Turns out, when Lynx said the beach was ‘secluded’, she wasn’t exaggerating. Her route took us north out of the city, then through roads my internal GPS told me didn’t exist. At least, I think that’s what it was trying to tell me.
After a while, I got bored staring at pine trees and looked over at Lynx. I didn’t have deep bioscan options in heavy armor mode, but the way she gripped the steering wheel, the rate of her heartbeat, and the scent of her skin all spoke volumes on the turmoil in her emotions. “So, your boss just let you leave work in the middle of a work day?”
“Now is when you worry that I’m plotting to turn you in?” She glanced at me, but only for a moment before her eyes returned to the road. “Not two hours ago when I had the perfect ambush opportunity while you were taking a nap in the park? If anything, I should be the one afraid for my life, now that we’re out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Right, the middle of nowhere, where your powers still work and half my features border on useless. “I was considering the evidence, not napping. And I had no idea where you’d be taking us. I think my concerns are valid, given that you vanished for several hours then took a day off work. Don’t you have Infiltrator protocols around here?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not getting off without months of mandatory therapy.” A spike of numbness and power increase hit me as her power tested my defenses yet again; it had long ago become background noise. “I think he was just relieved that I’m using some of my vacation days. It’s been the same story every Christmas for years, now.”
An answer that tells me nothing and neatly dodges the question of how you managed to get out in the first place. “I’d invite you to my Workaholics Anonymous program, but no one ever shows up. We’re too busy.”
“Hmmph.” She turned onto a dirt trail that had never seen gravel, yet was somehow less bumpy than its pothole-riddled predecessor. “So. I was thinking, I don’t know your name and it’s weird calling you ‘you’ all the time. I’m Shannon, by the way.”
“Well, I don’t have a supers moniker. Always thought it was a weird custom.” Lynx, Shannon, went back to driving with one hand. Her shadow’s attempts at eating my skin redoubled, if the rate of power absorption was any indication. I took that to mean Shannon was annoyed at me, perhaps because I hadn’t given her a name. <Warren to Mission Control. Is Phoebe still up there?”
<Uh, Doctor Reed said she needed to take care of Chimie a few minutes ago. Do you need me to get her?>
<No, I just had one of those idle thoughts. Our first priority once we get some down time is a more intuitive com interface. Perhaps a code word I need to think before it activates.> “Just call me Andrew.” I wonder what the world record for most simultaneous lies is. I think I can beat it.
“Andrew? That’s a nice name. Where are you from?”
Shannon’s power gave up its attack, much like the last nine times it discovered I hadn’t lost my immunity. Great, now I’m starting to think of the Lynx as separate from Shannon as well.
The back of her hand brushed mine, only to pull back a moment later. I ignored the brief caress, just as I ignored the twinge of guilt at giving Shannon a false name. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I knew she wouldn’t settle with that answer, so I slid my hand over the small amount it took to brush against Shannon’s again. I tried not to think too hard about Phoebe’s ‘permission’, or the ways in which I was using Shannon’s emotions to manipulate her. Neither path was productive given the task at hand.
“I’m from London. Ontario, not England.” Something about her voice, and the way she was glancing at me from the corner of her eye, concerned me. “It’s not too far away from Detroit.” By the time I realized she caught me, there was nothing I could do about it. “I knew it! You’re American!”
God damn it. I almost asked her what gave her that idea, but answering a question with a question was as good as a confession. “Just because I recognized Detroit doesn’t make me American. You could have said Toronto or Niagara Falls, too.”
“If it was just that, maybe, but there were a few other clues. For example, when you talked about what you’d be charged with? Sounded like something out of a Law and Order episode. Plus, you have a kind of faint accent. Not sure where from, but it’s not local.”
I noted that she didn’t sound upset, nor did she move her hand away from mine. I let my pinkie finger brush along her fingers, soft enough that she might not realize it was a conscious decision on my part. “Okay, you caught me. I am guilty of… actually, I don’t know enough about international law to finish that sentence. You’re not upset, are you?” I knew she wasn’t, but I had to continue the charade.
“Are you kidding? We’re probably going to have to shoot someone before this is over. May as well let our borderline psychopath neighbor to the south do it. You guys love shooting people.” Despite the words bordering on the hateful, her tone was friendly. As she spoke, she curled her bottom two fingers around mine. Clear indications of a friendly tease, nothing more.
“I’ll have you know that’s a negative stereotype.” I dropped pretense and shifted my hand to hold hers. I am such an asshole. <Doctor Patil? For future reference: we’re going to need culture coaches so I can blend in with the natives. I can’t count on getting lucky next time.> I mentally kicked myself for the poor choice of words. It’s Phoebe’s fault for putting those thoughts in my head.
Shannon’s hand squeezed mine so hard I was afraid she’d hurt herself. “Just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
<I’ll look into it.> Patil’s response was simultaneous to Shannon’s, which itself overlapped with the last part of my communication with Patil. <Uh, what did Doctor Reed say to you?>
Dammit. <Nothing I can’t deal with on my own. Don’t worry about it.> I smiled at Shannon, hoping my multitasking was good enough that she didn’t notice any hesitation in my replies. “I’ll have you know there are sane, rational human beings in the United States. I’ve never personally met any of them, but I am certain they exist. Somewhere.”
Shannon took her hand away from mine so she could turn into a somehow even more obscure road. The pine trees brushing against the roof of her truck meant she shouted her next words. “As your t-shirts say, sanity is overrated.” Guess that means superhuman hearing isn’t one of her powers.
Nightvision clearly was, as she didn’t bother to turn on her lights despite the canopy blocking out much of the afternoon sun. A couple minutes of driving down what I was convinced was a deer path because it was too small for moose took us to a clearing overlooking the ocean. The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon.
“Well, here we are. Do you really think we’ll find anything out here?”
“I think it’s the best lead I’ve got.” I went through the ritual of getting out of the vehicle, while Shannon simply stepped through her door. “I have some level of Tracker abilities, in case you were wondering.”
“At this point, I’m just assuming you have a three or more in every category. It’s simpler that way,” Shannon said. She looked out toward the ocean. “I suppose we’ll start with a rundown of… of Vine’s activities out here.”
“That’s a good start.” I stepped close to Shannon, encouraging the Lynx to start a new round of attacks while I dialed my scanners up to maximum power. Every plant and animal within thirty meters was cataloged, along with tracks, waste, and other signs. Most of this was filtered out immediately. I wasn’t here to hunt rabbits or play armchair environmentalist; I was here to find clues of the human variety. With that in mind, my scanners couldn’t find so much as a discarded candy wrapper. “Are there any buildings around here?”
“No.” Shannon slowed until I caught up, then stayed within arm-brushing distance. The Lynx graciously got to work recharging my batteries as fast as I burned through them. “This place was sacred, a native burial ground, once upon a time.”
I don’t think a normal person would have caught it, but I heard a level of disgust toward the end there. There was nothing to be gained from asking her more on the subject. “Yeah, America has some pretty strict laws on the subject as well. Let’s keep going.”
Out of curiosity, I asked my computer to look for odd rock formations, and was rewarded with dozens of hits for semi-precious stones and a surprising amount of coral under the soil. I wasn’t surprised by a lack of bones; in the acidic pine forest soil, there’d be nothing left of a body even after a few days.
“She has a small area where she experiments with plants over here.” Shannon led us into a cleft in the cliff face that went down toward the beach. She climbed up a rock with handholds that may have been been carved centuries ago, then looked back at me. “I… try not to use my powers out here, out of concern for the wildlife.”
“Makes sense.” I followed her; it had been a long time since I relied on my survival skills, but experience never vanishes completely. I scaled the wall behind her, wondering if she knew the view she was giving me. Of course she does, if she’s been this way enough to have the route memorized, she wants me to look. If that logic wasn’t enough, then my sense of smell confirmed it.
The climb led us to a small cave, with a smooth stone floor save for a spot in the back piled with dirt and vegetable matter. The mouth of the cave opened into a beautiful view of the sunset. Now that I was here, I could identify all the ways this formation was not natural, despite it fooling my scanners. <I think the scanner tech needs fine-tuning for more naturalist construction techniques.> But it serves as a reminder not to get complacent. As good as this equipment is, it’s no replacement for an alert human mind.
<You have a point.> I couldn’t tell if Patil was referring to my opinion of the flaws, or my conclusion against trusting the equipment overmuch.
Shannon looked back at me, her nervous smile highlighted by the glow of the setting sun. “What are you thinking, now?”
I think I am a complete and total ass. “Beautiful.” I paused just long enough to let her get the intended idea. “Whomever carved this cave put a lot of care into it, and set it up to have the perfect view. I can see why Vine loved it, here.”
Her smile faltered, replaced by a look of regrets and pain. “She did. She spent days out here, sometimes. Trying to find or breed plants that could survive her power being used on them.” Shannon turned her head to look out at the sea. “That was always her dream, you know. Reusable plants, perhaps even the ability to create food or shelter for those who needed it. Anything so she didn’t have to kill everything her power touched.
And this is no longer just about an investigation, or Vine. I walked up behind Shannon, allowing my footfalls to create noise enough for her to hear me coming. She leaned into me before I made contact. “I imagine it was very lonely, for her.” <Of those Espers pointed at this situation. How many of them do you think thought to ask if Vine was still alive in the first place?>
Shannon looked up at me, then licked her lips. “Yes. Very.” Shannon and Lynx alike embraced me, if for different reasons.
<I don’t know. I’ll have to ask some of our contacts.> Somehow, there was static on the line. Perhaps from Lynx, or perhaps there were elements in this cave that could block the signal. Either was a question for another day. <Do you think she’s not?>
<Lynx was talking about her in past tense. And if she’s dead, then I’m certain the client knew before hiring us. You investigate, I’ve got to go dark for a bit.> I needed to focus on the next part, to back myself out of the minefield I’d walked into. “What are you doing?”
She hesitated for a moment. “I… you already know, don’t you?” Her voice cracked at the beginning. “Are you going to stop me?”
“Sorry.” I still don’t know who I was apologizing to. Shannon, Phoebe, the animal part of my brain that was eager to have this beautiful and strong woman in my arms, all fine answers. “I have a case to solve, which takes top priority.” After which, I’ll vanish from your life, thus avoiding the problem forever.
“Y- you’re right.” She stepped away, fighting her own war with disappointment and relief in mirror of my own. “We have work to do.”
Alerts clicked into my brain as my computer screamed sudden intrusion of human and inhuman presences. “The ocean!” I bolted for the cave’s mouth, then crouched to observe the ocean, no longer illuminated by the sun. My computer linked back to the rest of the systems back on Artemis. <We’ve got unknowns. Do you have visual?>
“Why? What do you see?” Shannon recovered and crouched next to me. The Lynx washed around her, creating the costume I’d become so familiar with. Whatever it was, it certainly behaved like an agitated predator ready to pounce.
<We have visual. What is it?>
“Not sure, yet. It’s still in the ocean.” I hoped I transmitted the thought even as I spoke it. Two human, and something my computer couldn’t identify, except to say it was like no living thing it had ever witness before.
The first to exit the ocean was the unknown thing, which took the approximate shape of a nude woman in her twenties, with a figure that could only be described as pear-shaped. Her hair was brown, if caked as it was by salt water and ocean life. The body itself, however, didn’t look entirely human; proportions were off, and it shambled rather than walked, often stumbling for no reason. The eyes were dull, the face expressionless, as if already dead.
My computer identified places where one creature ended and another began, as if a dozen different species were cobbled together to create this humanoid simulacrum. <Get Phoebe in here, now. If anyone can tell us what that… thing… is supposed to be, then it’s her.>
“Claire?” Shannon spoke so softly I doubt she even heard herself. I kept watching as plants rushed toward ‘Claire’, covering her until she had a single, living suit of biomass that my computers quickly identified as Vine’s.
Two men walked out of the water next, as unashamed of their nakedness as the woman had been. Unlike the woman, they were alive and alert, their attentions switching between the woman and the environment around them.
What they were not, was mistakable as human. Their skin was gray, with mottled flecks of green and brown that served as camouflage against the ocean floor. They had large, all-black eyes, along with webbed fingers and toes which added to the impression of ocean adaptation. Their black hair was worn long, woven with bone spikes more decorative than functional, as one would expect of tribal nomads. The steel spears they carried were modern and utilitarian in their nature.
Thassans. “Son of a whore.” <Patil. Get Abernathy. This just became an international incident.>