cnwood

November 12, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Three Part 3

The chamber was bright and comfortably warm, as though illuminated by summer sunlight. Looking five stories above, enormous crystal rods covered the massive dome-shaped rock ceiling; glowing circles within circles of pure, clean, energy.

Seeking out strengths and weaknesses as she followed the corridor, Debra made note of the overhead marble walkway. The gracefully arched design spanned the entrance chamber, held secure on thin wires anchored into huge black ceiling beams and the rock walls at either end of the chamber. Entwined about the barely visible wires, flowers moved gently in the softly stirring air, bold splashes of yellows, blues, and oranges nestled like jewels amongst the lush trailing vines with leaves bigger than a grown man’s hands.

Nearing the connecting corridor, Debra slowed, approaching with caution, heightened senses strategically processing data as fast as it registered in her brain. A bright blue glow emanated from inside the curved glass hallway, the liquid-light effect stirring up strong feelings of wistfulness and yearning.

Seahorses, thought Debra, more than a little puzzled by the bizarre image of twin baby seahorses.

Teeth ground together in frustration. More than anything she wanted to drop her mental barriers. Lay hands on the glass wall and bring the corridor’s past sights and sounds to life in her mind. To understand why this place of light made her want to cry.

Treading slowing over the shiny black floor, she followed the wide corridor around the bend and halted in mid step. Thick panes of clear glass surrounded her, top to bottom, side to side. Lips parted in soundless awe as realization struck home. She was standing in a glass corridor at the bottom of a gigantic aquarium.

Water so clear and dazzling it radiated a startling blue glow from all sides into the corridor, spilling light out into the entrance chamber. Crystal rods rose from the floor bed, in staggered heights and thickness, completely illuminating what looked to be a vast aquatic zoo.

Without the sight it was hard to be sure if the wall of blackness in the distance was actually the outer edge of the aquarium butting up against the darkness of the lake? Or simply the limited power range of the glowing crystal energy cells?

Columns of air bubbles gushed in rainbow splendor from numerous green-domed grates on the sand covered floor. Statues of mythical animals and crumbling pillars seemed to rest beneath layers of algae or draping moss and leafy plants as though testament to some long lost civilization.

Slender ribbons of giant eelgrass swayed with an invisible current, the lush vegetation reaching skyward beyond Debra’s view through the transparent ceiling. Flowering greenery covered rocks and boulders loosely piled in landscaped shapes, creating a community of shelters and pathways for the abundant species of fish darting about.

As with everything she had seen since leaving the airlock, the aquarium was impeccably clean, almost sparkling with a nurtured patina of loving care.

Debra knelt, touching the warm see-through floor. Fragmented images flashed; of being on hands and knees. Seeing the child she had been that long ago summer with Edith. Her nose pressed eagerly to the glass floor, small fingers tapping in hopes of attracting the tiny bobbing seahorses just on the other side.

The warrior watched as a young Debra curled up in a blanket against the wall, head pillowed on one of the colorful alcove cushions from the entrance chamber. “Seahorses,” she whispered. “My friends . . . they were my friends.” Dark eyes narrowed dangerously. “How could I have forgotten all this?”

A trio of flutes resumed their soothing song of life and goodbyes. The tonal resonates clear and powerful against the senses.

A seething electrical spark flashed unnoticed between splayed fingers still pressed against the floor; the only visible testament to the killing power waiting for release inside her body.

Nostrils flared as the emotional senses grappled to control the urge to smash something with bare fists. There was no doubt any longer. For reasons unknown, certain memories from her youth had been deliberately removed or blocked. And the fact that those she loved had betrayed her hurt more than being manipulated.

A fresh infusion of adrenaline pumped into her bloodstream. And the warrior subjugated the pain and disappointment beneath years of built up protective layers. Once more Debra focused with purpose and determination. She would know the truth this day . . . and they would pay.

She followed the S-shaped corridor to the far end and stopped at the entrance to the park; scoffing at herself. Such an insignificant word for the enormous grandeur that greeted her. Clearly, the inhabitants lived bigger and better than most people even dreamed of on the surface.

And the quickest way to get her bearings was to use the sight.

Debra recalled Edith’s instructions of reducing a solid mental barrier just enough and slowly opened her mind. The sound of heartbeats filled her head, an indicator that she had opened herself too much. When the thousands of beating hearts quieted, she knelt and touched the cobbled walkway with her hand.

Instantly she had a bird’s eye view of the enormous rock-walled chamber. Heightened senses gauged the vast garden park and bordering growing fields to be at least fifty acres of relatively flat fertile ground.

The same sun brightness from the high-domed ceiling crystals created a warmth on the cobblestones beneath her fingers. Eyes closed, she breathed deeply. The smell of freshly cut grass making her yearn for the beauty of the dream world. Reminding her once again of Kalon’s desertion and possible subterfuge.

The hiss of irrigation sprinklers focused her attention. And the sight let her see the soft misting spray drenching flowerbeds and grass and planting fields like early morning dew.

Almost midnight. She noted the time on her wristwatch and stored her observations away for future analysis.

From over the small rise of white birch trees came the sad strains of a lone flute.

Unaffected, the warrior pushed aside the many unforgettable photographic images of young Ruthie. What had become clear from her trips into the meditation globe was that the child had wanted her here. Debra was now certain of that. So she tuned out the emotional music and let the sight continue to soar.

The chamber, if such a vast expanse of space could be called a mere chamber, was a living testament to color and foliage of every shape, size, and texture imaginable. Flowering hedges and neatly trimmed shrubbery lined an abundant warren of redbrick pathways that crisscrossed the endless lawn-green park.

Full-grown oaks, maples, and willow trees encircled the common area, with brightly painted benches beneath their widespread branches to sit and relax. Debra could imagine the centralized clearing as a popular gathering spot for recitals or sporting events or simply a favorite place to stretch out beneath leafy branches for a quiet moment of mediation.

“Nap time . . .” she whispered, singling out a large willow tree, feeling the sensation of a soft warm blanket wrapped loosely around her bare legs.

Frustrated, jaws clenching, she pushed the sight to see faster.

Living quarters lined the chamber perimeter, forming a circle around the immense park, four stories high. Window glass sparkled in the bright light. Open balconies were draped with flowering vines throughout the lattice railings. Hundreds, maybe thousands of apartments were stacked one on top of the other, and that was just the ones she could see from the park.

Vaporous clouds hovered over moisture-laden ferns and towering palm-leafed trees at the far end of the chamber. The billowing spray hid a rock enclosure worn smooth by a waterfall plunging over the wide crevice just below the ceiling. The sight, spiraling down through the misting white halo, revealed a wide pond and numerous smaller branching irrigation streams spanning the park and growing fields.

Following one of the larger irrigation channels, Debra allowed the sight free-flight over the far rise and gasped, almost falling out of her sandals in shock.

Tucked down inside a wide grassy hollow, black-cloaked figures swayed together like a dark moving mantle, their ranks spilling up the sloping sides, their heads bowed in prayerful mourning before a marble temple-shaped alter.

Thousands and thousands had gathered to pay respects, to say farewell, to a child barely more than a handful of years.

Debra could not imagine anyone inducing such heartbreak in so many. The warrior side of her personality was a linear-intellect and understood the meaning of loss and tears but was emotionally barren and immune to such distractions as sadness or joy.

For someone with her abilities, Debra saw it as a hollow blessing. But necessary. Emotions were often equated to flaws. And in her case, mistakes could be fatal to others.

Regrettably, the warrior was a conscious, physical presence only because of the naturally occurring hormone epinephrine. When the adrenaline faded from her bloodstream so did the heightened senses and strength, and the complete clarity of a gifted analytical mind.

Once more the tonal richness of the lone flute invaded her concentration. Moving the sight in closer on the black marble monument, Debra scrutinized everything with her usual graphic care.

Incased in a radiant blue aura, a small oblong sphere rested upon the marble base. Nine shrouded figures immerged from the sea of black-cloaks and moved to surround the sphere, splayed hands resting on the glowing coffin. The crowd shifted, encircling the miniature temple in mere minutes.

Was the farewell drawing to a close? The warrior withdrew the sight from the meadow and the thousands of bowed heads and joined hands. Knowing the rest of the complex to be empty, there would never be a better time to investigate unimpeded.

Circumstances that could change at any moment.

Since the sight could only provide a visual, Debra needed to touch and be a physical presence amongst tangible objects to sense and understand impressions and truths buried on a much deeper level.

Withdrawing her hand from the warm walkway, Debra quietly stepped back into the glass-corridor in search of the truth.

November 11, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Three Part 2

An internal scan showed her to be shaken by the shock but unharmed. There was nothing physically wrong that could block her infamous intuition, and yet no answers were forthcoming.

Fear suddenly curdled in the pit of her stomach. Suddenly made her re-analyze every emotion, each instinctive course of action. Rising doubts rattled her hard won resolve to stand firm against losing control, breaking down beliefs in her will, her strength, the very core of her existence.

Fistfuls of sand sifted through unsteady hands, the small rod momentarily forgotten. Hot anger became her focus. And adrenaline responded. The warrior reemerged with the threat of danger, feeling nothing but mild contempt for all the fear polluting the body.

Fear was Dorothy, and Debra would rather lose her mind, her abilities, than become like her mother. The fear became nothing more than another undesirable emotion-memory neatly boxed away in the recesses of her mind.

Composure and clarity returned once more.

Sitting up, Debra watched the sand steadily slip from spread fingers, her sigh of acceptance sounding loud in the quiet stillness of the night. Once more the mind was calm, methodically processing facts and sifting through instinctive data.

The body simply waited for command.

Carefully she picked up the small innocuous-looking rod, knowing that another jolt like the last one could cause her serious harm. Instinct cautioned her to absorb the rod’s energy, then control the aura from within.

Fingers slowly gripped the rod. Eyes closed, Debra focused on the image of the rod’s energy merging, gently blending with her own. A tingling surge flushed throughout her body, a hot tickling sensation over the soft tissues of her mouth and sinuses, and inner ears.

Taking a cautious peak, her eyes widened in surprise to find the shimmering blue aura outlining fingers, arms, torso, and legs. The night sounds became muted, the warm evening breeze no longer caressed against bare skin.

Staring down at the milky-white rod, Debra shuddered, sensing a chasm opening and closing in her mind. Even with heightened senses, she could find no memories of such a moment burned in her consciousness.

Yet the feeling persisted; a nagging grain of truth that left her little peace. Belief in total recall or the more obvious lack of any images did little to stanch the insistent impression that at least once in her lifetime she had held a similar white rod tightly in her fist.

Unseeing eyes stared out at the dark lake as the mind quickly searched again for a similar image and found nothing but a feeling of trust . . . and the unsettling sensation of moving beneath the surface of the lake.

How could she not remember glowing auras and traveling underwater? Nothing was ever forgotten, regardless if the memories were good or bad.

Recorded in living color for instant recall was every moment of her life, not to mention all the bits of data her subconscious mind picked up when sleeping or unconscious. Every hug and whispered encouragement from a loving aunt. Every stinging slap and blaming tirade by her mother.

For someone like Debra, forgetting anything was impossible. Which begged the question: had memories been manipulated . . . erased from her mind? And if so, why? How could she be sure of anything now?

How could she ever trust Edith again?

Debra leapt to sandaled feet, oblivious to her filthy, bedraggled appearance. The warrior abruptly closed off all emotions. The truth or lack of it was irrelevant. With the aura in place, the focus now was finding Edith and the others. Once there, wherever there ended up being, she would get the answers needed. Only then could the future be decided.

The huge sentinel rock was nudged back along its invisible track and locked in place. Full darkness had descended blending sky, water, and land in deeper, darker shades of black. The distant brightness from the dock pole light acted as a stationary beacon, providing those with normal vision a bit of depth perception along the extended pier and intersecting beachfront road.

A place of secrets and shadows, thought Debra, moving easily, quietly into the pitch black water.

Bare flesh felt neither the cold nor the wet as she waded further out until water swirled about her breasts. Even the warrior admitted there were easier ways to die than drowning. Many times thoughts of taking her life had been the only comfort she could cling to. Had even tried twice and failed due to the infuriating intervention of Kalon taking over her mind and body when she lost consciousness and Edith promising hell on earth everlasting.

Now Kalon and the dream world were gone and maturity had given her the mind power to simple shut down her body. End the loneliness once and for all. But Edith’s words of warning still pressed like a jabbing stick against her conscience: “‘the only true failing a mortal can commit is the taking of one’s own life. Each life is a choice, a contract, and must be lived and experienced to completion. If self-terminated there is no going home, Debra, no time to rest. That being, that soul, is born right back into mortal existence to endured it all again, and again, if necessary, until the contract or covenant is fulfilled.’”

Truth or just a fairytale? Until Debra actually died there was no way of knowing for sure. And when life became intolerable, instincts and Edith’s words acted as a powerful deterrent. There was no way in hell she wanted to live this life over again.

So she endured. Each day simply tucking away vulnerable feelings and living through the pain of loneliness and disappointment. But like a cruel joke, she would never learn to appreciate the lessons of mortality.

Enhanced eyesight once more scanned the shoreline and hillside for any threats. Head tilted, she listened for the sound of beating hearts or nearby thoughts but failed to pick up anything at all.

Was the aura impenetrable even to her abilities? Being cloaked for the first time made trusting inborn skills with her life questionable.

And yet the warrior side of her nature was determined there would be no going back now.

A sandaled toe cautiously tested, inching forward over the sandy rock floor, searching for the abrupt edge she had been forbidden to swim near as a child. Images of the trip through the mediation globe came to mind. Would reality and dream become the same? Like Kalon and Damon? Like Ruthie and the children?

She paused, waiting for instincts to sound the alarm of danger. Quieted her mind but sensed only calm acceptance. Debra relaxed, slowing her heartbeat and the flow of blood and expanded her lung capacity to take in more oxygen, then stepped off the edge into the waiting abyss.

Darkness. Not a gradual shifting from gray to black. No moon-glow or dim aura penetrating beneath the lake surface to help ease the adjustment between sight and total blindness.

Strength of will wrestled with physical deprivation, her mind struggling to find balance, lungs straining to hoard precious oxygen, muscles clenching beneath the increasing pressure of water against the energy field.

To hell with it, she thought, impassively, and released the useless breath from her lungs . . . only to greedily gulp in the unmistakable dryness of filtered air.

A burst of laughter echoed, whether inside the aura or her head Debra couldn’t tell. Only now did she truly ponder the incredible possibilities of the rod and aura. With nothing to see, no sense of direction or movement, she was content to let the mystifying journey play itself out.

For the moment she was safe and tried not to think of the similarities between this trip and the passage brought on by the mediation globe.

Too easy to daydream of finding Kalon waiting for her again. Of black-eyed babies eager to play, of coming home and joyous welcome. In fantasy she could provide whatever the children needed; no one would be helpless and waiting to die.

But she wasn’t in the dream world now. In reality wishes didn’t come true with a single thought. And by no stretch of the imagination did Debra consider herself a healer or some kind of savior. Although natural born, her abilities were more adapted to self-preservation than in service to the masses. She wouldn’t have the first clue how to go about healing those children.

Suddenly, directly ahead, lights activated, allowing only a momentary glimpse of a huge mountainous wall looming up before her. Debra yelped, throwing up useless hands to brace for collision, then stared in fascination as two rock panels slid wide apart, pulling her in, and closing with an ominous thud behind her.

For a long drawn out moment, silence hung eerily in the crypt-like void. Then a muffled clang vibrated through the water, a jolting concussion against her body. Debra flinched at the unexpected pushing pressure but remained calm. From somewhere in her mind she recognized the churning, dissipating sound of water and billowing air and waited for the pressurized airlock to complete its sequence.

A blue light flashed to life, whirling mutely overhead, bringing a sense of equilibrium and vague familiarity—fairy light—to the shadows that closed in about her. The hissing air stopped abruptly. The last of the lake water disappeared through a large metal grate in the concrete and metal floor.

Debra spun about, in full warrior mode, watching breathlessly as the cumbersome inner black doors parted with mechanized precision. Slowly they opened wide to reveal a cavernous chamber more lavish than any palace she and Kalon had dreamed up while reading the opulent Arabian Nights in their youth.

Hand pressed flat to the rock wall, her mind-sight failed to function for the first time, answering several questions about the aura’s dampening capacity. Switching the rod to her other hand caused only a momentary blip in the aura’s force-field. Debra securely tucked the slender white rod in the waistband of her filthy red shorts.

Instantly the aura winked out and thousands of heartbeats pounded in her mind before she regained enough sense and tuned them out.

Edith was here. Safe.

Mental barriers down, she pressed bare fingers against the airlock’s cold rock wall. A quick peek revealed an empty chamber and crisscrossing corridors. Satisfied, Debra blocked all sign of her presence behind full mental barriers. Earlier discussions on levels of protection forgotten for the moment.

The blue light continued to whirl its warning from the airlock ceiling. Debra stepped into the chamber, confident in her aloneness, and quickly located the main panel, releasing the airlock doors. A similar blue light above the control panel winked out as the thick doors sealed shut with a resounding muted clang.

Warrior eyes that missed nothing quickly scanned the huge chamber. Black, rough-hewn mountain bedrock served as the main walls and ceiling in a hall the size of a generous city block. Plants and flowers were everywhere; all colors, shapes, and sizes. Beautifully carved pedestal statues, of wood and stone, created walkways and retreats beneath hanging arbors dripping with blossoms and mature grapevines.

The floor was white marble and looked thick and well used as Debra followed a wide pathway further into the chamber. Amongst towering green columns were seating areas covered with padded jeweled-colored rugs and large lounging pillows scattered about.

Tuck in a secluded corner she found a wine glass, half-full of something pale pink and fruity. An open book lay beside the stemmed glass, the bucolic emerald green pastures of Ireland spread across its glossy pages.

Following the pathway further into the chamber, Debra wondered just how many people lived beneath the lake and why they would want to. Judging by the number of heartbeats that greeted her arrival, the complex had to be huge.

Her sight, had she used it to full advantage, would have revealed all its wonders like the open pages of the picture book in the alcove. But not until she could account for all those heartbeats.

In the middle of the chamber rose a magnificent three-tiered fountain of green and white marble; as glorious as any European mold fashioned under a master’s hand. Sparkling water filled generous pink-lined basins and soared heavenward from a vast crowning flower-shaped crystal. Thin trumpeting columns of water encircled each marble ledge, falling back into basins in playful tinkling chimes, then recycled to fly gloriously upward once more.

From outside the chamber, came the soft, low strains of several flutes. Debra followed the disturbing sound, each breathless wail reaching deep inside her emotional psyche, calming, reassuring, infusing her with a sense of comfort. The rising cadence was a mournful cry; a requiem to Ruthie and death.

Warrior instincts battled an overwhelming sense of frustrated familiarity. With no actual memories to back up the feeling, Debra felt as though she were fighting against ghosts in an ongoing nightmare.

More likely the nightmare of manipulation. And another small piece of her heart hardened against Edith and Kalon.

The mind may have been tricked into forgetting but her instincts never lied. At some point Debra had stood in this hall, had breathed in the fragrant flowers and greenery. Eyes turned to the left, searching the lengthy corridor, instinctively knowing the main route to the next chamber was through a wide connecting passageway directly ahead.

November 10, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Three Part 1

Nothing but silence. Most evenings the airstream swirled across the Cascade Range and filtered down the long western slope. The fresh southern breeze eased the summer heat and stirred up the mountain lake, the cold dancing waves ending in a gentle slap against the pleasure boats tied up to the floating extended dock.

Tonight there was no wind, no lapping water, not even the orchestrated night buzzing and chirping that commenced with the onset of darkness.  Nothing but empty silence.

As the last of the residents disappeared beneath the surface, Debra had crawled further along the bluff edge in hopes of seeing or hearing something to explain what logic simply could not comprehend.

A full moon hung round and heavy in the cloudless sky.  Debra had a clear view across the lake to the towering cliff shore just over a mile away. The vertical rock face and crowning thick forest were nothing more than black silhouettes hunkered down protectively in the distance.

Moonlight altered cream-colored sand into a glowing iridescent white; a bright ribbon beckoning beyond the crescent-shaped inlet out toward Rock Point, almost two miles away.

Empty.

Hunched precariously on a tiny perch above the smooth lake, Debra pushed long fingers into the churned up earth of the bluff’s bordering hedge, bringing the sight to life for a quick scan of the water. No blue auras shimmered in the blackened depths. No lifeless bodies slowly sinking into obscurity.

Expanding the search, the sight followed the private shoreline of the lake’s thirteen-mile length, yet failed to find one human out and about, let alone the three hundred men and women now missing.

A few miles beyond the remote eastern tip of the lake, the nearby town of Crystal Ridge was busy with Wednesday night summer traffic. Restaurants catered to local and off-mountain guests. Gas attendants pumped fuel and cleaned windshields with stoic smiles. Couples and families took advantage of the warm evening for ice cream and a stroll down Main Street.

Years ago the park residents had entertained the idea of clearing a private roadway through the thick trees and underbrush at the eastern tip of the lake; a mini marina and a short walk to town. The proposal seemed favorable since Crystal Lake never froze, providing year-round access. And the cut trees would be used as lumber for making a private dock and covered walkway to the property line. Yet those more conservative and security conscious presented the convincing argument that an entryway exposed the family to trespassers, innocent or otherwise. The vote against the charming idea had been quick and unanimous.

Strict protocols and conservation saw to it that no trees were ever deliberately destroyed nor any of the underbrush thinned out for walking paths. Of the thousands of acres owned by the Crystal Lake Acres Corporation, not one parcel of land had ever been leveled by fire or sold for profit. Signs were discreet, yet plentiful, and the property entirely fenced off to the public and neighboring owners.

Staring out over the quiet desolate lake, Debra suddenly understood. A faint smile creased her drawn lips. Secrets demanded isolation. And a lifetime of pretense definitely qualified her as one to know.

“They aren’t dead,” she whispered intuitively. “But where did they go . . . and how to find them?”

Head coming up like a wolf sniffing the wind for a direction to follow, data was retrieved and earlier scenes replayed rapidly in her mind. The answers were there in the images. Slowly her gaze lowered, coming to rest on the huge boulder on the main beach below.

Crumbling soil shifted beneath sandaled feet on the edge of the bluff. Without warning Debra fell hard on her backside as loose topsoil and compost carried her swiftly down the thirty-foot incline. Instinctively she rolled and heaved onto hands and bare knees in an effort to scramble onto more solid ground. But weight and momentum impeded all efforts.

In seconds she landed on the beach in a bedraggled heap—filthy, sore, and bleeding.

“So much for stealth,” she muttered, rising cautiously, eyes peering intently up the hill road as she dusted off. A quick inward scan showed only superficial cuts and scrapes. Automatically her system flooded with painkilling-antibiotic agents to prevent infection.

The warrior emerged as the possible threat of danger sent adrenaline coursing through veins. Heightened eyesight easily searched along the beachfront road and higher up to the hillcrest. For more, Debra pressed her hand into warm sand. The sight quickly confirmed the park was empty of residents from the locked gates at the entryway to several yards beyond the shoreline and into the lake’s cold depths.

Nothing. No trail of breadcrumbs above or below the surface to follow.

Instinct warned of danger. Commonsense advised futility and to wait for Edith’s return. But the warrior in Debra saw an intriguing mystery. One she could not walk away from.

Against the large boulder she tested her ample strength and found the misshapen stone unmovable. Duplicating Harry Taylor’s movements, she stuck a sandaled toe beneath the rim, expecting to feel some kind of releasing lever. All she found were jagged edges that scraped at already bruised skin on the top of her foot.

Down on hands and knees she peered into the dark crevice between sand and rock, heightened eyesight expanding her pupils wide to gather every sliver of moonlight. There in the back, almost mistaken for a deep gouge in the rock, a blunt-tipped protrusion gave way beneath her fingertips. At the soft distinct click, another tiny smile twitched as the rock lifted slightly upward and held, waiting.

A nudge sent the hovering boulder soundlessly back out of the way. No rails or other mechanisms were visible to account for the smooth rollaway motion. Debra stared down into a square reinforced pit in the sand. Inside a black metal trunk, slightly smaller than the two-foot square opening, was unlocked and partially open.

Slowly Debra eased up the trunk lid and groaned in frustration. A thorough search through heavy cloth bags came up empty. Not one of the unique white rods remained.

“Damn,” she sighed, fingers quickly re-searching the sides and base of the trunk for hidden doors or a false bottom. She hesitated, breath held, at the feel of a solitary strip of material stretching across cold metal, then quickly followed the thin trail to a loose tail of ribbon.

A second was all it took for Debra to weigh the odds of motion sensors or booby traps lying in wait to catch the unwary. And just as quickly to discard the idea. The locked front gates, the isolation, the casual ease with which the residents disappeared all suggested a community comfortable with their current security and unaccustomed to intruders.

Debra pulled the dark strip, revealing an orderly row of milky-white rods. Their smooth, polished surface felt cold to the touch—no openings to see inside, no discernible moving parts. Prepared to follow the others into the lake, she carefully lifted a rod with fingertips and returned the trunk lid as she found it.

The cigar-shaped piece of stone gripped firmly in hand, a shimmering field of energy enfolded her entire body, moving as she moved, bonding with her own strength, the aura expanding, becoming brighter, the flood of energy increasing like waves of heat against her skin.

Suddenly the power erupted in a brilliant burst of white light.

Debra landed flat on her back in the sand, eyes blinded by the flash, her body numb from an angry shockwave of explosive air. Inborn defenses shielded against intrusion while her body lay vulnerable. The killing power gently arced over the slender white rod lying loosely in her trembling hand.

Even before she could catch her breath, fragmented images began to surface in her mind.

A face, shifting slowly into focus. Smiling black eyes. Full lips laughing, playfully blowing fruity noises against her belly. Teasing male laughter echoing in her ears.

Absently, Debra touched the taut skin of her quivering stomach.

Nostrils flared, scenting freshly cut grass. Bare flesh felt warmed by the strong sunlight beating down on her face.

A forgotten memory? With such total recall, what else could the impression be?

The image faded, shifting, new shadows drifting upward into the light of consciousness.

A corridor of some kind. The rainbow colors beckoning from behind thick glass to reflect an underwater world of plants and fish on an inner wall of mirrors.

The images slipped back into darkness, leaving Debra stretched out on the sand, shaken, alone, staring disconcertingly up into the night sky. Reality had returned. She waited, letting the internal healer probe her body for damage and begin repairs.

Beneath her skin, the burning pain eased, slowly fading altogether. The hushed stillness only seemed to intensify the turmoil in her mind.

How could she not know a part of herself? Memories were as real to her as seeing or hearing or simply breathing to stay alive. Every moment of her life was cataloged and filed away somewhere in the infinite storage space in her brain.

Available always for total recall.

Nothing ever forgotten.

And yet here she was, laid out in the sand like some helpless victim. No longer sure of her own thoughts and feelings; of what was real and what was planted or manipulated.

The memories, or whatever they were, reflected a past Debra had no interest in revisiting. Looking back meant unleashing an anger long buried, a reminder of the hollowness inside that never truly went away.

Only victims constantly sought out the past, replaying it over and over like some drive-by motorist repulsed yet compelled to record a bloody roadside fatality for later viewing in the dark.

For Debra the need to be a part of something, to belong to someone, had long since passed. Edith’s whispered belief that unintentional harm to another required no guilt had saved her sanity more than once while growing up.

As had Kalon and the dream world. If still alive, was he suffering guilt for his abandonment? Six months of tears, a loneliness mostly ignored now. Mostly.

People always disappointed. Herself included. If not for her uniqueness Dorothy would have been a loving mother. Edith and Dorothy would be friends and caring sisters. Kalon would have stayed. She would have had a friend.

Disappointments, unintentional or not, hurt just the same.

Aloneness had become an acquired taste, one Debra had grown up preferring. Her rare bouts of need these days were quickly overshadowed with just a thought of all the painful slights or outright fear that had been directed her way over the years. Had she been of a mind to assert her psychic superiority, revenge might have filled the emptiness quite nicely.

But Debra hated confrontation, hated feeling depressed and weak, hated thinking about the past. Except for Edith and Kalon, Debra’s sanity, her very survival, depended on remaining separate.

Loneliness was a lot like death in its absoluteness. Debra often wondered if there was any real difference between the two.

The building blocks of youth now made it very difficult for her to trust or care for people, even more so with the disturbing lack of a common frame of reference between her peers. Idle gossip and party-hardy had never been enough to hold her attention. When younger, it drove her crazy to realize the only similarity shared with those around her was a conscious lapse in memory during the first few years of life. She might as well have been born on the moon.

And now the two people she loved most in the world had blatantly violated her trust.

She listened for the comforting voice inside, searching for the truth: had Edith manipulated her thoughts?

Only the silence of the night greeted her.

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