I was released from the infirmary late Saturday night, and I spent all of Sunday struggling to catch up on some unfinished coursework. With the new week at hand and people returning their attention to the more typical rigors permeating higher education, it was clear that the fallout from our incident had been rather minimal, and thankfully so. Those stragglers who were accosted by the armed men during the rushed evacuation appeared to have put the incident behind them; even Megan was unusually chipper as she waved to me on her way to class. Nevertheless, Rebekah’s insistence on barring the ASB secretary from administrative activities would remain in effect – a sign that the administration was still very much on edge and would be for some time.
Of course, a large part of that unease could easily be attributed to the sudden disappearance of our mystery scientist. He slipped through the police barricade, took off into the city proper, and vanished without so much as a trace. In spite of a sweeping search spanning the entire weekend, not one person claimed to know a man by the name Durham Anthony, nor could they identify his face. The armed men who were detained after the incident would offer no information which might incriminate their boss, as was to be expected. They would likely be held on misdemeanor charges anyway, forced into community service or something similar. Thus, with no further leads and no history to draw from, it was decided that the the case be put on hold for the time being. Considering how nothing too serious had transpired, many among the general masses considered it a best-case scenario.
Psh… Best-case, my lily white ass… I may have been a tad biased, but I knew in my heart that this story was far from over. Durham Anthony would return sooner or later; it was only a matter of when the most opportune moment would present itself to him. Not to mention that there was still a possibility of further ESPer attacks, so I couldn’t understand how a correlation this blatant could so easily be overlooked. To my credit, I wasn’t the only one.
I was in the middle of calculus class when I noticed my phone vibrating against the inside of my bag. It was a message from Rebekah asking that I meet her and the others this afternoon at a restaurant in the heart of downtown. A minute later, I received the same text from Rhiannon, albeit with a tad more sarcastic commentary. This prompted a little back-and-forth between the two women, and I had to quickly silence my phone just to focus on the lecture in front of me. Seriously, those two can be such a handful…
Friday night’s dance was meant as a symbolic gesture to celebrate the end of first-trimester midterms. Faulkner University operated on a quarterly system: three terms of eleven weeks, and an optional eight-week summer session. So while I understood their unique enthusiasm toward this pressing threat, I had to ask myself if the two of them had suddenly forgotten that excluding holidays, we were only four weeks from final exams.
I suppose it couldn’t be helped. In the realm of academics, those two had it easy; Rebekah was a proven genius, and Rhiannon was – well – Rhiannon. On the other hand, I didn’t feel nearly as confident; a part of me had reconciled the likelihood that my straight-A average which I flaunted since middle school was about to drop by a letter.
In a way, I was reminded of those children’s action shows I used to watch when I was little. The heroes would always find a way to balance going to school with saving the world, although the reality is much less cut-and-dry. It was a little begrudgingly that I walked out to my car around two-fifteen, worn down from my final class of the day, and just patient enough to slog through whatever ‘Team ASB’ had on their mind this week.
“Good afternoon. Do you have a reservation?”
Well, can’t say I was expecting this. Nestled in an old brick building across from the city courthouse, the Saint Catherine seemed at first glance to be too posh a meeting place for a group of college students. “I’m sorry, but I was told to meet someone here. Do you know a girl named Rebekah Farley?”
“Ah, you must be Lana Orion, then. Please follow me.” As the woman escorted me through rows of tables, my bewilderment only continued to grow. What I had expected was a crowd full of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives; instead, I saw nearly half as many college students as there were members of the card-carrying elite. Most of them were dressed equally to the middle aged men and women they conversed with, and for a moment, I felt incredibly out of place. The hostess took notice of this and stopped.
What should I say…? “What is it, m-miss?”
“A wise man once said to walk in like you own the place. Only you can decide whether or not you belong here, Miss Orion.”
“Right… Thank you.” I let out a sigh and puffed up my chest. You can do this, Lana. We turned a corner into a small annex. Rebekah waved me over from a booth closest to the back wall. Accompanying her were Rhiannon and Cassandra. That’s a bit strange…
“We were worried you had gotten lost!” chided Rhiannon as I sat down across from her.
“Contrary to what you might think, I actually had some important responsibilities to attend to. Anyway, what exactly is all of this, Rebekah? Why aren’t we meeting in the Deschutes Room like we normally do?”
“I merely wanted to express my gratitude for the other night,” replied the ASB president. “As to the exact nature of our current setting, think of it as a kind of recruiting hotspot. Talent scouts like to bring their prospective candidates here in hopes that the affluent atmosphere will help foster a long-term contract or partnership. I’ve had a few such encounters myself from hospitals and private practices alike, and not just the ones in this city.”
On that note, a waiter arrived carrying two trays of food on a small cart. The plates were evenly spread with slabs of prime rib, mashed potatoes, and slices of rye bread. Beside them were four glasses of sparkling cider. As the table was set, the succulent aroma wafted upward into my nose, and I had to fight an urge to drool. I couldn’t begin to estimate how much all of it must have cost.
We quickly gave our thanks for the warm meal, taking a few minutes to enjoy the silence brought on by our mutual self-indulgence. After some hearty mouthfuls, Rebekah set her utensils down and clapped her hands together. “I decided to call you two out here because Cassandra and I were talking late last night about how best to proceed. Cassandra, would you be willing to take the helm on this?”
“Oh yeah, one moment.” She reached into her purse, rummaging through her belongings until she found what she was looking for. When she brought her hand down on the table, both my eyes and Rhiannon’s widened in shock. She was holding an exact replica of the stone Rhiannon had shot to pieces Friday night. “It’s called a conduit crystal.”
“Conduit crystal?” I asked.
“Well, the one I have here is just a prototype. You did kind of smash the real one, after all. I’m not really allowed to go into details of how they’re made – the important thing is knowing how these are supposed to work. By harnessing rogue energies which naturally permeate the Abstraction Sphere, a conduit crystal can flood its wielder with copious amounts of sensory data.”
“Hang on; that sounds a little bit like the drug Durham Anthony used on me.”
“Very perceptive,” interjected Rebekah. “We can think of the drug as operating on an inverse principle. The victim’s body becomes the medium, maximizing its own supply of energy before it seeks the energy of others within the Sphere. The amplifier, on the other hand, provides a control mechanism wherein whoever uses it can control how much energy is absorbed and for how long.”
Cassandra quickly added, “There are risks of synesthesia-related illness, but the odds are so low it might as well be a non-issue.”
So the stone and the drug do the same thing, just in different ways… “Do you think our scientist managed to reverse engineer one of these stones?”
Shaking her head, Cassandra reached again for her bag. “When I called Daddy on Saturday and explained what happened, he told me that some important data was stolen from his lab back in August. He now thinks that information might have been used to create the drug, but that wasn’t all that worried him. Oh, here it is.” She handed a slip of paper to Rhiannon. “This is a geological summary of the conduit crystal. Like all minerals, it has a hardness, a cleave point, and other science related stuff. Can you use your magic to strike the crystal exactly as is written on the paper?”
“Um, are you sure that’s a good idea?” blinked Rhiannon.
“Trust me, it’ll make sense in a few minutes.”
“I guess I can’t say no to you.” Rhiannon closed her eyes, a surge of green electricity arcing between her thumb and index finger. She then placed her thumb against the corner of the crystal, allowing the electricity to arc around its surface. Gradually her index finger moved toward the opposite end, and the moment it made contact, there was an audible crack. The conduit crystal fractured into three distinct pieces.
“Thank you, Rhiannon. Now, let me see them.” We watched intently as Cassandra closed her hand around the three fragments. Nothing happened at first, but after about thirty seconds, the shards began to glow with a pale blue light. Before our very eyes, the cracks began to mend, and she set the fully repaired stone back onto the tabletop. “See? Just like new.”
“How is that even possible…?” I stammered. “Are you telling me this… conduit crystal… is made of…?”
“That’s right; a conduit crystal is made by crystallizing energy from the Abstraction Sphere itself. The cutting process has to be exact, because any alterations to the crystal’s shape after the fact would quickly be reverted. So even if you were to shatter one of these into a million pieces…”
“At some point, the crystal would reform itself,” concluded Rhiannon. “I think I get it; if the crystal begins to form shards, then whoever finds them all first would potentially have a shiny new toy to play with.”
Rebekah traced a finger around the rim of her glass. “There is no doubt in my mind that Durham Anthony is also aware of this phenomenon. He will likely send teams to pursue and collect these fragments, meaning we must strike while the element of surprise is with us. Lana?”
“What is it, President?”
“As the unofficial ASB navigator, your abilities are the most well-suited to locating the energy signatures of the shards. Can we count on you?”
“I mean, it shouldn’t be too much trouble.” Talk about having the weight of the world on your shoulders…
“Alright, then. Conservative estimates by Cassandra’s father hint at the moment of formation occurring out Saturday evening. Cassandra and Rhiannon will patrol the east half of the city. Chase and I will take the west half. I plan to brief him on the situation later tonight.”
“That won’t do!” There was a moment’s silence before I realized the words which had flooded out were my own. The three women looked at me, eyebrows raised in confusion. Finally, Rebekah cleared her throat.
“Pardon me, but did I say something you found troublesome, Lana?”
“Well, I…” Come on, stupid! If you don’t say it now, who will!? “I want to team up with Eileen! She has every right to be a part of this!”
“Lana… Very well; it appears I haven’t much of a choice in the matter. I will make sure to brief her on the situation as well. You two will be moving around a lot that night, so make sure she’s good and ready for it.”
“Yes, ma’am! Also, I can stop by her place after we’re done here since it’s actually close by.”
She smiled. “Then it’s settled. Let’s leave things as they are for now and enjoy the rest of our meal.” It didn’t take long for us to clean our plates, and once the check was taken care of, our president politely excused herself from the table. It was time to take our leave.
On our way out, the hostess turned and bowed to us one more time. “We provide a discounted rate to all of our student guests, so please feel free to dine with us again.”
“Thank you so much. Have a good evening.” Once outside, I waved goodbye to Cassandra and Rhiannon, heading back to my car. I certainly could have walked the way to Eileen’s house, but if I was lucky, perhaps she would invite me in for dinner. A part of me couldn’t help chuckling at the thought, having already filled my belly just minutes earlier.
What mattered to me was having a chance to get to know her better. She fascinated me in a way, and as I drove up the hill into the residential district, it dawned on me that this upcoming mission could be construed as a kind of date. Would Eileen take me seriously… if I came off that way…?
She was the type to keep things simple – in some respects, she acted just like Rhiannon. She needed no justification to act on her gut feelings, and she wasted no time on ‘petty’ things like labels or definitions. Despite not being a virgin, she prided herself in having never had an ‘official’ boyfriend or girlfriend. I had never asked her directly, but those around her seemed to respect the fact that she knew herself intimately – or at least moreso than most tend to.
I eventually spotted her car and parked myself directly behind it. I could see her silhouette through the living room window. Taking a deep breath, I walked across the street, up the front walkway, and knocked on the door. When Eileen saw me standing there, her lips curved upward in her usual laid back grin.
“Step on in, gal! We’ve some catching up to do!” Just like that, completely unfazed by my surprise visit, she invited me inside, eager to hear all about the happenings of the past few days. I was more than happy to oblige.
TO BE CONTINUED…