November 23, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Seven Part 3

Angry, and now afraid, that her brother could be so stupid as to gamble his life on the unknown, Rowan walked out of the Operating Theater with a heavy heart. The medical and physical facts had been painstakingly sifted through and entered into hundreds of probability scenarios. Nothing they tried had worked. Between her years of experience and training and that of her staff, hopes had been high of bring Damon back to his body.

Now she had a few hours to clear her mind and come up with some kind of new plan of action. She wondered if Duran’s archives held any information about the ancients’ transcending the body due to a kinetic discharge.

Muted lighting in the main medical-science corridor simulated the evening hours on the surface. On-duty personnel was lighter, but she was never alone in the walk back to her office. She waved to the patrol team on their rounds as they entered the nearby lift, knowing they had questions about Damon. And grateful they left it at a mental hug of support.

Round and round her mind went, sequencing the data with known methods of transcending, until she found it difficult to even think straight. So she forced out all the clutter and fear and slowly went over the current facts again, one by one.

Unless taken by old age or inoperable disease, Damon’s body could be sustained indefinitely, but was nothing more than an empty shell at the moment. The problem was with his immortal lifeforce, what the humans called the divine spark inside.

An emergency assembly had been called and the council of Elders, the Masters and Grand Masters had all agreed with the ancient teachings: an out of body existence was extremely dangerous and life threatening to the physical existence. Should an immortal’s lifeforce not return to the physical body within seven days, that physical existence, its life experiences in that existence would be deemed a self-termination. The journey Home would be denied until the immortal lifeforce or being had completed the agreed upon covenant for physical life.

Learning through the limitations of physical existence carried only one sin. Suicide, whether the taking of one’s own life to escape the physical hardships and fears, or the addiction of substance abuse that numbed the mind and wasted the chosen cycle of enlightenment. Only those born to an existence of extreme mental disability were exempt and brought directly Home after physical death, their acts of desperation more often an edifying catalyst for those left behind.

Tired after a long day, Rowan entered the dark, quiet sanctuary of her office. Even though a half-hour nap on the sofa would be more wonderful than pure, dark chocolate, the first order of business was to update the message sites in the central computer, then complete her report in the medical-science database.

Sitting at her workstation in the small pool of light from the desk lamp, efficient fingers quickly typed out the latest update on Damon’s stable yet unchanged condition, and queued the text for copy to all sites. Sometimes following the human’s limited forms of communication threatened to test her fortitude. But once above, all of the human ways had to be instinctive to protect them and their Thalian technology.

So, stretching out some of the kinks in her shoulders, Rowan activated the transponder and sent a brief coded message to each of the administrators of the four other Thalian cities around the world. Until midnight of the seventh day, no legislative decisions would be made regarding a new sovereign.

A faint moan drew Rowan’s attention from the com-link screen to the shadows across the room. Surprise had immediate medical responsibilities shifting to the back of her mind. She had forgotten all about Debra and the mandatory physical.

The comfy high-backed chair swiveled silently, as Rowan quietly crossed the thick carpet, her Thalian senses considering the young woman who slept as though dead to the world.

Unlike her brother, Rowan did not possess the ability of mind-sight or touch-sensing. All her exceptional gifts focused around the tools of healing. Which made her lack of success with Damon all the more frustrating.

And here, stretched out on her sofa in peaceful innocence, was the cause of her irritation. In spite of Eron’s estimations, Rowan remained unconvinced. There was simply no way to tell whether Debra would end up being a menace or savior to the Thalian nation.

In all the photos she had viewed over the years, Rowan had never seen Debra’s face so relaxed, so delicate. It was the closed eyes, she realized. When open, those dark brown orbs had a way of glaring at the world with distrust and even a mild contempt, and eclipsed the beautiful skin, the high cheekbones, the soft vulnerable mouth.

In no mood to deal with those surly eyes awake, Rowan rallied her flagging strength and primed her hands and mind to administer Debra’s physical while she slept.

Technology may have freed them from a dying planet and built their cities deep underwater, but Rowan preferred to use the psychic probing technique that allowed her to see inside biological matter through the sensitive tips of her fingers and palms.

She pressed her hands together, lightly rubbing the sensitive skin, and felt the forming cushion of energy warm her hands. Gently, barely touching the epidermis, Rowan laid one hand over Debra’s exposed left neck carotid artery, and placed her other hand on top of the blanket, over the aorta, low on the abdomen.

Unseeing eyes visualized everything in her mind. A body perfectly maintained; organs and tissue free of disease, old injuries healed with exquisite skill, crippling scar tissue all but eliminated, with only a faint shadow left to mark the memory. Cell regeneration, chemical stimulus, lung oxygen enrichment, heart strength amplification.

Rowan broke the connection and backed away from the sofa, suddenly seeing the younger woman in a totally new light; as a healer of the highest order. As someone to collaborate with in finding a cure for the children and the atmospheric virus. As a bonded wife able to follow her husband into the ethereal dimension between physical existence and Home.

But even more astounding, Debra no longer carried all the same degenerative weaknesses that had destroyed the others of her kind. No doubt this was what Eron had sensed and waited for Rowan to confirm.

Psychic testing and training would begin immediately in the morning. For the first time in hours, Rowan felt a measure of hope. Lost in the possibilities for answers, she gently squeezed Debra’s shoulder, ready to escort the city’s newest resident to her prepared quarters. If Debra could stay awake long enough, maybe they could get started on a tentative training schedule that would make them both happy.

Without warning, long fingers clamped tightly around Rowan’s wrist, the crushing strength and fiery heat bringing Rowan to her knees in a breathtaking cry of pain. The harder she tried to break Debra’s grip, the tighter the slim fingers squeezed, until blackness started to encroach upon the edges of her vision.

“DEBRA!” Rowan screamed, distantly aware that Debra was still sleeping soundly. In a last effort of strength, she heaved backward and tumbled Debra to the floor, her wrist still locked in a vise of flesh, her hand red and swollen from amassing blood.

Debra was awake and responsive before she hit the floor. Internal defenses recalled the circumstances in seconds and the warrior stood down. Immediately her fingers released their compressing grip, revealing the ugly, raw wound around Rowan’s wrist.

Beyond words and unable to control the tears of pain coursing down bloodless cheeks, Rowan struggled to find her inner discipline and begin self-healing. She had never experienced such debilitating pain before and was still trying to catch her breath.

Debra saw only someone in need and instinctively followed the rhythms of her body. Fingers splayed flat against Rowan’s chest, sending endorphins to all cell receptors and dulling the sensation of pain. The older woman sagged to the floor, her breath sawing loudly in the small office. Debra checked the wound, pulling out pieces of burnt jumpsuit material, then gently clasped Rowan’s wrist and visualized the transference of damage.

For Rowan, the pain eased almost instantly and allowed for rational thought once more. She watched the skin on Debra’s wrist redden, then blister, and finally split open in a charred, oozing wound that smelled of cooked blood and skin. Debra released her arm and slowly sank to the floor, all her attention focused inward.

Rowan witnessed with the eyes of a healer the injury on Debra’s wrist meticulously repair from the inside out, until once again the skin was smooth and soft and free of injury.

“I didn’t realize you were an empathic healer as well as touch,” Rowan said with forbearance, sitting up slowly and leaning back against the bookcase.

Lifting dark, empty eyes, Debra glanced at Rowan, then pulled herself inward, conserving energy and strength. “Is that what I did? Empathic healing?” she said, indifferently.

“It was my own fault, Debra,” Rowan quickly reassured. “I know your skills are instinctive, that your defenses are unused to distinguishing between friend and foe. Living above, alone, everyone had to be considered an enemy. This wasn’t your fault. I was the one who was careless.”

“And what happens the next time someone forgets . . . and I can’t heal them.” Wretched, dark eyes blinked slowly and stared at Rowan. “I want the training, but not if it means somebody else gets hurt.”

Rowan scooted over the carpet beside Debra and reached out. “Give me your hand.” She placed the warm, slim fingers around the nape of her neck. “As a strong healer you should be able to feel the pulse at the back of my neck.” She grinned at the surprise in Debra’s eyes. “What you’re feeling is the body’s normal electrical pulse that travels up and down the spinal column from the brain.” Sensing the younger woman’s curiosity eased some of the tension in the pit of her stomach. “Now concentrate on the pulse. My name is Yolanda Breckenridge and I’m a retired astronaut selling rental lots on the moon.”

A shocked gasp filled the small office, as sensitive fingers pressed firmly against the erratic pulsations passing down the center of the neck vertebrae. “It’s returning to normal now,” Debra murmured truthfully.

Smiling for the first time that day, Rowan felt over that moon at seeing Debra’s quirky little grin. “I call it a biological lie detector,” she said, humor in her eyes. “Instead of reading the symptoms of a person who’s lying with a mechanical detector, a touch-healer can feel the spasms in the electrical pulses that initiate those physical symptoms with absolute accuracy.”

“What do you want from me, Rowan?” the words were quietly spoken, without anger or fear.

None, including Rowan, had been prepared to call the odds in favor of Debra’s survival. All except Damon, whose strong belief in her abilities was enough to gamble his life on. Rowan often speculated that her brother’s deeper understanding of Debra was most likely due to the unique link between the two them since they were babies.

Rowan placed Debra’s hand back on the nape of her neck again. “What’s expected is that we all go slow and get to know one another. Once you’ve had the training and acquired the control that all Thalians grow up learning, then you’ll be free to choose whatever you want to do to help us all survive.”

“Edith is convinced my healing abilities will cure the children. In spite of all the gifted healers right here in this city.” Debra leaned closer. “I know what I’ve sensed and heard, Rowan, and most everyone in the city seems to think I’m some kind of prophet come to set them all free.”

A cold shudder gripped Rowan at the thought of failure. “You’re the last of your generation, Debra. The very last Thalian-human to live above, immune to the virus. It’s no wonder that all hopes have been pinned on you. Whether it’s fair or not. But we’ve learned not to take any possibility of hope for granted. There is a cure, somewhere. We just need to find it before the humans annihilate themselves or this planet.”

Debra sighed, her eyes glittering brightly, almost unnaturally. “For the first time in my life, I’m afraid of my abilities. Look what’s happened to Damon, and now to you. I honestly don’t know if I can control what happens. I’m starting to wonder if I ever had control.”

They shared a look of understanding, of the responsibilities each of them had learned to live with because of the incredible power they had been born to.

“I know you’re concerned about unconsciously hurting the people you’re going to be working with. Unlike above, you’re safe here, Debra. With people who know who you are. People who are like you.” Her back squared stubbornly. “And I want you to know I can be trusted. With your level of skill you’ll only be working with Masters and Grand Masters. A Master is someone who’s an expert at evaluating, teaching, and guiding in their respective field. A Grand Master is someone who has excelled over all other Masters in that field.”

The pulse in Rowan’s neck never varied. Debra removed her hand. “And you?”

“I’m a Master of medical-science,” Rowan nodded. “It took me most of my life to achieve that status. Are you interested in healing? I ask because you’re already quite good at touch and empathic healing.”

Debra shrugged never having thought about having an interest in one of her abilities. “I don’t think of healing as an interest. It’s just something I do for myself. Like all my other abilities.” A frown marred her forehead. “Am I expected to pick something to specialize in?”

Rowan grinned, tucking her arm around Debra’s identically white covered arm. “I just thought since you’re already wearing a white jumpsuit . . .” Debra flushed guiltily as Rowan laughed. “Whatever I have is yours, Debra. Maybe someday you’ll say the same to me and the Thalian nation.” She gestured toward the office entryway. “But first, you need at least eight hours uninterrupted sleep. You’re exhausted. Come on, I’ll take you to your quarters.”

November 22, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Seven Part 2

Heavily gray-streaked hair seemed a contradiction to the sparsely lined face that smiled graciously at her. The sturdy body beneath the loose-fitting green jumpsuit bowed slightly from the waist.

Head tilted to the side, Eron watched her. “We’re all here to help you, Debra. But only with your consent.”

She took a step back away from him while his eyes, shining with concern, followed her.

“A moment ago you were incapacitated and suffering,” Eron said boldly, gauging her reaction. Debra finally nodded mutely. “I used a minor pulse to release a small amount of kinetic adrenaline into your system, and that quickly relieved the symptoms.”

“Then I owe you my thanks . . . and an apology for my rudeness.”

Eron grinned, remaining close by her, just in case. Debra’s hybrid DNA made Thalian absolutes questionable.  “The more you practice with your skills the better your body can handle abrupt fluctuations in pressure and energy. We’ll also teach you some little suppression tricks to help ease the withdrawal.” His head tilted, satisfaction clear in the gruff voice. “Although, your touch-healing ability should have no trouble regulating kinetic adrenaline in future.”

Suddenly images popped into her mind for a simple breathing-acupressure maneuver. Startled, Debra slammed shut her protective barriers, but not before sensing a small residual signature that had her looking to Eron as the sender.

“Hmm, I see you’re unused to Thalian telepathy,” he said bluntly. “Yet you instinctively knew the message was from me.”

“Are you testing me?” she asked incredulously.

Lips puckered as he shook his head, thoughtfully. “No. Merely intrigued by your cerebral reflexes and strength. Our way of telepathy is precise and quick. It’s how you will learn here, Debra. Your psychic aptitude is exceedingly high, but greatly in need of training to achieve control, and full capability. Once you’ve had your physical, Rowan will be able to set up a program of learning for you. I look forward to watching your progress.”

Stunned, Duran remained silent at Eron’s open admiration of Debra’s skills and potential. Maybe the rumors were true. Maybe Debra really was a mystic.

“I don’t need a physical. I can take care of myself,” she swiftly insisted. “I do, however, want to learn more about my abilities. But not if it means having a bunch of people poking around inside my head.”

A reassuring pat on her arm, Duran hastened to alleviate her fears. “For the most part Thalian telepathy is just thoughts or images sent and received. Like sending and receiving emails. No personal contact.” Eron frowned at the crude analogy. “There is no touching of minds unless a joining or melding is established. Eron has the unique ability to sense conscious and subconscious cerebral functions.”

“On Thalia,” the older man said, the wistfulness in his voice bittersweet, “I taught children and young adults how to fulfill their potential.”

Duran grunted in agreement, and clarified. “Eron is one of the premiere Masters of psychic education. From newborns to young adults, all the great Houses sought his evaluating and teaching skills.” As an afterthought, he muttered softly. “I have all the Thalian archives, Debra, if you’re interested.”

“That was a long time ago, my friend,” Eron stated candidly. “The few children we have now are instructed by others medically trained to care for them. There are no young people left to teach.” Sadness clouded the strong features of his face. “My training skills have become redundant.” He stepped outside the airlock and gestured with pride to the entrance chamber. “This is my domain now. Here I am host and guide, information resource, storyteller, nurse . . .” His boisterous laughter had Debra and Duran smiling along with him. “Well, you get my meaning. As the humans say, a-jack-of-all-trades.”

“That explains why you seemed to be hovering nearby, earlier.” Debra conceded. “You knew I was in trouble before I did.”

“I could sense that you weren’t feeling well. And knowing what happened above with Damon, it was logical to assume you were going to have trouble with withdrawal.” Firm shoulders shrugged nonchalantly as Eron signaled for them to follow. “There is also the fact that I must remain by the airlock while the doors are open. Should someone come down from above, the outside doors won’t activate while the airlock is in use.”

“What!” Debra blurted, concerned, stepping quickly into the aisle. “How long can the cloaking aura sustain someone once they’re caught in that pulling force?”

The two men grinned and quietly laughed at her assumption.

Eron touched the red square on the bottom of the wall panel, activating the closing mechanism. “There’s no need for concern,” he replied affably. “A warning is sounded when the exterior sensors are tripped and the inside doors are still open.”

All three watched the mammoth black doors rumble closed, the overhead whirling blue light winking out as the main panel activation button flashed to green.

“That pulling and pushing force is an underwater tether, or gravitational beam, that locks onto the cloaking signature. The aura’s energy field pulls oxygen from the water continuously, so there’s no need to worry about drowning.”

Eron winked at her startled gasp. As suspected, Debra had lowered her protective barriers once she felt safe again. So used to living among non-telepathic humans, there had been no need to constantly protect herself from intrusion. The Thalian nation’s newest daughter would find things quite different in a city full of psychic beings.

The master teacher folded his arms with a good-natured grin. “At least you didn’t close yourself off this time. What form of communication did you find easier to absorb? Verbal or mind?”

“Alright, the image that flashed in my mind relayed everything you spoke of verbally, and much more,” she admitted honestly, feeling somewhat disconcerted that all she had learned and come to believe in over the years was now inadequate.

Satisfied, Eron patted Duran’s shoulder and bowed once again to Debra. “A fine beginning. But I’m needed elsewhere at the moment. So I’ll bid you a warm welcome. Once you’ve had your physical, you know where to find me.”

“What is it about this physical business,” Debra argued. “I’m not having a physical.”

Duran’s lopsided grin distracted as he linked arms with Debra. “Come on, old girl,” he teased. “I’m afraid a physical is mandatory for every newcomer to Tantria. We can’t risk any form of infection spreading citywide.”

They headed toward the closest exit; the one Debra had used the night of her secret search of the city. “I can understand the need for being careful in an enclosed environment. But I’ve already been in the city. In fact, I’ve been all over this city,” she said with finality.

Silently the corridor exit doors parted and closed behind them. “That’s because Rowan took a skin sample the night you had your black rage. The results of the analysis were fed into the database. If that information hadn’t been added, you would have set off intruder alarms all over the city and the airlock doors would have remained sealed in lockdown.”

A weighty breath whistled from Debra’s pursed lips. “I feel like Alice stuck in the rabbit hole and things will never be normal again.”

“A bit of training is all you need,” he nodded. “But a skin sample isn’t enough for Rowan’s files. Everyone is given a complete physical so the data can become part of the virus research database. One day someone’s data will provide a clue for finding a cure. So nothing can be overlooked.”

He leaned closer, his voice hushed in tone. “Just so you know, the energy fields in the cloaking auras have a simple form of decontamination, as well as all the lifts. All exits from the entrance chamber have stronger decon sensors for about twenty feet past the doors, either way. If there’s a problem, an alarm is triggered on the medical level and brings down a force-field to contain the contaminant. That’s when you’re given the physical from hell,” he laughed.

Feeling cowed by logic, Debra allowed herself to be shuttled off into the waiting lift. Just how intrusive could a Thalian physical be, she wondered?

“Oh. My. God!” Debra exclaimed, wide-eyed, staring at herself in the lift’s mirrored panels.

The bellowed outburst brought the habitual hum of voices and movement to an abrupt halt in the administrative hallway. Duty personnel, visiting human helpers, and residents stopped dead in their tracks or peered inquiringly from nearby office and lounge doorways. Duran’s uproarious laughter only added to the commotion.

Floor to ceiling mirrors made it difficult to ignore the filthy once-white jumpsuit and rat’s nest hairstyle. Debra finally threw up her hands in defeat and glared at Duran as the lift doors closed. Friendship, she pondered sourly, was never there when you really needed it.

*   *   *

“Give me a break, will you,” Debra sighed in complaint over Duran’s sporadic outbreak of laughter. Lack of sleep the night before had finally caught up with mind and body, leaving her camped out in exhaustion on Rowan’s comfortable office sofa. “A real bloody friend would have told me I looked like the walking dead,” she groused, yawning against the back of her hand.

The spacious office had been empty upon their arrival. Debra had instinctively palmed the doorway to mentally see all of Rowan’s domain, and discovered a large compartmentalized suite that housed a main office, examining room, laboratory, and private retreat.

Her mind-sight had quickly zeroed in on the small bathroom off the private library to the right of the entryway. Brightly lit, the en suite had afforded fragrant soft soap and thick towels for washing up, and a sturdy brush that helped tame her long hair that she simply pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

Further snooping turned up Rowan’s last clean jumpsuit in the narrow wardrobe tucked in on the far side of the glass-enclosed shower. Debra hesitated for less than a second before stripping out of the filthy jumpsuit and pulling on the freshly laundered garment. Although the fit was somewhat bigger than the discarded suit, at least she looked clean and not like some poor relation begging a handout.

Duran stood in the open office doorway and chuckled again, as he searched the main medical-science corridor for Rowan. “The look on your face was priceless,” he grinned, smiling back at her. “Be honest, would your reaction have been any different had I told you?” He grunted at her silence. “Exactly. As a true friend I was doing you a favor by not mentioning the obvious.”

Two hours had passed since leaving the airlock. One didn’t require a psychic to know that Debra was on the brink of collapse and desperately in need of some uninterrupted sleep. Curled up dozing on the plump cushions, he saw a child of two worlds in the smooth shape of her face, could see the striking woman of Damon’s dream world, and the warrior queen who would eventually stand by the sovereign’s side. A living, breathing Debra was so much more than he had anticipated. Already he loved her as one of his family.

Carefully he removed her sandals and tossed them under the end table out of the way, then reached for the plaid linen blanket on the back of the sofa and gently covered her naked vulnerability. He suddenly realized she would hate knowing that frailty was visible when her defenses were down. First impressions had been very clear: Debra despised any form of weakness in herself.

His restless, deep sigh filled the office. The hope and anxiety that Debra inspired in the residents and helpers often had one holding their breath in anticipation. Two combined DNAs flowed through her veins, often in a tormented union. Reports of her remarkable mental strength and hellish existence between life and death could only make one wonder if the story would ever have a happy ending.

A subtle four-beat chime from the workstation com-link announced an incoming call. Duran inserted the earpiece to minimize the noise level. A minor earthquake in the northeast quadrant of the state required his immediate computer hacking skills.

Endless subterranean shifts and fault movements were regularly updated and forwarded to city engineers. Although the mountain above them was dead, and the fault line under the lake had remained dormant for millions of years, the ground under the city’s adjustable suspension was automatically screened for any unexpected modifications needed.

Datapads lay haphazardly on tables and chairs and among the cluttered files that almost concealed the enormous modular workstation at the rear of the office. Message and emergency posting sites on the com-link and central computer offered no updates on Damon’s condition. A clear indication that Rowan and OT staff were unable to salvage his missing consciousness to re-bond with physical matter.

Duran tabbed a short note on one of the nearby datapads and tucked the slim device under the corner of her pillow. Determined to return as quickly as possible, he sent a message for security to monitor Rowan’s office and to be notified if she awoke alone. But it was highly unlikely that Debra would awaken any time soon.

November 21, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Seven Part 1

Judging by the crowd filling the nearby corridors and overhead walkway, Debra estimated the entire city had turned out to witness Damon’s return. Even without the medical-science uniform of white jumpsuit and knee-length smock, she would have easily recognized Rowan by the strong resemblance to her brother Damon.

The clear black eyes blazed with authority and intelligence beneath long wispy bangs. Straight raven black hair hung in a tail to her waist from a Bromon insignia clip at the nape of her neck. Like Damon, her golden skin exuded health and vitality.

The flawless oval face and wide unsmiling mouth showed little emotion as Rowan glanced directly at Debra before focusing her concern on the security team as they transferred Damon’s motionless body to the waiting medical bed.

A small team of medical personnel stood just outside the airlock behind Rowan. Their vigilant faces, like all the others watching from inside the entrance chamber, were calm, almost emotionless. No one glared at Debra or cast stones of blame her way. And yet their black eyes politely followed her as though her face and psychic limitations were familiar to them.

One didn’t have to be a mind reader to see that everyone in the city knew what had happened up above. Thalians and human helpers had gathered or stopped in their tasks, thoughts flowing and merging, one mind to the next, eyes and psychic sight watching and waiting for word of the sovereign.

Having come prepared for the worst, Debra consciously lowered all her protective barriers and braced for the on-slot of beating hearts. Normally, inborn defenses automatically filtered out nearby internal sounds like heartbeats and breathing. But she needed to know what was waiting for her beyond the steel tomb of the airlock.

The clamor assaulted her like a pounding wall of sound. Debra staggered, momentarily dizzy, before shutting out the incredible din that temporarily shorted out her senses. And then the truth hit her. There were over nine thousand people within the city. And all of them had their focus trained on her and Damon.

Prayers for the sovereign’s swift return to good health. Prayers of welcome and success to Debra and the training of her abilities. Prayers for answers to living in the sunlight.

And all wished for long life to the sovereign and his consort.

This time Debra had heard their thoughts, or at least what they wanted her to know, and suddenly felt overwhelmed by others of her own kind. She was no longer alone and the thought seemed to make the air constrict inside her lungs.

But not everyone felt reassured by her presence. Untried. Unstable. The last of the original bi-humans, destined to die.

Debra would bet her abilities against any of them, even without training. As for her presumed marriage to Damon, she held her objections for another, more appropriate, time.

All watched as Rowan gently touched her palm to Damon’s chest. For those close enough to see, her black eyes glazed over as the healing-sight traveled down through layers of skin tissue, touching on organs, arteries, bone and muscle.

“He’s breathing well on his own, and there’s no physical damage,” Rowan announced loudly, sightless black eyes glancing in Debra’s direction. A voluble murmur of relief went through the crowd, filling the large entrance chamber with a muted roar.

Rowan lifted her hand and the chamber went silent. “Unfortunately, the body is empty.”

A deluge of verbal shouts clashed forcefully with psychic cries of fear to resonate off thick rock walls and unprotected minds alike. Immediately, Debra blocked her mind to the deafening pandemonium. Unsure of Rowan’s meaning, her body braced as she looked to Manton, still standing beside her in the immense airlock doorway.

As a man, Manton accepted that the sovereign’s woman was quite beautiful and talented. But as a teacher, he found her more like a child in many ways. Her bewildered frown reminded the head of security of just how much she still had to learn. Extraordinary abilities alone did not make one a Master.

To be heard over the uproar, he leaned closer, his mouth next to her ear. “Leaving the physical body at any time is extremely dangerous; life threatening if consciousness does not return in time.”

Dark eyebrows shot up. “Did I do that?” she asked, appalled.

Shaking his head, Manton’s large reassuring hand squeezed her shoulder, as he mouthed the word no. Seeing that many of the residents had crowded into the airlock aisle in hopes of touching Damon’s body with a spark of their own lifeforce, he used hand signals, and motioned for the nearby security team to flank the medical bed and clear a path to the corridor exit when Rowan had completed her scan.

Like no other medical bed she had ever seen, the headboard contained automatic monitoring sensors that continuously updated when occupied by a living being. Debra failed to understand the meaning of Damon’s data readouts. With her mind blocked she was incapable of even sensing his heartbeat. Not like above, when the touch-healing had held his life in her mind, when she could see and feel what was happening and had the intuitive ability to make things right.

Debra realized Rowan also had the touch-healing gift. The woman’s long fingers were stretched like a cap around Damon’s head, her sight focused inward for clues to his condition. The news was obviously not good, as frustration thinned her full lips into a grim line. Breaking contact, Rowan sighed irritably and stepped back from the bed.

“Get him up to OT,” she briskly instructed Theron, her assistant of many years, and nodded to Manton. “I want life support standing by, plus full blood and cell workup.”

“Right away, Ro,” Theron responded, and signaled to his waiting team.

Security gently cleared the aisle of well-wishers while the med-team strapped Damon securely to the bed. When ready, each of the team kept one hand on some part of his anatomy, feeding the body energy.

As Rowan joined the procession, she glanced toward the airlock. “Manton, you’re with me.” Her gaze found another in the crowd waiting in an intersecting aisle and shouted to be heard over the low din. “Duran, show Debra the way to my office. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

The big man gave Debra’s shoulder one last squeeze of encouragement. “We’ll find a way to make things right,” Manton said with gentle firmness. “If you need anything, you can reach me at security on the com-system.”

He grinned at her look of surprise. “Why technology over telepathy?”

“Something like that,” she answered wearily.

Manton laughed, his strong craggy features transformed into a face of compelling maleness that made Debra’s heart unexpectedly skip a beat. The loose fitting blue jumpsuit did little to hide the powerful body that towered over her at six-foot-eight. First Damon’s mind and body and hypnotic voice, and now Manton. Were all Thalian men so well put together, she wondered?

“Most of us have lived with humans almost our entire lives,” Manton said, folding burly arms thoughtfully. “We’ve adapted many of this world’s customs, especially in ways of communication, for when the time comes to go above.” He stepped from the airlock and looked back at her with a wink. “I don’t think having mind conversations with unsuspecting non-telepaths would go over too well.”

Left standing in the open doorway of the airlock, Debra admitted to an appreciative curiosity as she watched his muscled, well proportioned frame slip easily through the crowd, large hands comforting, words reassuring, his intriguing combination of strength and gentleness offering a sense of normalcy that had residents returning to on-duty shifts or resuming the morning with personal tasks.

“He doesn’t like to show his rank, but Manton is Grand Master in the arts of hand-to-hand combat and self-defense,” a male voice said with amusement from behind.

Debra flinched, just barely biting down on a yelp of surprise, as she glanced over her shoulder. What the hell was wrong with her internal sensing? First impressions had her almost eye to eye with a baby-faced adolescence with long lanky arms and legs that had no trouble filling out a gray jumpsuit uniform.

“I wouldn’t doubt Manton’s skill at anything he put his mind to,” she muttered, noting an elderly gentleman a few yards away toward the rear of the airlock. Too many damn people creeping up, she fumed inwardly, and backed off on her mental barriers so inborn defenses could track everything around her.

“Don’t let the face fool you,” quipped the young man easily. “I turned twenty-nine last Sunday.” At her raised eyebrows he grinned impishly. “Debra, I would never lie to you—”

“Stop reading my mind,” she ground out testily, eyes heating dangerously, more angry at her own inadequacies than anything. So use to dropping her barriers once a crisis was over, there was going to be hell to pay until she remembered to properly close herself off, now that she was here in a city filled with thousands of powerful psychic beings.

Debra focused, edgily wondering if she would ever get the hang of Edith’s spam instructions and levels of closure. With careful, conscious thought she amplified her protective barriers up a couple of notches.

A knowing nod of his head seemed to verify that her efforts had been successful. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” he said lightly, a wide toothy smile dimpling his smooth cheeks. “But I doubt I’ll ever be able to again.”

Her glance skewered him. “You did that on purpose. Who the hell are you?”

“Not a Grand Master, I’m sad to say. Just a friend, here to help you settle in.” He offered a firm callused hand in greeting. “I’m Duran, head of research and human-Thalian interrelations.” Wide shoulders shrugged. “Not a very large department as far as staff goes. But we’re locked into every known system worldwide.” Duran patted her hand and smiled readily. “Debra Hall, may I be the first to welcome you to Tantria. After reading about you for so many years, I’m honored to finally meet you in person.”

She shook her head in disbelief, a wry grin hovering about her lips. Another sweet talker, she mused, figuring it must be in the Thalian genes. Their hands still joined, Debra brazenly used her touch-sensing for a closer look at the charming head of research.

Immediately impressions formed, some swirling into images of Duran kneeling alone at the black funeral alter after Ruthie’s death, or of full contact combat with the big boys and good-hearted dreams of taking the championship away from Manton. Compared to most Thalian males, what he lacked in physical height and body mass was made up in pure genius with human computer systems and hacking undetected into any database in the world.

And yet, buried deep behind the smile and good-humored persona, fear lie in wait of the unknown and for Damon, his sovereign and friend. The young man was honest and generous to a fault, leaving Debra with a twinge of guilt for her intrusion. But until she knew exactly what these people wanted of her, she would use every self-taught skill to her advantage.

Withdrawing her hand, Debra silently judged Duran’s size and deportment in terms of a warrior, and found him not wanting. She would answer his unasked challenge to test the mats and satisfy his curiosity. As for the friendship he was looking for, the emotion was new to her life. And one that made her feel awkward and vulnerable.

“So, you think you know me, huh?”

“Only what I’ve read and heard,” he teased confidently, then bowed slightly. “If I seem overly familiar, there’s no disrespect intended. But your arrival is like that of a family member who’s been gone for years and now returned.” He gestured toward the empty aisle outside the airlock. “Come. It’s time to get you up to Rowan’s office for your physical.”

“No. I’m fine,” Debra replied stubbornly, even though she was feeling lightheaded and drained since using the killing power. If truth be told, she was more than a bit concerned about the reaction of her automatic defenses should anyone start poking around inside her. The days of the private clinic and school were long over where they controlled her mind and body with drugs or tie-downs. She was nobody’s experiment ever again.

The wave of nausea plowed over her, making the sweat pop out on her forehead and down her back. “Bloody side effects,” she muttered through clenched teeth, hands resting on her thighs for support.

Duran guided her backside down to the metal floor of the airlock. “Relax, Debra. You’ll be all right in a minute.” He signaled the older gentleman to move in beside her. “I’ll hold her securely, Eron, while you give her a small shot of adrenaline.”

With steady, sure-placed hands on her neck and head, Eron guided a gentle pulse to stimulate the body’s adrenal glands into releasing a small amount of adrenaline hormone to counteract the severe withdrawal symptoms.

Lightly rubbing her back, Duran drolly remarked. “This is not the way to get out of a physical, old girl.” He felt the half-hearted chuckle rumble deep in her chest. “That’s it,” he soothed. “I think she’s back with us, Eron.”

Together, Duran and Eron helped Debra to stand.

“What the hell just happened,” Debra asked, her voice more like a rasping whisper.

“It’s called e/c withdrawal, or enhanced channeling withdrawal,” Eron offered politely. He felt the muscles bunch in her arm and released his hold. A quick look and thought to Duran had the younger man following suit, although neither of them stepped away. “There is an intense adrenaline-kinetic spike when using enhanced channeling; what you call the killing power. Symptoms of this type of withdrawal are lightheadedness, nausea, a drain of energy, even loss of consciousness.”

Feeling like herself once more, Debra turned, her clear gaze locking directly with his gentle, black eyes in challenge. “And what did you do to me?”

Duran saw the spark of surprise in the older man’s face and noisily cleared his throat to fill the long silence. “Debra Hall, I’d like you to meet Master Eron, who also happens to be an Elder on the city’s council.”

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