cnwood

March 25, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Twelve Part 2

“Don’t move,” Damon quietly commanded and cautiously eased in front of Manton. “Wait outside,” he whispered.

Head to toe Damon was covered in enough greasy, black soot to hide the color of his silver-teal jumpsuit. The same goo seemed to line his mouth and throat, the vile taste threatening to heave his stomach. Awakening only moments ago on the OT platform, he had found Rowan and Eron with him, dazed but conscious, and looking just as ragged. Fear had him racing back down the hall to the crisis room, the meld severed and Debra’s mind closed to him.

The filtration activators shutoff and the ceiling vents closed; the stench of soot almost overwhelming. A soft sizzling sound drew his attention to the melting booth window. Eyebrows lifted in mute admiration. Composition of the triple pane safety glass was hard enough to withstand an energy blast fired at pointblank range. Whatever Debra hit it with had punched a hole through the middle, almost liquefying the glass down to the frame instead of shattering into razor sharp shrapnel.

Movement from the back corner snapped his head around at the same time as the backup lights came on. Debra stood, shifting slowly, side to side, her blood red eyes focused on something unseen in the distance. Hands and fingers twitched awkwardly as larger muscles in arms and legs jerked defensively.

Without warning, the aura disappeared, revealing just how transparent her skin had become. Damon could hear the persistent soft whimpers trapped in her throat, the deeply frantic breaths sawing fast and furious from flaring nostrils.

“She’s reliving the nightmare,” Eron said grimly from the doorway, a blackened hand clutching the filthy jumpsuit material against his chest—reassurance that his body hadn’t been cleaved in two while caught up in Debra’s hell.

The intensity of the nightmare, the absolute persuasive immersion of the mind’s senses; his eyes blinked in astonishment as he rubbed his aching chest. What his battered body now suffered went far beyond dream reality and into psychic torture. How Rowan had survived hours of Debra’s nightmare was a testament to her singular strength of self.

As a practicing subliminal translator, Eron agreed with contemporary theories that the conscious mind did not switch on and off with wakefulness or sleep. But rather provided release from physical restrictions through consciously-created dreams.

Ancient Thalians were convinced the conscious mind was the road taken in life while the subconscious was the map of all existence. As an observer Eron’s task was to gather the clues and symbolism from the conscious journey and interpret them using the map of the subconscious.

The arduous trek into Debra’s mind had confirmed many of his growing suppositions, and all the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place.

Arms raised to prevent Eron from getting too close, Damon continued his efforts to probe Debra’s mind, yet failed to penetrate her sealed barriers. “How do we snap her out of it?” he demanded tightly, knowing better than to try and tangle with her autonomic defenses. “I can’t reach her. She’s closed to me.”

Both men heard the popping sound and turned, staring at Rowan’s extended hand, holding what looked like a toy handgun.  Manton stood behind her loading a second gun in case the first injection wasn’t enough. In unison everyone looked over at Debra, the feathered dart piercing her stomach, and waited for a reaction.

“Ro, what the hell are you doing?” Damon blurted angrily, searing his sister with a dangerous look.

Rowan passed off the empty tranquilizer gun to Manton and accepted the loaded weapon. “We can’t get near her with her autonomic defenses active.” She held up a palm-size gun with a six-inch barrel. “I wasn’t taking any chances this time. I borrowed these tranquilizer guns from Mica this morning.”

“He actually let you take weapons out of his human arsenal collection?” Eron interrupted, stunned.

Her shoulders shrugged, tellingly, eyes averting her brother’s glare. “I was in a hurry,” she said tersely, glancing at each dubious face. “I’ll clean them before putting them back,” she groused, hoping grand master Mica remained ignorant of the temporary pilfering from his prized collection of earth weapons.

All eyes returned to Debra, her black-streaked face like camouflage against the heavily scorched corner and dark sweatshirt. Almost six-feet of muscle and bone slowly weaved as her body fought to expel the impairing drug. Mouths gaped as the cylindrical mental dart wiggled on its own, bit by bit, then ejected from Debra’s stomach to bounce noisily several times on the hard floor.

Rowan swallowed stiffly, pressing dry lips together. “The drug should knock her out, hopefully stopping the nightmare.” She placed a hand on Damon’s rigid shoulder. “Enough time for you to reactivate the meld and let her know she’s safe.”

Debra stumbled, taking a small step forward, eyelids closing in exaggerated slowness over blood red orbs. Each time heavy eyelids fluttered open the bold red had diminished, until only a faint pink remained to color the whites of her eyes. In silence, Debra slid down the wall, a heap of uncoordinated limbs, yet aware enough to be thankfully free of the bloody nightmare. In the gathering delirium that filled her mind, she found Damon waiting for her.

A collective sigh lightly echoed in the room as Debra’s chin dropped heavily to her chest, a clear sign that she was out cold. Everyone looked to Damon, who nodded in acknowledgment of the reestablished meld, before helping hands cautiously lifted her to the damaged chair.

Rowan checked the pulse in the slender neck, avoiding Debra’s hands that could grab with astounding speed and the kinetic energy that continued to arc gently between her fingers. As a precaution, Rowan forced a small stream of kinetic adrenaline into Debra’s system to overcome the nauseating withdrawal symptoms that would soon follow.

‘We’ve got about fifteen minutes before she comes around,” Rowan stated briefly. She hesitated, watching Eron whisper something to Manton just outside the door, his dark eyebrows lifting in a combination of surprise and unease. Using the bond between them, Rowan opened herself, sensing Manton’s heightened concern, before he finally nodded in agreement and left the room.

Curious, but not willing to press the issue, Rowan spread her hands in a questioning gesture at Eron.  “So what did your evaluation find?” she asked succinctly.

“Manton’s having Theron move any staff out of the OT lounge,” Eron said evasively. “Once Debra’s conscious, we’ll all be more comfortable there.” He looked down at his filthy hands and jumpsuit. “I’d like to at least wash my hands and face before we get started.”

Brother and sister swiftly glanced at each other as the older man turned to leave. “What is it, Eron? Please.” Rowan implored, afraid for Damon and Debra and the hope she represented.

“It’s complicated.” His gaze lingered over anxious faces, noting the candid resemblance in their features. Over the years he had evaluated them, taught them, helped ease their youthful fears; always feeling so much pride and love. Rowan and Damon had become like his own. With a sigh of resignation he straightened, wondering how much damage the truth was going to leave behind this day. “If I’m reading everything right, and I usually do,” he muttered, “the initial trauma goes back twenty-three years.”

Eron could almost see the wheels of Damon’s mind churning, sifting through those long ago memories. Watched the younger man’s eyes suddenly stop and slowly rise up to stare at him with such certainty.

“You’re talking about when Trevon died,” Damon said bluntly.

Eron nodded. The archives still listed many unanswered questions surrounding the actual cause of Trevon’s death. Massive cell disruption made findings incomplete; it appeared the virus had done its worst, but didn’t explain the extensive smoldering burns on clothing, or the singed hair that covered his body. None who were present had any memories of the actual time of death to help piece all the events together. So the evidence had been taken at face value and those left behind to mourn were coddled and cared for. And life went on.

It hurt dredging up memories he had worked hard to forget. Look to the future had been the rallying cry when dreams of living on the surface had died with the colonists and craftsmen. Eron struggled to focus on the present, his mind and body tired. Maybe he had seen too many generations come and go and it was time to see to his own Farewell. Yet there was always that small ray of hope, of one day standing in the sunlight or seeing healthy Thalian children playing in green fields of wildflowers.

Eron licked black smeared lips and grimaced at the foul taste on his tongue. He really did want a shower in the worst way. But the past was waiting, as were Rowan and Damon.

Theron entered the charred room with a tray of bottled water and passed the cold drinks around. “The lounge is ready,” he said attentively, “with fresh uniforms laid out and lots of cleaner and towels.” He turned to Rowan. “There’s a gurney in the hallway if you’d like to move Debra to the lounge now.”

Still cupping the nape of Debra’s neck, Damon calmly offered, “She’s still under the drug, but we won’t have any trouble transferring her to the bed.” With the meld firmly activated, Damon sensed nothing of what Eron found from the past. All trace of the nightmare had receded.

At Rowan’s nod Theron wheeled the bed beside the reclining chair, hands grabbing at shoulders and legs, each cautiously keeping a good distance from those lethal hands and the arcing energy that continued to lovingly caressed Debra’s fingers.

OT on-duty staff was on standby and waiting in Isolated Recovery in case they were needed. The huge Operating Theater stood empty and silent as the small group entered the brightly lit lounge. Comfortable sofas and chairs were scattered about the long rectangular-shaped room. The food case on the nearby wall had been freshly stocked that morning by Terrace staff, providing everything from nutritional snacks to full meals. True to his word, Theron had restocked the cooler with ice cold bottles of water and juices, and a table had been set up at the far end with a dozen bottles of spray cleaner and old towels that were destined for recycling.

The room was quiet as everyone took up a bottle of mild spray solvent, normally used for safely cleaning grease and grime from sensitive maintenance equipment. Thick towels came away from faces and hands disgustingly black and rank smelling. The laundry bin quickly filled with towels and jumpsuits destined for the incinerator. It wasn’t a long hot shower, but better than suffocating beneath a dense layer of tar.

The cold sweet juice felt refreshing on his raw throat as Eron stared out the large tinted window at the park. From the third level only the nearby treetops were visible, with the flowerbeds and green lawn stretching out into the distance. Beyond the far rise his mind visualized the stately black marble altar standing alone in the valley of souls, a testament to Ruthie and the hundreds of others who had become a part of the beauty of Tantria. Without warning, his tired voice filled the silence.

“After Kalon died, Trevon refused to return to the ship,” Eron said tonelessly, watching Thalians and humans go about their work and pleasures. “He wanted to die in his new home in Lincoln County, with the woman he loved and many of his family around him.”

He turned to find them all hovering about Debra’s bed, their eyes following him as he moved restlessly about the room. Only Damon felt secure enough to clean the soot from his wife’s face and hands while she remained unconscious from the drug.

“It was a weekday, well into the morning. And since no one came forward, it was presumed that only Edith and Debra were present when Trevon died. I can now confirm that was the case,” Eron grimly admitted. “We found Edith unconscious beside Trevon in the backyard by the gate. Debra wasn’t in the house or on the grounds. A search spread out and found her outside the fenced-in yard at the bottom of the ravine, badly bruised and in a coma.” He glanced at Damon, remembering another time. “It was later determined that she had been linked to Trevon when he died.”

“And you think that’s the cause of her psychic disabilities?” Rowan asked doubtfully. As one who had been inside Debra’s mind, who knew firsthand the younger woman’s strength and determination, Rowan just wasn’t convinced.

Damon shook his head, feeling the same doubts as his sister. “No, that can’t be it.” He looked around at the faces of friends and family. “I suffered a severed link with father when he died. Remember? I was left in a coma for three days, but that didn’t stunt my psychic growth.”

Rowan could see it in their eyes, the dawning of the unimaginable. But it wasn’t possible. It just couldn’t be possible. Her voice came in a rasping whisper, “You think Debra killed Trevon?” Stunned into anger she shouted, “She was a baby, Eron. A baby. The elders listed the cause of death as the virus. Are you saying that was a lie? That the elders and past leaders are somehow involved in a conspiracy, a cover-up of a two-year-old baby supposedly strong enough to kill her father?”

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March 18, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Twelve Part 1

Every precaution was taken to ensure the safety of all involved in Debra’s upcoming psychic evaluation. Rowan and a small team of medical custodians opened up the seldom used crisis room just off the Operating Theater.

Known as the drill cell, the comfortably lit white room had a haunted feel for many of the staff. Most of the first generation bi-humans had spent time strapped into the permanently bolted, semi-prone chair when psychic abilities needed to be altered or blocked to reduce the chance of accidents or death. But in the end death had claimed them anyway.

A mental block was a physically created barrier, psychically positioned in the brain, so the chemical recall of one memory or many was permanently impeded. Occasionally a block would fail to control psychic or emotional outbursts. In such cases mechanical medicine stepped in and microscopically altered, or drilled, a tiny core area of the temporal and sometimes frontal lobes.

Years ago blocking had failed twice with Debra’s mother. After she had recovered from Damon’s mental beating, Dorothy Hall’s frontal and temporal lobes had been carefully drilled using a pinprick laser beam that fired from a small metal grommet in the ceiling. Focused through a crystal cylinder, the laser was powered by Thalian kinetic energy and psychically guided inside the brain by the experienced operator. The ensuing drilled hole was so miniscule that complete recovery was almost instant once the procedure was completed.

Many of the city’s residents felt uneasy that Debra’s unpredictability now demanded use of the room, as though a curse continued to linger by all those who had been held immobile in that austere, white padded chair.

In spite of Debra being so much stronger than her sisters or that the cell was simply a precaution in this case for its insulating properties and damping field, no amount of reassurance from Rowan or the elders seemed to make a difference in everyone’s mood as the hour approached.

Over the years the ten-by-ten square, windowless room had become nothing more than a large storage closet of spare parts incase of a sporadic breakdown on the operating platform or backup databases. With everything already tucked into rolling shelving units, cleanup took under thirty minutes, leaving only the lone chair in the center of the white flame-retardant room.

Overseeing the chair from the side, a large window panel slid up revealing a compact control booth. Rowan glanced over, catching Theron’s eye, his grim stare a reminder of the room’s indubitable purpose. No Thalian could ever truly revere the practice in spite of the need to help those in pain. The thought of losing one’s psychic abilities was no less devastating than amputating one or more limbs to survive.

Rowan had absolutely no intention of using the drill procedure this day. Damon had argued well into the previous night that Debra’s autonomic defenses would protect her from any mental or physical threat, no matter how unintentional. All agreed, under no circumstances was anyone to remain in the room with her once Eron started his assessment. The team could only hope that whatever buried trauma was at the heart of her debilitating fears would respond to intellectual stimulation rather than the need for force, or worse.

Damon and Rowan accompanied Eron as observers into the control booth while Theron guided Debra into the small room. Once the cross-straps automatically locked into each side of the chair, Theron smiled and gave her restrained hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Just relax,” he instructed Debra easily, all thoughts of the past set aside. “There won’t be any discomfort. Damon will meld with you first, then Eron will let you know when he’s about to proceed.”

Taking a deep breath, Debra nodded, her fingertips momentarily seeking out the palm of his hand. Images flashed liked colored snapshots in her mind. Death was taking its toll on his bleeding soul. Like many, work had become his passion and pleasure in life. And family was never really gone in the Thalian collective mind. He cared deeply for Rowan and their relationship, but loved another who would never know. Hope and desperation had somehow become intertwined and he was now willing to bet everything on the strength of the sovereign’s consort.

The door closed behind Theron with a thump, the locking mechanism sealing the portal with a decisive snicking click. Securely bound to the chair, Debra relaxed as best she could in the quiet, empty room, trying not to think of all the misplaced faith in her debatable abilities, and opened herself to the unknown.

Gently, Damon fused with her mind, like so many times over the years. Always near. Always protective. Blending his thoughts and emotions until the lines between one and the other faded, allowing them to breathe and move as one. Usually the dream world appeared once the melding was complete. Not this time. Instead, she was given the unique perspective of seeing herself through Damon’s eyes.

She never noticed before how baggy her black sweats looked on her slender frame; and just as quickly dismissed the thought. The clothes were warm and comfortable and came in extra long.

Damon gave her a mental hug, his amusement more a shimmer between them than words. The Thalian image for beautiful unfolded like an exquisite blossom, leaving little doubt that he found her pleasing in every way.

“Remember,” his thoughts caressed over her senses, “you are the bravest and strongest woman I’ve ever known. I’m with you, so just go with whatever happens.”

The human subconscious was often defined as nothing more than a repository of all things that pass through the chaotic conscious mind. For Thalians the subconscious was more substantial and acted as a spiritual wellspring of life and the truth of existence, of the expected paths and potentials of an individual, and a collective of all the mental, emotional, and physical aspects that drive the conscious mind in action and reaction. It is a permanent account that offers recourse for change or perfection.

Those gifted with subliminal insight, like Eron, used the subconscious knowledge to see the future potential of a child or to pinpoint where the conscious mind had deviated, often due to sickness or injury or some emotional trauma too horrendous to endure.

Eron’s steady, courteous voice came through the room’s speaker system. “I’m ready to begin, Debra. The whole process should take about ten minutes.”

Fear had her heart beating a little faster than normal. Not enough to spike her adrenaline and call out the warrior, though. Yet she couldn’t help but wonder about those younger and weaker than herself. “You actually do this to small children?” Debra asked incredulously.

His soft, patient chuckle filled the room. “Normally I would test in my office over a hot cup of tea while my student worked on a project or listened to music. Evaluating is completely non-invasive.” Eron looked directly at Damon so Debra could see him. “Once the evaluation is done, I’m going to be looking deeper for a root cause to your fear of channeling and linking—”

“But my defenses sometimes have a mind of their own,” Debra rattled off by rote. Before coming to Crystal Lake Acres it was rare for her to have a problem with one of her abilities let alone harm anyone. Meeting her Thalian relatives was turning out to be more demoralizing than reassuring.

Eron grinned. “Exactly, my dear. Let’s begin.”

Manton waited outside the booth by the door, glancing up and down the empty hallway. Security teams had been posted at all OT exits as a preventative measure. Not that he was expecting a disturbance of any kind. But emotions were running high. Death was so closely associated with the crisis room that residents had great difficulty separating the past from the present; of extricating Debra from the horrors suffered by her sisters.

Of course, of maximum concern by those who had experienced Debra’s defenses firsthand was whether containment in the cell would be enough. Manton rubbed his chest, just one of many places on his body that had been badly burned by her adaptive energy defenses. Debra may have healed his injuries better than new, but memories of that sickening smell and slicing pain still caused his mind to shudder.

He checked his personal com-link for the time and was surprised to find only five minutes had passed. The bond between him and Rowan was quiet, a clue, maybe, that all was going well with Eron and Debra. A lack of space in the booth and unnecessary skills meant his presence was redundant, forcing him to stand alone in the hall.

It was the waiting that was driving him crazy. What he needed was a damn good workout. He smiled suddenly, thinking of the sparring match with Debra; more fun than he could remember in a long time. Videos of that one match had gone viral throughout the Thalian nation in a matter of hours. Interest in hand-to-hand combat had his classes overflowing with ready students all wanting the advanced training. All wanting to be worthy warriors like the sovereign’s consort.

Manton had to admit Debra was anything but boring, her abilities often appearing larger than life. He had known many Thalians of considerable psychic strength, but none had captured the imagination of a nation, or its hopes, like Debra. One would think her bi-human physiology would tend more toward a diluted blending of both species, much like those who came before her. All commendable women of consequence and remembrance. But not one with the emotional and physical intensity of Debra’s mind and will.

Why the disparity still remained the big question in the labs and research caucuses up on medical-science. Any children between Damon, a known Vion, and Debra, a suspected Vion, did more than lift one’s eyebrows in mind-boggling speculation. With a grin, Manton hoped that any forthcoming offspring had an extra helping of their mother’s brass and natural grit.

A sudden muffled blast from inside the booth took Manton completely off guard, the explosive concussion slightly tilting the solid metal door in its frame and shoving him across the hall. Blaring amid the shock and confusion that crowded his mind, Rowan’s emotions seemed to skyrocket with fear before settling into a humming bundle of nerves and concern. As far as he could tell from his wife’s rattled senses, no one was dead.

Yet how far the blast was felt was anyone’s guess. Manton ignored protocol and telepathically notified on-duty security officers to have all personnel standby for possible crowd control. The current duty-shift was to present a calm visible presence on the third level and double up the watch at OT exits. When asked his opinion, Manton had simply said, the crisis room was living up to its earned reputation.

Keying in his override code, Manton had to pry the door ajar with brute strength. Once opened, a steam bath of vapors and noxious fumes billowed into the hallway bringing instant tears and racking coughs. Down on hands and knees he fell over an unconscious Eron in the doorway and tugged the older man further into the hallway and into waiting rescuing hands.

Blinded by smoke, he heard the telling snicking click of the crisis room lock releasing and sprang up from the floor like a provoked defensive tackle. “No,” he roared, pinning Theron to the sealed door, succumbing to a coughing fit as a blue aura formed a skintight protective shield around his soot-covered body. “Get the others out of the booth and into clean air,” he gasped. “I’ll take care of Debra.”

Theron nodded, backhanding a choking cough, and followed Manton’s lead by activating his own cloaking aura. Very little clean air was being filtered from the noxious environment into each cloak. Both men had mere minutes to get the others to safety before having to withdraw to fresh air themselves.

Only a handful of seconds had transpired since the accident, but waiting for the filtration override to kick in made it seem like hours.

Automatic sensors instantly relayed data back to maintenance and security, confirming hazardous air and no active fire. Manton slowly opened the crisis room door. Thick, swirling black filled the small space. He could hear the decon-filtration activators rapidly sucking up smoke and toxic vapors, the strong intake drives of the central artificial oxygen core swiftly treating and purifying, eventually blowing the remaining waste deep into the dormant fault under the mountain.

As the smoke dissipated, he saw the empty chair, the self-locking straps mangled and broken. The melted white padding scorched and smoldering, adding to the heavy stench that left a chemical taste in his mouth. Crouched in the far corner, a shimmering blue light suddenly rose up in the thinning blackness, outlining a tall, slender shape.

“It’s Manton, Debra,” he said guardedly, his throat raw and in need of something cold and wet. “Can you hear me?”

The activators continued to pull the fumes quickly up into the open vents in the ceiling. Manton got his first clear look at the room and gaped in awe. It was like someone had taken a paintbrush and drunkenly made thick black lines around the room. Only it wasn’t black paint, but long continuous burn marks.

Debra stood silently in the corner as he gradually approached, her eyes lowered, her skin almost completely white behind the aura. His heart nearly stopped beating when blood red eyes suddenly glared at him, no recognition, energy arcing angrily around her hands inside the aura.

March 11, 2012

Because The Bible Tells Me So

The other day someone asked me what I did to keep track of all the details in my novel. It was a great question and got me thinking about the different methods I use to classify and coordinate characters, structures, equipment, customs and procedures, transitions from one chapter to the next, and so on.

While the right side of my brain revels in the creative high of working with sentences and paragraphs, the left side steadily focuses on making sure all the different aspects of those sentences and paragraphs are consistent throughout the writing while striving for those final words, The End.

In the beginning Beneath the Surface (BTS) was just a broad concept that used the ‘what-if’ approach to generate ideas, profiles, scenes, and bits of dialogue for a story that was always destined for novel length. That meant I was looking at approximately one hundred thousand words.

Not being as fortunate as my main character to have a photographic memory, I put together a binder that held every scrap of description, back history, timeline, possible subplots, and all relevant and irrelevant data about the world I was creating. That binder became my bible to the BTS universe.

Having completed eleven chapters, my novel is coming along nicely. But things have changed since I first fleshed out the characters and concepts and put together my bible. With each chapter the details have been tweaked or rewritten, objectives have been discarded and new ones added, and the characters have taken on lives of their own—some with personality transformations while others faded into walk-on parts.

You get the idea, my created world has evolved and much of the old bible is now outdated and sitting on the shelf. I had been putting off the update, preferring to work on the novel, but the time had finally come to stop procrastinating and reorganize that growing mountain of new details.

This past week the majority of my writing time has gone into creating a new bible using MS OneNote. Copy and paste features have made transferring the new data directly from completed chapters and other assorted files much faster, but it still takes time.  Meaning, part one of chapter twelve is not ready. It’s a pivotal chapter; worthy, I think, of all my little bedside notes in the middle of the night and the number of times I’ve blocked out the start of the chapter as I work to get it right and make that gut-feeling happy.

Now with the new bible saved on computer, DVD, and flash drive, I no longer need to waste time flipping through previous chapters or penned pages and computer files to confirm something vital to a character or keep the background scenery true to form. Being accurate is as important to me as creating the story itself. And with the writing once again progressing, it’s my BTS bible that tells me what I need to know to keep all those details consistent.

March 4, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Eleven Part 3

Stepping out of the bathroom in a clean long-sleeved white medical scrub top and loose drawstring pants, Debra towel dried her long hair and gazed about the small sparsely furnished living room. Two oversized stuffed chairs of stiff white fabric angled in toward a decorative white mantel and shallow marble hearth.

Debra glanced toward the bedroom on her right, noting Damon had not moved from the bed and was still engrossed with the com-link. Her attention quickly turned to the sealed double doors on her left. She placed an empty palm flat against the locking pad and nearly laughed out loud. The doors had been secured and the inner workings of the mechanism taken apart.

“Good one, Manton,” she smirked and faced the room again. Her touch-healing infusions had them both feeling stronger after only four days in quarantine. Restless, bored, she went about the room pushing buttons for lights and temperature control. One of the knobs by the mantel activated a virtual fire inside the superficial hearth. Kneeling, Debra studied the unusual looking flames and jerked back when memories surfaced of the blue flame in the mediation globe.

She tossed the damp towel into the bathroom hamper and quickly finger combed her hair into a tidy French braid. Locked down as they were, a hot shower had become a focal pleasure with prepared meals a close second. Regular workouts were missed by both. Each morning they took turns doing stretching exercises in the open entryway space to help loosen up tight muscles. Anything more strenuous would have to wait a bit longer. Pulling off her scrubs, Debra reached for the workout top and shorts left on the nearby chair.

After four days of sleeping and talking, Debra gamely admitted a rematch with Manton was out of the question. But she inwardly groaned wishing for something a little more adventurous to do than prowling about their three-room suite and waiting for the next meal.

Suddenly a chill raced up her spine, bringing out goosebumps on her arms and legs. Internal defenses offered conflicting data of danger and all safe. Secure in the knowledge that they were in an underwater city, locked in quarantine with a dampening field, Debra was more inclined to believe her eyes rather than her recently traumatized defenses.

Adrenaline spiked just the same, the warrior ready on the balls of her feet, enhanced eyesight searching the empty spaces for an enemy. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, Debra focused inward on the replay of her internal tracking and matching it to different angles from where she had been in the room. If nothing else, the task gave her something challenging to do while she stretched.

Unaware of Debra’s dilemma, Damon sat on the side of the bed in clean white scrub pants, his long fingers moving quickly over the com-link’s touch screen. An impatient growl erupted from his empty stomach. Breakfast was late arriving and The Terrance kitchen had yet to acknowledge his enquiry as to the delay.

Ignoring his stomach, Damon studied report highlights for the past week from the four other underwater cities. News of his heralded survival topped the resident gossip and message sites, followed closely by fight raves and exhibition invitations to the sovereign and his warrior consort.

Puzzlement furrowed his brow as fingers hastily called up searches for fight and warrior consort references. Suddenly Damon found himself inundated with videos of Debra and Manton tearing into each other on the park commons. At first glance the battle looked real, Debra going for the throat and groin, Manton pounding her into the ground. But it wasn’t long before Damon could see that both of them were enjoying themselves immensely.

“She almost had you there, buddy,” he grinned at the screen, always fascinated by the way Debra moved in and out of complex maneuvers. She was a natural born athlete. Had she been inclined to join the humans instead of avoiding them, there was no telling how many of their Olympic gold medals she would have won by now.

Bookmarking several videos to watch again later, Damon did a quick scan of his office calendar. Several missed appointments had been rescheduled. The following week was shaping up to be grueling, but it couldn’t be helped. Damon wanted to clear as much of the backlog as possible before Jubilee.

A flagged report from Manton was waiting in his personal inbox. Damon’s white stallion had tangled with a honey bee, the damage to the stall extensive. The stable had been repaired, better than new, and both Troja and the mare were safe and sound.

The beautiful pure white animal had been a gift to the sovereign at Jubilee five years ago, in memory of those lost to the virus. The yearling colt had been bred specifically for its coloring, stamina, and long strong legs, and delivered to the underwater city with the understanding that a matching mare would follow when ready.

With space at a premium, the majority of any future offspring would be held in trust in Montana until the time Thalians could live above. Prominent businessman and trainer Earl Stanton, owner of the ranch and close family friend of Damon’s parents, had kept his promise and personally delivered an exquisite pure white filly of breeding age two years ago, named Broslynda. Many of the Lincoln County, Montana residents remained lasting supporters to the Thalian nation, despite the colony town being dismantled so long ago.

Knowing the mare was to be presented as gift to the sovereign’s consort at this year’s Jubilee, Stanton had carefully trained Broslynda before having the horse shipped to the west coast. Damon admitted, if only to himself, that he was nervous about the gift and Debra’s reaction. Although they had ridden together thousands of times in the dream world, the finest thoroughbreds and the best equipment that imaginations could dream up, earth had always been reality for him. Unfortunately, in this reality Debra’s mind and soul remained unpredictable despite the bonding.

Damon made a mental note to also retrieve the handmade crystal talisman from Manton’s safekeeping. The crystal talisman had been Damon’s marital gift to Debra in the dream world when she was sixteen years old, a gift that could not transcend between the two worlds. So an exact duplicate had been created at the same time by the city’s master craftsman, and had waited all these years for Debra to come home.

Now all that was left to do was convince Debra to accept their marriage and her place by his side as consort. Damon sighed, his lips twitching into a grimace. Standing at death’s doorstep suddenly seemed like child’s play compared to getting Debra to cooperate.

Speculation continued to hound him, though. He had read the latest reports by Rowan and Eron with great interest. It seemed they were all approaching Debra’s psychological problems from a different perspective. Only Damon had the unique stance of knowing his wife, sometimes better than she knew herself, and often wondered if Debra’s being unaware of their marital bond had anything to do with her fear of linking or her lack of channeling control. Gut instinct agreed with his sister; the nightmare was somehow the key.

But only Eron had the ability to penetrate deep enough into the psyche to find the root of a cerebral problem. Yet, according to Rowan and Manton, Debra had made it emphatically clear she refused to link with anyone. And without the link, Eron was powerless to find the problem. Stiff, agitated fingers roughly rubbed against his temple in frustration. Around and around we go, he mused, looking through the com-link’s music menu for something to sooth the savage feminine beast.

Debra leaned into the open bedroom doorway, eyes checking out the corners of the room and the wide gap under the bed. “Did you feel anything weird a few minutes ago?” she asked guardedly.

Without looking up from the com-link screen Damon made his selection, Hans Zimmer’s Chevaliers de Sangreal. “Define weird?” he asked, as the music started out soft and slow, gradually filling the suite with the impressive harmony of strings and horns from the hidden wall speakers.

Leaning back against the doorframe, Debra crossed her arms and smiled. Damon often played her favorite music in the dream world when trying to coax her out of a mood, or into one. Since she wasn’t feeling down or sexually inspired, she was curious if there was something else on his mind other than boredom.

Eyes twinkled in amusement as she answered, “I must be suffering from cabin fever. I could have sworn there was someone in the living room with me.” The muscles in her body responded to the music, relaxing, her lungs seeming to expand and constrict in time with the building tempo. Damn if his ploy wasn’t working, again.

“How long do we have to be in here?” Debra asked reasonably. “I can sleep just as well in my own quarters, you know.”

His eyes raked up and down her body as she leaned in the doorway. Black sports bra and tight knee-length shorts molded to moist skin suggested Debra had finished her morning stretching exercises. Full breasts and gracefully defined muscles made his groin clench but the non-ensuing erection was a physical reminder that his body was still recovering from the astral sickness.

“I think you like sleeping with me,” Damon said huskily, his roguish grin making him look like a resplendent half-naked pirate.

Arrogant male eyes devoured her and crinkled at the corners in amusement at her sudden blush. Only yesterday had he commented on her predilection, and his pleasure, at finding her practically on top of him every morning when he woke.

“My body craves warmth. And you’re still like a bloody heater. I’m simply adapting to my circumstances,” she teasingly admitted. “Why don’t we grab a picnic breakfast from The Terrace and have it in the park?”

His stomach growled again at the reminder that his hunger had still to be appeased. Using the portable com-link, Damon paged his sister’s personal com. “We can’t leave quarantine until the inhibitor is completely out of our system,” he explained while he waited for Rowan to answer.

The smile disappeared, her relaxed visage closing up completely. Lies and manipulation filled her mind while suspicion glared from dark eyes. “What’s an inhibitor?”

After five beeps Damon’s call went directly to message. Watching her face he held up a finger for silence. Back to square one, he thought impatiently, taking his frustration out on Rowan’s inbox. “If the prisoners in quarantine don’t get some damn breakfast in the next five minutes, I’m going to initiate a prison break.” He disconnected and sat back against the headboard, the muscles clenching and flexing angrily in his chest and arms.

“An inhibitor is a synthesized drug that prevents higher psychic functions from working,” he stated flatly, the final notes of the Sangreal fading out and the room going quiet. “In our case it was used to suppress those functions when the consciousness and subconscious tapped back into the body after such a long astral travel. Without the inhibitor the higher functions often strike out unexpectedly.” His tone softened and his shoulders relaxed. “Our abilities are too lethal to take that chance.”

Discomfited by her automatic leap to the wrong assumption, Debra looked away and drolly asked, “Then I gather the threat of our breakout was just a bluff. We could go to the dream world until our bodies are back to normal?” she offered by way of an apology.

“Not this time, love,” he said agreeably. “No higher functions, no astral travel, no cerebral jumps, and no sex until the inhibitor wears off.” He laughed at the disgruntled look on her face. “Just another day or two,” he promised.

At least his explanation solved one puzzling dilemma. “That’s why I don’t feel the killing power inside me,” Debra stanchly reflected.

Tersely, Damon countered, “It’s called channeling, Debra,” and reined in his impatience when he sensed her confusion and withdrawal. “All you’re doing is channeling your body’s own kinetic energy. That power is no more a killer than your touch-healing. It’s simply a matter of control.”

Listening to instincts, he pushed Debra harder. “Considering that you’re self-taught, the skill with which you use your gifts is nothing short of phenomenal. Living among non-psychic humans, it’s understandable why you never mastered mind linking and melding. But you’ve barely used you channeling power.” He leaned forward, staring intently at her face. “Are you afraid of the energy?”

Anger and fear stiffly straightened Debra’s spine away from the doorframe. “Maybe if I’d grown up with masters and grand masters I’d have control like the rest of you.” Arms crossed, she turned her back and restlessly prowled the small confines of the living room. She heard Damon follow her from the bedroom.

“I know the transition you’re experiencing right now is difficult.” Her back went even more rigid, goading his anger. “Dammit, Debra. Do you honest believe we don’t know what you’re going through?” he argued, his tone deceptively soft. “As the human’s say, we’ve all been dealt the shitty end of the stick. But I swear to you, had there been any other way . . . any other way.” He came up behind her, hands lightly caressing her stiff shoulders. “I would have given my life to save you from the hell you went through.”

Yes, he would have, Debra inwardly groused on a long deflating sigh. Why did he say things like that? How was she supposed to stay angry at the world when he said such beautifully unselfish things like that?

“It’s time to stop running, love. You’re not alone anymore.” He slowly turned her body to face him. “If you can’t talk to Rowan or Eron, then talk to me, the man who loves and knows you better than any other being on this planet. Tell me how you felt, what you were thinking about those times you tried to channel.”

Weakness wadded in her throat like bile. She would rather fight a gang of desperate addicts than turn herself inside out, baring her inner demons. Her only saving grace was that Damon already knew most of her feelings and emotions. But still it galled her to have to admit out loud, even telepathically, that there was a side of herself that even she didn’t understand.

“Each time I tried to used the killing . . . the channeling power . . .” Debra struggled in a low strained voice, hot color spotting her cheeks, “it was like drowning in absolute terror, a feeling so strong I couldn’t move and if I tried something horrible would happen. I could smell death all around me.” her face completely flushed, the intensity of reliving the emotion making her shake uncontrollably.

Concerned, Damon sat in the closest stuff chair and pulled Debra onto his lap. Strong arms held her tightly in an effort to stem the trembling and provide a haven of warmth and safety. A surge of unease pricked at his conscience. He may be Vion, but only Eron had the expertise to deftly enter the psyche and interpret the evidence.

“I stopped trying to practice because each time was the same. You were right about the linking stuff and humans. But since coming here I’ve been experiencing some of that same paranoia with everyone wanting to link or meld with me.” She looked up at him, eyes pleading. “My instincts are telling me something bad will happen and they were right. I almost killed Rowan. Almost killed you.”

Damon grabbed her arms, making her face him. “You are the bravest woman I’ve ever known. Do you want to keep living in this fear or do you want to find out why this is happening?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks. In shame, Debra bowed her head, covering her face. The fear was so strong she could barely breathe let alone speak.

Tucking her back against his chest again, Damon spoke softly as he brushed away the loose strands from her face that had fallen from her braided hair. “You may not realize it, but you and I have linked and melded thousands of times over the years.”

Debra hiccupped and wiped her eyes. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you are capable of melding and linking and have no problems doing so with me. And because we’ve been doing them since we were babies, you don’t think of it in those terms but as something natural like eating or sleeping.”

“Then why can’t I do it with others without all the turmoil?” she choked as the breath continued to heave in her chest.

“That’s what we have to find out, love.” Damon cuddled her closer. “I have an idea. When we get out of here, you and I will meld so our minds become one. Just as we’ve always done in the dream world. That way you’ll know I’m there and that I can protect you. Then Eron will link with both of us, going deeper than either of us can go and find the root of the problem. He’ll also be able to determine if you’re Vion or not.”

The heat of his skin helped to ease the chilling fear that made her body feel like a block of ice. “What if somebody gets hurt? What if somebody dies?”

“Everyone here wants to help you, Debra. They know the risks. And we all think you’re worth whatever it takes to get you through this. I think the question you should be asking yourself is, can I continue to live with this fear now or do I let the warrior in me step through that fear and find the truth. I know you can live with the truth, Debra.”

“You’re right,” she whispered, curling up in his lap and letting her mind and body go numb.

Suddenly the cupboard in the entrance way popped open and the shelving unit rolled out with two steaming breakfast trays. Unfortunately, neither one was hungry anymore.

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