Jay hit the pause button on the video, and Eric let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He had to bite his tongue to keep from losing his shit on poor Jayson, asking why he’d stopped, what earthly reason did he have for keeping this from them any longer. It was there—right there—and he’d just stopped. Meryl let out a gasp. Jay had retrieved her before playing the video, declaring that she deserved to hear this too. At that point, she seemed to be of the same opinion as Eric. Why the hell did he stop?
“Donald might be—might have been an asshole, but his info’s legit. Which means what he says is the God’s honest truth,” Jay said. “Knowing this will risk your lives. I won’t force you into that. Any of you. Walk away now, and there will be no hard feelings.”
Eric held his tongue. Of course Jay stopped the video. These were a bunch of teenagers. Children. And Charity—could she even make that decision for herself right now? Instinct almost made Eric raise his gaze to this twelve-year-old inhabiting the body of the woman he loved. He jerked his head away, because he knew that looking into her eyes would be his undoing. His whole body ached being this close to her but still facing such uncertainty in their future.
“Do it.” Allen spat the words out between clenched teeth. “This ends today. No more waiting, no more wondering. We need to know. And we need to finish it. We need to fight this. Donald he—” Allen stopped and ran his hand over his face. “He saved my life. And this person—no, this monster. They killed him. No more. No one else should die for this.”
Lindsay nodded. “Agreed.”
Mitch rolled his eyes. “Well, fuck. Whoever this is had better got some superpower that makes people agree, cause I’m actually with dumbass on this one.”
Marcus put his hand on Charity’s arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here—”
Charity jerked her arm away. “You guys keep telling me I’m an adult, so stop treating me like a kid. Even if I am one, sort of. Look, it doesn’t matter how old I am, I can see this world’s screwed up.” Tears filled her eyes and she wiped at them angrily. Eric’s heart broke. “Everything’s so messed up. Mom and Dad are gone, and…and I’m not even supposed to be sad about that anymore cause it happened a long time ago, but it still hurts.” She took a quick breath and continued. “But that’s not even the part that matters. The important thing is that this is part of the world we can fix. If there’s something I can do to help, then I will. I must do it. Because that guy’s right.” Her jaw clenched. “This needs to stop.”
Eric’s lips parted and tears filled his eyes. This was Charity. It didn’t matter what age or where she was in her life, Charity was a hero. She always would be no matter what. Despite himself, Eric smiled. His eyes grew determined. “Let’s end this.”
Jayson nodded and pressed play.
“If I am right,” the on-screen Donald continued, “the only way the person I am meeting will know that I know that…” He paused, confused. “You know what I mean. They need the ability to read my mind. This is something we haven’t considered. It is a missing piece of the puzzle that has plagued us for months. There is a certain person far more powerful than any of us have ever imagined. In fact, we’ve been deliberately kept from ever having imagined it.
“Years ago, I left Delta because I wasn’t about to be told what to do by a bunch of portentous, self-righteous, pompous pricks. Say that ten times fast. Portentous pompous pricks. Portentous pompous pricks. Porpempus—okay, enough of that.” He waved his hand dismissively.
“Anyway, separating myself from the likes of Delta never prevented me from knowing what was going on with them. I noted with little interest a pet project of the ever-lovable Dr. Derek Danesfield. He knew the little girl was a meta, but had no idea of the extent of her capabilities. However, he was convinced that all would be revealed after his repeated administrations. With such an effort, I was more than a little surprised to find out that this protégé had such limited capabilities. After all, post-cognition is so very limited, especially if you have to actually touch your subject.
“If you haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by now, you must be under a rock. The person behind it all must be powerful enough to impress the Shadow Fae, and clever enough to organize not only them, but several other groups to do his or her bidding—including, by the way, Delta Division. Yes, Drake is all of those things. He’s a perfect candidate for the blame, especially considering his past dealings with the Fae. What he lacks, however, is the motivation. Sure, it’s the ultimate ‘Daddy, look what I can do’ bit—the boy’s got daddy issues, what can I say—but he more or less got that out of his system when he beat the shit out of me. Fair and square, kid. You earned it.
“If we can understand Samantha Clive’s true power, I believe we can understand how she pulled it off. She reads buried memories—is it not too much of a stretch to imagine her planting them? Imagine the power one has when they control the mind.
“By the way, you’re probably right. This is no more proof than the Elves’ magic mojo that buzzes out your brain waves, but consider this. If I’m wrong, then there is no reason to kill me. But if I’m right, and Sam knows that I know, I’m dead. The proof is in the pudding, is it not?
“So, there. I’ve told you all I know. There’s only one thing that remains… what are you going to do about it?”
In the silence that followed, Eric considered dropping a box of pins just to see if he could count them by sound. He didn’t know what to think. His mind’s attempts to grapple with the revelation made him feel lightheaded, and he suddenly noticed he’d stopped breathing. His deep gasp broke the spell.
“Is he—is he telling the truth?” Lindsay whimpered. Eric was right there with her. His mind could not comprehend a betrayal of this magnitude, nor the level of manipulation it would take to engineer such a terrible, unnecessary tragedy.
“Only one way to find out.” There was a darkness to Jayson’s words. Anger seethed off him. Eric was sure that if he put his hand on Jay’s shoulder he would feel a heat that rivaled anything Mitch or Liam could produce. “I’m sure the lab’s got some nullifier. I’ll grab some of that and port it into Sam. Then bring her back here. If she’s truly as powerful as Donald suggests, then Meryl should be able to get the truth out of her with Sam’s own powers.”
Meryl gave a curt nod. She was a gentle soul, and it made Eric sad to see her so broken she would willingly and enthusiastically agree to such a violent and invasive plan. What if they were wrong? What if Sam was innocent, and this was just a matter of one sociopath framing another?
“Are you—are you sure?” Eric stuttered.
“If we’re wrong, then we’re screwing with Sam on the same level as she let happen to Drake. If we’re right…” Jay trailed off and shook his head, leaving the rest unspoken.
“Be careful,” Meryl said as he kissed her on the head. He vanished before Eric could make any more protests.
* * * *
Geoff dashed around his desk without his customary grace, knocking over a stationary holder, scattering pens, pencils, and yellow and pink highlighters all over the floor. Samantha Clive turned to him with an amused smile. “Mr. Davis. Aren’t we excited today? Were you able to set up the meeting with Rio’kir?”
“Yes, yes. A delegation will receive the United Nations at noon.”
“I know who the mastermind is.”
Sam blinked. “Is that so?”
Geoff hesitated. “Well, I can. I could. That is to say, not entirely, but I’ve been told…”
“Mr. Davis, you’re not making any sense.”
“There’s a video. A file I received. It details who is behind the attacks.”
“I see. Did you watch this video?”
“Not the whole thing. Director, he said if I knew, the information would get me killed.”
“That old man…Donald Kasuki.”
Something changed on Sam’s face. There was shock that she quickly disguised, and then aggravation. For a woman who let emotions play on her face only as a calculated move, that seemed out of character. Geoff was confused.
Geoff was perhaps not at a level of intellect that would pioneer a new future. He would never think enough outside the box to make a profound discovery, but he did process information faster than nearly anyone else alive. Instead of being happy that the biggest mystery currently plaguing Delta was solved, she was annoyed. The only reason she would feel that, and moreover feel it accidentally, was if it directly affected her. If she was the one behind it all. The poison attempt? A red herring to throw them off, never meant to work. Why? To make allies of the Elves. Geoff’s lips parted.
Sam shook her head. “Oh, Mr. Davis. It’s a pity, really. You were so useful. Utterly loyal and good.”
This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. “Why?”
“Yes, I suppose you’d be wondering that, wouldn’t you? Mr. Davis, we are at war. Japan and China have allied to force Russia to give over the child and his discoveries. It’s unlikely they’ll win, but the resulting confrontation will fragment the communications industry. Russia will expect us to intervene. We’ll win, of course, but the world will be entirely convinced that metahumans are a threat. They’ll react accordingly, and I’m sure even you could imagine the disaster that would be. This world will crumble under a war between human and metahuman.”
“So, you add another enemy?”
“A common enemy. The Fae are a threat to everyone; human, metahuman, Elf. To combat their mortal enemy, the Elves can and will equip the human race with their technology and knowledge. Magic, Mr. Davis, just think about it!”
Geoff thought about it. “But…but what about all those people…Stryker… Oh, God, you had Stryker killed.”
“I had Stryker turned into a martyr. He was the perfect scapegoat—so simple and willing to be molded. I made him into the world’s perfect hero. I made him their cause. The world will fight together against a terrifying unseen force for that cause. I saved the world, Mr. Davis.”
Geoff sat down heavily. “Do you really think it will work?”
“I know it will, so long as the truth remains hidden. I can play the villain for the sake of the world, but this world must still see me as a hero.”
“And…if anyone knows, Stryker and everyone else died for nothing.”
“I see. All right.”
“Yes. I won’t tell anyone.”
Sam smiled. She pulled a chair up next to him and sat down, covering his hands with hers. “You’ve been a wonderful assistant, Geoffrey. I mean that. We work well together, and I’ve always appreciated your services. I felt I owed you at least an explanation.”
I’m a dead man. The thought perhaps should have shocked him into action, should have made him run away. But he couldn’t move. Pain spiked behind his eyes. Something warm and sticky ran down his lip and over his open mouth. “Before you kill me.”
“Yes. I certainly believe that you believe you won’t tell anyone. But one of the best things about you is your impressionability. Someday someone will convince you to reveal all you know. And then all will be lost.”
The world faded to eerie gray outlined in white, then to pitch black, and he thought, this is it.
He became aware of warm hands that grasped about his shoulder. His life flashed before his eyes, though it was surprisingly short for what he could pack in a day, and looked an awful lot like the training room. Then he was in some kind of living room staring at gray, flower-patterned couches, pink carpet, and an entertainment center. For a wild moment, he wondered if this was heaven. If it was, it was a strange one. He never thought the afterlife would be so…domesticated.
He came to the conclusion that he was not dead at about the same moment his stomach violently protested having suffered through two fast teleports. He heaved, and the world shifted again, this time to the bathroom of the same homey domicile. That didn’t at all help his condition, but he couldn’t actually get any more nauseated. The entirety of his stomach contents ended up in the toilet, and then some.
“Are you all right, Geoff?” Jay Allison looked him in the eye, deep concern playing on his handsome face as he handed him a box of tissues.
Geoff shook his head, which made the world spin, and his stomach along with it. He dry heaved into his new porcelain friend.
Jay put a hand on his shoulder. “Take your time.”
He left, and a few minutes later, Geoff finally managed to pull himself together long enough to walk down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into the welcoming family room where everyone had gathered. Low whispers instantly stopped as he approached.
Geoff blinked. “Mr. Allison, I ah…what happened?”
“He just saved your damn life, that’s what happened,” Mitch said in a rather snarky fashion. “Seriously? You handed the video to Samantha Clive?”
“Well, she is the Director. She…she…” It dawned on him all at once, everything his brain was trying to tell him, everything he was refusing to believe. “She tried to kill me.”
“You’re a loose end,” Jayson said. “It seems she doesn’t like those.”
“You…how did you…”
“We also got the movie,” Meryl said gently. For some reason, Geoff felt a profound relief to know that she was all right. The woman was the most understanding person he’d ever met, and certainly the kindest. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.
“I was going to port a null formula into her so we could confront her like reasonable adults, but…” Jayson shrugged. “It seemed more important to get you out of there.
Geoff nodded dumbly, then looked around to see who was ‘we’. He noted Mitch Roberts with some distaste, as well as Allen Gray, Lindsay White, and Marcus London. Charity London clung to Marcus, while Eric Herrington sulked in a corner, unsure what to do with himself. The older redheaded man was a newcomer, but Geoff had also seen his picture in Delta’s rogue files. His gaze flickered to Mitch, who sullenly refused to look anywhere in the direction of his father.
None of that was important. “It…it was her, wasn’t it.”
Jay nodded. “You didn’t watch the rest of it, did you?”
Geoff shook his head. Jayson handed him a tablet, and despite the protest of every fiber of his being, Geoff played it.
Afterward, he sat down heavily on what appeared to be a bench of some sort. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I—I should have known, but I didn’t.”
Meryl put a hand on his arm. “Geoff, we don’t blame you. Sam had us all fooled. It stands to reason that she would keep close to her someone who could never know the truth.”
“I should have seen it. And I didn’t. I’m so sorry.”
“So now what?” Eric spoke up.
Jayson took a deep breath. “Well, we’ve lost the element of surprise. So the question is, what’s Sam’s next move?”
“Well, if she kills us all, people will start noticing,” Eric said, not uncynically. “It’s more likely she’ll wipe our minds.”
“Knowledge is power,” Charity pipped up. “Can’t we just tell everyone? Make that video go viral.
Jay opened his mouth, then shut it again. “I feel like that’s a double-edge sword. Yes, they’ll know of a woman’s evil manipulations, but at the same time, all they’ll hear is that a meta screwed them over. No, I think we should sit on that until we can spin it our way.” He sighed. “Sadly, Sam’s our best spin doctor. But…you’re not wrong. Knowledge is power. And There’s one people that have been screwed over just as much as we have.” He held up the tablet. “The Elves deserve to know about this.”
Geoff stiffened. “That’s where she’ll go. I’m sure of it.”
A muscle twitched in Jayson’s jaw as it clenched. “Good.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Well, boys and girls, this is where it gets dicey. You wanted to fight your mastermind? Let’s go kick some ass.”