Author's Notes: This is not a drill. This is an actual update. You are not imagining this. This is actually happening. Please do not adjust your monitors, and please withhold any indignant pitchforks regarding the year and a half wait until the end of the chapter. Thank you. ~
Chapter 23 – Introspection
Garet turned the corner of the Laliveran street and then leaned against the wall there casually, quickly making himself comfortable and preparing to carry out their plan. He glanced down the road, noting the small cafe a few buildings down that they'd scoped out earlier from their hotel room. A somewhat distinctive young woman with purple hair was sitting at a table there, sipping from a mug and eying him casually. He winked in that direction, then turned towards the street corner and waited.
The flight to Lalivero had been uneventful and they'd arrived in the city without a hitch. It had been a simple matter to get a taxi ride to the hotel Hama had specified, and the original plan had been to get the keys to their room, drop their bags off, and then work out how best to get back into the investigation. Like all good plans, however, it didn't last long.
"We were followed here," Feizhi had said quietly as they walked into reception. "Don't look, but there's a car that just parked in front of the hotel. It was behind us the whole way."
Garet had raised an eyebrow at her, fighting the urge to look that way. No good would come of making any tails wary. "This is a pretty close hotel to the airport... are you sure it's not just a coincidence?"
"It could be, but... I just have a bad feeling is all." She frowned, but that quickly became a smirk. "And before you say it, yes, you're still the paranoid one. I actually have a reason to be worried."
Ah, yes... that vision. He still dared not to worry or think about any of those implications, and instead tried to think of more reasonable ways to deal with things. "Did you see who they were?"
"Not really, but there are at least two of them. They followed us out of the terminal, got into a car, and pulled up near the taxi rank until we left in one of them. Now they're here." Feizhi shrugged. "Which means either Hama posted somebody to keep an eye on us... or the Proxians have found us already."
"Hama thought Lalivero was supposed to be safe, though. Surely there couldn't be many of them here!" Garet frowned.
"Hama's not here." Despite being more cheerful and responsive than she'd been earlier this morning, Feizhi's mood still turned dark at the mention of her Master, and Garet didn't blame her for that sentiment. "Hostile or not, we need to figure out their intentions as soon as we can."
"Good idea. So how will we do that?"
They'd devised a plan while checking in and moving their bags. They had left the hotel within ten minutes of arriving, walking out the front door of the building and making sure they had been seen. They were only a couple of blocks away, still close enough to see their hotel. More importantly, they were in a place that they'd been able to see from their hotel room and thus plan accordingly.
It was a simple plan: go for a walk, split up shortly before reaching the assigned point so that Feizhi could set up and observe nearby, and then Garet would catch their follower and politely ask them to stop. Of course, that was the best case scenario, so Garet had both pistol and Psynergy ready to go, just in case. Feizhi also had a gun, so if worst came to worst, one hand gesture would be enough to end the interrogation quite handily.
Hopefully it wouldn't come to that. Hopefully Garet would be able to talk down their follower. Hopefully they weren't hostile to begin with and it was all just some friendly misunderstanding. Whatever happened, though, he didn't dare doubt Feizhi's conviction that she could stop her vision from occurring.
What choice did he have, after all? He swallowed, trying to ignore how dry his mouth was.
Perhaps twenty seconds after he'd turned the corner, a young man stepped into vision, practically bumping right into Garet. He stopped barely a metre away, meeting Garet's gaze and hesitating instantly.
"Good morning," Garet said calmly, pulling back the edge of his jacket to reveal his holstered pistol. "We need to talk."
The hesitation fell away from the other man's expression, replaced by a mask of complete calm. "Yes... we do."
Garet opened his mouth to speak, but the words caught in his throat as he studied the man. It couldn't be... he'd only just encountered Isaac and Jenna a couple of days ago after years of no contact, so how could it be possible that he'd find him too? It seemed like an unimaginably low chance, yet there was no denying the man's identity – long brown hair, slightly handsome features, a very calm and collected presence about him, and a few small features that marked him as the sibling of the hacker that had been on TV days ago. There was no question.
All the people that had been important to him in his earlier years were suddenly resurfacing, and all of them seemed to have gotten themselves involved in some pretty crazy world affairs. If there was a god, Garet mused, he was being a serious dick right now.
He looked over Felix for a few more moments, making absolutely sure that this wasn't some kind of coincidence. Assuming it wasn't, the man had grown up somewhat and picked up a slightly more weathered look in the last three years. Felix had always been calm and quiet, but now he seemed almost to draw that around him like a personal shield, keeping everything hidden... yet looking absolutely ready for what might occur. The most telling thing, however, was the slightest hint of recognition in his face. They definitely knew one another.
Things hadn't gone well when he'd tried to speak to Isaac, but this time Felix had been following him. Perhaps things might go better this time, as long as he approached it right...
"You've been following me for a while now, and you haven't been alone. Where's your friend? Are they close by?"
It was the kind of thing that somebody might want to know in this kind of situation, but Garet gave Felix an imploring look to suggest the question he hadn't sound aloud – is it safe to talk?
"They're close, but they won't get involved unless things get unpleasant." He shrugged. "I'm guessing the same is true of your companion?"
"That's right. So, why are you following me... Felix?"
His mouth turned into a slight frown, a small crack in his calm facade. "So I was right... I do recognise you. You know who I am?"
"Yes, I know you very well. Our families were the best of friends for years. We grew up together." Garet hesitated, recalling the things that Isaac had said. "Only... you don't remember any of it, do you? I'll bet you got amnesia sometime about three years ago."
The frown on Felix's face deepened. "How do you know that?"
"Does the name Isaac mean anything to you?"
Felix paused, looking at the ground. "Isaac... yes, it does." He met his gaze again. "Is that your name?"
Garet facepalmed, groaning. "No, it's not. Isaac is a mutual friend from our childhood. I guessed that you have amnesia because he has it too, and your family was with his the last anyone knew. As for me, I'm Garet. Sound familiar?"
"Incredibly so. Tall, spiky red hair, energetic... it certainly feels like something I should know. Except... I don't." He sighed. "I was hoping it might all come back..."
"Well, there's more I could tell you. For example, we both grew up in a quiet little Angaran town called Vale, at the foot of the Mount Aleph volcano. Three years ago the volcano erupted, and our families decided to leave for other parts of the world instead of remain and rebuild. That was the last my family heard of yours, though we did intend to keep in touch. We were good friends, you see... you, me, a guy my age called Isaac... and your younger sister, a girl ca-"
"Jenna!" Felix took a step back, looking as though he'd been slapped. "No... no, dammit... I remember that I told my parents that I'd look after her, that nothing bad would happen..."
Garet hesitated again before taking a step towards him, holding up a hand warily. "Take it easy Felix... I was your friend, remember? I'm here to help, so don't freak out on me."
Felix took a deep breath, leaning against the wall for a moment and pressing a hand to his temple as though to steady himself. He closed his eyes, then nodded and opened them again. "There's still a lot of blanks, but everything you said sounds true. Jenna... do you know where she is?"
"No, I don't, but I've been trying to find her. I think she's still with Isaac, and I met him a couple of days ago in Alhafra, which is how I guessed about the memory problems. He didn't remember me either, so all things considered, I don't think it'd be a stretch to say she's an amnesiac as well. But... I think they're in trouble, though."
Felix stared at him for a second, before closing his eyes and putting a hand to his temple. He stayed silent for a few seconds, apparently struggling against whatever mental blocks had lodged in his memories.
The silence seemed to awaken a sense of urgency in Garet's mind, and he had to force himself not to groan at his own absentmindedness. This was Felix alright... but he'd also been following him for some reason. If it had just been out of recognition and curiosity, he probably wouldn't have come alone, and if he wasn't alone... then who was with him? And what were they doing? He needed to know what was going on before he could safely call Felix a friend again.
At that, the brown-haired man opened his eyes, twitching slightly. His hand remained at his temple, but now he was rubbing it as if to ease a headache. "Dammit. It's really no use..."
"Still can't remember much?" Garet frowned. Despite his better judgement, this man had been his friend years ago – he needed to help him, dangerous or no.
Felix hesitated and inched back. "Wait, stop. Don't move towards me. She might think you're being hostile."
"She? Your companion?"
"Yes. She's sworn not to get involved if she doesn't have to, but she is protective, and there's more that I need to tell you." Felix took a deep breath and drew his calmness back around him. "I know enough about who you are now to make a decision on this, so I'm going to be honest. You didn't stop me at this street corner because you recognise me... you stopped me because I was following you suspiciously and you wanted to find out why, correct?"
"Well, it's a simple answer: you were at Madra not that long ago. You saw things you shouldn't have and you got involved in something much bigger than either of us. And now the person I work for wants you to forget whatever you might have learnt there... permanently."
Garet's gut went cold, and he forced himself to not look suspicious while he controlled his fear. It didn't take a genius to figure out who in the world would want to kill them.
"You're working with the the Proxians," he said quietly. "I'll bet that's why your companion isn't here – seeing a Proxian would just make me suspicious. You're planning to kill us!"
"That was my order, but I decided not to do it already. The fact that I know you from my old life only reinforces that decision." Felix's voice was still deadly calm, but there was strength underneath that tone. "I woke up in Prox with no memory, Garet. They gave me life, they gave me a place, and they treated me extremely well and comfortably. I was happy to repay the favour and make myself useful to them, and as far as I care, it's practically home. I have no reason not to help them and work for them in this... but that doesn't change the fact that I am nobody's assassin. I don't want to hurt you or your friend."
"I want to believe that, Felix. I really do." Garet gritted his teeth. "But excuse me if it's very, very hard to do so given everything I've experienced because of this Project of yours lately."
"It's the truth. Hell, my partner doesn't even know that we're supposed to kill you – she thinks we're just supposed to observe and mark your whereabouts. I have no intentions of going through with it. Please... believe me." Felix's facade seemed to crack, and for a moment he almost looked as if he was about to start pleading with him.
Garet heard the waver in his voice, and he found it very hard to ignore. It seemed like Felix was being honest... but how could he be sure? Perhaps he was sincere, but perhaps he was also deceiving him about the memory loss to try and get closer to Garet's confidence. Perhaps Prox knew who he was, and had brainwashed him for this exact purpose. Did Felix know about Psynergy? Hell, did he have it? There was no telling how much about Project Psynergy he knew, or what his place in it was. Trusting him might lead to a new ally – something they desperately needed – or, more likely, it might lead to a knife in the back.
"I'm sorry Felix, but I can't trust you. Too much has happened. Too many people have been hurt or killed because of what Prox is doing... and by the sounds of it, your own sister is among the former."
Felix closed his eyes, balling his hands into fists. "I know. I know, dammit. Everything you said just makes me realise just how messed up everything is getting. I just... urgh. I don't know what I'm supposed to do here."
A small part of Garet's mind hesitated at the words, his sympathy threatening to overwhelm his reason. But then... Feizhi's vision of his possible death came to mind, something he desperately wanted to avoid. For all he knew, she had envisioned that he would trust Felix, only to be shot and killed on the street right here. He could be playing right into Prox's hands. He had to be smart and rational about this.
He had to cut this reunion short.
"Felix, there's nothing you can say or do right now that will convince me that you're being honest. I'm sorry, but that's just how it is" Garet sighed. "The best thing you can do, then, is to match actions with words. You need to go. Right now. Stop following us, and let us go in peace without any more interference. If you can't do that, then I'm going to have to resist whatever you try to do."
Slowly, Felix nodded. "I understand. I'm sorry, Garet."
He sighed, but forced a smile. "Now that part I believe, at least."
A matching smile crept onto the other man's face. "I guess this is goodbye, then. I hope we can meet in better circumstances soon."
"Yeah... me too."
Without another word, Felix turned and walked back the way he'd come, disappearing around the street corner just as quickly as he'd arrived. For the second time in only a few days, Garet watched another remnant of his happy childhood days walk away from him on bad terms. Dammit all. How had it come to this? He sighed heavily, slumping against the wall and balling his hands into fists.
Memories seemed to flow unbidden into his mind, one after another. He saw himself with Isaac, Felix and Jenna, all of them playing by the river at Vale. He saw them climbing the hills around the base of the mountain. He saw an argument between himself and Isaac over something stupid, like who would marry Jenna... and how Felix had quite quickly ended that argument by dashing both their hopes. Then there was the time of the eruption, when they all worked together to gather their things and evacuate before the lava reached their homes. Lastly, he remembered all of them standing together one last time in Vault, making a promise to stay in touch no matter where they went, so that they could meet up again in the future...
Better circumstances indeed. But no, his hopes had just been dragged outside and beaten to a bloody pulp one after another. Garet closed his eyes, forcing his tears not to come this time. Was this what would happen if the Proxians really had their way? More homes destroyed? More hopes destroyed? More friends and families torn apart by things beyond their control?
No... that was unacceptable. If he hadn't already been determined to fight against the Proxians and their Project Psynergy, he certainly had reasons to be motivated now. Why should anyone have to feel as bad as he did right now? If he stopped it, maybe that might spare some people that pain.
Maybe if he stopped it, it'd allow him to reunite with Felix properly: as a good friend.
At the sound of footsteps, Garet opened his eyes to see Feizhi approaching him. He took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it.
"Are you okay?" Feizhi asked, studying him with some concern.
"I'll be fine. Self pity can come later." He forced a smile, but it faded fairly quickly. "I'll put it this way – that guy there was a childhood friend of mine, just like Isaac. And just like Isaac, he didn't seem to remember much."
"Really?" She glanced towards where Felix had left, her concern deepening. "Huh. That seems way too unlikely to be a coincidence."
"It gets worse. For whatever reason, his first memory is being found in Prox, and so they took him in. He's working for them. The other follower we had was his partner, who happens to be a Proxian – that's why she's not out in plain sight, I'd imagine. And their job is to kill us."
"What?!" Feizhi blinked. "I... but then... then why did he just walk away?"
"Because he remembered me." Garet looked down at his feet, running the conversation back in his mind. "I don't know whether to believe it, but he said that he's no-one's assassin. I want to trust that he won't, but... well, I remember what you said about your vision."
"Please don't remind me." She looked up and down the street for a few seconds, apparently making sure there weren't any snipers nearby. "So what do we do?"
"Lay low for a start, just in case there are people trying to kill us with less convictions than him." He thought hard for a moment. "Then we can either get out of here and try to track down Hama from somewhere safe... or we can stay here and do that, while looking into Proxian presence in the meantime."
"Proxian presence? You think there are more here besides those two?"
"If they've been following us since we landed, then that means either they spotted us coming in, or somebody spotted us leaving Alhafra and arranged for them to be here. They might have been here already, or else they haven't exactly come far to find us." He smiled. "And if they were already here, perhaps there were others. It's worth looking into, if only so we can find out why they were waiting for us."
Feizhi nodded. "That's actually really sensible, Garet."
"I have my moments."
She laughed, turning away from him and walking in the direction towards their hotel. "I guess there's a first time for everything."
"Oh come on..." He sighed and followed after her, glad at least that she was still in a better mood than she had been. In the meantime, he considered the possibility of changing hotels to avoid the Proxians planting eyes on them.
He also couldn't help but keep an eye on the rooftops... just in case.
Karst perched on the third floor fire escape, remaining as quiet and motionless as was humanly possible while she watched the conversation from afar. Whatever Felix and his acquaintance were talking about was a complete mystery to her, and as curious as she was, it wasn't her business unless Felix made it her business. She just had to keep an eye on them and make sure it didn't get too hostile. So far, it seemed that they were being completely civil... though whatever they were talking about was apparently putting her partner on edge.
It was somewhat disconcerting to think about. She'd known Felix for a couple of years now, but that was only a small amount of her life and her memories, all things considered. Felix, though... to him, though, she'd practically always been there. He'd always been a pupil of Saturos. He'd always been training as a duelist and a soldier. Anything else was a long lost curiosity, something that no doubt bugged him but was always absent regardless.
Now, all of a sudden, he'd recognised somebody that he inexplicably found familiar. This person was telling him memories and events that had clearly happened to him, but had just been denied him until now. Everything he knew and recalled had gone from being his entire life to just a slice of it... and likely a disjointed slice, at that.
Karst wondered what he was starting to remember, now. How did it make him feel? How was he going to handle it? Would he suddenly become a different person? Would he decide that Prox was no longer where he belonged? Selfishly, she even asked herself if she had a place in his old life. Was that all about to change, too? Perhaps she should have gone with him... for all she knew, he was now telling Proxian secrets directly to people working against them. But... he'd never do that. Never... right?
A little knot of worry and fear was worming its way into her heart and refusing to budge. Silently, she glanced down at her pistol, which she kept ready to use if Felix would need it. It wasn't that far away, and she was a decent shot. She might be able to take out his friend if she aimed really well. Then perhaps there'd be no doubt in Felix's mind where his loyalties lay...
She ground her teeth together and moved her hand away from the weapon. No. Why would she even consider that? She was better than that, dammit. Besides, Alex's orders were merely to observe, not engage. Perhaps he had other plans for the Madrans later. They needed to live for now... and killing them for her own selfish reasons would just make Felix hate her much, much faster anyway.
It was his life. It was his choice to make. Still... she was so happy to finally have a partner like all the other Proxians. It was nice to not be looked at with sadness just because she was the unlucky child. It was nice to have Felix. Karst just hoped she'd still have him by the time this was all done.
Lost as she was in those thoughts, she almost didn't realise that their conversation had ended. Felix was walking back the way he'd come, back to their rendezvous point. She glanced back at Felix's friend, who hadn't moved at all... in fact, he looked kind of angry. What had Felix said to him? The worries came back, but she forced them out of her mind and bid herself to move.
Making sure nobody was watching her, she climbed down from the fire escape and slipped down the street, looking as ordinary as possible. Moving down a narrow alley, she found a small bench on the next street. Felix was already sitting there, and he spotted her the moment she came into view.
"Hey. Are you alright?" Amazingly, it wasn't Karst that had said that – it was Felix. She frowned.
"Yeah, of course I'm alright." She sat down next to him. "That's the question I should be asking you. How are you feeling?"
Felix didn't answer at first. He leaned back against the bench, his eyes skyward and his expression thoughtful. Once again, she ould feel that tangle of negativity in her chest, but she forced it out of her mind.
"He told me a few things, Karst. He knew who I was instantly, and he told me how we'd grown up together. A place called Vale, somewhere in western Angara."
"I think I've heard of that... wasn't that near the volcano that went off a few years ago?"
"Yes... which explains why I'm not anywhere near it any more." He smiled, but it was easy to see how forced it was. "But he mentioned a little about what happened... a little bit about my family. And the moment he mentioned them, something came back to me."
"You remember them?"
"Not perfectly, but... a name came back to me instantly. Jenna." He looked towards Karst. "My little sister. I... I still don't know what happened, but I know I told my parents that I'd be able to look after her. I guess I failed."
Karst opened her mouth to reply, but then quickly closed it. How were you supposed to answer something like that? Instead, she just put an arm around him and leaned in close, squeezing his hand comfortingly with her other arm.
To her unspoken relief, he replied in kind and leaned in closer to her. "Whatever happened, though, she's alive. Except..."
"I think she's involved in all this business too, just like he was."
Karst nodded, chewing her lip. "Does that mean... you want to go and find her?"
Felix turned to face her, hesitating. "A little. But... we're working for the Project. We're supposed to follow orders. I can't just leave to do my own thing, not now."
The selfish part of her mind folded its arms and smiled smugly in Karst's imagination. Yet despite that... she wasn't convinced. Yes, she was happy that he seemed adamant on staying and carrying on his duty, but if he wasn't going to be happy about it... why should that make her happy? And how much of his actual feelings was he burying for the sake of Prox?
"Felix... be honest with yourself, and with me. Think about what you want to do if you didn't have those orders, if the Project didn't matter at all. If you were free to stand up and leave right now to go do whatever you wanted in the world... what would you do? Where would you go?"
He didn't reply straight away, instead taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. Karst waited, uncomfortably aware of her own tense heartbeats as she waited for the answer.
"If I didn't have the Project to think about..." He opened his eyes again. "I would have to find her, wouldn't I? If there's even a chance that I could find my long lost sister again, I would want to take that chance to search for her. I'd want to try and remember, to find out what had happened, and make sure she was safe and happy. I mean... wouldn't you want the same if you learned about Menardi for what felt like the first time?"
"Mmm... I'm sure I would, too."
That worry was in her chest yet again. A million thoughts were racing through her mind. Should she tell him to go do it? Surely she could explain it all to Alex and he might understand. And hey, it's not like the world was a huge and distant place. They could still stay in touch, keep tabs on each other, remain in contact if he did decide to leave. But she didn't want him to. She wanted him here, even if she knew it was better for him to go.
"I'd want you to come with me, though."
She'd been about to say something, but Felix beat her to it. She turned to meet his gaze, the worry quickly shifting into a sense of hope.
"If orders weren't a problem, then I'd want you there by my side. I mean... Prox considers us practically partners now, right? It'd seem wrong to break that up."
"Partners?" Karst barked out a laugh, letting a smirk creep onto her features. "Really? That's the best you can do?"
Ah, there's my humour. I was wondering where that had gone.
Felix quickly hesitated. "Well, I mean-"
"I know what you mean. Relax." She squeezed his hand again. "Believe me, I'd go with you in a heartbeat if orders and duties weren't involved."
"But they are involved. That's the problem." He frowned. "What was said today changes a few things, but... it can't change what I'm doing here. It doesn't. Prox is my home now, regardless of what came before. I want what's best for Prox and its people. I want the best for Saturos and Menardi, and I especially want the best for you."
"Prox can take care of itself if it really wants to, Felix. You don't have to shoulder the burden of the whole country."
Felix shrugged. "I don't know... the last time Prox looked out for itself, it lost the war."
Karst stared at him in shock for a few seconds, before barking a quiet laugh. "Wow, that was uncharacteristically harsh."
"Sorry about that..."
"Don't be." She smiled. "I like jokes, so don't worry. And don't worry about the others and things if you really need to. If you're that concerned, try talking to Alex about it and see if he'll give you lead to start searching... and be sure to put in a word for me too. If that's what you need to do, I just want to tag along."
"Yeah... Alex. I should talk to him, I guess." Felix nodded slowly, then lightly removed her arm from his shoulder so he could stand up and stretch. "Not right now, though. We've done what we needed to do, right? We should get going... we know where those two are staying if we need to keep tabs on them, after all."
"Right." Karst stood as well, looking around for a moment to get her bearings and then walking back towards where they'd left their car. "Another easy job completed."
If Felix sounded uncertain, Karst didn't hear it. There were much more pleasant things on her mind to focus on.
Karst was so sweet to him, Felix mused quietly as he fell in step beside her. He wasn't much of a romantic, but he did care deeply for the young Proxian woman. Her adoration for him was clear... if a little unfounded, in his eyes. More so than anything else, he really did want her to be happy and content with her life.
Which is why it was so difficult to keep hiding things from her. Yes, everything he'd said about his sentiments and his decisions was true. Yes, he'd rather go with her than without her. Yes, he did consider Prox the only real home he had, and he did want to see them get ahead in the world again. He wouldn't lie about anything personal like that.
But... he was still lying about their orders. He still hadn't told her that Alex had ordered them to kill Garet and his companion, not just watch them. As supportive of his feelings and his potential desire to leave and search for Jenna as Karst was, that was still a bit different from actually leaving everything behind and going with him. If she knew that he'd lied to her about the nature of their job, would she still feel as strongly? Or would she understand his desire to not kill people like that, and stick with her resolve?
Already, things were coming to a head. He wanted to be a part of all this, but he wasn't sure if he could agree with Alex's methods. He was going to have to confront him about his this... and he was going to have to do it soon. Then he would have to talk to Karst about it all and reveal the truth. The longer he waited, the worse it was probably going to be for him... and for Karst.
He desperately hoped it wouldn't lead to breaking her heart.
"So that's much of our story," Ivan said, glancing at Sheba. "Unless I missed anything."
"Nothing that I would know about." She shrugged.
Mia only just now realised that she'd been sitting forward intently during Ivan's recount, so she leaned back in her chair and thought about what had been said. She'd been worried to hear that Ivan had been captured by the Proxians, so she was still incredibly glad to see him safe and sound now. Still... just like her, it seemed that he'd been changed by the ordeal as well. He'd also been given Psynergy – and a different kind of Psynergy from hers and the Proxians, to boot. Why would they do something like that, especially if there was a danger of him waking up and breaking free during the procedure?
Then there was Sheba. Mia glanced at the young girl out of the corner of her eye, noting how impassive she seemed. Her powers were even more of a mystery than Ivan's. Going berserk and trying to destroy everything around her with lightning powers during the storm? Complete memory loss from before little more than a week prior? And she also happened to have been imprisoned with Piers before all that, worried that they were going to conduct some kind of experiments on her?
It seemed like the experiments had gone ahead, judging by the story... and that meant that she was an entirely unknown factor. Despite Piers' assurance, who knew what might happen if she went berserk again without warning? According to Ivan, she'd become somewhat quieter and subdued since Imil, as if afraid to lose herself again. Mia just didn't know what to think of it, or if there was anything that could be done to help. Perhaps she'd talk to the girl after they had finished and see if she could help somehow with her memories.
They had gathered in a conference room that Briggs had provided for them, and they'd spent the better part of the morning recounting their various adventures and exploits. It had been quickly decided that pooling their resources and strengths together would let them fight Project Psynergy more efficiently, so they all needed to be on a level playing field as far as information went. With Ivan completing his recap, they'd all had a chance to speak now.
"Alright then, very good..." Kraden scribbled a note down in his book that he'd been using to collate everything being said. "With all that said and done, does anyone object to a quick recap of what we know about Project Psynergy so far?"
"Go ahead," Piers said.
"Right. So, obviously, the crux of Project Psynergy is a genetic engineering experiment being conducted largely by Proxians. The experiments are being conducted to imbue the recipient with... for a lack of a better term, we'll call it 'magic'. This magical power gives them control over one element that they can use to influence the world around them, usually with quite destructive force. We've seen three elements demonstrated so far – water by Piers and Mia, wind and lightning by Ivan, and fire by a number of different Proxians. I would theorise that there is a fourth element that controls the power of earth, based on old documents and studies unearthed-"
Ivan cleared his throat loudly and pointedly, causing Kraden to momentarily pause and glare at him.
"…but we don't know about that for sure, so I'll move on." He glanced at Ivan once more, shook his head, and continued. "The process used to provide this power seems to be the implantation of a kind of symbiotic bacteria into the body, which then bonds with the host and provides this kind of manipulation of the world around it. Variations of this procedure may exist, but this is the only one we have any evidence of actually having been done so far.
"The providing of this power seems to be the focal point of Project Psynergy, but there is clearly more to it – if it was just about providing power, then kidnapping and experimentation on non-Proxians would be unnecessary and they could already be starting fights or battles with their newfound capabilities right now. Instead, they appear to be implanting multiple outsiders with powers. To what end, we don't know, but that does bring up the mysterious case of Sheba. Instead of having control over her powers, they appear to be dormant until and unless she suddenly goes berserk. Whether this is brought on by an external influence or something else is unknown, but given the mysterious storm over Imil at the time, it's likely to be connected."
Sheba sighed loudly, and Mia glanced at her again. Across the table, she could see Piers frowning.
"Let's see... as well as the implantation, there is the aforementioned storm that we will probably need to investigate. How does that relate to Psynergy, and was it caused by Prox? It seems uncannily timed, but there is no proof as to its relevance or connection just yet. Ivan also uncovered plans for a structure called Mercury Lighthouse, but what it does and how it relates to everything is also unknown... doubly so since we don't have the plans were lost with the Elementalists. Beyond these points, we still don't know much about the Project's overall goals, and we certainly don't know how many have been implanted, Proxian or otherwise. This is what we need to focus on most."
"What about the origin of Psynergy?" Ivan suggested.
"Also unknown... though some of my studies would indicate that this is not a new power, and that Psynergy has surfaced in much older parts of Weyard's history. Additionally, the first overt sign of this Project was when a Lemurian naval officer by the name of Alex discovered ancient documents and blueprints in Tundaria Tower before kidnapping Piers and defecting to Prox."
Mia frowned at the mention of Alex, folding her arms against her chest and forcing herself not to shiver. If only she could find him and figure out his angle in all of this...
"Before his defection, we knew nothing of Project Psynergy. The only thing we had to go on was that he was under suspicion of consorting with the Proxians and potentially selling them information, but the nature of what was happening eluded us until Piers escaped. According to what he saw and heard in his captivity in Prox, Alex was in a position of power in the Project – we're not sure what, specifically, but he does seem to be high up the chain of command."
"So what you're trying to say is that we have no idea where or how Psynergy came to be about," Ivan said, folding his arms. "We also have absolutely no idea what the actual aims of our opponents are, and the only lead we have to go on is the same lead that you've had for weeks – months, even – without making any significant progress."
Kraden hesitated. "Well... yes."
Mia expected Ivan to roll his eyes, but instead he simply grinned. "Lemuria's finest indeed. Clearly, we are the best anti-terrorists the world has ever seen."
Piers burst out laughing. The sound was so unexpected that even Ivan and Mia couldn't help but join in his laughter. Before too long, even Sheba and Kraden were joining in. Dire as the circumstances were, it suddenly seemed so ridiculous how little they actually knew.
"Alright, children, settle down." Kraden covered up his lingering grin by adjusting his glasses and staring down at his notes. "It's true, we don't know very much, but there are reasons for that. Much of the Elementalists work was lost when they were attacked. The Mercury Lighthouse files were heavily encrypted and protected, so there was little opportunity to decode them before the attack. Any copies that might still exist remain in the hands of the Proxians... or perhaps with Jenna, assuming she is still well after her broadcast."
"We haven't learned much in Champa either," Piers added, "but at least we've networked with Briggs and secured Champan neutrality if nothing else."
"And I guess I haven't exactly been helping, since all Sheba and I have been doing is trying to stay alive and out of the hands of the Proxians." Ivan frowned. "We succeeded in that, but only brought more questions to the table otherwise."
Mia hesitated before speaking up. "It seems pretty simple what we need to do to answer those questions, then. We need Alex."
All heads turned to her, and she suddenly felt herself trying not to blush. There was no need to be afraid around them, though, so she continued.
"I know that's not exactly easy. We don't know where he is or have any way to track where he's been... but he has the answers to all the questions we need. Where did his knowledge of Psynergy come from? He knows. Is he leading the Project, or are there others above him? He knows. What are the aims of the Project in the long run? He knows all of these things. If we find him, we can get him to tell us."
"I think it would be much harder to get him to talk than what you're suggesting," Kraden said.
Mia lowered her gaze to the table and shrugged. "He'll talk to me. I know it. And if I'm wrong... so what? We'll still have him. Take him to Lemuria, imprison him, question him there... it doesn't matter, but it'll slow down Project Psynergy in the long run."
Piers was still looking in her direction when she raised her eyes again. She offered him a brief smile, which he returned.
"I like the bold approach," Ivan said, nodding. "But you already hinted at the major problem: we have absolutely no idea where Alex is. The last anyone here saw of him was when he was at Prox, weeks ago. If he's there, we have no hope of getting to him. If he's not there, I can't really condone the idea of dispersing to all corners of Weyard in the search of one single man. As much as we can prioritise his capture, we need to be doing other things while working towards it."
"Yeah... I suppose you're right." She shrugged, trying to hide any disappointment she may have felt. Ivan was completely right, of course... but she still was desperate to learn Alex's angle on this.
"Alright, so our first priority is finding out information about Alex and his location." Piers rubbed his chin in thought. "And I think the best way to do that would be a direct strike against the Proxians."
Now it was his turn to have everyone's attention suddenly focused on him.
"I'm not saying we storm the beaches of Prox or anything crazy like that," he added. "But this Imil Base that Ivan was captured in is the most important clue we have right now. The plans for the Lighthouse were there. Ivan was augmented with Psynergy there. We don't know where else the Proxians are operating from, but we do know of that. If we can ransack it, find out everything we can, and then destroy it, then that will hopefully set the Proxians back. If we're lucky, we'll find out something that can lead to our next target, or perhaps find out where Alex is. It might be risky, but it's a better plan than doing nothing."
"It'll definitely be risky." Ivan shrugged. "If they haven't militarised the place after our first two intrusions and my escape, then I'll be really surprised. There was also at least one Psynergy user present when I left, and who knows how many there are now?"
"We have three Psynergy users here," Mia countered. "It's not like we're defenceless."
"Perhaps. Still, though... what the hell. I'm in." He smirked. "Like you said, we don't know where else the Proxians are operating from them, and I'd rather do something than sit on my hands."
"I'm in too," Sheba piped up. "I'd rather be doing something active than sitting here talking all day."
Piers glanced to Mia, and she nodded. "I guess that's all the combatants in, then. Kraden?"
Kraden grumbled. "I doubt I can be much of an active participant, but I'd rather keep an eye on you all than be returned to Lemuria, if that's what you're asking."
"Alright then." He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I want to be sailing out of Champa within two hours from now. Get whatever you think then and meet at the docks – we'll sort out who travels on what boat then."
Without waiting for any answers, Piers left the room. It didn't seem like Piers to be so abrupt... but then Mia glanced towards Kraden, who was left looking slightly dumbfounded and annoyed, and his reasoning became clear. Kraden was an intelligent man, but if he was left to have a say in the logistics of their mission, they'd probably be here until the next day. Better to leave as soon as they could.
Two hours, then. She had a few things she would like to acquire in Champa before they left, so that would give her just enough time. Following Piers' cue, she left the room also, with Ivan and Sheba right behind her. Sheba said something quiet to Ivan that she couldn't overhear, then turned and walked in a different direction. Ivan took that opportunity to step up beside Mia, clearing his throat.
"You know... you don't have to get involved in this. Returning you to the Elementalists was a stupid idea on my part, I know, and I'm sorry for how they treated you. I just wanted to get you back home and out of this whole affair, Psynergy or not, but it wasn't possible. It is now, though. We're going to Imil anyway, so I'll happily drop you off there before we attack."
For a moment, she had the odd image of Ivan wearing a set of shining armour stuck in her mind, standing against a bright backdrop and wielding a sword and shield in her defence. That was honestly how she was starting to feel every time he showed up. It was an amusing thought... but also a comforting one.
"While I appreciate the sentiment, I can't really go back home just yet. I said I was going to help Piers, and I mean to follow through on that claim." Mia smiled, but it only lasted for a moment. "More than that, though... I'm doing this for me as well. I want to know why this happened, Ivan... and I intend to find out, whatever it takes."
He nodded. "I thought that would be your response, but I still wanted to make sure. I have just one request, then."
"I want to help however I can. Do let me know if I can be of assistance, okay?"
She smiled again. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
For the entirety of the flight to Imil, the guilt refused to die down in Hama's thoughts.
She did very little for the entire trip. The in-flight entertainment failed to distract, sleep eluded her entirely, and all she really felt like doing was fidgeting with the scarf around her neck, trying not to let her restlessness disturb the person sitting beside her in the process. As much as she told herself over and over that she'd made the right decision, the guilt of her deceit to those most important to her still rankled. It was going to be a very long time before she stopped dwelling on what Feizhi must have thought of her, assuming she ever stopped thinking about it at all.
So much was at stake, though. She had been a guardian of a dying breed, a keeper of ancient lore and secrets that had long been determined not to return to human knowledge. Psynergy had ravaged the world and all its peoples long ago, and the humans of the modern era were definitely not ready for its return.
But it had returned, hadn't it? And it had already manifested itself in her pupil... both her pupils, she corrected quietly. They were all Adepts now – Feizhi by accident, Garet by what she could only chalk up to providence. They should have been given the chance to share in her duties. They would have followed her in a heartbeat if she had told them...
And that, Hama told herself sternly, was liable to have them walk right into the pit of vipers that she was now descending into. Something unusual and unprecedented had happened in Imil, something that had the mark of the supernatural that accompanied practically everything Psynergy touched. The danger before her was incredible, and it wasn't right of her to endanger the lives of the two young adults that were her only truly trusted companions in this world.
...It was no use. She sighed, tugging on the scarf. No matter how many times she repeated her reasoning, her guilt remained completely unconvinced. Already she missed Feizhi and Garet. She just hoped that they could remain safe and secure. She'd contact them soon, just to make sure that all was well. Whether or not they actually accepted her reasoning and her apologies didn't matter... as long as they were safe.
She'd been so intent on this thinking that by the time she'd landed in Imil and stepped off the plane into the airport gate, she hadn't even thought for a second what her approach would be once she was here. Frowning, she took a seat at the gate and tried to compose her thoughts. No time for self-pity now.
Alright. There had been an unnatural storm erupting in Imil only a few days prior, right about the time that Jenna's hacked message had gone public. They'd theorised that the storm was a means of covering the story up somewhat, but the actual method of creating a storm like that was beyond anything Hama could fathom. She wasn't a very strong Adept and thus the power was completely behond her, but nothing she'd ever read or studied had suggested that anyone had ever had the power to do that.
Either way, the fact that Proxian aid and relief workers had been dispatched immediately to help their neighbour had only intensified their suspicions. They were putting on a good show for the cameras, but had Prox moved that presence into Imil for any particular purpose? If the storm was their doing, humanitarian aid and good publicity seemed like wasted potential. No, something more was happening here... she just needed to find out what. How, though? It was a big city, and she couldn't just walk to the nearest Proxian and start interrogating them.
Frustrated, Hama glanced around the terminal gate as if looking for a source of inspiration. That was when she noticed the Proxian standing at the gate, staring directly at her.
Fear and adrenalin rushed into her in a heartbeat. Impossible. She'd done everything that she could to keep their escape from Alhafra noticed... could they really be looking for her?
The man had pale skin, spiky grey-blue hair, and a considerably large, muscular build. He was clothed in a spotless black business suit and tie, and a hat was nestled under one arm. He looked just like a chaffeur waiting for a distinguished guest, and the effect was completed by the sign he held in one hand to the disembarking passengers.
It read, quite simply, "Madran Police Officer".
She'd been found, somehow. There was no hoping or pretending otherwise.
The moment Hama's gaze fell on him, a smirk crept onto his face. With his free hand, he beckoned her over. She had to fight the instinct to sprint away as quickly as she could, taking the time instead to try and think this through.
They were in a public place – while that hadn't stopped the Proxians from using Psynergy in the open before, it would likely be a very unwise thing to do with Imil as tense as it was right now. If she tried to run, he would likely have to try and catch her on foot... something that she imagined he'd be able to do quite quickly, judging from his physique. Besides, he could easily have backup that she hadn't spotted, so it was a long shot at best.
The other alternative was to go with the man. Despite his civility right now, she doubted he really had any benevolent intentions – if she went with him, she very much doubted that she'd ever leave Prox's custody of her own volition. She knew too much about what was happening, and her status as an Adept would probably seem like a threat to them. If they didn't imprison her indefinitely, they'd kill her outright.
What choice was there, really?
Seeing that she was making no effort to accept his invitation, the Proxian man sighed and started moving towards her. The crowd of people disembarking the plane had thinned out by now, so there was very little in the way between the two of them except a few plastic seats and the occasional straggler. Beyond this gate, there was roughly another dozen before she made it to the security doors and out to the baggage collection. There'd be no time to stop at that, either... she'd just have to keep running until she was sure of safety.
He's getting closer. Go... go!
Hama pushed out of her seat with all her strength, surging forward as quickly as she could. The Proxian was ready for it and started running after her, but there was enough distance between them for her to maintain a lead. She spared no thoughts to onlookers – she was too afraid of being caught to do anything but run for dear life.
Without warning, the temperature around her shot up dramatically, and she found herself sweltering from completely unbearable heat. She could feel herself stumble in hesitation, drained of energy as if she'd been stricken with a fever. Sweat started to build up and she gasped in air, glancing back her shoulder at the Proxian.
His hand was held out towards her, and he was wrapped in the unmistakable aura of a person using Psynergy. Yet there was no flame, no burning beam, no outward sign that anything was happening – just blistering, staggering heat.
She wanted to keep running, but the effort required to do so suddenly seemed immense. Desperate, she reached for her own Psynergy, focusing on the burning air around her. A cocoon of wind started to form around her, and she started forcing it towards her pursuer, trying to force the heat away.
It worked, and the air around her cooled noticably... but the Proxian had never stopped running, and her hesitation was enough to let him close the gap. Even against the wind, he closed to her and clapped a hand on her shoulder, gripping it firmly enough to make her wince and struggle.
"Please, miss. I understand your actions completely, but I can't let you leave this building on your own. If you come with me, I promise that you will remain unharmed."
"Why should I believe you?" she hissed at him, grabbing at his wrist with one hand and reaching out with the other to grab his coat, hoping she could use that leverage to trip him up and keep running. The man was prepared for that too, however, and he simply moved right up to her, effectively pinning the arm. He knew how to move in close quarters combat, it seemed.
"You should believe me because I'm being sincere... and because you don't have any other options." He stared down at her, practically towering over her by nearly a foot.
"What's to keep me from shouting rape and drawing every security guard in the building?" Hama said, meeting his stare.
"Then I'll knock you out, say that you starting acting hysterically, and would have somebody else at random wait with you until the airport medical teams show up. They will, of course, be working with me on the matter and will deliver you quietly to a place of my choosing, with no-one the wiser."
It took a lot of effort to keep the doubt from her face, but Hama did what she could to remain defiant and steadfast. If what he said was true, it seemed like they'd gone to a lot of effort and planning just to bring her down.
"Furthermore," he continued, "assuming none of that happens and you do get away from me, there are others on standby nearby. Their orders are simple – if you aren't accompanied by me, then they are to kill you. I promise you, even with that warning you will not see it coming before the end." He shrugged.
Now it really did seem like a lot of effort... but there was absolutely no sign on the Proxian's face that he was telling anything but the complete truth. "Why would you go to so much effort for me? I'm nobody."
"On the contrary, miss. You have interesting abilities that are similar to the ones I have, but of a completely different... element, shall we say? That's quite curious to us, and my employer happens to be quite interested in finding out how and where such things came to be. Again, I promise that you will be completely unharmed... and I suspect that the boss might even want to offer you a job once you've had a chat with him."
That would make sense. Presumably, all the Psynergy that the Proxians possessed was artificially implanted, much like how Feizhi had accidentally gained a measure of power. If there was another source of Psynergy available, they'd want to get their hands on it... and if they discovered her power was natural, that would probably be quite a surprise to them.
"Once again, why should I believe you?" Still she stared at the Proxian, silently focusing on whatever kind of Psynergy reserve she could muster. If need be, she'd hit him with everything he had before trying to make a run for it, despite his warnings.
"I've told you why already." He sighed. "Look. I've been civil this whole time, but really, I'm just a soldier. I'm doing my job and following orders, and I've explained how the situation is, so it's time to choose. You can come with me peacefully, or you can make this hard for everyone. I promise you one thing, though – if you don't choose the peaceful option, then my boss will make sure you're punished for it... or, more accurately, your two young companions that you just sent to Lalivero will be."
A horrible chill ran through her spine, and Hama shuddered despite herself. Was he bluffing? Surely he had to be bluffing... she'd sent Feizhi and Garet to safety. There was no way the Proxians could get to them that quickly. But then, she hadn't expected them to catch up with her that quickly, either... and he's mentioned Lalivero specifically. There could be no mistake.
Killing her was one thing, but she couldn't let her proteges die. She had to assume the worst – that they were in danger.
"You bastard," she whispered quietly, letting go of his wrist and dropping her hands to her side in a show of submission.
"Harsh, but fair. I am sorry, for what it's worth."
He released his grip on her, taking a light step back and looking around for a moment. Hama did too, looking imploringly at anybody nearby to see if they might assist her, but all of them ignored the pair completely. Typical... everyone was in their own little world, avoiding the plights of others in case it dragged them into unnecessary trouble.
"If you were truly sorry, I wouldn't be in this mess. Fine. I'll suffer your captivity and let myself be interrogated by your employer, but you will not hurt them or I swear I will live long enough to see you all suffer greatly for it." Her eyes met his again, channelling as much fury into the gaze as she could. "Do you hear me?"
"I hear you, and I'll see what I can do for them. Until then, please come along. My car is waiting."
He gestured for Hama to start walking, and he moved beside her when she did to guide her in the right direction. Her mind raced with the implications of what was happening and just how much trouble she was in. The only possible positive outcome was that her actions might help Feizhi and Garet stay out of the conflict for a while. Furthermore, being questioned by the Proxian's "employer" might reveal a few details about just where this whole Project Psynergy thing had started from its very source.
Whether or not she actually got to use any knowledge she gained seemed like unlikely, but it was a silver lining, and it was all she had for now. She sighed, scratching futilely at her neck to try and ease the nervous itch that had started underneath the scarf.
Author's Notes: I do wish I had more to show for such a long absence, but this was the first time I've felt inspired to write this in a very long time, so I just had to milk it for all it was worth. I could probably do this chapter a lot better as well, but I think anybody still reading this has been waiting long enough for an update that I didn't want to delay it any longer. As usual, I can't guarantee when the next update will come, but I am trying to make it happen sooner than this one. A lot sooner. Thanks for your patience!
...assuming there's any of you still left, that is!