

Cutting the connection, he activated the appropriate surveillance cam with the click of a button. A round table occupied most of the room, a set of what appeared to be playing cards scattered, face-down, across its surface. His eldest son Weston sat on one side of the table, shoulders straight and hands folded in his lap. Jansen’s unease deepened; the boy was a perpetual motion machine, never still except in sleep.

Adjusting the visual feed, Jansen homed in on the man seated across from his son. The visitor’s clothes were casual, well-cut and rumpled in all the right places. He was young, mid-twenties at most, with a High-Ender’s strong bone structure, dark skin and straight white teeth. Jansen’s shoulders tensed as he recognized the liaison with whom he’d spoken less than an hour ago.

Larkin.

His pulse quickening, Jansen pondered what interest the Program might have in his son. The organization sought out young men from low-income families, grooming them to become intelligence operatives. The sensitive nature of the operatives’ work required them to cut contact with all family and friends. For this reason, the Program only considered boys from abusive or otherwise high-risk homes as potential candidates. Weston didn’t fit the profile, and yet --

“Last round.” Larkin shuffled the cards, slim fingers moving them in slow, lazy circles. Weston watched, mesmerized, as they skated over the smooth, polished wood, moving together and apart and back again in an intricate dance. “Tell me when to stop.”

“Stop.” Weston sounded subdued, dreamy.

“Which one are you most drawn to?” Larkin asked.

The boy’s hand shot out, index finger trembling like a dowsing rod.

Larkin smiled, warm brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “You can flip it yourself if you want.”

Weston obeyed, his tongue darting over his lips. There was a strange, slow reverence about his movements. Jansen zoomed in, noticing for the first time that the laminated slips littering the table were adorned with curls of grey-blue smoke that shifted before his eyes. Swallowing his surprise along with the remains of his wine, he focused on the object in his son’s shaking hand. With a clinical coolness, he noted the lack of numerals on its face, the absence of the typical symbols. There were no bowls of fruit, no chalices or coins, not even a solitary sheaf of wheat.

Instead, the card contained only the image of a slight, golden-skinned boy, perhaps a year younger than Weston. The strange boy blinked out at him -- Jansen gave himself a little shake, reminding himself that the boy was only a recorded image and couldn’t see his son -- with over-large, honey-colored eyes. Weston let out a soft sigh; as if sensing the attention, the other boy dropped his gaze, a faint flush painting his hollow cheeks.

“Is he --” Weston swallowed audibly. “Is he real?”

Collecting the cards from the table, Larkin let out a low chuckle. “Reality is often subjective.”

Jansen felt his hands clench into involuntary fists. His finger hovered over the comm panel. Security could be down there in a matter of seconds, and he wondered how jocular the young man would feel with a blaster pressed up against his temple. But men like Larkin always came with their own retinue, and Jansen had no wish to make an enemy of the Program -- which, like all outreach organizations in the Republic, was an extension of the Government itself.

Larkin spoke, a hint of amusement in his voice. “I need that back now.”

With obvious hesitance, Weston relinquished his prize. “D-- did I pass?”

A languid smile spread across the liaison’s handsome face. “Who said it was a test?”

* * * * *

“You’d best be heading home now, son.” Jansen returned the last of the samples he’d been studying to its wire rack. Moving with a practiced efficiency, he began tidying his workspace. “I’m expecting a visitor soon, and monster vid night’s in less than an hour.”

“I wish you could come with me,” Weston said. “You’ve been so busy lately.”

He plucked a vial from the rack, and Jansen’s heart stopped.

“Don’t touch that!” he shouted, leaning in to snatch the sample away. His hand froze in mid-air as the silver-gray liquid began to glow a soft blue. He struggled to speak, his mouth dry and the Program reports racing through his mind. “It’s dangerous.”

Weston set the vial down, his dark eyes wide. “I wasn’t gonna --” His throat worked for a moment, and then the words tumbled out of him in a breathless rush. “I know I’m not supposed to touch anything without asking first, and I don’t know what came over me, and I’m sorry, really I am. I just --”

“It’s okay, Wes,” Jansen murmured, uncertain he believed his own words.

He shook his head, desperate to clear away the images crowding it. Director Willard had told him the new catalyst was making the Program candidates unstable, but the warning hadn’t prepared him for what he’d seen in the files. The boys were scarcely older than Weston, skin stretched thin over their visible skeletons -- dead-eyed and drenched in blood from self-inflicted wounds. A danger to both themselves and the men assigned to care for them, they spent most of their lives in isolation chambers until they recovered. Some never did.

According to the research data, the catalyst only affected males with a rare chromosomal malformation. All High-Ender children underwent extensive testing at birth, and Jansen was certain that neither of his sons had any known genetic disorders. Even so, the scientist found himself unable to tear his eyes away from the sample Weston had touched, once again the same polished-smoke hue as the others in the rack. Only weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, the boy hadn’t handled anything in the lab without permission since he’d been old enough to ask.

Of all the times his restraint could have failed him, Jansen wondered, why now?

A strangled cry escaping his lips, Weston hurtled into Jansen with impressive force. Skinny arms encircled him like steel bands, and the boy’s shivers vibrated through both their bodies. Weston buried his face in his father’s shoulder with a muffled whimper. Jansen stiffened, imagining the catalyst already wending its way through his his son’s system.

“Good evening, Dr. Jansen.” The words had a familiar cadence, clipped and formal.

Larkin stepped into the lab, and two faceless, black-cloaked Manips materialized from the darkness a moment later. His shoes scuffed against the stainless alloy floor as he crossed the room, and the Manips glided, noiseless, in his wake. When Larkin came to a stop, they hovered behind him, their white, fleshless fingers clasped in front of them.

Weston shrank against Jansen, the click of his chattering teeth the only sound in the silent room. Observing the boy’s reaction, Larkin raised a slender hand and gestured toward the open door. The Manips retreated to the hallway, their movements so quick they appeared to flicker. In slow increments, Weston’s trembling abated and his muscles relaxed.

His own tension ebbing away, Jansen patted the boy’s curly head. “Time to go home, son.”

“A sensitive boy,” Larkin remarked once Weston had made his exit. “I see a lot of myself in him.”

Chills chased their way up Jansen’s spine, the unauthorized session in room 114 still all too clear in his memory. Still, when Larkin extended his hand, Jansen shook it without hesitation. Every nuance of Larkin’s behavior, from his firm grip and steady eye contact to the guileless warmth of his smile, exuded sincerity. It was a trait even more foreign to those in the Government’s employ than Larkin’s impeccable taste in clothing. Despite Jansen’s misgivings, he found it difficult to dislike the younger man.

“A pleasure to see you again,” Jansen said, his own smile almost genuine.

Larkin’s expression darkened. “Let’s hope you still feel that way when I leave.”

“Might I offer you something to drink?” Jansen opened a brushed-steel cabinet to reveal a well-stocked bar.

“Only water for me,” Larkin replied. “I’m due back on the ward after I leave.”

Nodding, Jansen filled a crystal tumbler and handed it over. “I’ll do my best to be brief.” He uncorked a bottle of wine, pouring himself a healthy portion and swirling it gently. The blood-red liquid coated the sides of the glass and he watched as it settled. With a long, measured inhale, he took in its lush aroma. “But first, I need to understand precisely what the Program intends to do with the new catalyst.”

Larkin’s well-groomed eyebrows rose slightly. “I believe that was covered in the files.”

Jansen sat down behind his work table and fixed his visitor with a stony gaze. “Humor me.”

“As you’ve undoubtedly read, our operatives possess certain unusual talents, related to a rare genetic deformity. The public school system works hand-in-hand with the Program, screening all students in low-income districts for the mutation.” We then narrow the pool of potential candidates through profiling, along with an extensive battery of personality tests.” Larkin toyed with his glass, the ice inside producing a soft tinkling sound. “In some cases, one-on-one interviews are also needed. As Program Liaison, I perform these interviews myself.”

Resisting the urge to mention the interview in room 114, Jansen examined his manicured fingernails. “And the catalyst?”

“In its original form, it simply activated the potentials’ innate abilities. We administered it on the ward and monitored the boys to determine which ones were a good fit. Nearly two thirds of them weren’t, and being cut from the Program --” Larkin paused, scratching his prominent nose. “It was hard on them, to say the least. They required extensive counseling, and some were never able to readjust to life in the outside world.”

Downing his wine in a single draft, Jansen tried not to visualize the broken, bloodied boys from the Program files.

“We developed the new version of the catalyst in order to resolve this issue. Instead of activating the candidates’ abilities immediately, it establishes a link between them and --” Larkin paused again, pinching his lower lip. “Well, we call them the Adepts, and they’re drawn to the potentials. The Adepts sense the power inside them even before it fully manifests.”

Jansen removed his eyeglasses, as though the action would allow him to un-see the shine in his eldest son’s eyes at the sight of a boy he’d never met. Pulling a square of red silk from his breast pocket, the scientist cleaned invisible spots from already-immaculate lenses. Willing his hands to remain steady, he slipped his spectacles back on.

“In essence, the Adepts can bond with the boys on a basic level.” Larkin cleared his throat, taking a small sip of his water before continuing. “Our hope was that by measuring the strength of this bond, we’d be able to pinpoint the kids with sufficient talent to excel as Program operatives. We’d activate only those who made the cut, and sever the link to the others.”

“Sever the link,” Jansen repeated, his tone as neutral as if he were discussing the weather.

“Yes. The potentials who weren’t chosen would be free to go on with their normal lives, such as they were.” Larkin fell silent for a moment, eyes down and lip caught between his teeth. “Except the new catalyst isn’t working the way we expected it to. The mind-link does something to some of the kids, makes their brains go haywire. We lost one of our most promising candidates the week before last.”

Jansen stood, crossing the room with long, purposeful strides. He closed the door and punched a button on the panel beside it. “May I ask you a question, off the record? I’ve disabled all surveillance for this room, and due to my position, my neural implant is exempt from the Government’s thought-monitoring policies.”

“As is mine.” Larkin’s lips quirked upward, but the smile failed to meet his eyes. “Go ahead.”

Jansen returned to his seat, stopping by the bar to replenish his drink on the way back. He leaned back in his chair, peering at the liaison over the rims of his glasses. “What really happens to the potentials who aren’t inducted into the Program?”

Larkin’s eyes widened. “I already explained --”

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Larkin,” Jansen snapped. “I like you, but that’s apt to change if you continue lying to me. My company keeps records of the data collected from every neural implant in the Republic. When I cross-referenced these records with the list of Program potentials from the last ten years, I found something interesting. The neuro data for every last one of those children -- even the ones who didn’t go on to become operatives -- stops at age fourteen.”

Caught in mid-sip, Larkin choked on his water. He set his glass on the solid-stone table with a dull thunk, his face turning an impressive shade of purple as he attempted to clear the liquid from his lungs. It was a solid minute before he was able to speak. “I didn’t know --”

“I might be inclined to believe you,” Jansen reached for his wine glass, his fingers tightening around its stem as he fought the urge to throw it in the liaison’s face. “If I hadn’t seen you playing cards with my son last week. I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to assist the Program any further.”

Larkin rested one hand atop the table as if to steady himself. “I’m sorry, too.”

He raised one slim finger; it trembled visibly as he gestured toward the door. It swung open, the temperature in the room plummeting as two Manips floated into the lab. Jansen took in a deep, cleansing breath and let it out slowly -- it hung in the air before him in a crystalline cloud.

“I hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” Larkin whispered, “but we have ways of ensuring you comply.”

With a muffled crunch, Jansen’s glass exploded. His own hand remained steady and he stared at it, a strange calm coming over him as dark red liquid trickled through his fingers and dripped onto the clean floor.

* * * * *

“I’m sorry,” Larkin said. “You were the only one I could come to.”

Jansen heard the words as if from a great distance, almost inaudible over the screams still echoing in his ears. Those, at least, had receded for the moment, replaced by the labored rasp of the boy’s respirations. Blood dripped from his nose, tracing slick red trails down his neck and over his bare, bony chest. His head drooped, a curtain of black hair hiding his face, spilling over his slumped shoulders. Skeletal arms hung slack at his sides.

A voice, cold and disembodied, issued from a speaker somewhere in the room. “Again.”

Jansen’s stomach twisted as the boy’s body convulsed, a hoarse cry tearing itself from his tortured throat. He lifted his arms, his fragile frame trembling with exertion, and his golden eyes flashed. Jansen froze, even before the howls of agony began again in earnest.

"We need to put a stop to this."

Larkin's hand came down on Jansen's shoulder, and he repressed the urge to jump. The younger man's shirt was rumpled, his stylish tie askew. He appeared to have aged a decade in the months since Jansen had last seen him. His dark skin was tinged with green, and lines of grim determination etched his handsome face.

"Please." Larkin's eyes were fever-bright. "I don't know anyone else who can help him."

"I want nothing to do with this." Jansen managed to find his words, for all the good it did; he was certain no one could hear him. His own footsteps might have been as noiseless as a Manip's, drowned out as they were by the ever more desperate screams that filled the room. "Do what you want, but leave me out of it."

His hand was on the doorknob, twisting, when the shrieking ceased. Jansen heard the boneless thump of a body collapsing, the rattle of the broken boy's lungs as he fought to fill them. Behind him, Larkin spoke once more.

"He's the boy Weston picked." Larkin paused, a choked noise escaping him. "Would your son want him to suffer?"

“Came to say goodbye,” he says, and he fidgets with the strap of his duffel.

And it’s hard to tell for sure with my room so dark and his hood pulled up, but I think there’s a bruise on his cheek. My hand reaches out like I don’t control it, but he steps back before I can touch him. He crosses his arms, and even with only the faint glow from my nightlight to watch him by, I can see how he kinda curls in on himself.

“Y- you’re leaving?” My own words echo in my ears, and I kinda feel like someone dumped ice water down my back. “But what about Multiversity, and --”

“Fuck Multi.” His eyes glint like gold and he looks away.

I know I should say something, but I can’t. And I know I should feel something, but I can’t do that either. It’s kinda like my heart’s wrapped in gauze and maybe my ears are, too. They’re ringing with this silence I can hear, and he’s leaving and I don’t know how to stop him.

“But your career assignment,” I say, and I’m groping for reasons for him to stay. “How’re you gonna find work without it?”

“Not gonna matter.” He shakes his head with this sad little smile. “Not where I’m going.”

My heart drops into my fuzzy slippers, and for a minute I can’t even speak. Because there’s nowhere in the Republic that’ll hire you without your assignment, not unless you’re a High-Ender like me. And that means --

“You’re gonna… hop the fence?” I breathe. “What’re you gonna do in Majeria? I mean, you’ve seen the Scare Spots, dude, and it’s all about the war over there, and --”

“Fuck the Scare Spots.” He bites his lip and he stares at the ceiling. “Least I’d have a chance over there.”

His long lashes glisten with moisture, and I can’t imagine what kind of a chance he’ll have in that strange, rough place. But he keeps on eyeing my open window, and I know he’s gonna bolt any minute and I can’t find the words to fix it.

“What about Randall?” I squeak. “Isn’t he gonna worry?”

He staggers back like I’ve slapped him, the second he hears his boyfriend’s name. His knees hit the back of my bed and unhinge, and the springs creak under him as he sits down hard. He blinks at me and he lets his hood fall away from his beautiful, bloodless face, and my head fills with fire when I see the marks Randall left on him.

“Fuck Randall, too,” he says, in this tiny, ragged voice.

His shoulders sag and his head droops, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so tired. But he shoves himself up off the mattress, and my stomach goes all wobbly while I search for words. Because he’s gonna turn and walk out of my life, and I don’t think I can let him. And it’s like he’s in slow motion as he walks toward the window, and I wonder --

“Um, dude?” I blurt out before I can stop myself. “How’d you even get up here?”

If I’ve learned one thing about him, it’s that he’s never gonna answer a question like that. But I’ve gotta ask it anyway, because my dorm’s a straight, smooth spire and my room’s on the fourth floor. There’s no fire escape to grab onto and no balconies either, and he climbed through my window and he didn’t even break a sweat. And it hits me, really hits me for the first time, that I don’t have a clue who he really is.

And he throws one leg over the sill and he crooks his finger and says, “Wanna find out?”
All I’ve gotta do is act natural. I remind myself of that while I stand at the back of the classroom, and I stare at the backs of everyone’s heads but I don’t see the one head I’m looking for. And I never have problems sleeping, but last night I was up for hours, just thinking about all the things that could go wrong today, but I never once considered what I’d do if he wasn’t here at all.

And part of that’s because my dad said he was gonna be here, because you’ve gotta sign up years in advance for your Multiversity spot but they squeezed him in at the last minute somehow, and there’s no way he’d give up an opportunity like that. So I scan the room one more time, and I wonder if anyone’s gonna notice how long I’ve been standing here staring. Not that it’d be all that strange, me looking for someone the first day of class, but my dad said the dude startles easily and --

There in the second to last row, the one I swear was empty just a second ago, one seat’s taken and I know right away it’s him. All I can see is the top of his head and there’s no way to tell what he looks like, but I’m already moving toward him before I can stop myself. And I’m next to him in no time, and my words spill out with a squeak. “D’you mind if I sit here?”

He doesn’t move a muscle, but he doesn’t say no, either, and my dad says I’ve gotta be persistent. So I plop myself down beside him and I wait to see what’s gonna happen next. And he’s all hunched over with his head in his hands, huddled under his hoodie like it’s not still practically summer outside, and --

“The fuck you looking at?”

My mouth goes dry and my mind goes blank, because he’s sitting up and his eyes are boring into me now and they’re this luminous golden color -- kinda like a cat’s -- with these long, long lashes. And even though my dad says he’s dangerous I think he might be the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen, but I can’t keep on ogling him forever. So I stick out my hand and even when he doesn’t shake it I say, “My name’s Wes, what’s yours?”

And just like that, he stops glaring at me and he goes all red and stares down at his desk like I asked something really personal. He sputters something that’d probably be unintelligible if I didn’t already know perfectly well what his name was, and he crosses his arms over his chest. His jaw tightens and he lets out this little hiss like maybe the movement hurts, and it kinda makes me hurt, too.

Be careful, son, my dad told me. He’s been trained to prey on your empathy.

But even with that warning still echoing in my head, I can’t stop myself from asking, “You okay, dude?” And of course, he doesn’t answer, and I’m not even really surprised. But I keep on talking like he’s not totally ignoring me, and I tell myself it’s only because it’s what my dad wants. “Hey, d’you know anyone else here yet? Because you seem really nice and I don’t have any friends here at Multi and I bet we could be really good friends if you wanna be, and --”

“Didn’t fucking come here to make friends,” he mutters.

But there’s something sad in the way his shoulders slump when he says it, and I kinda don’t believe him. So I keep on saying whatever pops into my head, and even though he doesn’t say another word, I think he likes the company. Because I catch him glancing over at me twice, and the second time, he almost smiles a little. Of course, it fades before I’m sure it’s really there, because that’s when the instructor shows up.

“Hey,” I whisper, in the moments before the lecture starts. “How come you don’t want any friends?”

His pale complexion goes even paler, and he bites his lip and looks away. And when he finally speaks, it’s so soft I’ve gotta strain to hear him. “Don’t think you’d want to be my friend, not if you knew what I’m like.” His long lashes flutter and he clears his throat. “Just… trust me.”

Except I kinda don’t wanna trust him on that, even though I do know what he’s like. Or at least what my dad says about him, but --

I don’t know if I wanna trust that either.

“You wish to discuss an alliance.” Aman’s voice was dessicated, barely audible above the howling wind.

Brennen nodded, doing his best not to stare. He’d never seen anyone so old before, not up close. The man before him possessed the short stature and broad shoulders typical of the Majari, but his flesh was wasted by age. His brown skin, worn thin as the bindings of the Old Books, stretched tight over jutting cheekbones. Only his eyes, the golden hue of sand dunes touched by the morning sun, retained a hint of vitality.

It was a disgrace, Brennen thought, allowing one’s body to live so long it began to rot away. Despite the flames crackling before him, he shivered and pulled his jacket tight around his slender frame. He didn’t belong here. None of the Umani did.

“Chilled? The desert is cruel at night this time of year.” Aman’s hand fluttered over the fire like a broken bird, plucking a tarnished kettle from above it and pouring its contents into a two heavy, earthen mugs. He stirred something that looked like honey into one and held it out, dark liquid sloshing over its edges. “Here. This will help.”

“What is it?” Brennen cupped his hands around the clay vessel, watching steam rise up from its rim in graceful curls. He had paid careful attention in all of his briefings, and he knew that refusing the offer would be an insult to the Majari leader. Still, it never hurt to be cautious.

“A secret recipe, handed down by my earliest ancestors from one generation to the next.” Aman paused, lifting his own cup and taking a deep draught from it. “Only the strongest of spirit and purest of soul may partake of it. For the man with deception in his heart, the smallest taste will bring a swift death.”

Brennen swallowed hard, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the cup more tightly.

The old man’s thin lips quirked up at the corners. “My apologies, dear boy.” His strange eyes sparkled in the half-light. “It is… unseemly of me to take advantage of the humorless nature of the Umani. It is merely a tea decocted from the bark of the tabura plant -- the prophet tree, as your people refer to it.”

Heat crept into Brennen’s cheeks. This sort of verbal sparring hadn’t been covered in any of his training. He took an experimental sip, his nose wrinkling. Aman’s attempts to sweeten the tea had only half-concealed its bitter taste, but Brennen didn’t mind. The medicinal tang was a comfort, a small scrap of home. It reminded him of his childhood, of the rare occasions he’d been deemed sick enough to skip school. Of his mother’s cool hand on his forehead --

“So, this alliance of yours,” the old man husked. “Why now, after all these years?”

Coming back to the present with a jolt, Brennen forced himself to sit up straight. Already, the tea had begun to relax his overworked muscles, and his hand felt heavy as he raised it to gesture at the eddying dust outside. “It’s unnatural,” he said. “Storms like this in the dead of winter. They’re unheard of, and they’re getting worse. And the timing of this one, right after the last bombing --”

“You wish to enlist our aid in fighting the Alban,” the old man interrupted.

Brennen studied the damp leaves in the bottom of his empty cup. His stomach soured at the prospect of lying to his host, whom he rather liked in spite of his barbed tongue -- or perhaps because of it. It was a necessary evil, Brennen reminded himself. “They’re going to destroy us all if we don’t stop them.”

That much, at least, was the truth.

Aman only shook his head. “So the Umani have said since before you were born.”

“It’s different now,” Brennen began, but the words shriveled and died on his tongue.

There was something wrong with his mouth, he discovered. It wouldn’t obey his brain, and there was something wrong with that as well because it couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Brennen’s heart pounded and he struggled to speak. The old man’s face was gray. Everything was gray.

“No, my dear boy, it is not.”

Brennen felt the old man brush his hair back from his face. Blackness overtook his field of vision, and a great pain ripped through his insides. As if from a great distance, he heard Aman force air through his teeth.

“Because that last round of bombs was Umani, and we both know it.”


Declaration

I will be participating in the madness that is LJ Idol: Friends and Rivals. Lord help me.