Price Nothing Given, Chapter 8- Anna Cantu

The door opened five minutes before time for the appointment. Elizabeth hadn’t changed much since I last saw her; frizzy light brown hair, freckles, and the same timid demeanor as when she first walked into my office a decade ago, with a state assigned guardian and an open secret that she had powers. She was older now, and she’d cut her hair to just below her shoulders rather than to the small of her back, but the personality behind the body hadn’t changed.

She froze on seeing me, as if reconsidering the whole affair. “I’m sorry I stopped coming, it’s just that it was clear it wasn’t working, and…”

If I were a traditional psychologist, I would have perhaps told her it wasn’t her fault, a natural part of most depressive disorders. However, I was trained for a specific subset of the population whose psychology was more uniform, and volatile, than average.

Imbued had an exaggerated sense of personal agency and responsibility that bordered on the pathological; they blamed themselves for things well beyond their control. Words like ‘it isn’t your fault’ were interpreted as insults, and with Imbued insults were often followed by violence. Prevailing theory was that it was a necessary psychological component to Manifest in the fist place.

“It’s fine, Elizabeth.” I followed my training to change topics to something neutral and familiar fast as possible. “Is it okay if I still call you Elizabeth?” It didn’t get much more neutral or familiar than the patient’s name.

“I’m just going by Beth, now.” Her tone was more certain, almost confrontational. She took a seat during the pause that followed.

There’s a story there, perhaps tied to her return. I had to go through the process of getting to know this girl all over again. I could hope the sense of trust I’d worked so hard to establish in the first place remained, but for now it was a matter of testing the waters. “I suppose the best place to start is asking what prompted you to return?”

“I’d be lying if I said I understood it, myself.” Beth couldn’t meet my eyes, instead focusing on the desk. “But I suppose it starts with some new friends I’ve made. Two of them are dating, now, and in a roundabout way, I’m the reason they met.”

The assertion of responsibility was expected, and couples meeting through a mutual friend was nothing unusual, but I couldn’t be certain whether she was taking credit, or accepting blame. The Elizabeth I had vague recollections of would have been insisted she had no need for friends to begin with. “And that made you reconsider therapy?” A safe, neutral push for her to continue.

“I was watching them, and how happy they all were despite the problems in their lives,” she continued. I withheld judgment until she gathered herself to finish explaining. “I guess I was a little jealous.” Her eyes widened. “Not about them! They’re good people, and I hope they’re happy. But, I pictured myself in thirty years living in the middle of nowhere with a hundred cats. Sounds so generic and boring when it’s said out loud, huh?”

There we go. “Well, I like to think everyone’s more alike than they are different.” Now that I knew the circumstances, the short-term goal was to convince Beth to dedicate herself to therapy. “The fear of being alone isn’t generic or boring, it’s human. What’s important is that it was a wakeup call.” I may have been reaching with that assumption, but such was the nature of the job on occasion. “For now it’s a motivator, but that will wear off with time. As you know, therapy’s a long process that takes hard work, are you prepared for when the burst of inspiration fades away?”

Rule three of dealing with Imbued: turn their goal into a challenge of their ability, and they will move mountains. Sometimes literally. Beth was no exception to that rule. The concern on her face turned into something else, anger and disgust in equal measure, and directed toward herself. Not the most pleasant of emotions, and I’d be working against them for most of our time together, but for now they were what was required to get results and keep my licensing.

“I know it will be difficult,” she said. “I want better from this. From myself.”

There’s the path to success. Only now, after she’d committed in her own mind, did I open my ledger. A quick swipe of my pen changed Beth’s status from a probe to an accepted client; a risk, taking her on so soon, but if by the end of the interview I felt she was too much of a risk, the mark proved intent, not a binding agreement. Besides, I’d already ‘lost’ her once, so in the end her black mark would either remain on my record, or said mark would be removed.

“Good,” I said. “I’ll give you the number of a new psychiatrist as well.” I couldn’t recall off the top of my head what medications she was on, but when I was done with the interview, I’d make sure Doctor Erikson knew her history and lapse; it would be on him to decide if they should resume the old regimen, or adopt something which might prove more effective for Beth’s needs. “I have some time before my next appointment, if you want a free half session.”

“Oh, thanks,” Beth animated some.

It was a cheap trick, but one of the best strategies ever devised. Whether giving a patient a little more care than required, or hosting a business meeting in a restaurant and picking up the tab, nobody forgot such simple acts of generosity. It was useful when you could make it work, but complicated by the first rule when it came to Imbued: ‘never lie to them’. The prevalence of Truthsayer powers was such that even a white lie could backfire in ways that were impossible to predict.

“We could get reacquainted,” I said when it became clear she wasn’t going to take the initiative. Compared to most Imbued, Beth was rather passive. “For example, your job? Or these friends of yours?”

“Oh, well, I work in theater. Pay’s not great, but it’s never boring. And I do some volunteer work.” She seemed to be avoiding details, but where Imbued were concerned that was the norm. Aside from that, she seemed enthused about her situation, which was helpful; more motivation for her to keep fighting her disease. “One of my new friends works with me.”

“That’s good.” I left it there, because it was more effective to guide rather than pry.

She stayed silent for a little while. “We lied to you.” The moment after she said it, she froze like a deer in the headlights. “I mean, back when I first came here, the story you were told was a lie.”

Getting lied to was a natural reality of the career I chose; the only people who loved secrets more than Imbued was the government, and the two of them were the majority of my clients.

“What about?” It wasn’t the first time someone came out and told me they had powers, and I prepared to act surprised by the news.

“My father,” she said. “I know you were told it was a murder-suicide, but it wasn’t.”

Wait, what? When I’m done with this appointment, I’m going to make some phone calls. How am I supposed to do my job if they’re withholding vital information? Assuming Beth is telling the truth, it is possible she’s fabricating a story to alleviate her trauma. It was almost unheard of for an Imbued to have a disease such as schizophrenia, but repressed memories and other outright delusions were more or less equal across the board.

“I see. I’m sure someone believed it was better to keep it a secret.” I wasn’t lying; either one government official stuck a traumatized teen in my office with the story that her dad killed her sister and himself, or Beth had been lying when first met six years ago. One way or another, someone thought that secret was worth keeping. How different could things have turned out if they were honest with-

“They didn’t lie.” I was so caught up in my thoughts that I almost didn’t hear Beth’s whispered sob. “H-he. Dad had powers.”

Oh. That changes everything. I had assumed Beth herself was Imbued, but as a victim of one, it would make sense for her to be assigned to me by her caseworkers. Nobody said she had powers; I had assumed it from consistent behavior indicative of Manifestation, and by virtue of government involvement.

“I apologize if I say something hurtful, but I was told he was a violent alcoholic.”

“He wasn’t.” Her voice lacked conviction, however. “Or, not to me and Larissa. I learned later that had a record in costume, but to me he was just Dad. He’d play with us, even show off his power to create these beautiful displays for us before we went to bed. I tried to pretend I was too adult for bedtime stories, but th-they were the happiest moments of my life.” Her voice lost strength with every passing word, and toward the end tears began to fall.

I followed my training and let her have her cry; laws and common sense forbade me from physical contact with the girl, and there were no words to offer her, so we stayed in relative silence. If she stayed like this for more than half an hour, then I’d start to be concerned.

“S-sorry, I feel like an idiot,” Beth signaled she was ready to move on.

“You’re allowed to be emotional, it’s natural.” No, that could still imply a weakness on her part, no sense in getting lax just because I no longer suspect she’s Imbued. “If you could talk about a subject like this one without being upset, then I’d have cause for concern.” The pop culture concept of emotionless psychopaths was annoying and inaccurate, but the stereotype was useful as a means of convincing people that emotions weren’t the enemy without a lecture that often defeated the purpose.

“I guess that makes sense.”

“We don’t have to continue, if you don’t want to.” Always let the patients know they get to decide how far is far enough.

“I’ll never want to,” she said. “But I think I have to. Dad’s power was… in costume, he called himself Recoil. Nothing special, he could manipulate and redirect energy on skin contact. His upper limit was handgun levels, and I think it took a lot of concentration to work, so even back in Oregon he never stood out as a hero or villain.” She forced a sad, weak smile. “He did figure out a sort of cloaking field that let him walk through electronic security.”

“Impressive.” Her attempt to take pride in her father’s accomplishments was understandable, and invisibility was a rare power.

“Yeah.” Beth took a slow, shaky breath. “One night, he went out. It’s possible nobody knows everything that happened. He came home late, we were in bed. I read Larissa her bedtime story. At some point, his powers changed.” She stopped, looked at me. “He Surged, if you know what that is?”

Oh. “I know.” I could piece together what was coming on my own, but this was Beth’s story to tell, not mine.

“His new power was absorption instead of redirection. He went from insignificant to one of the strongest in the state.” Her voice trembled with the word ‘strongest’, made it into an insult rather than a mark of achievement. “When he got home, he went to Larissa’s room.”

“His power didn’t absorb damage.” She looked at me, pleading with her tear filled eyes for something I couldn’t offer. “It transfered to someone else on touch. It had to be painless, right? She was asleep, and there wasn’t enough left of her to feel anything.”

Good god. “I’m sure you’re right.” Forcing her to explain the rest would be sadism, not therapy. “You don’t have to continue, I think I can figure out the rest.”

In the silence that followed, I did piece together some of what must have happened. A suicide by poison made sense with the context she gave; it may have been the only option with a power like his. Mistaking accidental death for murder was more common than I wanted to dwell on, if indeed Beth’s version was accurate. I had to keep in mind that her perception might be flawed. Some parts of her story required significant assumptions, and couldn’t be as reliable as a police investigation.

The part I didn’t understand was moving her to the other side of the country in the aftermath. There was more to this story than I knew, and I wasn’t sure Beth had the answers even if I could risk this breakthrough by pressing her. Beth may not have given me a complete picture, but she gave me enough to help her, and my curiosity did not justify losing sight of the goal.

My job is to help victims pick up the pieces of their lives, nothing more and nothing less. “Thank you. I can’t imagine what reliving that must have been like for you. For what it’s worth, I think you made a great deal of progress today.” As far as tactics went, praising success was generic enough to work on almost anyone if it appeared genuine, but it went double for Imbued.

With effort brought on by the usual ravages of time, I climbed out of my chair. “I have some paperwork which needs done. You don’t have to leave, feel free to stay here as long as you need.”

Beth looked up at me after I stood. “Thank you.”

I avoided contact on my way out; office space was a premium in the city, and while I was successful, I still had to be frugal. Once the door was closed, I started scribbling notes down on Beth’s profile. Some was details I couldn’t trust to memory, some risk and assessments that I might have to pass along some days, and some was me venting my dissatisfaction with the officers involved in this case. How was I supposed to do my job when people kept critical need-to-know information from me? Not that they care, it’s not their performance quotas on the line. Ugh.

I looked over at my daughter, playing the role of secretary while handling her homework. To my relief, she planned to go into her father’s profession as an engineer, but that didn’t mean she got to grow up without having at least one garbage job. “Elise? How’s the 3:30 look?”

“Still Mister Sloan.” I felt a bit of relief; by all reasonable metrics, the man had no need to see a psychologist, he just liked to take an hour out of his week to pay someone to listen to him talk about himself. Tedious, perhaps, but between volatile patients that might be able to erase my brain and government agents breathing down my neck, I was ready for more tedium in my life. “Oh, and you have an evaluation at three tomorrow. A new Altered, got her powers Christmas night, and they’re getting ready to take her out of quarantine.

Christmas? “They kept her in quarantine for a month?!”

Elise shrugged. “Hey, ain’t me callin’ the shots.”

“I know.” Meanwhile, I was doing mental calculations on how I would schedule my foreseeable future; adding two new patients in such a short period of time was never a good idea, even if one was technically an old patient. Let alone a new patient coming out of a month of partial isolation who had powers which required a month of partial isolation.

All of which was a future concern. Right now, I needed to focus on Beth, and what parts of what she told me would go into the record, and which I’d leave out for her sake. One of the costs of government business; privacy laws were a thing that other people obeyed.


11 thoughts on “Price Nothing Given, Chapter 8- Anna Cantu

  1. A/N- Okay, class, what did we learn about Surges today?

    This was a pain in the ass chapter to write. First, finding the balance in exposition to Beth’s history- how much to share, what to save, how many questions I wanted to answer and how many others I wanted to raise.

    Second was in part because Snake/Eater asked so nicely for an insight into what psychologists dealt with in the Price setting. So now you get to see Price Psychology in action. It’s… a little less nice and a lot more manipulative than psychology in our world.

    Also a convenient way to show bits of time skipping and the like. And remind people that Cassie still exists, and her power is kinda scary.

    Also reminding people to vote.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a bit of both. There’s a quality measure of total number of patients vs total number of failures, but it’s also weighted by the disorder itself. Some disorders (say, ADHD and phobias) are far more simple to deal with than, say, schizophrenia- nobody’s expected to *cure* that one, they just have to control it, and even then it’s understood it’s not always possible. And some, like Alzheimer’s, are considered death sentences much like they are in our world.

        If you’re a lung cancer specialist who can get a 75% survival rate, then you’re a hero. If you’re a gastroenterologist, then you’re a butcher. Same basic concept.

        It’s a rather arcane formula, but like a medical doctor, you’re expected to either get results, or admit you’re in over your head and send the patient to a therapist who can. Given mental health disorders are a little more difficult than most physical disorders, there’s always a margin for failure. At the same time, the guv’ment will send work to the most successful and qualified first and foremost.

        Like I went over in the “divergences” setting material, psychology/psychiatry in Price is seen as a “hard” science, more akin to physical medicines than liberal arts.


  2. Well, that is all kinds of sad. So Beth’s dad went from redirecting energy on a limited scale, to redirecting damage on a temporal scale, but possibly without any control over it. Which would mean that the thing he lost for his Surge was most forms of human contact including any with his daughters.

    I know that there are no real plans to expose the underlying causes of powers in the setting, but at this point I would like to know what is going on just to have something to direct my anger at. Most powers seem needlessly cruel for what they give and surges in particular seem like some sort of evil cosmic prank. Or a deal with the devil, which makes me really sympathetic to all of those religious types who think Imbued are wicked sinners.

    Being an Imbued psychologist really does seem like a stressful job. Between the implicit threat of your patients and the explicit threat of the government I can see that job having high turnover and burn out. Super interesting insight into this section of the universe, I am really glad that you had the chapter from Anna’s PoV.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s not that there’s no plans to reveal the source of powers- it’s that I steadfastly refuse to do so. I refuse to reveal if it’s a single force or multiple, whether or not it’s sapient, or if it’s a fundamental part of the Price universe, or some outside thing.

      In other words- what you’re mad at might be no more to blame than gravity is to blame when someone dies in a fall. Or it might be literally Satan. Or anything between those extremes.

      And, yeah, thank snake/eater for the suggestion. The original plan was from Beth’s perspective.


      1. When I said there was no plan to reveal it, what I meant was that you had stated that opinion before that you wouldn’t be giving out that information. Which, honestly, I am completely fine with. I like that kind of ambiguity and mystery in the story. Even if it means that I have gone off on giant tangents about the reproductive practices of electricity…

        I actually really like the idea of using non-powered side characters like this to flesh out the setting and give us a more unbiased view of the Imbued characters. Or a differently-biased view, if we are going to be pedantic. I really wouldn’t mind seeing more chapters in that vein in this and other stories. Getting a doctor’s PoV, or a fireman’s, or maybe a politician’s, would all be really fascinating to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting chapter.
    A small part of me would like to believe most psychologists aren’t manipulating their patients this much, but it’s an inherent part of the job.

    Presumably this altered is Cassie? Can’t see who else it could be.

    I feel like this is the first real chapter of the book, with the other ones being mostly setup. In a way, you could say looking into Beth’s backstory is also a part of the setup, but I think this was more about getting to know the character from a different angle.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This policy is stupid. They’re divulging the secrets of incredibly powerful people to an often belligerent government in a context where these people can easily discover this lapse of faith. And they even know it by all evidence. It only takes one paranoid esper to ask and then blaze the truth up in lights. Perhaps I’m mistaken though, as this world clearly has no freedom of the press. This chases away the very people they most need to help: the supervillains. What the hell were they thinking? None of this is even taking into account the purely moral concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like that TanaNari change the PoV in this chapter, it helps adds mystery and suspense to the State of Beth’s mind and feelings.

    It’s kinda like game of thrones when someone adds more background history without the flashbacks.

    Liked by 1 person

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