This is the Circle
Tash McAdam © 2019
All Rights Reserved
They’re coming over the wall, Serena pushes the thought to me as we duck into a doorway, looking for our next targets. People are running and screaming, I see a toddler dashed out of his mother’s arms, grabbed by an invisible hand, and send a puff of telekinesis out to catch him, whisking him out of danger and back safe onto her shoulder. A scream of frustration rings in the empty air.
The woman doesn’t know what happened, but she takes her child and keeps running. The streets are clearing now, the gates shut to keep the attackers out, cutting off the flood of dwells. I can’t help but think they’d be safer if they’d all stayed outside. The Eaters are here; they’re in the City, but we can’t see them.
I desperately try to comm base, but everything’s down, my datapad blinking uselessly as it tries to connect.
Serena marks two falling shapes that are invisible to me as they tumble down the huge white edifice. They’re using their power like parachutes, skidding their feet down the surface of the wall and wafting their telekinesis above themselves, slowing their descent; it’s unbelievable. Via our hand-to-hand connection I get a faint impression of Serena skidding down a wall by herself, long ago, young and scared, with devastation woven into the heart of the memory. She digs her nails into my hand, jogging me out of the private moments she didn’t mean to share, and points our joined hands at the first descending Eater.
I send out a burst of power, flatten the body-snatcher against the massive white blocks of steel-hard stone, feel his bones break, and his scream of pain reverberates through the air. Serena yanks the other attacker down, but he…no, she, flips in the air and lands on her feet, dodging into the panicked shapes before Serena can keep track of her.
A massive figure shunts refugee bodies aside like a battering ram—Tudor: he can see them, just like Leaf could in the desert—and heaves upward. The woman Serena lost sight of flickers into view for a moment, and Tudor hammers a huge fist into her chest. Everything is so sharp and clear in my vision. I see her rib bones bow inward, snap. Battlesight, Serena crows, adrenaline pounding through her, making her forget the deaths around us and focus only on the joy of war.
Together we race toward the fading trail of another invisible attacker as they sprint down a street after the fleeing crowds. They want the children, Serena sends to me, her inner voice shocked and disbelieving. I caught it on her before Tudor took her down; they’re here for the kids. The powered kids, she means. I feel it.
Why? My feet smash into the pavement. I wish these boots were older, broken in, the tight synth-leather making my strides just a touch uncertain on the slippery solar panels.
You should try doing this in the rain, Serena jokes, not knowing the answer to my question. Then we’re on the escaping Eater and have to focus. She reads and finds his feet for me, bare, soles like hide but used to hot sands not smooth glassy surfaces. I thread a noose of power around his ankle, ready to trip him. But I forgot what they can do with an open line, and I gasp as he yanks on the tendril I sent toward him. He pulls a gob of power right out of my chest, absorbing it with a shuddery cry I can hear with my mundane ears, not needing Serena to read it and pass it to me.
I stagger, almost falling with the shock of it, but Serena catches me with a strong hand around my belt, saving me from a nosedive onto the ground. Toby. It’s a cry, thick with fear, but I’m okay. I let go of the power and let him take it rather than try to keep the connection open and fight him for it. I don’t know how to do that, and the memory of my twin taking everything out of me is still too fresh in my mind to want to try.
I’m good, I spit it, finding my balance and yanking Serena along, urging her to look for our prey, but he’s disappeared, and she can’t find him. If they want the kids, they’ll be at ARC, I realize and share at the same time, and Serena blanches.
She’s washed with fear. Lost him once; can’t lose him again swirls in her so thickly I can hardly breathe past the crushing weight of responsibility and loneliness and hopelessness and loss that makes her feet slow and her spine bow with the pressure.
I slap her, because I’m drowning in the emotions she’s accidentally forcing on me, and the impact of my hand turns her cheek, stings scarlet blood into the skin, and she shakes her head vigorously, working her jaw but refocused. She gives me a pulse of gratitude and looks around for a path to the city center.
The roads are packed, abandoned belongings being picked over by some of the hardier souls in the crowd, vehicles tipped over and deserted, desperate families searching for loved ones. Kids. There are kids missing here too. The absence of them is washing over Serena, open as she is now to our surroundings. Gifted kids the Institute and ARC missed? Slum kids strong enough that the Eaters want them.
Oh, Google. Serena stumbles, drops to one knee, and vomits on the shiny, blood-smeared solar panel right next to my foot.
What? But in reply, she just reaches up to take my hand again.
Our fingers wind together. We’re both sweaty, sticky; there’s a fingerprint of red smudged down the back of my hand. And then she shows me, and I stop thinking about my hand.
There’s an Eater near, very near, and now I know how they got their names. He’s smashed open the head of an infant, no more than six months, and he’s digging his hand into the bowl of the child’s skull, scooping out brains and shoveling them into his mouth. He’s so intent on what he’s doing, he hasn’t realized Serena’s clocked him, but she’s too shaken by the secondhand emotions and the firsthand horror of witnessing such vileness, she can’t do anything more than bring up her meager dinner.
I’m not much better, to be honest, but the extra layer between myself and the carnage, the filter of Serena and her disgust, her fear, is enough to keep me on my feet.
He’s crouched, this monster, in the corner of two buildings, safe out the way of the madding crowd. There’s another child with him, a girl, still breathing, but unconscious, shrouded by the Eater’s invisible cover.
I don’t have a Zap. We were unarmed—in as far as we ever can be—to help keep the atmosphere friendly and minimize the chance of aggression. I’ll have to be quick, have to try to haul the limp body of the living child away from the Eater. Pin the man back at the same time, crush his skull, maybe. He doesn’t get to live; not after I’ve seen this. There’s nothing of humanity left in this monster.
Serena pulls herself upright using me as a ladder. I’ll get the kid. You get the…Eater, her mind voice twists around the word, rippled through with new meaning, new understanding. It sounds like a curse when she shapes it. I send a flash of understanding, and she counts for us both: three, two, one.
We move at the same time, like lightning, like one entity. I spare a sliding second of thought for how well we do this, how together we are, how in sync our minds can be when we fight. And then Serena’s pulling the second victim free of her position, wedged behind the Eater in the corner, and I’m pinning limbs with flashing, repeated shots. I can’t keep a thread open, wrap it around him like rope in case he pulls my power out of me again; I can only hit him—hit him—hit him with blasts like ball bearings, repeated impact shoving his hands up and into the steel behind him.
He drops the corpse he was feeding on, roars his disgust at us. I can only feel-see him through Serena’s hand linked to mine; if we let go of each other, I’ll lose him completely, and our grip is sweat slick and slippery. There’s a small gang of people running toward us, trying to get away from something, someone, and I can’t pin the Eater down, but Serena has the child scooped into her arm, hoisting the small figure over her narrow shoulder and turning her attention to helping me.
Together we lift him up, smash him against the wall, and he loses his control for a second, flickers into view with gore and blood smeared down his chin like a beard.
Then someone barges into us, and we stagger, jostled, our hands sliding apart, and I’ve lost my grip on Serena, and with it, my understanding of where the Eater is.
I stumble, spinning, my hands up and searching for Serena, for a target, but there are people everywhere, and I can’t see her. Serena, I mind shout at her, and then realize that might have been a mistake as a heavy weight crushes me to the ground. Stupid. I may as well have sent up a flare! At least I know where the enemy is now. On top of me, with his hands around my throat, sweat and child’s blood lubricating his grip as he chokes the life out of me, batting my weakening telekinesis away with less effort than I expend on swatting flies.
Stars dance in my vision, the world is fading gray at the edges, my arms are pinned under his knees, and the agony of his bones digging into my biceps—grinding my muscles into the ground—is second only to the hot fear rising in my throat, sparking panic through me. I flail and twist, flesh and power alike looking for a chink, a moment of weakness, something that will save me.
He’s stronger than I am and has me at a complete disadvantage, my lungs straining for air, and I don’t know how I’m going to die, if I’m going to suffocate or if my spine will snap first. His hands are so strong…
Serena saves me, again; I’ve lost count of how many times I would have died without her at my side. She blasts the Eater off me with a shout of rage. His ragged fingernails tear stinging lines in my throat, and I lie there uselessly, gasping for sweet, sweet air as my lungs remember how to inflate.
My throat hurts badly, inside and out; it feels swollen and hot and wet, but I manage to turn my head sideways and watch Serena smashing her fist into the Eater’s face.
Her expression is masklike, unnervingly still. She’s holding him down with one hand, and her other is already dripping with blood. Sunlight glances off the lurid scarlet wetness. Watching her cave his face in is almost beautiful.
“Get up.” She doesn’t bother mind sending it, just yells it at me, and sound rushes back into my ears, making me realize how quiet everything had gone while I was being throttled.
The kids, ARC, of course. We have to get back there. I swallow past the tightness of the imprint of his fingers on my neck.
She leaves the corpse of the Eater, bloody and almost unrecognizable as human—if these monsters even count as such—and yanks me to my feet, leaving her arm around my waist, under my shirt for skin contact and to help keep me upright.
Hauling the kid the Eater wanted up into her arms again, she basically carries both of us down the rapidly emptying street. Her strength is immutable, making my feet steady and my lungs stop juddering. I’m glad she didn’t leave the kid, but I might not have thought of it. We gotta shove her somewhere safe, where the Eaters can’t get her, but they’re invisible and everywhere? I can hear screaming. Half of me wants to head that way, but I know Serena’s right. We have to get back to base and tell them what we know, try to save the highest concentration of gifted kids.
The streets empty quickly. I think it’s been less than fifteen minutes since it all started. I wonder what happened at the park. All those people in tents. Maybe the citizens let them into their houses. At least houses have doors, are sealable. The Eaters don’t seem to have weaponry, really, relying on their invisibility to cover them.
We sprint down the silent roads, past a watch station that bears the black marks of Zap fire on its walls, with a caved-in front door dangling from its hinges.
The silence feels tangible; inhaling it makes me think of memories that aren’t mine, swallowing gel until I drown in it. I can’t feel Thea at all right now; she must be sleeping. I can sense the ambient presence of our bond though, so I’m not worried she’s dead. I’d feel it if she was. I know I would.
Our harsh breathing and heavy footsteps are the only sounds close to us, save the distant bangs and yelling of unseen fights. Serena stumbles, and I send Gimme the kid, laced with the knowledge I am physically stronger than her when she’s not pumping telekinesis into every cell. I’m also a better runner, but slow to react, and her unfettered responses might keep us alive.
She grunts agreement and hands me the child without missing a step, bracing the limp body with tendrils of power until I have the small, warm girl slung over my broad shoulder.
She doesn’t weigh much, and we speed up now Serena’s relieved of her burden. But we’re taking her to them? I ask, meaning that we are headed for where we think the fight will be, where the kids are, and Serena flashes a reply back to me: Nowhere’s safe; at least we can keep the kids together, and I see what she means.
We can take the Eaters in a fight, if we know where they are; they’re under-equipped even if they are strong in ways we don’t understand. If we can gather the kids in one place and surround them with fighters, we might be able to save them.
The girl in my arm stirs slightly, and I abruptly realize that “them” doesn’t include the kids not at ARC, the kids who weren’t at the Institute, or kids like the girl in my arms. Serena catches the thought off me and responds grimly: There’s nothing we can do; we don’t know how they’re finding them.
Thea? I send back to Serena, wrapped with the reminder that my twin is the most powerful Reader we have. If anyone can find latent telepaths, assuming that’s what the Eaters are after, it’d be her.
Can you reach her? She already knows I can’t; it’s not a real question. Serena yanks us off the main path, around a bloody heap I don’t want to look too closely at, and I see the walls of ARC ahead of us, the side of the grounds. There’s no gate here, but Serena throws me her plan to jump the wall, and we seamlessly release our grip on each other.
I pull ahead, gently deposit the girl on the ground, and turn… One, two, three… I cup my hands over my thigh, Serena steps up, and I hurl her skyward. The nuking show-off does a flip in the air before landing on the narrow top of the wall, crouching immediately, and throwing up a shield—I can tell by the way she moves her hands—before reaching down for me.
I pick up the girl, brace her with one arm, as well as I can, and then take a short run up. My feet pound the hard road, sending shocks through my shinbones as I increase the pressure of my weight, hurling my power out through my feet when I’m a mere three meters from the rising stone.
My feet pedal wildly in the air—I’m flying—Serena wraps her power around my torso and increases my speed, yanking me up to join her on the wall top.
She steadies me as I land and then leaps off before I have a chance to get my stomach back into my body, landing as lightly as a cat at the base of the wall, her shoes barely indenting the mud more than the flat cushion of telekinesis she sent before her did.
I carefully lower the girl down to her using telekinesis, and Serena catches the weight of her before she drops the final few meters.
Groaning, I close my eyes and step outward, wrapping my legs and bones in power to reinforce them while bursting a pad of energy out to absorb my momentum.
My landing is a lot messier than hers, dirt blasting out for a few feet, flowers torn up by the roots, and I pitch forward, getting my elbows and knees covered in mud. Serena spares a split second to make sure I didn’t break anything and then hauls me to my feet, brushes me off, and hands me the girl back.
And then we run, hand in hand, Serena reading, and me, well, I’m just trying to stay on my feet.
The scars of the earlier conflict are still scraped deep in the grasses under the beat of our shoes, but there’s no sign of newer battle.
Where is everyone? I ask.
On the streets? It’s a bloodbath out there. But we have to find the kids. Even Serena’s internal voice sounds breathless and stressed.
Dorms? It’s where I’d go if I knew what was going on outside.
Emergency procedure is head for the canteen, Serena responds after a second, slowing down while we figure out where to go. The sun is bright, high in the sky, like a white eye blasting down on us without the protection of the transal shields we’re used to. I have to squint just to see.
We could split up? I offer. It’s dangerous, more dangerous for me ’cause I can’t read, and they could take me by surprise, but I can shield myself, and once they’ve hit me, I can fight.
Serena looks torn for a minute, and then nods. If you don’t find anyone in the dorms, head for the canteen down B block. If it’s jammed, or you can’t get through, yell for me. I’ll do the same; if they’re not in the canteen, I’ll come down B looking for you.
All right. I give her my best attempt at a grin, and she clenches her jaw.
Gimme the kid. She’s right. The girl stands a better chance with her. It’s hard to keep a shield up over someone who isn’t yourself. I’m not that good even though I’m stronger.
See you in ten, I send, trying to sound positive, and she hits me on the shoulder affectionately, hard enough to make me miss a step as I pass the kid over.
We don’t need to say anything else; all the emotion is wrapped up in the thoughts, and I nod at her and peel off across the abandoned grounds, heading for the dorms. I wish I knew where Thea was, or Aly, or Darcy. Leaf would be a great guy to have around right now, but as a Blank, not even Serena will find him if he doesn’t want to be found.
The corridors are eerily silent; there’s a thick smear of dark blood congealing on the floor, and I avoid it. So, they’re here. Definitely here. My heart hammers in my chest. I can hear my footsteps echoing, and I try to mute them, pillow them with power like Serena does so naturally, her control a light touch and redirection of energy. For me, it only helps a little. I won’t take anyone by surprise, but it’s better.
The lights are still on, which is good, because I can see, but adds to the feeling of wrongness pervading the whole place, the offness of the empty: empty halls and the doors with no bustle behind them.
Someone touches me on the shoulder, and I’m swinging for them as I turn, reinforcing my forearm until it’s hard as steel, arcing toward…my twin’s face. I’m too committed to the movement to pull up, but she laughs lightly as she steps back, flutters her hand up, and spins my powerful blow past her head. I lose my balance and just about fall to the floor, staggering forward a step, bouncing my shoulder painfully off the wall.
“Toby, what are you doing?” She sounds light, airy, and I blink, taken aback.
“Don’t you know?” I reach for her hand to fill her in, to show her the carnage outside, but she jerks backward, avoiding my touch. Oh, Google, maybe it’s too much for her. I think of the wave of disastrous emotions from Serena that almost dropped me when she found the Eater earning his name.
Her face hardens into more familiar lines, and she nods, sharp and jerky. “Of course, sorry… It was just…funny. You almost…” She sounds a little strange, and I frown at her, willing her to get with the program.
“I’m heading for the dorms; Serena’s in the canteen; the Eaters are here and they’re after the children.” I fill her in as fast as I can, already moving again. She’ll come with me, of course. We’re better as a team.
“Damon, Jake, and Ana are hiding in the ceiling over Ana’s room. There’s two Eaters looking for them.” She sounds so dramatically unconcerned I flinch, whirling around.
“What’s wrong with you?” I snap, glaring before breaking into a run toward the boys room, my stomach swirling with fear.
“Wait, Toby,” she calls after me, but I don’t have time for whatever nervous breakdown she’s having. She can read better than anyone. The Eaters won’t catch her by surprise, and she’s better than me in hand to hand now. She can take care of herself. I’m shocked by the anger pounding in my chest. I thought she’d help if she already knew where any of the kids are. Why isn’t she helping? Maybe she’s headed to a more dangerous group, I tell myself, feet skidding as I round the corner, forgoing stealth for speed.
I can’t feel them, but I sure as hell can find them.
I send a shockwave of energy out of me, the kind that earned me my nickname right at the beginning of everything, the kind that makes the pictures fall off the wall and the tiles rattle. I blast it down the corridor ahead of me, slamming it wall to ceiling to floor. No space for them to slip past this wave of power.
One of them is on the ceiling, coming toward me. The blast knocks him down like an ant being shaken off a leaf; he smashes to the floor, landing on his hands and feet. I kick him in the face as I run past him. His head snaps back with a sound audible even over the thud of the second Eater being thrown backward.
This one is female; she bares sharpened teeth at me as she shimmers into view when her back hits the wall where the corridor turns. The air puffs out past her self-made fangs, but she’s gone again before I can hit her with a follow-up.
I close my eyes, reinforce my skin all over—a net of energy over every millimeter of me—and wait for the blow. It’s hard to concentrate, but it’s not for long.
Her knife slams into the skin over my kidney, and she yells her triumph before she realizes her blade has snapped at the hilt with the impact into rock-hard flesh. My protection’s shattered, dropped away with the blow, but I have her.
My hands wrap around her wrist. I twist it upward, step through the loop of her arm, and drive my foot into her knee, folding her downward.
I follow her to the floor hard enough her arm snaps when we hit, and she squeals in pain before I use my free hand to drive her forehead into the hard tile and knock her out.
Panting, I roll off her, then get to my feet. “Jake? Damon? It’s me, Toby,” I call softly, fearful I could be calling more Eaters to our location.
“Toby!” A triumphant whisper sounds from halfway down the corridor, and then a ceiling tile moves. Jake pokes his head out, sees me, and then flips down to the ground before turning and holding his hands up. Damon dangles his feet over the edge and jumps. Jake catches him with steady hands. Both the boys lock hands and help Ana down. She almost knocks them over, but they steady her, and all three run to me, run into me.
Down the corridor, Thea rounds the corner and grins at me. “Nice catch, brother min