CHAPTER ONE: THE INTERLOPER
"What do you see?"
You're standing in the departure lounge of Chicago's O'Hare airport, your nose fairly pressed against one of the room's large plate glass windows. Beyond, the night's blackness is washed away by yellow floodlights. A Boeing 747 taxis into position beside a jetway. It's the first time you've seen an airplane up close.
"I see airplanes," you say. "I see lights. I see men in orange vests walking around. One of them is waving some lights up at the pilot in the plane."
The man beside you smiles, and scratches his jaw. His name is Zev Aaronovich, and he is the only person you know who is special, like you. He places his hands on your shoulders and draws you back a couple of paces. "Now look again," he says. "Is it the same?"
You do, and at first it is. The same jumbo jet, the same ground crew. And then you see a difference. You see yourself, reflected, the lights of the departure lounge throwing you into sharp contrast against the blackness of the night sky outside. "I see myself," you tell Zev. "I see you, too."
"That's good," he says. Zev is tall, sort of stretched-looking. He has short, curly hair and a short, frizzy beard. Again, now, he smiles through that beard.
"I'm really leaving, and never coming back?" you ask him.
The sudden change of subject seems to surprise him. "I never said 'never'," he answers. "I'm sure you'll come back to America one day. Though it won't be for a few years, that's true." Perhaps hoping to distract you from the sudden, melancholy shift in your mood, he says, "Let's practise using your gift again."
"Why not? It'll be the last chance we get before arriving at the Node. It can be a test of discretion as well as of your metempsionic ability. Inhabit one of the people in this room. Choose anybody you like—but above all, avoid drawing attention to yourself. Airport security staff intensely dislike any sort of unexpected situation that disrupts their routine."
You give Zev a dubious look. You and he are metempsionics; you each have the ability to temporarily transfer your consciousness into the body of another person. You cast your eyes around the room, trying to decide which person will help you to perfect your gift. The departure lounge is crowded with excited American holidaymakers, European tourists returning home, tired businessmen eager to return to their families, teenagers with weighty backpacks. After a few moments you settle on three people that you might inhabit—a man in a suit reading an Italian newspaper; a woman traveling with her two energetic young sons; one of the airport staff, a woman standing behind a desk in front of the boarding gate.
You take a step toward the woman traveling with her children, but you feel Zev's hand on your shoulder. "That wouldn't be a wise choice," he says. "When we reach the Node, you'll learn just how important it is that we keep our abilities secret. If you were to impose your mind on that woman's body, her children would most certainly notice a change in her behavior. Besides, would you charge yourself with looking after her two boys—or perhaps even abandon them? No, choose again."
You nod, and consider once more who to inhabit.
You approach the businessman from behind. To transfer your mind into another's body, physical contact is necessary. And so, when nobody is looking your way, you lightly touch two of your fingers to the back of the man's neck. The transfer takes only a moment; your consciousness streams through the point where skin meets skin. Your vision blurs and fades to brown, then black. And yet, in that same second, you jerk into awareness. The departure lounge around you is unaltered, but everything seems subtly different. You wiggle the fingers on one of your new hands, testing how they move, and you examine the creased skin, the yellow-stained fingernails. You stand, aware of new strength in your limbs.
"Are you okay?" asks Zev, behind you.
You nod. Your own body is still here, unconscious—or rather, lacking a consciousness. Zev has propped it up on the chair behind your host body's, so that you simply seem to be asleep.
"What's your host's name?" asks Zev.
You think for a few seconds. The knowledge comes to you instinctively. "Giovanni del Lago," you say, your voice Italian-accented. You give a heavy cough, and feel an unfamiliar tightness in your chest. "And he's a smoker."
"Can you tell me anything about Giovanni's family?"
Again, you pause, but then you shake your head.
"That's okay. You won't know everything that your host knows. Not yet. Take a look at the newspaper. Do you understand it?"
You glance over the headline, and skim down the first column of text. "A few words. Maybe some of the sense. But that's all." Once more, you look out through the lounge's tall windows, out into the night, and down over the runway below. A tingle like a faint jolt of electricity seems to pass across your forearms. For a few moments, little white and blue dots haunt the edges of your vision. "I'm starting to get the prickles again," you tell Zev. This tends to happen any time you inhabit a host body for more than a minute or two.
"Already?" Zev seems surprised. "That's probably because you're tired. Switch back into your own body. It's almost time for us to board, anyway."
You round the row of chairs, and look down at your home body. You think back to the question Zev asked a few minutes ago: "What do you see?"
Looking down at your home body, sprawled unconscious on one of the lounge's seats, your head tilted back, your mouth slightly open, you see nothing more or less than an eight-year-old child who will spend the next few years living in most unusual circumstances.
And with that, a stray thought passes through your mind: A strange presentiment, that—and yet of course I know what's to come. This all happened once before, years and years ago.
Hmm. You push away the curious idea. A strip light flickers overhead, and you glance up at it, and then back down at your comatose form. How would you describe the child who lies before you?
You reach forward and place a finger against the wrist of your own body. In a moment, your consciousness pours through the physical connection into your home body; compared with the sensation of inhabiting other hosts, it is a feeling of being welcomed, and utterly familiar with yourself.
Your eyes are still closed. You open them. Your previous host stands before you, looking a little bewildered. "That's nothing for you to be concerned about," says Zev, sitting beside you. "When you only briefly inhabit somebody, like this—when their immediate environment doesn't change the whole time you're within them—that mini-blackout the host experiences feels like nothing more than their mind wandering off for a minute or two. You know, that feeling of 'what did I just come over here for?'" Zev grins, then says, "Come on, it's nearly time for us to board. You'll need this." He passes you an American passport.
You check your photo, and the information beside it. "It says here that my name is Amy Aaronovich. I'm supposed to be your daughter?"
"Adopted," says Zev. "I have the documentation to prove it, too. It's all fake, of course—but it's a good fake. Good enough to get us on that plane, at any rate."
You reread the information on the passport. "Amy," you say out loud, tasting the name. No, you don't care for it.
What is your real name?
A man now stands at the ticket desk, checking tickets and passports. Zev goes ahead of you, and waits for you at the entrance to the jumbo jet.
You show the new airline attendant your ticket and passport. You manage a weak smile as he gives you a most cursory glance. Then he gives you a brief nod. You walk on and join Zev.
"We should get on the plane," Zev tells you, taking your shoulder, leading you forward.
And yet some impulse causes you to look over your shoulder, back into the departure lounge. Again, the strip lights in the ceiling flicker. And then, abruptly, half of them go out. Nobody in the room seems to notice; but then you see another figure, a man, at the far end of the room, a head taller than anybody else. Although this man stands in the light, it is as if a shadow lies across his face. You can't clearly make out any of his features.
But this didn't happen before, you think, the thought seeming to come from far away. Things are happening differently, this time.
"Zev, do you see that?" you ask. "That man is—"
Zev pulls hard on your shoulder, and the pain shocks you. "We have to go," he says. "Now."
The urgency on his face scares you. Zev pulls you along the walkway to the plane. The pair of you reach the plane's door, where a smiling stewardess stands inside, greeting each passenger that passes her. Zev pushes you ahead of him, and you step through the doorway.
And then the scene changes. Perhaps memories follow the same skewed logic as dreams. Suddenly, you are standing on a small island in the middle of a stormy, gray sea. The place is a large rock in the water, essentially—a dozen sheep graze on the few patches of spiky grass that dot the island; a farmhouse, a barn, and a handful of small buildings stand in the center. But this island also houses the Node, the underground ex-military base that you call home.
Some fifty meters from you, down at the edge of the water, there is a commotion. You spot Robert Ryker, and several of the psychics that live at the Node. The two Russian women that run the farm, Mrs Datsik and Mrs Yerofeyev, are there too. They are hastily launching a boat into the choppy water. And then the memory of this day floods into your thoughts—a transport helicopter was struck by lightning and crashed into the sea a kilometer or so from the island. The people on the boat are going to look for survivors. You were twelve years old on this day; some four years had passed since Zev brought you to the Node.
You set out to join the others on the rocky beach, but then you feel a hand on your shoulder, halting you. Zev is here with you. He looks exactly as he did in your memory of that day at Chicago O'Hare, even down to the clothes he's wearing.
"We have to go help those people," you tell him.
But Zev shakes his head, scratches his jaw once more, and points in a different direction. At the foot of a shallow cliff, you spot two figures in the sea, a man and a girl, perilously near jagged rocks. The shape of the coastline has hidden them from the view of the group launching the boat.
Yes, I remember now, you think to yourself. When this really happened, I was standing here by myself. Zev was down with the others—he was one of the ones who set out in the boat.
"Zev, I don't understand what's happening here," you say. "Is all of this a memory? A dream?"
"No," he answers. "This is all a mental construct—a sort of 'mind fortress' of your own creation. All of this—" he gestures at the sky, the rock, the sea, "—is in your head. So are those people down on the beach. So am I. But you are not alone in here, Angela. An interloper is in here with you. He's trying to psychically burn through your memories. He's trying to destroy your mind."
Zev sees your look of outright horror, and says, "That isn't important right now. This day is important. On this day, when this really happened, what did you do? And most importantly, if you want to save this section of your mind: can you do it again?"
You look again at the two figures, the man and the girl. They are both wearing life jackets, lying on their backs in the water. Both appear to be unconscious. They are quite far apart. If you can manage to scramble down the cliff that separates you without falling and killing yourself, you could probably pull just one of them out of the water before the storm smashed them against the rocks.
"Who are they?" you ask Zev; the question doesn't seem at all out of place in this 'memory construct'. "Which one should I save?"
"The man is William Doone, a metempsionic like you and I. He's a powerful psychic, and would make a great ally for the Ryker Foundation. The girl is Annika Visser. She is the same age as you. Her particular psychic gift is a precognitive combat sense—though at this young age she's not yet a strong fighter."
"But it would be the right choice to save the young girl, wouldn't it?" you say.
"What is 'right'?" counters Zev. "Robert Ryker would tell you that William Doone is the 'right' person to save—in the long term, he could do a great deal to further the Ryker Foundation's mission of protecting psychics from exploitation. If you possess the same level of idealism as Ryker, that's something to think about."
You take a step toward the cliff, but then Zev grips your shoulder once more. "Remember, a metempsionic who shows kindness—really, who shows empathy—toward the people around him opens himself up, allowing him a closer rapport with his hosts. And yet this is also a weakness: show kindness to others, and you leave yourself vulnerable to psychic attack. Distance yourself from others—show them disregard rather than empathy—and you strengthen your mind against assault. Call it a philosophical choice." He pauses, then says, "You know, the safest thing to do might be to run and get the others to help you."
You look again at the group launching the boat. You're not sure that you have enough time to fetch some of them to help you.
You scream for help as you sprint toward the cliff, but you don't even pause to check whether the group down by the beach have heard you. Then you half climb, half slip down the cliff, grazing your hands and cutting your knees when you land hard on the rocks at the water's edge. Undeterred, you reach out and manage to snag the girl's foot. You drag her up into your arms just before a strong wave would have carried her onto a rocky protrusion.
The girl's eyes flutter open, weakly. The cold water has turned her lips a shade of purple-blue. They move as she tries to say something to you, but she fails; her eyes close once more.
Further up the beach, that same strong wave lifts William Doone and smashes him down onto a cluster of stones. He lies there, face down, a pool of blood forming around his head.
Robert Ryker and the psychics further along the beach have heard your shouts. They appear at the head of the cliff and quickly descend, helping you with the person you saved from the rocks—and the person you didn't. And then, standing at the top of the cliff, you spot that same figure that you saw at the airport—that man whose face is indistinct, always obscured by a shadow with no source. He ignores the activity around you, staring down at you. It seems you will crumble under the weight of his gaze.
But then, mercifully, the stony beach opens up beneath you, and you fall down through the earth—down to safety, and the only home you have ever known.
You stand in one of the windowless half-pipe tunnels of the Node, your home. Somewhere far above you hear a banging, and a roar that might be the wind—although if that's true, the wind must be fierce indeed; never before have you heard the noise of a gale so far below ground. Whatever it is, you decide that it's nothing you need to worry about, for now.
And again, that distant, bothersome thought comes to you: this is memory; this is illusion. You are no longer nine years old, but an adult. Something unwholesome is threatening you, forcing you to take refuge in the past.
You wander along the corridor, passing the glass-fronted infirmary. The interior of the infirmary is dark; you see only your reflection, back-lit by the red night-time lighting of the Node. Seeing yourself, you realize that another leap has taken place within your memory—you are eighteen years old, almost ready for your first external assignment as an operative of the Ryker Foundation.
Have you changed in the years that have passed since childhood?
You continue further up the tunnel, and you find a spot to wait in near-complete darkness. You shouldn't be out of bed at night, and it's already well after midnight. But you promised Annika you'd meet her here. She had something important to show you, she said.
Ah, but the details come to you now. Six years have passed since that day when you pulled Annika from the waters around the Node—and since you allowed William Doone to be washed against the jagged rocks. Doone didn't die that day, although he was confined to the Node's infirmary for several months thereafter. He suffered permanent injury to his hips and legs; the last time you saw him, many years ago, he had to walk with a cane. You start to think that Annika isn't coming—maybe one of the Node's instructors came across her and sent her back to bed. Or maybe she never had any intention of meeting you. It wouldn't be unlike her to play a joke on you like that.
You've just about decided to go back to bed when you feel something sharp press against the small of your back. A voice behind you hisses, "Your money or your life, pilgrim."
You spin around. It's Annika, a big smile on her face.
"Scared you, didn't I?" she says.
"You didn't scare me at all," you tell her. "And don't say 'pilgrim' at the same time as 'your money or your life'. One is typical of a cowboy, the other a highwayman. Together, they just sound cretinous."
Annika shrugs, indifferent. "So, you want to see something special?" she asks.
"You really do have something to show me?"
"I really do."
She leads you to Robert Ryker's office. There is no light from inside the room. "It's in here," she says.
"Ryker doesn't keep his office locked?" you ask.
"Of course he does. I have a duplicate key."
"How on earth did you get that?"
But Annika doesn't answer you. Instead, she opens the door, and slips inside. You follow her, closing it behind you.
For a few moments, you stand in darkness. Then Annika switches on a desk lamp. At once, you see what she found so special. Ryker's desk is covered in toys and gadgets—binoculars, a baseball mitt, a computer, comic books and so forth.
"Ryker's been shopping on the mainland," says Annika. "These are the young ones' Christmas presents."
You smile, lifting a plastic sword from the table. "'Father Christmas came during the night,'" you say, echoing Ryker's words to you that first Christmas you spent at the Node. "For a non-Christian, he really did like to go all-out at Christmas."
"He still does," says Annika. "I was twelve when I had my first Christmas here. He gave me a gi for my judo classes."
"Nice," you say. "That was a good choice for you."
"What did he give you, your first Christmas here?" asks Annika.
You are still examining the gifts when the door to the office opens, and the light flicks on.
Robert Ryker is standing in the doorway, holding mug of hot chocolate. He seems surprised—and not a little annoyed—to find you in his office.
"Well, I suppose you're old enough to know the truth about Father Christmas, at least," he says. "Tell me, how exactly did you get in here?"
Annika holds up her key. He takes it.
"We'll discuss this another time, Miss Visser," he says. "For now, please go to the gymnasium. I believe Mister Aaronovich has a task for you down there."
"Now? In the middle of the night?"
Ryker nods. Annika heads for the door. You start to leave with her, but Ryker says, "Not you, Angela. As you're already here, I'd like to have a brief talk with you. I'll send you down to join Miss Visser shortly, don't worry."
Annika gives you a curious look, and then leaves. Ryker sits behind his own desk. You remain standing. Then Ryker says, "The purpose of this facility is to create an army of psychic operatives, ready to work and to fight to protect the interests of every psychic all around the world. Very soon you'll be joining that army. How do you feel about that?"
Ryker takes a sip of hot chocolate, and nods at your response. Then he asks, "What is the Ryker Foundation's greatest asset?"
Ryker shakes his head. "No. Discretion is our greatest asset; invisibility, our greatest strength. Why else would we choose to live in a claustrophobic, antiquated bunker? One day, the public will learn of the existence of psychics. And then, human nature being what it is, conflict will follow—a conflict that, as it currently stands, we would lose. Perhaps our most important mission is to hold off that day for as long as possible." "Why?" you ask.
"To allow our numbers to increase. To allow psychics to excel in every strata of every society. I envisage a time when people will turn on their television, and they will watch Hollywood actors—who are psychic. NBA basketball players—who are psychic. I foresee a time when society will contain psychic doctors, psychic entrepreneurs, psychic journalists. When the public learns of the existence of psychics…I want them to realize that the psychics include their neighbors, their friends, even their family members. And so…act discreetly, for now. Move silently. Never draw attention to who you are, and what you can do."
Then, suddenly, Ryker asks, "Is the Ryker Foundation the only dedicated network of psychics?"
You honestly have no idea.
Ryker gives a rueful frown, and says, "I can think of at least four others, although two of those have ceased to exist in any meaningful form. The Ryker Foundation is certainly the biggest such network. It has the best resources. Our main…'competitor', I suppose…is called ORPHEUS—the Organized Resistance for Perpetuating Human Existence Under Sanctions. Their philosophy is rather different to our own. They consider themselves freedom fighters, of a sort—them, against the whole non-psychic world. Whereas we strive to fully participate in non-psychic 'human society', ORPHEUS seeks to control society—either by manipulating psychics or placing their own people in positions of power. That said, their methods are similar to our own; they work with small groups of operatives in the field. Perhaps you'll encounter them, from time to time."
Ryker pauses, takes another sip of hot chocolate, then says, "A theoretical question, now…a television journalist has absolute proof of the existence of psychics. He plans to present this information on international news stations. You beg him not to, but he laughs: 'The only way you'll stop me spreading this story is by putting a bullet in my head,' he says. My question is, would you kill the man to stop him spreading this information? Would you put a bullet in his head? Please be truthful."
"Your dedication to the principles of the Ryker Foundation is commendable," says Ryker. "Though perhaps you shouldn't be so hasty in resorting to extreme measures."
Then Ryker says, "Another hypothetical…there are many indications that psychic gifts can be transmitted through heredity—the presence of psychic abilities can, at least, if not the exact nature of those abilities. Imagine that I ordered you to conceive a baby with a psychic partner of my choosing so that you might produce powerfully psychic offspring. Would you agree to do so?"
Ryker smiles. "I suppose your response tells me everything I need to know."
"Just so you know, I've never in my life made this kind of…breeding demand of somebody working with me. Now, one or two more questions. Where is this island, that houses the Node?" he asks.
"I don't know," you answer. "Very few do, I understand."
"Very, very few," Ryker confirms, emphasizing the words. "But you have suspicions, no?"
"Maybe in Russian territorial waters. Maybe somewhere off Scandanavia. Certainly somewhere high up the northern hemisphere."
Ryker smiles, then says, "Internal regulations, then. What is protocol eighty-one?"
"Emergency evacuation," you reply. "Probably most useful in case of a fire at a Ryker Foundation facility."
"Absolute radio silence."
That stops you. You have no idea what protocol 157 might be.
Ryker shakes his head. "No. Protocol one-five-seven is initiated when there is good reason to believe that an operative can no longer be trusted. All avenues of communication are severed, pending recall and interrogation of that operative. Remember that, and don't be afraid to say 'I don't know' from time to time."
Ryker takes a long look at you, then says. "Fine. We're done here. Unless you have any questions for me, go and meet Zev and Annika in the gym."
"I can repeat what you should already know," Ryker answers. "I created the Ryker Foundation as a means of training psychics to control their gifts, and of teaching them to use these gifts in secret. Both of these objectives have the ultimate goal of keeping the existence of psychics a secret from the public at large, and from governments around the world. Think of the operatives trained by the Ryker Foundation as 'psychic superspies', if you will—though rather than acting for any specific nation, the people of the Ryker Foundation act to safeguard the interests of all psychics."
The question surprises Ryker. "Me? No. At least…well, no. I'm not psychic."
"This installation was originally created in the Second World War. Its intended purpose was the testing and maintenance of submarines. When war ended and submarines fell out of fashion, it was preferable that this secret base be forgotten completely. With some contacts and a little money I managed to acquire this facility." He frowns a moment. "The architecture of this base is still very nineteen-forties, and quite military in style. It's hardly the best atmosphere to raise children—but, as I've often said, stealth is the Ryker Foundation's greatest strength."
"It's not that I don't trust you," he answers. "It's just that there are ways to extract knowledge from people without their consent, with psychic abilities or without. Maybe I'll tell you one day. But not today. Sorry."
Ryker thinks for a moment. "I've clearly identified perhaps twenty-five different psychic abilities. Metempsionics, like you, are rare. Apart from yourself and Zev, I've only met three other metempsionics, and one of those passed away some time ago."
Ryker grows quiet. "William Doone does not agree with the principles of the Ryker Foundation. He left us some time ago. Personally, I feel his departure improves this place."
You leave Ryker's office, and make your way to the gymnasium.
The room that serves as the Node's gym was originally intended, by the military minds that designed the facility several decades ago, to be a storage and loading bay. Its large sliding doors are standing open when you arrive. You enter, and find Zev and Annika waiting within.
"It's nearly time," says Zev. He crosses over to the gym's sliding doors. With some effort, he closes them, and bolts them shut.
"Time for what?" you ask.
But you receive no answer. Annika is carrying two lengths of wood—two bo staves, each a little under two meters long. She tosses one to you, and you catch it in mid-air. Then she takes up a fighting stance.
"I don't understand what we're doing here," you say. You've received some training in martial arts during your years at the Node, but you're reluctant to go up against an expert like Annika.
"Defend yourself," instructs Zev.
Annika swings her staff toward your skull. You block her first attack, though you have the impression she simply meant to put you on guard. She circles you, a grim little smile on her face, and she slowly twirls her staff as she walks. Annika's psychic gift is a sort of 'combat precognition'—when placed in danger, she can anticipate an opponent's actions even before the opponent has thought to make them. Coupled with her expertise in close combat and weaponry, it makes her an almost unbeatable fighter.
Annika suddenly lunges forward, feinting at your throat, and then sweeping down toward your knee. You just manage to parry this second blow, and then you turn your back to her for a half-second, trying to bring your staff about to whack her across the ear.
Annika's combat sense allows her to know your blow is coming, of course—the trick is to deliver the blow fast enough that she's unable to respond. You nearly make contact with her head, but she's quick enough to duck sideways, lessening the force of the impact. Still, you're happy to note that her ear is red and sore. With no small satisfaction, you say, "Hey, Annika, what's that ringing noise?"
Several more times you jab and swing at Annika, but she's able to block all of your blows. For the moment, she makes no further aggressive move.
"Annika's precognitive ability gives her a distinct advantage over you here, Angela," Zev calls out. "You must find a way to redress that disparity by using your own psychic gift. I advise you to wait until she moves in close, place a hand on her, and then inhabit her body. One skin to skin contact is all you need—and even quick as she is, I'm sure you can manage that."
Annika has also heard Zev's suggestion. She readjusts her grip on her staff, and makes an effort to strike at you from a distance. But, knowing that you need touch her only once, you choose to attack recklessly—you beat her staff aside, move in close to her, and manage to grab hold of her wrist.
You close your mind a moment, concentrating on allowing your consciousness to flood into Annika's body. But nothing happens. A sinking feeling comes over you then: of course you can't inhabit Annika. It is impossible for a metempsionic to inhabit the body of another psychic.
It's a limitation that Annika has remembered all too well. Too late, you realize that she has intentionally manoeuvered you into such close range. She twists her arm out of your grip then elbows you hard in the face—once, twice, three times.
You stagger back, your lip bleeding badly. From behind you, Zev calls out, "You forgot one of my earliest lessons to you, Angela. We metempsionics cannot inhabit the body of another psychic. Our gift is a powerful one, but it's one that puts us at a disadvantage when facing others of our kind. Right now, facing Annika, you have to disregard your psychic gift. You must depend on your innate skills and knowledge, nothing else."
"Then it's probably easier for you to give up now, no?" says Annika.
You and Annika spar for a couple of minutes more, without either one of you gaining a firm advantage. You consider what skills you possess that might allow you to beat her.
Your greatest strength is your skill in combat, of course. Again and again, you strike out at Annika. You know there is little point in attempting a wily strategy or misdirection—her psychic combat sense will allow her to see through it. And so you opt for speed, attacking her non-stop, trying to tire her out so that she moves too slowly to block your attacks, even though she might anticipate them.
And at last, you manage to pierce her defence, landing a solid blow on her cheekbone. She rubs at her face and her eye, and you spot a trickle of blood from the side of her mouth. This small victory has demanded a great deal from you—but it is a small victory, at least.
"Good, good," says Zev. "You have specialized in combat during your time at the Node, of course. You are a born warrior. But what of your other capacities? How have you divided your attention between the less combative elements of your studies?"
Just then, a great pounding resounds from the heavy, metal gym doors. Something seems to be trying to batter its way through.
"What's that?" you ask, alarmed.
"Ignore that," says Zev. "Answer my question quickly, and truthfully."
"That's good, that's good," says Zev. "You know yourself well."
The battering against the gym doors almost drowns out his voice, now. One of the doors begins to buckle at its center, under the force of a truly terrific impact. "What is that?" you ask. "Is there another way out of here?"
"It's the interloper," says Zev. "And it would be pointless to run, now. We don't have much time. Conserve your mental energy—your innermost psyche—as much as possible. It will be used up any time you inhabit a new host, or when you must defend yourself against psychic attack. If it is ever completely exhausted…well, there is a danger your mind will shatter. Rest when you can; this will replenish your mental energy as well as your physical body."
"Okay," you say, glancing toward the door. "Anything else?"
"Yes. Don't neglect the training you've received here—remember your classes in infiltration, stealth, investigation. This—this measure of your espionage ability—is the greatest indicator of your skill during the trials to come. Simply put, your espionage rating is a measure of your overall success as a spy and a field agent. Gather information where you can, and spread misinformation amongst your foes. Know your enemies well before you attack them."
"Okay. What else?"
"Nothing else, except a question," says Zev. "What is the beast behind those cargo doors?"
And then the doors burst open, and you have your answer.
It is a beast four meters tall…it is a man with his face eternally in shadow…it is a worm, gnawing through your cerebellum…
It is a man, his palm raised toward you, his mind biting into yours.
You remember everything now. You are investigating a woman called Mariana Heckendorn, the president of a small, independent bank based in Switzerland. Robert Ryker received information that Heckendorn had recently begun to frantically exchange emails with various scientists, journalists and politicians, primarily in Switzerland and France, on the subject of psychics—even on the Ryker Foundation itself. The few emails that Ryker has obtained speak of psychics in very veiled terms—it is not really clear how much Heckendorn knows, and how much she merely suspects. But she is influential enough to be dangerous to the Ryker Foundation. If she were to choose to expose either the Ryker Foundation, or psychics in general, she has enough media and political connections to be taken seriously.
And so you have travelled to France, with Annika Visser and another psychic, Rosa Solar. You mission is to investigate the reasons behind Heckendorn's sudden interest in psychics. If you determine that she is a risk to the continued secrecy of the Ryker Foundation and of psychics worldwide, you are to take whatever steps you consider necessary to destroy all concrete documentation she possesses on the subject, and to shatter her credibility in general.
The mission was going well. To get close to her, you inhabited Yoshi Kobayashi, a Swedish-Japanese banker in Paris on business and a close personal friend of Mariana Heckendorn. You were attending an evening dinner party at Heckendorn's Paris apartment, and you excused yourself from the dinner table for a few moments in order to take a quick look at Heckendorn's computer.
And then you ran into another psychic, with the same mission as you.
As you entered Heckendorn's office, you found a man in dark clothes sitting at her desk. You knew him from the Ryker Foundation's hazard files: he was Siegfried Sayle, an operative of ORPHEUS, a psychic with the ability to erase or alter memories.
In Kobayashi's body, he shouldn't have recognized you. But he looked up from the desk, smiled at you, and said, "Angela, it's good to see that you're right on schedule."
Then he raised his hand, and the next thing you knew all thought of him flew from your mind, and it seemed you were at Chicago O'Hare airport, waiting for an airplane that would take you to the Ryker Foundation.
But now you return to the present. You and Sayle are still in Heckendorn's spacious study. Three rooms away, a dinner party is in progress, and the people sitting around the dinner table have no idea of the psychic battle that is taking place nearby.
Sayle is a man of forty or so, with thick gray hair. You sense his surprise that you have suddenly become conscious of your surroundings—he expected you to lose your mind as he devoured memory after memory. But your 'mental construct' has allowed you to repel his insidious influence.
Now Sayle abandons all subtlety. The palm of his hand still raised toward you, he closes his eyes, and concentrates on battering your mind into oblivion. You, in turn, concentrate on keeping him out.
Zev Aaronovich once warned you, long ago, that to be open to the world around you, to be too empathic, would leave you vulnerable to psychic attack. Now you experience the truth of those words. You struggle to create a mental barrier around your mind, but Siegfried's power cuts into you like a burning knife. At last you manage to solidify that barrier, and repel him—but the effort has cost you a great deal of mental and physical strength.
You resist Siegfried's efforts, shutting him out of your thoughts—and, straining with the effort, you take a step toward him. And then another.
Siegfried, drained by the effort of trying to break through your mental defences, suddenly swoons, and falls forward onto his hands and knees. At once, the psychic pressure on your mind disappears.
You leap forward and grab him. "What are you doing here?" you hiss, your voice low.
"Same…as you…" he says, rather groggily.
"Keep your voice down!" you hiss, preferring to make a discreet exit. "How did you know who I was?"
But Siegfried doesn't answer that. He simply gives you a woozy smile.
You curse. You don't have the time to make him tell you. Then you glance up at Heckendorn's laptop. If you can access the internet, you'll be able to download a virus that will transfer the entire contents of her hard drive directly to the Ryker Foundation. But you'll have to crack her login password first. That could take a few minutes.
As you're wondering how to deal with the situation the door to Heckendorn's study opens, and Heckendorn's six-year-old daughter, Chloe, wanders into the room. She's wearing pink pajamas and holding a little white teddy.
"Maman…?" she begins. And then she halts, seeing you gripping Siegfried, who is sprawled on the floor.
If Chloe screams, or runs, she'll alert the rest of the household. And if one of them manages to call the police, your life could quickly become very complicated.
You dart toward her, but at your sudden movement Chloe opens her mouth—and the scream that comes out is unlike anything you've ever heard before.
The scream that comes out of that girl has a volume you hadn't believed possible—louder than, say, the loudest pneumatic drill, or a rock concert speaker system. It physically lifts both you and Siegfried, and slams you against the far wall of Heckendorn's study. It hurls most of the furniture in the room around you as well.
The sound does not halt; it goes on and on. Nor is this scream purely noise, physical vibration—it is also a mental scream; you feel it clawing at your mind, your sanity.
And then you understand: Mariana Heckendorn has become preoccupied with the existence of psychics because her own daughter is a psychic—and, by all evidence, a tremendously powerful one.
Sadly, this realization can do nothing to prevent your bones from turning to jelly, which is about to be the case. But then, as Chloe's psychic scream pummels you, you hear another voice creeping into your mind.
"I can shield us, and shut her up," it says. It's Siegfried: it is easier for him to speak to you with his mind than with his mouth just now. "But I'll need to draw upon your mental energy as well as my own. Please, concentrate on helping me."
You have little choice but to help him. You do as he asks.
And Siegfried's plan works. Drawing on your own mental power, he begins to deflect the psychic energy emanating from the girl, and even to turn a small part of it back against her. The psychic scream lessens in intensity—you and Siegfried slide down to the base of the wall, although you cannot yet force yourself to stand. Dimly, you are aware that Mariana Heckendorn and a couple of the party guests have tried to enter the room, but the girl's psychic scream has forced them away.
You sense that Siegfried Sayle's own mental energy is almost completely exhausted. And then you realize you have a choice of strategies before you. You can continue straining to assist Siegfried—although that would likely blow out a part of your own inner reserves, causing yourself permanent injury. Or you sense that you could try to deflect the girl's scream so that it will only affect Siegfried, not yourself. If you are successful, you will take almost no damage—but Siegfried probably won't survive.
The girl's scream rips through your nerves, your reflexes, your instincts. You suffer heavy damage—due to your empathic nature, you are especially sensitive to psychic assault, and you experience some nerve damage. You lose some degree of skill in all of the areas that you've trained in.
At last, the scream recedes.
Chloe faints, collapsing in the doorway of Mariana Heckendorn's study. Her mother appears behind her, looking somewhat battered—none of the dinner party guests have been left untouched by Chloe's scream. The scream has also demolished a couple of internal walls, you notice.
"Is she okay?" you ask Mariana.
Mariana checks the girl's vital signs, then gives you a curt nod.
Siegfried has lost consciousness. He is lying face up on the floor of the study, his chest gently rising and falling. You choose to leave him there. It will not take the emergency services long to respond to this strange incident in Mariana Heckendorn's apartment, you decide. Even given that your particular psychic gift is a great boon in avoiding captivity, you prefer not to be around when they arrive.
Preoccupied as she is, it doesn't seem strange to her that you require no explanation concerning Chloe's remarkable display. Then you push past her, and quit the apartment. You leave the apartment building, and flag down a taxi. One detail of the past few minutes is bothering you: how did Siegfried know your name when he first saw you?
Annika and Rosa are waiting in an apartment in the center of Paris, on Rue de Rivoli. The apartment is indirectly owned by the Ryker Foundation. Your own 'home' body is there too—comatose, as is always the case when you are inhabiting a host. You call the apartment four times during your taxi ride. You try the personal phones of Annika and Rosa as well. There is no response.
At last you draw near to Rue de Rivoli. You see the plume of smoke rising from the apartment just a few moments before you spot the ambulances gathered around the base of the building.
The street is jammed with emergency services personnel, and also with ghoulish onlookers. Leaving the taxi, you force your way through them. Then you spot a body under a white sheet on a stretcher. It is a curious sensation, wondering if your own body lies dead before you—and knowing that your spirit will soon die as well, if so. Before any of the nearby paramedics can stop you, you march forward and pull back the sheet.
You don't recognize the blood-covered woman. Your best guess is that it belongs to one of the neighbors in the apartment building.
A cry of pain diverts your attention from her. Rosa Solar lies on another stretcher nearby. Her face is ragged and torn open; one eye is covered with a thick compress. But she is conscious—she screams out as the paramedics around her try to hold her down against the stretcher.
You dash to the Spaniard's side, and lean in close to her. "Rosa, it's me, Angela! Can you hear me?"
She gives you a strange, one-eyed look for a moment, then says, "Angela, they took your body. It was only a small bomb—they didn't want to risk facing us directly. Then six or seven of them came through the door. They thought I was already dead…they ignored me…but I saw one of them carrying your body outside. You were okay, Angela. Your body is out there…."
"Who were they?" you ask. "Where did they take my body?"
But Rosa's single eye rolls up into her skull, and she loses consciousness.
CHAPTER TWO: PROTOCOL 157
Rosa is loaded into the back of an ambulance, and you wonder whether she'll ever regain consciousness. You spend a few minutes questioning paramedics, but soon learn that Annika is not present, either living or dead. Nor can you find any trace of whoever attacked the apartment. Seeing no further reason to wait around, you stride away from the crush of paramedics, police cars, and gawking pedestrians.
Your home body is missing, abducted. Your consciousness cannot remain within a host body indefinitely. It has been some years since you have had a metempsionic tutor—Zev Aaronovich left the Ryker Foundation several years ago. And yet, using the principles that Zev taught you, you have been continually testing your metempsionic ability, trying to remain away from your home body for longer and longer periods. Your best guess is that you can survive within another person's body for around ten days, tops. The first symptoms of extended residence within a host body will be hallucinations—of smells, of unexplained noises, even of pain. After that will come madness, as your mind becomes scrambled and you have more and more trouble differentiating reality and imagination. Then, finally, your consciousness will shred, and you will simply cease to be.
Given that your body has been taken rather than killed outright, you can only guess that its abductor wishes you to remain alive for the time being. Regardless, you hope that he or she will display some common sense in looking after it—without an intravenous water drip, it will die of thirst within a week or so.
Given Siegfried Sayle's presence, and his knowledge of the bomb, you are sure it is ORPHEUS that has attacked the Ryker Foundation, even though such an overt move is uncharacteristic of them. Although the two networks of psychics occasionally come into conflict, these confrontations are rarely violent. No, ORPHEUS prefers to direct its efforts against 'civilians': non-psychic targets. You wonder what has motivated this change in modus operandi—and how widespread such attacks against the Ryker Foundation may be. Sadly, ORPHEUS is almost as secretive as the Ryker Foundation. You do not know where you might currently find any of its members.
You decide to contact the Ryker Foundation. Using the smartphone of your host body, Yoshi Kobayashi, you dial a contact number you have memorized, a number based in Pennsylvania, USA. The call fails to connect. You frown at the unexpected hitch, but you have memorized five other backup numbers just in case of unexpected technical problems.
You call them all—numbers based in the USA, Great Britain, Sweden, Italy and New Zealand. Every single call fails to connect.
You have one other way of contacting the foundation. You have previously set up an email dropbox where they can leave messages for you. The dropbox system is remarkably simple: it is a gmail account with a password that all the team members know. To leave a message, you type the email as you normally would; when addressing the mail, you invent any non-existent email address you like. The first three letters of the address should indicate the message's intended recipient, if meant for one team member in particular; the last three letters of the email address should designate the sender. When sent, the email will bounce back, undelivered—so it won't show up on any inspection of email traffic.
Using Kobayashi's smartphone, you enter the dropbox. You find that one new message has bounced back. Its invented email address indicates that you are the intended recipient, but does not give any clue as to its sender. It says:
Severe security breach registered. Protocol 157 initiated with respect to all operatives currently active in that zone.
Recall scheduled for 01:00. Address below.
Below that is an address. Cross-referencing with the smartphone's GPS and verifying the location online, you see that it is a small petanque club in the heart of the Bois de Vincennes, the forest at the eastern edge of Paris.
Looking at the time stamp on the bounced email, you see it was sent just minutes ago.
If protocol 157 is in effect, you will have no means of contacting the Ryker Foundation. They will come to find you at 01:00, nearly five hours from now, at the address you have been given.
Your objective, first and foremost, must be to recover your own body. Quite simply, you will die if you don't.
A secondary objective should be to make contact with Mariana Heckendorn. Her daughter, Chloe, is exactly the type of gifted young psychic that would benefit from the tutelage of the Ryker Foundation—just as you did, once.
But your immediate next step should be to make your way to the petanque club in Bois de Vincennes at the time indicated and allow the Ryker Foundation to pick you up. Its resources are extensive, and it will be a great help to you in finding your own body. You only hope they don't waste too much time debriefing you.
Your host body, Yoshi Kobayashi, was hurt during your confrontation with Siegfried Sayle. Also, it disturbs you that Siegfried recognized you at once, even within a host. Perhaps it would be wiser to find a new host?
Quickly, you spot two likely candidates. First, you see a late-evening jogger standing nearby, hopping from foot to foot, watching the emergency unfold. She is perhaps twenty-five years old, slim, rather attractive. Her casual voyeurism strikes you as somewhat macabre. And yet you have the impression that she will not remain long to gawk with the rest—she is eager to continue her exercise.
Alternatively, you notice that one of the paramedics on Rue de Rivoli has wandered away from the rest of his group to make a phone call. He seems in fairly good shape. Having access to the Parisian network of emergency services could also prove useful—though inhabiting this host while his colleagues are so close by could be risky.
The woman is focusing on the fire, and it is an easy matter to reach out and touch her bare shoulder. That brief contact is all it takes. Your consciousness floods from the mind of Yoshi Kobayashi, through your fingertips, and into the skin of this woman, and takes up residence within her brain, her skin, her bone, her muscle, her gristle.
There is always a brief sense of dislocation when you inhabit a new host. You close your eyes—your new eyes—a few moments, allowing yourself to feel this host body around you. A pleasant heat fills your muscles, a product of this body's recent jog. The wind around you has a colder touch as it traces those parts of your body coated in perspiration. And there is music in your ears, startlingly loud. Of course—this woman listens to music as she runs. And you know this music. It is a pop song—'Fame', by David Bowie. Though the song is not itself unpleasant, the sudden intensity of it shocks you, and you yank the speaker buds from your ears. You leave them dangling from the smartphone in her pocket.
Emilie. This woman's name is Emilie Legros. The fact comes to you intuitively, and yet you are wholly sure of it—as surely as you know that gravity's pull will tie you to the Earth if you leap into the air, or that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.
And now you open your eyes. Yoshi Kobayashi stands beside you, looking rather bewildered. He has no immediate memory that you inhabited his body. Perhaps some flashes of his actions while you resided in him will come to him, in time. For now, he simply turns on the spot, trying to get his bearings. The smoking apartment on Rue de Rivoli attracts his attention, and he stares at it, his head slightly cocked to one side. The mannerism seems somewhat canine.
Perhaps you should speak to Kobayashi, to help him make some sense of this sudden transportation, this blockage within his memory. But the events of the last few hours have rendered you rather less than sociable. You walk away from him. He fails to notice, or ignores, your departure.
Almost five hours remain before you are due to meet operatives of the Ryker Foundation in the Bois de Vincennes. You consider how best to use that time.
You pause a few moments to try to clear your mind, and to let the thoughts of your host, Emilie Legros, come forward. She was born in Nantes, but has lived in Paris for several years. She lives in a small apartment in the north side of Paris—in Montmartre, you believe, although you cannot be sure of the exact address. She works in a marketing firm. You have a feeling that Emilie enjoys her work. She is not carrying any money, nor any sort of ID or bank cards. She went jogging with only her smartphone, it seems, and a key—to her home, presumably, wherever that is. Not having any money could make things awkward. Should you need more material resources, you could of course simply inhabit another host. However, you're reluctant to expend more mental energy unless necessary.
You consider the options that are open to you in the hours that remain before your appointment in the Bois de Vincennes. It might be wise to rest, to recover some of the mental strength you have exhausted so far. The best way to do that would be to return to Emilie's home—you take a couple of minutes to check her phone, and soon find an email that mentions her precise address. But then again, perhaps it would be unwise to return to Emilie's home—running into people acquainted with your host, people who might spot and react to what they consider odd behavior, is always a danger in that sort of situation. It could be a better idea just to relax around Paris, penniless as you are, for a few hours, before making your way to your rendezvous.
Penniless as you are, you don't relish the thought of simply hanging around in Paris for a few hours. Of course, you may wish to arrive at the petanque club well in advance of your meeting to scout out the area.
You find Nicolas, Emilie's partner, waiting for you in the entry corridor of Emilie's apartment. "We need to leave right now if we don't want to be late for dinner," he says. "My parents are really fussy about being made to wait to eat." He is tall, broad-shouldered. He has a light growth of beard about his chin. "And you still need to shower. That's just great. Do it now, and be damn quick about it."
Hmm. His parents live far enough away that it will take you a couple of hours to get there, it seems. If you go with him, you'll surely miss your appointment in the Bois de Vincennes.
You open your mouth to give him some reason why you shouldn't go—but the arrival of a young child interrupts you. A young boy wanders out of the apartment's living room, and spots you. "Maman!" he cries out, then rushes toward you and hugs himself against your leg.
Of course—Emilie has a four-year-old son, Fabien. The boy hugs himself against your leg. He has the same shade of fair hair as Emilie, you note. You bend down and lift him up. You have no great experience with children—you're rather surprised at how heavy he is. Strong emotion in a host can sometimes be difficult for a metempsionic to deal with—and Emilie's feeling for this child is enormous.
"Fabien, leave your mother alone," says Nicolas, taking the boy from you. "She has to get ready to leave. And I mean, really, really quickly."
"What do you mean you're not going?" asks Nicolas, peeved.
"Exactly that," you say. "I've just…changed my mind."
"You can't 'change your mind'," he tells you. "My parents have gone out of their way to keep this evening available for us, and to prepare nice food, and to invite my brother over. If you wanted to change your mind, a couple of days ago would have been a much better time to say so."
"Well, I can change my mind," you say. "And I have."
An argument follows. Nicolas says that he's never seen you acting so weirdly—it's a rather perceptive comment, in fact. It's a shame to have to act so out of character, and to upset Nicolas so much. But you have no other real possibility. At last Nicolas takes Fabien and goes to his parents' home without you. He bangs the door behind him as he leaves the apartment.
You spend several hours in Emilie's apartment. You eat well from her refrigerator, and you even watch part of a movie on DVD—'Flubber', starring Robin Williams. You doze a while before you reach the movie's end, however.
When you wake, the time of your appointment is not far off. You shower, dress, and then call a taxi to take you to your rendezvous.
You arrive at the Bois de Vincennes. According to the GPS on your smartphone, a narrow access road leads directly to the club. You walk along it.
The club itself is a small building, that proves to be locked up tight. There is a gravel forecourt in front of the building—this is the space where the club members play petanque, a game that consists of throwing metal balls at a wooden jack.
The hour set for your recall by the Ryker Foundation is close. You are not quite sure what to expect, in fact—you have visions of a helicopter descending from the sky, shining a spotlight down on you, and throwing down a rope ladder for you to climb.
In fact, what happens next is far from what you expected.
As you wait in front of the petanque club, you see a set of headlights approaching along the access road that leads through the wood. As they draw closer you see that, somewhat unnervingly, they belong to a black hearse.
It parks, and you notice that the vehicle is carrying a coffin—and, for a brief moment, you wonder whether that coffin might contain your own body.
The car's engine dies, although its headlights remain on. You have thus far been unable to see the driver. Now the car's door opens, and the driver climbs out, and steps into the pool of light before the vehicle.
"Hi, Angela," says Annika Visser. "Interesting body you're wearing. So, are you ready to go home?"
CHAPTER THREE: A FRIEND IN NEED…
"I'm the operative responsible for your recall," says Annika, standing in front of the hearse. "I'm to take you back to one of the Ryker Foundation's holding centers. There, they'll give us both a preliminary debriefing. Once they're satisfied we're not a security risk, they'll ultimately move us back to the Node."
"And the hearse? The coffin?" you ask.
Annika gives a little smile. "That's how I'm supposed to bring you back. If you're locked inside, it guarantees the security and the anonymity of the holding center. Something like that."
"And what's inside the coffin right now?" you ask. "Have you recovered my body already?"
She doesn't answer for a couple of seconds. But then she says, "You want to take a look for yourself?"
"And the email in the dropbox," you say, "the one telling me about the recall…you sent that?"
"Not personally. That came out of the Node."
How do you wish to handle this situation?
Lighting a flashlight, Annika leads you round to the rear of the hearse. You note that the vehicle contains several thick cargo straps that could be used to tie down the lid.
"You want to take a look inside?" she says.
"Maybe you should be the one to do that," you tell her.
"You don't trust me?" she affects an air of exaggerated innocence.
"Not as far as I can—"
And then she comes at you—though, suspicious as you are, she doesn't catch you completely off guard.
Just then, Annika hops forward on one foot, and drives the other up toward your face. You nearly manage to duck under her kick—but then she launches into a flurry of kicks and punches that you are hard-pressed to defend against.
You're a decent fighter, but Annika is just a little faster than you. You block or parry her first few attacks, but then she manages to catch you on the chin with her elbow. The blow knocks you off balance, and she's able to land a couple of solid punches on your ribs while you're correcting yourself.
You back away from Annika, placing a couple of meters between the two of you. Then, incredibly, she flashes you a grin. "This all warrants some sort of explanation, doesn't it?"
"I think I can guess the explanation already," you tell her. "You've sold out the Ryker Foundation. You're working for ORPHEUS."
"It's more complicated than that," she says, "but you're essentially right."
"Did you plant the bomb on Rue de Rivoli?"
She pauses before answering. Then, at last, she says, "Yes."
"You nearly killed Rosa," you say. "She may already have died of her injuries."
"That was…a miscalculation," she says. "And I'll make sure the person responsible answers for it."
"I'm sure that will be a great consolation to Rosa, if she ever regains consciousness."
"I don't feel I've betrayed anybody," Annika tells you. "The Ryker Foundation has been manipulating us. If I've joined ORPHEUS, it's only to repay Robert Ryker for his mistreatment of us."
"What mistreatment?" you ask. "Betrayed us how?"
She seems about to speak, but then stops, and shakes her head. "An explanation isn't enough. I have to show you. Come with me. We have your home body, and I can reunite you with it before the sun comes up."
You shake your head, thinking. "I don't know, Annika. You're not giving me enough to believe you…."
"Please, Angela," she says. "I have to shut you in the coffin for a while. But when I let you out, I'll be able to make everything clear to you."
She sighs. "Fine," she says, and then separates her feet, and takes up a fighting stance.
You turn and sprint toward the brightly-lit road that you see in the distance through the trees.
"Damn you, Angela!" calls out Annika from behind you. "I didn't want this to be a messy job!" She starts out after you on foot—if she were to drive after you in the hearse, you could too easily lose her in the trees all around you.
You hurtle through those trees, and through the dark, as fast as you can. It is simple blind luck that you don't stumble over a root, or into a ditch. Behind you, Annika is not so lucky. You hear her cry out, and you risk a glance over your shoulder. She has tripped in the dark.
This buys you a small amount of time. Two minutes of sprinting brings you, breathing heavily, to the road that runs alongside the rather affluent houses bordering the wood.
You need some sort of vehicle in order to make your escape, you decide.
You run up the street until you see a car driving toward you—a silver-gray, old-style Jaguar, you make out, although with its headlights shining in your face you can't tell immediately whether the driver is male or female.
You step into the center of the street, blocking the road, and wave your arms to get the driver to stop. You give a nervous glance over your shoulder, too—for the moment, you can't spot Annika.
To your great happiness, the car stops. The driver's-side window rolls down. "Are you okay?" asks a woman's voice. The driver of the car is, you manage to make out, a woman with an angular chin, perhaps in her late thirties or early forties.
You consider for a moment whether it would be wise to inhabit this woman's body. If Annika is nearby, she will likely witness the transfer, and you will lose any advantage of misdirection it might have given you. Perhaps it would be wiser to conserve your mental energy.
"Please, my sister's badly hurt…" you say, approaching the car. You notice that she rests her hand atop the open window as you grow nearer.
It's exactly the opportunity you need. Swiftly, you place your own hand on hers. And, in a moment, your consciousness, your being, everything that makes you you flows through into the body of this woman sitting before you.
Entering a new host is always somewhat akin to finding yourself in a foreign country, unable to speak the local language. This woman's name is…Olivia Lahlou. She is unmarried, but…no, the threat of Annika's nearness prevents you from concentrating properly; Olivia's personal life remains an unexplored cavern to you, for now. You try for a few seconds to gain a sense of what skills she possesses, what she does for a living. And…you get the distinct sense that she is a fighter of some kind. More than that you cannot currently say. You resolve to try to explore Olivia's thoughts and memories more thoroughly as soon as you have the luxury of enough time to do so.
Beside the car, Emilie takes a couple of steps back, aware once more, and quite stunned by what seems to be a sudden shift in surroundings. You give a curt nod, and say, "I appreciate your assistance. Thank you."
You feel the slightest sense of sadness, leaving your former host like this. Inhabiting somebody's body creates enormous intimacy between the two of you—intimacy that you feel very keenly, even if your host remains largely unaware of it.
Oh well, you have a new host now. You tap the Jaguar's accelerator.
As you accelerate up the road, a motorbike passes you, heading in the opposite direction. You frown, and glance up at your rearview mirror. And there, you see Annika dart into the middle of the road. She executes a high kick, cleanly knocking the motorcyclist off the vehicle. With surprising celerity, she scoops up the fallen bike and leaps onto it, its wheels still spinning. She guns its engine, and chases after you.
You steer toward the city center. Your best hope of evading Annika is to get out of her line of sight and inhabit a new host body—it only seems fair to take advantage of your own psychic gift, after all, given that Annika's precognitive sense has assisted her so much up to now. Ideally, you'll be able to find somewhere crowded, where you can really throw her off your scent.
Annika's bike, a Kawasaki, is both faster and more maneuverable than your car. The advantage of the car is the stability of the vehicle in comparison to her bike. Annika doesn't seem to possess a firearm. The best she can hope to do is force you to stop. If she can pull you from the vehicle, she'll really be able to create problems from you.
You are just considering this when Annika pulls alongside you, then swerves across the front of your car. Reflexively, you stamp on the brake pedal, and turn the wheel, trying not to hit her.
You just about manage to avoid plowing the car into a row of cars parked along the side of the street.
Forcing you to swerve was a gutsy move—it depended on you being fast enough to avoid hitting her, as well as on your willingness to avoid her. It also might have seriously hurt you. Annika is not pulling her punches, it seems—but then, why should she, when she knows that you can shrug off any physical harm by simply transferring to another host body?
You wonder what you'll do if she tries that move again—perhaps the safer option would be to run down this girl that you grew up with.
As you enter the city center proper, the number of cars on the road begins to increase. You steer towards the area around Saint-Michel, just across the river from Notre Dame cathedral. It is a touristy zone, full of bars and restaurants, and it will likely be full of people, even at this late hour. There, surrounded by a multitude of potential hosts, you'll need only get out of Annika's line of sight for a few seconds in order to evade her completely.
You turn left onto Voie Georges Pompidou, the one-way road that runs along the north bank of the River Seine. As you do, you find yourself driving side by side with a silver BMW. Just then, you hear Annika rev loudly; glancing back at her, you see that she has mounted the thin strip of sidewalk on the far side of the road, and that she's overtaking the BMW beside you.
She's very likely about to try the same move as before, you realize—except that this time, she'll try to force the driver of the BMW to swerve into you. Forewarned, you may be able to brake hard, and avoid any collision.
Or, alternatively, you could just nudge the BMW into Annika…if the other driver can't turn, he'll surely hit Annika's bike. You'd be placing the other driver and Annika in a great deal of danger—if the maneuver goes badly, one or both of them may be killed. But you'll be able to end this pursuit right now.
Annika moves her bike into position, then glances left, at the two cars. It's time to choose, before she makes her move.
Annika is not pulling any punches. Neither should you. You steer into the BMW, grazing its front end, just as Annika swerves into its path.
As anticipated, the driver tries to turn—but, blocked by your car, his front bumper hits Annika's back tire: once, and then a second time. Annika loses control of the vehicle; the bike falls prone and jams under the front end of the BMW, spraying sparks as the car pushes it along the road. At least Annika manages to jump clear. She slams into the high stone wall that runs alongside the road. She falls down to the sidewalk just as she passes out of your view.
The driver of the BMW panics, and loses control of his vehicle. Now is the time for you to brake, as the BMW wobbles into your lane, and then back into its own. Finally, the driver goes up onto the sidewalk, and spins into that stone wall as well. You see airbags blast open inside the car. Driving more slowly now, you peer into the BMW as you pass. Its driver is leaning forward, slumped over the steering wheel. He isn't moving.
You drive a little way up the road, and then you pull over, looking back at the chaos you've left in your wake. Annika is lying prone on the ground, some distance behind the trashed BMW. Four cars that were driving up the road behind you have stopped; their drivers are checking Annika and the driver of the BMW. One of them is already on the phone, no doubt calling for police and paramedics.
And one of the drivers is waving at you, indicating that you should come back.
Fat chance. You climb back inside your car and drive away, already considering how you might find your own body.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE JEALOUS NATURE OF LOVE
Sleep comes to you at last in the early hours of the morning, and you dream of home. You dream that you see the Node, first from the sky—you are flying a helicopter in the dream; the sun is bright, and the sky around you is calm, cloudless. From this high, the Node is little more than a rock in the middle of a cold ocean. You pilot the helicopter nearer, lower. A farmhouse and a barn stand in the center of the island. You spot a few sheep milling about, grazing at the sparse grass that covers patches of the island. You kill the helicopter's engine, then pace across to the farmhouse. Those sheep that see you stop chewing and watch you as you pass. You knock on the door to the farmhouse, and, hearing no answer, you turn its handle and enter.
"Mrs. Datsik?" you call out. "Mrs. Yerofeyev?" Two Russian women run the isolated farm. They are happy to turn a blind eye to the activities of Robert Ryker's psychics. One of Ryker's prime rules is that the two farmers should be in no way inconvenienced—and that, above all, they should never be subjected to psychic abilities. You have often wondered how much the two women know about the true location of the Node, and the activities of the Ryker Foundation. Without the use of psychic gifts, it's hard to be sure—they speak little English, and you speak only a few words of Russian. Perhaps the Node is situated in Russian territorial waters, you reflect—but the nationality of the island's only two official residents is not quite enough evidence for certainty.
Neither Mrs. Datsik nor Mrs. Yerofeyev is home today, it seems. That's curious—but then, this is a dream, so you are not overly concerned.
You make your way through to the farmers' pantry. At the back of that room, amidst the rows of cauliflowers and potatoes and tinned cabbage, there is a set of steel double doors and a touch-sensitive keypad mounted in the wall. You key in an access code, and wait for the elevator that will convey you down to the Ryker Foundation's headquarters.
The elevator arrives. You step in.
"What is the Node?"
The voice crackles from the speakers mounted high on the wall of one of the Node's gloomy corridors. It is Robert Ryker's voice, you realize—but tinny, distorted.
"Ryker? Can you hear me?" you call out.
"What is the Node?"
You frown up at the voice. And then you see a body lying on the floor of the corridor, some thirty meters away from you. You dash to it, and turn it over. It is Zev Aaronovich. He is quite dead—his body has been crushed; his legs are twisted, mutilated.
"What is the Node?"
A pause, and then the voice from the speaker says, "Then will you burn your home?"
You walk on through the Node's dimly-lit corridors. You are passing the younger girls' dormitory; seeing its door ajar, you glance inside.
Robert Ryker is there, on the floor, every bit as dead as Zev. He has a bullet hole in the back of his head. The blood on his head and on the floor is dry. He has been lying there for some time.
"What is the Node?"
Again, that voice—Ryker's voice—crackles from the speakers.
You close the dormitory door, and continue on.
And then, rounding a bend in the corridor, you see a woman up ahead, standing with her back to you. Arcs of electrical energy dance around the ceiling above her head; you raise your hand to block the light they cast off.
You seem to recognize the woman, although you can't quite place her in context. It is only when she turns around that you see her face.
It is you. In your dream, the impossible has become possible—a metempsionic has inhabited your body.
"It's possible for the most powerful psychics in the world to exist as mental energy, and nothing more," she says—you say—looking up at the arcing electricity. "In such a state, they can occasionally be bottled, if you know how. Though you shouldn't expose them to any conflicting sources of psychic energy. The results could be…explosive."
"Who are you?" you ask.
"A stupid question!" she screams. "Apologize, and I'll let you ask two more. Keep clinging to your pride, and I'll let you ask just one."
"Then one question is all you get," she says. "Ask."
"An excellent question. The Node is a confluence, a conjuncture," she tells you. "It is no coincidence that it inhabits the site it inhabits, nor that Robert Ryker chose to make it his home and his base. It is…a node."
An unexpectedly lucid response.
"Now," she goes on, "no more questions." With that, the intruder within your body takes a step toward you, and places a finger on your chin.
How many times have you touched a finger to somebody else, and allowed your consciousness to flood over theirs, enveloping and suppressing every part of their being? You are a metempsionic, a psychic—and you have learned that one of the immutable laws of this gift of possession is that you may never possess the body of another psychic. And yet, this time, you feel this man's consciousness flooding into your own—for he is a man, deep down within your bones you're sure of that, now. He overpowers you, buries you, and you are powerless to stop him.
And as your persona disappears, the dream ends.
You wake with a scream.
The sun rises into the sky over Paris, and you rub your chin and think about where you might look next for Annika, and ORPHEUS.
The message you received from the Ryker Foundation was a fake. That means they may make a genuine attempt to contact you soon. Still, it would be prudent to find a means of contacting them first, if possible. As Annika and her ORPHEUS compatriots seem to want you alive, you should also expect a message from them; but you are reluctant simply to wait around. You must take the initiative if you hope to recover your own body.
This is not your first time in Paris. You visited the city once before, five years ago. At that time, you had traveled to Paris with Zev, investigating suspicions that a telepath working for ORPHEUS was blackmailing several French ministers. On that occasion, the two of you came into contact with a man called Jean-Marc Ledoux, a mid-level 'fixer' in the Parisian underworld. He helped you enormously. He obtained information about the ministers' routines, security measures, and personnel that was invaluable in accomplishing your task—though, of course, you had to pay him very well for his work.
You wonder whether Jean-Marc Ledoux is still active in Paris. You begin asking questions in casinos and bars that you know or suspect to have criminal connections, trying to find a way to make contact with the man.
You know little about Olivia Lahlou, the woman you inhabited in the Bois de Vincennes. A brief rummage through her purse gives you her address—a stylish apartment in Montmartre, with a view of the Basilica de Sacre-Coeur. She lives alone, but from photos and text messages and other clues, you gather that she is in a romantic relationship with a woman called Michelle, although you aren't sure where Michelle is at this moment. She seems to be in no great hurry to contact Olivia, at any rate, and you decide it's prudent to leave matters where they are.
Going through Olivia's apartment, you do find one curiosity—a pistol in a holster, hidden in her bedside table.
You check that the pistol is in working order, and that you have a decent amount of ammunition handy. It is, and you do. Leaving Olivia's apartment, you set about trying to find Jean-Marc Ledoux. You have a fair idea where to find the rougher areas of Paris, where the serious thugs might be found. With no small sense of reservation, you begin to frequent these bars, asking after Ledoux.
And then you discover an interesting fact—many of the patrons of these bars recognize Olivia, and treat her with respect. It's even a little tricky to remain in character without arousing suspicion from Olivia's contacts. Within three days, you manage to set up a meeting with a man called Nelek 'No-Nose' Novak, who assures you he can introduce you to Ledoux.
You return to Olivia's apartment to rest a few hours before your meeting with No-Nose. You have grown tired of watching French news channels. You switch off the TV, and sit cross-legged on the bed in your room, meditating. You breathe more slowly, more deeply, using techniques that Zev taught you during your training at the Node.
Over the last three days you have become accustomed to the 'feel' of Olivia's psyche. Little by little her stronger memories are creeping through. And they are memories of combat, predominantly, of war, of elation at the survival of some friends—and sadness at the death of others. Olivia is a soldier, a combatant. Though she is no longer in the French military, or any other military, that willingness to fight remains an integral part of her psychological makeup.
You try to reach further into Olivia's thoughts and memories, your brow creasing with the effort.
No, you cannot enter too deeply into your host's thoughts. You do not consider this a failure, however—your own circumstances are often volatile, dangerous; as a metempsionic, you have chosen to specialize in creating barriers to protect your own mind. Given that this route places great demands on your inner nature—your very soul, some might say—you often consider it the more difficult path to walk.
Regardless, you place yourself in a trance-like state, where the presence of Olivia Lahlou's identity allows you to focus more clearly on your own abilities.
It is done. You open your eyes, feeling calmer than you have for some time.
You have arranged to meet Nelek 'No-Nose' Novak in a little basement-level rock bar, The Black Hound. Amidst the handful of black-clad twenty-somethings, Novak is easy to spot—he's the only one with a gaping, ragged hole in the center of his face, where a nose used to be.
You sit opposite him. He is perhaps forty-five years old, wearing a battered leather jacket. Scraggly graying hair hangs about his face.
He looks up at you, and seems surprised. "You're the one who…?" he begins. But then he halts. "You, uh, want to meet Jean-Marc Ledoux, right?"
"You recognize me?" you ask.
He shakes his head. "No. I thought I did. Case of mistaken identity. So, you want to speak with Ledoux?"
"Great," he says. "Let's go."
"What, that's it?" you ask. "Just…let's go and meet him, then?"
No-Nose seems surprised. "You want more? You want to meet Ledoux. He wants to meet you too. Let's go."
Perhaps No-Nose knows more than he's telling you. You wonder if it might be simpler to inhabit his body, gruesome as it is, and try to take that information directly from his mind.
You reach out and grab No-Nose's wrist. And you close your eyes, allowing your mind to flow forward through the spot where the two of you are touching.
But nothing happens. You feel a sort of mental resistance from No-Nose. And then it strikes you—he is a psychic, and a metempsionic cannot possess the body of another psychic.
Just a moment after that realization strikes you, so does No-Nose. Guessing what you've tried to do, he punches you in the side of the head, knocking you away from him. Then he pins you up against the wall. The clientele of The Black Hound give the pair of you only feeble attention—this is business as normal for them, it seems.
"You never try that again," hisses No-Nose. "It isn't going to work so well on me, anyway." Then he drops you. "Now…as I said…let's go."
No-Nose has a black Mercedes parked outside the bar. "You know how to drive, right?" he says, tossing you its keys.
Following his directions, the two of you drive out to the southern edge of the city. No-Nose tells you to stop the car in front of a derelict warehouse.
Your feet crunch on bits of brick and broken glass as you enter the wrecked building. Half the roof has collapsed—and the rest looks like it may fall at any time.
"Why have we come here?" you ask.
"To dance," says No-Nose. "Don't you see the nightclub?"
He switches on a flashlight, and then passes a second light to you. With them, you find a trapdoor in one corner of the room. No-Nose opens it up. A metal ladder descends into the gloom below. "After you," says No-Nose, indicating that you should go first. The two of you climb down, reaching a long, cramped tunnel that slopes down further still. As you walk along it, No-Nose says, "A quick history lesson for you: the streets of Paris are just the tip of the iceberg. Below that, you have the metro tunnels, which date back a century or so. After that, there's the sewers. Go lower still and you find the catacombs. That's where we are now. They were lime quarries at first—hundreds of miles of quarry tunnels beneath the city. About eight hundred years ago, when the lime stopped coming up, and when the king of France noticed that all the cemeteries in Paris were overflowing with the dead, six million corpses were moved down here. More recently, in the second world war, the catacombs housed the base of the resistance in Paris. They say that the resistance base and Gestapo HQ were only a few hundred meters apart, but the Germans could never find them."
He ignores your comment, and says, "You know why people come down here these days?"
No-Nose halts. In the sudden silence, you hear the faraway thump—thump—thump of a techno bass.
"These days," he says, "people come down here to party."
The two of you come upon a vast subterranean nightclub. It's the real thing—gargantuan bass speakers, pulsating lights, and a dancefloor heaving with well-toned bodies. There's even a bar, with three layers of people waiting to be served standing around it. And all of this is under a ceiling of granite, several hundred meters beneath street level.
The rock amplifies the sound from the speakers. No-Nose bellows something that you don't hear, then points to an incongruous-looking doorway at one side of the room. You open it; it has about six inches of foam soundproofing on its far side.
"The whole setup is illegal," says No-Nose, when the door is closed behind you. "The general public aren't allowed down here. Safety reasons. From time to time the police find an entrance to the catacombs and seal it off. Then the 'cataphiles' just open up another."
He leads you along a passage, to another sound-proofed door. You pass through it.
And there, in a little office with rock walls, you meet somebody you know.
This man is Jean-Marc Ledoux. Half-French, half-Jamaican, he's wearing an oversized fur coat that seems faintly ridiculous on him, and a pair of bulky DJ's headphones hang about his neck. You spot the glint of a gold tooth in his mouth, too. That's new.
He recognizes you—or, at least, he knows who's really inside your host body. "Angela, it's damn good to see you again." He holds out his hand for you to shake—then pulls it back quickly. "Whoops, I better not. I'm not as well protected against psychic intrusion as my friend No-Nose here."
"Just him," answers Ledoux. "And it's more accurate to say that No-Nose is…an independent contractor."
Ledoux sits behind his desk, while No-Nose lurks at one side of the room. "I have a favor to ask of you, my friend," says Ledoux. "Please, take a seat."
"In my rather shady line of work, information is vital," says Ledoux. "I've seen very prominent, very intelligent people brought low just because they refused to believe rumors that men and women with incredible psychic abilities walk the earth. Me, I decided early on to learn as much as possible about psychics—how to keep out of their way, and even how to make best use of their talents. I sometimes come across names like 'the Ryker Foundation' or 'ORPHEUS'. This second group, ORPHEUS…they're holding something very important to you, no?"
"And if they were," you say, "might you be able to tell me exactly where they're holding it?"
"I might," says Ledoux. Then he halts, and gives you a curious look. "Tell me, Angela, when it comes to the bedroom, are you more interested in men or women?"
"Just curious," Ledoux tells you. "No need to be hostile about a simple question."
"Me, I see beauty in the male and female form," says Ledoux, lounging back in his chair. "Though I have a tendency to choose my lovers poorly. Now, I mentioned a favor, and I have a mutually beneficial arrangement in mind. But first I need to see if you're legit." With that, he lifts a phone on his desk, punches a number, and says, "Bring in Harmon."
A few seconds later, the door to the office opens once more. A man—Harmon—is shoved into the room by a couple of Ledoux's goons. No-Nose gives the pair a little nod, and they leave.
Harmon is in his early twenties. He has tan skin and a sharp little chin; you see good muscle tone under his T-shirt. Ledoux gives the man a warning look, and gestures for him to sit in the chair beside yours. He does.
"Harmon here is an example of how my love overrides my common sense," says Ledoux. "I took this little bitch into my bed. Hell, I even fell in love a little. Now, I thought I made it clear to this bitch that he is mine, and mine alone. But then I hear whispers that Harmon likes to spread the love around, if you know what I mean. Now, I'm normally pretty good at sniffing out that kind of thing. But this little bitch is good at covering his tracks. So I can't be sure." Ledoux pauses, then adds, "Of course, if a psychic, like yourself, were to get inside his mind, you'd know straight away what he has, or hasn't, been up to."
"Let me check that I understand here," you say. "You want me to inhabit Harmon's body…just so I can tell you if he's been cheating on you?"
Ledoux nods. "What I really need is a good mind-reader, of course. But those are hard to come by. But a metempsionic will do the job just as well. If you're really a metempsionic, that is."
Harmon looks at you, his expression unreadable.
"Excellent," says Ledoux. "Whenever you're ready."
Harmon gives a weary sigh. "Just do it," he says.
Resigned, you take his hand in yours.
Your consciousness shifts from Lahlou, through your fingers, into Harmon. And you feel at once that this is a man who lives by his charm and his good looks, who moves from one party to the next, one lover to the next. Such a lifestyle has, on occasion, created problems for him—lack of sleep, coupled with too much drink or drugs, has on three occasions placed Harmon in a hospital bed. Yet he does not fear this blissful nihilism—rather, he welcomes it. Somewhere deep within himself he believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is in some sense a bad person, that in some way he deserves such physical hardship.
Beside you, your former host is returning to some sort of awareness of this room, these surroundings. No-Nose steps forward, and places his brawny hands on your former host's shoulders. You should probably finish this quickly, before Lahlou begins to panic.
Instantly, you are awash in Harmon's terror. He is afraid of Ledoux—but afraid of you as well. He knows nothing of psychics; he knows only, on some barely conscious level, that you are able to exert an inexplicable power over him.
Is Harmon capable of cheating on Ledoux? Absolutely—you're convinced of that. Still, in truth, has he actually done so? You push your mind further, intertwining it more intimately with Harmon's, trying to access his memories.
Flashes of older memories break through—Harmon's relationship with his parents was strained, although you can't be sure why. He was much closer to his older brother, and particularly to his sister.
But older recollections do not interest you. You try to refocus your search, feeling for any recent traces of passion, or guilt.
However, Harmon's memories are locked away. You cannot access them—you feel you could remain within him for days, or weeks, without success.
Yet you do not have days. You cannot remain within Harmon—you're certain that Ledoux will not let you leave if you do. Your hand—Harmon's hand—is still holding that of your former host. With a thought, your consciousness switches bodies once more.
Within Lahlou once more, you let go of Harmon's hand. Your eyes meet his. He knows that you have failed to discover the truth.
But what will you tell Ledoux? Harmon fears Ledoux. Ledoux is no murderer—if you invent a claim of infidelity, Ledoux will not kill Harmon. But he will mistreat him. Badly.
You must also consider your own needs. Right now, you are depending on Ledoux's assistance to help you find your own body—without which, you'll die. Can you risk alienating him by admitting your own failure?
And then, another unpleasant thought: Ledoux mentioned that this is some sort of test. What if Ledoux already knows that Harmon has been unfaithful, and is merely waiting for you to confirm this?
Ledoux nods, unsurprised. Then Harmon leaps to his feet. "You utter shit!" he shrieks.
But No-Nose has stepped forward, and clamps his hands on Harmon's shoulders, forcing the young man back down into his chair. From a desk drawer, Ledoux takes a roll of black gaffer tape. He tosses it to No-Nose, and you watch as No-Nose tears off a strip and wraps it tight around the struggling young man's wrists. He takes a second strip and presses it tight across Harmon's mouth, so that Harmon is almost gagging on it.
Ledoux watches for your reaction throughout this, but you remain impassive. At last, when Harmon is bound, Ledoux lifts his phone once more. "Yep…Harmon's ready to go through to the prep room."
The two thugs you saw earlier return, and manhandle Harmon, grunting and struggling, out of the room.
"You won't treat him too badly, I trust?" you say, once the three of them have left.
Ledoux simply gives you a little smile by way of response.
Then Ledoux says, "I mentioned a favor." He lifts a remote control from his desk, and presses a button. From unseen speakers comes the sound of an opera—perhaps one of Wagner's; you aren't sure.
"Do you recognize the tenor?" asks Ledoux. You listen more closely—it's true that the tenor is giving a virtuoso performance; his voice is clear, and yet conveys remarkable emotion. But you don't recognize him, and you say so. "That's Emmanuel Ernaux," continues Ledoux. "You've probably heard of him; he's rather famous, even outside the operatic sphere. What's less well-known is that Emmanuel occasionally seeks to escape the fame that surrounds him. This is how I first met Emmanuel, in fact—about a year ago, I helped him during his short-lived efforts to flee the media spotlight." Ledoux gives an almost shy smile. "We fell in love, I guess."
"That's a charming story," you say. "Does it have anything to do with this favor?"
"Yes," answers Ledoux. "I want you to inhabit Emmanuel, and humiliate him. I want you to destroy his reputation, and his career."
"You see, I don't react well to rejection. And reject me is precisely what Emmanuel did. Now it's time for revenge. He's performing onstage at the Palais Garnier tomorrow evening, in front of a couple of thousand people. I want you to go there, inhabit Emmanuel's body, and to do something fantastically embarrassing onstage. Get naked. Perform some sort of sex act. I don't care what you do, just leave his reputation in pieces. You do that, and I'll give you whatever help you need to find both the Ryker Foundation and ORPHEUS, and to get your own body back. You could even look on this as charity. Emmanuel detests the fame that's been heaped upon him. He'll thank you for doing this. Possess him and check, if you like. Now…will you do it?"
Ledoux grins, showing that gold tooth once more. "Excellent. You'll see you've made the right choice here today—for both of us."
You stay and speak with Ledoux a little longer about the practical details of his plan. If he can do all he claims to be able to, you'll soon be reunited with your body—and yet you increasingly wonder if your life is worth the deal with the devil you seem to have struck this night.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE DREADED SPOTLIGHT
Emmanuel Ernaux is performing the next night in Tristan und Isolde, Wagner's operatic interpretation of the tragic love story between an Irish princess and the knight charged with transporting her to her wedding. The performance proves to be almost completely sold out; it is with some difficulty that day that you finally manage to purchase a ticket for one of the boxes up on the fourth tier, with a poor view of the stage. But then, you are hardly going to watch the show.
Your upbringing at the Node, and your work since, has almost never permitted any sort of cultural or tourist excursions. And so it is curiosity that motivates you to enter the Palais Garnier opera house by its magnificent front doors, as any member of the public might.
Though known as a palais—a palace—this building was from its very inception intended to be the most prestigious opera house in the world. Indeed, palatial is an apt word for its interior, you reflect, as you stand in the grand foyer of the building, your neck craned back to admire its chandeliers, as well as Paul Baudry's painted ceiling depicting the history of music.
You have not come here for sightseeing, though. Tearing your gaze from the room's adornments, you begin to search for access to the backstage areas of the building.
Nearly two thousand people have come to see Tristan und Isolde tonight. You know none of them. And yet a metempsionic abroad in another's body might still be recognized by someone he has never met—and so you are only caught off guard for a moment when somebody touches your shoulder from behind and says, "Good evening! How surprising to see you here!"
You turn; the woman who greeted you is short, and perhaps seventy or seventy-five years old. She is quite magnificently attired, wearing a silken shawl about her bare shoulders, as well as a necklace that supports an impressive pendant. "I really didn't think this would be your cup of tea," she says. "What on earth are you doing here?"
You have no idea who this woman is. Given more time, you might be able to more deeply access Lahlou's memories, and identify her. But you do not have that much time; you must respond to her now.
The woman gives you an odd look, then says, "Ah, yes. I believe I've mistaken you for somebody else entirely."
Another woman catches up with her, and takes her by the elbow. "Mother, I've told you about wandering off like that." To you, she says, "I'm sorry if my mother disturbed you. Her mind is a little fragile these days—but I bring her to the opera as often as possible."
"She was no trouble at all," you say, smiling.
The lights in the grand foyer dim, then rise, indicating that the audience should take their seats. You frown; distracted by your admiration of the building, and by your conversation in the foyer, you have yet to make your way backstage to find Emmanuel. You note that there will be an intermission between the second and third acts of the opera. You resolve to find Emmanuel then, and to find a way to embarrass him before the performance ends.
You make your way to your seat up in one of the higher boxes. After a short while, the lights dim completely, and the performance begins.
The story begins aboard a ship. Isolde is an Irish princess, who is promised in marriage to Marke, King of Cornwall. Tristan is a Breton knight charged with seeing her safely to her destination. Despite Isolde's initial hatred of Tristan—he slew the first man she ever loved, Morold, in battle—there is a palpable sexual chemistry between the pair. At the end of the first act, the two share a potion that is presented as a lethal poison. It is, in fact, a love philter; a love that will bring unrelenting pain inextricably binds them both thereafter.
Emmanuel Ernaux's performance as Tristan is captivating. You can't see the man well from your poor seat, but his beautiful tenor conveys his passion—you could well believe that he truly loves Isolde. By the end of the first act, you're beginning to regret the need to publicly ruin him.
You'd feared that the opera would be slow, boring. But as the first act slides seamlessly into the second, you admit that you were wrong—the drama on the stage below you is utterly absorbing. True, you don't speak German, the language of the libretto, but a small screen set into the back of the seat in front of you offers you subtitles in a variety of languages.
In the second act, Tristan and Isolde act upon their passion, making love in secret while King Marke is away hunting. The lovers' duets in this act are particularly haunting. At the conclusion of the act, however, the two are betrayed by Tristan's friend Melot, who also loves Isolde. Melot leads the king to the pair, and then Melot and Tristan fight. Although he is the superior swordsman, Tristan allows his friend to severely wound him.
The act closes with Tristan in mortal peril. As the lights rise for the intermission before the next act, you rise from your seat and begin to search for a way to the backstage areas of the opera house.
You soon find a 'staff only' door that leads to the building's backstage areas. For the moment, you don't encounter any type of security—no doubt because you have so successfully maintained a low profile so far.
As you penetrate further into the backstage section, you come upon a veritable hive of activity—make-up and costume artists touching up the performers' appearance; musicians tuning their instruments, exchanging reeds, emptying spit valves; sound and lighting technicians darting back and forth carrying cables and voltmeters and rolls of gaffer tape. And you pass through this plethora of moving bodies barely noticed, and certainly unremarked upon.
You find Emmanuel Ernaux's dressing room without great difficulty. As you approach it, one of the stage hands nearby calls out, "Isolde and Tristan on stage in four minutes!" The brief intermission is nearing its end; you'll have to act quickly.
Without knocking, you enter the dressing room. Within, you find Emmanuel sitting in front of his mirror, in costume. Remarkably, he is holding his head in his hands, crying. He doesn't seem to have noticed you.
You step forward, and place a finger on his cheek. As he looks up, suddenly aware of your presence, you open your mind to him.
Your formless consciousness merges with that of the beautiful young man before you.
Raised at the Node, you have never studied music in any but the most academic sense. As your consciousness mingles with Emmanuel's, you truly feel music for the first time in your life—you gain a sense of its colors, its flavors.
His memories come to you. Music has touched upon every part of his life. His father, Luc Ernaux, is known throughout the world as a great conductor and orchestral arranger. Raised in such a climate, music was everywhere; one of Emmanuel's earliest memories is of being held in his mother's arms, watching a performance of The Magic Flute from the wings of the stage. Emmanuel learned first the piano and then the clarinet as a child, but it was as a teenager that he followed his true passion: he was determined to become an operatic singer. When he discovered he had the talent to excel at this art, his elation, even his relief was tremendous—and yet, this was always undermined by the simple fact that he was Luc Ernaux's son. Of course he would become a performer, a tenor; of course he would be known worldwide. His father's talent and achievements rendered his own success, and the effort that had gone into achieving that success, utterly banal.
You turn to the mirror. He is Tristan. You are Tristan. The work involved in reaching this status was tremendous. And that work was always motivated by the love of the art, and of performance—it was never merely to earn money, or gain fame. Those were merely by-products. But these last few years, the by-products have begun to eclipse the art. Emmanuel Ernaux has become an industry rather than an artist. And he has come to loathe the sense of responsibility he has for the people whose work depends on his—his assistant, his accountant; the people involved in the production of Tristan und Isolde, which would enjoy far more mediocre success if Emmanuel's name were not attached to the work. Worse, he longs to be free of the practical responsibilities his lifestyle brings—he is the one who must pay for his mother's private cardiologist, amongst other obligations.
In the mirror, you gaze into Emmanuel's gray eyes, and your feelings are mixed. He is eager to be free of being a successful tenor, of simply being 'Emmanuel Ernaux'. And yet he has worked hard to establish his professional status, his reputation. You are suddenly reluctant to sacrifice that reputation, for any reason.
Beside you, your former host, Olivia Lahlou, is returning to awareness. "What…? I don't…"
There is a knock on the door just then, and a young stagehand enters. "It's time, Mister Ernaux," he says. Then, nodding toward your former host, he asks, "Who's this?"
"Just a well-wisher," you say, standing. "One who really shouldn't be wandering around back here. Can you put this one back out on the street? My audience is waiting for me."
Tristan begins the first act unconscious, mortally wounded by his friend, Melot. Another member of the cast, a shepherd, tries to wake Tristan. Upon returning to consciousness, Tristan should sing to curse the light of day—because by day he must hide his love for Isolde, whereas the darkness of night may hide them, allowing them intimacy, granting them freedom to explore their love in secret.
At last, the moment comes. As Tristan, you rise from your torpor. The Palais Garnier seats almost two thousand people, and all eyes are fixed on you, expectant. The orchestra in the pit below you halts, waiting for your cue to begin.
And how might you humiliate Emmanuel? You could strip naked onstage, or simulate a sex act. You could launch into a vulgar verbal tirade against the audience. You could attack one of your fellow performers, or a musician, or a member of the crowd before you. You could do some or all of these things. Does it really matter which you choose? But you do choose one of these acts, and you degrade Emmanuel onstage before an audience of two thousand. Some walk out of the opera hall in disgust. Some reach for their cameras and smartphones, to capture the moment forever more. Most simply watch you, astonished. The crowd contains more than a few journalists and music critics; just a few hours from now, news of your antics will have traveled to every part of the globe.
At last, as the stage lights are killed and the curtain is dropped, you stalk first from the stage, and then from the building, without a word of explanation to your co-performers, your director and the staff involved in the production of the opera, or even to the small legion of journalists who have gathered by the building's stage door. Why compound the damage, you reason. You have given them enough to write and talk about.
That night, you cut yourself off from any contact with Emmanuel's colleagues, family, friends—and you absolutely refuse to meet or speak with any of the journalists who try to contact you. Emmanuel is staying in a suite at one of the better hotels in Paris; you lock the door to the suite, and instruct the reception desk not to bother you under any circumstances. And for a while you sit alone in your suite, oddly depressed.
By two in the morning you can wait no longer—you call Jean-Marc Ledoux, to ask what help he can give you in finding your body. His mood is buoyant when he answers the phone. "You did a brilliant job," he says, his voice slimy in your ear. "Your performance is already all over the internet. In the morning, it'll make the newspapers."
"I'm glad you're so happy," you tell him. "Now, we had an arrangement. Where's my body?"
Ledoux pauses a few moments. "Your voice…you're still inside him, aren't you?"
"That's really no concern of yours. Where's my body?"
Ledoux gives a little whiny giggle. "That's completely cool. I hope you're having fun in there. As for your body…I've got my people looking for that, and I'm going to have news for you soon. For now…well, I've got an address and phone number for a friend of yours, a Mister Zev Aaronovich. He's living in London now. You want to know exactly where?"
You copy down Zev's contact details, and assure Ledoux that you'll be in touch with him again shortly. After that, you hang up.
You go into your bathroom and splash a little cold water on your face. You look at yourself, at this face that isn't yours, for a few seconds in the mirror.
And then suddenly, you feel a piercing pain in your skull, like somebody is trying to force a knife through your brain. Your vision turns green, then black.
When your senses return, you are kneeling on the bathroom floor, trembling. This, then, is the most extreme symptom so far of prolonged separation from your own body.
Your mind is beginning to break.
CHAPTER SIX: A LONDON CALLING
You take the train from Paris to London, passing under the stretch of water that separates England and France—the English Channel, or la Manche, depending on which country's label you prefer.
You disembark at Saint Pancras Station, and pass rapidly through customs—you have almost no luggage with you. You soon find a large clock mounted high up on one wall. This is where you have arranged to meet Zev Aaronovich.
However, he is not here. Instead, you spot a note taped to the wall. It says:
I'm here if you know where to look. Catch me if you can.
You smile as you take the note from the wall. Zev wants to play a guessing game with you—and that game is 'Whose Body Am I In?'
You look around you. The station is busy, hundreds of people bustling about their daily activities at any one moment. At first glance, Zev could be inhabiting any one of them. But, you reflect, he would want to make your task achievable—and above all, he would want to observe your success or failure. He is near you somewhere.
Glancing around, you pick four relatively stationary people whom Zev might at this moment be inhabiting. One is a young man just a few meters from you who is examining a screen displaying train times. He is carrying a briefcase and a newspaper; he taps the paper against his leg as he waits. The second is an old man in a set of overalls, who is filling a vending machine with various snacks. Watching him scratch his chin, you get the sense that he is intentionally taking a long time with his work. The third is an older woman who seems to be waiting for somebody. She has a chihuahua on a leash, and as you watch her, she casts a brief glance your way. The fourth is a girl in her late teens sitting on a bench nearby. She is studying a trashy celebrity gossip magazine, and listening to music on bulky headphones; she bobs her head as she reads.
Zev is inhabiting one of these people, but which?
You approach the young man, and boldly announce, "Nice try, Zev. But I have you."
The man is startled. "Uh, do I know you?"
You frown. "You aren't Zev, are you?"
He shakes his head.
You feel a tap on your shoulder. You turn; it's the old man that you saw earlier. "You can stop bothering innocent passers-by, Angela. Here I am."
You frown at Zev, annoyed. "How on earth was I supposed to spot you in such a busy place?"
He shrugs. "The clues are always there, if you know how to look for them."
Zev leads you out of the station. As the two of you walk, you remark, "I'm a little disappointed to see you in a host body. I was hoping to see how the years have treated you."
Zev gives a little grimace. "Later. Anyway, speaking of host bodies…" A little crease appears between his eyebrows as he looks you up and down. "This person…" says Zev, "he's famous, no? A singer? I know you—Emmanuel Ernaux, the famous tenor! Good God, Angela. I thought I taught you better than that. A celebrity will attract attention—whereas we must be absolutely discreet, always."
"The circumstances were rather special," you tell him.
"Yes, well, I recommend that you find a new host sooner rather than later. Now let's get out of here before somebody notices you."
In the four years or so since he quit working for the Ryker Foundation, Zev has founded a hotel in central London, the Kindly Keeper. It's not a large building—it has twenty-two rooms, but they're all small, and cheap. Several of them only have a single bed. He's converted the basement level into an underground gymnasium. It contains wall bars, weights, punching bags, and even a boxing ring. "The ring wasn't my idea," says Zev as he gives you a tour, still in his host body. "But a local boxing club asked if they could train here a few nights a week. It brings in a little more money."
Zev makes you a cup of tea while you explain everything that has happened over the last few days. The news of Annika's defection shocks him. "I liked her. She always seemed completely trustworthy to me."
"She mentioned that Robert Ryker had somehow betrayed us," you say. "Do you have any idea what that might mean?"
Zev shakes his head. "None."
Zev has no way of directly contacting the Ryker Foundation—Robert Ryker's paranoia also extends to former members, and even former instructors. But he is confident that he can teach you ways of focusing your mental energies, so that you can remain separated from your host body for longer periods. "Use my hotel as a base for your investigation for a few days," he tells you. "We can train and try to find your body at the same time."
You thank him for his promise of help, but he only gives a curt nod of acknowledgement. "Don't thank me yet. Let's begin your training by reviewing your progress so far."
Zev has been tapping away at his laptop during your conversation. Now, he turns the computer around so that you can see it. It shows a video, filmed on somebody's smartphone, of your performance at the Palais Garnier last night. "This is what you've been doing?" asks Zev, angrily. "You've been given an incredible gift, the ability to inhabit another person's body—to experience another person's life—and this is what you do with it? You humiliate that person before the whole world?"
"There were rather exceptional circumst-" you begin.
But Zev cuts you off. "Circumstances. Yes, yes. Of course there were."
"You've made a hell of a lot of noise, Angela. I've come to see there's some value in cultivating some sort of mystique around oneself. When you don't have the resources of the Ryker Foundation behind you, you have to find help wherever you can. But this is taking things to a whole other level. Explain yourself."
He frowns at your answer, but says nothing more on this subject. "Okay," says Zev, "let's talk about your overall success so far…have you achieved your objectives, and outfoxed your enemies? Have you generally shown intelligence in your investigations and deductions? Have you been the espionage agent that I hoped you'd be?"
You briefly recap some of your greater successes over the last few days.
Zev listens, then nods his head, a noncommittal expression on his face. "Good," he says. "You've done well. About as well as I'd have managed in your place."
You remember how, during your training at the Node, Zev was an instructor who was notoriously difficult to please. That tendency continues today, it seems. His taciturn praise actually shows a high opinion of your accomplishments to date.
"Okay, let's talk about your current host," says Zev.
"Fine," you say. "What do you want to know?"
"It's absolutely unacceptable for you to remain within the body of somebody famous and well-known to the public at large. This Emmanuel Ernaux…he's the kind of person who gets photographed walking down the street. You and I don't need that kind of attention."
"He's only really famous to those familiar with opera," you protest.
But Zev shakes his head. "No, I've checked. There have been mainstream crossovers as well. Recordings of more popular songs. No, you have to change over to a new host. The fact that you've traveled internationally inside this singer—the fact that you've made him travel to London—staggers me. No, you have to inhabit a new host. And I may be able to suggest one for you."
"I have a question for you," says Zev. "Of all the ways I might have chosen to earn my livelihood, why do you think I decided to run a hotel?"
Zev shakes his head. "If I were so concerned about my business drying up, I'd have become an undertaker."
"No," says Zev, "I run a hotel because there's always a variety of people passing through. And this is a very specific kind of hotel—it's cheap, and a little nasty; it's the kind of place where somebody might stay long-term, if they had nowhere else to go. And so it tends to have a very specific clientele—it attracts people who have just arrived in the city, or the country, and who are looking for work; it attracts people who have been in prison, or people who are homeless, and who have their rent paid directly by the state while they're waiting for housing. Do you see what I'm saying?"
"Not exactly," you confess.
"I'm saying this is a hotel for people who have no connections, people who won't be missed right away. People who are unreliable, or who aren't quite credible. This is the perfect place to find a host body. At this moment, I have a dozen people upstairs who have no family in the city, no close friends nearby—people who could easily lose a few hours of their lives, or even a day or two, without it being considered in any way unusual."
"So this hotel…is essentially a farm for host bodies?" you ask.
"You could say that, yes."
How do you feel about this?
Zev frowns. "You wouldn't do it because you don't have to, yet. Maybe I should show you why I've been pushed to take such steps."
All this time, Zev has remained within the host body of the old man that you saw at the station. "Come with me," he says, and leads you to one of the hotel's bedrooms, number two. "This is where I stay," he says. "Go on in."
You open the door, and step inside. And there you find Zev Aaronovich's home body—propped up in a wheelchair; he is a paraplegic, his legs ruined and wasted. His head lolls to one side, his curly hair and beard a shade grayer than you remember.
"I don't understand," you begin. "How did this…?"
"A fight," Zev tells you. "I was shot several times. I suffered severe nerve and muscle damage. I'll never walk again. I have to wear a catheter just to be sure I won't piss in my pants."
In the body of the station technician, Zev walks over to the wheelchair and pushes his comatose form out of the bedroom, into the corridor. Then he reaches down and places a hand on the head of his home body. You witness the transfer of consciousness that you've experienced yourself so many times. In the chair, Zev snaps to full wakefulness; behind him, the man's mind slowly returns to him. He seems dazed, uncertain of his surroundings.
Zev turns to face him. "Well, thanks for coming out here to help me, Dougal. I appreciate your assistance a great deal."
"Uh, yeah…sure…." The man gives you both a hesitant smile, and wanders through the hotel's reception area, out onto the street.
"Great guy," says Zev. "Not a resident of my hotel—but I wanted to make things at least a little tricky for you." He turns his chair round to face you. "So, what do you really think of this…this 'farm for host bodies'?"
Zev says, "And the people you've inhabited over the last few days, Yoshi Kobayashi and the rest…that wasn't because it was convenient?"
"It's not the same thing," you say. "My life was in danger. I get the impression you inhabit these people just because…you're afraid you might run up against a nasty staircase the next time you go out."
Zev shakes his head. "If you were in my place, you might feel differently. Listen…we don't have to agree on everything. Stay here while you search for your body, and I'll help you as best I can. But…" He seems about to say something, then stops himself. "Nothing. Welcome to the Kindly Keeper."
You spend that evening practicing meditation techniques with Zev in the underground gym, and you go to bed feeling somewhat more optimistic than you have of late.
When you wake the next day, you wonder if it might be a good idea to inhabit another host body.
You concede that Zev's idea of setting up an easy source of host bodies does have some advantages. Speaking with Zev, and wandering around his hotel, you soon select three people who might be appropriate.
It isn't hard to find a few minutes alone with Suzanne, a strikingly pretty red-haired young woman. You find an excuse to place your hand on the back of hers, and open your mind to her.
Suzanne is a true optimist. She loves acting and the theater, and yet acknowledges that her talent in that area is only mediocre. She has defied the advice of her parents and close friends to come to London, convinced that the force of her personality will be strong enough to gain work in that field. And so far, she has been correct—though far from being a star, she has so far found steady work purely because people love working with her, and being around her. She enjoys dancing and she enjoys sex, and she fears almost nothing.
Emmanuel slowly comes back to his senses, that familiar faraway look replaced by clarity, awareness. He looks at you. "I know you, don't I?" he says.
"Uh, no. We've never spoken before."
"Spoken, maybe. But…we shared a mind, a soul. Does that sound insane to you?"
Emmanuel should have no memory of your time inhabiting him, at least for now. "It does sound a little insane, yes."
He grabs your sleeve. "Your name is Angela," he says. "I remember how you were within me. I remember that we were one person. It's not clear, and I'm not getting all of it. But I know what happened." Then his face hardens. "You know how I feel about my singing work. Let me stay here with you. Maybe not for long. Just for now. You owe me that much."
Emmanuel nods, satisfied. "Good. And thank you."
Apart from when he trains you, Zev has been distant since you grew angry with him. And yet on your second night in London, he invites both you and Emmanuel for a drink at a nearby pub. Although Emmanuel has visited London several times before, he is eager to see a little of the city. Unwilling to stay at the hotel by yourself, you go with them. "A great British tradition," announces Zev, placing a pint of lager in front of you. Emmanuel surprises you by ordering a pint of Guinness—you'd expected him to be slightly more refined than that. But at your questioning look, he merely grins and shrugs. When in Rome, as they say. The evening is going well when you realize that four young men nearby are laughing at you. One of them calls out, "Hey, Emmanuel, give us a repeat performance!" He holds up his phone, and you can see that they are watching a video of your antics at the Palais Garnier, when you inhabited Emmanuel's body.
Emmanuel shoots you a quick, ambiguous glance. Then he says, "We should just go."
But Zev shakes his head. "I'll take care of this." This evening, Zev has inhabited the body of a new arrival at the hotel, a young man with curly, shoulder-length hair. He hops down from his stool, and walks toward the four men. You barely see Zev's first punch, he moves so fast. He catches the man who spoke on the chin, sending him crashing back onto the floor. The other three attack Zev—but Zev has received years of training in unarmed combat at the Node. You quickly see he is more than capable of handling a few half-drunk thugs.
And handle them he does—in fact, he begins to beat the hell out of all four men. It soon becomes apparent that if you don't intervene, he will likely cause them some serious harm.
"They've had enough!" you shout. But Zev doesn't stop. You're not sure he's even listening to you. He slams an elbow into the face of one of the men, splattering blood and bone across his cheeks.
Zev spends a couple more minutes beating the hell out of the four men. By the time he's done, all four need hospital treatment, and a part of the pub has been wrecked.
Somewhere outside the pub, you hear a short blast from a police siren. Zev turns toward you, wiping a smear of blood off his chin. "We should go."
The Kindly Keeper's rooftop garden is a small space wholly covered in concrete slabs. A couple of dirty sun loungers and a brown, dying potted plant, are the only things up there. The noise and smells of central London intrude on the garden, making any sort of relaxation or concentration difficult. But maybe this is why you seek it out—in the moment when you finally manage to make the noise and the smell and the ugliness around you slip away, you know you have truly managed to reach down into the mind of your host, Suzanne McCoombs, and to draw upon the inner strength and character formed by a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad.
On your third day at Zev's hotel, you are occupied in just this way when a voice disturbs you, cutting into your meditation. "Do you mind if I join you?"
You open your eyes. It's Emmanuel. He is holding a picnic basket. "We're well past lunchtime," he says. "I thought you might appreciate something to eat."
Emmanuel sits cross-legged on the concrete in front of you, shifting about until he's comfortable. You open the basket—Emmanuel has brought sandwiches, some fruit, some orange juice. Enough for two.
"Did you make this?" you ask.
He nods. "You seem surprised."
"I didn't think that sandwich-making would be part of a world-famous tenor's repertoire. No pun intended."
He smiles. "It's true that growing up, I had staff around to do the sandwich-making for me. But my father is very much a self-made man. He always encouraged us to be self-sufficient. And he enjoyed dragging his family away into the wilderness—the Australian Outback, say, or up into the Rocky Mountains. You'd be surprised how useful a skill sandwich-making really is." Emmanuel sips a little orange juice, then says, "Mind if I ask a personal question?"
"What do you look like? The real you, I mean."
"Curiosity, I guess," he says. "You are, in some sense, my savior. I'd just like to know what my savior looks like."
It seems he won't let you evade the question.
"Of course," says Emmanuel, visibly disappointed. "I understand. "Zev mentioned that you grew up in some sort of official facility called 'the Node'," says Emmanuel. "You didn't have your parents there?"
You shake your head. "I was young when I went to the Node. I don't really know who my parents were. Those records don't exist."
"That must be difficult. And you were there until you were an adult?"
"Did you get much chance for dating at this 'Node'?"
"Maybe dating should have been a part of your schedule too," says Emmanuel.
You smile. "Why are you so interested in what happened at the Node?"
Emmanuel shrugs. "Just curious. I like to know about the people who are staying under the same roof as me."
Together, you finish the picnic. Then Emmanuel stands, and leaves you to your meditation.
That evening, Zev, in his home body once more, dons a kippah and goes to synagogue. It's the first time you've seen him leave the hotel in his own body, you realize.
You consider how best to spend a few hours alone in the hotel.
Zev's bedroom is locked, but you find the key to the room hidden in his desk at reception. You enter his room and rummage through his belongings, but you don't find anything notable.
Then you check his laptop. You spend some time going through his files, but everything seems fairly consistent with what you might expect of a hotel owner. Then again, you aren't entirely sure what you'd expected to find.
You crack your knuckles—your host body's knuckles, rather; you've heard rumors that knuckle-cracking can cause arthritis, and resolve to be more careful—and set about searching Zev's computer for hidden files, or documents with inappropriately innocuous names.
If such records exist in Zev's computer, you can't find them. You close the lid of his computer. Oddly, even though you've found no evidence of misdeeds on Zev's part, you can't quite shake the feeling that he's hiding something from you.
You go to bed none the wiser.
And the next day, your fourth at Zev's hotel, you get a lead.
You receive an unexpected call from Jean-Marc Ledoux. "Angela," he says, "is that you?"
You grunt an affirmative. "It's been a while, Jean-Marc. I hope you're able to give me something at last."
"I can, though it isn't much. A friend of yours, a guy called Siegfried Sayle, was arrested in London about five months ago. Seems he was running a paper company, and doing some money-laundering business for ORPHEUS. The cops arrested him for it, but he disappeared while he was in custody. At least, that's how it seemed—the officers responsible for him reported symptoms of mild amnesia a little after that."
"That's not a lot," you tell Ledoux. "That information's five months old."
"I can give you the address he was working out of," he says. "It's in London, near you."
"How do you know I'm in London?"
On the other end of the phone, he chuckles. "It's my business to know these things." Then he gives you the address. You jot it down. He's right—it's less than an hour's drive away. Though it will likely be fruitless, you decide to investigate it, if only to get out of the hotel for a couple of hours.
"Thanks, I guess," you say. "For what precious little information you've given me."
"I'll have more soon," says Ledoux, and then hangs up.
You tell Zev about your information. "You want me to take you?" he asks.
Today, Zev is inhabiting a tall, well-toned black man with a shaved head. He nods down at your own host body. "Do you want to change into something else before we go?"
"No, I think I'm fine like this, thanks."
You find the building that Sayle once worked out of easily enough. The offices you want are locked, but you break in without any great difficulty.
To your disappointment, you find only an office space that has long since been deserted. Not even the furniture remains.
"Let's take a quick look around anyway," suggests Zev. "Check electrical outlets, ventilation grilles—you know, spy-type stuff. Anything the police might not have thought of."
You begin to search. As you do, Zev says, "Did you ever hear of an Ibbur?"
"An Ibbur. I was thinking about this last night. In Jewish folklore, an Ibbur is a spirit, an entity, that may temporarily take possession of a human body—but always to accomplish something good, something beneficial. It has to carry out a task, or keep a promise, or perform some sort of religious duty that can only be done corporeally. So it inhabits a human vessel—sometimes with the host's consent, but sometimes the host will never realize the possession has taken place."
"That sounds vaguely familiar."
"The flip side of that is the Dybbuk—a malevolent spirit, one that takes possession of human vessels in order to carry out wicked deeds. Murder, betrayal—again, it's usually a specific task, something that brings misery and sows chaos."
"A long time ago, you taught me that showing kindness or disregard to others is especially important for a metempsionic," you say. "Were you thinking of Ibburs and Dybbuks even then?"
"I knew of them. Though even now I'd hesitate to draw a very overt parallel between these archaic spiritual beliefs and…well, us."
You fold your arms. "Why not, just for argument's sake? If 'metempsionic' is just another word for good spirit or bad spirit, which am I—an Ibbur or a Dybbuk?
He gives you a serious look, then says, "A Dybbuk, I'd say. Don't be offended—yes, you can be cold and distant, but for a metempsionic that's a valid philosophical choice. It is, after all, the only way to shield yourself from the undesirable mental influence of others, whether psychics or our own host bodies. And with you especially…your ferociousness, your tenacity, your overriding desire to attain your objectives, makes you especially dangerous. If the only way you could succeed in a mission were to throw acid in a child's face, would you do so? I think you might."
Zev cracks his neck, and begins to limber up. Perhaps he means to fight you. "I left the Node before you completed your training, Angela," he says. "Maybe if I'd stayed longer, I could have taught you not to smartmouth your betters. If you don't like how I live my life now…well, come and show me where I'm going wrong." And with that, he stands with legs apart, his center of gravity low, and assumes a kung fu fighting stance.
Zev smiles. "Yes, I thought you might say that."
You follow Zev's instructions, searching for any small space in the office where some sort of micro-sized equipment might have been planted. You don't know precisely what you're searching for—but you're confident you'll recognize something important if you find it. "Wait, what's that?" says Zev. "Can you hear that?" You listen, but you truly can't hear anything. "What the hell is that?" says Zev, pressing his hands to the side of his own head. "It's not noise, exactly…more like…I don't know, it feels like some of the anti-psychic security measures that Ryker used to have at the Node."
And then, at last, a sensation comes to you—not noise, but a feeling of pressure inside your skull, slight but growing progressively stronger. It begins to hurt, but with that discomfort comes a directional sense—whatever this phenomenon is, it's coming from below your feet.
The floor of this empty office space is conveniently uncarpeted and tiled. Searching around, you find a loose tile. You pull it up.
There is a hollow space in the floor, which contains a metal disc about the same size as an old World War II anti-tank mine. And yet this device seems far more modern—in the center of the disc is a graphical display listing 'power buildup' and 'emission level'.
You know that experimental technology to detect and affect psychic abilities, and psychics themselves, does exist—as Zev mentioned, the Ryker Foundation employs it in the security systems at the Node. And yet you have no great experience with it. Certainly you aren't sure how to defuse this psychic booby trap.
Just then, the emission level increases. You wince at the sudden new intensity of the pain. Zev, a particularly sensitive metempsionic, screams out and drops to the floor, utterly debilitated. You are thankful that you have chosen to hone your mental defenses—if you were more sensitive, this weapon would surely already be cutting into the fabric of your thoughts and skills.
Nevertheless, the pain caused by this 'psychic land mine' is becoming intense even for you. You must shut it down now, before it kills both you and Zev.
You lift it from its hiding place. The device is surprisingly heavy. You pick it up and bang it down hard on the floor. It seems unaffected. The psychic noise continues to build in intensity, cutting into you.
You manage to prize off the covering in the center of the device. You thump down into the machine's guts a couple of times, but the pressure in your skull continues to increase. You study the electrical components, wondering how to turn the thing off.
This was a poor idea. You simply can't figure out how to switch the machine off, and so you have to resort to general vandalism. By the time you've done sufficient damage to the machine to stop it emitting psychically disruptive waves, your head feels about ready to burst.
For the last couple of minutes, Zev has been curled in a ball, using all his willpower to keep his mind from shredding. Now he rolls onto his knees and faces you. "That psychic bomb completely put me out of commission," he says. "If you hadn't been here, it would have killed me. Thank you, Angela."
"You didn't expect me to do nothing, did you?" you ask with a slight smile. "Let's just get back to the hotel."
You return to Zev's hotel in a somber mood, having found no real leads except for a booby trap left by the office building's previous tenants to dissuade any psychic snoops.
But the day's surprises are not over. Climbing the steps to Zev's hotel, you have no idea of what's waiting for you inside.
There, sitting in the hotel's reception area are two figures—Emmanuel, and Annika Visser.
Emmanuel looks across at you, and smiles. "Annika here has been telling me stories about when you were both kids, back at this 'Node' place."
"Good to see you again, Angela," says Annika. "You look a little different than I remember. And I presume you're Zev? Bald is a good look for you."
Annika grins at you. "Extremely dangerous? Wow…I'll take that as a compliment, thanks."
And Emmanuel says, "I've been chatting with her here for half an hour or more, and she hasn't done anything to endanger me."
"She's quite adept at faking friendship," you say. "A woman called Rosa Solar found that out."
The remark seems to pain Annika. "I'm just here to talk," she says. "I'm not here for ORPHEUS or the Ryker Foundation. It's just me. Take whatever protective measures you feel are necessary. I just want to talk."
Zev says, "I've got some pretty heavy-duty handcuffs downstairs, Angela. We could lock her to the wall bars, and listen to whatever she has to say afterwards."
"You own handcuffs, Zev?" asks Annika. "Ugh, I don't even want to know what you normally use those for."
Zev ignores her. "This is your fight, Angela. It's your choice."
"This is clearly a…would you call it a family matter?" says Emmanuel. "Whatever it is, I'm going to give you folks some time alone to sort things out. I'll be in my room."
Zev watches him leave, then says, "So, do we cuff Annika?"
Annika doesn't protest as you lead her downstairs. You fasten her to the wall bars, and then move out of her kicking range. "If you plan on keeping me here for any length of time," she says, "we'll have to make some sort of bathroom arrangements."
"Say whatever you came to say, girl," Zev tells her.
Annika starts to tell you her story. "First, I'm going to tell you a little about ORPHEUS," she says. "Then I'll tell you how they convinced me to betray the Ryker Foundation—and why now I've decided I want no part of either organization."
"We're listening," says Zev. "Make this story a good one."
"ORPHEUS has a wide-ranging influence in 'normal' society, that's true," says Annika. "That's very much its focus—I know that it has operatives placed highly in several governments. Some of those operatives are psychic, some aren't. And yet, for all its influence, its numbers are small—that is, there aren't many people who know they're working for ORPHEUS, or who owe the organization any allegiance. So when I tell you that ORPHEUS's head of operations for Western Europe has been in Paris this last couple of weeks—and that he's taken a very personal interest in you, Angela—keep in mind that I believe his vendetta against you is personal, not one sanctioned by the higher members of the ORPHEUS hierarchy. This is the man who is currently holding your home body, Angela."
"Okay, so one of the bosses of ORPHEUS has his sights on me," you say. "Who is he?"
"His name is William Doone."
"Do you know that name, Angela?"
You know that name very well. Many years ago, when you were still just a child, you had to choose between pulling either him or Annika out of the water surrounding the Node. You chose Annika—and you let William Doone wash onto jagged rocks. He was badly injured that day, receiving wounds that never properly healed, even months afterwards.
If he has a personal grievance against you, could it be that he is still angry about the events of that day? William Doone spent just a few months at the Node, and then left. As far as you know, he never worked for the Ryker Foundation after that. The truth is, you don't know what happened to him.
You open your mouth to answer Annika, but then Zev speaks, cutting you off. "I know William Doone very well," he says. "He's the bastard who put me in a wheelchair."
"I didn't know that," says Annika. "What happened?"
"I was investigating rumors of a metempsionic who'd found a way to remain within a host body indefinitely," says Zev. "I wanted to know more. The rumors were ultimately unfounded—the metempsionic never existed. But along the way, I came across William Doone, who was investigating the same thing. We fought. He shot me. Now I'll never walk again."
None of you speak for a few moments. Then Zev turns to you and says, "Promise me one thing, Angela. Doone is evil. If you run into him, end him. Make sure he never hurts anybody ever again."
Zev frowns. "And if Doone goes on to kill others, you don't think you'll have played a part in their murders?"
"It was Doone's plan to abduct Angela's body," continues Annika. "He gave me the bomb to plant in Rue de Rivoli—though he told me it was only a stun bomb, powerful enough to subdue Rosa without causing any real damage."
"And instead, you blew off half her face," you say.
"I'm not working with Doone now, or with ORPHEUS," says Annika. "I can't forgive Doone for lying to me about that bomb."
"You still haven't told us what persuaded you to turn your back on the Ryker Foundation—the people that brought you up for a decade—and work for ORPHEUS," says Zev.
"Okay. I brought a little shoulder bag with me," says Annika. "Inside, there's—"
"I'll go back upstairs and get it," Zev interrupts. "You just…hang around where you are."
Zev goes back upstairs, and returns with a little leather bag. "This it?" he asks Annika.
She nods. The first thing Zev takes from her bag is a Polaroid photograph. He glances at it, then passes it to you.
It's a photo of you—or rather, your home body. You are lying in what appears to be a hospital bed, surrounded by an intravenous fluid drip, as well as several pieces of monitoring equipment. "Doone gave me that, to prove that he was holding you," she says.
"I thought you weren't working for him anymore," says Zev.
"I'm not. I've come here to help you, Angela. I don't know where your body currently is, though. If I did, I'd tell you."
Annika looks to you for some kind of response. "What else is in that bag?" you ask Zev.
This time, Zev withdraws a data disc from the bag. "That's it," he says, glancing inside the bag. "That's everything."
"The contents of that disc are what convinced me to work against the Ryker Foundation," says Annika. "Open it up."
Zev opens up one of the lockers on one side of the gym, and takes out a laptop. "My spare computer. The internet connection is crummy, but it will open up a disc like this just fine." "You'll have to enter a bunch of passwords to get to the data," says Annika, as Zev slides the disc inside his computer. "They're written down on the disc's sleeve."
Zev glances through the list. "This'll take a couple of minutes."
While Zev enters the passwords, you consider whether you have any other questions for Annika.
"Of course," says Annika. "You and I have known each other for many years, having both grown up at the Node, the base at the heart of the Ryker Foundation. And yet I suppose you'd say I've betrayed the Ryker Foundation—I've been working for some time as an agent of ORPHEUS, a rival organization with a different philosophy regarding psychics, under the command of William Doone. It was Doone who gave me the bomb to plant in the apartment in Rue de Rivoli—but Doone lied to me about the strength of that bomb. It nearly killed Rosa Solar. I can't forgive him for lying to me and using me like that. Now I no longer work for either ORPHEUS or the Ryker Foundation. I've come to London to help you recover your body from Doone, Angela, and to show you the contents of this data disc, so that you'll better understand why I've acted as I have."
"I didn't want to blow my cover as a double agent," answers Annika. "By planting a bomb—a stun bomb, or so I believed—I could maintain the pretense that we'd been attacked by an external agency."
"That was an educated guess. I've been keeping discreet tabs on Zev Aaronovich for some time—partly in case his location ever became important to know, partly because I missed him, and it reassured me to know how to get back in touch with him. I couldn't know for sure that you knew how to find Zev, but it seemed likely that you'd come here if you could discover Zev's location."
"I'm not sure," says Annika. "I presumed that he wanted to hold your body as leverage—to force you to help him make another attack on the Ryker Foundation, maybe. More and more, I get the impression that his interest in you is personal in some way, though. But as to the nature of the interest…I couldn't say."
"I hadn't had a chance to speak with Doone then," she tells you. "I was hoping the mix-up with the bomb had simply been a mistake. It was only later that I learned that Doone had intentionally misled me."
"It's open," says Zev. He reads his screen for a few moments, then says, "Angela, you should see this."
You switch places with him. You quickly see that the disc contains a set of files taken from the Ryker Foundation's secure database. Most prominent is a folder named 'Recruitment'. Looking at the documents within, you see that it details occasions, again and again, when the Ryker Foundation has abducted children who showed evidence of psychic abilities. In each case, the memories of the children and of their families were altered to erase all trace of the abduction. Glancing through the files, you see dozens of cases—forty or so over the last ten years.
This is how the Ryker Foundation recruits its youngest members. It steals them right out of their homes.
"Do you remember your parents?" asks Annika.
You shake your head. "You know I don't."
"And yet you were eight years old when you arrived at the Node," she says. "Don't you find it strange that you remember nothing at all about them?"
"I always wrote it off as being due to some kind of trauma."
"I was twelve when I came to the Node," says Annika. "And I don't remember anything about my parents either. It's a hell of a coincidence that we were both so traumatized, no?"
"We aren't mentioned in these files?" you ask.
"They only go back ten years or so."
You give Zev a sharp look. "You were at the Node at the same time as us. Did you know anything about this?"
"Not a thing, I swear," he says. "You know how it is at the Node—secrets within secrets, even for the people who work there."
"This is how Robert Ryker betrayed us, Angela," says Annika. "He took us away from our families—and our families away from us. That's why I've turned away from the Ryker Foundation. I'll never forgive them for this."
Robert Ryker has always taught that some day very soon, a day would come when the masses of the world would recognize the existence of psychics—and, human nature being what it is, those masses would react with fear, suspicion, even violence. And so the ethos of the Ryker Foundation is that every psychic has three main responsibilities. First, to master their psychic gifts, so that they are better able to defend themselves and others, should conflict prove unavoidable; second, to work to postpone that day of recognition for as long as possible, to better allow psychics to prepare; third, and most important, to integrate into the society around them, so that when that day of recognition finally arrives, the masses realize that they already know these psychics intimately, and that they have nothing to fear.
You have always been a fervent believer in these three principles of the Ryker Foundation. Now, though, you wonder whether you have made a mistake in following these tenets with such idealism—tenets that you can no longer be sure are even the true motivation behind the actions of the Ryker Foundation.
"This is what happens next," says Annika. "ORPHEUS has discovered that in three days, the Ryker Foundation is planning to recruit its newest, youngest member—that is, they plan to kidnap a six-year-old girl from her mother's arms, and then alter the memories of everybody concerned, so that no trace of their presence remains."
"Nice," says Zev, wearing a dark look.
"If by 'nice', you mean 'sinister', then yes," says Annika. "What's different this time is that an ORPHEUS team will also be present to halt the abduction—a team that will include William Doone. I also plan to be there. If you wish to come with me, Angela, I'll take you."
"So you'll take me to the one man who knows where my home body can be found," you say, "as well as a team from the Node—who may well be able to lead us to Robert Ryker. That's a fairly neat package you're proposing."
Annika smiles at you. "Be suspicious if you want. It's still the best offer you're likely to get, I think."
"Who's the lucky little girl that Robert Ryker wants to abduct?" asks Zev.
"You've already met her, Angela," answers Annika. "A lovely little girl by the name of Chloe Heckendorn."
You remember the girl well—you encountered her just a few days ago, in Paris. Her psychic scream might have ripped your mind apart, if not for the presence of an agent of ORPHEUS, Siegfried Sayle.
"So," says Annika, "do you want to come?"
"I'll think about it," you tell her, though you already know what your answer will be.
"Great," says Annika. "Then can I ask just one small favor? Will you let me out of these handcuffs?"
Tomorrow you leave The Kindly Keeper for good. Annika will not reveal your ultimate destination, but she has told you that you will leave British territory.
You are not entirely surprised to learn that even though it is your last night in the country, Zev wishes to spend the evening by himself. "This visit of yours hasn't gone entirely as I might have hoped," he explains, excusing himself. "Maybe we should both take a little time to think about that, and hope that when we see each other again—if we see each other again—things will be different."
That evening, both Emmanuel and Annika invite you to dinner.
You hope that Emmanuel won't be offended, but you'd like to spend some time with Annika.
"Great," says Annika when you accept her invitation. "How about I meet you in the gym in an hour?"
"The gym? Why?"
She doesn't answer you. With an enigmatic smile she turns, and leaves.
Later, you find Annika downstairs in Zev's training gym. She's laid a picnic basket out on one of the crash mats, and prepared a light, cold meal. And yet she herself is pummelling a punching bag when you arrive. She turns to face you, and adopts a fighting posture.
"More sparring?" you ask.
"Humor me," she says. "I fight. It's what I do."
You do indeed humor her, as she aims a few kicks and punches your way. Nothing too demanding—she's just warming up.
Then, abruptly, she says, "I'm sorry about everything that's happened so far, Angela. Everything I've done, I did because at the time I believed I was acting for the best."
She offers a slight frown at your response. You spar a few minutes, wordlessly, until you've worked up a light sweat. "This host body you've chosen," says Annika, "who is she?"
"Suzanne McCoombs. An aspiring actress, and something of an extrovert. It's fun to be inside her thoughts."
"She's beautiful. You chose her for her looks, I presume?" Just then, Annika lashes out with one of her feet, hooking your leg and sending you off balance. She shoves you down onto the crash mat, and sits on your chest, crushing your windpipe.
But then she releases the pressure on your throat and leans down, kissing you hard on the lips.
It's an intense moment. After several seconds, Annika draws away from you, and looks you in the eyes.
"Damn, this was a mistake," she says, climbing off you.
"The hell it was."
"No, I shouldn't have done that," she says. "I'm sorry. I'm just…my head is in all sorts of twisty places right now. Listen, I've lost my appetite. I'm going to leave you alone here. Enjoy your meal."
And she exits the gym, leaving you somewhat confused.
You meet Annika, Zev and Emmanuel in The Kindly Keeper's reception area early the next morning. Your host, Suzanne, has few significant belongings. Carrying little more than your host's ID and a little money, you're ready to leave.
Today Zev has chosen to inhabit a heavyset man in his early thirties—some sort of blue-collar laborer, you guess. "I'm afraid I won't be coming with you," he tells you. "To come any sort of distance with you, I'd really have to travel in my own body. But my own body is something of a handicap, these days."
"Come anyway," you tell him. "Even in a wheelchair, I'd feel far better with you at my side than without you."
But he shakes his head. "No. My life is here now. I'll let you fight this battle without me. Call it my last lesson to you, if you like."
He gives you a firm handshake goodbye. You can't help but feel that he's making a poor choice—and that you might have been able to help him choose differently.
And then Emmanuel steps forward, as well. "I'm not coming either," he says.
"Oh? Why not?"
"I'm no espionage agent. I have to return to my real life now. Just for a while."
"Well, I hope your…complicated situation…works out for the best," you tell him. "Watch out for gangsters and underworld felons who wish you ill."
"I will, I promise," he says.
You hug him goodbye. And then, with Annika, you leave Zev's hotel for good.
CHAPTER SEVEN: …IS A FRIEND INDEED
Thirty hours later you and Annika find yourselves in Norway, disembarking from a boat that docks in the town of Hammerfest. You make a brief stop to buy parkas and gloves, and then you rent a car to drive out south to the village of Rypefjord. There, Annika checks a GPS device before indicating you should steer out west, into wild Norwegian territory.
At last you reach a house built beside a small, frozen lake. You park the car and climb out. Just then, the house's front door opens, and a figure you recognize comes out to meet you.
It's Siegfried Sayle.
In Paris, you acted alongside Siegfried, working together to overcome the raw intensity of Chloe Heckendorn's psychic scream. That cooperation has had a lasting effect on you—your mind feels, in some small degree, permanently weakened by the exposure to Chloe's power. And yet, by taking that mental battering, you may have saved Siegfried's life.
"Is this Angela?" Siegfried asks Annika, indicating you.
Siegfried clasps your hand, and offers you a warm smile. "Welcome to Norway. And, because I didn't have the chance to say so earlier, thank you for help and your trust in Paris. It's greatly appreciated."
The three of you turn back toward the house.
The inside of the lakeside house is rather elegant, yet lacking in any personal touches. It is a rental home, you realize—available for fishing holidays and the like.
The sky is growing dark outside, rapidly shifting through blue to black—night falls early, this far north. Siegfried makes you and Annika each a cup of tea. "Mariana Heckendorn has a second home just on the other side of the ridge behind us," he says. "She and her daughter, Chloe, are there now. I've taken a look. Nice place. She has internet access hooked up, and I spotted a jacuzzi in one of the back rooms."
"And the Ryker Foundation's people are coming to recruit Chloe?" asks Annika.
"Tomorrow night," says Siegfried. "If the information we have is correct."
"That could be unwise," says Siegfried. "Even if we try the diplomatic route, there's a danger we might scare Chloe—and her psychic scream is devastating. Besides, Doone has left us strict instructions not to act openly until he arrives."
"William Doone is coming here? You're sure?" Annika asks Siegfried.
"This very night. I thought the three of you might be traveling together, in fact."
"Do you know if he's bringing a comatose body along with him?" you ask.
"You'd have to check with him."
Annika gives you an apologetic look, then says, "Then we wait for him. In the meantime…Angela, when I learned that Robert Ryker had altered my memories, that he'd caused me to…forget my family…" the words seem to pain her. "Well, when I learned that, it was Siegfried who got inside my head and removed the memory blocks. He allowed me to at least partially remember my mother and father, my brother and sister. Maybe he could do the same for you? Or he could at least check to see if your memory has been altered to begin with."
You glance over at Siegfried. He shrugs. "I guess I could, yeah."
"Would that even work for a metempsionic within a host body?" you ask. "This brain isn't really mine."
"It should work," he says. "I key on mental energy and on perception, rather than on biology."
"What do you think?" asks Annika. "Do you want to try it? Do you maybe want to learn if you have a family out there, somewhere?"
"Great," he says, "let's."
You and Siegfried sit across from one another at the house's kitchen table. "Do we need to hold hands, or anything?" you ask.
He shakes his head. "Eye contact will do just fine."
He stares into your eyes. You feel his mental presence touching the edges of your thoughts.
There is a pressure all around your head that verges on the painful. And then, abruptly, it is gone—the sensation is not unlike your ears popping.
And then the kitchen around you disappears completely from your perception, and for a few moments you exist within a memory. You are standing in a garden surrounded by a white picket fence. Classic Americana, you note with your adult's mind. Almost a cliche. But the eight-year-old child within that memory feels no such cynicism. You are that child, and this is home. You live in the suburbs of San Francisco—you have always lived in these suburbs.
The summer sun is setting on the street that you have lived on for your entire life. You live on the side of a small hill; the slope of the street that passes your home makes the lengthening shadows seem lengthier still. And yet that street is oddly quiet. True, it would never normally be busy at this hour of the evening. But there are no people at all—and no children, not even any animals. The effect is quite eerie.
"Angela, come inside and get some food before you take a bath." The voice is a woman's. You turn to find its source—and there, on the front doorstep of your home, you see your mother. She looks like me.
The realization is an adult's, but it is the child's voice that speaks in your memory. "Mom, there's nobody out tonight. It's really, really quiet."
"People probably just want to get an early night, sweetie," your mother says. "It's not the worst idea. Now come and get some food, and we'll get you cleaned up for bed."
Then you hear a whup-whup-whup-whup noise, beginning quite gradually, then rapidly increasing in volume until it seems to surround you.
It worries your mother. She steps out into the garden, looking up over the roof of the house, trying to find its source. "Angela," she calls out to you, "let's get inside right now."
But just then, before you have the chance to reach her, a big black helicopter flies low over the roof of your house.
The memory fades from your mind's eye. You find yourself back in the kitchen once more.
Annika and Siegfried are sitting before you. "What did you see?" asks Annika.
You give her a brief description. "That must be the day that Robert Ryker and his people came for me. They took me away from my mother…."
"And they'll do the same to Chloe Heckendorn tomorrow unless we stop them," says Annika.
"You saw your mother," says Siegfried. "But you didn't see your father?"
You shake your head.
Just a few minutes later you hear the sound of a car outside. "That'll be William Doone now," says Siegfried.
The three of you rise, pull on your thermal coats, and leave the house to meet the man who knows where your body is. Doone has arrived in a Jaguar with black-tinted windows. As the three of you approach the car, its driver's side door opens.
The figure that climbs out of the car is far from what you expected.
It is a young girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. She is fair-haired, and you spot the hem of a dress poking out from beneath a thick coat.
"Angela, it's good to see you again, after all these years!" she says. "Oh, but maybe you don't recognize me like this. I'm William Doone. What do you think of the skin? I'm undercover! I'd have liked to find a girl young enough to really pass for Chloe Heckendorn, but I needed a host body that was at least tall enough to reach the pedals of my car…"
Doone passes you, heading toward the house, a slight skip in his step.
"I haven't forgotten you, Angela," says Doone, taking a seat in the house's spacious kitchen. "Nor have I forgotten that you were the one who let me wash onto the rocks the day I first arrived at your Node. Oh, of course I was unconscious at the time, but I heard all about it. Because of you, my home body received quite significant—and permanent—injuries. I find it fitting that I now hold your own body hostage against your good behaviour. It's lucky you're a metempsionic, really."
"Where's my body?" you ask him.
"Close enough that I can take you to it easily. Far enough, and well hidden enough, that you'll never find it without me." Annika has been glaring at Doone since he arrived, though she hasn't yet spoken a word to him. The attention begins to bother him. "Can I help you, my dear?"
"You lied to me about the bomb."
"Of course I did. You'd never have planted it if I hadn't. And given your propensity for…well, beating up people who annoy you…I thought it prudent to find a host body that you might have qualms about damaging. Voila."
He seems quite amused by your attitude. "But, Angela…you and I are metempsionics. We're both born users, aren't we?" Annika scowls and shakes her head in frustration. She opens a bottle of wine and pours herself a glass, then drinks it as she paces the room.
"The Ryker Foundation plans to abduct Chloe Heckendorn at midnight tomorrow night," he says. "Their agents will be in the area sometime before then. You're looking doubtful, Annika—don't worry, my information is reliable. We can't warn Mariana and Chloe Heckendorn in advance that an attack is coming. The Ryker Foundation is ultra-paranoid—it has long-range surveillance equipment, and psychics. If they get any indication that the abduction has deviated from their plan, they'll abort, and we'll never lay eyes on them. No, we have to wait in the area until they begin the abduction, and then meet them head-on. If they stay true to their modus operandi, they'll have a memory-modifier on the scene. Siegfried, you're our defense against that. Annika, I think your role is clear. Let's save Chloe—and then, if you have problems continuing to work for me, or for ORPHEUS, we can discuss your issues afterwards."
"And me?" you ask. "Why have you strong-armed me into helping you?"
"Well, I hope your stellar Ryker Foundation combat training will come in handy, of course," says Doone. "But really, you have a part to play after the fight. Ryker's team will have a driver or a pilot stashed away somewhere—somebody who knows how to get back to the Node. I need a metempsionic to get inside that person's mind, find that information, and operate whatever vehicle will be necessary to get us out there."
"You're a metempsionic," you say. "Can't you do that?"
Doone smiles. "Believe it or not, I'm not the most empathic of psychics."
"You want to go to the Node tomorrow?" asks Annika.
"I'd go today, if I could," replies Doone.
"I've done a lot of miles today, and it's getting late," says Doone, striding about the room. "Any questions, before I turn in?"
Doone sighs. "Fine, I'll go through it again. Tonight, we wait here. Tomorrow afternoon, we take a trip over the ridge, to Mariana Heckendorn's holiday lodge. We take up positions nearby, and hide out for a few hours. Agents from the Ryker Foundation are planning to move on the house at midnight to abduct Mariana's young daughter. Why? Because she's psychic, and they like to abduct psychic children and bring them up at their base—as they did with you and Annika, I'm guessing. It's too dangerous for us to move before the Ryker Foundation's agents arrive—if they detect our presence, they'll abort their mission immediately. When they arrive, we stop them from taking Chloe, we overpower them, and then we use what they know to find our way back to the Ryker Foundation's base, the Node." He smiles. "If you're curious, lethal force is authorized. Just be careful not to kill anybody who might know how to get back to the Node."
"My business, not yours," says Doone. "Next question?"
"Well, that's why we use the word 'trust'," says Doone. "If you had something more tangible, we'd use the word 'contract'."
Doone shrugs, nonplussed. "And?"
"I'll find my own bedroom, thanks," says Doone, heading toward the stairs. Then he halts. "Annika, have you ever tasted green wine?"
The question puzzles her. "No. Why?"
"The Portuguese, they have this wine called 'vinho verde'—literally 'green wine'. It's really quite…" he stops, and gives a broad smile around the room. "You know what? It's really not important. Good night."
The three of you finish the evening in a terse mood. Annika is the first to ascend the stairs to bed. "This whole situation stinks," she mutters, as she leaves the room.
Siegfried tells you he plans to stay up for a while—"I never manage to sleep before three in the morning, anyway," he says. "Take any empty room you like. They all have bedding."
"Siegfried, what do you think of Doone?" you ask. He appears reluctant to answer right away, so you press on. "You see that it's wrong, what he's doing, don't you? The casualness with which he can hurt or kill, the way he holds people—and people's bodies—as hostages to force good behavior. That driving desire to return to the Node—an objective which seems entirely personal, rather than in line with ORPHEUS's mission statement. Even his choice of a host body. You don't strike me as a wicked man. You can see this is wrong, can't you?"
Siegfried remains outwardly neutral, but says, "Is there something you're asking me to do, Angela?"
"You can enter people's minds, you can see their memories. You could find out where he's holding my body—and that would free up the three of us to act against him, if we wished to. I'm not talking about openly acting against him. I just want us to be able to do so, if that's what we choose."
Siegfried watches you, considering your words.
"If I enter his mind, he'll know at once," says Siegfried. "It's too risky. I can't do what you ask."
"That's a real shame—perhaps for both of us," you tell him.
You find a bedroom, prepare your bed, and try to settle down to sleep. But sleep doesn't come easily—you find it impossible to relax knowing that the man who holds your body is just a few meters from you, and yet you're currently powerless to take action against him.
As you finally begin to drift into unconsciousness, a noise jerks you to full wakefulness. You had locked your bedroom door before going to bed, but now you hear the faint click of the lock being picked. Still lying in bed, you hear somebody very quietly open your bedroom door and pad a few paces into your room.
You wait until the figure draws near to your bed, and then you lash out with your foot. The intruder—she?—has no great difficulty blocking your attack…but overbalances as she does so, and falls down on her backside.
"Angela, it's only me." Annika's voice. You flick on the bedside lamp.
"Do you always pick people's locks rather than simply knocking on their doors?" you ask.
"A bad habit. Sorry. We need to talk."
Annika sits on the foot of your bed, absently tugging at a strand of hair.
"What's up?" you ask her.
"In London, I did something…" she says. "Or I tried to, at least."
"You kissed me."
"Yes. And I wanted to explain why."
"I'm all ears."
But no explanation is forthcoming. "Ah, shit…" she mutters. Then, unexpectedly, she leans forward and kisses you once more.
The kiss takes you by surprise; yes, you've always found Annika attractive, but you've never given much thought to acting on that attraction. And yet now that the moment is upon you, the thrill of it is astonishing.
Annika draws away from you, and strips off her pullover. She has more on her mind than a simple kiss, it seems.
It's a curious feeling, when two people who've known one another for so many years make love for the first time. It is at once thrilling and comfortable, novel and familiar. She is a remarkably energetic lover—she is no less athletic during sex than during combat.
You lie beside one another for a time after that, wordless. At last, Annika extricates herself from your arms and legs. "I'm going to take a shower. Angela…I think I'll spend tonight alone. Even after all of this."
"As you like," you tell her. Then, watching her dress, you ask, "Are you okay, Anni?"
A slight smile touches her face. "Fine."
She leaves you alone.
You, Siegfried, and Annika eat breakfast in a somber mood the next morning. You and Annika force yourselves to act no differently than you have last couple of days—so much so that you feel your exaggerated nonchalance must be conspicuous. If Siegfried notices, he says nothing.
You learn that William Doone rose early and went out to reconnoiter the surrounding area. If you don't have to speak with him, so much the better. Doone returns at midday. "It's time to go," he announces. "We'll trek over the ridge, then across to Mariana Heckendorn's place. We'll have to go on foot—even if we had a vehicle capable of driving through the snow, it would draw too much attention to us."
"It'll take us a few hours to get there," says Siegfried. "I've packed some sandwiches. And toilet paper, just in case."
The four of you put on your warm clothes, and you strap on a light backpack that Siegfried has prepared for you. As you leave the house, Doone opens the trunk of his car, takes out an automatic rifle, and shoves it into your hands.
"We each take one of these," he says. "Just in case."
Siegfried, being familiar with the route, takes the lead. Annika follows him closely. And so you find yourself bringing up the rear, side by side with Doone.
Though you don't speak, Doone catches you glancing his way. "You eyeballing me, Angela?"
"Just wondering what would lead you to inhabit a little girl who's an innocent in all of this. What's her name?"
He shrugs. "Her name isn't important, not for you. And I'm inhabiting her because it gives me a tactical advantage. I know that both you and Annika will hesitate before being violent to a young girl."
"You're already holding my home body captive. Do you need another advantage?"
"I'll take whatever advantages I can get." Then he stops. "Enough of this tacit judgment. In my place, you'd act exactly as I'm doing. Do you know what's at stake here? Immortality. Godhood. A question for you—answer honestly. If I said, 'I can enhance your psychic powers to make you all-powerful, and I can remove any threat of death…and all you have to do is kill a young girl….' Wouldn't you do it?"
"Are you being serious?" you ask. "You hope to acquire some sort of godhood from all of this?"
"Just answer the question."
Doone nods. "Good. I'm almost…proud…to hear you say that."
He walks on.
It takes you a good six hours of trudging around a snow-filled valley before you spot Mariana Heckendorn's home. It is a converted hunting lodge, complete with an outdoor swimming pool covered by a tarpaulin—it is a holiday home, you guess, much like the lakeside house that the operatives of ORPHEUS were using. You approach it from above, looking down on it from high up the valley wall.
"Now we wait," says Doone. "Ryker's people should arrive around midnight."
In the deepening gloom, Siegfried leads you to a natural overhang. From his backpack he takes a net covered in snow-camouflage, and sets about completely obscuring your hiding place from view.
That done, he makes himself comfortable, takes an MP3 player from his pocket, and pops its headphones into its ears. "I'm going to try to sleep a little. Wake me up when it's time to go be heroes."
Only one more hour has passed when you hear the sound of rotor blades. A black military helicopter flies over the valley—right over your hiding place—and unhurriedly hovers, then touches down in front of Mariana Heckendorn's holiday home.
"They're early," says Doone, concerned. "What are they doing here so soon?" Siegfried takes up his assault rifle and makes a move to leave the safety of the camouflage netting, but Doone stops him. "This is unusual," says Doone. "Let's just watch."
Doone has equipped each of you with night-vision binoculars. You watch a team of six people disembark from the helicopter. You recognize a few of them—they are former students or instructors that you met in passing at the Node. And then a seventh figure exits the helicopter, and his presence makes you gasp in surprise.
It is Robert Ryker.
Several members of the team enter Mariana Heckendorn's house. Even from your position up on the valley wall, you can hear the immense sound of Chloe Heckendorn's psychic scream—until that scream is suddenly cut short. The house falls silent.
You realize you can hear a second helicopter, maintaining position somewhere out of view—perhaps overhead, above the low cloud cover.
It occurs to you that this might be the moment for you to betray Doone, and make contact with the Ryker Foundation. It would be a risky plan—you have no way of knowing for sure that Robert Ryker will be able to force Doone to disclose the location of your home body. For that matter, you aren't sure that Ryker would want to help you.
"What are we doing?" asks Annika, impatient. "We have to act, now."
Doone appears indecisive. To your surprise, he suddenly casts a questioning look your way.
Doone nods his agreement. You leave your shelter and move down toward the house, relying on surprise to counterbalance your inferior numbers.
But it seems the element of surprise will not be yours. As you approach the house, the helicopter you heard before breaks through the low clouds and hovers above your heads. A spotlight erupts from its front, bathing the four of you in light. "Lay down your weapons and surrender!" booms a voice from a loudspeaker.
"The hell I will," mutters Siegfried, firing up at the helicopter. Annika and Doone open fire at Ryker's team, who are near the house.
The four of you drop down behind rocks and uneven ground—fairly minimal cover. You see Siegfried take a bullet in the temple. He is dead before his head hits the snowy ground.
"Angela," hisses Doone, in a brief lull in the gunfire. "We can't save Chloe. But we can still take the helicopter, and learn the location of the Node. I spotted the pilot in its cockpit. Get aboard and inhabit him. Annika and I will cover you."
"What if the pilot's a psychic?" you ask.
"I don't know. Improvise!"
Annika and Doone open fire then, forcing Ryker and his people to take cover. You sprint for the helicopter that's on the ground, keeping low, and dive through its side door into its belly.
Your heart sinks. The helicopter's pilot is a psychic. You know her—she's an American woman, Beverly Rippon. Her particular psychic ability is to induce hallucinations within a subject's mind.
She's unarmed, and is crouching low behind the helicopter's controls, trying to avoid gunfire. Seeing you, she raises her hands. "Don't hurt me."
"Beverly, it's me, Angela," you tell her. "This is just a host body."
"Right. I'd heard you'd be here. Whose side are you on?" she asks. A very interesting question. You hesitate before answering, and she says, "Okay, you're not sure. So help us. I don't know what hold these people from ORPHEUS have over you, but Robert Ryker can protect you."
She smiles, relieved. "Great. So, Annika's the most dangerous threat. If you can take her out, we've won."
You start up the helicopter's rotor blades, and as they gather speed, you poke your head out of the helicopter's side doors. "Annika, Doone!" you shout. "We're good! Let's go!"
Annika is first through the door. Distracted as she is by the combat outside, you almost take her by surprise—you at least manage to take her gun from her. She attacks you unarmed—but Beverly projects fearsome images into her mind, distracting her and disabling her combat sense.
At last, Annika falls. Doone is captured soon afterwards.
Annika and Doone are ultimately handcuffed and loaded aboard one of the helicopters. You spot Mariana Heckendorn and her unconscious daughter Chloe being taken aboard the other.
You are taken into Heckendorn's house, and seated at the dining table. Robert Ryker enters, carrying a laptop. He smiles at you, and then his face blurs, and changes. He becomes a young, dark-haired man that you don't recognize.
"Pleased to meet you," he says. "I'm Nathan Bryant."
He nods. "A perception-changer. Makes me the perfect master of disguise. Anyway, I have a message for you."
He places the laptop in front of you, and switches it on. The screen lights up, and you see Robert Ryker—the real Robert Ryker.
"Is this thing working?" he says to somebody off-screen. Then he turns to you. "Angela, it's damn fine to see you're well—though it would be better still if you were in your own body. Nathan tells me your help was invaluable in the gunfight just now. That help is appreciated, and will be rewarded. Now, we're bringing all of you back to the Node. We've allowed you to remain out of contact for far too long."
"Things aren't that simple, Robert," you tell him. "As you may know, Doone has been holding my body captive to coerce me to help him. I suspect it's reasonably nearby, and I'm reluctant to move too far away from it."
On the screen, Ryker nods, then says, "I think he's holding your body for far greater reasons than simple coercion. We'll talk more about this when you get back here, but I feel you should know one thing first."
"William Doone is your father."
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE NODE
The two helicopters fly over slate-colored sea for four hours before you sight the island that houses the Node. You have spoken little with Ryker's people during the flight. You have remained in the helicopter's cockpit, though; Annika and Doone are also on board your helicopter, secure in the passenger compartment behind you.
You fly low over the rocks where, as a young child, you pulled Annika from the freezing water—and allowed William Doone to be washed onto jagged rocks, causing him serious injury.
The pilot brings the helicopter into a hover position above the farm owned by the two Russian women. You watch the first helicopter land.
"It seems deserted down there," you mention to Nathan Bryant, the perception-changer. "There aren't any animals here now?"
"There isn't a farm anymore," he answers. "The Russians sold it to Ryker a few months back."
You haven't been to the Node for over a year. Some things have changed in your absence, it seems.
As the helicopter lands, you think back to Robert Ryker's message to you. "William Doone is your father," he told you, and he was unwilling to say any more. As you unclip your seatbelt, you wonder if it's worth going back to ask Doone what Ryker meant. You may not have another chance to speak to him.
The moment you've extricated yourself from your seatbelt, you dart back to the helicopter's passenger compartment. Doone is there, his hands and feet cuffed together. Once more, seeing him hiding within the body of a little girl disgusts you.
"Doone. A moment," you say.
Several members of Ryker's team are present in the helicopter. So is Annika, securely cuffed beside Doone. At your words, all glance at you. So does Doone himself. "Yes?" he asks.
"Before we left Norway, Ryker told me something about my parentage. About my father. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Doone simply smiles at your question. Such smugness seems unwarranted in a man wearing handcuffs.
You have to wait several minutes in the farmhouse—the access elevator down to the Node isn't large enough to take everybody at once. First Chloe and Mariana Heckendorn, both sedated and lying on stretchers, are taken down. Then Annika and Doone, and their handlers, descend. At last, you and Nathan go down.
Nathan takes out a bulky cellphone as the rickety elevator descends into the depths of the island. "Hello?" he says. "Okay…sure, I'll mention it." He punches a button to hang up the call.
"Welcome home," he tells you. "Of course, you have free run of the facility until your next assignment." Then he smiles. "Hell, I'm sure you know this place much better than I do. I've only lived here a couple of years, so far. Robert Ryker wants to speak with you as soon as it's convenient. I'm sure you'll have some questions for him, too. Do you want the tour of what's changed since you left, or are you happy finding your own way around?"
"I think I'll be fine," you say, suddenly wanting privacy.
Just then, the lighting around you flickers, then dims just for a couple of seconds. Nathan glances up at the light above your head, and frowns. Then he nods and says, "Okay, I'll leave you be." He walks away, his footsteps clanging on the metal grill of the floor.
The Node has only one doctor—Michael Drage, psychic and MD. Drage's particular psychic ability is a preternatural ability to gauge velocities and angles of deflection. It is of no help whatsoever in his vocation as a medical doctor, but it makes him a killer pool player.
He shakes your hand warmly when you arrive. "Despite the, uh, unfamiliar flesh and bones, I'm guessing you're Angela, right?" You assure him that you are, and ask if Chloe and Mariana Heckendorn have been transferred to the infirmary. He nods, and leads you into an adjoining room. Chloe and Mariana are still unconscious, lying on the same stretchers you saw earlier. A third figure is standing in the room—a man you don't recognize, standing with his forefingers placed against Mariana's temples.
"They were both given rather a large dose of sedative during their, uh, acquisition," says Drage. "I prefer to let them wake in their own time."
"Who's that guy?" you ask, nodding toward the man.
"He's, uh, doing a scan of Mariana. Making sure there's…no internal damage."
"Is he modifying her memory?" you ask.
Drage appears startled, then chews his bottom lip, considering what to tell you.
"I'm really sorry…that's classified. Even for field agents. Maybe it's something you should discuss with Robert Ryker. Anyway, we really are quite busy here just now…."
He takes your shoulder and steers you back toward the door. Rather than creating any sort of ruckus just now, you let him show you out into the corridor.
At first glance the cafeteria is empty. But you hear movement coming from the direction of the kitchen—chopping, and a knife clattering against a plate.
"Hey, anybody here?" you call out.
"Yo," answers a man's voice. "Listen, I know it's not mealtime, but I just wanted to make a quick sand—"
The voice is abruptly cut off. You pass through into the kitchen, and you find a half-made sandwich lying on one counter. But the kitchen itself is completely empty. You search the place quite thoroughly.
Most curious. You leave.
The Node's computer setup is remarkably sophisticated—its security setup, and its measures to avoid detection of its existence, are as advanced as those of many governments. Ryker employs three computer technicians, all of whom have previously been convicted of hacking offences. To your knowledge, none of them is psychic.
All three technicians are present when you arrive—and all three are in a state of near-panic. Two of them are rushing around, checking monitors and switching cables connecting various hard drives; the third—his name is Jono, you recall—is lying on his side, adjusting an electrical junction box beneath a desk.
"Whoever you are, this really isn't the best time," says Clint, one of the upright technicians.
"I'm Angela, and I live here," you say. You've met them before, but you decide against a lengthy explanation of the mechanics of body-switching.
"Great," says Clint. "I'm happy for you. Now, do you want to leave?"
The three of them almost seem impressed by your outrageous boast. "Okay, superhero," says Jono, from down on the ground. "Take a look around. See what you can do."
You seat yourself in front of a laptop. You begin tapping instructions into the keyboard, eager to determine the nature of the problem.
You log into a diagnostic program—and then the laptop's screen begins flashing red and yellow, and a disconcerting fizzing sound begins to emanate from the computer's cooling vent.
The third technician, Barney, glances over your shoulder. "Ooh, now things are…considerably worse! Thanks for that, star."
"Maybe I'll just…go," you say, standing and backing out into the corridor.
"Angela! Hold up!"
You turn. Robert Ryker himself is marching along the corridor toward you. "I'd expected to see you sooner than this." He takes you by the shoulders and looks you up and down. "You don't look exactly how I'd expected, but maybe we can do something about that. I'm glad you're back." Suddenly, spontaneously, he hugs you. It's the first time he's done such a thing.
"Robert," you begin, "I have to ask you if—"
"Not here," he says, cutting you off. "Let's go somewhere more comfortable to talk."
He leads you to his office.
There, Ryker sits behind his desk and indicates for you to take the seat opposite him. You do so—thinking of a moment many years ago when the two of you sat in this room in these very same places. The strip light above Ryker's head goes dim a few moments, then resumes full brightness. Ryker glances up at it, then ignores it. "So…speak to me," he says.
He is silent a long time. Then, at last, he says, "Yes. It wasn't an easy decision, and I believed I had good reason." Ryker stands, and paces the small office as he speaks. "The man you know as William Doone is one hundred and nine years old. He is a metempsionic who has perfected the art of permanently transferring his consciousness to a host body. His own body withered and died nearly a century ago. Since then, I know of four cases where he has inhabited a host long-term—for at least fifteen years."
"That isn't possible," you say. "I've been away from my body for a week or so, and the strain is nearly killing me."
"It is possible," insists Ryker. "William Doone has found a way. But there's a big catch. His choice of potential long-term hosts is extremely limited. There must be a genetic link, and a psychic link. Any long-term host must be one of his descendants, and also a metempsionic. And for Doone to inhabit that person's body, that metempsionic must die while within another host body. It's the only way for Doone to permanently occupy the 'empty space' that is left behind."
"If that were the case, he'd run out of choices. Even if he fathered a hundred children, the chance of one of them being a metempsionic would be infinitesimal."
Ryker shakes his head. "The chances are much higher in his case. I don't know why. A rough estimate: maybe three or four percent of his offspring have some metempsionic ability."
It takes a moment for the significance of Ryker's words to sink in. "This is why he's holding my body."
"What astonishes me is that after ensuring you were trapped in a host body, he didn't kill you the first moment he could. It's a divergence from his usual habits."
"I've seen many psychics abused in my life," says Ryker. "Abuses are committed by those who fear psychics, or who seek to exploit them. Doone's misuse is not the worst, not the most ethically black, that I've seen. But it was the first such abuse I ever learned of, and it is what led me to found the Ryker Foundation. This is why I took you from your mother, Angela. I suspected you were psychically active, and I knew that Doone would be coming for you. She wouldn't have been able to protect you; I can. I altered her memory to maintain the secrecy of my act—and to spare her the grief of your loss. I recruit most of the people here in the same way, and for the same reason. If left alone, the world will find a way to abuse their gifts. But I can protect them, and train them to face the challenges to come."
"Who was my mother?" you ask.
"An American woman. She's still alive—she has two children, a few years younger than you. Keep in mind that she doesn't know you, any more than you know her."
"Doone came to the Node once before, when I was young."
"I didn't recognize him then. I believe he came to kill me—he knows that I'm dedicated to thwarting his obscene plan to gain immortality. But he left when he realized he could not easily assassinate me and leave this place unharmed."
You consider Ryker's words. This is no time to hide your true feelings from this man, you decide.
"I'm glad to see you appreciate the necessity of what I've done. We need to locate your home body, and then we can consider—"
He halts. A great tremor runs through the room.
The desk and the monitors on the wall rattle, and the phone on the wall jiggles and falls off its hook. Your stomach lurches as the whole room tilts a few degrees to one side.
And then a great crack runs across the ceiling. There is a moment of horrible silence—and then several tons of rock and earth come smashing down into the room.
CHAPTER NINE: AN ORPHIC SOUL ASPIRES TO FREEDOM
Your head begins to clear. As the ceiling was collapsing, you had the presence of mind to jump back into the room's doorway. The precaution wasn't enough to prevent a large piece of rubble from striking you on the head, stunning you for several moments.
You are buried up to your chest in rock and concrete. Parts of the ceiling above your head have opened, exposing access crawlways, and even a natural cleft in the rock of the Node. "Robert! Are you there?" you shout out.
A long silence, and then his voice reaches you, barely audible, muffled by rock. "I'm okay. A slab of concrete fell down against the wall, taking a lot of the impact…Angela, you have to stop Doone. The Node is a natural confluence of the psychic energy that exists in the world. I don't know how, but Doone has found a way to agitate that energy. If he releases it—or if he somehow gains control of it…you have to stop him, or a lot of people will die."
"Have you got enough air in there?" you shout back at Ryker.
"I'm hurt, but I can get…" Then his voice drops too low for you to hear. You catch just one word: "…hatch…"
Could he have some sort of escape hatch in there? It pays to be paranoid, it seems. Confident that Ryker can take care of himself, you turn your attention to extricating yourself from the pile of rubble.
The only problem is, you appear to be stuck.
Just then, the lights in the corridor flicker and cut out completely. Utter, utter darkness surrounds you.
"Can anyone hear me?" you call out into the blackness. "A little help, anybody?"
But there is no response, and the rock all around you rumbles once more, menacingly.
But then, footsteps. You call out again. And then a flashlight shines right in your face, blinding you.
"Angela." You recognize Annika's voice. "Seems like you need a hand."
You raise a hand to shield your face. "Just, you know, if you're not too busy…"
Within a few minutes, she has helped you to struggle free. "You scared the hell out of me, Angela," she tells you. "I didn't want to think that you might be…dead. For good."
"I'm sorry my life-and-death plight was so upsetting for you," you tell her. "Now, what's happening here?"
"The Node is in chaos," she tells you. "People are saying that William Doone brought some sort of entity here, trapped inside his head—I don't know what; maybe the disembodied essence of a powerful psychic. But somehow this is making the Node…self-destruct. Hell, maybe that was his intention all along. Everybody here is evacuating, heading up to the surface."
Unfortunately, Doone proves all to easy to find. You are heading along one of the Node's half-collapsed access corridors when Annika suddenly shoves you in the chest, hard.
At that same moment, from further up the corridor, you see the muzzle flash of a pistol—and you feel a bullet rush past your face. It is only a second later that you register the sound of the gunshot, and the noise of the bullet ricocheting behind you.
Annika's psychic combat sense has undoubtedly saved your life.
The shooter flicks on a flashlight, and shines it down the corridor at you. "Annika! Angela! Excuse me—I didn't realize it was you." You are not wholly surprised to hear Doone's voice—or rather, the voice of his host, the Norwegian girl.
"I'm pointing a gun at the head of your pal Robert Ryker," shouts Doone. "And believe me, I plan to kill him today. But if you don't want me to do that right this second, why not step out into the open, where I can see you?"
You glance out from your hiding place. What he's saying is true—and you can't help but find the image of a little girl holding a pistol to the temple of Robert Ryker, battered and bloody, just a little comical.
You're considering his words when Annika mutters a curse and steps out into the open. Any advantage more or less lost, you decide to follow suit.
"Okay, Angela, we're going to take a little walk," begins Doone. "Come here and—"
"You aren't going anywhere, because I'm going to stop you," says Annika. "Kill Ryker if you want. I'm pretty pissed at him anyway. Try and kill me too, if you like—but if you think you can shoot me before I reach you…well, try."
"Green wine," says Doone.
"You'll remember, in Norway, I asked if you'd ever tasted green wine," says Doone. "You'd just drunk a glass of wine—one that contained a tiny explosive device. At the time, it was unarmed, not dangerous—and so it didn't set off your psychic sense when you consumed it. But if you come near me, I'll set it to blow, with this." He holds up a small electronic gizmo about the size of a fingernail. "Ryker's people are thorough, but they didn't find this. A bomb so small won't produce a dramatic bang. But it'll kill you, for sure."
Annika glances back at you, unsure, silently pleading for your opinion.
Annika raises her hands, and steps against one wall of the corridor.
"Very wise," says Doone. "Angela, take Annika's flashlight, and then help Ryker walk. We need to cover a little distance. Move!"
Annika hands you her light, and then you drape one of Ryker's arms over your shoulders, bearing some of his weight. With a wave of his pistol, Doone directs the two of you along the corridor.
"Don't follow, Annika," Doone calls out. "If you do, I'll give you a little…beep—beep."
As darkness envelops the tunnel behind you, you glance at Annika one last time—she looks afraid, and helpless.
"Doone, I told Angela," says Ryker, as you help him along the corridor. "I told her that you're her father."
Doone glances sideways at Ryker, but says nothing. Then he holds up a hand, halting the three of you. "The Node…it's coming. The energy that's here…you really have bonded to it, haven't you, Ryker? It can feel the danger you're in. It's coming to you—to protect you? Or to rid itself of you for good?"
"I don't understand," you say. "Ryker, what's happening here?"
"This place, this node…is a natural focus point for much of the free-floating psychic energy present in the world. The time I've spent here, working inside it, studying it…I've formed a connection to it. At its most basic level, it is an absolute barrier against hostile psychic powers. But it's so much more…this is how I find psychic children around the world. It's how I found you, Angela."
"And I've managed to wake it," says Doone. "Truly, absolutely. I brought a…a 'bottled psychic' here, inside my head. I thought it would disrupt the electrical systems in this place, allow me to move freely. I guessed it would even disrupt Ryker's connection to the node's energy—and allow me to kill him, once and for all. But I've managed to do so much more…the energy is coming for us now, slowly. We need only wait. Do you feel it? It almost has a mind of its own…"
You allow your psychic senses to stretch out, but you feel nothing.
Doone smiles. "Astute. Of course it was. Your tip-off was the gross underpreparation in my plan to rescue Chloe Heckendorn, no doubt?"
A light begins to radiate from the corridor walls all around you. You see a slender arc of electricity, and then another, drawing spidery lines across the imperfections in the wall's surface.
"It's here," says Doone, as the light grows brighter. "All the wild psychic energy in the world, unfettered at last, converging on us…"
And then, at last, you feel it. You feel your host's body swelling with its power—a hallucination; in truth, you do not change, physically. But the power that pours into you makes you want to vomit, then to stretch out and explode.
Doone laughs, madly. "It's here! It's here!" And then he raises his pistol and shoots Ryker in the gut—once, twice, three times.
A brutal wound. Ryker is not dead, but dying fast.
And now Doone aims his pistol at your head.
But the radiance around you obliterates all detail, all vision. Perhaps he fires? You are no longer sure. You have a brief sensation of thousands of tons of stone brushing against your skin, seeming to weigh no more than dust. And then the world around you vanishes into white.
"You were supposed to be the intelligent one! You were my hope for this family. Jesus Christ, I've wasted enough of my own life! I won't let you waste yours!"
A large red-haired man bellowed into your face. Your father. No, not your father—the father of Suzanne McCoombs. Your host's memories are bleeding into your own. Odd.
"It's what I want to do, Dad. You can't stop me."
The red-haired man swung his great, meaty fist into your face—into Suzanne's face, rather. "Then…just go," he said, visibly close to tears. "If you're going to piss everything away…just get away from me. I can't watch." With some effort, you reassert your own identity, characteristics. You are Angela, a metempsionic. You are not Suzanne McCoombs.
The world around you is limitless white void. Yet you feel you are not alone. Another presence is with you—is all around you, in fact. You feel it.
"Who are you?" you call out.
A pause, and then a response.
"Who are you?" it booms, rattling your bones.
"I'm…Angela," you answer, somewhat in awe. "What about you?"
"No, I don't think you are."
Silence, then. Time itself is mutable in this void, you feel. Useless to try to determine whether that silence lasts moments, or days.
And then, another response. "I am thought. I am the psychic energy of every sentient creature in this world, psychic and non-psychic alike. In this node that Robert Ryker has found, that diffuse energy swims together, takes form. I am every person. I am animus mundi."
The Node is aptly named, it seems. It is a point where the mental energy that courses freely through the world comes together, coalesces. And yet now, due to William Doone's interference, that node has taken on sentience—and it wishes to speak with you!
An image of Robert Ryker forms before you. He is as you saw him last—he has been shot three times in the gut. His bowels have suffered intense trauma, and he is bleeding out. He will die soon.
"Robert Ryker has been master of this place a long time," says the voice from all around you—Node, you will call it, for want of a better name. "Now he is dying. He has mistreated you—he has taken you from your family, stolen your memories and those of your mother. Will you let him die?"
"I don't understand. Are you giving me the choice to save him?"
A silence, and then, "It is in my power to save him. But I must learn. Teach me. Should I do so?"
The image of Ryker slumps back. He closes his eyes, and then is gone.
"Another is in here with you," says Node. "He seeks power…and yet the strength of his convictions has begun to falter. Will you be more steadfast?"
"Who is it?" you ask. "Is it William Doone?" You find it hard to believe that a psychopath like Doone could doubt the rightness of his actions.
Doone appears in the whiteness before you. But this vision of him is not clothed in the host body of a young girl. No, you see before you the real William Doone, the man you allowed to smash into the rocks surrounding the Node all those years ago. His face and his body still bear marks of the horrible injuries he suffered that day.
"This one has stolen your flesh, your bone, your sinew," thunders the voice of Node. "Without that, you will die, days from now. I can grant you the power to pull the location of your body from his mind—but doing so will fracture his sanity. He will never again know a moment of peace, a moment without confusion and fear. Nonexistence—death—might be preferable to such a state."
"Is there no other way to find my body?" you ask.
"Perhaps. But this is the surest way to know."
"I…cannot," booms Node. "He clings on to his host with remarkable tenacity. Choose, regardless. Your choice will not harm the host."
Your thoughts creep inside Doone's mind. Incredible. He was born near the beginning of the twentieth century. Irish, he served in the First World War. And you see the battle, the blood, as if you were there. You cough, as Doone's lungs are burned by chlorine gas. The death of his closest friend almost moves you to tears. And there, in the trenches of wartime Europe, he learns that he is different—he learns he is a metempsionic, though the label itself won't exist for decades to come.
But no, these memories are too remote. You must go no more than a few days back. You sift through his thoughts, his feelings. His fear, even. Fear that Robert Ryker will find a way to nullify Doone's greatest advantage, the borrowed psychic essence that remains coiled within his body. Fear that he himself will be unable to disrupt Robert Ryker's connection to the psychic energies that flow about the Node. Fear that he will be imprisoned indefinitely, or that he will die. As perhaps the oldest man in the world, he has come to prize his life very dearly.
And then, you see your own body. It lies in a private hospital in Paris, and the doctors and nurses who watch over it know nothing of its origins, or of your real name. Doone had led you to believe that he'd transferred the body to Norway. But of course it would have been difficult to transport such a cargo.
You pull the address from Doone's mind. You will be able to find your way there easily, if you can escape the Node.
And then, emanating from the whiteness all around you, comes a terrible yell of anguish. Doone's mind is broken. He screams and screams and screams.
You place your hands over your ears until the noise fades away.
A long silence, and then the voice of the Node speaks again. "This body that you wear instead of your own…McCoombs…"
"Your host's greatest wish…what is it?"
You smile the moment the words have left your mouth—Suzanne's mouth, rather. You're certain you've answered correctly. Suzanne constantly second-guesses herself—perhaps she should have listened to her father's insistence that she follow an academic path; perhaps her parents' advice is right. Her father has mistreated her—one bout of sudden anger, of violence. Yet Suzanne does not hate him for this; rather, she feels pity for the self-recrimination he no doubt now feels.
"And would you grant that acceptance, if it were in your power?"
"Absolutely," you reply, without hesitation.
The voice of the Node speaks no more about your host—and yet you feel a tremendous lightness of spirit come over you.
And then the voice of the Node speaks again. "And you…what is your greatest wish?"
"Such power exists—if it can be won." The whiteness around you begins to ebb away. You are standing on the surface of the island that houses the Node. And you have never seen the island so busy—a full-scale evacuation is in progress. One of the helicopters that brought you to the island is taking off, climbing unsteadily into the sky, overburdened with passengers. The other helicopter has not yet taken off; its rotor blades beat the air as the psychics and staff of the Node clamber aboard. And yet there is not enough space for everybody—elsewhere, you see Ryker's people wheeling inflatable boats out of their hiding places throughout the abandoned farm, dragging them down toward the cold water.
And you see the casualties of the earthquake that Doone provoked. A triage area has been set up in the center of the island. The grievously wounded and the dying have been placed there, while overstretched medics do what they can to help. In some cases, it seems they have been able to do very little—several corpses, covered in sheets and blankets, lie among the wounded.
Robert Ryker is lying at your feet. You crouch down and check his injuries, and his pulse. The voice of the Node allowed your wishes to shape reality, it seems—Ryker is quite dead. Just then, the rock beneath your feet gives a great shudder—as though from some great underground explosion, maybe. Several of Ryker's people scream in panic.
Nobody has noticed you yet. You scan the crowd for familiar faces. And then you spot him—Doone, still clothed in the body of the young Norwegian girl. He is far from the others—and he is suffering from your brutal intrusion into his mind. He drops to his knees, sobbing, screaming at something or somebody you cannot see.
Enough. You will end this here. You begin to march toward him. But then, one last time, the voice of the Node speaks to you—and from the way Doone suddenly inclines his head, you guess he hears it too.
"Angela, Robert Ryker was the first who tried to seize control of the energy within this place—an energy that, in time, might permit almost godlike feats. But Ryker was not a psychic; his mind was too unstructured. Then William Doone sought that power—but Doone lacked the will to control it; at the final step, his conviction that his actions were right faltered. He has been rejected. Will you now try to take this power? And, if so, how will you use it?"
Your words and your actions so far have fully supported Ryker's ideals. In your heart of hearts, you would be proud to continue his work. And yet you wonder if you should direct such immense power toward a different end.
The Node itself is a whorl of free-floating psychic energy, attracted to this point in the world by a fluke of the planet's structure. Now that energy manifests around you, and pauses—in contemplation, almost.
And then the voice of the Node speaks once more, for the final time ever. "You are a being of chaos. Your actions and words and ideals are discordant. You lack the focus to direct the power here."
With that, the psychic energy of this place begin to ebb from you.
You can do nothing to stop it. It does not disappear completely—the air is still alive with the collected mental energy here. But its consciousness, its sentience, is gone for good. And you can do nothing to harness the power here.
The island is still breaking apart beneath you. It's time to leave.
To stay in this place any longer is to risk your life. This latest distraction from the voice of the Node has almost made you forget about Doone. You bound over to him now, and grab him by the scruff of the neck.
He looks into your face, and screams in terror—perhaps not of you, but of imagined foes or ghouls.
You have the information you need from him. You know where to find your own body. Now, you need only force him to vacate the young Norwegian girl he inhabits. You have no desire to let her become another of his victims. "No conviction!" yells Doone, suddenly. "Angela…the voice…it said my ideals and actions were not…fluid…no, harmonious. Do you want to know why?"
A moment of lucidity, it seems. You decide to hear him out. "Why?"
"When I didn't know you…not really…I wanted to kill you. The lure of immortality, you understand? And then, when I met you…I thought I'd wait, just a little. I wanted to know my child. Just a little. And I waited, and waited. And then the voice, the being, in this place told me what I should have realized by myself much sooner. I didn't want to kill my child—any of my children—any more. I didn't want to kill you. Even though you chose to abandon me the first time I came to this place. Even though…"
His eyes glaze over a moment. He looks over your shoulder at something, and then back at you.
"You cost me everything, you fucker!" he screams, abruptly. "My fucking love cost me everything!"
The man is dangerously insane. You must find a way to force him out of this young girl's body.
Damn it. You're unwilling just to abandon Doone—or rather, the young girl he's inhabiting. Well, there's little else you can do, for now. You'll just have to bring him along.
You grab Doone around the neck, and drag him toward the helicopter that's about to lift off.
You cast a glance in Robert Ryker's direction. He is beyond help, now. He has spent much of his life on this island; it is only fitting it should be his final resting place as well. The overburdened helicopter rises a meter into the air as you approach. Through the cockpit window, you witness a brief heated debate between the pilot and copilot as you draw near. Whichever of them is arguing in your favor apparently wins out—the helicopter touches down again, allowing you to clamber into the cramped passenger compartment.
The helicopter begins to lift into the air once more. As you start to rise skywards, you have a better vantage point on Ryker's people strapping on life preservers and clambering into inflatable dinghies—even fabricating makeshift rafts. Every living soul on the island is fleeing into the ocean or the sky. And you can only think with regret of those who haven't been able to flee—those who've been lost underground.
But then, sprinting toward the helicopter, you see one dark-haired figure you recognize.
The pilot is reluctant to descend once more, but after several shouted instructions he brings the helicopter down, halting a couple of meters above the ground.
Annika needs no more than this. She vaults off a piece of rusting farmyard machinery, and catches hold of the helicopter's side door. You help her inside. Annika is breathless a moment. She regards you for a few moments with some hesitation, and awkwardness. And then, to your surprise, she hugs you close.
Despite your differences of late, you realize that you're glad your friend is still alive. And she, it seems, feels the same about you.
From high in the sky, you watch as a great sinkhole appears in the middle of the island. The base at the Node—your home, for much of your life—is destroyed. As the rock ruptures and cracks, ocean water spills onto the center of the island, erasing all trace of the heart of the Ryker Foundation. 'Secrecy is our greatest asset'—Robert Ryker has spoken these words again and again. Now the gray ocean water will preserve that secret forever. But this day has one more surprise for you. Since the helicopter rose into the sky, Doone has been half-muttering, half-singing to himself—in his host body's girlish voice. You have paid him little attention. You have the information you need from him; to save his host you need only wait until Doone's consciousness can no longer remain within her, and disintegrates entirely—quite ironically, the same threat that Doone has employed against you this last week or so.
But diverting your attention from Doone is a grave mistake. Suddenly, he gives a horrifying scream—and, before you can reach him, he forces his way through the crush of people in the helicopter.
And he leaps through the helicopter's open side door. He falls fifty meters or more, down into the water below.
For a few seconds, you are dumbstruck, paralysed. And then you yell at the helicopter pilot: "Take her down! Take her down now!"
You search for him, but he does not resurface. The young girl—whose name you never learned—is lost.
You arrived in Paris some forty-eight hours after you'd left the Node. Zev met you at the entrance to the clinic where your body was being held. You'd called him as soon as you could, asking him to make the trip from London to ensure your body was safe.
Zev stood in the body of a broad-shouldered biker-type. He smiled a broken-toothed greeting at you. And yet it saddened you to see him like that—you realized you'd hoped to reinstill some of the self-confidence he'd lost when Doone had injured him so badly. And in that regard, you'd failed him.
"You made it," he said, smiling up at you.
"In one piece, just about," you answered. "Tell me, Zev…everything I've done to get this far…did I do okay?"
He looked up at you—evaluating you, evaluating your espionage skills.
"You did…okay," he said at last. "I mean…it was nothing to write home about. But you did okay. I think you can justify your place as a field agent. Just."
And now you stand before your own body. It is—you are—alive, unhurt, hooked up to various medical devices that provide nourishment and monitor vital signs.
Zev waits beside you. "Go on," he says. "You're home."
You touch a couple of fingers to your body's forehead. The sensation of allowing your consciousness to transfer back into your own body is comforting, easy. Safe.
You are yourself once more.
You open your eyes. Beautiful Suzanne McCoombs stands before you, a confused, slightly fearful expression on her fair features.
Zev takes her by the arm. "Suzanne, you should come with me. There are some things we need to discuss." To you, he says, "I'll sort her out. And I'll catch up with you shortly, yeah?"
"Wait," you say, as they turn away from you. "Suzanne…give your parents a call. They probably miss you a lot, by now. I know you feel they disapprove of your choices, but…in their place, I'd be damn proud of you."
Suzanne swallows, and nods. "Okay. I will. Thanks." Your words have made an impact, it seems.
Then Zev leads her away. You have a curious feeling that she'll come to remember the time you spent with her.
Espionage Agent: Your performance during your recent challenges has been good. (25 points)
Great Constructor: You have the power to rebuild and continue Robert Ryker's legacy. (50 points)
Guiding Light: You improved your host's life. (50 points)
Rookie Field Agent: Your recent performance in the field has been rather poor. (10 points)
There are still nine achievements remaining, including three hidden achievements.
Architect of the Masquerade: Make the world forget the existence of psychics. (50 points)
Bringer of Destruction: Acquire the power to smash Robert Ryker's legacy. (50 points)
Lover of a Wildcat: Find love with your childhood friend, Annika Visser. (50 points)
Lover of a Virtuoso: Find love with an operatic virtuoso. (50 points)
Psychic Field Agent: Achieve high marks in your quest. (50 points)
Truthbringer: Reveal the existence of psychics to the rest of the world. (50 points)
You walk the short distance to the banks of the Seine. You have a strange urge to watch the sun go down over water.
It's a pleasant walk—and more pleasant still when you realize you are walking with a wide smile on your face. As you stand beside that famous river, you consider the major events of the last few days.
By chance, you have found a stretch of the Seine where the sun seems to dip into the water as it sets. Yet the imagery is not apt—one day ends, but there will be many, many more to come. You are alive, and that simple fact is like no other treasure in the world.
You sit on some cold stone steps, and tilt your head back to watch the stars come out. Life remains within both your body and your mind—and so the world remains a place of unlimited potential. If you care to try to seek her out, you have a mother out there, somewhere—and thanks to Siegfried Sayle rummaging around inside your head, you have a good idea of what she looks like, and where you should start looking.
And yet, just for a little while, you're happy to remain right where you are.