Sarah Elkins © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Chapter 1: You Can Do It
The repair work on the Facility was slow going, but the director refused to forego using her office. The ceiling was still missing. New modern cameras, a phone, and internet were being installed: the works.
Director Lianne McClaine sat behind her desk with her elbows on several paper files while she read the results from her last checkup with her oncologist on her tablet. The cancer had vanished. Out of nowhere. Gone. Her doctor was sure there had to be some sort of error with her previous tests. Cancer didn’t just go away.
Not the type she had.
The newly installed landline phone rang on her desk.
“Director McClaine,” she said, leaving her answer vague. A director could be in charge of all sorts of things. No need to out their secret operation because of a wrong number.
“Director, you wanted to see us?” Agent Henry Anderson replied. She remembered him saving her life. The painful feeling of them being temporarily linked; her bullet wounds healing at his beckoning. He had hijacked her body with his shapeshifting ability, but it had saved her life. She wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Despite being grateful to be alive, she also felt violated. The director tried to put the latter feeling out of her mind.
“Yes. You and Blackbird report to my office.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The call ended.
The director glanced over the two paper files once more before she put them back in the bottom drawer of her desk. Agent Henry Anderson’s blood work and DNA tests had the same error the other shapeshifters at the Facility had. The results read as if he had just had a minor blood transfusion from multiple donors. There were traces from more than one blood type. The sort of errors that are normally attributed to contaminated samples. She should have noticed the pattern, even if the doctors hadn’t made the connection. They still hadn’t, but no denying it, he was a shapeshifter.
Henry’s results weren’t the only ones with the error. Besides the known shapeshifters, there were two others with the same anomaly: the pyrokinetic, Wallace, who had been killed by Shorty four and a half months before and “Blackbird” Neila Roddenberry, who had killed Shorty after he had almost succeeded in killing everyone in the Facility.
The whole incident had been a complete clusterfuck. Shorty, a telekinetic ex-con who, sick of being a prisoner and test subject in the Facility, rallied the rest of his test group of four men, Blue Team, to lead an escape attempt. The only reason anyone survived was because Henry had joined forces with several other test subjects.
Three members of Green Team, the shapeshifters, used their powers to help the perpetually disoriented group of telepaths and several doctors escape, bypassing the Facility’s biometric scans by copying Lianne’s own DNA. Green Team’s efforts weren’t what put an end to the assault though. Shorty had his eyes on another test subject, the only other one down on paper as an agent, Neila Roddenberry. The woman had more than one ability and the skill to use them.
After a vicious fight between members of Shorty’s Blue Team and the Facility’s surviving pyrokinetic, a nonbinary person named Lor, that wrecked the hallway leading to the Facility’s solitary holding cell, Henry managed to free Neila from the holding cell. Lianne wasn’t entirely clear on what happened afterward, but the two men Shorty sent to reach the Hole were soon very dead.
Not long after, Shorty and his remaining team member found the director, killed her guards, and almost killed Lianne just before he brutally broke Neila’s leg and dragged the small woman away by her hair.
Director McClaine was surprised she hadn’t been handed her ass on a platter by her superiors. They wanted an excuse to privatize the work the Facility was doing. The vultures circling the Facility had only grown in number since the incident. Defense contractors were interested in taking over where the clandestine government agency had continually failed. Private companies like White Rook and HUGO Defense had personnel trained to use the abilities most people assumed were utter bullshit, such as psychic powers like telekinesis, telepathy, pyrokinesis, shapeshifting, and God knew what else. The federal government was behind the private sector and had been for years. All Director McClaine had left was one more strike, just one more mistake, and she’d disappear into another dark hole somewhere. And even God wouldn’t have a clue what would happen to everyone else at the Facility.
“Neila, are you ready? The director wants to see us in her office.”
Henry made secured his handgun in its holster at his back. Neila was in the bathroom of the small motel room. The accommodations reminded Henry of the room they had in the Facility, except this room had a large picture window with a view of the deserted West Texas town’s dusty graveyard. Classy.
“Almost ready,” Neila called back. “This is pretty cool.”
“Getting called to the principal’s office?”
“Nah.” The bathroom door opened, and Neila emerged wearing a black suit with a white shirt, a black tie tucked behind the buttoned jacket, and two-tone Converse knockoffs. She leaned against the doorframe. “I’ve never had such a slick outfit.”
In this lifetime, Henry thought. But you wouldn’t believe that even with proof.
When Neila had forgotten who she was during the attack on the Facility, Henry remembered how frantic and serious she (or should he say “he”) had become.
Nikola had told Henry, “I have a means to prove it. I constructed a chest with a message to any future self that might manifest. My idea was that if reincarnation were indeed possible that some manner of my past self would remain and that I’d find it.”
If it was true, then somewhere a box existed full of things designed to prove Neila had a past life as an eccentric inventor from the turn of the century. A box of things that would upset the theologies of more religions than Henry could count on one hand if it were made public. A box of things that might make Neila lose her mind or maybe, just maybe, stop doubting herself so much.
“Where do I put my gun?”
“You don’t get one,” Henry replied. The image of the Blue Team member with the missing leg, which had been shot off by the automatic rifle in her hand, crawled along his brain. She didn’t need a gun, especially when there was the possibility she might “lose herself” again. He hadn’t mentioned the event to anyone, and neither had Lor, the only other person who’d witnessed it.
Henry had done his best not to show his nerves when they went to the open-air shooting range over their break from the Facility. Though no expert shot, Neila had been proficient with the various handguns and rifles they had used at the range. Henry had been on the clock at the time, so he ’hadn’t been sure if he should join in but had finally relented. He felt a bit of pride in his groupings on the paper targets having been tighter than hers.
“Oh.” Neila appeared guilty.
“You brought your handgun from your house, didn’t you?” Henry was beginning to wonder if he was a mind reader too or if Neila was just very predictable.
“Yeah. It’s in the bottom of my go-bag. You can hang on to it. I should be okay with my knife.”
“Where’s the knife?”
“In my pocket. Can you believe this thing’s pockets were sewn shut? I had to cut them open,” Neila replied. She did a small twirl and then had to push her glasses back up her nose. “Thanks for getting it back for me. And all my stuff to write with.”
“It was no problem. Let’s go. The director is waiting for us.”
“Agent Anderson? Care to come in?” the director asked as she stood up from behind her desk to greet them.
“Yes, ma’am.” Henry tried to close the door behind him, but it got hung up on an orange power cord. The room still showed the scars of Shorty’s escape attempt. The drywall was cracked. Bare concrete of the tunnel system that housed the Facility stood in shadow above the missing ceiling tiles. The room appeared simultaneously bigger than it used to and more claustrophobic.
“Don’t worry about the door.” The director put two passports on the desk next to a set of official credentials for Neila. “I have an off-site assignment for both of you while the Facility is being repaired.”
“Are those passports?” Henry asked.
Neila snatched hers up and flipped through it. “I’ve never seen one before.”
“You’re joking.” Henry laughed but stopped when he noticed her staring. “You’re serious?”
“Not everyone is rich.”
“I am not rich.”
“Those shoes say otherwise,” Neila replied while pointing at his feet and examining her passport. Henry had noticed her strange habit of splitting her focus. He believed it was because she was constantly using her ability to remote view things around her. She called it her “Third Eye.” It led to Neila seeming rather erratic at times.
Director McClaine cleared her throat. “Agents.”
Neila and Henry turned back to her.
“As I said, you have a mission. Neila, here are your credentials. You’ve been cleared for fieldwork.” Neila raised her hand, but the director kept talking. “You are not cleared to carry a weapon. You will both be sent to investigate possible psychics and recruit them for the program when possible.”
Neila stood on her tiptoes, holding her right arm in the air with her left hand at the elbow. “Oh. Oh.”
The director leaned against her desk and sighed. “What is it, Agent Roddenberry?”
“This is a baaaaad idea,” she blurted out like air escaping a balloon.
Henry couldn’t help but agree. It was insane.
“I don’t have the training.” Neila began listing the smaller bad ideas the greater bad idea was made of. “I’m not sure what the goal of this program is. I might not be mentally stable thanks to Dr. Turner’s experiment a few months ago. I mean, I know you had me sit down with the shrink a while back, but what if I freak out?”
“Have you freaked out?” The director glared at Henry.
“Not that I know of. Have I, Henry?”
They were both staring at him now.
Crap. What should I say? Yes, maybe a little a few months ago, but not because of the experiment? Maybe it just rattled some screws loose?
Henry really didn’t want to out Neila’s past-life thing. She might never forgive him if he did. He certainly wouldn’t if he were in her position. She still hadn’t told her family what had happened, so telling the director screamed as the baddest of bad ideas, even more so than giving Neila fieldwork.
Henry had overheard his partner talking to her dad the week before they returned to the Facility. Her father had made some comments about Nikola Tesla possibly being murdered, and Henry had, literally, slid down a hillside to meet them and interrupt before the discussion knocked anything else free in the woman’s head.
“Nothing I’ve noticed since the incident with Shorty.” He wasn’t completely lying.
The director nodded. “As for what this program does, its goal, I have a feeling you figured that out your first day here. We aim to study psychic abilities and apply them to national defense.”
Neila picked up the other materials on the desk and examined the identification card and badge. “The FBI?”
“At the moment we’re a black op under the FBI, yes.”
“I still don’t have training.” She seemed less confident.
“You and Henry seem more knowledgeable about psychic abilities than anyone else on this base. Henry can do things we didn’t know shapeshifters were capable of. You kept your head about you under the worst circumstances during Shorty’s attack. I’m confident you can go interview some prospects without much trouble.”
Neila appeared as though she wanted to protest further, but the director produced two brand-new smartphones and a credit card.
“You are being issued phones and a company card to cover your expenses,” she said.
Henry tried to play off how quickly he snatched up the credit card with his phone as surprise.
“Oh wow. These are the new ones, right?” Henry said as he put the credit card in his breast pocket. He didn’t want Neila near it after he’d read three books about how reckless Tesla had been with money. “Died penniless and alone” was practically the man’s epitaph. Delusion or not, Henry would rather not risk the government’s black budget.
Neila fiddled with her phone. “I’m afraid I’ll break this.”
“Get a case for it,” the director replied flatly.
“How do I turn it on?” Neila glanced at Henry, worried.
Reincarnation of Tesla my ass, Henry thought. She can’t even figure out how to turn on a phone. No wonder she thinks she’s nuts. He tried not to groan.
“I’ll help you with it later, Neila,” Henry said.
“Your phones are encrypted and secure. I will send you the information regarding potential psychics as cases come. There is one in East Texas I’d like you to investigate as soon as possible. You and Blackbird get packed up and head out tomorrow.”
“Henry gets a code name?”
Henry rolled his eyes. “That’s you.”
“What?” Neila looked hurt as she asked, “Henry doesn’t get a code name?”
The director smiled a bit. “You’re our ace in the hole, Neila. I thought it made sense to give your file a name besides ‘Subject/Agent 13063.’ ‘Blackbird’ is a lot easier to remember.”
Henry winced at the phrase “ace in the hole.” The memory of Neila trapped in the Hole bubbled up in his mind. She had half shifted. Literally, half. Somehow, she had completely shifted the entire left side of her body to resemble a young Nikola Tesla while she was trapped in the filth-ridden, padded, solitary-confinement room known as the Hole. Neila didn’t even know anything was wrong until they were trying to get her out, and she couldn’t walk correctly. Henry shut his eyes for a moment as Neila continued to run inane questions by the director.
“What’s Hen’s code name? Please, please tell me it’s not ‘Hen’ because that’s a boring name. No offense.”
“He’s just ‘Special Agent Anderson.’”
“Oh.” Neila sounded disappointed. “That’s not very special.”
The director sat a pair of phone chargers on the desk. “Don’t forget these. You have my confidence. You can do this mission.”
Henry felt like he had forgotten his stomach in the director’s office as they left with phones, papers, and chargers in hand. This was a bad idea, possibly the worst idea ever. It made absolutely no sense. There had to be some other reason for getting Henry and Neila out of the Facility.
“I think she doesn’t want us here for some reason,” Neila said as she unbuttoned her suit jacket.
“Did you read my mind?”
“You know I don’t like to read minds. Especially after…” Neila slipped the ID and passport into the interior pocket of the jacket. Her tie, which appeared black when her suit was shut, had vivid purple lightning radiating from the top of a Tesla coil printed on the area previously hidden by her jacket. Lightning, electricity, and the machine Tesla had made to command the stuff. Henry had read the man’s favorite color was purple. Given how much Neila resisted saying Tesla’s name, Henry was surprised she would wear something with one of his inventions on it.
The words slipped from his lips before he could stop himself. “That’s a hell of a tie. Where’d you get it?”
“Bought it to replace the one an ex-boyfriend gave me. And, sure, just go ahead and change the subject,” she said as she dropped her phone. Figures she’d break it right after getting it.
The phone stopped two inches before hitting the floor. Neila bent over and snatched it from the air.
“This suit needs more pockets.”
Right. She’s telekinetic. Henry sighed. Catching a phone is easy compared to what she did at the skate rink.
As they walked down the still partially ruined hallway in the Facility, Henry mulled the events of the skating rink over in his head for the thousandth time.
Just before they had been scheduled to return to the Facility, Neila’s aunt and young cousin had demanded she go with them to a roller-skating rink. Henry had been ordered to keep an eye on Neila at all times, so he had gone with them.
Neila had rolled over to the heavy metal railing next to where Henry stayed on the bench, in the same spot he had been sitting since they’d arrived at Playland Skate several hours before. “Come on. You gotta skate at least a little. You haven’t even gotten up to pee.”
He frowned. “I don’t have to do anything.”
“Except follow me around. Now, for once, I’m asking you to follow me, so…follow me.”
“I shouldn’t…I have my service—”
Neila cut him off. “Yeah, and I got my knife on me. Just don’t shoot anyone, I won’t stab anyone, and we’ll be good.”
“If I fall?”
“I. Won’t. Let. You.”
He pushed himself to his feet and immediately pitched forward toward the metal railing, where he caught himself. “Don’t you dare laugh.”
Neila held up her hands. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Henry then gradually worked his way down the carpeted walkway that ran the length of the rink. Neila shadowed him from the other side of the railing to the short entrance step on to the glossy white concrete. She glided easily on her rented Rollerblades.
She offered him her arm. “Here.”
He reluctantly accepted her help and stepped off the carpet. His foot began to slide forward a couple inches, then stopped as if it had hit a wall. He turned toward Neila, who smiled, and then back to his right foot on the floor. It wouldn’t slide forward. She was holding his skate in place with her telekinesis. Henry took a deep breath and stepped onto the rink.
Neila swung around him with her arm cupping his back just above his handgun. “Little bit at a time, okay? I’ll keep your skates from going out from under you as long as I can.”
He couldn’t see her behind him, but he thought he still felt her arm on his back as he gingerly moved his skate forward with no resistance. “Ah!”
“You gotta move more than that,” she chided. “Don’t be scared. I’ll be your training wheels.”
Neila’s comment hadn’t made him feel any better when eight-year-olds skated by him unencumbered. “Yeah, training wheels.”
“I could leave you out here,” she threatened. “At least try.”
“Fine.” He groaned.
“It’s just like ice-skating…kinda.”
“I hate ice-skating.”
Neila rolled around in front of him in an arc and stopped. “Now, if you had just said so to begin with, you wouldn’t be in this situation.” She put her hand out for him to take. “Come on, we’re getting you back on the bench. You’re holding up traffic.”
Then he realized he could still feel the light pressure on his back as he stared at his partner in front of him. The music throbbed, and lights pulsed as he spoke to her. “You’re…you could have read my mind to know I hate skating, and we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
She crossed her arms and rolled around to his right side. “I told you I won’t read your mind. I don’t like doing that. Now, are you gonna skate or blame me for trying to teach you something you don’t want to learn?”
He glared at her and pushed himself away with one foot, rolled on the other for a moment, then tried to switch feet. A teen moving quickly veered out of his way as Henry barreled more toward the center of the rink, perpendicular to the flow of skaters. He shut his eyes, waiting to crash, but he felt the pressure on his back move around to his chest when he started to pitch forward again. Then he felt a hand slip into his right hand and redirect him. Henry opened his eyes to see he and Neila were moving with the other skaters around the rink.
“You’re an idiot,” she said over the thumping bass line of the song playing. “Also, guys have stupid centers of gravity.”
As she skated leisurely, Henry realized his feet were moving too. “You’re…using me like a puppet.”
“Just moving your skates and keeping you from falling on your face. Notice how I’m moving your feet?”
“Great. ‘Cause I can’t focus on this many things for long. I’ll bring us back around to the bench.”
“Good idea,” he conceded.
They rounded the corner, started to slow down, and then veered toward the area Henry had entered the rink. Neila stepped onto the carpet, and Henry slid in beside her. Then he felt the pressure hugging him released, and he fell forward again. She caught him with her arms and stared into his green eyes through her time-yellowed, Coke-bottle-thick glasses. He forced the blush back out of his cheeks before it was apparent. Shapeshifting had its perks.
Why the hell am I blushing anyway?
“Can you make it back to your shoes?”
“Great!” She glided across the low-pile carpet and sat down next to her oversized jean jacket.
Though easier to move on the carpet than the rink floor, it still took him what felt like an eternity to wobble his way along the railing back to the bench where he sat down with a thud. Neila had already begun to take her skates off. He started to unlace his.
“Thanks, by the way,” she said.
“Telling me I had the wrong size skates when we got here.”
Now they were once again walking the hallways of the Facility and he couldn’t stop thinking about skating rather than the carnage that had occurred the last time they were in the underground base. The more he thought about the skating rink, the more confused he felt. Why had he almost blushed? Would she have been offended if he had? Why didn’t she use her telekinesis in those ways more often? Or maybe she had done it so subtly he just hadn’t noticed? He decided to try to not think about it.
“Let’s go get packed and figure out what’s going on.”
Neila bowed with one arm pointing down the hall. “After you, my liege.”
The damage to the Facility during Shorty’s attack had only added to the confusing layout of the base. Henry had memorized where everything was and previously pretended to be lost, but now he found himself genuinely turned around. After walking for another ten minutes, Neila and Henry came across Dr. Bulsara, an older Persian man with a five-o’clock shadow and the Facility’s chief psychiatrist, having a rather animated conversation with Dr. Turner, an older man with a warm-brown complexion who was in charge of telepathic studies.
“I’ve mentioned to you before your methods for using psychic telepathy are reckless,” Bulsara scolded.
“As if there were any other type of telepathy,” Turner shouted.
“For all you know there is,” Bulsara shot back.
Down the hall from the bickering doctors, Neila and Henry maneuvered around a bundle of exposed wires.
“Stick to your shrink stuff—”
“Thanks to you, I have to scrape their brains off the inside of their skulls.” Bulsara got in the taller man’s face. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Oh great. This again,” Henry said. He ran his hand over his face and then through his hair before searching for a way around the two men. There was none.
“We could go through the wall,” Neila suggested.
She pointed with finger pistols at the cracked wall next to them. The interior was exposed with half-finished wiring. “It’s just drywall. They have to replace it anyway.”
“I don’t think the director would appreciate us bursting back into her office like the Kool-Aid Man.” Henry palmed his face.
Neila laughed. “Ooh yeah. You do have a sense of humor.”
Henry let out a sigh, grateful she hadn’t shifted her voice to sound like the Kool-Aid Man. She probably could. He knew that.
I can, so she can, right?
She hadn’t had any involuntary shapeshifting incidents since the fight with Shorty and his crew. Henry had stayed up whole nights to make sure. Nothing had happened.
He pursed his lips. It wasn’t right.
“Oh! Good! Agent Roddenberry.” Dr. Bulsara spotted them and pulled her toward Dr. Turner before Henry knew what was happening. The psychiatrist grinned as he placed Neila before him like a shield, his hands on her shoulders. “You can tell him he’s doing things wrong.”
Henry hurried to catch up as Bulsara released her and planted himself next to Neila like a cat presenting Dr. Turner with a dead mouse.
“What?” Neila asked.
“Don’t listen to him,” Turner advised.
“You experienced it firsthand,” Bulsara explained. He pointed to his own temple. “Dr. Turner doesn’t know how telepathy affects the mind of the telepath. By forcing them to copy the entire mind of another person, he runs the risk of destroying the telepath’s own psyche. Tell him this is wrong.”
Henry remembered how confused Neila had been after Turner’s experiment four and a half months before. She didn’t know who she was, and the man whose mind she had copied had been a grade-A asshole.
Neila glanced back and forth between the two doctors, each a full head taller than her. “If he doesn’t believe you”—she pointed at Bulsara—“and you’ve gone to school and have a degree, why would he believe me”—she jerked her thumb at herself—“when I barely managed to go to community college?”
Bulsara’s face fell; the mouse was wriggling free. “Because you’re a psychic. You know what it’s like!”
“Oh, well, yeah. It sucked.”
Turner rolled his eyes. “Spoken like a true expert.”
“Dr. Turner, have you ever had a song stuck in your head?” Neila asked very seriously. “Like an ear worm?”
“Yes. What does that have to do—”
“Imagine the song was a memory.”
“Of skinning a screaming cat while it was alive.”
Neila’s calm made Henry’s skin crawl. It was the same sort of calm she’d had when she had blown a man’s leg off with an assault rifle the day of Shorty’s attack.
“Don’t worry, the paws were cut off with a meat cleaver beforehand, so it can’t scratch you.”
Dr. Turner seemed a shade paler as he stammered, “I…”
“I’ve been able to block out most of the guy’s memories, but that one still pops up like an earworm. Round and round. Over and over. The cat was a calico. Too trusting. Belonged to his grandma. Named Whiskey.”
“That’s…” Dr. Turner stammered.
“Pretty fucked up. I’d say some of your methods need to be reexamined, but then I haven’t been to school like you guys. I’ll never read someone’s mind for you again.” Neila walked past the two men. “Now if you’ll excuse us, Agent Anderson and I are late.”
Henry half smiled as he squeezed past the older men in the hall. “Gentlemen.” He caught up to Neila and leaned over to whisper. “You okay? I didn’t know about the cat.”
“I’m fine. I once skinned a dead fox when I was younger, so I try to think of it instead.” She remained disturbingly calm.
“I don’t see how that’s any better.”
“It was roadkill.”
“It’s still not better.”
Neila shrugged outside the red door to the elevator. “I hold on to the hope the memory will go away like those stupid dreams did.”
Henry froze. What the hell did she mean?
Neila had told him she had always had the dreams: dreams about a past life as Nikola Tesla. Henry had researched the man as thoroughly as he could in the last four months, while keeping an eye on Neila and helping out around her family’s home. He even managed to find some period articles online from turn-of-the-century quacks claiming the inventor had been from Venus.
Shouldn’t the absence of dreams like those be unsettling as hell? He knew how freaked out he’d be if he were in that situation. Like if he lost a limb, at least some amount of panic before he tried to grow it back. Again, shapeshifting had its perks.
Neila was good at putting on a strong front. Maybe she was hiding how it was affecting her. Burying it deep as hell.