“Trust me, Dad, I’m probably eating better here than at the old school. Yes, I know the rules about staying away from anyone suspicious. I’m almost seventeen, not four. Yeah, I’m sure the school runs enough background checks. No, I don’t need help and you don’t need to run any names past ‘your guy in the department’. Trust me, everything’s fine. I’m okay, I just wanted to hear your voice. I miss you.”
Leaning against the side of the athletics building a little bit after dinner the next day, I smiled while listening to my father’s response. I really had missed the sound of his voice, just like I missed spending every evening listening to his stories. Sometimes they were about what he’d done that day, the people he’d talked to or leads he’d followed, while other times they were about his past. Dad had spent a lot of time working for one of the big newspapers in Los Angeles back before I was born, and he had a ton of stories about the people he’d encountered back then. I was pretty sure he exaggerated a lot of it, but it was still fun to listen to. And hearing my dad reminisce had been one of our traditions for a long time.
While listening as he started in about something one of his friends had said about the governor, I glanced down at my free hand and examined the smooth skin. Leaning a bit closer to see my index finger in the light from one of the nearby windows, I noticed that the tiny scar that I’d had there ever since cutting it badly on a nail when I was a little kid had smoothed over, leaving unblemished skin.
Huh. Still listening to Dad talk, the sound of his voice comforting in a way that I couldn’t explain, I switched the phone to my other hand so I could look at my arm. Sure enough, the other scar that I’d gotten as a kid, a long, thin one about two inches down from my wrist had disappeared as well.
Apparently the healing ability granted by killing those few peridles had extended as far as removing old scars. That was going to make things a little awkward if Dad ever happened to notice. Not that he paid close attention to my hands all the time, but still. He was my father and he knew every mark I had.
Shaking that off, I waited for a lull in his stories. “Hey, Dad, I wanted to ask you something else.”
“Sure, kid, what’s up? You need more snack machine money or something? Care package to bribe the RA’s with? Wait, do they have resident assistants there? I’m not sure how private high school works.”
“We’ve got a mentor. Sort of.” I replied with a roll of my eyes. “But he’s worthless. He’s just lazy and doesn’t actually do anything. I don’t think any of us have even seen him since that first night.”
“What?” Dad sounded annoyed. “What kind of adviser is he then? If he won’t do his job, they need to replace him. Do you know who to talk to about that, or do you want me to give them a call?”
“I definitely do not want you to call anyone.” I shuddered at the thought. “I’ve got it, Dad. It’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” Dad was clearly reluctant to let that go. “This school is a big deal, Flicker. I don’t want you getting screwed out of getting everything you can out of it because this kid won’t do his job.”
Smiling a little in spite of myself at his protective instincts, I shook my head. “I promise, it’s okay. I’ll deal with it, Dad. Just let me take care of things, okay? It’ll just be better that way, trust me.”
“Yeah, I guess you don’t really need your old man anymore,” Dad teased. “Just promise you’ll give a good eulogy at my funeral in thirty years or so. You can start with, ‘This guy was my dad, I sort of paid attention to him once in awhile until I turned seventeen. Then I ignored the old fart for the rest of his life. I wonder if he ever bought that cat he was talking about.’”
I laughed out loud in spite of myself. It felt good. “I’m not going to ignore you for the rest of your life!”
“That’s what they all say.” Dad teased, though there was a note of sadness not fully hidden behind it.
Swallowing slightly as I realized what he was thinking about, I closed my eyes. He was still hurting so much from Mom abandoning us. Even now, a decade later, I could hear the hurt in his voice when he thought about it. He and Mom had been very much in love, and the next thing he knew, she was gone.
I had to find out the truth. If there really was anything unnatural about Mom’s disappearance, or if it had anything at all to do with Strangers or Heretics, I was going to find out. And then… well then I’d find a way to give Dad closure. I wasn’t sure how, but I would figure it out when the time came.
“I’m serious, Dad. I’ll visit, you know I will. And we can talk any time you want. I love you.”
Dad’s voice was softer then, the emotion in it making him almost whisper. “I love you too, Flicker.”
We were quiet for a few seconds, and I used the time to wipe a damp spot under one of my eyes. As I rubbed it away, my father was the first to break the silence. “So, what was it you wanted to ask about?”
Well now this was even more awkward than it was always going to be. I flinched and took in a long breath before letting it out, steadying myself as much as possible. “It’s about Mom. Is that okay?”
There was silence for a second before my father responded. “Flick, have I made you think that it’s not okay to talk about your mother? Because if I did, I am very, very sorry. Of course you can ask me about her. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Anything I can. I know we don’t… I know it’s hard sometimes, but I don’t want you to ever feel like you can’t bring her up, okay? She’s your mother.”
“No, I just—you didn’t do anything.” I flushed a little. “I just didn’t want to make you upset or sad.”
“Listen to me, Flick,” Dad’s voice was firm. “It’s all right. I will always answer any questions you have that I can answer, okay? I will never hide things about your mother from you, and you can ask me anything you want, any time. Never, ever feel like you have to avoid that subject, is that understood?”
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I quickly spoke up. “Y-yes, Dad. I was just… it’s probably wrong, but I umm…” This was the tricky part. I kind of wanted to just tell my father that I’d found a picture of Mom here, but I was afraid that doing so would make him want to visit. While the Heretics would probably find a way to fix his memory of that if it came down to it, I really wanted to avoid that entire situation if at all possible. Especially since I didn’t want them to know that I was looking into my mother at all. Which meant that I had to lie to my father. Again, after everything he’d just said.
Sighing at the thought, I pressed on anyway. This was too important. “I sort of think I remember something about her. But I can’t figure out if I’m just making it up in my head or if it’s a real memory.” For a second, I bit my lip and hesitated before pushing through the lie. “I keep thinking that I remember hearing Mom talk about being at a private school. You know, one like this, with uniforms and everything. I just have this sort-of memory of her talking about it, and I can’t figure out if it’s real or something I just invented in my head because I’m here now. Do you remember anything about that?”
“About your mother going to a private school?” He echoed before considering for a moment. “Well, I met Joselyn when she was twenty-four. She’d been out of college for a couple years by then, but you know she just went to the University of Wyoming. Before that, ahhh, I don’t think I can remember all the high schools, but I don’t remember her mentioning any private ones. They were all public.”
I blinked at that. “Wait, Mom went to a lot of schools? Why?”
“You know about that, don’t you?” Dad sounded surprised, and a little guilty. “Your mom moved around a lot as a kid because of your grandfather’s work. He was in the military or something, I never really had a clear idea of what it was. They weren’t really talking by the time we met, but it was something to do with the government. That’s part of why Joselyn wanted to settle down here in Laramie Falls, because it was quiet and stable.” There was a pause then before Dad let out a long sigh. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. Mom had wanted stable, and then she’d abandoned us.
Still, I had to focus on something else he had said. “My grandfather? Mom’s dad? Do you… still have any contact with him?” It was a long shot, I knew, but if there was any chance of getting more information, where better than from my mother’s father? Even just a name would be nice, since looking for every person with the last name of Atherby (mom’s maiden name) would take way too long.
“Sorry,” Dad replied, obviously wincing. “Like I said, he and your mom weren’t on speaking terms. She never told me what happened there, but that was why none of your mother’s family came to the wedding. I had the impression that it was some kind of major disagreement.”
I heard his fingers snap. “Oh, hang on, I almost forgot. We still have the birth certificate. One second.” There was the sound of the filing cabinet in Dad’s office being opened and ruffled through until he found the paper that he was looking for. “Here we go. Your mom’s parents were Dustin and Fiona Atherby. Born at that University of Utah Hospital. Hey, that’s funny.” He went silent for a few seconds.
“Dad?” I frowned, pushing off the wall again before looking around. “What’s funny?”
He coughed. “Sorry, just the name of the doctor that delivered your mother is kind of amusing.”
“What is it?”
“Pericles,” he answered. “Zedekiah Pericles.”
Talk about ending up with more questions than you started with. Poor Professor Pericles had been the one who delivered my mother at the hospital where she was born? Was that real, or just part of the Heretic cover they’d given her later? How much of my mother’s history was real and how much was an invention after she’d either left or been kicked out of the Heretics? If it was just a cover history, why would Professor Pericles have his name on the birth certificate at all? What the hell was going on?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t dwell on those questions at the moment. Since it was Friday evening, I had to get to my Investigation track meeting. Unlike every other class, track meetings were only attended by students in that particular track rather than everyone on the same team. Apparently each grade level had their own meeting nights and times with their track adviser. For first years, they were held twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays in the evening. We had still been in the middle of orientation on Monday, so tonight was my very first one. I had no idea what to expect, but I was crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t end with me having even more questions about my family’s history for once.
Sands, Scout, and I were walking together. Apparently the meeting was taking place on the grounds in front of the Pathmaker building, which was intriguing enough to sort of distract me away from the riotous cacophony of thoughts that had been flooding my mind ever since Dad said that name.
There were already other students there when the three of us arrived, including the other black guy from my orientation group that wasn’t Columbus. Travis, that was it. He was standing with another boy that I’d seen him around with, a shorter, still kind of chubby guy with pale skin and even paler blonde hair. I thought his name was Rudolph or Randy or something. There was also (sigh) Koren.
I would have made a point of trying to ignore the other girl, but she already seemed to be pretty busy focusing on her chat with a couple of the guys who had grown up ‘in the knowledge.’ She kept bending slightly to ‘accidentally’ give them a good look down the front of her shirt while they chatted, and they were taking thorough advantage of the opportunity, flirting back and forth.
I rolled my eyes, but whatever. Her life. I was just glad she was leaving the rest of us alone for the moment. Instead, I looked toward Sands and Scout. “You guys excited?”
“Hell yes,” Sands blurted, head bobbing up and down. “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been waiting for this? Classes were one thing, but track training? Scout and I decided what we wanted to be when we were four. Then we changed it when we were six. Then we changed it again when we were seven. And then… well, you get the idea. But we’ve wanted to be in the Investigation track at least half of all those times, and for the longest. It’s gonna be so awesome.”
Even Scout was smiling in agreement by that point, and I couldn’t help but return it. “Well, here’s hoping it’s as interesting as you think.”
“Indeed,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up from behind us. “I shall do my best to meet expectations.”
Turning to look at the woman with a slight flush, I wondered how much she knew about the situation with my mother. Probably all of it. The urge to blurt out a demand for the truth was almost impossible for me to resist, but I managed it. Barely. “Sorry, Professor.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” the blonde woman informed me before looking to the rest of the group. “Good evening. You all know me, so I shall skip the introduction. It is now seven o’clock, the time that you will be expected to be in the location that I give you for this meeting every Monday and Friday from now on. I will not say that excuses for being late will not be accepted. However, I will say that if you give no excuse, the punishment for your tardiness will be less severe than if you attempt to give one and I find it lacking. For those who find that confusing, allow me to simplify. If your excuse for tardiness is a valid and reasonable one, I will accept it. If it is not and you attempt to use it anyway, your punishment will be worse than if you had said nothing. Is all of that understood?”
We agreed, and Professor Dare nodded in acceptance. “As you all know, this is the Investigation track. Here, you will learn to investigate possible Stranger incursions and other situations, identify both new and established threats, and deal directly with the Bystander law enforcement. We have multiple ways of doing this, but one of our most important tools is lying. You will lie a lot. You should not feel ashamed of this. Lying keeps these people safe, and prevents them from making our jobs far more difficult.”
She looked around at all of us, eyes lingering slightly on Koren before moving on. “Tonight, you will be given an opportunity to witness one of several ways that the Pathfinder building is used to aid us in these investigations. You will stay with me, you will touch nothing that you are not told to touch, and you will not disturb the people who are working. Is that understood as well?”
Once we again chorused our agreement, she turned on her heel and walked right up to the edge of the circle. Giving us all a careful look, she put her hand out and spoke a quick series of words that were impossible to follow. The air seemed to shimmer a little, and she gestured. “Come through, all of you.”
After the warnings that Sands and Avalon had given, I was a little afraid of getting too close, even if it was obviously okay now. I slowly walked over the line with the rest of the group, shaking my head in a failed attempt to stop the warning hum.
Thankfully, the sound faded once we were a few feet past the line, and Professor Dare walked up to the door, tugging it open before lifting a hand to indicate that we should precede her.
As a group, we filed into the building. This first room was fairly small and circular, obviously a lobby of some kind. There was a desk with a woman sitting behind it in one corner, and she smiled as we entered. “Good evening, Virginia. This is the new class?”
Before Professor Dare could respond, a group of men came right through the same doors we had just entered from, bustling straight past us in a rush. They barely slowed long enough to nod an acknowledgment to the secretary before moving on to one of a handful of doors that lined the circular wall.
“Hey, where the hell did those guys come from?” Koren spoke up. “Seriously, we were just out there.”
The woman behind the desk glanced down at something before responding, “They came from Indiana, actually.”
Professor Dare explained. “The Pathfinder building exists within multiple locations at the same time. Its existence on the island is only one of a dozen or so locations across the world that it simultaneously occupies.”
My mouth fell open and I made a slightly strangled noise. “Wha-how—huh?”
It was the receptionist who spoke up, her tone simultaneously amused and gentle. “Magic, sweetie. You’ll get used to it. Basically it means that if you enter the building you see in Crossroads, the place in Indiana that those gentlemen came from, our location in Tokyo, London, Calgary, or any other place it exists, you will enter there and appear here. One building, one interior, a dozen exterior locations. Magic.”
I was still staring, trying to wrap my mind around that as Professor Dare started walking to one of the doors. “Come, I will show you one of the reasons that the Pathfinder building is so important to our work.”
Together, we trailed after the professor, following her through a series of hallways and up two flights of stairs. We passed about another dozen people that were hard at work doing… whatever they were doing before we finally reached a short, out of the way hall with a single door.
“This,” Professor Dare announced, “Is one of several projection rooms in this facility.”
“Projection rooms?” I asked with a frown.
She nodded. “In situations where it may be impossible to retain an untouched crime scene, where Bystander authorities make it impossible for us to effectively take over the situation and ensure that the view remains exactly as it was when we arrived, the Heretic may deploy one of these.”
From her pocket, the woman produced a small silver and violet orb, about the size of a golf ball. “This is called a Panoptic Analysis Window System, or PAWS. The PAWS, when deployed, will cloak and take a full scan of the entire designated area. Later, it can be connected to one of these rooms, which will allow the room within to project a three dimensional holographic view of the crime scene, untouched so that our own investigators may see what occurred. But the PAWS does more than take pictures. Its scan runs deep enough that objects within the room may be manipulated and moved around. If, for example, the view is of a motel room and the end table drawer is shut, the investigator may open the drawer within the hologram and see what was inside at the time that the PAWS was deployed. This allows a full investigation of the crime scene to take place, even if the authorities shut off the area and tromp all over the evidence.”
We were still staring at the little orb in her hand for a few seconds after she finished. For my part, I couldn’t help but think of how useful something like that would be to the legitimate law enforcement agencies.
“Now, as a group, we are going to investigate one of these recorded crime scenes.” Professor Dare gazed at us briefly before continuing. “Together, we will see what we can determine as a group before reviewing what conclusions the assigned investigators have come to.”
“What kind of crime scene is it, Professor Dare?” I asked with a raised hand.
She paused, glancing to me before responding. “An incident that occurred at a gas station. A man, who was believed to have attempted to rob the store was found shot in the back multiple times, presumably by the clerk. The clerk herself then exited the store, duct taped the gasoline nozzle into her own mouth, and proceeded to kill herself by choking on the gas.”
Collectively, we stared. I felt sick inside, and somewhere nearby, one of the boys muttered a curse under his breath. Beside me, Scout gave a soft whimper.
“These are the situations we will be dealing with. I will not coddle you from them because to do so would be a disservice to your education and training. If you do not wish to continue, you may at any point speak up and be excused to re-evaluate your track.” Professor Dare spoke seriously, then put her hand on the doorknob. “Now, come. Let us see how much information you can find as a group.”
She opened the door, allowing us to enter the horrific scene. I took a breath, steeled myself, and then stepped through.