Chapter 5: The Empath

There. There it is again.

"Shinobu."

That glimmer…so bright, yet…shadowy…

"Shinobu, are you with me?"

Almost…got…it…

"Signore Tezuka! Report now!"

Almost had it.

"Hai. I'm here." He opened his eyes lazily then blinked at the brightness that assailed them.

"Where were you? You went off the scope and we couldn't reach you."

"Oh, surely you weren't worried? I'm still here, after all." Shinobu Tezuka could not quite mask the irritation he felt at being distracted from his little mental foray.

"That's not the point and you know it. If you don't keep hold of the tether when you 'path, we can't monitor you."

"You can't control me, you mean."

"Shinobu!" A third voice joined the conversation, this one sounding a bit affronted.

"Ah, Dr. Zeichen. I didn't realize you were up there too." Shinobu flicked a glance at the opaque glass that hid the observation deck several meters above him.

"Would it have mattered had you known?"

"Of course, Anna. One should always be considerate of a woman's tender sensibilities." Amusement twined around the statement.

Dr. Anna Zeichen blew the blond bangs from her forehead in exasperation. So he was in one of those moods again. She didn't know what was stronger: her desire to throttle him or an uncontrollable desire to plant a big, wet one on those luscious lips. And he knew he had that effect on her too, damn him! His voice, normally already smooth and well-modulated for a colonist, would drop dark and smoky like tinted glass when he spoke to her.

Shinobu's teasing alternately flustered and angered the doctor. It simply wasn't very professional to feel for one's subjects, yet the man really got under her skin. Anna had even toyed with the idea of asking to be assigned to a different case, but Nuada D'Argent had wanted her to head his pet project. And what Nuada wants…

"Nuada gets?" Shinobu leaned forward in the reclining chair and spoke huskily into the com.

"Stop that!" The woman snapped.

"Stop what, Anna?"

"Get out of my head, Tezuka! I may not be an uber Empath like you, but I can still make your life miserable here at the Academy. So you will kindly address me in a manner befitting our status."

"Hai, Herr doctor!" Shinobu thought a salute and a clicking of shiny, black boots at the woman.

"That's it! He's done for the day. 'Trode him off, Dr. Reki." Anna hastily snapped her clipboard shut, refusing to look at her colleague for fear of what she might find on his face.

She needn't have worried. The Drego's expression was as stoic as ever. He tapped on the keyboard in front of him and the screens' glare that glinted off his scales abruptly went dead.

"Shinobu, you're free to go." Reki announced over the com.

"Thank you, doctors. Anna, always a pleasure." The silver-haired man stretched languidly then pulled the monitor 'trodes from his forehead.

The doors to the lab swished open and the room went dim, signaling the end of the session. Shinobu checked the time from the chrono on the wall. The monkey gets a break? So soon? I must ask Nuada to have Anna monitor me personally more often.

He'd never seen Zeichen in person. In fact, he'd never met any of the neurists face to face in the year and a half he'd been at the Academy. He'd wondered why in the beginning, but when he'd broached the subject with Nuada, the man had brushed his concerns aside and mumbled something about procedure.

Shinobu hadn't minded. There were plenty of other things to occupy him. When Nuada had found him on Danae and had offered to train him at the Academy, he'd been hesitant at first. Sure, his life on the backwater colony hadn't exactly been a bed of roses, but it had been home. Then several events had transpired and Shinobu had no choice but to leave. Nuada had capitalized on his misfortune, dangling the proverbial carrot in front of his nose.

So to the Academy he'd gone. And once here, Shinobu found himself presented with myriad distractions to keep his mind off his circumstances. Gaia was the mecca of the galaxy after all, the mother planet around which everything revolved, and Avalon was her golden child.

Shinobu made his way through the corridors of the neurology lab and emerged into the outer courtyard of the Academy, an octagon-shaped expanse that provided a common meeting area for all the other Guild halls. During one of his bleaker periods, when he'd not wanted to be around people and had immersed himself in study instead, Shinobu had read up on architecture and civil engineering. Upon observing the Academy's layout, he'd discovered that it had been created with a distinctly medieval renaissance feel to it.

Shinobu appreciated the old-world ambience of brick and cobblestones, of twining ivy and airy pergolas that connected the buildings. He liked the way each hall faced the courtyard and how, from any given window in any given structure, one could spy on the comings and goings of Academy folk. He enjoyed the juxtaposition of the archaic conceit without and the advanced technology within.

And he'd made good use of that advanced technology. On Danae, a colony known primarily for mining and not much else, there had been little in the way of academic pursuit. Shinobu had always felt there was something missing in his life and at the time, he hadn't realized it was his thirst for knowledge that gnawed at his insides. Meeting Nuada and hearing all about the 150 guilds and the endless stream of data that the Academy was privy to had set his imagination on fire. Or so he had half-convinced himself was the reason for his piqued interest. If the real truth be told, Shinobu's ulterior motive for acquiescing to his displacement was the realization that 150 guilds and an endless stream of data would surely unearth the answer to his gods-bedamned "condition". So, if he were honest with himself, Shinobu had to admit that his mind had already been made up to leave Danae even before that unfortunate incident had occurred.

He knew he'd made the right decision after his first six months at the Academy. Shinobu had been methodical, as was his wont, and had started alphabetically, visiting the Anatomy Guild first and pestering the scientists there with every conceivable question his data-starved mind could cook up. Flattered by such eager attention, the men and women had given Shinobu full access to their files. He'd soaked it up like a sponge, even pushing them gently into directions that opened their eyes to innovative new theories.

Word got around about Nuada's pet project and his amazing intelligence and intuition, although few ever really discovered the real reason for his presence there. This didn't matter to the academics and artisans, however. More Guilds had approached Shinobu with offers to teach him all they knew and the learning had not stopped since. If Shinobu sometimes felt twinges of apprehension about certain oddities – like his being confined to Second Tier or his being kept in the dark as to Nuada's eventual purpose for him – he managed to disregard them in the face of all the other knowledge he was accumulating.

Being poked and prodded like a guinea pig was also another small price to pay for the mysteries and conundrums he eagerly sought to solve.

Speaking of mysteries, let me try this again.

Shinobu hid in the shade behind his favorite statue in the courtyard – a replica of Michelangelo's David – and closed his eyes in an attempt to capture that elusive tendril of light and shadow that had plagued him, on and off, for the past five years. It wasn't elusive anymore. In fact, it sang in his mind strongly like a clarion of hallelujahs.

Light…and shadows. So…fascinating. So…beautiful…

"What the hell…?" Mitsu raised a shaky hand to his head and struggled groggily to get up from his prone position.

"I'd advise against doing that, Signore Ikeda."

"Yeah? Well, screw you!" He heaved himself up and was immediately inundated by a hundred needles of fire playing hopscotch in his head. Mitsu groaned loudly and fell back, clutching at his temples.

"You were warned." The voice sounded smug.

"Who the hell are you? Where am I?" Mitsu looked around cautiously and could find no evidence of the person anywhere in the stark, dimly-lit room.

"One question at a time, please."

"Answer me now, baka yaro!" The smuggler had recovered enough to regain his natural belligerence, although he did wince in pain as he raised his voice.

"Request invalid. Cannot compute. Please rephrase."

Dammit. Droids. I can't work with droids.

Standing was still a distant hope as pain pierced his skull. It felt like someone had juiced his wetware. Mitsu wouldn't put it past Nagisa to do something as underhanded as jacking him with a disruptor even after she'd nailed him with the knockout drugs.

And I was actually starting to feel sorry for her!

The smuggler winced ruefully then appraised his surroundings flat on his back. It was devoid of any furniture save the bed he was on. The walls were smooth plasticrene and emitted a sickly bluish glow, a poor excuse for light. The room was a four meter by four meter box with no evidence of a door or windows. A blinking red light in the center of the ceiling marked the comlink from which the droid had spoken. It was a far cry from his earlier accommodations.

Mitsu had been in enough places like these in his ten years as a runner to recognize it. A holding cell, then. The smuggler expected nothing less, especially after his insolence to both his stepsister and the Guardian who he was now sure was in her employ. He belatedly remembered elbowing the Guardian in the nose on their way out of the club. He also remembered the right hook she had nailed him with in retaliation.

No wonder she didn't want to have dinner with me. I bet she was just outside that door, waiting to goose it to me. Damn that bitch! Damn Nagisa! I'm gonna make them pay when I get outta here!

But it was not the time to think retribution. Right now, he needed to recalibrate his wetware and get the hell out of Dodge. By his internal clock, Mitsu figured it was about mid-morning which meant he was still in the City; the chutes didn't activate till noon.

Good. The longer away I am from getting shipped aboveside, the happier I'll be. Mitsu thought grimly. There was a reason he'd not stepped foot on either of the upper Tiers since he was fifteen. It was the same reason that brought a bleak, shuttered look to his eyes at their mere mention. His crew had learned early on never to speak of Avalon's higher echelons when he was within hearing range. Doing so was dangerous, as Rigo had found out that one time.

Rigo. The guys. Wonder where they think I am. Hope Char and Sartre tuned them in. Coz if that Guardian is still around, I may just need their help busting outta here, Mitsu grudgingly admitted to himself. His niggling conscience cheered at this admission of his inadequacy.

Mitsu decided that enough time had elapsed for his 'ware to recover the overload. The pain in his head was now more a dull throbbing rather than a spearing fire. He attempted to sit up once more. And then he noticed it.

"You motherlovin' sons of bitches! You bastards! Damn you! What have you done to my hair?!"

Mitsu clutched at the back of his head. His ponytail was gone, shorn off to just below his ears, leaving his nape naked and vulnerable. He felt for his 'trode port gingerly; it had been years since it'd been exposed like that. Mitsu experienced a profound sense of violation and mounting apprehension. Why the hair? What purpose did that serve? Humiliation? It wasn't like Guardians to play mind games; they were strictly protocol whores who did everything by the book. This wasn't their style. Maybe Nagisa, to remind him of his allegiance to the Families?

Mitsu was about to call out to the droid again, if only just to chase away his anxiety with a show of bravado, when he felt a tickling inside his head, as if someone had dug fingers into his skull and started playing piano. It was a familiar, albeit uncomfortable, sensation.

It's happening again. I thought I'd gotten rid of it after I'd limited my runs in the Omega Belt. What the hell? Am I going crazy for sure this time?

Mitsu shook his head but the tickling continued. And then he heard the whispering:

[Light…and shadows. So…fascinating…so…beautiful…

"No! Stop it! Get the hell out of my mind! Droid! Oi, you worthless hunk of metal! What the hell is going on here?" Mitsu leaped off the bed and proceeded to bang ineffectually at the walls.

"What seems to be the trouble, Ikeda?" A new voice came over the com. This time, it sounded human.

"I don't know what you've got jacked in my 'ware but I want it out now! You hear me? This is in violation of code 7459, you rat bastards!" Mitsu craned his neck and yelled at the red light.

[Ah…darkness. And confusion? Fear? The shadows…the light…they're calling…

"I don't know what you're talking about, Ikeda. We haven't done a thing to your wetware. Well, except juice it to keep you amenable."

"Amenable, my ass! And I don't believe you!" Mitsu was beginning to feel frantic, hammering at the walls and shaking his head to rid himself of the whispering.

[Shadows. Shadows are…taking over. No more…light? Hello? Who are you?

"I don't really care what you believe, Ikeda." The voice over the com grew cold.

"Hey, lady! Is that you? The bitch with the red hair? Coz if it's you, why don't you come in here and we can go round two, huh? And this time I'm ready for you!"

[Don't be afraid. I'm your…friend?

"You're really a glutton for punishment, aren't you?" The voice was derisive.

"It is you! Let me outta here, you bitch! And stop transmitting!" Mitsu ceased his attack on the walls and cradled his battered fists against his chest. The whispering was getting stronger and it was sapping any vigor he had left.

"I don't know what you're talking about. But if you want out, then you'll be getting your wish soon. Doctors? I think he's ready."

The red light above went dead.

"Ready? Ready for what?" Mitsu looked around him in panic, missing the swish of his ponytail as he did so.

[Calm…be calm…friend.

To Mitsu's left, a wall suddenly disappeared and two men in white lab coats entered the room, accompanied by a levitating med droid. The smuggler backed away slowly and wished with all his might for his blaster.

"Hey, guys. How's it going? You taking me out of here, then?" Mitsu smiled disarmingly.

The two men were silent as they relentlessly stalked him, the med droid in their wake.

[Calm…be calm…

"Guys? Hey, guys? What say we go and get some drinks over at Sartre's, huh? On me. Whaddaya say, fellas? Drinks sound good to you? Sartre's a close personal friend of mine." Mitsu felt his back hit a wall and found himself cornered. The two men had still not made a sound.

The red light blinked back on.

"Do it." The voice commanded.

With a quickness and strength that Mitsu would never have expected from medics, the two men grabbed hold of his arms and dragged him to the bed. As he bucked and screamed, they proceeded to flip him on his stomach and, while one held him down with a pressure point in the small of his back, the other reached underneath the bed and activated magnetic straps that materialized on all four corners. Mitsu found his wrists and ankles effectively immobilized.

"You sons of bitches! Fuck you! Fuck you! Let me go! What the hell is this! What the hell are you gonna do to me?!"

[Fear! Why…fear? No more light. Only…fear. Why…?

Mitsu's chin was propped up and he saw the looming shadows of the two medics reflected on the plasticrene walls. He also spied the med droid hovering above him, a long appendage suddenly appearing out of its bulky form. Long appendage? This looked like no med droid he'd ever seen. Horror suffocated him as he watched the droid draw closer to his head.

"No! No! NOOOOOO!"

Twin screams of pain and fire scorched the Hub and every Empath within a thousand meters from the Academy keeled over from the force and fury of an Adept level Empath's uncontrollable spike.